Thursday, March 29, 2012

Pulling The Ton... Then And Now!

The motorcycle between my legs had three more horsepower than my first car, which was a 1968 Volkswagen Beetle. I could get the Beetle up to 70 miles per hour, even with three of my friends in the car, provided I had the time and a tailwind. On the motorcycle, I could hit 70 miles per hour within 100 yards of the driveway. I was doing 70 mph as I flew over the connecting ramp from US-46 onto I-80, in the vicinity of New Jersey’s first shopping palace — the Willowbrook Mall.

It was a warm, hazy June morning in 1975.

My introduction to the great federal highway system, constructed under the defense budget in the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, was the stretch of Interstate 80 (I-80), from Wayne, NJ to the Delaware Water Gap (on the Pennsylvania border). It was six to eight lanes wide, with great shoulders, sweeping curves, cool changes in elevation, and flawless pavement. Traffic in New Jersey had yet to reach the maximum carrying capacity of this roadway, and wouldn’t for another 9 years

Technically speaking, I could have ridden this pavement from Wayne, NJ to the Pacific Ocean. It was my idea of an America AutoBahn and represented one of the last great civil engineering accomplishments of the US, built at a time when this country could do anything better than anybody else.

The best aspects about this stretch of I-80 were the long, straight sections that ran for a few miles at a time. (One of the provisions of the Interstate Highway System was that one mile in every four of the roadway was supposed to be able to accommodate the landings and take-offs of military aircraft.) This made it possible to clearly identify the white cruisers of the New Jersey State Police sitting on the broad, green medians.

The feeder ramp coming off US-46 was an abortion from the moment of its design. You came off US-46 from the right only to find yourself in the left half of the ramp, merging with exiting traffic from I-80 on the right, then dancing around vehicles bound for NJState Route-23. There were two lanes of traffic routed for westbound I-80, which then merged into one, before pouring onto the “super highway.” I passed through all this in about 4 seconds, glancing over my left shoulder as I signaled to enter the interstate, now on my left.

My dad taught me to drive when I was 16-years-old. He had all the patience of a B-17 check pilot on a bombing run over Dresden. A chief officer on the Jersey City Fire Department, he insisted you did things his way.

“After confirming you can enter the roadway, make sure you are going the same speed or faster than the traffic on the highway,” said my dad. “The last thing you want to do is cause a line of cars, or worse, trucks, to slam on their brakes to avoid hitting you. You can slow down when you’re in a safe position.”

“Thanks for the advice, Pop,” I muttered into my helmet. Actually, I muttered it into the wind. The helmet was an open-faced, minimal protection brain-bucket. My eyes were wrapped in a pair of yellow-tinted ski-goggles.

Then I twisted the throttle an inch.

The motorcycle was a 1975 Kawasaki H2 that I have written about before. I have described this machine as one of the most primitive motorcycles ever built, and I wasn’t lying. But in 1975, it’s sole disk brake in the front was much better than most of the drum bakes that were still quite common then; and its three cylinder, two stroke motor always started easily (unless the plugs were fouled), and nearly all of the bike’s muscle was on the high-end of the tach.

The bike responded to twisting the throttle like a lynx might have reacted to getting its tail pulled. It surged forward with a growl from its mechanical soul... (That’s bullshit. Each cylinder in that Kawasaki’s three-cylinder motor hated the other two. There was a sudden lurch of forward motion as gasoline and oil exploded in a free-for-all eruption of power, six inches beneath the gas tank. The bike had its own peculiar sound, which I have described as a lawnmower that got kicked in the balls. That’s not really true either. It sounded more like a large outboard motor running in a lake of air.)

I merged onto I-80 and held the throttle open in a very loose interpretation of my dad’s instructions. The speedo read 88mph and continued to climb. I glanced into the mirror on the left to see if I was leaving a smoke screen. The image in the left mirror was that of blurred traffic behind me, getting smaller as the convex mirror got farther away. If the engine was smoking (which it did at any sudden influx of throttle), it had already stopped. (It seldom smoked when really hot.)

The front wheel felt light at 98mph, and I crouched closer to the gas tank to get more of my upper body out of the wind. I was now moving faster than I had ever pushed a vehicle before, and realized I still had a half inch to go on the throttle.

“This is why we’re here today,” I said to myself, twisting the right grip to the stop.

The speedo was now reading 104mph and continued to climb, but with less drama. I was entering a gentle curve, just before Parsippany, yet the front wheel still felt quashy. I hit the front brake with a light touch to see if I could settle a bit on the forks, and nearly pissed myself with the shudder that ran through the machine. I had no problem negotiating the sweeper, but covered the entire width of the middle lane instead of staying in track.

I began backing down at 107mph — for several reasons.
There was no windshield on this bike and I found the wind hellish. It was whipping my jacket into a frenzy, and I found it pushing back against the edges of my open face helmet.
I got spooked by the lightness of the front wheel at this speed.
A fucking bumble bee the size of a softball hit me on the cheek and I thought I had been shot in the face.

I slowed to get off at the next exit, with the intent of getting coffee someplace on US-46 (which runs parallel to I-80 at that point), and a New Jersey State Trooper rocketed past me. “Fuck you, Bullwinkle,” I said to myself. The Kawasaki H2 ran best at 80-85 mph, when all three cylinders found themselves in agreement. There was still plenty of “ooomph” to pull away from the pack, and life was plenty exciting at that speed.

A speed of 107mph was very respectable performance for a stock motorcycle, 6 weeks out of the showroom in 1975. It would be nothing today. But I had nothing to compare it with in those years, except my friend’s Norton Commando. (And the Kawasaki had no problem puling away from the Norton.) At the risk of being judged a pussy at 18-years-old, I must confess to the gentle Twisted Roads reader that I did not push the H2 to that degree again.


Twenty-Nine Years Later.........................................

I was headed south to Maggie Valley, NC from West Chester, PA — for a great event called the BuRP Rally — and my ride was a 1986 BMW K75, with a rare Sprint Fairing. The K75 holds a special status among BMW-riding “K” bike enthusiasts for having the most trouble-free, bullet-proof, absolutely minimal vibration (none) motor in an overall visual package that can best be described as “uninspiring.”

I have written about this at length.

In my humble opinion, without the addition of the Sprint Fairing, the Krauser Fairing, or the Parabellum “Scout” Fairing, the K75 is one of the ugliest motorcycles the world has ever seen. The early design had a really douchy square headlight . (Motorcycles should have round headlights.) The exception to this rule is the priceless, two-wheeled art work owned by Harold Gantz (of New Jersey), which is just stunning. The K75 design (even modified) is truly an acquired taste. Yet riding one of these machines for about 250 feet is all the acquiring a discerning rider requires. The K75 is one of motorcyclings best-kept secrets.

The BuRP Rally was to be my first motorcycle event in which I would be meeting and riding with 50 or 60 riders (all new acquaintances on various marques), over the mythical Blue Ridge Parkway, and staying in a resort area that is known for some of the best riding in the country... But it had been over 20 years since I had taken a long trip by motorcycle.

And I got spooked.

This was long before my membership in the Mac-Pac (the premier charted BMW riding club serving southeastern Pennsylvania), and the thought of riding most of this distance alone (which didn’t happen) suddenly became very unappealing. I had arthritis in both knees and longish trips (100 miles) got painful. I had never been over most of the roads I’d be taking. The uncertainty factors of hitting a deer, getting hit by lightning, running off the road, or being eaten by pythons were running wild in my mind. I had already vowed not to ride on Interstates, not to ride in the dark, not to ride in the rain, and not to go fast. The woman I was living with at the time said, “So why not just sell the bike? Then you can also cut off your dick and feed it to feral cats.” (She was free with highly supportive advice like this.)

The imagined horrors of this delightful run preyed on my mind so badly, that I left four hours late. A dent of this significance in my schedule required me to take an Interstate to make up for lost time, and I reluctantly headed west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. This was the first time I had ridden an Interstate on a motorcycle since 1979. (It should be noted that I was a re-entry rider after a 25-year absence.)

I got into the right lane without being killed and drew a long breath. Glancing down at the speedo, I noted I was clipping along at 67 mph, which was the world’s speed record set by a locomotive in 1869. Twenty minutes later, I was behind a long line of trucks and still in the same county I’d started in.

My K75 was already 20-years-old that year, though with only 38,000 miles on a motor designed to run to 150,000 (before needing a valve adjustment), it was judged to be barely past “break-in.” I was told I could safely ride it like it was “brand new.”

“Fuck this shit,” I thought. “I’d rather be dead than ride like this another 50 feet.”

In the motorcycle safety class, they teach you to get around a truck pronto, rather than linger in the “No Zone,” where the driver can’t see you. This “No Zone” was 15 trucks long.

I pulled in the clutch, raised the RPM, and down-shifted into fourth gear. The K75’s engine actually snarled and the distance between me and the last truck in the conga line dramatically dropped. Glancing left, I shifted back into fifth and opened that old sucker up. I would like to say it dematerialized into hyper-space — like the Millennium Falcon of Star Wars fame — but that would be a lie and you’d know it. The K75 weighed substantially more than the H2 and had the same horsepower, about 71.

What the bike did was steadily pull ahead without any compromise in its stance on the road. At 88 mph, the front wheel was planted in its track like an oak tree. Gentle input to the handlebars tilted this thing like an amusement park ride on tracks. I shot past the lead truck at 95 mph, as the driver looked down and laughed.

Holding the throttle steady, the speedo eclipsed 100 mph and insinuated its way upward. I was astounded at how steady the bike felt. Shifting my ass around on the seat had no effect on its forward trajectory. I hit a slight bump at 107 mph, and caught about 1/4 inch of air. I could see reasonably far behind me, as neither of my rear-view mirrors had the slightest tremble. Neither did the grips nor pegs transmit anything but the true language of the road’s surface. The “Sprint Fairing” did a great job of cutting the wind, and my Joe Rocket Mesh Riding Gear did not flap or whip around. The windscreen went from crystal to opaque as hundreds of bugs added their carcasses to the plexiglas. The Nolan flip-face helmet neither caught the wind nor amplified it.

The tach was holding steady at a little over 7 grand, and I backed down to a even 100 mph.

“What the fuck were you afraid of?” I asked myself? “This is better than the first time you got your horn honked.”

What I should have been afraid of was getting shot by a firing squad of Pennsylvania State Troopers. I realized that this motorcycle was fully capable of running at 100 mph all day, and taking it in stride. And I realized that more than anything else, I wanted to ride at 100 mph all day.

Reluctantly, I slowed to 75, and felt like I was getting gypped. After going like hell, 75 mph seemed like reverse. Within 24 hours, I would ride in the dark... I would ride in the rain... I would dodge deer... I would fight off a python named “Fred” (a pole dancer in a strip joint sicced it on me)... And I would look forward to the stretches of road on which I could stampede all 71 horses of that K75.

The Kawasaki H2 did not encourage high-speed trolling in anything other than a straight line. You could pick up the front wheel by sneezing. Built 11 years later, the BMW K75 sneered at 100 mph. While that speed was close to bike’s prime output, it would do it without hesitation, and hold it while whistling a tune. Now just about every bike built from 1986 to 1995 will hit and hold 100 mph. But damn few can do it with such elan. Riding buddy Dick Bregstein and I would regularly venture into “three digit” territory, and I miss that thrill.

I look forward to my first BMW K1200. I want to know what 130 mph feels like, just before I'm checked into a country jail.

A Rider’s Light Dims... Godspeed Mack Harrell

It is with sadness that I write of the passing of Mack Harrell, a rider of unique and strong character. Karen, his wife, wrote to me yesterday with the news that Mack had died peacefully in his sleep, on March 28th, finally yielding to Parkinson’s Disease, which had ended his riding career three years ago.

Above: Mack Harrell at the State Line Lookout, Palisades Interstate Park, January 1, 2008

I first met Mack, and then his wife, through a rider’s forum conducted by About.com in 2005. Mack was one of the first riders to respond my “Annual Amish Horsepile Swerve Ride,” and then joined me on a number of other runs. Most notable was “My Return To Jersey City,” in which we met at Exchange Place, on the waterfront. We then rode up through Palisades Interstate Parkway. Details of that ride can be found here.

Above: Mack Harrell astride "The Queen," in view of the World Trade Center Site from Exchange Place, NJ. It was freezing cold that day, and Mack was idling the engine to run the heated gear.

I vividly remember two other runs with Mack: one through Gettysburg and another through rural Pennsylvania, just this side of Chambersburg. In each case, he was riding a super-powerful Japanese liter bike, and made it jump through hoops. He focused on the road when riding, and on the road entirely. On one ride past Dover Air Force Base, we shot by the remains of crashed C147. This plane was a lot bigger than a Boeing 747, and sat off in a field in two pieces, each the size of an apartment house.

Stopping for a break five miles up the road, I said to Mack, “That must have been some plane crash, huh?”

Mack looked at me, blinked, and said, “What plane crash? What are you talking about?”

He rode a yellow and black GS, named “The Queen Bee.” Mack's wife, Karen, frequently rode pillion and joined us for the famous Haggis Run, one cold November.

Godspeed, Mack. I'm sure all Twisted Roads readers, both those who knew Mack in person, and those who rode with him in story, join me in extending my condolences to his wife, Karen.

©Copyright Jack Riepe 2012
All rights reserved





27 comments:

bobskoot said...

Jack:

I had a 1960 VW bug, after a downhill and a long straight stretch I got it up to 72 MPH. We used to use MPH before we changed to Metric. It had 36HP and I don't miss it a bit

bob
Riding the Wet Coast

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Bobskoot:

I changed the MPH on the Volkswagen's into dog years... Those figures really got impressive then. I had fun with my Volkswagen... Not the same fun I had with the Kawasaki H2, however. In fact, nothing like it.

Fondest regards,
Jack/reep

Brady Steffl said...

Jack,

I've read as you've gone on and on about the H2, while I always believe it was known as a Widomaker, I never thought much of the actual power - until today you actually gave an HP figure. Since you're largely comprised of bullshit and gumballs, I did a confirmation. Apparently the H2 came out of the factory with (a reported) 74 horse. A hell of a lot for the era. A pretty damned good amount for now.

What the H2 and my Honda could be combined into one decent bike. While the Honda is planted at 105. (A speed you're damned lucky to hit,) it steers like a cement mixer, or like Keanu Reeves's acting.

You're going to love your new machine, I know. It won't have the same spirit you're used to, but I think the tradeoffs will be alright. I look forward to your first report of reaching 107.

Brady
Behind Bars - Motorcycles and Life

Brady Steffl said...

Also,

there is a way to allow people to subscribe to a blog post. Dig through blogger and find it. I used to be able to do it here, but things changed when they rolled up the Captcha thing. Otherwise I miss the back and forth I enjoy once the commenting begins.

Brady
Behind Bars - Motorcycles and Life

MattPie said...

I'm sorry to hear about Mack. Please send my condolences to Karen or put me in touch.

I've only seen the ton on the street once or twice. On a closed course, I've seen an indicated 118 on my naked R bike. Still planted, still composed, but man was I shovelling a lot of coal.

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Brady:

I did not have a car for the years I had the Kawssaki H2, and usually rode it every day. Consequently, I have a lot of KH2 stories — many of which cannot be told.

But the HJ2 was the fastest production motorcycle of its day, and its day lasted about 18 months. It had a really shitty suspension and the motor was one cut above steam. But it should be pointed out that there was a time when the Stanley Steamer won the Indy 500.

It handled lousy in the curves too. But it was what I had, and the first one I had. And the fact that is was faster than "Cretin's" Norton used to delight me no end.

Bikes in the mid-70's were like a science experiment.

Thanks for reading Twisted Roads and for writing in.

Fondest regards,
Jack/reep

Jack Riepe said...

Dear MattPie:

It is a well-established fact that no responsible rider would take a motorcycle up to 100 mph on the street (or highway) anyplace, and we here at Twisted Roads know fully well that no BMW rider ever took his or her bike over the ton unless it was on a closed course.

Matt, were you the kid who used to rush home from school to do his homework?

Wait a minute... I seem to recall looking in my mirror once, at 103 maybe, and see someone who looked like you right behind me.

They were riding a naked "R" bike and the wind had blown their eyes to where their ears should have been.

Thank you for reading and for writing in.

Fondest regards,
Jack/reep

Fondest regards,
Jack/reep

Charlie6 said...

Godspeed indeed Mack Harrell! I bet he's back on a motorcycle now...watching and waiting for you to ride, Jack.

Back when I had Maria, my R1150RT, I reached an indicated 127mph one time on the super slab...a bit scary but she felt planted. I've not been back since to those kinds of speeds....at least, I don't think so, as the speedometer on my R80 tops out at 85mph!

dom


Redleg's Rides

Colorado Motorcycle Travel Examiner

BMW-Dick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BMW-Dick said...

Dear Jack
Like most of your friends, Mack was a royal pain in the ass. I'll miss the smell of his pipe tobacco and his well-educated commentary. It's eery that just last week you and I were talking about the time were rode with Mack and found one of those police-sponsored radar-activated speed indicator signs and tried to see how high we could get the numbers to go in that 45 MPH zone. I think Mack won that time. He was a fun riding buddy.
Dick

Shango Rider said...

Ahhh... the only problem with stories like this one is that they're based on what the speedometer says. It's well documented that BMW intentionally calibrates their U.S. speedos to read 3-5% plus 3 mph faster than the actual speed. It's a legal thing, a defensive maneuver in response to our screwed up legal system.
Kind of like telling your girlfriend "this is 8 inches", your 107 indicated may not be quite as impressive when measured by a GPS.

Shango

Anonymous said...

Jack, you are aware that at 72.5 mph indicated the center of pressure of the VW moves behind the center of gravity thus rendering the car unstable and deadly. Bob is a lucky man to survive this Teutonic design feature.
Keep on weaving
N

Conchscooter said...

As sad as it is to admit I have ridden repeatedly at 125mph/200kph on various BMWs and they did it magnificently. My Bonneville overloaded with travel junk can pull a ton barely and is just as steady but taking a K1200ST to those speeds on an Italian freeway is astonishingly easy, and safe.

bobskoot said...

Jack:

It's amazing how fast you can go when you calibrate your speedometer to read in KMs, insted of MPH.

125 KM/hr is easy peasy

bob
Riding the Wet Coast

mtlcowgirl said...

Thank you for posting this, Jack. A beautifully and respectfully written eulogy.

mtlcowgirl said...

Dick, Yours is the only message I have received since Mack's demise that made me smile. PITA indeed. Card carrying, even. A loveable SOB. As his widow, I should know. Thanks, friend.

Anonymous said...

Mtlcowgirl, we feel so sorry for your loss of such a nice guy and he rode a motorcycle too, lol. My SO and I were just talking about Mack a couple of weeks ago and wondered where he had been. Regretfully, we now know. We did not know about his disease of Parkinson's but knew of the motorcycle addiction. He also seemed extremely happy that he had met you. We never rode with him but he had a couple of lunches with him at some Polar Bear destinations. Deepest condolence to you and his daughter. God Speed Mack and hopefully you are riding again!

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Dom:

There is a "bad boy" thrill to pushing a motorcycle at death-defying speeds... Of course, they are not really as death-defying as we like to think (under the right conditions). How I do yearn for another faster, not-as-tall, BMW to tear around own on.

Thanks for reading Twisted Roads,
and for writing in.

Fondest regards,
Jack/reep

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Bregstein:

I will forever remember the time you and Mack were cutting up rough on some back roads, and making the radar-activated speed-limit warning displays go to fireworks mode. Mack will be missed.

Fondest regards,
Jack/reep

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Shango:

There is one in every party... There is one in every group... There is one at every parade.... Willing to identify the turd sandwich.

Okay... Nearly every BMW rider reports their speed as "indicated." You are quite correct that Motorrad has the game tilted on the higher end. I figured it was 5mph over the line at 107mph, for a real reading of about 102mph -- Which is what my GPS claimed.

Always a pleasure Dan,

Fondest regards,
Jack/reep

Jack Riepe said...

Dear N:

I usually had three guys or a car-load of camping gear in my VW bug when I got it up to 72 mph. It never felt light. But you wouldn't try a stunt like that on a windy day though.

Bob Skoot probably dipped the tires in glue.

Fondest regards,
Jack/reep
Twisted Roads

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Conchscooter:

You are at least admitting what others barely hint it... That letting a BMW loose (on selected pavement) is some of the most fun a man can have with his pants on.

Which is good.... Because unless you're riding a "K" bike, you're not likely to get an invitation to take your pants off.

Fondest regards,
Jack/reep

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Bobskoot:

Just think, if you had a Ural, the speedo would be calibrated in Kopecks.

Fondest regards,
Jack/reep

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Karen:

Too often circumstances, logistics, and diverse interests separate friends over the years. I regret the last time I saw Mack was carting you home from a bike drop.

Usually I met him in a bar, over a snort of something amber and a good laugh over something that happened on the ride that day. But I'm sure Mack is riding again now, either into a sunset or a saloon. And I'm sure I'll meet somewhere along the way.

I am so sorry.

Fondest regards,
Jack/reep

Michelle said...

Jack,

Please pass along my condolences for Jack's passing on into motorcycle heaven. The physical loss of a family member or friend can be heartbreaking. Knowing that another physical joy ride on this earth is not to be. But a good friend is always there with you in spirit. When you are down and out, if you calm yourself you can almost feel their presence with you. Encouraging you to move forward and that things will get better. I truly believe this and have experienced it in my life. My grandfather passed away when I was a teenager. His loss felt overwhelming as we were so close. Through the years when life was at it's toughest I knew he was with me, holding me up and telling me that life was going to be good. I just had to be patient. One of his favorite quotes ( he had many) was that "All things come to he who waits". Those words reverberated through my mind at the worst times.

On a lighter note, as usual, Rony and I discussed your latest blog content. I have always been a bit of a daredevil in cars and know the feeling of pushing an engine to it's limit. Over the weekend on our latest motorcycle adventure, Tour of Honor, after such a discussion on the limits of his GSA, he without advance notice accelerated our bike. At first I thought he was passing a car perhaps or just getting away from a vehicle he did not feel comfortable with. I am always holding on to him so the acceleration did not scare me in the least. The acceleration was only momentary but after he had slowed back down to his usual highway cruising speed he asked if I knew how fast he had been going. I have learned over time to not look at the speedometer and to simply enjoy the ride knowing that he is a very safe and accomplished rider and that sometimes knowing our speed on backroads and twists can be a little discerning, so I said no that I did not. He announced that we were doing 102mph and that now like you I had gone over 100mph on a bike. I smiled and laughed. I know he has taken the bike much faster but since he did not want to freak me out he went barely over the 100mph threshold. He said we had actually done it many times before, usually passing vehicles but that since I never looked he knew that I was unaware of the speed at those times and he wanted me to know this time.

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Michelle:

There is nothing like the shear bad-boy joy of taking a bike to the higher end of the speedo. I highly recommend it. I'm flattered that my blog factors so prominently in your pre-flight discussions with Rony too.I enjoy being a good influence.

Fondest regards,
Jack/reep

mtlcowgirl said...

Jack,

I will always be grateful to you for loading me in the back seat of your Suburban and driving me back to Jersey, thereby foregoing what would no doubt have been another fabulous ride.

As for the snorts, just so you know, his family and I did shots in his honor before and after the service.

Thank you for your friendship with him. He looked up to you.

Karen