I’m watching the rain fall. It’s not much, not at this moment in time, which is passing more slowly than I thought. The front tire of my FZR-600 is way too visible. That is your life line, you see. When you are road racing, even though media leads you to believe that wheelies and jumps are the way to go when you are on a motorcycle, they are lying. The front tire is omnipresent. That is your life line, the link between first and last place and the hospital. I hand grooved the tire with my Dad in preparation for this race, this validation of my family. My Dad has hand built the fastest FZR-600 that the world has ever known. I’m riding what is in essence a rocket with two wheels. It won’t even run on unleaded fuel, requiring that I buy leaded racing fuel from the Richland’s airport. It’s staggering; off-beat idle is making my adversaries nervous as I a coax this monster from idle to full throttle.
After all, I’m riding the smallest bike. The total displacement is 632 cubic inches, the maximum that my Dad could dig out of the cylinders while maintaining some sort of reliability. I have no idea to this day why he bored and honed the motorcycle that his son would ride, and push, to the limit of his ability against riders bigger, stronger and on more expensive bikes than he. Maybe he knew. Maybe, just maybe, he knew the implications of that night, when the rain was starting to fall and I was watching guys with bigger, more expensive bikes start their engines in the night air. With all the girls watching.
That night, the only girl that mattered to me was there. I’d loved her all my life, even as a little kid. Shari smiled at me and lifted her hand. That meant more than anything. She was a student at UVA and I was a dropout from King College, a misspent year that cost me a fortune and amounted to nothing. I was waffling between the race and going home, knowing the fallout from winning or losing would displace anything in my life, and indeed, my families lives at that point.
The rain started harder and thunder boomed, hard, and close. The other guys laughed and started their bikes, racing the engines in the looming dark. I turned my head to the left and Shari gave me a subtle, but strong, nod. I knew it was time. I never rode with the other riders, choosing to go solo on my jaunts through the coal fields, across Chicken Ridge and Bear Hollow, through Whitewood and across to Kent’s Ridge, that motorcycle riders dread of a road of decreasing apexes and coal dust slicked asphalt.
Back to King Kone. The restaurant that has been in business in Richlands for nearly a hundred years. The first diner/carry-our restaurant in the area. My Dad brought my Mom there, in a 1957 Chevy, crazy pink, just before he was shipped out for Vietnam. They were married not long after that, my Mom gathering the first peach blossoms in April for the wedding decorations. I was born seven years later, and I have never forsaken the stories of her breathlessly waiting my Dad’s return, nor my Dad’s stories of dropping two thousand feet in an open bucket with rocks raining down around him to install mining equipment into a gaping vug of ore named Pocahontas Number Seven.
That all led to that night. I wiped my visor off and slammed it shut. I could see Shari and a girl I later married, against my better judgment, from the side of my helmet. All two hundred horses roared as I hit the starter, wondering if my front tire would hold. As I stated earlier, your front tire is all that matters, that first link between the asphalt and upright and the emergency room. I watch the other guys’ ride away, playfully kicking each other out of the parking lot of the icon of Richlands, VA. Mist builds on my visor and I wonder if this is worth it. Then I think of what my family has gone through.
My Dad had been excommunicated, unfairly, from the church that had been the center of my families’ universe for my entire life. My grandmother, my Mom’s Mom, had committed suicide. My girlfriend had died from cancer. My new girlfriend had cheated on me with a supposed friend. A guy I know, a drug runner for a family that pretty much owned the area I grew up in, laughed in my face as he revved his engine and pointed to his new tattoo on his shoulder as his girlfriend un-straddled him in the sexiest manner possible. Through the tinted visor of my Troy Lee Designs Helmet, I meet the eyes of my best friend through the war paint of a custom lid. She nods. I watch as everyone burns away in a cloud of mist and dust and exhaust. I pull my helmet tight, and throw away the clutch, not to touch it again on that ride.
There is a moment, and I write about moments, when you know, deep in your bones as a racer, that you cannot lose. Nothing can stand in your way. I crossed the railroad tracks on my way to Kent’s Ridge, watching the riders in front of me, knowing that they cannot pull away. My bike seems to have a mind of its own, as if it is a steed from another time, a living, breathing thing that understands the moment but can’t quite grasp the concept. Rain is falling harder now and I know this is my moment. I’m good in the rain. Hell, I’m amazing in the rain. I like the rain. Rain washes away the coal dust and renders the asphalt cool and clean, and the lines run deeper. I set up for the first turn, diving farther into the apex than anyone in front of me, feeling the asphalt beneath my foot. Sparks fly from my exhaust as I push, hard, feeling what the front tire can take. The bike chatters beneath my seat and I know that I am near the limit. I grin, that crazy grin that only a teenager can grin, when you are completely convinced of your own invincibility. I know at that moment that the front tire will hold.
Years later, I owned a much more expensive motorcycle and led a multi-state chase on board a ZX-9R that ultimately led to me going to jail. It was my moment in the sun – Helicopters and reporters and all. I did get away, but there are these things called license plates. Damn. I really didn’t think of that. For all my fearlessness that day, running from police officers at speeds exceeding 160 mph, nothing matched my mood that night of the RACE.
The only place to really pass on Kent’s Ridge is a blind, decreasing apex turn at the top of the ridge. The way to do it is to draft in close to the guy in front of you, wait for him to brake, then dive to the inside of the turn. You can pass four-five guys that way. Especially in the rain. Especially.
I dove for the inside at the last possible moment. The bike slid beneath me, the rear walking out on the slick pavement. But the front held. Amazingly. The next day my little brother noticed that beads of tar had peeled off the tire and the tread was ripped nearly to the rim. But it held. I passed all four of my co-racers in that one turn, barely keeping control as I hit the next turn. I had to hold the lead. Their bikes were faster and we had four miles of straight, wide sweepers before we reentered town and the winner was declared. That night, I could not be beat.
With my head thrumming on the gas tank and the tachometer pegged – cops sirens wailing in the distance, I won that race. No one had the nerve to match my pace or to push their front tire to the distance I was pushing. My uncle Mack heard of the race later and asked how fast I was going? I had no reply. I didn’t know. It was as if that bike were built for that race. Maybe it was. Maybe my Dad knew that night would require such a machine. The center marks turned into solid lines and the guardrails were nothing but a solid blur. Richlands High School passed in a blink as I took a quick look under my elbow for my competitors. There was nobody in sight except for one solo headlight, one person trying to keep up. With brakes smoking and pistons cracking, I made it back to King Kone, first, ahead of the other racers and the cops who had been called in. Did I validate my family? Did I prove a point? Probably not. But, I nodded to my best friend and my future ex-wife (not the same person) and outran the storm home in a howl of premium fuel and shredded tires.
The bike never really ran right after that. It was as if it gave something up that night, something partial to its existence, some sacrifice. I was all over the news the next day, yet no one mentioned a single name. My Dad didn’t say a word, but my Mom looked knowingly into my eyes and asked if I was OK. I replied that I was.
Twenty years later, I revisited King Kone. It’s not the same, somehow. My home is no longer there, as my wife draws nearer to her due date. I am now a child of the New River Valley, no longer a resident of the Coal Fields. I ruminate over my hot dog, which tastes exactly the same as it did so long ago. I’m no longer that fearless rider of the past: now I’m arthritic, and bear the scars and spare parts of many crashes during my younger years. But those days will never leave me, and I hope that the recklessness of my youth will not be passed to my unborn child. Then I remember the torn tread, the screams of the adoring girls – the nod of my first love and best friend. Along with the remnants of that front tire…and the thrill of being the fastest kid in town.