I came to in the infield, lying on sharp, baseball-sized rocks and gasping for air like a beached fish––all the ribs on my right side were broken and poking my insides as if I’d swallowed a Swiss army knife. I also had a dislocated shoulder, a torn rotator cuff, a broken collarbone, a fractured vertebra, and torn tendons. Pretty much all that held my right arm to the rest of my body was skin.
A sane person would have quit motorcycle racing on the spot. Not me, though. Not quite yet.
There’s a saying you’ll hear in almost every one of the speed sports: You’re not in control unless you’re a little bit out of control. What this means is if you’re not scaring yourself a little, you’re not going fast enough. But you don’t have to go scary fast to lose control in racing. Sometimes control just walks away and turns you over to luck.
For a long time I was lucky, then I wasn’t, and before my luck ran all the way out I decided to cut my losses and give up track days and racing.
Hanging up my leathers wasn’t easy — even a mediocre road racer like me has some ego investment in being a go-fast guy — but by the time I realized I was entirely too familiar with the way hospitals worked, quitting racing was the only choice that made sense.
But by “racing” I don’t just mean competing on a closed course, but riding stupid fast on the street, too. In the 1970s I lived in Marin County, California, and every week took part in the motorized lemming stampede known as the Sunday Morning Ride.
It began at an Arco station in Mill Valley where 10 or 20 or 80 bikes would gather in the morning mist and at 7 a.m. or so leave in a cloud of Castrol smoke and testosterone on a frenzied dash up twisty and treacherous Highway 1 toward a restaurant in Inverness where the first rider to arrive had the dubious honor of ordering before anyone else.
One morning I was wrestling my Ducati Darmah SS along a fast stretch of road with my buddy on his Honda CBX close behind. Ahead the road crested slightly, and in a sickening instant I realized I had no memory of which way the road went on the other side of the blind rise––left, right, or straight? I gambled on right, won, and trailed sparks from the Duck’s Conti muffler all the way through the corner.
At breakfast my buddy slapped me on the back and said, “Smith, you were flying back there!” He didn’t notice my face was still as white as a funeral shroud. It was a good thing I hadn’t eaten yet or I’d have puked all over his Bates boots.
My pro racing career was uneventful, mostly because although I held a professional license, I was strictly an amateur with neither the talent nor the drive to hang it out too far. It was when I became a magazine writer that I got a good look at the other side of the edge––very nearly my last look at anything, ever.
On July 1, 1986, during a session at Willow Springs where Cycle Guide had assembled a collection of sportbikes to see which one was the best handling, I grabbed too much front brake coming off the main straight at about a buck-fifty, smoked the front tire, and head-butted Turn 1 so hard it knocked me out cold.
To this day my memory of that crash stops rights before it all went pear-shaped. I was tucked in down the straight, sat up to brake, and then the next thing I knew I was on my back looking up at a paramedic who was asking me where it hurt. Everywhere, I said, and I meant it
I spent a couple of weeks in various hospitals, and another couple of months recovering at home with a pin through my three-piece collarbone sticking out of my shoulder (I used to grab the hooked end and spin it around to show off). My right arm was draped over a piece of egg-crate foam as big as an old Sears sleeping bag and taped to my side.
Sleep was out of the question, along with coherent conversation thanks to the fistful of drugs I took every day to manage the pain and fight off the infection from a number of raw spots I’d gotten when my gloves flew off as I pinwheeled down the track.
I can’t overemphasize how young and dumb I was at the time. Even before the pin in my collarbone came out I was sneaking in rides around the block on my ’75 CB400F, making sure to be back in bed before my girlfriend got home.
In hindsight I have to wonder if the doctors missed some sort of traumatic brain injury, because four months after that, reasonably fit and back at work, I flew to France for the introduction of the 1987 Yamahas and found myself at Circuit Paul Ricard, clinging to the back of an FZR1000 as the speedo needle swung past the 160 mark in the middle of a straightaway so long I thought I’d have to stop for gas halfway down it.
I remember thinking, If I fall off here for any reason I’ll slide so far I’ll be two-dimensional by the time I stop. With that I parked the FZR and called it a day.
But then in March I arrived in Daytona to take part in the vintage races before the big race on Sunday. I had arranged to ride an immaculate 250cc Ducati single owned and built by an experienced — and fast — vintage racer named Mike Green. The bike was as cute as a Golden Retriever puppy, although one with its feet on the wrong way around — the shifter was on the right, where Ducati put it, and not on the left, where it had been on every bike I’d ever ridden. Worse, the front brake was a drum about as big around as a tortilla with about the same coefficient of friction.
After a few laps of familiarization I knew I’d be lucky to finish the 10-lap race before everyone else had left the track for the day. I was spared that humiliation by some hot dog who was trying to win practice and dove under me in a corner and knocked the right clip-on out of my hand, sending me once again siding down a track face-first.
Having just come back from the Willow crash — which three doctors told me I was very lucky to have survived — I wasn’t taking any chances. I stayed where I’d fallen on the track until the ambulance took me to Halifax Hospital, near the Speedway. I was wheeled into a room where two other riders who had been actually hurt lay breathing heavily and groaning softly.
I checked out fine except for a big, bloody chunk of road rash on the back of my hand where, again, a glove had come off as I slid. The first word of “Emergency Room” was apparently used here ironically because I sat there with my two fallen comrades for about an hour before I was able to hitch a ride in an ambulance back to the track.
By then I’d had plenty of time to think about racing, and the consequences of doing it less than perfectly. When I was in my 20s I believed I was invulnerable and immortal, as brave and foolish young men often do. The intervening years had given me cause to reconsider. I was 35, with a job I loved — but not enough to die for — and a woman I also loved and who had put her own life on hold to care for me last time I’d mistaken enthusiasm for talent. I liked all that stuff a lot more than I enjoyed racing. I decided right then that Daytona would be the last track I ever rode on for any reason.
I’ve stuck to that ever since. If I’m ever tempted to break my deal with myself — and I‘ll admit there have been times — I have my misaligned ribs, my aching back, and my inability to walk in a straight line or throw a ball to remind me that being in control might not be the way to win, but it’s a good way to make it to the finish alive.
Jerry Smith has been a full-time motojournalist for more than 30 years. You’d think by now he would have found a real job.
Pictured above: A motorcycle owned not the author, but rather Alex De Angelis of San Marino and Tasca Racing Moto2 when he crashed out during a Moto2 race at Sachsenring Circuit on July 13, 2014. He still races, by the way. Photo credit Getty Images