“You race motorcycles?” the guy in the Mopar shirt said, moving away from me as if I were a bearded fanatic in a robe holding a sign predicting the imminent end of the world. “On pavement? You guys are fucking crazy!”
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that from a car guy, nor would it be the last. But what stuck with me is the person who said it drove Funny Cars.
Back then—around 1972 or so—Funny Cars were still morphing into what they are today. They were skittish, temperamental, nitro-fueled, hold-my-beer-and-watch-this rocket sleds known for instantly and, without warning, disassembling themselves in a mushroom cloud of flame and smoking debris like one of those crackpot Acme devices that always failed spectacularly and left Wile E. Coyote wreathed in smoke and covered with charred fur.
This guy strapped himself into one of these things every Sunday afternoon and prayed he’d live to see Monday morning. But I was the crazy one.
The divide between car guys and bike guys was then, as it is now, as wide as the one separating dog owners and cat lovers, or football and baseball fans (“#twowheelsbad” originated at the website next door) and there was a time when I’d have agreed with the Mopar man. I was a car nut long before I ever rode a motorcycle. When I was a kid, the walls of my bedroom were plastered with photos of Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Bruce McLaren, and other Formula 1 greats of the 1950s and ‘60s. Under the bed where most kids hid their Playboys I had copies of Road & Track with Rob Walker’s F1 race reports. (The Playboys were in the closet.) I had no idea who Mike Hailwood was, or Phil Read, or Giacomo Agostini. All I knew about motorcycles was traffic cops and hoods rode them.
Like many adolescent males entering their senior year of high school, I had a fully inflamed risk-taking gland and no way to reduce the swelling. Cars were beyond my financial reach, even the kind high school kids drove in 1968. Then I thought, what about bikes? Around that time a friend offered to teach me how to ride on his three-speed Suzuki 120 in a parking lot. An hour later I was wobbling down the street missing shifts, stalling the engine at every light, and having the time of my short––and threatening to get shorter every minute––life.
Although motorcycles took center stage after that, I never fully got over cars. During the time I rode and raced bikes I autocrossed a couple of Capris, drove a few time-distance rallies using a Mickey Mouse watch and gas-station maps for navigation, and had a Sunbeam Tiger as a daily driver. But for the next three decades or so my adrenaline rush of choice came with two wheels, not four, and eventually motorcycles became not just my hobby but also my career.
These last few years, though, have seen old injuries get uppity and take a big chunk out of my former enjoyment of riding. Remembering the good times in the Tiger—like crossing the Golden Gate on a sunny day with the top down and a lovely lady friend in the other seat, and hitting 100 mph on the Richmond Bridge every morning on the way to work in Berkeley—I got a ’99 Miata for those days when my back flared up at just the thought of slipping on my Roadcrafter, never mind actually riding a bike.
Over in the Jalopverse you’ll hear “The answer is always Miata.” If the question is “What’s a cheap, fun substitute for a motorcycle?” then I’m inclined to agree. I don’t have to wear a helmet or hi-viz armored clothes to drive it. If it’s nice out I put the top down. If it’s too hot or too cold I put it up and hit the a/c or the heater. It has a locking trunk, a spare tire, and a range of almost 300 miles. Maybe most important given the sorry state of my knees, it doesn’t fall over at a stoplight if there’s oil or gravel on the road.
It’s no ADV bike—I’ve never taken it off pavement and never will, at least not on purpose—but driving it is an adventure. It’s noisy and cramped, small and light. It can be steered almost by thought alone, and corners like a rat in a sewer pipe. A new set of sticky BF Goodrich tires ran me about what I used to pay for tires and installation for my GL1800, and will last a lot longer. That Miata has almost the same power-to-weight ratio as my old Tiger, which had a cast-iron 260-cubic-inch Ford V8 stuffed under the hood.
The safety advantage of cars hardly needs elaborating beyond noting that in 2006 I was in a 45-mph head-on collision with a pickup truck on a dark rural highway. If I’d been riding a bike instead of driving my airbag- and seatbelt-equipped Honda Civic, you probably wouldn’t be reading this, and they’d still occasionally be finding pieces of me scattered along the shoulder of Libby-McClain Road.
But the most compelling reason to ride motorcycles has nothing to do with practicality or safety or economy. It’s the fact that anybody can drive a car. For cryin’ out loud, my mother could drive a car. Most cars today can be driven—and often are—with half of the driver’s brain cells idling in neutral. The consequences of screwing up are less than they’ve ever been, with seatbelts and airbags and crumple zones. In a few years you won’t even have to drive the car; it’ll do that for you. (Which, holy shit, if you want to get around in a vehicle you don’t have to drive yourself, take the goddam bus.)
But riding a motorcycle requires your full and undivided attention because there’s so much more at stake. The difference between an accident in a car and one on a bike can be the difference between a trip to the body shop and a ride in a body bag.
Riding takes a special set of skills, the chutzpah to give the Fates a stiff middle finger every time you hit the starter, and the nerve to put yourself in the line of fire, to suit up and go forth to ride the gauntlet of texting teens, sleepy soccer moms, weaving drunks, homicidal forest rats, bad roads, bad timing, bad judgment, and bad luck.
Despite starting out as a car guy, and driving one every day for mostly mundane reasons, I almost never dream about driving cars. I often dream about riding motorcycles. I’m at my best on a bike, balanced on the razor-thin line between a good day and a very, very bad one on two improbably small patches of rubber, with my senses and reflexes fully engaged. In those rare and transcendent moments when the bike and I are defying physics together like a single entity, I’m not thinking about work, or money, or what to have for lunch—I’m totally in the now, timeless and immortal.
It makes no sense, preferring the difficult and dangerous over the safe and convenient, but dammit, who says it has to? The hassle, the hazards, the unavoidable crap-your-pants moment—they’re just part of the fun.
Hell, maybe they are the fun, which means that Funny Car guy was right. I am fucking crazy. But if I am, here’s why: Both cars and motorcycles get me where I’m going. But only motorcycles make me feel alive on the way.
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.
Photo credit Shutterstock