“Yesterday’s Memories Tomorrow’s Dreams” by Carmen Tom – Motocross in Nebraska

Motocross in Nebraska

Motor-cross racing was always big in Europe. Here in the US scramble racing was our most popular dirt racing. Motor-cross was beginning to really catch on here in the states in the late 1960’s and early 70’s. In Europe motocross with side-cars was really big. The Europeans were starting to bring their sidecars to the US. It was a big draw at the races. People really loved the sidecars. They all had a rider in the sidecar. He was called the Monkey. If you ever see sidecar racing with the Monkey sitting and hanging out the side-car you will know why they call him the Monkey. He’s all over the sidecar, hanging out and moving all over the side-car. The American riders were starting to get into sidecar racing. I remember here in Western Washington it was really big especially at Puyallup raceways. This was a beautiful motor-cross track, long straight aways, big jumps, etc. Every rider I ever talked to always liked Puyallup. Sidecar racing was a big added attraction. Wilber, Alfred and Albert had seen a few sidecar races. They had done some racing on two wheels, but not sidecars. They read all the motorcycle magazines and papers. They had seen how big it was getting to be. Wilber read about this big motocross race in western Nebraska in the sand hills. They were having a special sidecar class. The prize money was large. Wilber was drinking beer with his riding pals Alfred and Albert. They were talking of racing. The more beer they drank the more they got excited about racing. Wilber said I’m going to enter that side-car race. Alfred said what are you going to ride, he said I’ll ride my old 1934 Harley 74” Albert said what are you going to do for a side-car? Wilbert said no problem, I’ll pull the side-car off one of my old Indians, pull the body off, bolt a piece of plywood on, put some handles on, and you, Albert can be my Monkey. Albert said wait, now just maybe I want to race. Wilber said you can race the next year. Alfred will be racing his special 1929 HP JD 74”, this is a special built JD he has been building the bike for years. It’s special in that it has an aluminum cylinder and heads. All the stock JD’s have cast iron cylinders and head as one unit. Alfred had built his own engine. It was now 88 cubic inches not 74”. It was super fast. Alfred had tried to see how fast it would go a year ago. They had blocked a part of old Highway 18 off near “Wounded Knee” one early Sunday morning. They had many of their Indian friends help them. They had signs made up; Highway will be closed for 3 hours Sunday the 16” between 5 and 8am. They closed this highway down and raced their motorcycles for 3 hours. If the state ever got word of this I suppose all three and the Indians would still be in jail. But, as far as they could find out no one ever was the wiser. People most likely figured the Highway needed repairing. Elfred had his I-ID up to 178 mph. Wilber and the side car hit 144 M.P.H. These bikes were really fast. They both had the latest brakes, forks and suspension. Both Wilber and Alfred were getting anxious to race, they could hardly wait. Albert would be their pit crew. It was April, 1973, both Alfred and Wilber had sent in the entry many weeks before. They had already agreed to use Wilber’s old Ford truck, with the camper. It was still large enough to hold the HD and sidecar. They knew it would take 8-10 hours to drive to the race track. They wanted to get there Friday night to have all Saturday to get the bikes ready and check the track out.

They left 5:00 on Friday. They drove on old Highway 18 turned south on 27, this would take them south to Highway 2. They would turn south on 87 then on 26 west to ScottsblufY From there, they would find out where the track was located. They drove along at 60 M.P.H. making good time. That old Ford was running beautiftil. They were getting hungry so they stopped in Alliance, a nice small town. They noticed a lot of motorcycles on trailers and in pickups near a cafe, so Wilber drove over to the café. He found a place to park. They got out of the truck, wasn’t long they had a large bunch of riders looking their bikes over. Some young riders said, what you old timers going to do enter the bike show? Wilber said I’ll let you know, we intend to enter the races, the young riders said I think you are 40 years too late with those old bikes. Alfred said you think so, just wait and see. They went into the café; it was almost fill of riders. Most were young men, a few older guys. They ordered the special ham and eggs and plenty of hot coffee. They ate their breakfast and payed the girl. Albert said, “This is the first time none of us have teased the waitress. Wilber said I got too much on my mind. I’m going to win the big one. It’s for $5,000, I’ll show those young riders what an old timer can do. As all three walked over to their truck there was quite a crowd of riders looking at the sidecar and the J.D. Older riders could see these were special built bikes. One older rider asked who built the J.D. He said that’s the first J.D I ever seen with aluminum head and cylinders. Alfred said this is the only one he knew of The guy said I bet it will fly. Alfred said almost if it had wings it could. They looked the sidecar over. One older rider said where in the world did you get those big aluminum cylinders and head? He asked how large is it? Wilber smiled and said it’s large and will it go, watch me Sunday. They bid their new made friends goodbye and drove off. Elbert said they are all in for a big surprise Sunday. Wilber said yes and when I win the sidecar class those young punks will be lost for words. They drove into Scottsbluff and asked a few riders where the track was. An older fellow said I’ll tell you, but if you follow me I’m going there soon. They agreed and in a few minutes they left. The track must have been 40-45 minutes away. When they got to the track they noticed all the bikes and sidecar outfits. There must have been 400-500 bikes, and over 30 sidecars. They found a good place to park their truck. It was now getting late so they got the camper ready to sleep in. They set up their booby traps still not trusting everyone. They walked over to a big stand set up with all kinds of food. Albert said you guys hungry, Wilber said I could eat something before we hit the hay. They ate spareribs and were they ever good. Wilber said we should have some beer, but not tonight and not till after the races. Albert asked one cook where he learned to make such good spareribs. The cook said down south, I was in the army. I learned from an old buddy. He said glad you farm boys like the ribs, wait till you see what I got fixed for breakfast. They thanked their new found friend and said we’ll see you at 7 o’clock. They walked back to their truck, got ready for bed, wasn’t long; all three were in La La Land. Wilber dreamed of winning the side car race, only he was riding a high powered 125cc Harley. How in the world could a 125cc pull a side-car? We all know how dreams are.

Wasn’t long the sun started coming out. They got up dressed, said let’s see that guy who’s going to make that special breakfast. Soon the sun was out and it looked like it was going to be a beautiful day. Alfred said we got all day so sign up shoot the bull with other riders and see all the special built side cars. Albert made a comment whoever is putting on this race really knows how to dot it 1st class. Everything was set up 1st class. They sat down with a lot of other riders. They took their plates and got in line to pick up their food. When they got to the food line Wilber said, boy look at all the food, they filled their plates with hot cakes, eggs, steak, ham, bacon, every kind of food you would have at a big hotel and more. They got in line twice, ate so much they could hardly walk. They started making the rounds of seeing all the bikes, one rider asked you guys racing Sunday? Wilber said Alfred and I are, Albert will be the Monkey. Wilber said maybe we had better get our bikes ready then see all the bikes, so they unloaded their bikes. Wilber started the Harley and said Monkey get on lets try this rig out. They rode around, soon they heard practice in 20 minutes. So, they put their old black leather on, put their old helmets on, rode over and got in line with all the other riders. There was lots of bikes and riders.

Wilber heard the man say all sidecars get ready, practice in 3 minutes. Wilber was in line, he noticed all the other riders looking at him. He said to himself I’ll take it easy play dumb, and then when I get in the race I’ll show those young riders how an old farm boy can ride. Wilber was now 50 years old, not real old, but no kid either. The flag was out, the starter dropped the flag, there were 15-16 riders in this practice heat. All those high powered bikes took off like crazy. Wilberjust laid back on a long straightaway he powered the power on, he flew by this big special built 3 cylinder Triumph, got along side and the rider looked over at Wilber, he waved his hand, like let’s go. Old Wilber opened that throttle part way, he passed the Triumph as if it was a stock bike. He played with other riders letting most of them pass him. He felt his way around the track, the flag came out, practice over for these riders’ lots of bikes to practice. So they had to keep the bikes moving along. Wilber rode over to his truck, wasn’t long there was dozens of riders looking his bike over. One fellow from England said how in the world you get that side valve to go so fast? Old Wilber said oh I put in new plugs and changed the oil. The Englishman said you did more than that. How large is the engine 2 cylinder bikes could be as large as 1600cc only thing side valves could be as large as 100 cibs. This gave Wilber the advantage, if his bike would hold together. Wither had built this engine to run wide open and not hurt it, being a side valve it would only turn up to 4500 rpm’s. But, that would be all be needed he could tell by riding with the special built jobs he would have all the power and speed he would need. After practice he watched old Alfred just play with some of those young riders. But, Alfred knew he was in for a real race, he kept thinking about winning and the $5,000 be was going to take home. All three spent the rest of Saturday looking at bikes and just talking with other riders. Saturday night was special; they had a meal fit for a king. Every kind of meat and vegetables you wanted, breads of every kind. Albert said we got to come to Nebraska more often. Soon the sun was going down, the sponsor of this big race had hired a big country band, and they had setup a big dance floor. Soon every one was having a good time. Wilber said hey lets knock it off, we’re not as young as most of these riders, they can party all night we need our sleep if we’re to race and win tomorrow, best we hit the sack. So, they put the bikes back on the truck, locked every thing up and hit the sack. Albert said good night, we’ll get up at 6:00 eat some of that wonderful food they have here then we’ll go racing and we’ll win.

Sunday morning came fast, they were up at 6:00, they cleaned up and got in line to eat. When they seen all the food, they just could not believe they had 3 days of the best food in the world. A place to camp out signup all for $100 this was really the best race they had ever been to. Soon it was time for practice, only 3 laps as there were so many riders the race starts at 11 o’clock. Even then all the races would probably last till 5:00 or 6:00 Alfred heard his beat race, called so he got in line with about 12-15 other riders the starter said 3 laps and please leave the track as fast as possible, we got lots of riders today. Alfred road hard for 3 laps passing a lot of young riders on their special MX bikes but he let plenty pass him. He didn’t want all the riders to really know how fast his J.D. was. Soon it was Wilber’s and Albert’s turn on the sidecar. They let most bikes pass them. Only on the straightaway Wilber really turned the throttle, he could tell he had the power and speed to win. The course was really tough. Big jumps, lots of corners and real tight turning. He knew he would really have to race his best if he was to win. All three were happy they had not drunk any beer or stayed up late. Saturday night, it was 12:30 Alfred was wondering when his race would come up. He didn’t have to wait long, the starter called the numbers out, Alfred got in line, the flag dropped (they were still using flags in the early 1970’s) Alfred let most riders pass him but he knew he had to place in top 3 to make the A-Main. So last lap he turned the throttle up, the old J.D. was fast, as fast as any other bike out there and just maybe the fastest of any. He waited for his race to come up he had made the Amain he had placed third, he got in line. Old Wilber and Albert were at the starting line, to watch Alfred take off. The flag dropped, all 1 8 riders took off 20 laps, the A-Main got underway. Alfred was in about 6.1 place 1 lap, he was happy, he had passed a lot of riders but he had 1 9 laps to go so he just stayed close to the riders up front letting some bikes pass him on the corners. On the long straightaway he would turn the throttle up, that ID was fast. He was sure of himself. Ten laps passed, he had stayed up front was in 8th place Wilber was on the side lines telling him what place he was in and waving him on. Nine laps went by, he knew he had to start passing so on the straightaway he cranked the throttle open. He passed some like they were standing still, 2 laps to go he was in place; he just smiled and said now I’ll show these young riders how a 50 year old rider can fly on a 44 year old bike. He passed 2 riders at once two ahead, 1-long last straightaway to go then the finish line. Old Alfred opened that throttle he flew by both riders in the corner, he took that corner like he was 16 years old he was smiling as he crossed the finish line He had passed the last two riders so fast he was a good 50’ ahead when the flag came out. He had won and he was really happy after the race all the riders came over said how an old farm boy on an old 44 year old bike can go so fast. He just smiled and said watch my buddy on the old side valve side car, he’ll really show you how a 50 year can ride. Alfred enjoyed showing the riders his special built J.D. This was one special bike it looked like it would not make one lap until you looked the bike over really good. It had the latest front fork, big dual brakes; the rear was of the latest mono-shock design. The engine was a beautiful piece of art all polished alloy. Those large cylinders and heads really stood out, Alfred was a proud owner indeed. Many races went by, all of a sudden the announcer said all sidecars in the AMain, get on the starting line now. Twenty five laps of really exciting racing. All those specials lined up, their Monkeys holding onto the sidecar. Everyone wanting to show their best and win that big prize $5,000 cash. No taxes coming out of this prize.

The flag came out the starter dropped the flag. All bikes shot forward, all wanting to get to the corner 1. Wilber knew he had 25 laps, his bike was fast, and he could pass many riders at will. It was about 1 mile around the track, many turns, two big jumps, and two good straight-aways. This is what Wilber liked best, a place to pass. This track was built for speed and those two big jumps were good and wide so a rider could pass even on the jump. After the jumps you went into a curve not sharp, like so many tracks are. You could still come off the jump and go into the corner fast. Wilber really liked this track. His bike seemed to like it. Old Albert was hanging onto the sidecar for dear life. Always moving with the bike, he was a good Monkey, he and Wilber made a good team. Four laps went by those English bikers were fast and the riders were good. They had been riding sidecars for awhile, you could tell these riders knew what they had to do to win. Everyone wanted that 1 place and the $5,000. Wilber came up on this one bike he knew was fast and the rider was super good. They had just come out of a curve over the big jump now a long straightaway. Both riders going wide open they both went into the corner wide open. Albert hanging on for dear life, sliding from one side to the other he was really good. He helped Wilber keep all the wheels on the ground. The next corner came up fast, now there were 4 riders going into the corner one really fast bike slid off the track taking another bike with him. The rider was on Wilber’s right side much too close as they went over a jump, the other bike hit Wilber’s side car both bikes flipped over, riders laying on the ground, a flag man came over to flag the coming riders off to the right. Wilber got up, Albert was already up, they said nothing, they picked the side car up got it right sided and got on old, Wilber gave that starter pedal one big fanner kick. It came to life. Before even looking for Albert he rode off full throttle, they were I lap behind, but still had 20 laps to go and pass other bikes Wilber rode that old Harley like crazy. Every spectator was cheering him on. Old Alfred was near by, he had seen the accident Wilber could see him cheering him on. Wilber rode that old side value like no other rider could. He started passing even in the corners. He came over a big jump filly air borne, his bike was a good 6-7 feet in the air. Old Elbert was hanging on for dear life. Soon he had made up the lost lap. He just kept the throttle open. Riding like no farmer ever could, it was now 12 laps to go. Alfred was on the side with his big marker board keeping Wilber informed of what place he was in. The board said 11 laps you’re in 8th place. All those Englishmen were really good riders and they had fast modern bikes. Wilber however did not doubt for a second he could not catch up and pass all the bikes. He wanted 1 place and the $5,000 prize money. Wilber got along side this one bike he just could not pass him. He was a Chec riding a special built JAWA Twin. After the race was over he checked to see how large the engine was, it was the largest vertical twin he had ever heard of 1,000cc about 64 cubes. It had a longer stroke that the bore. This gave him that extra power he needed. His Monkey had been riding sidecars for 18 years so he really knew how to control the sidecar. I sold JAWA motorcycles from 58 to late 70’s the largest bike they built then was a 500cc twin, it was a heavy road bike I like to have one, I just bought a bike I always wanted, 1982 Honda 6 cylinder with bags and Fairings, a beautiful bike, looks and runs like new. Only it sits a little high and is heavy 635 lbs. At 77 years old my legs are getting weak. Other wise I’m in good shape. I love my KAW 800cc twin its only 500 lbs. and that’s just perfect. My Harley Road King is getting heavy for me. However, it’s so nice to ride once you’re under way it’s still one of the best road bikes made. It will cruise all day at 85 M.P.H. and still get good gas mileages. Now back to the race. I found out after the race the JAWA rider had built this special JAWA, it had taken him 2 years to build. Wilber and him really took to each other. They talked for hours over building big engines and bikes.

Alfred card came out as Wilber flew by he was now in 6th place but he was having a hard time trying to get by the fast JAWA. He thought to himself, I have got to pull something special off in order to get by the JAWA. The high jump was coming up. He kept the throttle near wide open. He was really riding over his head as he came over the jump it was a good 5-6 feet in the air. He pulled the car to his left as far as he could go, he was along side the JAWA he kept the throttle wide open. There was no more. This wasn’t his bike pulled ahead of the JAWA by only 2-3 feet but that’s was all he needed to keep the throttle open going over the smaller jump he was in the air, the crowd went wild watching Wilber this was probably the best race of the day. The sign came out Alfred put up. 4 laps to go you’re in 4th place. He had just passed the fast JAWA there was a big Honda up a head two 3cyl Triumphs there riders had raced all over Europe and England they really were good. How in the world was an old farm boy from South Dakota going to get by these riders. His old side valve was getting tired. He could hear the engine knocking. He said please Lord, give me 3 more laps. Please Harley don’t blow up. Wilber just held that throttle open riding like it was for a million dollars not $5,000. Two laps to go he was still in place. The big jump coming up he worked his way to the left, he signaled to Albert to move to the left, he went over the jump 5-6 feet in the air side car in the air. He kept the side car wheel in the air; he was going as fast as he could go. He passed the Honda, then passed one big 3 cycle Tn one rider to go. One lap left, if he could only pass the remaining Triumph. The long straight away was coming up; then one jump 150 feet of straightaway, then the checkered flag. Wilber said to his old Harley, please don’t blow up now. The crowd was building up; every one could see this was a race they would remember for years. The announcer was giving the crowd a good run down on the race. You could tell he had been doing this for years. I tried announcing at the old Jolly Rodgers Track in 1960’s and 70’s I had a lot of fun doing this. The old Jolly’s Track will be remembered for many years. Almost every day I will talk to someone who raced there or their kids did. The track was well known for 60 years. Wilber got along side the big Triumph, the rider glazed over at Wilber, the jump was coming up. Two riders right on his tail. Wilber flew over the jump so high one could drive a car under him; He kept the side car wheel off the ground, Old Albert hanging on for dear life. He held the throttle wide open. The old Harley had shot ahead of the last big Triumph, but all three riders were right behind. He kept to the left, riding right on the line. No one was going to pass him on the left. The crowd was now going mad. The finish line was 100 feet away. Wilber could bear the engine making a funny noise. But that did not matter now. He would do almost anything to finish this race and win. Even knowing he would have to rebuild the engine which could take 2-3 days and the cost of parts $2-3,000. The checkered flag was out. Wilber could see the flag; it looked like it was almost in his face. He crossed the finish line on two wheels and kept it up for another 100 feet. He then pulled off the track. He rode the bike around to the finish line, the big crowd was waiting. He shut the engine off. Albert got out of the sidecar; Wilber slid off the Harley, The press was there, flashes from all the cameras going off; the crowd going crazy trying to get close to him. He had finished 1 the old JAWA came in 2nd, the two big Triumphs right behind the JAWA, this was probably the closest race all day, and most likely the fastest even for a sidecar. The announcer said he had just witnessed the fastest lap ever set on this track by a sidecar, just under 57 seconds, it’s a mile track. Wilber would have to have been going over 100 M.P.H. on the strait a ways. The old record was set 3 years ago by a rider from Italy riding a big-big Ducati. It was reported the Ducati was 1400cc, it put out over 21OHP it clocked over 190 M.P.H. this the rider did at Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. The rider had told other riders he had over $150,000 tied up in the Ducati. The sad part is someone had stolen the bike at a big race. By the time the police found it, the thief was long gone, but he didn’t really get far away. He had made it close to Ogden where the police found the bike. The rider had passed a car on a two lane highway; he hit a big Kenworth Truck head on. The guy died, the bike blew up. It burned to where one could hardly tell it had been a motorcycle. The police said the boy was only 17 years old. He had come from a broken home, one of his pals had said the kid had nothing to loose, only his life. The poor owner of the Ducati lost it all, they reported after he seen the burned cycle he just walked away, no one ever heard from him again. Just maybe someday he’ll show up somewhere. Anyone that could build a bike like his deserves a 2nd chance. Wilber collected his $5,000 and a big trophy, he was the most popular rider at the races. Everyone started packing up, putting their bikes in pickups and trailers. It was 8:00, Wilber had talked it over with Albert and Alfred. They decided to spend the night at the track, get up early and drive home Monday. They were all just too tired out to start home this late at night. There was some partying going on but for the most, everyone wanted to go home, all looking forward to next year. Wilber and pals got home 4:30 Monday. He at once tore into the Harley, he got the engine out, tore it down that night, and he checked everything. Only thing he had broken 2 rings on the rear piston. The rest of the engine looked new. He had really built a good engine. He was excited he had won the big one. His name and picture would be in all the motorcycle magazines, also Alfred who had won his race, but the sidecar race was what everyone was talking about. Wilber, Alfred, Albert would be talking of this race for years to come. Will they ever race again, who knows? Ruthie and Evelyn were at Wilber’s home waiting for the men. They were happy to see all three and when they seen the big checks and trophies they were all smiles.

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