Crashing with Style & Pizzazz

Crashing a motorcycle is a fine art; a mixture of skill, bravado, dumb luck and a little poor judgment. Mostly it's just a lack of good judgment and an inability to correctly assess the situation that causes crashing. But it does mark your entrance or the finale to whatever entertainment you were providing; it seems people will always remember your crash.

There are a lot of things that can contribute to a crash; but in all but some cases, crashing the motorcycle could have been avoided. In some cases the only prevention for the inevitable crash, was not getting on the motorcycle in the first place.

It takes years of practice and determination to crash with style and pizzazz. Crashing a motorcycle is different from an accident. Accidents involve more than one vehicle and it involves more than one person making bad decisions which lead up to a collision between vehicles.

Crashing in the context of this article is about the rider; in this case me, and the motorcycle crashing without or with very limited help from anyone else.

1966 was a milestone year for me; it ended my perfect record of never getting seriously hurt in a crash. In fact up until the accident with the Oldsmobile Toronado I had never broken a bone. Not even with all of the other stupid things I had done up to then. I had always gotten off with just cuts and scrapes. Somehow even after taking out two windshields with my head in separate incidences; both of those my father takes the credit for; I had still not broken any bones. You have to remember the windshield incidents took place back in the late 50's, which was before padded dashboards and seat belts. In fact the windshields were both flat safety glass and firmly fixed in place; unlike today's one piece windshields that are designed to pop out if a human head makes contact with them.

The 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado was a very big car; the hood of the Olds' was at least a football field long. It was the first American built front wheel drive car. It had to weigh in at well over two tons; it was a virtual tank, but then most of the cars built in the 60s were tanks.

I met the Toronado for the first time when it interrupted my Saturday morning ride. I was headed to one of my favorite places; the motorcycle shop where I was a part time employee.

I was traveling in the right hand lane tucked in behind a city bus on a four lane boulevard. The busy traffic kept me trapped behind the bus for several miles. I was getting tired of breathing diesel exhaust and not being able to see more that the back of the bus in front of me. When the bus came to a stop to pick up passengers; with luck the left lane became clear. I pulled into the left lane and went around the bus. The bus had stopped at the corner of an intersection controlled by a traffic light.

Just as I pulled into the left lane and cleared the back of the bus the traffic light facing me turned green. As soon as I noticed the green light I went WFO (wide fu….open) on the throttle. The little 2 stroke motor on the Suzuki spun up immediately taking me almost instantly to the posted 45 mph speed limit.

The intersection hasn't changed alot over the years except for the new turn lanes. The arrow shows the Oldsmobile's path.

Just as I pasted through the intersection a large white car pulled into my path, the white Toronado made a left hand turn to enter the parking lot on my right. The Toronado's actions didn't escape my attention. My brain was somehow convinced that the big car would pass in front of us, and be clear in time for me to pass behind the car. So I didn't roll off the throttle to slow down or cover the brakes in the event I was wrong.

Without warning the football field long car came to a stop blocking both lanes heading in my direction of travel. Traffic on the opposite side of the boulevard was slowing and coming to a stop behind a car waiting for a chance to turn left at the light at the intersection behind me. That effectively closed off any place for me to go to avoid the tank in front of me.

I pulled on the brake lever and toed down on the motorcycles rear brake pedal. The brakes on most motorcycles in the 60s were mechanical drum type brakes. The little Suzuki's brakes were the best of 1960s technology; but they just weren't good enough for this situation. In fact, no brakes made today would have been good enough…

I was quickly running out of stopping room. At that moment there wasn't any doubt in my mind that I was going to collide with the white football field long car. Everything went into slow motion. I saw the motorcycle's front end crumple on impact with the car's fender. I could feel my body slowly folding up. The impact sent me into a forward roll over my handle bars and over the trunk. As I passed over the back of the car my head hit the rear window. After the rear window I found myself in the back float position traveling through the air.

The parking lot's entrance is on the right in this picture.

The Olds Toronado slowed down and came to a stop in front of the parking lot's driveway; because the driver didn't want to scrape the bumper of the car on the concert ramp leading into the parking lot. The rise up to the sidewalk was about six inches, that tank would and did clear that rise by at least 12 inches easily. The lady driver stopped blocking two lanes of traffic just to protect her chrome bumper. In the process she collected me and my motorcycle with her rear fender. I made impact just in front of the left rear wheel. My almost six-foot long motorcycle (from leading edge of the front wheel to the following edge of the rear wheel), was now about 18 to 20 inches long.

The collision catapulted me about 50 or 60 feet from the impact point. I broke the car's back window with my helmeted head as I passed by. After my 60 foot flight I managed to land on one foot and then rotated my body about 270 degrees at the knee. At this point the slow-motion thing stopped and I was abruptly thrown into real time. Lying on the ground in the middle of my two lanes of travel; all I could think of was being run over by traffic. I tried to stand up and I fell right back down. My right knee would not hold me up. I dragged myself to the sidewalk to get out of the way of the traffic.

The accident was my fault; I figured the car driver's reaction all wrong, had I slowed down and at least covered the brakes I might have been able to slow even more and decrease the impact speed. I wasn't driving defensively. In fact I was just wasn't thinking; my excuse for this accident, I was 18 years old…

It was pretty obvious that I did a lot of things back then without fully thinking them through. Being 18 I also lacked a lot of experience and the skills to prevent accidents and crashing. But I was quickly learning and gaining experience with each and every crash.

Before the Toronado incident, I learned a very valuable lesson about "Blinding". Blinding is when you ride a road you've never been on before at full tilt - fully committing yourself to every corner without knowing what's coming up.. It's riding well beyond common sense. In this case I also learned about the traction coefficient of sand and concrete road surfaces.

I flew into a corner, on a road I had never been on, only to find it was covered with sand that had washed out from a driveway. In case you're wondering there's no traction coefficient between rubber, sand and concrete. Motorcycle's fall down when leaned over on a concrete surface covered in sand.

Not to worry though; I was wearing my helmet. The best helmets back then were what some folks today call three quarter style. There was only one full face helmet on the market back then, the Bell Star and they just weren't readily available.

I came away from that lesson with just some torn jeans, and a bloody chin. I used my chin to support my upper body, protecting the chest of my leather jacket from being dragged across the street after the motorcycle and I fell over. I was under the motorcycle protecting it, so the only thing handy to protect me was my chin… that day I learned about road rash, too.

I learned about gravity, and momentum pretty much the same way. I have to admit I do know a lot about Newton's law, gravity and other laws of the physical world thanks to my motorcycle riding career. Long before free style motocross riders like Travis Pastrana and Mike Metzger had ever thought of doing a 360back flip with their motorcycles; I attempted the first one back in 1968.

I can prove this; my friend Ted recorded the attempt in full color on super eight movie film. Today I don't know anyone has a projector capable of showing super 8 film and years ago I was told it was going to be digitized to a CD; but so far I haven't see it.

Sumer of 1968, I was on leave, between duty stations. While at home my friends invited me to spend a day riding motorcycles off road. We had access to a large 100 acre unimproved area to ride in. We were taking turns blasting around the natural course they had made with jumps and whoops and lots of soft sand; on a Hodaka Ace 90. The Ace was purpose built to run off road, many of them were campaigned on motocross tracks all over the country.

Hodaka Ace 90

Once again; the "Who can jump the motorcycle higher getting more air and going the furthest" contest began… I won jumping contest easily, I had a lot more practice riding off road then the rest of the group, and even though I hadn't been on a motorcycle in a while I was getting back into my old ways pretty fast. But I wasn't satisfied with just winning. You always want to have to have a big finish, a finale that will wow everyone and keep them talking.

Looking at the mound we had been jumping over I figured that if I got up enough speed and pulled the handle bars back a little harder; I could get the motorcycle high enough to flip it over a full 360 degrees and then land it on its wheels and ride it away. The mound was about ten to fifteen feet high; the slopes on both sides were about 60 degrees. There was plenty of running room before the front slope, and plenty of landing room.

I rode up the front slope of the mound faster than I had during our little jumping contest. The Ace and I rocketed into the air. As the rear tire cleared the mound and was airborne I pulled the handle bars back toward my chest hard. The Ace and I began to rotate over backwards. Everything seemed to be going according to my plan.

The Ace and I rotated about 180 degrees… I was now upside down, motorcycle wheels up and me still in the seat… Me and the Ace were easily twenty feet in the air, plenty of room to continue and land on the rear wheel. Except that we ran out of forward and rotational thrust.

In the upside down position the Ace and I just stopped and hung in the air. There's an airplane stunt, where the pilot flies straight up until the plane stalls. The plane just hangs there, not flying, not falling; the engine can't pull it up, but it doesn't fall backward. But this wasn't an airplane doing a stall; it was a motorcycle suspended in midair. It looked like something from a reality TV show. While the Ace and I were airborne and upside down it seemed like someone had switched off gravity. Like the airplane in the stall we just hung there. But then suddenly while I was upside down enjoying the view; gravity was suddenly switched back on.

I don't remember the landing, but I do know it wasn't what I had planned. After watching the movie; if I hadn't been there I wouldn't have believed I survived it either… I did survive and without any broken bones, but I was sore everywhere, and it was a finale that no one would forget for a long time.

Had I had a longer ramp with a steeper approach angle, it might have worked, but I'm way too damned old to try it again .

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