They're gathered here tonight, these riders, from cities as far away as Hanover, Germany, and places as strange as Southern California, at the Hilton Hotel for the start of the father of the mother of all motorcycle endurance contests, the biannual Iron Butt Rally. Resurrected from the ashes in 1991 by Iron Butt Association president Mike Kneebone, this is the premier event of its kind in the world. If you don't believe that, ask one of the 300 riders who was fruitlessly wait-listed for a place on the starting grid.
The starters have paid a $750 entry fee for the opportunity to have their heads kicked in by the merciless gods of chance, weather, and fatigue. If the past is prologue �� and on the Iron Butt it always is �� then they'll be running through temperature ranges of almost one hundred degrees, altitude changes of 10,000 feet, and six time zones. The winner will average better than 1,000 miles per day for 11 straight days. No ordinary motorcyclist will ever experience such a ride.
But these people are far from ordinary. Take two of them, for example: Tom Loegering and Eddie James. At the banquet that concluded the 1995 contest, Loegering and James stood in first and second place, the tight-knit community of hard riders vanquished at their feet. Within a week both had been disqualified for rules violations, a decision by then-rallymaster Steve Chalmers that has reverberated through the long-distance riding community nearly to this day. Stepping in like Mighty Mouse to save the day was Mr. Kneebone, a fellow who modestly describes himself as "the nicest guy who ever lived." With a diplomatic touch that Metternich or Henry Kissinger could have applauded, Kneebone invited both Loegering and James to appear at the rider's meeting today, to stand up, to confess their sins, and to be absolved, if possible, by their fellow communicants.
For James this was for all practical purposes a non-issue. He had been calling Kneebone for two years, begging to be allowed to enter this year's event. If Mike wanted him to come to Chicago to repent in public, then come to Chicago he would do. Besides, James' number had been picked serendipitously from the wait list. He had nothing to lose but the humiliation that was certain to be heaped upon him by anyone with a tongue to lash.
Eddie's sentence was short and swift: Kneebone required him to stand up at the rider's meeting, admit what he had done wrong in 1995, state the reasons why no rider should ever follow in his footsteps, and accept the scarlet letter that would brand him for a long, long time. Eddie did it, for the moment the utter soul of humility. And if you have ever met Eddie James, you will know that humility is not one of his stronger character traits. Then again, humility is something in short supply among these riders. They know they're good. And they are.
For Loegering it was a closer call. Mike had told him months earlier that grandmothers with a history of triple-bypass surgery were more likely to start the event than he was. Even with no chance to enter the event, Tom appeared at the rider's meeting this afternoon, recited his own prior sins, and gave the contestants a warning about side-stepping rules that not one of them should ever forget. It was a wistful moment �� a man who'd come to Chicago with no chance to run the rally, who knew that his earlier actions had created a furor that had not subsided for two years, and who recognized that nothing he said would change people's perception of him by the width of an atom �� this small lecture by such an inoffensive and mild-mannered man who exhibits such grimly and single-minded competitive qualities. In my view Loegering showed more character today than I've seen in a lot of my friends who've faced far less arduous circumstances than Tom has ever endured. When someone writes the story of the greatest Iron Butt Rallies of all time, Loegering's name will feature prominently in most of them, including the one he didn't run in 1997.
Loegering's sin in 1995 involved a conspiracy to alter the identity of a rally towel, and here I use the prosecutor's terminology. Without going into this much further, the details of which are contained on the Iron Butt Association's web page, I merely suggest that the simple towel became overnight one of the most hotly debated and fiercely contested issues of recent Iron Butt memory. When the towels were handed out at the banquet tonight with all of the catastrophic admonitions that have followed in the wake of the Loegering incident, one rider questioned whether it might be possible to have one surgically implanted upon his hip. At least that's what I thought I heard him say. "Do whatever you have to do," Kneebone said. "Just don't lose that towel."
When the festivities were over, I ambled back to the administrator�s suite in the hotel. About 10 people were huddled in the cramped space, talking animatedly. Mike said, "Sit down. We have our first problem. DeVern Gerber has already lost his towel."
Time. Roads. Weather. Numbing fatigue. It's the essential Iron Butt.
And towels. Those too.
Naperville Ilinois, August 25, 1997
At 3:30 this morning I am walking around the Hilton's parking lot, smoking a cigarette, and nipping on a nicely iced Bailey's from time to time. This is my pre-flight inspection of the weapons to be used in the 1997 Iron Butt Rally. Arrayed before me in the dim light of a waning moon and the hotel's crime lights are four score of the sorts of motorcycles that most bikers would die for.
I do not intend the pun about motorcycles versus life. Of the riders sleeping tonight as I review their bikes, there is not one among them who believes that he or she might not live to see the conclusion of this event. That is because motorcyclists are the most optimistic sorts of people one could meet. They need to be in the face of crushing statistical data that proves not one in four of the riders today will make it out of the parking lot in one piece. Yet they will soon sally forth, smiling and confident, on a ride that many would consider terminally daunting. They trust these machines not to kill them.
There is decent reason for that optimism. If you like transcendent focus, you should see these bikes. In this parking lot I am at the apex of the designer's and machinist's art, motorcycles that laugh at the feebleness of their own grandfathers. Just over a year ago, in an article that commented on the brilliance of one of BMW's new two-wheeled creations, I suggested that the mechanical advances of motorcycles in the past 30 years had outpaced the development of every other technology except that of clocks, computers, and cameras. I stand by that even now, especially when I see what is resting in this lot tonight.
Since these riders can routinely hang onto their bikes until the gas runs out �� hence the name "Iron Butt," duh �� they like big gas tanks, metastatic versions or their forefathers. Morris Kruemcke, on the short list of favorites in this rally, can carry 39 gallons on his Gold Wing and has a documented straight-line run of over 1,200 miles without his feet hitting the ground. He solved the rest-stop problem with a drain tube. And besides, with enough gasoline on board to incinerate Dresden all over again, he has more to worry about than where to take a pee. As someone pointed out during the rider's meeting, if you're going to work on Morris' bike, you really should be wearing gloves.
But if the Iron Butt was about nothing more than measuring the guy or gal with the biggest gas tank and hardest ass, we could do that in the hotel parking lot with a volumetric tub and a hammer. The rally restricts on-board gas capacity to not more than 11 gallons and reserves the right to impound finishing motorcycles to check for compliance. To date there has been no minimal requirement for butt hardness, something that tends to be self-revealing over the course of 11 days and five checkpoints.
The iron sits, waiting. They're in beautiful shape. When this grueling trial is through, most of the bikes will still be in better shape than their owners.
The Butts, 10:45 a.m.
Mike Kneebone is going to hand out the last section of route information in five minutes. Seventy-eight riders, upon receiving that envelope, will be free to depart at any time after 11:00 a.m. They then have 30 hours to reach Gorham, Maine, just west of Portland. For each rider there seem to be three or four well-wishers. The parking lot is packed. The video crew is grabbing final interviews. Local reporters scurry for last-moment quotable quotes. Kneebone alone seems unperturbed by the almost palpable tension surrounding him. Yet I may be the happiest person here, content in the knowledge that I don't have to compete in this brain-bruising rally. Sometimes it really is the little things in life that count, even negatively.
"Number one!" Kneebone yells.
Rider No. 1 edges through the crowd. He's Gary Eagan, the winner of the '95 Butt following the disqualifications of Tom Loegering and Eddie James. That he is here at all is surprising. That he is actually competing is unbelievable. Fifteen months ago he had a horrific crash. When I heard about the extent of the injuries, I predicted he'd be lucky ever to sit on a bike again, much less ride one.
Van Singley, my BMW instructor at the American Motorcycle Institute, steps up with his usual big smile. He's a rookie with more than a million motorcycle miles behind him, sponsored by Motorcycle Consumer News magazine, and riding an F650ST, a bike provided by BMW of North America. And if along the way the bike should be brazen enough to stop working, Van is capable of tearing it down to its atomic components and straightening out its problems with his bare hands. Some rookie, huh?
The list goes on. Fran Crane, a co-holder (with Kneebone) of the record for the shortest time through the lower 48 states and the only rider here whose picture is in the American Motorcyclist Association's museum; Marty Jones, a DEA agent who will win this event before his career is through; '91 IBR winner Ron Major; the hard-riding Kruemcke with more than 100 thousand-mile days in his log book; the chastened and uncharacteristically somber Eddie James; Ron Ayres, author of a book detailing his trials and tribulations on the '95 rally; Asa McFadden, who once rode from Key West, Florida, to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, in less than seven days; Canadians Herb Anderson, Horst Haak, and Peter Hoogeveen. A win by any of these riding animals would shock no one
And if they're not riding in the event, they're working on it �� '86 IBR winner Ross Copas is waiting at a bonus stop in Ontario, Dave McQueeney in Southern California, and four-time IBR finisher Gregg Smith in Florida. You can't swing a cat in this crowd without hitting a legend.
At 11:00 a.m. CDT precisely, the starting flag dropped. Just one rider, Ken Hatton, was sitting at the line, staring fixedly in front of him, a picture of impatience. He holds the record, under 42 hours, for the fastest time from New York to San Francisco. As soon as the starter nodded, Hatton's Kawasaki ZX-11 shot out of the box. There are three basic routes to Maine; it is almost a certainty that Hatton will be taking the hardest one.
That's what they do best, these people. They don't look back.
Gorham, Maine, August 26, 1997
A Good Start, Eh?
The eight Canadian male riders in the '97 IBR represent just 10 percent of the starters but 50 percent of the top four places at the first checkpoint in Gorham, Maine. This isn't a novel position for our friends from the Great Frozen North. In 1986 Ross Copas of Cornwall, Ontario, arguably the greatest of all endurance riders, took the lead at the first checkpoint and never relinquished it. That was the usual Copas style in his heyday. If he entered an event, he won it. To competitors, Copas must have looked the way Babe Ruth did to American League pitchers in 1927.
It's the short riding season, I think, that accounts for the Canucks' remarkable success rate, a season that usually starts in the second week of July, when the spring mud recedes, and continues until the first snowfall about 10 days later. But for those 10 days the guys with the maple-leaf license plates are pure hell on wheels. My guess is that some of the U.S. hopefuls in this year's Iron Butt will be praying for some snow soon. It may already be too late for such divine intervention, however: The rally is now on its way to Daytona Beach for checkpoint No. 2 on Thursday. August blizzards in Florida, I'm told, are not common.
Mike Kneebone and rallymaster Ed Otto designed the course for this rally. They are fond of setting up different routes from checkpoint to checkpoint, forcing the riders to choose among visiting different bonus sites. The first leg from Chicago to Maine consisted basically of a Canadian section, a northeast U.S. section, and a throwaway ride with bonuses in the Midwest and Alaska, a choice that no one in his right mind could take and, as it turned out, that no one �� not even Ken Hatton �� did.
This style of rally construction is similar to eating in a Chinese restaurant. If you like the egg rolls in Column A, you can't have any wontons in Column B. A rider opting for the ride through Canada can pick up bonus points only from that route. And if, along the way, he came within 10 feet of a staggering bonus belonging to the U.S. route section, he'd have to pass it up. The contestant is forced to make difficult choices about route planning before leaving the checkpoint, knowing that a minute spent looking at a map right now could save two hours tomorrow. It isn't easy. It isn't supposed to be.
Sometimes a poor choice made in haste can make or break a rider. That wasn't the case on this rally's first leg. The potential bonuses on the Canadian and American sections were roughly equal, but the presence on the Canadian ride of a 700-point bonus in Madawaska at the northernmost tip of Maine was alluring to nine riders. Those who took that route occupy the top nine positions on the leader board today.
But the score differential between them and the riders who follow isn't much. Indeed, the gap between the top and bottom finishers on the first leg is just 1,241 points. That might seem substantial, but the fact is that the bonuses will increase in value with each leg. On the final run from Yakima, Washington, back to Chicago next week, there could be bonus sites that will make Madawaska seem like child's play.
Still, if you want to make a statement about your intentions, leg No. 1 is the place to do it. You guarantee that for a couple of days at least you are the one to be chased. That day arrived today for Canadian Peter Hoogeveen, one of the finest riders never to have won a major endurance contest. Not that he hasn't come close. He finished second in the '91 IBR, missing the winner's platform by two points. This year he lost the Utah 1088 by not much more. So heartbreaking have these losses been that stories about Peter's ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory are the stuff of Iron Butt legend.
This could be his year. He has the machine for the long haul, a Honda Blackbird, the fastest street motorcycle ever made. He has the sponsorship, judging by the decals that are plastered over the bike's bodywork, of every motorcycle dealer east of the Canadian Rockies. At the rider's banquet last Sunday night, I said to him, "Not that this should be much cause for pressure, Peter, but it looks as if the national pride of Canada is hanging on your success." He just smiled.
Behind Hoogeveen, tied for second, are Colorado's George Barnes, winner of last year's California 1+1 and the Utah 1088, and Texan Morris Kruemcke. Canada's Herb Anderson, the victim of a 150-point lateness penalty that knocked him from second place to fourth, survived a broken subframe on his BMW. He said that he could have lived with the bike's abnormal flexing, but when the broken end of a large-diameter pipe began burrowing through the bike's seat and into his own �� thus giving new meaning to the expression "Iron Butt" �� it was time to find a welder. That took some doing in rural Quebec. Anderson spent more time finding someone who spoke English than the welder did gluing the frame back together.
The rally packets for the Maine-to-Florida leg were handed out at 8:00 Tuesday night. There are two alternatives, a straight shot down to Florida or a more circuitous route to Daytona by way of Springfield, Missouri, that is possibly doable by anyone willing to take a real chance of being time-barred in Daytona. Upon receiving the bonus packages, rallyists normally sit down with a large map, a Magic Marker, and any support crew they might have on hand to assess the route's possibilities. Karol Patzer, the top female finisher in 1995, huddled with a couple of her backers from Minnesota. And Peter? He was seen consulting with Ross Copas. If you are going to ask for advice �� there's no prohibition about receiving such assistance, since the entrant still has to it ride those pesky miles �� it can't hurt to take it from The Man himself, eh?
Oh, Canada . . .
Washington, D.C., August 27, 1997
Room at the Inn
When Mike and I rolled into my driveway this morning at 9:05, Bud, my ex-female cat, wandered over to the car. She's 17 this month. Occasionally she exhibits some signs of advancing age, though not nearly as obviously as I've begun to do in the last four days. This idea of shoving a rental car from checkpoint to checkpoint seemed like a good idea once. As we left Chicago last Monday, it didn't take long for us to realize �� an hour maybe �� that it indeed was one of the most massively ridiculous ideas either Mike or I had ever devised.
The long-suffering Susan, my significant other for so long that the memory of man runneth not to the contrary, came to the front door with the usual relief in her eyes. She's not a fan of big rides, especially ones I take. She and Mike hugged. I just sat down, stone weary. Bud looked at me, probably wondering if I'd brought her something to eat from Maine. A crab leg possibly? Part of a fish?
"We saw something this morning," I began, "that would have brought real tears to your eyes. It was at one of the service areas at the northern end of the Jersey Turnpike."
"Was anyone hurt?" she asked. It's always her first thought when motorcycles are mentioned.
"Not in any real medical sense," I said. "I think they were beyond what we think of as true physical pain."
It was an archetypical Iron Butt tableau. Mike spotted them first as we rolled into the parking lot.
"There are a couple of our guys," he said, pointing to a dimly lit area.
I looked. Then I saw them, two people flat on their backs on the sidewalk, lying about 50 feet apart. Their motorcycles, a Gold Wing and a BMW K-bike, rested on their sidestands a few feet from each owner. One of the riders had folded his left leg across his upraised right knee, almost as if he were relaxing calmly in a chair, except that he was supine on a concrete sidewalk, his hands lying on his chest, his helmet still strapped on, stretched out in a service area of the New Jersey Turnpike at five minutes after four in the morning, sound asleep. I've slept on the side of the road before, but I don't think I ever looked quite so professional while I did it.
"It's Morris," Mike said.
It was. I grinned at Kruemcke's quiet body. Maybe for once I could gain some ground on him.
The other rider looked dead. His legs lay straight out, not bent like Morris'. His hands were also folded neatly upon his chest, the way morticians arrange the dearly departed. And he too was wearing his helmet, though a leather jacket had been thrown across his face, as if he had been in a catastrophic accident and the ambulance had not yet arrived. I walked to the back of his BMW. A Florida plate. I looked up at Mike.
"Asa McFadden," he said quietly.
Right. The guy who'd made it from Key West to Prudhoe Bay in under a week.
"I have to take a picture of this," I whispered to Mike. Why I whispered I'm not sure. Tractor-trailers thudded by on the nearby turnpike, jarring the earth as they passed.
I unlocked the car. Instantly all hell broke loose. The horn began blasting away intermittently, headlights popping on and off. Somehow I'd tripped the alarm on the rental car. For 40 or 50 seconds we desperately tried to halt the racket. Finally Mike did something with the door lock and the din stopped. I was stricken with unbearable embarrassment of having awakened two people who needed sleep more desperately than I did. Slowly I turned to look at them.
Neither had moved a millimeter.
"You see these guys here," I said, "and you see some homeless guy wobbling down the street. And you wonder if there's any metaphysical difference between them."
"Homeless guys don't own $14,000 motorcycles," Mike said, heading for the bathroom.
For five minutes I looked at Morris' inert form. I've known him for a long time, have slept on his couch often, have gone to dinner with him and his wife a dozen times, and have written a story about his "project bike," a motorcycle so aerodynamically perfect that it delivers better than 100 miles/gallon at 60 mph. I�ve seen him in many different ways, but I'd never seen him quite so vulnerable.
Suddenly he moved. The left ankle came off the raised right knee, planted itself flat on the sidewalk, and the whole body shuddered slightly. Morris, a bear-like human except shorter, was coming out of hibernation. I was transfixed by this scene from rawest nature that was reeling out before me. He sat up, then saw me.
"Well. Hi," he said. No surprise or shock. It was almost as if he had been expecting me.
Yuppies call it a power nap. Long riders call it the Iron Butt Hotel. No one can ride forever. You have to sleep. And when you wake up in Room 42 of the Iron Butt Motel, you're liable to see anything. Morris knows that. They all know it.
The Oddball Files: Part A
Mary Sue Johnson, a truck-driving teamster for Roadway Express, wanted to run the 1991 Iron Butt on her Harley but Jan Cutler, the rallymaster that year, told her to go away. "Insufficient experience," Jan said. Mary Sue's not that large a woman, but I wouldn't want her angry at me. She applied again in 1995 and was accepted. She finished respectably. Then she got serious. When her Harley was stolen the day before the start of the 8/48 last year, an event requiring the contestant to touch the contiguous states in eight days or less, she immediately bought a big BMW, headed into the sunset, and returned in third place overall. That's faster than I did it 10 years ago by about three days. She is currently in a six-way tie for 11th place after the Maine checkpoint, along with Ron Major, the winner of the '91 rally that Mary Sue wasn't good enough to run.
A rider rolled up to the start line in Chicago. Safety-pinned to the left lapel of his Aerostich jacket was a five-inch-by-two-inch sign enclosed in weather-proof plastic: RECEIPT PLEASE. "That," I thought, "is a guy who knows what he's doing." A receipt on the Iron Butt, any receipt, is a ticket to ride. It proves you were somewhere. Receipts are the ultimate currency in this strange and twisted land, and you ask for one everywhere you go. But if this rider forgets to ask, a cashier seeing that sign walk in isn't likely to forget too.
One of the riders coming in to the checkpoint in Maine handed his gas receipts and other papers to Mike. Then he showed Mike another piece of paper with a National Park Service passport stamp imprinted upon it.
"There aren't any bonuses on this leg that require you to get a passport stamp," Mike said.
"It's the Martin van Buren birthplace site," the fellow said.
"But it's not a bonus location," Mike repeated.
"I know," the guy said, "but I needed it for the passport hunt."
"You have time to do that on this rally?" Mike asked.
The guy just laughed. A lot of riders are running around the country this year getting passport stamps at national parks, monuments, and historic sites. It was Kneebone's idea, a better one than driving a rental car from checkpoint to checkpoint on the Iron Butt Rally.
Daytona Beach, Florida, August 28, 1997
When Manny Sameiro awoke yesterday morning, he dressed, automatically sticking the baseball cap on his head. The stitching reads, "Iron Butt Rally/World's Toughest Motorcycle Competition." They had been handed out to all the starters back in Chicago. Sameiro glanced in the mirror. A wave of disgust rippled through him when he saw his reflection.
"If I'm not good enough to finish this rally," he thought, "I don't deserve to wear this hat."
He sat down on the bed, reached for the telephone, and began to make some calls. His movements were deliberate. Gauze bandages covered both of his upper extremities from forearm to mid-biceps.
Manny had a few problems. The biggest one was that his bike was in ruins, the victim of a crash the afternoon before at a velocity the New Jersey attorney later described as being "somewhat in excess of the speed limit." He'd been hurrying to make the checkpoint at Reynolds Motorsports in Gorham, Maine. He didn't make the checkpoint. He did make the emergency room of Houlton Hospital, 260 miles north of his goal, with abrasions on both arms. His Tourmaster riding coat had shredded.
He needed to get to the Reynolds dealership in a hurry, buy another bike, and somehow make it to Florida before the Daytona checkpoint closed. He'd already missed one checkpoint. If he missed a second, his rally was finished. He had about 30 hours to make everything work.
And he did. I don't know how. We may never know, but at 2:52:42 p.m. today Sameiro showed up at the American Motorcycle Institute checkpoint in Daytona Beach, took a 10,000-point penalty for switching motorcycles, received a 3,000-point bonus for making the Florida checkpoint, and now stands in dead last place with minus 7,000 points. It is the lowest, ugliest running total of any rider at any time in the history of the rally.
Manny Sameiro is too busy smiling to care..
* * * * *
Joan Oswald was dying. Indeed, if she could have found a cemetery to lie down in, she'd have taken it. But it was a small town in North Carolina, darkness had fallen, and she was well beyond her last legs. She saw an Amoco station.
"Please help me," she told the owner. "I'm falling asleep on the bike. I need to find a town park or somewhere to lie down for ninety minutes. Do you know of anything?"
"Follow me," he said, leading her through a filthy storeroom. Joan shuddered. A door was shoved open. "This OK?" the stranger asked.
A bed, a shower, a lamp. A promise that she'd be awakened on time. It would do. It would do nicely, thank you.
* * * * *
Crossing the border into the U.S. from Canada can be a problem, especially when you're a British subject like Phil Jewell, have a resident alien status in the U.S., and are riding a motorcycle. But the problems grow a bit worse when you find that you don't have any identification because when you stopped for dinner an hour ago, someone stole your wallet out of your tankbag. The English have a word for it, but it's probably not printable.
Somebody found the discarded wallet and called the cops in Atlanta where Phil lives. They called Phil's wife. She called Phil. Someone called Federal Express. I call it the blind luck of mad dogs and Englishmen. He zeroed Maine with a miss, crawled into Florida before the checkpoint slammed shut, and is tied for 73rd place. But he's grinning from ear to ear, as usual. He's 10,000 points ahead of Sameiro.
* * * * *
Dennis Cunningham prayed nightly to make the cut for the starting field in this year's Butt. He didn't. Undaunted, he called Dave McQueeney, a guy who has major-league clout with Mike Kneebone. "This guy will do anything to get in," Dave told Mike. "He said he'd even bring a sidecar."
"He's in," Mike said.
The crab cakes were just settling down in Cunningham's stomach as walked out of the restaurant in Ocean City, Maryland, yesterday. He was feeling pretty good. The rig was getting a steady 29 miles per gallon, the Ocean City bonus was hefty, and life couldn't be rosier. Well, maybe just a little rosier when the waitress came running out of the front door waving Cunningham's wallet.
"Hey, mister! Do you need this?"
* * * * *
The lives of Rider A and Rider B �� those are not their real names �� intersected along Interstate 95 last night at a photo bonus. Rider A, a rookie, was happy to see a fellow Butt. And Rider B is a big Butt, a pro. How nice, Rider A thought. A close encounter of the human kind, too often a rarity on this long, lonely event.
"Are you following me?" Rider B snarled. Rider A sat back, momentarily speechless. "If you're not following me, what the hell do you want?"
"I just thought I'd say hello."
"Got no time to talk," Rider B shot back.
"And I was wondering if you knew if there was gas at the next exit."
"I'm not riding with you," Rider B hissed irrelevantly. "I don't ride with anybody. Understand?"
Rider A understood.
Rider B reached for his camera. One quick shot. Wouldn't take a second. Nail a few points. Rider A began to speak, but the words stuck somewhere south of the larynx. The flash went off and the Polaroid film oozed out of the camera. Rider B examined the picture, apparently approved it, stuck it in his tankbag, and turned back to Rider A.
"I told you not to follow me," he said angrily, popping his throttle. A moment later he was gone.
Nearly all bonuses that require a photo for proof of the rider's appearance at the location also require that the rider's identification towel, imprinted with the rider's number, be seen somewhere in the shot. It's an ingenious solution to a nagging problem. Without the towel in the photo, the opportunities for cheating are boundless. That's why the loss of a towel is nearly always a catastrophic event. A rider without a towel is often deprived of what would otherwise be an easy bucket of points. Rider A was sitting at a photo bonus that required use of the identification towel. Rider B had forgotten to use his. He would later be reminded of his mistake at the checkpoint when the scorers would refuse to give him any points for the picture.
"In my whole life I have never once refused to come to the aid of a fellow motorcyclist," Rider A would later say. "I guess this time I just forgot."
Riders hoping for an early snow to stop Canadian Peter Hoogeveen were disappointed today. It was in the low 90s in Daytona and Hoogeveen increased his lead slightly over the unflappable George Barnes. Morris Kruemcke, claiming to be taking it easy in preparation for the ride west, dropped to fifth, just behind the fast-rising Ron Ayres and Fran Crane. Shane Smith, a rookie from a town in Mississippi so small that even residents can't remember its name, rode in lockstep with Crane, something I wasn't aware that anyone below the master rank of Hot Zoot could accomplish. He came out of nowhere to take over ninth place. The biggest points grabber of all on the leg was the human bear, Gary Johnson.
Bonus locations literally were to be found all over the map. Some riders went to Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod. Others were seen at the Montauk lighthouse at the end of Long Island. A group of riders took the ferry south from Cape May. Three others �� modesty forbids me from naming them �� actually showed up at the infamous Gary Hart townhouse on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., the place where Hart's dreams during the 1987 presidential primaries for occupying the White House evaporated in erotic, hypocritical smoke.
Many of the current leaders headed instead for locations in south Florida like the Kennedy Space Center and the biggest bonus spot on the leg, the Miami houseboat where spree killer Andrew Cunanan committed his final sin. The Iron Butt organizers love ghoulish sites �� the ashes of the Branch Davidian compound had barely cooled before riders were heading for it in 1993 �� and if they can't find an actual murder scene, they'll take a fictional one. In an alley in San Francisco, there's a memorial to mark the spot where Sam Spade's partner was shot in The Maltese Falcon. Yeah, they've been there, done that.
Central Louisiana, August 29, 1997
Swamp Thing's Last Stand
I hate this place. In the jungle on each side of the interstate there are things that have arrived here directly from the Paleozoic era in undiluted form �� 500-foot death adders, 9,000-pound alligators, spiders the size of compact cars, and other nightmares that zoologists are too afraid to examine. At any time of day coming through the Atchafalaya Swamp is eerie, but at dawn and dusk it's positively frightening. Louisiana is the Land That Time Forgot, and with good reason.
Fortunately, Mike and I are squeezing our way through while it's still daylight. The traffic is heavy on the eve of the Labor Day weekend but manageable. If we can average just 40 mph for a while, we should be able to get out of here alive. Not everyone does. The movie Dead Man Walking was in part about a vicious double homicide that occurred not far from where we are.
Even if Louisiana doesn't kill you, it can change your life. It changed Swamp Thing's.
No one has ever loved the Iron Butt Rally more than Rick Shrader and no one has ever done worse competing in it. Any athlete can have a bad streak �� Dodger Hall of Famer Gil Hodges once went 0-21 in the World Series --- but Shrader's slump is now in its seventh year. With his latest strikeout yesterday, surely a new Swamp Thing Rule will be formulated: three whiffs and you're out.
In 1991 he was a rookie Butt aboard a disheveled, thudding BMW R65. As pets and owners begin to resemble each other with age, so had Rick and his ratbike melded imperceptibly into a single, dramatic unit. He had the mien and carriage of a pre-homeless person, the look one gets about a week before the eviction. Sporting a variety of Druidic tattoos, a vengeful, wiry beard, a thousand-yard stare, and a rich supply of doomsday theories interwoven with dark veils of conspiracy and meta-voodoo, Rick Shrader was not about to be confused with any physician, lawyer, saintly grandmother, or CPA on the starting line of an endurance motorcycle rally. But in truth, if you could withstand Rick's initial over-the-top impression, you'd discover a quite remarkable, good-hearted character.
Three-quarters of the way through the '91 IBR, Shrader made history. Apparently falling asleep, he ran off the road into a Louisiana bayou and sank. Rescuers pulled him out. He was unhurt, but from that moment he carried a new name: Swamp Thing. And although he didn't know it at the time, that spectacular exit from the rally marked the high point of Swamp Thing's IBR career. Never again would he run so flawlessly or for so long.
Most of us celebrate victory. Rick celebrated the disastrous '91 Butt by adding another tattoo to his arm, the logo of the Iron Butt Association. Mike Kneebone was suitably impressed by that unusual display of dedication. When Shrader applied for a slot on the 1993 Iron Butt, he was honored with being named rider No. 1.
Though details are understandably sketchy, by most accounts Rick went into orbit on about the third day of the '93 IBR, wandering around in Nevada's high desert on a random trajectory for a day or so until someone at mission control nudged him back into a path for re-entry. Englishman Steve Attwood, the eventual winner of the rally, came across Shrader during one of Swamp Thing's low passes near the earth and tried to talk him down. Rick went home early with his second DNF. That year is known as The Year Swamp Thing Didn't Crash.
At night in the Grand Canyon during the '95 Butt, he judged the object in front of him not to be a curb. It was a curb. Again he was unhurt, but he'd bent both wheels, a terminal condition that produced a third straight DNF and a record that as of yesterday stood unbeaten and untied. In spite of himself, Swamp Thing was nearing the very apex of comic immortality.
But no one's laughing today. Rick had an accident yesterday �� one in which he didn't even fall over �� on the way to the Florida checkpoint. He was admitted to the hospital in Daytona late yesterday afternoon and underwent surgery on his right knee. We don't have any further word on his condition but we do extend to Rick and his wife Jean our most sincere hopes for a full recovery. He may be gone from the rally but he is sure not to be forgotten. You'd be more likely to forget a typhoon coming through your kitchen.
It's inevitable. Bikes will break, riders will tire, and someone will fall. But behind those raw truths are some awesome statistics. In the first three days of this event contestants have ridden in excess of 212,000 miles. An average motorcyclist covers 2,000 miles in a year. Ten Iron Butt riders surpassed than that in 40 hours on the leg from Maine to Florida. When one has an accident, as Rick Shrader and Manny Sameiro did, the safety nazis begin to swarm, forgetting that between them those two guys probably have more than one million miles in their wake. They go down sometimes, but it's an uncommonly rare event when they do.
It's the bikes that normally take it in the chops on a big ride. This year is no different. Jim Barthell's Kawasaki ate its sprockets on the first day. Dr. Dan Cooper's BMW croaked with a fuel problem. Marty Jones' Kawasaki ground to a halt with a charging-system failure. Marty recovered, but missed the first checkpoint. The transmission on Jim Geenan's Moto Guzzi went south. An electrical problem on Frank Parsons' Honda finished his rally. Leonard Aron's 1946 Indian, a DNF in 1995, fared no better this year. It went out with a massive oil leak on the way to Florida. Today an unspecified case of bike angst sent Bob Grange's BMW home early, while engine problems on Ken Hatton's Kawasaki wiped him off the potential finisher list. It's a fast bike, that ZX-11, almost as fast as Hoogeveen's Blackbird, but it has failed Hatton now in three consecutive IBRs.
I caught up to Karol Patzer as she was packing up her bike yesterday in the AMI parking lot.
"California's that way, Karol," I said, pointing toward the sinking sun.
She smiled wanly. I think she's feeling a little blue. Two years ago, as a rookie, she was the top finishing woman. Three days into this event she's in 38th place overall, well behind Fran Crane in fourth and Mary Sue Johnson in 10th.
"Hey, stop worrying," I said. "Remember that the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor fortune to men of understanding, but time and chance happeneth to them all."
"This isn't a race, and I'm not a man," she corrected.
"It's from the Book of Ecclesiastes, kid. I speak metaphorically."
She'll be all right. She can ride with anyone. Last June she left Minnesota on Friday, got to Oklahoma in time for a two-hour Iron Butt Association meeting on Saturday, turned back home, and was at work on Monday morning. Two days later she rode back down to the middle of Texas for a motorcycle rally, spent a day there, and rode back home. I grow weary thinking of it.
Get on the bike, ride into the sun for a few days, hope it keeps working, and don't fall off. And if you do fall off, try to do it in a bayou. Swamp Thing tells me that, up to a point, water is easier to smack through than concrete.
West Texas, August 30, 1997
The Things They Do
If Mike and I were competing in the rally this year, we'd be in 62nd place right now. We've made both checkpoints on time (3000 x 2), have all our gas receipts (1000 x 2), and have visited two bonus locations (26 points for picking up a copy in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, of the oldest continuously operating newspaper in North America, and a whopping 48 big ones for visiting the racist Pedro statue in the hopelessly cute tourist trap of South of the Border). That's 8,074 fine points, Bubba, ahead of Bill Weyher and Martin Hildebrandt at 8,000, Fritz and Phyllis Lang at 7,679, and, of course, Manny Sameiro at minus 7,000, who will really have achieved something if he can get back to a score of zero.
Weyher, on a BMW R1100GS �� a bike that's faster than our rental car �� hasn't gotten a bonus point yet. I don't know why.
Hildebrandt has no bonus points either, nor will he get one unless it happens to fall into his tankbag, but that's because he's on a 175cc Zundapp, the smallest-displacement motorcycle ever ridden in the Iron Butt and the second oldest bike in this year's event. Martin came from Hanover, Germany, to torture himself on that slug. With a top speed of perhaps 65 mph downhill with a tailwind, simply making checkpoints on time is more than anyone can reasonably expect.
The Langs, him on a BMW and her a Harley, are on their third Butt with nary a finish yet. They actually have more bonus points than Mike and I do, but they also took a 470-point late penalty in Florida, avoiding a miss by just 26 minutes. It seems that the relationship of time, speed, and distance goes out the window when Fritz finds someone to talk to or to help. On the way to Daytona he spent 90 minutes looking for someone else's lost car keys. That accounted for all but four minutes of their late appearance at the checkpoint, thus proving once again the wisdom of Leo Durocher's observation that "Nice guys finish last."
So Mike and I are feeling pretty comfortable right now. We were considering making our move up the leader board on this long leg, but we decided to hold off for another day or so. We don't want to peak too early. The bonuses always grow larger as the rally wears on. Saving our strength, that's the motto of the dynamic duo.
Now if you're thinking, "Hey, is it really fair to compete in an air-conditioned battleship with a Chrysler logo, two people driving, against a field of solo motorcyclists?" then I admit that you have a tiny but partially valid point. But I would note that (1) we almost always leave a checkpoint after every other rider has departed; (2) we have to arrive at the next checkpoint four hours before it opens; (3) all but a handful of the bikes in the field are faster than our car, accelerate more rapidly, brake in a shorter distance, and are less visible to radar than this hulking steel wad; (4) not many of the bike contestants are cranking out 750 words every day, as your esteemed war correspondent does, under conditions that I modestly submit would make Sarajevo look like a playpen at the Beverly Hills McDonald�s; (5) we spend eight hours each day cross-checking documents and score sheets, coordinating the efforts of rally workers, and tracking the movement of riders as they wander off the map into areas described only with the ominous phrase "Here dragons be�; and (6) I'm getting old.
Minor jests aside, I don't know how, much less why, these riders do the things they do. Mike and I had not spent more than eight hours in a real bed during the first four-and-a-half days of the rally. I doubt many of the riders were doing better than we were. The last couple of days, with higher speed limits in the west, have made it somewhat easier for Mike and me, but the pressure on the top riders is cranking up. This is the twilight zone where the ultimate Iron Butt equation appears: Pressure + Fatigue = Bunnyland.
The giveaway bonus on the leg to California had to be Wilk's Restaurant in Atoka, Oklahoma. It was worth 860 points and was reachable by any competent biker, even a tired one. A rider wishing to get credit for this bonus was required to check in with the restaurant's owner, the wife of one of the contestants, between 11:00 p.m. and midnight. The instructions further stated: "Stop for 60 minutes (requires sign-in and sign-out, see below) and purchase the Iron Butt Special Meal." The sign-in/sign-out section had this message: "WARNING: Your stay at Wilk's must be one hour or more."
For an Iron Butt rider this has to be an irresistible bonus: You get paid to rest for an hour. There are clean opportunities for sleeping before and/or after you have 860 points in hand. No one could pass this up, right? No one could misunderstand those simple instructions, right?
Mike called the restaurant just after midnight this morning. He spoke to Boyd Young's wife, who was running the bonus sign in. They talked for a few moments. Then I saw Mike sit straight up.
"You're kidding!" he said to the telephone mouthpiece.
I watched him as he continued to listen. Then he turned to me.
"Hoogeveen and Crane didn't show up."
As I write this, some 16 hours after that telephone call, I don't have a clue where those two motorcyclists �� in first and fourth place at Daytona �� went. As far as I can tell, they have gone to the place where dragons be. If I could have placed a bet on the one bonus location where every potential winner would absolutely show up, it would have been Atoka.
Then it got worse. We were told that one rider checked in, left the restaurant on his bike for some reason, then later returned to sign out. Maybe some explanation for ignoring two specific instructions to sit down and shut up will be forthcoming. I hope so. We'll know tomorrow when the next whirlwind erupts at the Orange, California, checkpoint.
We'll cross two time zones today, do 1,105 miles in 15 hours, run through 100-degree temperatures part of the time, and have a late lunch at Chuy's in Van Horn. It's my favorite Tex-Mex restaurant. My opinionated friend Jeff Brody says that Chuy's isn't even the best Tex-Mex spot in Van Horn. I don't care. I'll get No. 2 on the menu with iced tea and maybe an extra gordita, buy a T-shirt, and say hello again to a truly nice guy. For a few pleasant minutes I'll be able to stop worrying about why people do the things they do.
Orange, California, August 31, 1997
Just Another Day at the Iron Butt Office
Misery is in everyone's saddlebag on the Iron Butt, a companion as constant as the fuel receipts the riders keep. But for outright disaster it would be hard to top the events of the last three days. Eight of the top 10 riders at the Daytona checkpoint went into the pits, four of them out of the rally altogether. Only Canadian Peter Hoogeveen and Texan Ron Ayres maintained their places with steady rides. For every tale of success, there were six of utter failure. If an Iron Butt can have a Black Leg, this one was it.
Most motorcyclists will never ride across the United States. Of those who do, 90 percent of them will do it in 10 or 12 days. The contestants here were given 76 hours. That's one of the reasons the rally bills itself as "The World's Toughest Motorcycle Competition." But "tough" didn't begin to describe the war zone that was waiting to hammer these riders:
George Barnes (2nd): holed piston �� out
Fran Crane (4th): dropped to 28th
Morris Kruemcke (5th): rear-ended �� out
Gary Johnson (6th): dropped to 17th
Herb Anderson (7th): crashed�� out
Ken Hatton (8th): engine failure �� out
Shane Smith (9th): dropped to 14th
Mary Sue Johnson (10th): dropped to 15th
It didn't stop with the top riders. Joan Oswald called in and reported that she was down and out from a minor accident near Gallup. There was nothing broken, she said, except a dream. She wanted to know where to send her entry fee for the '99 Butt. Ron Major, '91 IBR winner, did not appear at the California checkpoint. Several riders reported seeing Ron's bike, moderately damaged on its right side, on I-8 near Yuma but its owner was nowhere to be found.
Also high up on the list of Things We Didn't Want To See Happen was the retirement of '95 IBR champ Gary Eagan. Broken wrists are a dime a dozen among motorcyclists who've been around any length of time, but Eagan's is so wrecked that he cannot flex and extend his right wrist to rotate the throttle. He has to rotate his shoulder to accomplish the maneuver. Despite that, by Florida he'd been knocking off better than a thousand miles each day and picking up bonuses as well. Pain has finally driven him out of a rally that few motorcyclists in his condition would have even tried to enter.
Bob Grange's transmission went belly-up. Don Wescott, a Canadian obstetrician with a rotten fuel pump, delivered himself to the checkpoint three hours after it closed, though he will be able to continue. Fifteen of the starting 78 riders are now either at home or on their way there, an attrition rate that is high even for the IBR.
Sometimes you don't even see it coming. Houston's Morris Kruemcke was having the ride of his life. On track and rested in Daytona, he had picked a route to California that seemed guaranteed to have him breathing down Peter Hooegeveen's back. Already having taken in big points in Oklahoma and at the top of Pike's Peak �� that in blowing snow and sub-freezing temperatures �� he was sitting at Dante's View overlooking Death Valley just before sunset this morning, ready to circle around for the rest of the jewels in the area: Badwater (201), Whitney Portal (310), Manzanar (240), and the leg's killer bonus, the Bristlecone Pine forest (1,001). He didn't know it, but with all those bonuses in hand he would have wound up the day in first place with a 1,000-point lead.
Death Valley is aptly named. It was about to kill Kruemcke's rally. Just as he was leaving, Herb Anderson rolled up and asked if he could follow the Texan to Badwater. No problem, Morris said. "Follow me." That was the worst advice Morris Kruemcke ever gave to anyone. Thirty miles later Anderson inexplicably crashed into the rear of Kruemcke's Gold Wing, sending both riders and bikes into a ditch. Miraculously, Morris wasn't hurt. Anderson, with a hip contusion, was taken to a local hospital for an examination and quickly released. Both bikes were total wrecks. Kruemcke was able to ride his to the checkpoint, if only to advise that he could not continue.
Every story of an early departure from the rally is an unhappy one, but this seems harder to accept than most. Kruemcke, an intelligent and brilliantly prepared endurance biker, really was at the top of his game. Only a handful of riders ever had a serious chance to reel in the awesome Hoogeveen on this rally, once the Canadian began to pour it on, but Morris led my short list of those who might. And now he's gone.
Hoogeveen and Ayres took different routes to the Death Valley mother lode but wound up with similar scores for the leg, thus holding on to their respective first- and third-place positions. So with all the other big dogs dropping like stones, others had to emerge from the pack to fill the void. And one of them came out howling.
A couple of days ago, I stuck a mathematical function in the scoring spreadsheet to see what kind of prediction the computer would make about the final standings, based on the results of the first two checkpoints. It hummed for a moment, then cranked out a name.
"Who's Dale Wilson?" I asked Mike.
"He did the California 24 last year. And a thousand-mile day with his son as a passenger for a Bunburner Award. He might also have done a Saddlesore. Why?"
"The computer says he's going to wind up 66 positions ahead of first place."
We both chuckled. There's no real limit to the speed at which a hot Pentium chip can dish out bullshit.
Tonight Dale Wilson is in second place, 210 points behind Hoogeveen. And the computer, not me, is doing the chuckling.
He was 54th in Maine, 24th in Daytona. The computer liked that sort of rate increase, I guess. Then in the last three days he did as nearly a perfect ride as could be done on this leg, nailing 4,107 points in bonus locations, 323 more than second-place bonus-hound Marty Jones �� still recovering from a miss in Maine �� and 810 points better than Hoogeveen. He had ridden a huge arc north and west from Daytona to Los Angeles via Oklahoma, taking in a large number of back roads, which experienced Butts tend to avoid like wormwood. It worked, though, and now Mr. Wilson is heading to the northwest, his home turf. The computer still likes Dale as the eventual winner, tonight predicting he'll finish 51 places ahead of first overall. You heard it here first.
The tank job of the leg goes hands down to the fastest, most skillful scooter pilot in the entire pack, Fran Crane, a woman who could destroy any other contestant in the rally, man or woman, on any race track in the world and who has done everything that could be done in endurance riding �� including once holding the record from New York to San Francisco and still holding the record for the shortest time through the contiguous states �� except win the Iron Butt.
It's not Fran's fault. It's that . . . er, thing she rides, a Buell. Even with what amounts to factory support waiting to rebuild the bike from the frame up at each checkpoint, she was whacked on the last leg, taking a pathetic 524 bonus points. Forty-nine other riders did better. That Fran had managed to kick the pig �� I don't know what else to call it since it oinks at everyone who walks near it �� up to fourth place in Daytona was due exclusively to her incredible talent and not to a single dime of the megabucks that Erik Buell is probably throwing down the storm sewer on this embarrassing promotional effort. One thing is certain: If Fran were riding any BMW or Honda, even a 400cc Rebel, Peter Hoogeveen wouldn't be smiling so much.
With California behind them, the field is mercifully on the downhill slope as they head north. All but a handful of them were looking surprisingly chipper today, especially for people who are cranking out an average of 928 miles every day and who'd just come through the fireball of the Mojave Desert in late summer. Maybe it's the prospect of visiting the checkpoint in Yakima, the garden spot of Washington, that's putting the gleam in their eyes.
Or maybe we're all just hoping that Dr. Jack Kevorkian will show up there to examine Fran's bike.
Bend, Oregon, September 1, 1997
The Roads Not Taken
The shortest, quickest route from Los Angeles to Yakima is straight up I-5, a highway of such staggering ugliness that its own designers disavow any knowledge of it. I won't set tire on it absent a court order, especially since one of the most beautiful roads in the country, U.S. 395, does the same job to the east of the Sierras. The 395 may be the second prettiest road in America; certainly it is no worse than third.
There is a pretty section of road back home that I enjoying riding, MD 67, running from Rohersville up to Boonsboro. It reminds me of the 395, except that it's about 13 miles long while its big brother in the west runs for more than 1,300. Still, if you're a motorcyclist condemned to live east of the Mississippi, you take what you can get, even for just 15 minutes at a stretch.
All United States, as Caesar would say, are divided into three parts �� everything to the east of the Mississippi; everything between that river and the Rockies; and everything to the west thereof �� except he would have said it in Latin. Your view of what constitutes a good bike road depends on where you live.
East Coast riders are understandably self-conscious about their lack of decent motorcycle-friendly roads, principally because compared to other parts of the country, 97.4 percent of their routes, by actual measurement, stink.
Sure, the Blue Ridge Parkway is a fine 45 mph ride over towering 3,500-foot ridges. But that's about it. Top Ten Bike Road lists always pump up the virtues of Vermont 100, U.S. 50 in West Virginia, and Deal's Gap. I like Vermont roads, but only because I can legally overtake Ichabod's mule train on a double yellow line. Anyone who wants to head west of Gore, West Virginia, on the 50 had better stencil his blood type on his helmet; there isn't a dirtier road this side of Islamabad. And I once counted the "319 curves in 11 miles" on the Deal's Gap. Assuming you believe an arc of one degree constitutes a curve, I came up with 210 of them. I call it No Big Deal's Gap and have said for years that if it were west of the Mississippi, no one would bother to ride it.
As for the Midwest, I'll take the homeliest thing they can throw at me over most of the roads in the east. The problem in that wonderfully relaxing blank land isn't the roads; it's the wind. If you can overcome that, you can overcome anything.
But when God wants to ride a motorcycle, She heads west.
Riding the Iron Butt is a lot like having your finger on the switch that will launch a nuclear missile toward Boris' dacha on the Aral Sea, a job that is 99 percent boredom and 1 percent pure terror. It is point-to-point riding with a vengeance, Point A being the last bonus location you visited and Point B being the next one on your list. Almost without exception, big bonus spots aren't sitting at rest stops on the interstate. They're hiding in nasty little holes down a bad road. Usually the farther off the straight-line route they are, the more they're worth. Frequently they're down a dead-end road, which means you're going to pay to get there and you'll pay to get back out.
Day after day is the same: You hump it down some interstate that is interchangeable with 50 others until your eyes glaze over, ride some number of tough miles on a marginal road, try to remember not to screw up your photo, get back on the bike, and do it again. The worst part is that you have virtually no control over the roads you're going to be riding for hours on end. Mike Kneebone and Ed Otto know what the optimum travel path is, though they leave it to you to figure out what it might be. If you don't follow it, you're wasting your own time, and that's a commodity that is more precious during these 11 days than the gifts of the Magi.
But that's only if you want to win. If you don't care about points but care only about finishing, then the rally takes on a decidedly less malevolent tone. Chuck Pickett, a man the size of a Pepsi vending machine, has not been having a good week. Being 23 minutes late to Maine and more than an hour late to Daytona helped stuff him down into 59th place. He was going nowhere, and even there he probably wouldn't be on time.
Enough, he said. The different drummer he was hearing inside his weary head was playing a back beat. He showed up in California well before the late clock started ticking. I checked him in on the computer.
"You went to Deal's Gap? Why?" I asked, stunned.
"Nice road," Chuck said, a comment that would have made fine sense to any motorcyclist except one doing the IBR.
"And Mt. Evans? Tell me it's not true."
"Nice road," he said, not bothering to mention that it's a one-way trip up a 14,000-foot mountain in Colorado, the highest paved road in America.
"These two bonus spots aren't worth much," I said.
"After what I did on the first two legs, I'll settle for a pretty ride."
Chuck Pickett is probably coming up the 395 tonight. For bonus hunters, this road is an irradiated wasteland. For Pickett on this golden summer day it will be a memory that nothing can ever overlay. He'll want to see it again. If he does, it won't be on the Butt.
The Oddball Files: Part B
Riders who finish the event, depending upon their final points tally, will receive a bronze, silver, or gold medal. The people who have opened up their businesses to host checkpoints on this year's rally have already won a gold medal. At Reynolds Motorsports in Gorham they had sandwiches and soft drinks for the riders (and, perhaps more importantly, for selfless rally workers like me). More sandwiches and sodas showed up at the American Motorcycle Institute in Daytona. There we also were given a large, air-conditioned classroom to check riders in. We'd been expecting a tent in a hot parking lot. At Irv Seaver's BMW dealership in California, we had the usual food and air-conditioning, but there was more. Electric guru Pat Widder was there with a motorhome �� complete with shower and bed �� and an electronic link to post photos to the internet at seven-second intervals. Paige Ortiz, the rally T-shirt designer, brought fruits and vegetables. But the biggest applause went to Jay Curry, the producer of the shirts. They weren't clapping for his shirts though. They were clapping for the half-dozen masseuses he'd brought with him.
Is it the appropriate time to reveal what Chris Cimino, mired in 51st place and laughing about it, is really doing on this rally? Hmmm? No.
Dale Wilson wasn't the only rider who took a giant leap forward in the standings at the California checkpoint. Mike Stewart went from 29th to fifth. When Wilson is asked the reason for his meteoric rise through the pack, he credits Stewart and Bob Ray for helping him plot strategies for the coming leg.
Grandmother Ardys Kellerman is not just the oldest female rider in the rally. She's the oldest rider, period. Now on her third Iron Butt at age 67, is she slowing down a step or two? Not a chance. For a 1,200-point bonus on the last leg, she crossed the country from Jacksonville, Florida, to San Diego, California, 2,350 miles, in under 48 hours. My grandmother never did that.
Yakima, Washington, September 2, 1997
Today, at approximately 1:15 a.m. PDT, we received by email the tragic news of Ron Major's death. Although there is very little hard information available to us at this time, we believe that Ron's body was apparently found by the highway patrol on or near I-8 approximately one-quarter of a mile behind his parked motorcycle at some time on Sunday. The bike, a distinctive Honda ST1100, was seen by other participants on the rally as they passed through the desolate area approximately 20 miles from Yuma, Arizona, on their way to the California checkpoint that morning. Two riders searched the area where Ron's motorcycle was seen. They could not find him. It is not known whether Ron's body by then had already been recovered by the authorities.
Initial messages on the long-distance rider mailing list speculated whether Ron might have fallen asleep. It is difficult to imagine such a scenario. The motorcycle, according to photographs that we saw at the California checkpoint, was not wrecked. It had been propped up against the guard rail on the shoulder of the highway. The bike's right rear-view mirror is seen on the ground next to the motorcycle. That is the extent of the damage to the machine that is visible from the Polaroid photos one of the riders took at the scene.
Mike and I do not wish to add to the speculations about how this terrible event might have transpired. There is just too much that is not known right now. We do not even know with any certainty, for example, whether the incident occurred in Arizona or California. What we do know is that the loss of someone of Ron Major's stature is a blow from which this community of riders and their friends will not soon recover. Ron was a pillar of the endurance-rider set. He was not just known by other riders internationally; he was known personally. No one has ever had as much success for so long in this unusual and demanding sport as did this gregarious, 55-year-old television technician from Temple City, California.
We wish to extend our deepest sympathies to Ron's family and his many close friends in this dark time. It seems almost hollow to say that he will be missed. He was a giant in the motorcycling world. We will not soon see his like again.
Yakima, Washington, September 2, 1997
A Piece of Tape
The news of Ron Major's death in Arizona struck everyone associated with this rally like a falling tree. The days that led up to this penultimate checkpoint have been long for everyone, rallyist and organizer alike, but nothing like today.
This terrible incident remains shrouded in mystery. Bill Muhr of the MotoCentral Forum on the MicroSoft Network told us that radio KYMA in Yuma was reporting on the circumstances of the accident: "Between midnight and seven Sunday morning, the cyclist hit the guard rail on I-8 about 24 miles east of Yuma. The driver was thrown onto an embankment on the other side of the freeway. But the motorcycle continued along the guard rail for nearly a half-mile before coming to a stop. A Border Patrol helicopter found the man's body. Officials have not yet released his name."
To accept this account you must believe that a motorcycle can travel riderless for upwards of 2,500 feet and bring itself to a gentle stop, resting upright against a guard rail. You have to believe that hitting a guard rail can throw a grown man across two lanes of interstate highway, yet leave no evidence of appreciable damage on the motorcycle. You have to believe things that we cannot, especially since the view taken by investigators to date does not account for the fact that in the photograph we have seen of the motorcycle, the key is not in the ignition.
One day, we sincerely hope, what really happened to Ron Major will be fully understood. That day has not yet arrived.
When we arrived in Yakima, Jan Cutler, co-owner of Reno BMW and a former Iron Butt rallymaster and participant, was already there to help us run the checkpoint. We asked Jan to tell each of the riders coming in to the checkpoint today what we had so far learned. It was a difficult and delicate but necessary job. Several riders broke down in tears when told what had occurred. No one could believe it. That someone might be hurt during the rally was almost a given. That someone could be killed, particularly a rider of Ron Major's extraordinary talents, was almost unthinkable.
To a non-rider, that may seem to be a childish denial of obvious fact, particularly in a rally of the Iron Butt's extreme nature. But motorcyclists are not fatalistic. If they were, they wouldn't ride a bike. Injury and death happen, but you cannot believe that it is going to happen to you. To harbor such thoughts is to deprive yourself of a microscopic edge that could save your life. You need every positive thought you can muster circulating in you at all times. I have never thought of it as a matter of denial; to me it is simply a matter of self-preservation.
When disaster does strike, however, it is all the more difficult to absorb. Not only has someone you know been struck down, but you have been shorn at least temporarily of your sincere, albeit deluded, belief in your own invincibility. Twin blows of that kind are devastating. There is no defense to it. You might as well be rendered as naked and defenseless as the day you were born.
I have often thought that the sorts of people who enter endurance motorcycle events are a subset of humans two orders of magnitude distant from the norm. Motorcyclists constitute just over 1 percent of the motoring public; long-distance riders are perhaps 1 percent of motorcyclists. In Jonathan Swift's poem he likens this disparity in scale to a flea that sits upon the back of an elephant. That flea has upon its own back a flea of comparably small size. And so it goes, Swift says, ad infinitum.
There aren't many people who can do, or would even want to do, the kind of riding required merely to finish the IBR on time, not to mention lengthening their route to obtain bonus points. Such riders tend to stick together. They have something in common that cannot be understood or appreciated by anyone who has not walked into the fire and survived.
That is why Ron's demise has struck this small band of hard riders with such force. He was not just a biker; he was an Iron Butt rider, and a great one. He won this rally six years ago. He won the 8/48 last year. He designed equipment that could help a rider stay on a bike longer and with greater safety. If you moved in this circle at all, you knew Ron, the man with greater name recognition among the long riders than King Kong. He was that good.
At 7:00 p.m. PDT the riders received the last of the bonus packs. They have 64 hours to get back to Chicago, some 1,970 miles to the east. They won't forget about Ron Major during that last long ride of this event. Warren Harhay, one of the contestants, asked each departing rider if he or she would like to carry a reminder of Ron on the last leg. No one declined.
Every bike leaving the checkpoint parking lot tonight had a two-inch strip of black tape on the windshield.
* * * *
Peter Hoogeveen, leading at every checkpoint so far, held onto his lead on the next to last checkpoint today by the slimmest of margins. It wasn't a particularly inspired route, but it was enough to hold off a giant effort by Rick Morrison. The difference between first and second place has been cut to a trivial 60 points out of more than 25,000 total to date. Morrison, cranking out 2,001 miles in 49 hours since Southern California, outdid every other rider by almost 200 miles, in the process picking up almost 700 more bonus points than the next nearest points-getter on the leg.
Mike Stewart, with a second straight big run, climbed to within 700 points of Hoogeveen. Mike Stockton, Dale Wilson, and Tom Loftus are hovering within clear striking range. Eddie James, having run a notably quiet event, lurks not much further back. Harold Brooks and Jerry Clemmons, riding together as if they shared a single carburetor, are tied for eighth place. Mary Sue Johnson, whom Ron Major's death hit particularly hard, climbed back into the top 10 with a determined ride.
Two notable misses on the leg were Ron Ayres and Boyd Young. Ayres was time-barred because he pressed himself, went too far afield, and could not return in time. Young's problem was more prosaic, a flat tire, but one that was ripped to the point that four plugs could not repair the damage. They'd each been close to the top, Ayres tantalizingly so. Now they're running just to finish.
Another man who never had any chance at all, Marty Jones, turned in his third straight sensational leg. This is a man who missed the first checkpoint with mechanical problems and has now climbed to 42nd place, ahead of 13 riders who have missed no checkpoints at all. In one of my first posts, I predicted Jones would win the Iron Butt before his career was through. I wasn't kidding.
And Manny Sameiro climbed out of the negative points pile today, jumping over three riders who never made a checkpoint. For the first time on the rally, he has a positive points score next to his name and stands 75th of 78. We knew you could do it, Manny.
It'll be over soon. And safely, we all pray.
Gillette Wyoming, September 3, 1997
The Rock and the Hard Place
I started grinding my teeth. Spending even 10 seconds giving non-negotiable instructions to this man was becoming less productive than the time I tried to teach my cat Bud the multiplication tables. She didn't seem to care what I said. Neither did Martin.
"Look, Chicago is that way." I waved my hand in a generally easterly direction. "If you see the sun in your eyes in the late afternoon, you're going the wrong way. Understand?"
He smiled and nodded.
"Now I'm not a bit happy about you picking up these bonuses on the last leg. I'm telling the checkpoint people in Chicago that if you show up with so much as one measly bonus on this last leg that they are to give you zero points for it. Zero. I don't know how to say it in German. Zerorbeschweigenscheiss. Nada. Nothing. Understand?"
He nodded again, still giving me the look he uses to suffer fools.
"You get on I-90 and you stay on it until you see the checkpoint. You don't get off of it except to get gas, take a nap, eat, or pee. Got it?"
"OK. Any questions?"
"Yes," he said. "Where is Lander, Wyoming?"
"Damnit, Martin! Don't do this to me. Lander is not on the 90."
"I know, but you were talking about South Pass."
"If you love me, you will forget that. South Pass is U.S. history. You are going to make Iron Butt history if you finish this rally on that ugly bike. Straight to Chicago you go, and not by way of South Pass."
I think he promised me he'd consider it. I can't remember. At that point I was just trying to find a brick wall to bang my head against.
Martin Hildebrandt will finish. When he does, he'll have ridden the smallest bike, a 175cc Zundapp, ever to complete the rally. But he's not content with just finishing these days. He wants to beat some people. He's been averaging 880 miles every day for eight days, manhandling the screaming two-stroke up mountains and hanging on downhill, a large man on an ancient, small bike. When he's astride it, he bears a passing resemblance to Arte Johnson on a tricycle in the old Laugh-In show.
Why would someone with such a mammoth handicap try to beat anyone except the rally itself? He's a competitor. He's doing what competitors do. He must feel that he already has the rally by the neck. Now he's looking for another challenge. In that sense he's no different from most of the other riders, except that he's from Germany and has ridden more miles around the United States during the last two IBRs than most American bikers will do in a lifetime. He has blood in his eye. He's ahead of six guys who have had previous top 10 finishes in this rally.
On the last leg he sucked up 7,331 points, a full 600 more than the average for the field and just 443 fewer than Peter Hoogeveen roped in on a bike that's nearly three times as fast as Hildebrandt's. He has to stop at least every 500 miles to pre-mix the oil/gasoline sludge that his engine requires. His knowledge of the geography of the U.S. is limited, but it's getting better every day. He probably knows by now that Miami isn't a suburb of Seattle. That wasn't always the case.
He didn't take the best route on the California-Washington leg, but (1) he doesn't have the bike to do that and (2) no one else took the best route either. The riders should have passed up a bundle of bonuses hiding in the woods and coastal mountains in Northern California in order to head straight for the Olympic Peninsula. It was an easier ride and was worth more than what most of them actually did do on the leg. Mike and I don't wonder why any longer. They're tired. They don't want to think too much about optimizing miles and points. That takes work. They'd rather jump on their bikes and head for the first big bonus site. Among the top riders, whoever does the best job of avoiding that temptation on the final leg will be the man to beat.
Temptation No. 1 is in Hyder, Alaska. It's worth 9,999 points, but it would take an average of 60 mph for some 60 hours to scoop it up, not to mention crossing four international borders. Anyone who goes that way won't be seen again on this event.
Temptation No. 2 is in Southern California --- Sequoia National Park and Joshua Tree National Monument. They're worth slightly less than Hyder, but require almost as much effort. Arguably they're doable. Eddie James might go that way. He's more than 1,500 points behind Hoogeveen and needs a show-stopper finish. He asked Mike about his chances if he did ride south.
"If you go, give me your ticket to the finishers' banquet right now," Mike said. "You'll never need it."
Take away the two giant temptations and you're left with smaller temptations of varying worth and difficulty that are scattered around I-90 for miles in every direction. Do you visit Andy Goldfine's Aerostich factory in Duluth or make a beeline for The Elvis Is Still Alive museum near St. Louis? Can you pick up Mt. Rushmore and still make Metropolis, Illinois, to take a picture of the Superman statue? Should you do Devil's Tower or Carhenge or Chimney Rock? Can you do two of them? All three? Will there be time to have your head phrenologically examined at the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices in Minneapolis?
Mike and Ed Otto spent months sorting through these combinations and permutations. The riders don't have months. They have to make decisions in precious little time. Assuming everything else goes well, those choices will determine their final placement. The correct decisions will be forgotten in the haze of a happy triumph. The wrong ones will be remembered for the rest of their lives.
It isn't easy to do. If it were, anyone could do it.
I don't know where Martin Hildebrandt is tonight. I barely know where I am. But if he's heading for Bismarck, North Dakota, to pick up a coffee mug that says "Forty Below Keeps The Riff-Raff Out," then he and I are going to have a little talk on Friday morning.
Southern Minnesota, September 4, 1997
I turned the Chrysler battlewagon into the parking lot of the Black Hills Motorcycle Museum. Mike and I saw the rider at the same time. I pulled up next to the bike. Its owner was about to enter the building.
"Hey, Leonard!" Mike yelled.
Leonard Roy turned around. For a moment he didn't recognize us. You see the same elevator operator in your office building every day for 20 years, but if you see him throwing a Frisbee around on the beach, he might as well be from the moon for all your brain can recall.
Bong. Something clicked in his head and he smiled. We asked him how he was doing.
"Great," he said enthusiastically. "I got six hours of sleep last night."
"He's lying," I said to Mike without enthusiasm. We hadn't gotten six hours of sleep last night.
"No, really," Leonard protested. "I've been in a motel every night except the first night."
"More lies," I said.
We walked into the museum. A grizzled Harley vet came toward us. I'm always careful with these guys. They seem playful enough until you get a couple of hundred liters of beer into them. Although it was 10:00 a.m., still this was Sturgis, South Dakota, the home of the oldest, raunchiest, most homicidal, post-Raphaelite, rip-up-the-streets, lock-up-your-women biker rally of them all, a nose-buster that makes Daytona's Bike Week seem like a Tupperware party.
"You guys with the Iron Ass rally?"
"Iron Butt, right," Mike said. He introduced us.
"And I guess you want to take the picture?" he asked Leonard. With his full-bore Aerostich suit, he was the only one of us who looked like an actual Iron Ass. Mike and I looked like we'd been sleeping in a car for 10 days, which was what we'd been doing.
Leonard trooped off happily to take a picture of a 1915 motorcycle that actor Steve McQueen once owned. That was worth 106 points to Leonard. I didn't even want to see the bike. I wanted to be in Chicago with this rally behind me, drinking a couple of hundred liters of beer.
While we waited for him to come back, we glanced at the sign-in sheet. Four of our people had been there last night, including first- and second-place riders Peter Hoogeveen and Rick Morrison. Phil Mann (24th), a BMW rider who won a mileage contest a few years ago by pounding out an unbelievable 113,000 miles in six months, and Suzy Johnson (10th), had also signed in before the museum closed at 6:00 p.m. Leonard was the fifth Butt to show up this morning.
"You see who's not on this list?" I said to Mike.
"The Mikes, Stewart and Stockton. Dale Wilson."
"And Tom Loftus."
"And Eddie James," Mike said, staring hard at me. We'd just clicked off the names of the third- through seventh-place riders overall at Yakima. If they hadn't come to Sturgis, where had they gone?
Leonard reappeared with his Polaroid photo. We walked outside with him. He went through his pre-flight boarding process, which included spraying some stuff on his sunglasses to clean them off. I would bet folding money that by now he's done this drill so often and in the identical order that a rocket grenade coming through the parking lot wouldn't throw him out of synch. We had turned a normal human into an automaton. The behaviorist B. F. Skinner would be proud of us. He once taught a pigeon to walk without bobbing its head up and down. I think he got a Nobel Prize for that. Or maybe 106 bonus points.
"Where to now, Leonard?" Mike asked.
"Wall Drug," he replied cheerfully. "Then the Badlands."
"Then Chicago, right?"
"Right! See you tomorrow morning." Leonard Roy cranked up his big bike and rode off. Not once did he bob his head.
He has the fever. He doesn't look as if he does, but he does. He's working hard but he makes it look easy. He was in 50th place in Maine. Then 45th. Then 30th. In Yakima he was 23rd. He wants to be in the top 20. You just know it. He didn't spend the night in Sturgis. He was in Hot Springs, many miles to the south, last night. Sturgis is not on the way to Chicago from Hot Springs.
Mike and I drove up the street to the Country Kitchen for breakfast.
"Didn't Superman grow up in Smallville?" I asked.
"Yes," Mike said. "But he lived in Metropolis as an adult."
We discussed briefly whether Metropolis, Illinois, was the Man of Steel's actual home, or whether it was a metaphor for a larger city like West Palm Beach. Of late the intellectual quality of our conversations has taken something of a nose dive. If I had the time, I'd go to a bookstore and find some Dr. Seuss poems. Hell, if I had the time I'd just Yahoo through the web on a search for "Daily Planet." I'd find out where that newspaper is published. We'd pin the big guy's real hometown down in a hurry.
"So why didn't Leonard just go to Metropolis to take a shot of the Superman statue for 1,201 points instead of coming here for a lousy 106?" I wondered.
"Going to Metropolis would add about 650 miles to his route, that's why."
"Well, some of these guys are going there," I said. "I can feel it."
I pawed idly at my blueberry pancakes, thinking of Superman's rippling figure cast in bronze. I've never seen it. I have, on the other hand, seen what the pigeons have done to Popeye's statue in Chester, Illinois. If they'd desecrate the mighty sailor's wizened face, why should Superman fare any better? I hope there's no kryptonite in their droppings.
We plow along I-90 tonight, reeling off mile after dull mile. The digital trip odo pod in the multi-function readout probe of our Chrysler starcruiser tells us that we've done 711 miles since Gillette this morning, a dog-day average so far. We have maybe 350 to go before we find the Hilton from whence we began this odyssey. It's a moonless, windy night with occasional rain, the temperature at 60 degrees and dropping. It's Martin Hildebrandt's kind of weather, not mine. I wish I were in Chicago right now.
I wish all of them were in Chicago tonight, safe somewhere in a coop. But they're not. They're out flying around somewhere.
Chicago Illinois, September 5, 1997
The Circle Closes
We started the trophy awards with the last finishing rider, Manny Sameiro. He'd smashed his Suzuki Stratocruiser in Maine, bought another bike for a 10,000-point penalty, and finished the rally on a 500cc Honda Shadow. Every time he'd try to get off the bike at a gas stop, the scabs on his knees would crack open. He's not walking quite right even now, but one day he will. Scabs heal. We honored his deed of switching bikes and taking a penalty that guarantees a finish at the bottom of the pile by calling his effort "pulling a Manny."
"What a country," Sameiro says. "Only in America can you get a trophy for coming in last."
The second-lowest-placing rider, Dwight Hageman, also pulled a Manny on the last leg, but because Manny had pulled a Manny first, Dwight had to take the 10,000-point hit without even the benefit of having his miscue called "pulling a Dwight." Then the Langs came in, though not together. Fritz took another enormous late penalty on the final leg, but that was better than the miss Phyllis took, one which she alleged was caused by Fritz's hopeless sense of direction, an allegation that Fritz was smart enough not to deny. But after DNFs on the previous two Iron Butts, they both finished, a cause for much clapping of hands at the banquet.
Dennis Cunningham jammed his sidecar into 51st place. No one has ever ridden a hack before in the Butt. After seeing how battered he looked as he shoved his rig into the parking lot at Laurel BMW in suburban Chicago, no one may ever try again. But the look on his son's face was enough to make it worthwhile for the beaten rider. The boy showed up at checkpoints in California and Illinois sporting a T-shirt that said "Go Dennis Go!" He should be proud of his old man tonight: Dennis went, and in style.
Grandmotherly Ardys Kellerman came in 42nd. The Iron Butt two years ago put her in a hospital. It didn't this year. Age doth not wither her, nor custom spoil her infinite desire to crank out miles, so to speak.
Martin Hildebrandt took 41st place, grabbing a bunch of bonuses on the final leg despite my specific directions to the contrary. I might as well have tried to instruct an avalanche to roll uphill. Elsie Smith, whose 50th birthday present to herself was an entry into the '97 IBR, quietly crept into 28th place overall, having gained position on each leg. She's the pride and joy of the BMW Bikers of Metropolitan Washington and the toughest long rider ever to emerge from that huge club.
Adam Wolkoff labored under the dual burdens of having to complete a demanding ride as well as having to act as Eddie James's attorney. It would be difficult to decide which was the harder task. But he carried both jobs off with apparent ease, finishing 15th overall. Jerry Clemmons and Harold Brooks, riding together for every mile of the event, shared 11th place. For Harold it was the completion of his fourth Iron Butt, tying him with Gregg Smith. No one has more career IBR miles behind him than does the quiet Virginian.
Tom Loftus, the son of an American serviceman and a Samoan mother, claimed the eighth spot. He jokes that he's the only Samoan on earth who doesn't weigh 300 pounds. His heart is a pretty fair size, I imagine. And by taking seventh place in the rally, Shane Smith instantly became the most famous person to emerge from McComb, Mississippi, since Frances Durelle Felder, my mother. He'd also kept pace during huge chunks of the event with the blazing Fran Crane, something that few riders can claim to have accomplished.
Six years ago IBR rallymaster Jan Cutler denied Mary Sue (Suzy Q) Johnson a place in the starting field. "Insufficient experience," he said. Today, averaging 998 miles a day for 11 days, she has the experience of having beaten all but five of the toughest motorcycle riders on earth.
Dale Wilson began riding motorcycles just five years ago to erase the pain of having lost a custody battle for his son. Anger used to propel him down roads that he today cannot even remember having traveled. He's calmer these days but still is a ferocious competitor. His fifth-place trophy will undoubtedly find a home in his boy's bedroom.
It was going to take a monster ride for Eddie James to make people forget him being thrown out of the '95 IBR, and he came up with one. Eighteenth in Maine, he crawled steadily upward on each leg. No, people aren't going to forget what he did in 1995, but they also won't forget his fourth-place finish this year. No rider could have been under more scrutiny, knowing that everything he did would be triple-checked. He stared down the pressure to the end, laughing and telling outrageous stories that couldn't be any better if even half of them were true.
Fifteen or 20 people had gathered around at the finish to watch Brian Bush and his film crew interviewing Mike Stewart, the guy who'd taken a box of parts worth $525 and turned those parts into a motorcycle that nearly won the Iron Butt Rally. But I wasn't watching Mike. I was watching his wife. Rarely have I seen a look of such undiluted pride as that which was etched on Katherine Stewart's face. In every way this daunting event is far harder on the families and close friends that the riders leave behind than it ever could be for the motorcyclists. The riders are doing what they seem born to do. Their loved ones can only wait and hope for the best. As she watched her husband easily fielding Brian's questions, she must have known that when she picked Mike, she'd picked the right guy.
And then there were but two names left, the riders who'd stood just 60 points apart in Yakima, Peter Hoogeveen and Rick Morrison. Could Peter finally shake the demon that seemed to condemn him perpetually to a second-place finish? It wasn't just a monkey on his back; it was an ape the size of Mighty Joe Young. He'd led at every checkpoint on this rally. Would he finally lead at the last one, the only one that mattered?
In 1991 he had found a dozen ways to win the IBR but 13 ways to lose it. He'd been stopped for a speeding violation 50 yards from a checkpoint in Pennsylvania, accruing hundreds of penalty points in lateness. He'd left his route instructions at a restaurant and had to backtrack 100 miles to retrieve them. Still, he was leading the event as they headed for the last checkpoint in Reno. Legend has it �� Peter vigorously denies it, but that hardly matters any longer �� that he stopped for a six-pack of beer before hitting the finish line, taking a six-point lateness penalty for his trouble. He lost the rally by two points.
Whether the story is true or not, it is unforgettable. Mike Kneebone certainly hasn't forgotten it. The final bonus on this year's rally, a whopping 999 points, required the riders to bring a cold six-pack of soda or beer to the scoring table at the finish.
As we sat there today, logging in arriving riders, the news flashed through the parking lot like a bolt of electricity. Peter was down. Run off the road by some stupid car. Fifteen miles short of the finish. Bike wrecked. Probably couldn't be ridden. His parents, having come to the finish in Chicago from Ontario, stood together in shocked silence, quietly holding hands.
Somehow he made it in. I don't know how. The right side of the motorcycle had been ripped away. There was no coolant left in the engine. The magnificent Honda Blackbird, once the fastest bike in the field, was finished. Peter took 40 points in lateness, relieved that it wasn't worse. Now all he could do was wait. His name would be called out at the banquet. With another huge ride behind him on the last leg, he knew that he would finish no lower than second. But would he be first?
Rick Morrison had done it again with a second straight monster ride. In the two legs since California, he'd put more miles away than any other rider in the field. Those miles added up to points, nearly 11,000 of them on the last leg alone. No one was going to beat this rail-thin flight attendant from Seattle. He'd averaged 1,076 miles each day for 11 straight days, in the process taking first overall with a winning margin of more than 1,000 points. It wasn't even close.
For the young Canadian it was just another heartbreaking second-place finish in what seems to be an endless string of them. Despite that, he is still the man to beat at every endurance event he enters. No one in the history of this game has ever had such a remarkable consistency. He'll win, and he'll win a lot, before he quits. But if he never rode another mile, I'd still call him what I've called him for years: Peter the Great.
The riders went out into the parking lot after the banquet for a group photo. I looked at them. Some appeared tired, surely, and the strain of what they'd done to themselves still showed, but the most common expression was one of satisfaction, a tranquility and inner peace that you could almost touch. They smiled. Mike Stewart even smiled as he awkwardly ran his fingers over his bald head. He'd rashly told Bob Ray earlier in the rally that "If I finish third or better, you can cut off my hair." And at the banquet Bob Ray was there with the barber's clippers.
For most of these men and women, the Iron Butt Rally is a defining moment in their lives. Few things they will ever do will demand so much of them for so long under such trying conditions. It really is an unforgettable experience, one that can be shared truly only with others who have also run along this demanding, nearly interminable, gauntlet. They are changed, most of them, and will never think of themselves quite in the same light again.
For everyone, however, this rally will always be remembered as the last one that Ron Major ran. Mike Murphy, the neurosurgeon who ran in the '95 IBR, has begun a memorial fund in Ron's memory. Rallymaster Ed Otto has arranged for a plaque in Ron's name to be placed in the American Motorcyclist Museum. The black tape that the riders put on their bikes in Yakima will one day come off and be forgotten. For those of us who had the happiness of knowing Ron, however, our memory of him will continue.
And now it's over. The parking lot, once filled with motorcycles of breathtaking beauty and variety, will slowly empty, only an occasional spot of oil or a sidestand scrape in the tarmac to mark the spot where one of them once stood. The bikes will go home, some �� like Peter's broken Blackbird �� in a truck. But most of them will be ridden, perhaps tomorrow not so far or as hard as they have been recently, but ridden just the same.
They don't seem to mind.
Washington, D.C., September 8, 1997
Epilog: The Concrete River
James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, one of the most imaginative, incomprehensible books ever written, begins: "riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs." The first word is not capitalized; it isn't even a word. It is, however, pure Joyce.
And it is the story, more than 600 pages in the telling, of a single night in a man's semi-wakeful sleep, a stream-of-consciousness technique that the author developed and that has never been duplicated. Entire master's theses have been devoted to the first sentence in the book alone. Yet I have known college professors of English literature who have never been able to read the book in its entirety. It took Joyce 18 years to write it.
At times it may have seemed to the men and women who have just completed this year's Iron Butt Rally that their journey throughout the length and breadth of the United States was as long as Joyce's unending river. Certainly few competitive events demand so much of the contestant, and fewer still exact such terrible consequences for a momentary failure of mind or body. Riding a motorcycle is not easy; riding one under the conditions that these riders faced is an order of magnitude beyond arduous.
One rider, Ron Major, died. His friends were quick to say that when death came, he, a former winner of the rally and of many other endurance events, was doing something that he loved, engaged in an activity that defined his very existence. No one who does not ride a motorcycle can understand that.
I can. I watched my mother's active brain and body inexorably drained and crushed by Alzheimer's disease and a final stroke. Compared to ravages sustained by that tortured lady, Ron's death was merciful. I would take it in the blink of an eye. I would even pray for it, given the multitude of ends that are indisputably worse.
If a bike doesn't kill you, it inevitably will hurt you, scar you, or maim you. That's what it does. In that sense it's just like a court of appeals. It doesn't care if you're innocent. That's not its job. My left wrist doesn't work properly; my right leg is a cosmetic disaster area. And part of me doesn't care about that any more than the bike does. When I can ride again comfortably, I will. And if I can't ride comfortably, I'll ride uncomfortably for as long as I can. That's what I do.
Seventy-eight riders started. Sixty-one finished. Most of them never were mentioned in any reports of the progress of the rally, primarily because they didn't do anything exceptionally heroic or inept. They collectively rode more than 622,000 miles in 11 days, the average rider doing 830 miles each day. You ride that distance for just four days on the Iron Butt and you've already surpassed what the average American rider will do in a year.
When they come home, the riders will be heroes in their local clubs. Two members of my club, Elsie Smith and Gary Harris, finished 28th and 29th. They were never a threat to win the rally. But when Elsie rode up to our monthly meeting yesterday on her bug-stained K100, those of us in the parking lot gave her a standing ovation. She just blushed. Having done something that few of her fellow motorcyclists could even contemplate, much less carry out, all she could do was blush. It isn't the win that matters for most; it's the ride. That's what they do.
This was the eighth Iron Butt, one that will be remembered not for its skillful administration, nor for the extraordinary talent of the participants, nor for the incredible stamina and perseverance of the winner, Rick Morrison, a BMW rider from Seattle, nor even for the ultimate failure of Canadian Peter Hoogeveen, the Flying Dutchman of endurance motorcycling, condemned to ride forever through the night only to finish second again and again and yet again. This rally will be known as the one in which the legend, Ron Major, died.
So the safety nazis will predictably begin to swarm, the righteous moto press will shout angry, scornful words at Iron Butt Association president Mike Kneebone, a man who with a smile accurately describes himself as "the nicest guy who ever lived," and many of the mourners at Ron's funeral tomorrow will wonder why this ever had to be. Forgotten will be the millions of miles traveled by riders in past rallies. Overlooked will be the stunning fact that no accident involving a contestant has ever involved anyone not associated with the event. Unremembered, at least for those painful moments during which a bike procession crawls through a cemetery in Southern California tomorrow, will be the simple truth that for a motorcyclist the ride is its own end, meaning, and justification �� even a ride with a small but finite mathematical possibility of terminating the rider's life.
I tire thinking of it. I need a nap.
In that eerie twilight of semi-consciousness just before sleep takes over, I occasionally see headlights in my mind's eye, illuminating the black highway ahead as Mike and I hurry to the next checkpoint in our rental car, struggling to arrive before the riders do. It's an imprint the brain is used to after repeated thousand-mile days. The headlight beam seems to be searching for a path through the darkness. The ribbon of road unwinds at a speed that is too rapid to be comfortable. I have to shake my head to get rid of the image.
To one degree or another, all the riders in this rally will see their bikes' headlights scratching through the blackness as they fall asleep in the peaceful, quiet nights after the contest has ended, the road passing eight inches below their feet, the wind whistling past their helmets, the heat and the cold straining to weave through their clothes. For what has seemed measureless miles, these sensations have been so ingrained in their minds that it is small wonder that as they drift away the road is the last thing they see.
Riverrun. Roadrun. They will awake tomorrow and wait for the day they can do it all over again, recirculating like Joyce's timeless, endless river.
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