Friday, May 14, 2010

Number Nine

Her lights and her clocks had been removed for racing. A black number nine, which, ironically, has always been my lucky number, was displayed in a white circle and mounted on her side. Unlike the photo shown here, she had dropped handlebars; a dented petrol tank; tears in what was left of her seat and her front wheel was missing a mudguard. She wreaked oil. Fresh oil drips appeared underneath as I was admiring her. I heard some other racers saying that she was old, worn-out, and had seen her best days – but in my eyes, she was drop-dead gorgeous.

It was my friend Tommy's 1950 BSA Gold Star 350cc thumper. I had never even seen one before, and now, I was standing so close I could feel the heat from her engine. It was 1959, and I was at Oulton Park's Motorcycle Race Track in Cheshire, England. As a side-bar, Oulton Park was also used as an army staging camp for US troops under Gen. George Patton prior to the Normandy landings in WWII. Excuse my digression, but between the thrills of motorcycle racing and world-altering historical troop movements, I considered myself standing on hallowed ground. I heard an ear-splitting deafening roar come out of no-where. I looked up thinking it was a squadron of low-flying Avro Vulcan jet bombers at first because I knew there was an RAF base close-by. But,... then I realized it was the next race that had just begun. I saw Gold Stars, Nortons, Matchless's, AJS's and other bikes that I was not yet familiar with. Even though Mr. Soichiro Honda was starting to fill English streets with his magnificent Hondas, I didn't see any on the track that day. Seeing motorcycle racing live for the first time left a lasting impression on me. My gut told me that I could be a racer too – I knew I had to be - one day.

My chance came earlier than expected when Tommy explained that when the races had finished for the day, newcomers and amateur racers were allowed to take their machines around the track in a well-supervised "mock" race. Since I already had all my safety gear with me he offered me his Gold Star to take around the track. Although I was young and inexperienced, I did have my drivers licence, so I just had to give it a try. I lined up at the starting line with twelve other novice racers. The starting gun fired and I took-off like a rocket. I felt the raw power of the 350cc thumper. Me and the Gold Star blended well with each other and I soon began to make her move in harmony with me. We developed a rythme together. I became aware that a couple of other riders were unstable and wobbling a little on their motorcycles. I didn't want to pass them because I didn't want to risk a collision. My first obligation was to return Tommy's Gold Star back to him without totalling it, and without injuring myself in the process. But, was definitely for me. Thrilled to bits beyond belief - would be an understatement.

I should have anticipated the position in which I would finish the race. It couldn't have been any other number. It was my number. It was number nine.

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