Departing from my usual political obsessions, I want to say a few things about two of the obsessions of my pre-political youth: motorcycles and drag racing. This is prompted by the movie “The World’s Fastest Indian” that I watched on the Showtime channel yesterday. While the movie is ordinary by all standards, I found myself quite moved as it related the true-life story of a New Zealander Burt Munro (played by Anthony Hopkins) who broke land speed records on a highly modified Indian motorcycle at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1967 when he was 68 years old.
The film stays away from melodrama completely and concentrates mostly on Munro’s efforts to convince race officials that he and his equally elderly bike (it came off the assembly line in 1920) were up to the rigors of the track. Both man and machine defied the expectations of the racing world in 1967, at least as represented in the movie. Munro did not race in a flame-proof suit but in ordinary street clothes (he did tuck the bottom of his trousers into his socks.) The bike was also devoid of the usual high-tech parts found in a custom bike and relied on Munro’s improvisatory skills that were mostly focused on reducing the weight of the bike. For example, he stripped the treads of his tires to reduce weight. He also did not bother with a parachute. It is difficult to know whether the movie was totally faithful to the true story on such matters, but (as we shall see) the accomplishments of Burt Munro were certainly the stuff of legend.
The thing I loved about the movie is that it reminded me so much of another maverick in the racing world that I had the good fortune to know at Bard College in the early 1960s. Paul Gommi was an art major who spent much of his free time, especially weekends, on the drag racing tracks of the Northeast. Like Munro, Paul defied convention when he won the national championship in the sports car class when he was at Bard. Cars entered in this class were expected to be something like a Triumph or MGA whose engine had been highly altered but only within certain parameters. (In other words, you could not put a Chrysler Hemi in a Triumph.) Paul had the brilliant idea to enter an antique English Ford into the competition since it fell within the guidelines for sports cars even though officials fumed at the idea of such a car making a travesty of the event. Paul, like Burt Munro, was a genius at souping up engines and managed to get the English Ford engine to pump out more horsepower than his competitors ever dreamed of.
At Bard we had senior projects, which were something like a BA thesis. Mine was an awful mess, trying to analyze St. Augustine’s “City of God”. Don’t ask me why I picked such a stupid topic. I was a religion major with the typical fascination in Zen Buddhism, etc. of the time. I would have been better advised to write about beat poets and religion, but somehow convinced myself that St. Augustine was worth considering after reading his admittedly fascinating confessions.
Paul made a huge splash with his senior project, which was a group of oversized paintings of drag racers done in a style reminiscent of Leroy Neiman but with a lot more flair. As soon as he got his degree, Paul put school behind him and entered the world of drag racing as a professional.
Paul Gommi crash
In 1989 Paul had a terrible accident at Bakersfield that is immortalized on youtube. As this excerpt from www.nostalgiadrags.com indicates, Paul got out of the racing business soon afterwards and devoted himself to working on engines:
Paul Gommi crashed his nostalgia front engine fueler just before the lights at a Hot Rod Reunion meet. Before impacting the guardrail at over 180-mph. Paul told me over the phone that he knew that it was going to be “catastrophic” but for some reason his system shut down, and he doesn’t even remember anything before the initial crunch. We sent him the sequence at his request during his recovery. This “old timer” to the sport was “banged up” pretty good and the car totally destroyed. He has not returned to driving since.
Early days of drag racing
Drag racing is not the sport it once was. Once the realm of diy-inspired characters like Paul Gommi and Burt Munro, today it is as corporate as NASCAR. From time to time, I will watch five minutes or so of an event on cable TV but find absolutely nothing of interest. So-called “funny cars”, which are fiber class replicas of the kind of stock cars that spectators drive on but with powerful non-stock engines, are descended from the dragsters of the 1950s which used neither replica bodies nor non-stock engines. Typical entries for a race might be a 1955 Hudson matched against a 1956 DeSoto that were actually driven to the track by men or women racing them. All in all, watching these kinds of cars hearkened back to movies like “Rebel Without a Cause” or even “American Graffiti”.
I developed a passion for motorcycles almost as soon as I arrived at Bard College in 1961. Back then Japanese motorcycles had not yet taken the U.S. by storm (neither had cars for that matter) and the typical bike was English-made like a BSA or Triumph. I finally scraped together the money for my own machine in my senior year but could only afford a measly 175 cc two-stroke engine Jawa made in socialist Czechoslovakia. Even though it could only go 55 miles per hour, I loved riding it everywhere, especially along the country roads near the Hudson River that were close to Bard.
For those whose eyes have not glazed over completely reading this piece, I strongly urge you to look at the wiki entry on Burt Munro. And also at “Offerings to the God of Speed”, the documentary on Munro made by Roger Donaldson (the director of “The World’s Fastest Indian”) back in 1971 when Munro was still alive, which is now on youtube (watch below). Wonderful stuff!