My Memoir of the 1981 Check Chase
A sudden hush sweeps across the line. My heart stops and time freezes but the seconds melt away. I pull the clutch and rock my bike back and forth to free the plates, then push the kick start lever slowly down, searching for top dead center. I lean forward, chest inches above the tank—left hand on the clutch, right hand on the throttle, left foot planted firmly on the ground, and my right foot poised gently on the lever. My neck is bent, my head is up, and my eyes are nailed to the colors fluttering in the breeze... sixty seconds of unbearable silence and agonizing suspense... the banner is up!
More than a thousand pair of eyes just like mine are locked on the men standing in the back of a pickup truck holding a Checkers banner up in front of us. It's fall here in Lucerne Valley. The breeze is blowing gently—just enough to make the banner ripple with life but not enough to cause a false start. The starting line is facing east, and the breeze is coming from the south this morning. That means the dust will move to my left, so I’ve taken a position on the far right side of the start line to give me a reasonably dust-free race to the marked trail. This is the Check Chase, a race to the Colorado River across 238 miles of the toughest terrain in the Mojave Desert. It will also be my last race in the desert. When I cross that finish line in Parker, the bike goes up for sale and I move on to other adventures. So I remind myself that they don’t give trophies or finisher pins at the smoke bomb. Be fiercely courageous and determined but don't ride over your head. I know the other riders are giving themselves the same pep talk.
My left hand hovers near the clutch lever, ready to pull it in and pop it out the instant my left foot jams the bike into gear. My right foot is poised precariously on the kick starter and my right hand grips the throttle like a vice, ready to twist it to the stop when the banner falls and my bike starts. Some racers watch the banner, but I watch the men holding the banner. An instant before they throw it down, one of them almost always gives some subtle hint that the drop is imminent.
This morning, I see one of the men in the truck move his lips and know he's said something like "Do it!" Sure enough, they throw the banner down to the bed of their truck like tossing a shark into the bottom of a boat. My brain pops out of gear and my body pops into gear--legs and hands synchronized in one fluid, almost simultaneous motion. My right foot drives the start lever down. As the engine comes to life, my left hand pulls the clutch, my left foot jams the bike into gear, my left hand pops the clutch out, my right hand twists the throttle, and my bike leaps off the start line like a rocket. That agonizing silence of waiting for the banner to drop is broken by the roar of two-stroke engines coming to life and racers charging across the desert to challenge the rocks, the cactus and each other. I'm through the gears in a heart beat.
With everyone converging on the trail where the ribbon and lime begin, the race to the bomb is always a helter-skelter fight for position. I'm fighting for mine right now. The guy to my right starts to cut in front of me. I veer left to avoid a collision, then charge through the dust hovering around the bomb and pick up the trail to the first check. The bike and I become a blend of rubber and steel, muscle and blood.
When the first check comes up, I look for an aggressive checker. The skilled ones eye ball each rider as he comes into the check and rapidly point at you and then at themselves, a wordless gesture meaning "You're mine. Pull in right here!" I spot one pointing at me with his index finger then pointing at himself with his thumb. I shift down, pull the clutch and move back to make room for him to reach in and mark my tank card. This guy knows what he's doing. He makes the smooth move, and I pop the clutch, twist the throttle and blow out of the check like I'm being chased by the devil. I am. More than a thousand of them all trying to get to Parker before me. Some of them will but I might be the fastest in my class.
My day dreaming ends as I spot banners of every color and pattern fluttering on the horizon a mile or so ahead. The first gas stop. Minutes away. I’d been a member of the Desert Knights, but the club had disbanded several years ago, so instead of looking for their club banner, I've got to find my wife waving frantically to attract my attention. We’d agreed she’d setup our gas pit on the left side of the course so I wouldn't have to scour both sides as I came blasting into the pits. Even with our agreement in place, it won't be easy to find her with pit crews standing precariously close to the trail shouting and waving at their racers, and with explosions of dirt and dust obscuring my vision as other riders pull into and out of their pit.
I roll my throttle back a notch and keep my eyes peeled for her waving at me. She sees me first and leaps in front of a guy from the pit next to ours to wave me down. I lock the rear wheel up, slide into her spot, snap my gas cap open and help her direct the nozzle on the can into my tank. She glances up and smiles. I smile back. She wipes the dust off my goggles and hands me a water bottle. "You're 20th overall and I haven't seen anybody in your class!"
Most clubs use crayons to mark each rider's tank card. So I had made a duct-tape "dam" between the card and my gas tank cap to keep gas from spilling onto my tank card and turning the crayon marks into one big, colorful glob. She pulls the nozzle out of my tank and gives me a kiss. Through the noise of pit crews yelling at their riders and two-stroke motorcycles pulling in and out of their pits, I yell "See you at the next check!" I kick my bike into gear, look back to check traffic and charge onto the course, excited that I'm leading everyone in the Vet 250 Expert division.
With the chaos and stress of stopping for gas behind me, my thoughts turn to women like mine who support their man and his passion for two wheels in the desert. What would we do without them? Who would find our boots, work the pits and be at the finish line with a cold beer, a warm hug and a thank-god-you-made-it kiss? The only reason we're not dead, broke or in jail... the only reason we had a bike to race or ride... the only reason we wanted to become better men, and did. I know she’ll be at every gas stop with a water, gas and a kiss.
A few miles from the finish, I make a tight turn in a sand wash and crash. I get up, clear my goggles and my head, walk over to the bike and notice the front tire is flat. I tell myself to relax. It's the front tire. Stay in your lower gears and roll the throttle up a notch to keep your front end light and you'll get to the finish. I pick the bike up off the ground, give the lever a kick, then smile as I hear it come to life. Every desert racer has his or her favorite motorcycle and mine is Yamaha. It's just a saying but for me the "Y" in Yamaha has always stood for Yes! I stab the gear shift and take off, glad that nobody has passed me while I was down.
Racing through the chaparral just east of the sand wash, I see the finish line ahead and know I've made this Race to the River my best ever. As I roll into the finish chute, the guy working the finish line crayons 16 on my tank card, then a woman hands me a finisher pin and says, "Congratulations! You've finished the River Run."
Sitting there waiting for the finish chute to clear, a peace settles over me. Check after check I found the guy with that smooth move and fast crayon. Mile after mile, I found the strength and determination to stay on my game, to push myself and my YZ as fast as I could without becoming arrogantly foolish. Pit after pit, that woman of mine gave me that racer's edge. If I had failed to finish because of a mechanical failure or something beyond my control, like another racer bashing into me, I'd have been disappointed. If I had failed to finish or had finished poorly because I had failed to ride within my limits, or had been unwilling to tap into my courage and abilities, I would have been angry with myself, always wondering which part of me had betrayed the others.
An arm slides around my shoulders. "You made it! First 250 Vet Expert!" I turn and see that face I love. Mine is covered with dirt and dust but she kisses it anyway. Her hugs and kisses had always been my favorite finisher pins. But she'd never have to kiss that dirty face again—my racing days were over. My memories of them, however, would never be over. Desert racing had been a home away from home where people accepted me as one of them. Whether sitting around a campfire with my buddies or trying to catch one of them in a sand wash, I'd been home. And that home would remain in my heart, urging me to live the rest of my life with all the guts and gusto I had learned from racing motorcycles in the desert.