The tiny mining town of Virginia City, Nevada holds a special, hard race every year. $70.00 to enter, ring what you bring. No bike is turned away at the gate so long as your bike passes inspection. More than 1000 racers enter in hopes to get, at the very least, a finisher pin. Over 3000 spectators line the streets cheering and yelling for any racer just because. Basically, the whole weekend is plain crazy. Thor Drake tells us about his experience racing in this year's 40th annual Virginia City Grand Prix.
“HEY ALL YOU SONS-A-BITCHES, THIS HERE IS A MOTOR-SIKLE RACE!” That’s the first thing I hear blasting over the 1960’s speaker hoisted up on an old log. The air is a mix of 2-stroke smoke, motor oil and anti freeze. Locals are poking their heads out of old brothel windows on the second floors of the ramshackle mining town saloons to catch a glimpse of action or to glare down at whoever is stirring them from their hangovers. An army of bikers are grunting and yelling on the front lines waiting for battle, snapping the throttle and clearing the pipes. Over 500 bikes pack into a football field length two lane main drag of the wild west mining town for the 40th Annual Virginia City Grand Prix. I have two goals for the weekend, both of which are set in complete ignorance.
This is my first official race of the season. Most of my time has been directed at opening a motorcycle shop in Portland Oregon, more than 600 miles north. Any race I’m able to do is on a dime budget, and to afford the journey I travel with a crew. Travis Gardner, the red haired 2-stroke wizard is riding a modern KTM 300 some-thing-ruther, Jared the long hair hippie machinist is atop a 1974 Yamaha, and Mr Chad 250, the whiskey soda whisperer. We’re a funny looking crew and we round it off with Cody McElroy, local gypsy rocker and brother to FMX gypsy rider Drake McElroy, our official pit crew manager.
Bob Covakis, aka Motomouth, yells over the mic “HEY! HEY! HEY! All you sons-a-bitcc-cough cough... need some voice lube...trusty old Southern Comfort. AH... there we go. Pay attention for our National Anthem.” Freedom rings and I see the Bucket of Blood Saloon, old stomping grounds to one-time local humorist, Mark Twain. First quote that comes to mind is "God created war so that Americans would learn geography." War is not so dissimilar to this 25 mile loop of rocks, more rocks, still more rocks on top of rocks, hills of rocks, a few not so rocky parts and a sweet rockless 5 mile street section.
Now, about those goals.
First goal: finish expert race on a modern bike. The night before the race I’m informed that more than half of participants don’t complete the whole race and it’s unlikely I will be part of the percentage that does. Admittedly I’m not the type of racer that has extra tires, levers, tubes, or preparedness in general. I stand by my trusty off-the-couch approach to racing. That means I do an oil change, adjust the chain, and inspect for major disabling wear and tear to get ready for a day on the bike while I’m in my shop. I sometimes falsely brag that I leave my tools at home because that’s where I do all my maintenance.
Second goal: complete race on a vintage bike. Not just any vintage bike, but a trusty old 1969 Bultaco 250cc Matador. This may be the most ambitious goal I have given the Ol’taco, which isn’t one of those sparkly gems with OEM race parts that sit in collections. This Taco is more like the one you find in your grandpa’s barn or at an estate sale. Loved and obviously ridden.
I figure it will be hard, but I neglect to account for the 25 mile loops, thus resulting in an oversight of physical ability and preparedness. That is to say “off-the-couch racing” could stand to lose a pound or two and needed to pack a bitchin’ set of tools.
5 minutes before the first race begins, the 00 spots are being auctioned off with a starting price of $500.00. The 00 spot puts the highest bid at the start of the 500+ bikes, making the winner the Hare in the Hare and Hound format style of racing. This is a gamble only suited for racers with massive coconuts. The course is strictly run blind, so if you’re in front, you get a no-dust view of the great unknown.
The 00 spot are filled, the modern race is on, and groups of 10 are sent in 30 second intervals. The course hooks a tight left off the start into a long asphalt downhill with a jump halfway down, giving the rows of spectators a big show. My start is good and I’m picking off slower riders by the dozen.
4 minutes into the race and the advantage of getting released early is discovered. Way too many bikes are trying to funnel up an 8 foot wide trail on a boulder ridden hill. People and bikes are flying everywhere. I spot a guy on a Kawasaki pin the throttle off the side of the road launching him and his bike 50 feet down the hill. Bikes overheating, clutches smoking, rocks flying through the air, people bouncing off each other, and lots of yelling are all part of the chaos and frenzy of the no-self-restraint cluster of bikes and riders trying to make it past.
I make it through thanks to push button starting and a little patience. The course winds up the hill, down the hill, around the hill, into the valleys, up another hill and all over the world’s biggest stockpile of sharp rocks.
Half way through the loop is the best 5 mile stretch of perfectly paved twisty roads. I’m pretty sure I achieve speeds of 80+, whizzing past riders like they’re standing still. Then the second rocky section begins, which is like the first dirt stage and has a bit of single track, some hunting roads and plenty of rocks. A second check point is placed about 8 miles in, marking the home stretch back into town.
Reaching the town, the course winds around the back side of the high school and a long stretch down a side street where crowds of people are cheering. When racers get to the finish line they can either pit in or continue. My goal is to do as many laps as I can without pitting in an attempt to try to get out front. I do 3 laps before my desert tank is parched. Of course my pit crew are all in the “Comfort Zone,” Motomouth’s announcing lift. He’s playing Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop”: “Hey can anyone guess what this song is about??? Nope! It’s about girls rubbing one out, and I see some of you girls practicing down there.”
Luckily the kid we set up next to helps me get some gas and water. I barely get back on the trail when my back end starts feeling like I have a basketball for a tire. I have to back off and limp the bike back into the pits over the next 10 miles. We change the tire in 15 minutes. I get back on the trail and finish the last lap of the race, receiving my first “finisher” pin. I do 125 miles, which is nothing compared to the 6 laps Ross Neely does in 04:26:58. I place 162 overall, 17th in open expert and boy am I sore already. First goal complete.
After the race we head down the hill to the bars, but the next morning comes too fast. I rally the crew and we head up the hill where day two of the GP is well under way. Motomouth is warming up his P.A. “HEY! Hey you down there! You have a huge booger hanging out of your nose. Someone’s kid over here has a giant booger hanging out of his nose. Someone get this kid a tissue!” This is followed by “Welcome to Virginia City’s 40th Grand Prix.”
I do some last minute adjustments to the Bultaco in a half-assed attempt to make the bike more suitable for the harsh 25 mile loop I know is coming, then head to the main drag. Everybody is giving me the thumbs up as I'm riding up to the start, the Bultaco national anthem. I hear Twain again. “It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog.” Thanks Mr. Twain, I'll try and remember that when I'm taking on the grueling mess of hills, other racers, rocks and steep inclines with 4 inches of suspension and almost no brakes.
The vintage race starts and I feel like a kid on a 80cc bike as the bigger more modern bikes fly past me. Just like the day before, “Congestion Hill” quickly backs up 100 bikes deep. I pull up the hill, around the hill, slowly down the hill, into the valley, up another hill, and make it to the halfway mark and the start of the street section. Today they have a police speed reader marking the mph of each rider. My speed is 52 mph. Not bad for the 1969 Taco. I complete one full lap hitting reserve 6 miles from the finish. I fill up and adjust my brakes which no longer do anything at all.
The Taco is working with all it’s got and I’m working with all I have to just keep it on the trail. The miles past the halfway mark, the break lever falls off, the rear fender falls off, and when I stop to fix them I discover the motor isn’t happy either. Frozen solid. Thinking the bike is in gear I coast down the hill to try to bump start it only to skid 30 feet more down the hill. Now I’m at the bottom of some canyon and I can barely see the road way at the top. I give it my all with a hard kick. No luck. The piston is the sword in the stone and I’m obviously not King Arthur.
I sit down, have a drink of water and mull over my options. Hike the bike to the top of the hill, wait a couple hours for the sweepers to come rescue me, or take the bike apart. For some reason I’ve brought just the tools needed to disassemble the bike, so I do. Pull the tank, pipe, and lastly the head. The piston is still intact so I wait with the head off for 20 minutes, fit the bike back together, and try a few more times to get it unstuck. Still no luck. There’s still “fight in the dog” and I’m going to get that motor unstuck if it means breaking the kick start lever. Anything is better than giving up.
I lock the handle bars over, grab on with all I have and jump on the kick start. “Click, sho SHO” and the bike is free! I get my stuff back together, helmet on, start the Taco and get moving. I’m probably the only biker that has to rebuild my bike on the side of the trail. But in retrospect, that was probably the standard back in 1969. Keeping easy on the bike, I cruise along and finish the race earning a 5th in the vintage class and receiving my second finishers pin for the weekend. Second goal accomplished.
What is it about the Virginia City Grand Prix that makes this particular race so special? Fun. Fun racing on a modern bike, fun racing on a vintage bike, fun getting cheap drinks after the race. This race is for racers, pacers and spectators. No wonder Artichoke Joe has done VCGP for, get this, all 40 years. Such a glorious race.