On fathers, sons, and vintage motorcycles.
The last thing I wanted to do was ride a motorcycle to Vintage Motorcycle Days. At 40, I have only a few years’ experience, and took my first motorcycle trip—a 500-mile jaunt—just last summer. On the way back from that trip, I was stuck in a blinding thunderstorm on a farm road. I made the grim calculus that I stood a better chance of survival on the move, dodging fallen trees and fighting for traction, rather than as a stationary object begging to be struck by lightning or a 2006 Buick. I hadn’t touched my bike much since, and besides, I was responsible for half the camping gear for a two-man trip. But my car was in the shop, and I had a longstanding arrangement to meet my father at Vintage Days.
For decades, my dad joked that he never knew how many skiing trips he had left with my grandpa, an eternally youthful World War II veteran who skied into his late 80s and passed a few years ago in his 90s. It’s my turn to make the same joke about my father, now in his late-60s. I had no choice but to ride.
Vintage Days is hosted annually by the American Motorcyclist Association, the advocacy organization for two-wheeled motorists. Liza Miller, host of the Motorcycles & Misfits podcast, likes to say that the weekend-long event cannot be described in words—you simply must experience it. The closest I can muster is that the gathering for enthusiasts of old motorbikes is a combination of Burning Man, a Boy Scout camping trip, a motorcycle show, a garage sale for gearheads, and a live sporting event. The AMA reserves the sprawling Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, the amenities of which include a paved racetrack, woods, campgrounds, and grassy fields.
The AMA claims the Vintage Days swap meet is the largest in North America. Endless rows of vendors hawk riding gear, memorabilia, tools, parts, and motorcycles in various stages of completion ranging from rusted-out frames to lovingly restored classics. The arrangement of these wares varies from elaborate merchandising displays once used in ‘70s and ‘80s cycle shops to loose bits laid as hastily upon tarps as they were previously strewn upon a garage floor. In the infield, clubs show off their rides while the AMA holds seminars as best they can over the high-pitched drone of road races. In the woods and fields, competitors chase victory in motocross and other disciplines of dirt biking.
The big attraction, however, is the Mad Max vibe of the affair. People traverse the grounds on motorcycles of all sorts, but mostly on dirt bikes intended for children. Volunteers do their best to maintain traffic patterns, but there is only so much rationality they can impose upon throngs racing in all directions. Moin Khan, a Pakistani motocross champion who attended Vintage Days to give a seminar on his experiences leading tours for Westerners, compared the bustle to his home country.
The frenetic pace does not slow with the dying of the light. It just picks up back at the campground. There, riders engage in unsanctioned barrel racing—running circles on dirt bikes, golf carts, scooters, ATVs, street bikes, and at least one jet ski modified with motorcycle innards. Those in surrounding campers illuminate the dusty frenzy with floodlights. Occasionally, security intervenes, but racing resumes the second they leave.
In the far corner, an outfit called Louisville Vintage Motorworks hosts a burnout competition. Contestants slide into the confines of a box that has been lubricated with beer, drop the clutch on their restrained bikes, and accelerate mightily as spinning rear tires begin to smoke, and ultimately—to the delight of the audience—pop. This is presided over by “the captain,” a man replete with novelty boating hat who is always at least as well lubricated as the burnout box. “Where do you hail from, sailor?” he crows at each rider who offers chunks of burnt rubber, as a D.J. works lasers and blares rock tunes.
Having attended previously, I was prepared for this chaos. It’s a bit jarring coming from an organization that spends 362 days a year reminding people to wear adequate safety gear, and that once introduced the slogan “Loud Pipes Risk Rights,” in refrain to the biker’s creed that “Loud Pipes Save Lives.” But that dissonance is part of the fun.
I was, however, nervous about the ride there. Motorcycling is my unrequited love, and I never feel fully comfortable on a bike. My father has ridden for over 60 years, competing in motocross as a young man, and later in grueling dirt races called enduros. My grandfather was a hobby-scale dealer of the British Triumph brand in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Dad, who successfully negotiated his first engine rebuild at 8 years old, was grandpa’s mechanic. But I was raised by my mother and didn’t take up this birthright until a fateful trip to the Harley Davidson Museum in my mid-30s recontextualized motorcycling as pure Americana.
If I had to ride to Vintage Days, at least I avoided having to ride a vintage motorcycle. My dad counseled me as I ventured into riding: “I know that you want a cool ‘70s bike, but buy a reliable bike first. You’re not a good ‘wrench,’ and you want to learn to ride, not worry about mechanical issues.” I took his advice and bought a 2014 Honda CB1100, an air-cooled black beauty that is a spiritual successor to the CB750 of the 1970s, considered one of the greatest bikes of all time.
I love my bike, but as I chugged the last mile to Vintage Days, sandwiched between motorhomes on a slight hill, I cursed it. Air cooling, a nostalgic but antiquated wink at the CB750, means that the bike easily overheats on summer days unless it keeps moving. The temperature was almost 90 degrees as I struggled to find the right RPMs to move up the incline without conking in traffic. Damn my taste for the retro. It stalled just as I arrived at the campsite.
Soon after, my father arrived and we bickered, as two men will, about setting up our tent. We sometimes have a hard time seeing eye-to-eye. He has always been technically inclined. I have always been bookish. What comes naturally to him is alien to me. I am always doing something errant. “You are giving that bike too much gas while kickstarting it! It’s not a Harley.” “You have too much choke on! You are flooding it!” “Too little choke. You’re starving it!”
Watching racers deftly navigate a woods course, I expressed sadness that I’d never be a good rider. “Too late for that,” he agreed. He added, “Just enjoy it for what it is, and keep improving.” He was right. I choose what to love, and on what terms. My father offered regrets over his advancing years. “I want to be out in those woods. But at 67, my body won’t cooperate.”
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Seconds later, he rushed to help a stalled competitor ceaselessly kicking the starter on his ‘60s Husqvarna like the one Steve McQueen raced. “Let’s bump start it!” he yelled, and with that he sprinted down a hill, pushing bike and rider. I swelled with pride at my father’s competitive spirit, but the bike sputtered and its rider finally gave up.
“If I had been on the throttle, it would’ve started. Old two strokes! He sucked oil into the case, and you’ve got to rev slowly to burn it off, or you’ll foul the plug. Says he just changed it! I told him he fouled the new one, too, but he didn’t want to listen. These newer riders don’t know old, basic skills.” He thought for a second and added “Like you.”
Later, our tent flooded in a freak storm. As we bailed out six inches of water, I said “Dad, I’ll learn over time.” He said, “I know. I’ll try to be more patient.”