The asphalt and tar strips are baking. When they throw the red flag on the first lap, you can guess what happened. Somebody screwed up and made a bloody mess out of things and you have to trundle back to the hot pit. If it was a three-wave start, it’s chaos – you are baking in your leathers, and now you have to start thinking. A rational human being would be thinking about what poor soul just augured in somewhere and brought out this red flag in the first place. But you’re not remotely rational, you’re a racer.
You are thinking about how long are we going to be sitting in this hot pit and if they will shut us down, and how in the hell am I going bumpstart this thing and will it start, and sweet Jesus it is hot out here. You are only thinking about getting back into the race. I wish I could paint a pretty face on that, but I can’t because that is truth. And mayhem is happening in the pits. And then in the midst of this madness here comes a guy, national number 49, the starter, and he’s pointing at you and yelling. He’s Al Wilcox.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Number 49, heh, yeah. I have a wife. I know, almost impossible to believe. I met her in a philosophies and religions of Asia class. We were supposed to team up to do a presentation on the I Ching, one of the four Chinese classics. She didn’t eat meat, shave her legs, had never fired a firearm or thought much of the military at the time, so we were just a perfect match for each other. Opposites attract I guess. Anyway, I suggested for our presentation we actually cast yarrow stalks. The I Ching has been used as an oracle by some for 3,500 years. So we went and gathered some yarrow stalks from behind my luxurious single-wide trailer.
She asked me what question do we want to ask? I suggested we ask about the prospects of racing, so we did. We threw the stalks; we got number 49, Fire in the Lake, Revolution, treading on the tail of the tiger. As luck would have it I was getting my expert plate that next year, I really didn’t have much of a say in what that number would be. It turned out to be number 49. It still is and has been for four decades. Funny how things work out.
So there I am boiling on pit lane in Pocono trying to figure out what is going on, engine still running, and Al, our starter, is running up pit lane waving a red flag and yelling at the top of his lungs when he points at me, a newly minted expert. I can’t hear him with all the noise of the bikes running and all the commotion. I had the visor flipped open and I’m yelling back, “What Al? What?” And he’s now running at me and still pointing.
I thought, “Oh God, did I cause this incident? Was I dumping oil or something?” I start looking around the bike quickly from my seat. Al finally gets up in my face all smiles, during all this chaos, and yells at me, “YOU’RE 49 EXPERT, I WAS NATIONAL NUMBER 49!”
Hah! What could I say? “Yeah, Al! I know!” In the midst of all of that he picked that number plate out of the mess, ambulances rolling, bikes everywhere, and still he is keeping his head about him and in good cheer and takes a second to scare me half to death and comment on a number plate. His number plate, I will always think of #49 as his number plate, the one I’ve flown for four decades. But not as well as him.
He had 3,500 AMA pro starts. Every start is game time – you have to be ready to rock and roll, there is no room for error. You go or you get run over. More than 3,000 is remarkable. What is more remarkable was in that time I flew Al’s number, he flagged me from Pocono to Road Atlanta, and everywhere he went his wife was with him. They would take their van and trailer to the track, and they were inseparable. He taught us all by example; how to be good racers and good human beings. You could see the devotion they had for each other and how much he cared about us on the track. Al Wilcox personified racing.
After many years of effort, his good friend Roger Lyle was able to push successfully to get Al into the AMA Hall of Fame. (http://www.motorcyclemuseum.org/halloffame/detail.aspx?RacerID=457 )
Unfortunately it did not happen before his death, but it happened. Al certainly deserves to be there and Roger’s singlehanded efforts to make it so are commendable.
We’re all fortunate for these people, these people that teach us and inform us, for guys like Al and Roger, they treat this sport right and they pass on what they know. So in the wake of this past Father’s Day, just take a moment and reflect back on who informed you along the way, and maybe make a toast to National number 49.
Ride hard, be safe, see you in the pits.