Among the most futile of life's pursuits is the pursuit of what might have been. It's a pointless exercise, really, where factual and actual results are ignored and you go into full-bore "what-if" mode. Certainly these conjectures are interesting bench-racing fodder, but in the end it is what it is: more or less meaningless. It never happened, and you can stop yourself at any juncture in any what if speech by simply stating, "But it didn't".
Ah, but some of the more tragic twists of fate are too tempting too ignoreespecially the ones that seem so unjust. The relatively minor ones can be dismissed as just simply twists of fate. Troy Bayliss needed to win both races at Imola last fall to win the World Superbike championship. He didn't. Kenny Roberts should not have run out of gas in 1983. He did. Kevin Schwantz should not have crashed a half-dozen times, he would have won everything. He crashed. These scenarios won't keep you up at night.
It's the truly tragic ones, however, that keep you awake at 4:00 in the morning. The instances where fate didn't just pull the carpet out from under a rider who should have maybe expected it, but rather obliterated the entire world of someone with a brilliant future. Those are the ones that torment.
I first heard Rusty Bradley's name when I interviewed 1969 250 world champion Kel Carruthers in 1996. Carruthers was reminiscing about the early days of Kenny Roberts and lamented that Roberts was head and shoulders above all the riders of his era and that there really wasn't anyone else like him then. "Well, there was one, Rusty Bradley," Kel said ardently, and then he seemed lost in thought for a moment. Then, shaking his head at what he saw in his mind, old Kel quickly went back to the subject of Roberts. I was intrigued and mentally filed away the Bradley name for further investigating.
Bradley was a Texan born and bred, and perhaps just as importantly, a favored son of the Texas racing farm system which in the late 1960s until the mid 1980s churned out an impressive number of great roadracers. Long hot summers made for long hot racing seasons, thus Texas boasted several decent tracks of the era, and many more which were not national class but were decent club tracks. In addition, races were held at abandoned Air Force bases and even on closed street courses. You could roadrace nearly every weekend in Texas back then, say the locals, if you weren't afraid to drive the long miles to each track. It was a Texas racing boom.
And the industry was in boom-mode as well. Japanese motorcycle sales in the late 1960s and early 1970s exploded like a solar flare in America, with some of the more popular units selling out country-wide by June. Motorcycles were cheap and fun, and the Baby Boomers bought them at unprecedented rates.
Back then, the manufacturers went racing for the same reasons they do today: to prove their technology as viable, to compete against their rivals and to, hopefully, sell bikes. Factory teams were formed to garner media attention, and contingency plans were made for club racers to race new bikes. Kawasaki was one of the first of the Japanese manufacturers to dive in to factory AMA racing with both feet. They had a factory team and also a back-door team (described as such because much of the support came from Kawasaki's back door). For the latter, they searched for a new young rider to sponsor and feature, someone to nurture into the Kawasaki racing program. They found Rusty Bradley.
Or, former racer Everett Brashear found him for Kawasaki. A fellow Texan and former celebrated dirt track winner, Brashear went to work for first Yamaha and then Kawasaki as a sales manager in the 1960s and was always on the hunt for new talent.
He recalls: "I got to know Rusty in 1968. He was riding for Jack Wilson's Big D Triumph out of Dallas back then and he'd raced some Yamahas which I also helped him on. When I went to Kawasaki, we introduced a new model called the H-1, the 500cc two-stroke three cylinder street bike. 1969 was the first year for it, and the H-1 was quite a motorcycle. Kawasaki had some production race bikes that they wanted distributed among their dealer network.
"I had a dealer in Massachusetts called Boston Cycles, run by John Jacobsen. John agreed to buy one of these production race bike H-1s, but he had no rider. He asked us to find him a rider. I asked him if he was interested in an amateur roadracer who had done pretty well for me, and he said he was."
Bradley had only been racing a few years, but he'd sampled drag racing, streamliners at the Salt Flats, dirt track and roadracing. Dirt track was, frankly, not his favorite, but he was competent at all the others.