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1971 was Bradley's first shot at the Daytona 200, then and probably now the biggest race in America. Moreover, this was the first time he would race in an "Expert" class. Unquestionably, this was the big time, and the 1971 Daytona 200 was filled with big racing stars: Dick Mann, Mike Hailwood, Gary Nixon, Kel Carruthers, Cal Rayborn, Don Emde and many others. Bradley's parents and family flew in for the race. It was the first time many of them had actually seen him race, preferring to let him race unencumbered by his family up to that point.
"I was with him the night before the race, and the day of the race," says Birchfield. "We ate breakfast together and hung out at the track for most of the morning of the 200. He felt he could win the race, expected to, really. And he was expected to."
It was all over in less than ten minutes. Back in this era, the riders went off the starting line and straight out onto the banking for a wide open run around the 2.5 mile oval, and then crossing the start-finish line, they headed into the infield, scrubbing off a great deal of speed as they braked into the infield. Bradley, on a new H1-R Kawasaki, got a great start and was fifth or sixth as the field streamed down the banking for the first time. The baritone sound of the many four-strokes in so many different configurations (twins, triples and four-cylinders) plus the two-strokes, was incredible, say eyewitnesses. "It sounded like a formation of bombers going over," recalls former Cycle News reporter Gary Van Voorhis.
"I was drafting Dick Mann in that race," Bradley's teammate Frank Camillieri remembers. "I was three feet behind him and bikes all around me, top gear, at 155mph. I remember seeing someone go sliding as we went into (turn) one, but I didn't know until later that it was Rusty." After the incident, Camillieri chose to never race at Daytona again.
Bradley seemed to be trying to make a late-braking move going into turn one. Racer Don Emde was directly behind Bradley when he fell. "I saw the whole thing. I remember thinking as we crossed the finish line that first time around to take it easy. We all had full gas tanks and there was a lot of traffic. I was behind Kel Carruthers as we went into turn one and I just tried to keep some space between us. That's when Rusty came by me. Basically he just got caught up in traffic as the field compressed going into the turn. Rusty ran right into Kel Carruthers, right at about Kel's seat. Rusty went over the high-side and just started bouncing." It happened on the first lap of the race.
Bradley was immediately transported to a local Daytona Beach hospital, but little hope was given the family. Through the years it has been said that Bradley was wearing a poorly-made helmet and because of this, he died of massive head injuries. According to his family, this is untrue. They state that he suffered both aortic and spinal cord damage to his neck in the crash, that there was no blood flow to his brain. The doctors were powerless to help Bradley. Hours after a crash in his first expert race, he was taken off life support.
"John Jacobsen (owner of the Boston Cycle team) came by the hotel later and told us that he had died," recalls Blaine Birchfield somberly. "It was such a shock to everybody. I packed up all of his things and put the suitcases on the bed, the bed he had slept in the night before. I lay there that night looking at that bed and those cases, and I could not sleep. It made me so sad. I had to go hide them in the closet in order to get any rest."
Paul Collins, who was marketing and PR director at Kawasaki in that era, knew Bradley well and today remains shattered by his death. I cold-call Collins at his California home. He is chatty and friendly until the subject of why I called becomes clear. Then a pall comes over him and the conversation. "Rusty was a good kid and bright young man. I'm sure he would have gone on to do great things in his life," he say in a soft voice.
It wasn't just racing to Collins, Bradley was a friend of his family. "He stayed at my house when he came to California, he knew my family, and we traveled with him a great deal so I knew him very well. His death hit us all very hard at Kawasaki. We sort of got out of back-door racing after that. We still had the factory team there, but neither Everett or myself had much interest in it after that." According to Collins, the friendly and handsome Bradley was one of the first school-girl crushes that his daughter, then 12, would have.
As most motorcycle industry insiders are aware, Collins' daughter grew up to be actress Bo Derek.
"His goal was to be an FIM world championship roadracer," says Brashear. "He wanted to be a world champion. Who can say what he would have done? But, I think he definitely would have been a contender. He was the best young riders of the time, nobody could beat him. Some of his rivals at the time were Gary Fisher, Steve McLaughlin, Don Emde. He was a very natural rider and had a tremendous touch."
At the hospital, Bradley's family took the news of their brother and son's death stoically, pulled themselves together and went home to Texas to bury him.
His sister Becky relates their sense of it, now thirty years later. "We don't know why things happen the way they do. We're Christians, as Rusty was. We believe that there is a plan and this happened for a reason we can't understand. Rusty had a huge funeral and perhaps some of those people were exposed to Christianity by his funeral. I know that we were not turned against motorcycles after this happened. I raced motorcycles and worked for Kawasaki for many years, so that is not the case at all." His family started a scholarship which stands to this day, The
Rusty Bradley Memorial Scholarship at the University of Texas at Arlington.
"My mother says that her enduring memory of Rusty is of him standing there at the Speedway with his head down as they gave the pre-race benediction. And that is a happy memory for her, so we hold no grudges against motorcycle racing."
Cycle magazine published a feature on the 1971 Daytona 200 in their June '71 issue, the piece titled "The Deadliest Daytona of Them All."
And now the exercise of what if. If he had lived, would Bradley have become a world class rider, an American champion in GP racing as he hoped? He was only a few years older than Kenny Roberts. Might he have made Roberts life more difficult in racing? What would have happened had Bradley happened on to the Yamaha Racing machine before Roberts?
Life can be ironic. When the Bradley family returned home from their son's funeral, in that day's mail was Rusty Bradley's draft notice. "Please report ...". If he had lived, he was probably going to Viet Nam. For the Bradley family, they do not linger on thoughts of what if. In fact, they are thankful for what was not.
"I think, honestly, given the choice, I am somewhat gladdened by the fact that he died racing instead of living and having to go to Viet Nam," says his sister Becky. "Rusty, if you knew him, you knew he was such a gentle boy and a very gentle man. Very kind and very caring about his fellow man. I don't want to think of what going to Viet Nam might have done to him."