(2006) 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 ignore—especially 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 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 Jacobson. 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.
Joe Russell “Rusty” Bradley was born in 1949 in Dallas, Texas to a hard-working blue-collar family; his father ran his own auto repair shop. Bradley was the only boy in a family of girls, and it is clear that his family felt he was very special.
“My brother was quiet, gentle, positive and just a general all-around good boy. He was quite studious and had a good head on his shoulders,” remembers his sister, Becky, who later went on to race motorcycles herself (club racing against Freddie Spencer in the mid 1970s) and later work at Kawasaki.
Bradley graduated in 1967 from high school and enrolled at the University of Texas to pursue a mechanical engineering degree, all the while continuing to race more often as his renown spread. It was a turbulent time in America, this was, of course, the era of the Viet Nam war.
Rusty Bradley started out on small 100cc Honda streetbikes in his racing career, moved on to Yamahas and Triumphs while an amateur rider for the Big D Cycles shop in Dallas, and then Kawasaki at Boston Cycle. He spent his entire racing career—except for his final race—as an amateur or a junior rider, as promising new riders were known then. Bradley, by all accounts of the era, was overwhelmingly fast from the moment he slid into leathers, and once counseled out of an early crash and burn period, started winning races all over the country.
“He was a local legend,” says former racer Blaine Birchfield, then a district rep for Kawasaki, who knew Bradley well. “Rusty was very fast and he was very competitive, he loved to race and loved to win. He’d love to go to some race a few states away and get up there and race with a Gary Nixon or someone. Just to see what he could do. He wasn’t as mechanical with the motorcycle as you’d expect with his background. He was a talent rider, could just do a lot with any kind of bike just because his riding talent.” Birchfield remembers Bradley as a clean-cut young man with a future. “He came from a good family, you could take him anywhere, he knew how to handle himself. He was very popular with the other riders; he was a nice kid.”
Bradley raced with the number 64 on his Kawasaki.
After some now rather obscure but still amazing wins, Bradley was the talk of the racing industry at the time. Bradley’s on-track accomplishments then are still minor legends today: although he was primarily a club racer, he was game for anything and managed to win some very big races, including a 12 hour endurance at Riverside, his victory over future AMA champion Gary Fisher. He also beat Harley-Davidson factory rider Walt Fulton Jr. at a local race in Texas—Bradley on a big wide-handlebar equipped Triumph; Fulton on a factory KR Harley. After that incident, insiders say a meeting was held between Bradley and renowned Harley-Davidson Racing Manager Dick O’Brien at the Houston Astrodome. Legend has it that O’Brien offered Bradley a ride on the factory Harley-Davidson team, with the only stipulation that he had to start riding for them right away. Bradley, then still being little more than an amateur rider for Big D Triumph out of Dallas, remained loyal to the people that gave him his break.
With Bradley’s versatile background it’s hard not to compare him with what came after him—two decades later. Kevin Schwantz. Both Texans, both rode all forms of motorcycle racing before settling in with roadracing.
Frank Camillieri later rode for Boston Cycles as Bradley’s teammate and recalls what a phenomena the young Texan was. “I raced some race in Indianapolis before we were teamed. That was the first time I’d seen him. I remember him just being amazingly fast, just broad sliding this big old Triumph, feet up, around the track.”
Feet up, mind you. Bradley was born at the right time to be a young racer in late 1960s America. Almost all aspects of racing radically changed in the US in the late 1960s; from the riding style to the bikes to the tracks and equipment the racers used, all of it underwent cataclysmic change. The sport changed from essentially crude dirt track racing on asphalt tracks to what we know today as roadracing. Arguably there were never bigger performance leaps in roadracing motorcycles than there were from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. Fast production race bikes in the early 1960s topped out at 135mph and were still raced on the beach course at Daytona. By 1973, fast production based race bikes went 170mph at the Speedway.
And Bradley was a pure rider of the European mold. Nearly all of the American riders of the era raced both dirt track and roadrace at the same time, in fact, there wasn’t even a “roadracing” championship in AMA racing back then, the title was decided by points earned on both the dirt and the roadraces. Handsome and charming, Bradley was many things, but he was not a top level dirt track racer.
“I think he could ride dirt track, but he didn’t like it that much and had really no interest in it” remembers Blaine Birchfield.
Kawasaki set the Boston Cycles team up as a farm team to the factory effort. “It was a back-door deal” former Kawasaki exec Paul Collins states about the Bradley effort. It worked: Riding a bike tuned by Freddie Mitchell, Bradley hit the ground running on the Kawasaki H-1 in 1970, winning all five amateur nationals that year, including Daytona on the Boston Cycles bike. Bradley beat future champion Gary Fisher in the Daytona race, his rear tire worn to the cords as testament to his struggle. He was the fastest “Junior” rider in the country in 1970 and the next step was for him to join a factory team for 1971, the presumption being that he’d be on Kawasaki’s factory team. Kawasaki were of course interested in nurturing the boy and would move him up, when they could make it happen.
Just not fast enough for Bradley.
He had his sights on world championship racing and felt he was ready for the next level in America. However, instead of a slot on the factory team in 1971, Bradley would again be on the Boston Cycles farm team, with Yvon DuHamel and crew on the Kawasaki factory team. Rusty Bradley was exceptionally disappointed at not being promoted to the Kawasaki factory effort in 1971.
Bradley, although pining for a true factory ride as his next step in racing, continued his studies at the University. In fact, he was still studying for finals the week of Daytona in March of 1971. “I still have in my mind’s eye a picture of him sitting at that hotel room desk every night at Daytona,” remembers Blaine Birchfield, who shared a room with Bradley at the Daytona Holiday Inn that week. “He’d race or practice all day long, then go back to the room, beg off any offers for dinner and sit at that desk studying until he went to bed.”
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.
Before his death, Boston Cycles owner John Jacobson wasn’t comfortable speaking about Bradley for publication. It’s well known that Jacobsen held Bradley in high esteem and his loss was brutal for the Jacobson family.
One friend says, “At Talladega, Rusty won the race on a Dunlop Triangular rear tire that was worn through the first layer of cords. John Jacobson had that tire hung on the wall of the shop for years.”
There is a photo in the Daytona International Raceway archive of the incident. According to those that have seen it, Bradley’s body is shown sliding down the track, without a helmet.
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 Jacobson (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.”
Bradley’s Boston Cycles Kawasaki was part of a back-door racing program at Kawasaki.
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 says 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.”
This story was published in Rolling Stone magazine (Italy).