“The Ghost of Gary Nixon Sent Me”

Immaculate Lawn of Trident


 

Dean F

So, my lawnmower suddenly stopped working. When one lives in a place where you get the best and the worst that four seasons can dole out, you need to have equipment to battle against the elements. Snowblower, shovels, lawnmower, roof shovel (yes), fertilizer and more. Last Fall my lawnmower stopped after a violent altercation with my dog’s lawn tie.

Our late Spring was such that the world exploded in green almost overnight; and the grass was getting tall from the rain and sun, so a bum mower was not going to cut it (sorry). I found a working mower of the same model on Craigslist and told the guy I’d be over just before I saw how far away the seller lived from me.

Regardless of distance I packed up the truck and set out for the middle of farm country Minnesota. I drove down endless country roads which led to more endless county roads. In those fields of plenty the radio in the truck began to fade  … and even “920 farm country” … faded, thus the Mp3 player was thrown into action. Miles burn by so I can meet a guy who has a mower just like mine, one which can be utilized as a parts machine. He says it runs, or ran, but has issues … welcome to the club, buddy.

I meet him in the parking lot of a rural convenience store. We do the deal, but the entire time–being an older male–in the back of my head there is a top-heavy young woman with a minute board counting down the minutes until I need a bathroom, with a urinal, RIGHT NOW. The seller is in the middle of a story about a high school shop class working on this very mower and how he dropped $300 on it when the minute board gal in my brain comes out and shakes her wares as she turns the minute board sideways. She infers: ‘You will be urinating in your Team Roberts shorts in mere minutes if you don’t find a bathroom.’

I cut to the cash part and pay him. We load the beater mower in my truck and he says his goodbye.

I step inside the convenience store and find the bathroom. The place is filled with farmers and their brethren. I was once of these ranks and can usually identify these people by either their tan lines or the smell coming off their boots. The guy passing me on my way out of the bathroom is a pig farmer and this I can tell without looking at him. Trust me, robots can’t take over pig farming too soon.

After my bathroom dash, all is well. Okay, now a life with different priorities.  Screw it, let’s get home, there is grass to be mowed. Walking out, however, I pass by the bulletin board–every Midwest convenience store has one– and just out of the corner of my eye I see a business card that reads BRITISH MOTORCYCLE PARTS with an address not far from where I am standing/walking. Hmmm. I’ve never owned or ridden a pre 2007 Triumph anything but find myself curious.

I do the GPS and 8 miles later I am driving on a lonely two-lane road leading to another road lined with silos. “Your destination is on the left” the GPS voice says.

I turn and pull in. I see before me a beautiful country home. There’s no way this is a rural bike shop. For some reason most rural bike repair places seem to inevitably morph into an ATV repair place, with oil-stained concrete and hulks of old junk laying around. But this place is a picture-perfect series of buildings with unmolested cement between them and all of it very tidy. Lawn mowed in a precise fashion. I get out of the truck and loudly slam the door.

I walk to the front door of the house, admiring the grass and edging. No British flag, no oil stains anywhere. What’s this?

CAN I HELP YOU?!?,  a face-less voice offers from the distance, and the voice does not come from the front door to the house, but from one of the out-buildings.

Okay, I think, we’re going to find out if this guy sells British bike parts or is just going through the motions, like right now. Screw it. I am in my 50s. I could be dead in two weeks from causes not even given any thought today. What’s to lose?

“Gary Nixon sent me,” I announce, simply and loudly.

Oh really?! , the voice says.

“Yeah, actually the ghost of Gary Nixon sent me,” I clarify.

Then you better come in, the voice says.

I walk over to the door and meet a man named Mitch Klempf. He is standing in maybe 4500 square feet of old British parts. He’s, like me, about 50-80 years old and of good cheer; he puts up with my questions, tries to sell me a calendar. We stand and talk about the previous era of CRA racing and all things related. We are all alone in the shop, Klempf and I.

I don’t know this fellow at all. In fact no one knows I am here at all. “He went to buy a lawnmower and no one ever saw him again.” Thus I work into the convo’  that one of my good friends is Paul Groth; he who is well known in the MN for being a great machinist and also someone to whom a gigantic gun is not a foreign concept. My intention is to drop a hint that if this situation goes Cohen Bros Movie Script eventually someone will be along to fetch me, and they wont be coming unarmed. Also, I owe Groth money, and have at least three bikes in his shop. He’s probably not going to be happy if I am beheaded, or worse.

The ominous warning is un-needed, it turns out. Klempf is calm and typically Midwestern. “Come on in”, he says to each new room. I see a Baxter Cycle business card and mention that the owner of that wonderful little Iowa British bike shop, Randy Baxter, and I are closet Gene Romero fans. 

“Oh, really?” Klempf says interestingly.

Come back here, then, Mitch Klempf says, and motions me through a few very nice rooms of his shop area until we hit the garage.

My truck is still running somewhere in the perfect cement and grass outside. As we walk, I mention that I have my late friend Allen Ivins’ negatives in my office and a lot of them are of British bikes at Daytona in the very early 1970s. I have tried to differentiate them, but that four stroke era is as tough one for me. 

Klemph talks quietly until he stops talking, and walking. It’s a Leno sized garage height-wise and … my eyes take a minute to focus and when they do … Whoa! A nice stable of British bikes sit before me. Among them I see a bike I know from my old Ivins negative archives.

Mitch Klempf owns this 1971 Formula 750 Daytona Rob North low boy that Gene Romero raced in the 1970s. This Triumph is from the era when people took bike stands very seriously. Dean F

 

Klempf says: Before they went out of business I called Triumph USA and asked them what they intended to do with all the race bikes. I asked them if I drove my van all the way to the East Coast if they’d sell me a bike. They said if I drove that far that they’d probably sell me a bike, so I set off, he says of that trip over 35 years ago. He was able to buy an ex-Gene Romero 1971 Formula 750 Daytona Rob North low boy, raced all over the world by Romero, Gary Nixon and Don Castro, among others. It’s in “as raced” condition and fully original. Is it going to win a beauty contest? No, it’s not, but both Nixon and Romero (RIP) pinned that throttle. That’s racing DNA, the stuff of legends.

We talk a bit more and its clear that Klempf is happy to keep his Romero bike in his shop, not in a museum. He’s working with Brit bike historians to work out the complete history of the machine. Before he turns the lights off I lean over and take a deep inhale from the bike, smell the ancient fiberglass and iron and almost ask him if I can sit on it, but don’t.

Triumph: bombed almost into oblivion by the Nazis and sent almost to a mass grave later by the Japanese manufacturers, but still around and kicking thanks to men like Mitch Klempf.

He has parts to ship and I have grass to mow. I touch the bike with my hand one more time and drive home.

Gene Romero on the Triumph at Daytona in 1971. Today the motorcycle is in Minnesota farm country.
Gene Romero on the Triumph at Daytona in 1971. Today the motorcycle is in Minnesota farm country. Allen Ivins

 


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