Life Begins At 47. The Cornwell Story



Originally published in August 2009.

2022 update: Currently Corndog is Jake Gagne’s Crewchief in MotoA Superbike


Last Summer I saw a guy that I used to know.

We were invited to a couple’s fiftieth wedding anniversary last August and brought the entire brood to the party, held on a warm summer day with the Mississippi River in the background. Forty or fifty people sat at tables and talked or danced to the music–occasionally a Polka–and looked over a scrapbook of the couple’s life together. He was in his late seventies and missed being in the Greatest Generation by just a whisker. He actually flew planes in the military in the dying days of WWII, but most of his career was spent in jets over Korea and later in Viet-Nam. After that he flew the Vice-President around and still flies a small private plane to this day. He and I had an interesting chat about the similarities between fighter pilots and motorcycle racers. He seemed to think that the trait that both had, that made them able to race bikes or fly combat, was the ability to keep a clear head even when most of their breakfast was running down their leg. That conversation ended when he was dragged away to dance with his wife, an act which he seemed to have to drum up quite a lot of courage in order to accomplish.

The party ensued. I never know what to do or what to say at these things. It’s a crap-shoot if you mention motorcycles or racing; you either get the guy whose brother was maimed after a drunken midnight run to the liquor store sans helmet and you’ve just given him a reason to vent, or the guy who has always wanted a bike and say, what are the retail prices and top speeds of all of the motorcycles produced today? Equally dangerous. I slid into a seat at a table with some fellows who looked vaguely familiar and watched the little kids dance. A conversation between two of my tablemates was already in the middle of turn three. They discussed what they would do when they retire from every conceivable angle, from how they will spend their mornings to what sort of activities they will be doing every day when they no longer have to punch the clock. “Making up for lost time,” one said and they both laughed.

One old guy looked more vaguely familiar to me than the other. With his shock of white hair, generous jowls and need to talk a full decibel over the normal conversational tone, for a few minutes I pegged him as the younger brother of the fifty years married guy not crazy about dancing with his wife. When the conversation lulled between the two old dodgers, he actually fell asleep, right there at the table, with the music playing and little kids dancing not twenty-five feet away. While he slept I looked at him, with a million things going through my mind (More cake? Better not. Where the hell are the kids?). When it came, it struck me quickly and with force. That “old fellow” I was watching nap wasn’t the younger brother of the almost old enough to be in the Greatest Gen guy; he was, in fact, his son.

Who is exactly as old as I am. I knew this guy when I was a kid and went to school with him.

He pulled out of his nap moments later and must have been alarmed by me staring at him with plate-sized eyes, wondering how in the world this can be. Time to get back on topic. He knew a bit of my background and peppered me with questions.

Still travel a lot? Go to Europe?, he asked.

Yes, yes I do.

“When I retire I’m going to travel. Going somewhere in Europe every year.”

Speak any of their languages?

No, I don’t. Well, I know one phrase in Italian that will get your face slapped.

“When I retire, I’m going to spend an hour a day learning a language.”

Still work for yourself? I bet you could sleep in every morning if you wanted.

I don’t, can’t, I told him. I’m hard-wired to wake at 5:00 AM.

“When I retire I’m going to sleep in every morning.”

Every question and every topic detoured sooner or later as to what his life would be like when he retired. I thought for a moment about bringing up avian bird flu and how his retirement might be affected by the potential of tens of thousands of rotting corpses in the streets. He was edging towards asking me what my retirement plans were, and I was looking for a conversational escape hatch. Then in a moment of cosmic justice, my wife plopped my then couple of month old son down in my lap and said he needed a diaper change.

“And the diapers are in the car,” she said.

The fact that I’m his age and instead of retirement staring me in the face I have a new son was not lost on him. It was now his turn for plate-sized eyes. I gathered up my months-old kid and got up. I looked at the guy I sat behind in junior high and said plainly, without malice or sarcasm, “I’m never going to retire. Writers don’t retire.”

Dreaming about how your life will be one day is a dangerous thing to fellows who’ve cranked past the half-way mark towards their expiration date. All the popular phrases apply: Nobody gets out of here alive. You better get living …

Jon Cornwell did some living last year at Indianapolis. At 47 years of age, the curmudgeonly Canadian racer-turned-suspension-engineer qualified for the main at the Indy Mile dirt track race. Only an unfortunate crash kept him from finishing the race.

“The Dogger” as Cornwell is known from here to Motegi and all the way back. Infamous for his racer limp and telling anyone at any given moment what he thinks of them. Those who know him might even cringe when Cornwell utters the phrase “You know …” as a conversation-starter. What follows is usually a lesson in what you’re doing wrong, from procedure, to technique to even just how you’re in his way. Most of the time, he’s right, that Cornwell. “You know, you could find a place to stand where you’d be less in the way.” Multi-time World Superbike champion Carl Fogarty was on the recieveing end of one of those “You know” Cornwell conversations.

Lets be frank, dirt track isn’t known today as a young man’s sport. Former Harley-Davidson factory dirt tracker Kevin Atherton comes out of retirement every time the mood seems to strike him, former series champion Chris Carr is now 42 and really, would anyone be surprised if dirt track legend Jay Springsteen–who has to be edging dangerously towards sixty–started racing the dirt ovals again? There are plenty of older racers racing dirt track these days.

Cornwell’s quest for the Indy Mile might easily be termed a tale of a man’s clutch at fleeting youth, but really, Cornwell’s Indy story is just a simple tale of a man chasing a dream. A dream before it gets to be too late.

Cornwell has raced for nearly his entire life and might be best-known as a perennial 250 rider in the 1990s AMA series. His all-white bike with the number 46 on it challenged for podium positions for most of the 1990s all over the US. He explains how he ended up on the Indy Mile at age 47. “I gotta say that when I heard that they were going to run Indy, I knew that I wanted to ride it, and I was going to do everything in my power to ride it. So I spent a lot of time getting physically in shape for it, and that was also really good for me, because it allowed me to see that even though I am almost 50 – 47 – there is still the fire. I still want to do well. I still have that burn to compete. And I still get mad at myself for making stupid mistakes and what have you. It’s okay. I’m hoping that this is kind of like sort of a wakeup call for other people that just because you’re starting to get into “the twilight of your career,” or “the twilight of your life,” doesn’t mean that you should stop trying to be the best person that you can, both physically and mentally, and you will surprise yourself just at how good you feel and how good you can actually do.”

“I ain’t going to change. I never thought when I was racing. I just reacted,” he asserts. “I just ride instinctively. I do what comes to me. Maybe that’s why I didn’t have as much success as I did, but that’s the way I am. I just ride. I don’t do a whole lot of self-analysis or trying to sit down and figure out everything. You have to remember that I built the bike. I drove it to the racetrack. I paid for the tires. I unloaded it. I loaded it. I drove home.”

Cornwell is a rider, has ridden dirt track events before and knows his way around an XR750. Still, the fact that he was going to try and line up at the Indy Mile left him with some lingering doubts. “Of course, I was full of self-doubt when I was at the racetrack,” he says. “I’m looking at the Mile, and it’s pretty intimidating, because Indy’s a real special place. It’s kind of got a funny shape, and the draft works real well there. It’s dark. And okay, one thing that, when you’re a little bit older, that you can’t really fix, is your eyesight. And I thought about that quite a bit, and they brought in some extra lights, and I did whatever I could to make sure that my visors and everything were clean. And I don’t think I was any worse than anybody else.”

Known for his, well, honest analysis and frank opinions, Cornwell wasn’t too interested in taking an overly cerebral approach to his racing. It’s not what has worked for him in the past. “I ain’t going to change. I never thought when I was racing. I just reacted,” he asserts. “I just ride instinctively. I do what comes to me. Maybe that’s why I didn’t have as much success as I did, but that’s the way I am. I just ride. I don’t do a whole lot of self-analysis or trying to sit down and figure out everything. You have to remember that I built the bike. I drove it to the racetrack. I paid for the tires. I unloaded it. I loaded it. I drove home. I didn’t have a big crew of guys. Two friends helped, and those two guys were really valuable, because I had a crash in one of the practice sessions, and they helped me put the thing back together. But the reality of the situation is, is that all the way through my career, it was always like that. And because of that, your attention becomes divided, and you can’t devote as much as you may need during the course of the day, because you’re thinking about something else.”

To a motorcycle fan north of forty years, there are several dirt tracks that have legend status: Springfield. Peoria. And Indy. The Indy Mile: top gear mile dirt track racing, home to Roberts and the bike they can’t pay him enough to ride. It’s even more-so for a rider, Cornwell says, “Indy’s really special, because Turns 3 and 4, when you get into Turn 3, it tightens up on you. The outside wall comes in, and you’ve kind of got to be aware of that. And Turn 1 sucks you in, as well. In the early sessions, you were able to just run it almost to the apex with the throttle right to the stop–over 120 mph–and then just give it a couple of shots with the throttle and turn the thing, put your feet back on the pegs and run it down the back straightaway. That was a really good feeling, because as soon as I did that in the first couple of laps, I realized, “Okay. You’re going to be fine. You can do this. This is okay.”

Cornwell made the main event and went shoulder to shoulder with a gaggle of AMA Pro Dirt Track racers. What is it like in the draft on the Indy Mile at 120 mph? He steps back and thinks, “There’s a lot of noise, there’s a lot of stuff going on, your eyesight’s blurry, you’re constantly looking around to see who’s around you, who do you have to worry about. You get down into Turn 3, and you think, “Oh my God, I’m rushing off in here,” but then you look around and everybody else is doing the same thing, and you kind of – at one point, I think we were four wide in one of the first or second laps, and I thought, “Oh, this is going to be pretty interesting.” But again, everybody was riding real smart, real responsibly, and it all just kind of worked out. It’s funny, because when you’re behind in the draft, you hear your own engine, and then all of a sudden, you just kind of – everything goes quiet for a second when you get right up behind the guy in front of you, and all you can think about is, “Okay, I gotta make sure I make my move just right here. I’m going to duck out – right – NOW.” And then you do it, and you get that little bit of extra push, and you go by the guy going down into the next corner. The hardest pass to make is to try to make something stick, because when you get into like Turn 1 and Turn 3, as I said, the thing will start to slide, and if you’re carrying a lot of speed, it drifts up to the middle of the apex, and the guy that you just passed, if he’s smart, he’ll actually let you go by a little bit, then turn it underneath you and then drive across the corner and kind of block you, because you’re still trying to gather the thing up and get it turned to drive it back down onto the notch. So you’ve almost got to kind of run up right beside him and not quite go by him unless you got a motor that’s real good and strong, and then you can just drive right by and then get back in front of him. Unfortunately, I didn’t have one of those motors, so I was doing the “just get up beside and then just kind of keep my spot.”

In the end, Cornwell tangled with another rider and crashed out of the main. He loaded up and went home, mad at himself but, at the same time, appreciative that he got one more punch in before the bout ends for eternity. “I was racing, and I was smiling,” he recalls, “because it was so much fun, and everybody was real safe, real safe riders.”

“At this particular point in my ca–my life, I’m not even going to say my career–my life, the life experience that you have from the ride is the kind of thing that you enjoy that as much or more than the actual result, because it gives you more satisfaction to know that you were out there having fun with those guys, and they were having fun with you, and it was all good.”

No one who knows “the Dogger”, Jonathan Cornwell, was surprised to see his name on the entry list for the 2009 Indy Mile. He’ll again be aboard the number 49T Harley-Davidson XR750, sponsored by Brian Olsen Racing Services, Motomod Ohlins and Riders Choice. And a need to live, really live, right up to the end.

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