Scenes From Behind The Bamboo Screen: Take 14

Even monkeys fall from trees.
–Japanese proverb

I am not one who wheelies. Not that I can’t wheelie, it is just a skill I never bothered to master. Back when I was racing, it was something that slow guys seemed to do, as if being able to ride on the rear wheel could somehow compensate for not being able to get around a racetrack. And always in the back of my mind was the image of a fellow first-year pro at Ascot who, in celebrating his heat-race win, looped his Champion-framed Yamaha over backwards in spectacular fashion as he crossed the start/finish line at about 80 mph, putting a premature end to what had been a promising start as a professional racer.

Of course, when I was working as a mechanic at Valerian’s Two Cycle City in West Los Angeles and had to test ride a bike after servicing it, I was not above jerking the front end up through crowded intersections or, for example, pulling a big honker past a line of cars stuck in traffic (preferably, with the front wheel crossed up and an idiotic smile on my face). But, truth be told, the real reason I never wheelied much was because I wasn’t very good at it.

Thus, it was with no small admiration, and some astonishment, that I watched “Dave” riding along on the rear wheel next to me at 60 mph as we ambled down the back straightaway at Spa-Francorchamps in the summer of 1997 on a pair of prototype Ninja ZX-9Rs. He was standing straight up on the pegs, face near the instruments and beeping the horn at the odd track worker we passed. Even more impressive was how perfectly at ease he seemed up there. As if he had discovered a way to save money on front tires – just ride around on the rear wheel all the time!

Even more impressive was how easily he got the thing up there. We were growling along easily at about 30mph on level tarmac when he just pushed down on the bars and then, as the suspension rebounded, pulled the front end up and started going through the gears. When, after a good quarter of a mile, he finally set ‘er down again, the front tire squealed in protest at the sudden acceleration and threw off a knot of smoke like an airplane on landing.

Dave was not his real name, for reasons that will soon become apparent–and to save him further embarrassment with the major manufacturer where he now works as a development rider. He was also a former world champion road racer. And that was part of the problem. Usually, I would caution riders about that sort of behavior, because if you bin a one-off prototype, you can’t just run off to the local Kawasaki dealer and buy, for example, another fuel tank. Any damage to the bikes, and the shoot goes down the drain, along with a huge pile of production money (in this case about $150,000). Also, our two Nines were scheduled to make their big debut at the Milan show shortly after the shoot, and we had specific instructions to return our steeds unmarred. But something about the words ‘World Champion’ made me reluctant to caution him. Big mistake.

To tell the truth, I was still a bit in shock. Only a week earlier, I had been sitting calmly at my desk at the agency in Tokyo translating some rubbish about a new line of Kawasaki sunglasses when Hirai, in an even greater tizzy than usual, rushed over and blurted out: “We’re taking the new 9Rs to Belgium to do a video and to shoot catalog stills. We want you to ride one of them.”

“Er, OK.”

This would be my first modeling job for Kawasaki. I was deeply flattered that the factory would entrust me with a machine so important to the company’s future. I was also more than a little bit worried.

My excitement was tempered by the fact that, just that morning, I had been at another office in Tokyo writing copy for another manufacturer. Until that day, the Kawasaki work had always been a bit of a lark–just something to do when there was nothing coming in from the other guys. Now, things really were starting to get out of hand. Both companies were depending on me. Not because I was particularly talented, but simply because there was no one else who could do the work. The native English speakers in Tokyo who can read Japanese know nothing about bikes, and the bike guys don’t know Japanese.

However, the looming conflict of interest was hard to overlook. It is difficult for the outsider to understand how paranoid the Japanese are about industrial secrets. Better than their foreign competition, Japanese companies well-know the value of information. Many Japanese industries have been founded on technologies stolen or copied from other countries.

I was starting to feel like the motorcycle world’s version of Richard Sorge, the infamous Russian spy of World War II who betrayed both his German friends and employers, and his Japanese collaborators.

Fortunately, a good justification came to my rescue. I reasoned that I wasn’t really betraying anyone because my knowledge was kept strictly confidential. Too, I was a freelancer–by definition, one who sells his skills to whomever wants them. And, I was under no contractual obligations to either company, nor did I have any job security.

I have since discovered, somewhat to my disappointment, that it is very easy to rationalize questionable actions that are in one’s own best interests. And, of course, unlike Richard Sorge, the Japanese wouldn’t execute me if my disloyalty were unmasked.

There was another problem, though. Since my face would be clearly visible through the helmet visor, and since the other guys had been looking at that face for many years and would certainly recognize it–especially when the images were blown up to poster size–I had to think of some way to keep my identity hidden. Using smoked shields was not an option, because the riders’ faces are what give the photos their impact. That’s why they want a gaijin to ride the bikes instead of a Japanese rider (of which there are plenty). In fact, if you see a Japanese catalog for an overseas market and the rider is wearing a smoked shield, it means they couldn’t find a gaijin to ride the bike.

Desperation does wonders for the imagination. It came to me the next day during a meeting to sort out details of the shoot.

“You know, Hirai,” I say. “The problem with most of the catalogs and videos you guys produce is that the riders have no personality. New bikes, new leathers, and new helmets–no one rides around like that in real life. We need to do something to give the riders some individuality. You know, make it look like two guys out for a track day on their own bikes.”

Then, after a short pause, as if I had just had a brilliant idea: “Hey, why don’t we wear those new sunglasses under the clear visors. That way our gaijin faces will still be visible but it will look more real-world.”

“Good idea,” said Hirai. “That’ll be great advertising for the new glasses.”

That was one problem solved.

The other was the fact that I’m no road racer. Yes, I had ridden a few AMA Nationals on a Yamaha TD2 back in the day and had even managed to win a couple of local road races at Willow and Carlsbad. But that was more than 20 years ago! Even then, I was just holding the throttle open until I scared myself. And, in all the sportbike shoots for the other guys, I was the only rider, so it was easy to fake it–just tuck in and hang off. But now I would have to be stringing turns together and, supposedly, be able to keep up with a former world champ. Yikes!

After the meeting, I noticed that, on the crew list, I am listed merely as “Rider” while “Dave,” the former world champion, is the “Main Rider.” Fair enough.

A few days later, we boarded a JAL flight to Amsterdam. “We” being Hirai, myself, the photographer Kyoichi and Tomoko, girl Friday from the ad agency.

By the time we arrived at our hotel near the track, I was starting to feel a little better about the whole deal. Dave arrived from California that afternoon and turned out to be a nice guy. Seems he has ridden a number of endurance races here. We took a few easy laps around the track in our street clothes and it didn’t look that scary, after all.

The crew from State–the British company Kawasaki has hired to produce the video–begins to trickle in. They’d recently returned from the North African desert where they’d been shooting supermodel Naomi Campbell. Before that, they were working on a James Bond film. These guys are pros. And being British, everything is a joke. The joking goes on non-stop; all are unprintable–what a relief after so many shoots with the uptight and ever-serious Japanese (whose bike videos are invariably crap).

Our hotel, Le Roannay, in Francorchamps, is the sort of place you would read about in a magazine but couldn’t afford to stay in. Small yet elegant, this former country estate is located but a few upshifts away from the track. Tasteful gardens, a small pool, and rooms that make you feel you are staying in a private home. I was not at all surprised to learn that Ferrari’s F1 team stays here during the GP.

That evening, I went for a walk. This is the farm country of the Ardennes Forest–rolling fields, clean air, cows lowing in barns, the quiet glow of TV behind curtained windows. The streets were deserted. It was a peacefulness that belies the area’s history.

It was through this forest on May 10, 1940 that Hitler’s tanks thundered on their way to conquer France and cut off the British army at Dunkirk. Four years later, in the Battle of the Bulge, the Panzers came through here again in a last-ditch attempt to stave off Germany’s inevitable defeat. That this gentle land should have been the scene of such violence is hard to comprehend.

The track too has its history. Nestled in the dark embrace of the forest, Spa-Francorchamps is, after the Isle of Man, the oldest motorcycle racing circuit still in use. This is a true road course, combining public roads with a purpose-built infield section. And it is very fast.

Standing at Le Source, the right-hander that leads downhill to the ultra-quick left-right combination of Eau Rouge, one can almost hear the echoes of Phil Read’s 500 MV howling down the short straight in front of the grandstands. The year was 1974. Japan was in all things ascendant. The Japanese factories, armed with powerful new 2-stroke machines were expected to dominate the race, and the world championship. Compared with the Yamaha four ridden by Giacomo Agostini, Phil Read’s air-cooled 4-stroke MV was an anachronism, a dated machine from the golden era of 4-stroke racing.

“The MV was a great bike,” people said. Emphasis on the word ‘was.’ “Maybe on a slower circuit the MV would have a chance, but not here.”

Phil Read and the 500 MV obliterated the Japanese bikes. At the end of the first lap, the MV was so far in front that spectators thought there must have been a crash. By the second lap, Read led by a stunning thirteen seconds. He went on to win the race, and that year’s world championship.

All this history got Dave and me fired up to go ridin’! Unfortunately, the movie cameras weren’t there yet. Seems the driver ran off the road during the night and got the truck upside down. When he finally arrived–shamefaced and humbled–everyone laughed and made a big joke of it. “Probably got the stick shift confused with something else.” But it’s clear that his nascent career in movie production is over. He’ll be fired as soon as they return to London.

After dinner that night, as we’re hanging out in the hotel garage messing with the bikes and enjoying the cool evening air, the silence is suddenly broken by the unmistakable ‘oom-pahh’ of a big-inch, hot-rod V8. “What the hell is that?!”

“Oh,” says, says Hirai, as an evil-looking low-slung beast rumbles into the parking lot. “Didn’t I tell you? That’s the camera car.”

“The camera car turns out to be a Lotus Esprit V8 with a built engine, cut slicks and two rear-facing seats with camera mounts. The driver is a curly headed and heavy-set fellow who looks vaguely familiar. It can’t be, but it is, Dave Bickers, two-time European 250 motocross champion, terror of the vintage MX scene and all-around hell-raiser.

Bickers didn’t remember me, of course, because I was merely a humble mechanic at Valerian’s when he and some of the other European riders visited our shop during a promotional tour in the early 70s. But when I told him that I was a CZ mechanic there and that I remembered his visit, his eyes lit up and he dragged me off to his van. “Look at this,” he said with a sly laugh, opening the door. He has just returned from a vintage race at Namur (he won, of course), and his mud-spattered CZ 360 twin-piper was in the back. He pulled out a framed, poster-size black-and-white photo. It showed a tightly grouped pack of riders blasting into the first turn at a motocross race. Judging from the riding gear, it was clearly taken sometime in the late sixties. “That’s Roger DeCoster, that’s Hallman, there I am.” Just like a kid. He’s still as excited about it as ever.

And the Lotus? “Oh, that’s my day job now. I built the car and rent it to the movie companies. It’s a blast to drive!”

Old racers never die; they just gain weight and slow down a bit.

There are many things to enjoy in Europe: cultural exchange, interesting languages, classical music…and the best breakfasts in the whole damn world! One of which was waiting for us early the next morning as we descended to the small, yet elegantly appointed, dining room. Spread before us was a bounty of local produce: sliced meats and cheeses, warm-from-the-oven breads and cereals, yogurt, fresh milk, juices, eggs, dried and steamed fruits, and plenty of steaming hot coffee and tea. Though our budget did not permit dinner in the hotel’s five-star restaurant, the breakfasts were so delicious that no one minded in the least.

The next day, while the movie guys messed around with their cameras, Dave and I blasted around the track in front of Kyoichi’s long lens. Dave spun the rear tire off the turns, painting the corner exits with black stripes; I was happy with the odd slide that told me the bike didn’t want to go much faster. In truth, the bike slid so easily that I wondered if the stock Bridgestone tires were merely living up to their name or if they were over-inflated. When I asked our mechanic if he had checked the tire pressures, his answer said it all: “Oops, sorry about that.”

By the next day, everything was routine: Up at dawn, eat, into our clammy leathers and then ride like maniacs all day. Cameras were in the car, at curbside, taped onto out bodies, mounted on fairings.

“One cut, boys,” yells the director, “We’re burning film here.”

Throughout the week, Dave continued to show off. He slid the rear wheel into turns, locked the rear wheel up and slid the bike, pulled wheelies and stoppies at every opportunity – he just couldn’t seem to get enough attention.

On the last night but one, giant strobe lights were set up in the infield section. High on fatigue, we tore through the velvety darkness like madmen, half blinded by the brilliant flashes.

“You guys look like zombies,” said Tomoko the next morning, as she cleaned our visors between takes.

We were shooting the final scene at the long downhill section in the infield. Numb with exhaustion, I was operating on pure reflex.

“Hang back after we pass the camera,” said Dave. “I’m gonna do a slide.”


As we slingshot past the camera in formation at about 90 mph, I got on the brakes lightly to put some distance between us and watch as Dave locked up the rear wheel and started a nice, high-speed, crossed-up drift. He was really hanging it out for the camera crew (like he’s gonna impress people who produce James Bond movies). As if in slow motion, the rear wheel gripped, Dave sailed clumsily over the handlebars, and the bike flipped neatly upside down, showering his tumbling body in shards of broken plastic.

“That’s a wrap,” yells the director.

[The resulting video (minus the crash scene) was absolutely stunning. Kawasaki’s agency spent the next five years trying to copy it using low-cost/low-imagination Japanese production houses, without success.]

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