It was love at first sight for J.B. Norris.
“My daddy took me to a race when I was a little kid,” the veteran American Motorcycle Association public address announcer said, “and I was hooked. The smell, the babes ...”
And the danger.
AMA Flat Track motorcycle racing came to Mountain Raceway Park last Saturday, and it didn’t take a lap of the night’s feature race for things to turn scary.
Top qualifier Jared Mees touched wheels with a rider and went down as the 18-strong pack barreled into the raceway’s first banked turn. A following rider rolled over Mees and his motorcycle at top speed, sending the downed rider’s helmet skidding across the track.
After being attended to by emergency medical personnel, Mees would briefly reenter the race, eventually deciding the better part of valor would be to sit this one out.
“It’s the thrill. I love the thrill of competition,” a still slightly dazed Mees would say afterward in the air-conditioned comfort of his team’s motor home. “We don’t get paid enough to do what we do for the money.”
Series points leader Ken Coolbeth shot to the front of the field on the restart and never looked back in winning the feature race, widening his lead in the season standings. For Mees, teammate Brandon Bergen and team owner Johnny Goad, it was another night on the circuit, another night of living life on the edge - and loving every minute of it.
“It takes a daredevil to do this,” Goad said.
Speeds down the straightaways at the raceway reached 110 mph as Mees and Bergen powered their suped up, $30,000 Harley-Davidson motorcycles toward the turns. There, the two Harley sponsored riders pulled hard on the handlebars to “bang it sideways,” relying largely on the track’s banking to keep them on the raceway. Hay bails line the perimeter of the track for those who don’t get it just right.
“You’ve got to bend it to make the turn,” Bergen said. “If you don’t make the turn, that’s really a rush.”
At the end of the night, there’s a spot on the podium for a few, but that’s far from the reason the riders do it.
“It’s hard work, but it’s the passion,” Sarah Goad, Johnny’s wife, said. “That’s what it’s all about. That wraps it up. We eat, sleep and drink racing.”
The Goads, which includes daughter Caylee, 12, form the support system for the Blue Springs Screamin’ Eagle racing team. Johnny, 64, a retired businessman and former racer, builds the engines and handles much of the financing. Bergen and Mees can carry as many as five bikes each to races in the team’s custom motor home, complete with stalls for the motorcycles and spare parts in the back and all the comforts of home up front.
Throw in salaries and the $2,000 racing leathers riders wear, and the cost for running a team for a season can easily exceed $300,000.
“It’s very expensive” Sarah Goad said. “It takes sponsorship, and it takes working together.”
The pay is good for some. Top riders can make anywhere from $30,000-$250,000 a year on the circuit.
There’s the celebrity. Coolbeth and Saturday runner up “Smokin’” Joe Kopp are both former grand national champions, with Coolbeth the two-time defending title holder.
There’s also prestige. Only the best secure sponsorship from big companies like Harley-Davidson and others.
“We make a pretty decent living,” Mees said. “Not like NASCAR, but we make enough to support ourselves.”
Supporting each other is the operative phrase on the circuit. Most riders, like Coolbeth, 31, have been with the sport since they were kids. Few hang around past 25. Koop, 39, and Coolbeth are notable exceptions.
“It’s tough to hang with the young kids,” Kopp said, “but I’ve got something for them.”
The injuries, from year to year, only mount.
“I’ve got quite a bit of metal in my body,” Coolbeth said.
The dangers associated with flat track racing can be all too real. Kopp said he’s seen at least 10 riders die in races he’s entered over the years, a fact he said is not lost on wife, Dee Dee, and sons, Garrett and Kody.
“My wife’s been following me for many years, so she’s used to it,” he said. “It pays the bills, and I get to ride my motorcycle to make a living.”
Just the riding part has been an ordeal for Mees this season. The Clio, Mich., native tore the ACL in his right knee during a training race in March. After surgery, he came tearing back, entering Saturday as one of the hottest riders on the circuit, evidenced by his top qualifying time. Less than a lap into the race, his night was essentially over.
“I remember getting a bad start,” he said, “and that’s all I remember.”
Strong friendships are a by-product of what they do for a living, Kopp said. When Mees went down, it took out the rider who’d run over him as well. That rider, seeing Mees badly injured, sprinted back up the turn’s banking to check on his rival. The Goads were also quick to their rider’s side.
It would be no different if it were the series-leading Coolbeth, Kopp said. They have to look out for each other.
“He’s the No. 1 guy,” he said. “If the last place guy blew up his motor, they’d be right there for him.”
“It’s like one big family,” Sarah Goad said. “The guys you see out here tonight we’re together with every single weekend.”
Sponsored teams like the one the Goads manage sat by their motor homes long after much of Saturday’s packed house had left the raceway. There was no need to rush at that point, Sarah Goad said. Next week is another race. It’ll be here soon enough. When it arrives, riders like Mees will zip the leathers and answer the bell.
“That’s what it takes,” Johnny said. “You have to be like that to be a racer.”