'great' publicity for the sport in the L.A. Times
Filling the Need for Speed
A new breed of bikers is tearing up the roads on machines that easily top 100 mph—and leave police in their dust.
By CHRISTINE HANLEY, Times Staff Writer
Mike Kelly thunders from one freeway to another on his racing motorcycle, splitting lanes and dodging traffic on his way to work. No, he's not running late—he's trying to beat his best time.
On weekends, he really gets wild. Pitching and rolling through the curvy roads of the Santa Monica Mountains, he feels as if he's taking flight.
Kelly has been banged up and bruised, tossed over his handlebars, and left unconscious at the bottom of a ravine. But even his worst brush with death hasn't slowed him down.
"At 120 mph, that's when everything comes alive," he said.
From the bluffs of Mulholland Drive to the canyons of Orange County and San Diego, sport bikers are shaking up the Southern California motorcycle scene, injecting an element of high-speed thrill-seeking that has led to conflict with police, motorists and an older, more laid-back generation of bikers.
They ride a new breed of lightweight, super-fast motorcycles and sport flashy leather jumpsuits that give them the look of futuristic comic book heroes. The daredevils among them play chicken with slower traffic, perform circus-like stunts and often leave motorcycle cops eating their dust.
For years, the biking world was dominated by the Harley-Davidson crowd, most of them older riders who prize the freedom and camaraderie of the road.
Many of the younger bikers are in it for something else—the speed and sense of danger. Motorists complain about being run off the road by their risky stunts. Police admit they are outmatched by the powerful machines.
"Those bikes are incredibly fast. They're difficult to chase," said California Highway Patrol Officer Steve Miles, who patrols the Ortega Highway in Orange County, a favorite biker route. "Usually they try to outrun us. They know they can."
Today's sport motorcycles are half as heavy and nearly twice as fast as those produced a decade ago. Frames are made of aluminum and plastic rather than steel.
But the biggest change is in the engines. Many bikes can reach nearly 200 mph, and some are faster out of the box than a NASCAR race car.
A standard motorcycle license is all that is needed to ride them. And with many of the bikes selling for less than $10,000—half the price of Harleys—they appeal to riders of all ages.
Sales of sport bikes in California have doubled in the last few years, according to industry estimates.
The view among many speed riders is that you haven't lived until you've survived a spectacular crash. Some carry two-way radios to alert one another to police patrols, and cell phones so they can summon friends to help them if they wipe out. "Ambulance rides are really expensive," said Dave Vernick, 32, a sport biker from San Diego. "And if the cops come, they give you tickets for crashing."
Kelly has half a dozen sport bikes in the garage of his Culver City home. Splashed with reds, greens, yellows and other bright colors, Kelly's collection, worth about $35,000, includes many of the models that have become the thrill toys of choice for younger riders.
"Death with keys," Kelly calls them.
He's been a motorcycle fanatic since he was a kid, when he swapped his BB gun and $30 for his first bike, a red Honda cruiser. He graduated to faster, more nimble machines as they hit the showrooms. Now, he says, he's addicted to the adrenaline rush. When he's not racing through town, he's on a racetrack trying to boost his speed.
Like many in his crowd, Kelly, 32, leads a surprisingly conventional life when not in the saddle. He owns a home and works for a Pasadena engineering company.
But on these bikes, even the most conservative riders can't make any promises. "As soon as you twist the throttle," Kelly said, "it's like putting drugs in your veins."
He clocks his commute to work and is constantly trying to improve his time. A speeding ticket last year slowed him down for a little while. But soon he was at it again.
On a whim, he went to a Ducati motorcycle dealership during a lunch break to test-drive a new Italian model.
He and a salesman were blazing on separate bikes at 100 mph when they blew past a cop. They raced back to the dealership, changed out of their leathers and dashed inside. By the time the police cruiser pulled up, they were sitting at the salesman's desk as if they had been innocently discussing business all along.
For Kelly and other rocket riders, the real fun begins on weekends. That's when they hit the scenic hillsides to test their skills on two-lane roads that dip, dive and roll. A favorite destination for Kelly and his biking buddies is the Santa Monica Mountains.
For protection, they wear thick, skintight leather jumpsuits and aerodynamic helmets.
Kelly's shiny outfit, speckled with white, black and chrome, cost him $1,500 and is considered top of the line. Under this shell are layers of Kevlar, plastic and high-density foam at the knees, elbows and other vulnerable spots.
Kelly knows he can look silly in this skin, but it has saved his life. His closest call was two years ago.
He was riding his Ducati alone through the Santa Monicas and took his eye off the road for a split second to watch the speedometer needle cross the 120-mph mark. When he looked up, the road was turning left. And he didn't have time to turn. He squeezed the front brakes hard and was thrown headfirst over his handlebars. His midair thoughts were on his bike and how much it was going to cost to fix it.
Then the 300-pound machine—and reality—caught up to him.
"My bike hit me in the back," Kelly said. "Then I pretty much blacked out."
When he regained consciousness, he saw the outline of four bikers who had seen the crash and came to help him.
Kelly pushed his banged-up bike up a hill to the road and climbed on board. With all the machismo of Mel Gibson's "Mad Max" character, he then rode six miles to the nearest coffee shop with crushed ribs and a punctured lung.
He checked himself into a hospital, where doctors had to perform emergency surgery for a collapsed lung. Three weeks later, he began riding his motorcycle again.
Despite his antics, Kelly is on the conservative side of the speed-biking world. The real daredevils perform wild stunts on rural back roads, deserted city streets, parking lots, even cemeteries.
Dave Vernick, who loves canyon racing and stunt-riding, says walking away from a spectacular crash without serious wounds is like riding all the attractions at Disneyland in a 10-second span.
He should know. He has crashed every bike he ever owned.
"If you're going to be afraid of doing anything because it's dangerous and you might die, you might as well be dead," Vernick said. "You're wasting your life."
Vernick moved to San Diego about three years ago, abandoning the family construction business in Port Jefferson, N.Y., so he could ride year-round.
He landed a job in San Diego selling motorcycles and Jet Skis. He now manages a physical therapy office.
Vernick and his friends often videotape their stunts, trying to earn a starring role on videos such as "Urban Assault" and "Moving Violations," which chronicle the adventures of speed riders.
Among his favorite stunts are "stoppies" or "endos," in which riders go as fast as they can, hit the brakes and pitch forward on the front wheel until they find a balancing point.
"Wheelies," in which you ride with the front wheel in the air, can be performed standing up, sitting on the gas tank, with both legs stretched over the front wheel, or standing with one leg on the seat. Some riders even do headstands.
Vernick and his friends like to race up and down Palomar Mountain east of San Diego on the weekends, taking breaks at Mother's Cafe, a mountaintop hangout where hundreds of sport bikers show up by breakfast time.
One of Vernick's favorite tales of misadventure involves a round-trip journey to San Francisco with a few friends two years ago.
On the way, the group was riding about 150 mph on Interstate 5. A Highway Patrol officer trailed them for miles before he caught up to them near a construction zone. They talked their way out of tickets by promising to stay under the 70-mph speed limit. The cop warned them he was going to radio every other officer ahead of him to be on the lookout.
"So we did 70 mph for about an hour," Vernick recalled. Then they let loose, capping it off by doing 120-mph wheelies across the San Francisco Bay Bridge about midnight.
On the way back, they ended up on a portion of California 1 outside San Luis Obispo that was closed for construction. Vernick, racing ahead of the pack, missed a left turn at 90 mph. He plowed into a guardrail that saved him from a 100-foot plunge into the ocean. He was bloodied and dazed. His bike, one week old, was totaled.
His friends—and a pickup truck he had passed earlier—eventually caught up to him and took him to a hospital. He checked himself out a few hours later and immediately assessed the damage to his mangled bike. He managed a few wheelies in a motel parking lot before putting the machine in a friend's pickup. A week later, he purchased a new one.
"When you fall off, you've got to get back on," he said.
Tales of near-misses and tragic deaths have become common in the mountains and canyons.
Angeles Crest Highway and Ortega Highway are among the deadliest roads for motorcyclists in California. In the last six years, 24 bikers have died on Angeles Crest—three-quarters of them in single-vehicle accidents in which they lost control. Sixteen motorcyclists died on the Ortega during the same period.
Experts said the daredevil tactics of speed racers are one reason motorcycle fatalities are rising nationally after declining for much of the '90s. Motorcycle deaths dropped from 3,128 in 1990 to 2,056 in 1997, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. But in the last three years, the number has risen, reaching 2,793 in 2000.
Chuck Bennett regularly runs into racers on the Ortega Highway, a narrow, two-lane road through Cleveland National Forest that connects San Juan Capistrano and Lake Elsinore.
Bennett, 70, has lived along the highway for years but says the last few have been the worst. The riders hang on the back bumper of his motor home, and then pass him in a blur.
"It scares the hell out of you," Bennett said. "These guys come whipping around you. They'll usually take you on an inside curve or outside curve that they can't see around. They're obscene. They're obnoxious. And they ought to be horsewhipped."
Mike Gee, a 31-year-old physical therapist from San Diego, was driving his pickup along the Ortega Highway with his buddies on the way to a mountain bike excursion when he had to swerve to avoid a head-on crash with a rider who had crossed the median.
"He got over just in time," Gee said.
Steve Miles, the highway patrolman, has policed the Ortega Highway for 13 years and shares Gee's frustration. At the beginning of each shift, he drives by those little white crosses that pay tribute to people who lost their lives on the road, a growing number of them bikers.
The CHP began a crackdown after one officer was beaten up last year just outside San Juan Capistrano by two speed bikers he had pulled over for speeding. But Miles acknowledges that more patrols and stiffer speeding fines have done little to slow down the new breed of bikers.
A few years ago, Miles got into a pursuit through the canyon, with speeds topping 100 mph. On a curve, he lost control of his cruiser, which flipped over. He escaped with minor injuries.
Ever since, he thinks twice before trying to catch sport bikers. "There's situations where I have to stop. It's too reckless," he said.
Officers who patrol another playground for speed racers—the twisting Angeles Crest Highway above Los Angeles—have also cracked down but with more success. The effort involved more officers as well as road improvements, including repaving and widening the shoulders.
The state increased patrols along the two-lane road, assigning at least nine units on summer weekends and using a helicopter to monitor activities from above.
In the two years before the project began, there were 24 fatalities along the 40-mile road, most of them motorcyclists, said CHP Officer Vincent Bell. In the two years since—during which 500 tickets were written—there have been five deaths.
The stunts and aggressive riding are especially aggravating to Harley loyalists, many of whom are drawn to the open road less for a speed fix than for the fellowship and feeling of freedom.
Bike gangs such as the Hells Angels make up a small portion of the Harley crowd, and garner headlines for drug dealing and other crimes. But most of the Harley crowd are weekend warriors who enjoy a morning of leisurely cruising on their hogs.
Joe "Ol Jug" Pultorak, 81, a World War II fighter pilot and Harley loyalist, remembers when Harley riders had the highways, hillsides and hangouts to themselves. They have watched the scene change from the seats of their Harleys. First came the wealthy, corporate types who ride their hogs and wear their designer leather on weekends. More recently, they've noticed the rising tide of sport bikers.
"It's a whole different world now. Everything has changed," laments Dusty Switzer, 57, a member of Pultorak's group of aging Harley loyalists. "It's a little unreal when you used to see two or three sport bikes, and now you see 103."
An afternoon at the Rock Store restaurant along Mulholland Highway provides a snapshot of this invasion.
On weekends, Harley riders pull up to the biker hangout, tattoos and all, on vintage choppers like those seen in the film "Easy Rider." Sport bikers zip in and out in equal numbers, swapping tales of derring-do. By the time the place fills up, it looks like a bunch of superheroes got lost on their way to a cartoon convention and somehow ended up at a casting call for a remake of "The Wild Ones."
Following an unwritten rule, Harley riders and sport bikers park on separate sides of the parking lot. When their paths cross on the road, things can get ugly.
Gary Botswaner of Westchester recalled approaching a traffic light next to a group of Harley riders who greeted him with an obscene gesture. He waited for the light to turn green, then let out the throttle and aimed for the convoy. He swerved at the last instant to avoid contact, then sped away.
Inside the Rock Store, 34-year-old Duke Maltin has his own stories about encounters with Harley riders, which he recounts between bites of scrambled eggs and glimpses of a motorcycle race being broadcast on a big-screen television.
Maltin said he and a friend were speeding up Mulholland when they came upon a Harley pack out for a ride last year. Instead of waiting for a safe chance to pass on the left, his riding partner weaved through the formation.
"He was cutting these Harley guys up like Swiss cheese. He didn't care," Maltin said.
The Harley pack tracked down Maltin and his friend and started beating up the friend. Maltin begged them to stop, explaining that his friend was new to the sport and didn't know the rules of the road.
With his red jumpsuit peeled to his waist to expose a "Speed Racer" T-shirt, Maltin personifies the new generation of speed biker. A computer consultant and struggling actor, he is obsessed with speed. Harleys are like any other "slowpoke" getting in his way.
"I'm a thrill-seeker," he says with a devilish grin, before taking off on his Suzuki 600. "I'm out here to risk it all."