A Tribute to Jack Wilson


Jack and the Piss-Willies
by Dave Howe

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The President of our classic bike club asked me to write about my most embarrassing moment involving motorcycles. Guess he thinks I'm into self-humiliation. I finally settled on an incident to write about that happened far enough back that it's now funny to me. Took about 5 years to get funny.

Back during my “pre-Michael Jackson skin condition days” when I could still go to Bonneville with the Big 'D' Cycle and Team Triumph Texas gang, I lucked into a ride on the most beautiful vintage racer on the salt. It was a 1951 500cc Speed Twin built by Big 'D' as a replica of a salt flat racer from that era. See photo above. The bike was built while Jack Wilson was off sick and it had a couple of problems that prevented it from reaching its' potential and led to its' ultimate demise. And very nearly mine. 

Anyhoo, this thing, Number 651, was drop-dead gorgeous and a real show stopper. Silver and blue with a replica tank decal of the old Pete Dalio shop in Fort Worth that later became Big 'D'. A slick little hand built hard-tail with a 21 inch front wheel to climb out of the ruts, twin open megs and high riser bars that had been sectioned, reversed and rotated to make great low salt flat bars. Radical rear-sets. Amal GP carbs and a Lucas racing mag. This was about a $12,000 bike that belonged to a rather rotund customer who, when he sat on it the first (and only) time, broke a seat spring perch. In the old days, Jack had a very similar open 500 that ran 135, so we knew this thing should go like hell.

I had my new Snell approved racing helmet, new color coordinated blue/white/black leathers and gloves, new boots, jock strap and nerve pills. I had a newly minted racing license and my racing outfit looked even faster than Minonno's! My beard was trimmed and I was ready. I had done the final prep on the bike with a Big ‘D’ rebuilt race motor after the previous year’s oil line fiasco (another embarrassing moment, but not mine). The owner and I were proud to be operating the bike ourselves, so the Big Boys could tend to the Big Bikes without us as a distraction.

At that time we had Tech Inspection at Wendover Airport (former W.W.II B-29 base where the Enola Gay crew trained and practiced) on Saturday morning with pit set-up right after on the salt. The Team Triumph Texas/Big 'D' pit is always a trip - all the bikes lined up in front with all kinds of people stopping by to look and talk. When Jack was still going, many of the people were there just to see and talk to him. The bikes draw a big crowd and so does Jack. He has tremendous respect out there from the motorcycle racers as well as many of the car guys.

And he "holds court", if you know what I mean.

Now Jack, like A.J. Foyt, is a racer of the Old School. He doesn't care for just anybody and everybody. If he doesn't like you, you know it and feel it. If he does like you, life is much more pleasant, but it still has its pitfalls. He has categories into which everyone is placed. And he will move you around in the categories to suit the occasion. You usually earn it. 

They work something like this (in ascending order):

Prunepicker1
You are from California and a stupid SOB. You will never move up.

Prunepicker2
You are from Florida and a stupid SOB. You will never move up.

Dipshit
You are from anywhere else and a stupid SOB. Maybe a Big 'D' employee. You will probably never move up.

Piss-Willie
You are from Texas and a stupid SOB. You have a very slim chance to move up.

Wannabe Racer
You have not proven yourself and are presumed to be a stupid SOB. You will be given every opportunity to prove it. You also have a very slim chance to move up, but don't count on it.

Racer
You are a racer that doesn't ride for Jack and a stupid SOB. Move ups are few and far between.

Good Racer
You are a racer that rides for Jack and a stupid SOB. You have a better chance of winning the lottery than moving up, but it can be one - right, Jon?

Champion/Record Holder
Any racer (especially his) that is really good, and is only sometimes a stupid SOB. Right, Jon? No move ups from here.

There is only one higher category, and that is Jack.

Now this sounds a little harsh, and would be if it was anyone else but him. But the system works. And people the world over make allowances because, well, it is Jack after all.

So there we were - the bike owner and me, a couple of Wannabe Racers suddenly "in the show" and wanting desperately to move up. And certainly not to move down a category. Nobody wants to be a Piss-Willie. The bikes were lined up and didn't show a fingerprint. The crowd was gathered around Jack like fans around a rock star. 651 was drawing more than its' fare share of attention and our "15 minutes of fame" was at hand.

We knew that Jack takes racing seriously. Racing at Bonneville very seriously. Racing Triumphs at Bonneville very, very seriously. Racing Big 'D' Triumphs at Bonneville very, very seriously. The pressure was on.

A glance at Jack drew the almost imperceptible nod that meant it was time to start 'em up. It was high-noon and just hot as hell. The pits were now "hot" and this was it.

Even with the 11 1/2:1 pistons, GP carbs and Lucas mag, 651 was always an easy starter, with a trick little removable start lever that slipped off and out of the way after firing. The owner turned on the gas. I tickled the big GP's until they properly puked. The owner wanted to start it himself. He kicked. And kicked. And kicked. And kicked some more. And kicked until he was blinded by a river of sweat and mumbled to me: "You start the damn thing!" Hell, I knew I could do it! This guy must only be a Dip-Shit!

So I kicked. And kicked. And kicked. And kicked some more. And kicked until I was blinded by a river of sweat. I had noticed Jack and his faithful gathering closely watching all this. My keen eye detected the tell-tale red curtain slowly moving up Jack's face until I knew it had reached the top of his bald head under the straw cowboy hat. The boiling point had been reached and passed. This was not good.

Suddenly and without warning, the crowd drew back and Jack quickly and without a word strode forward from about 40 feet away, towards the two sweating Wannabe's and the still quiet 651. Now Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea was not nearly as impressive, or intimidating, as that Old Man stomping across that hard salt! He was not smiling. Dear God, take me now! He came straight to the bike and - you guessed it - flipped on the kill switch! As he quickly turned to walk back to the grinning, waiting entourage, he looked at us Wannabe's and hissed: "Try it now, Piss-Willie's!"

Doh! Instant demotion. Humiliation. Just another couple of damn Piss-Willies. Stupid SOB's that had just proved it to the only world that mattered at that moment. As bad as it gets. I kicked once more and 651 roared to life in that special way only a hot Triumph twin breathing through open megs can do. A glance at Jack showed the red curtain gone, but with a very slight, noticeable only to us, shaking of his head.

It got better, but it took a while. But you know, none of the other racers or Jack ever razzed us about that. Ever.

I rode 651 for two years. I never forgot the kill switch again. The first year the top end seized at about 120. Oiling problems. Having grown up on 2-strokes, this was not unfamiliar territory. An exciting ride. The second year, after getting through some deep, wet, blown-roadster ruts in the salt OK, the right hand rod broke just above the big end at about 95, literally chain-sawing the right side of the engine from the left. Hot oil bath. Hope I never hear a sound like that again. A very exciting ride. A good thing about the old chronometric tachs is that they freeze at the RPM at which the engine blows. I was SO relieved to see that it was indicating almost 2,000 RPM less than redline! Naturally, I showed it to Jack - he just laughed and said: "Well, Dave, I sure bet you were glad to see that!". I laughed and felt a little better, but still terrible. I had just blown up a beautiful 12 grand race bike and even though it wasn't my fault, I felt responsible and very bad. Jack saw this and came over and told me "Hell, it ain't your fault and if you're going to worry about a blowed-up motor, you ain't got no business racing at Bonneville!" A million bucks couldn't have made me feel better than that did.

That's the other side of this guy - the Class Act. The one I'll never forget.

One funny thing: The owner of 651 was, shall we say, "pleasingly plump". While we were racing, we operated out of the back of his car. I had just returned something to my toolbox, slammed the lid on my finger, and without thinking, loudly exclaimed: "Kiss a fat man's ass!!" You can imagine the look he gave me (and rightfully so)! This guy could be a real pain sometimes, but when we blew up 651, he was also very kind about it. I don't know what I expected, but this kind of class always impresses me! And Land Speed Racers seem to have a lot of it...

Footnote: This little story was written a couple of years ago and was superficially about something funny that happened to me. But it was really about Jack Wilson, my friend, teacher and hero. It was really dedicated to him but I couldn’t say so. Now I can. 

Dave Howe

May 27, 2000


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Revised: January 29, 2008.