Barn Find: RG Leathers
Several years ago, I made a deal to buy a large lot of vintage motocross gear. I'm a bit of a vintage gear collector, and have a hard time passing up cool old moto stuff. In this case it was a large lot, randomly strewn throughout an old warehouse with no organization. I was so giddy over all the cool stuff, that the process of gathering it became sloppy and hurried. Inventorying it all went out the window, and we ended up stuffing whatever was there into whatever we could put it into. Eventually a large number of boxes were loaded into the two cars we took to get there, and we got on the road.
Some of the items were either exposed to pigeon poop, decomposing, or both. A sickeningly foul odor permeated the car, forcing us to drive down the highway in winter with the windows open. Once we arrived to our destination we set about separating out the nasty stuff from the good. As we were going through the boxes in my good buddy Doug's driveway, he suddenly blurts out "what the #*#* is this?". Doug was holding a pair of pants upside down, by the ankles. This inversion made them them look strange, however the large "HONDA" logos on each size were immediately recognizable. They were leather, and small, like the size normally worn by a fit racer, with a zipper at the waist to connect to a jacket.
We started rummaging through the boxes to find what these pants zipped to. Most of the stuff was textile, so finding a leather jacket was quick work. It was also tiny, and tagged with logos typical of a Pro Rider's racing suit. Despite the fact that it had a riders name and number that we recognized, we both stood there in stunned silence for a few seconds, unable to believe what we were holding.
One of Ricky Graham's Factory Team Honda leather suits.
Chances are you may not know who "RG" is. A lot of time has passed since his racing days, which were pre-internet. So, I'm gonna give my best shot at storytelling here.
Ricky Graham was one of the greatest AMA Professional Flat Track racers of all time. Judging on talent alone, Ricky was perhaps the greatest. AMA Grand National Champion in 1980, 1982, and 1993. 39 total main event wins. Most main event wins in a season. Most consecutive main event wins in a season. Cycle News Rider of the year. AMA Athlete of the Year winner. Motorsports Hall of Fame member. I am sure I am leaving some accolades out.
Professional dirt track motorcycle racing is not a well known sport, but it is a fascinating part of motorsports. The first thing you need to know about it is this: it looks tame on television. It isn't. Of course, all motorsports are more impressive in person, but seeing pro dirt track up close, particularly if you actually ride motorcycles, is mind boggling.
The most hard-to-wrap-your-head-around visual of this is what I call "the pitch". The pitch is the split second when the rider, ripping along at 100 miles an hour, usually a few inches from several other riders, sits up, chops the throttle, and pitches the bike sideways. This occurs on a part of the track that gets pretty chewed up, so it it is choppy, bumpy, rutted, slick, and often a slight blue color. The pitch is unlike other parts of motorsports in its abrupt and shocking violence: in the course of less than a second, the bikes bounce, chirp, wobble, rev, swap, slide, and hopefully start turning left. It's frickin nutty, and trying to convey it with words fails.
Ricky had a special talent for the pitch: he'd out-wait the other riders, do it later, gaining a few bike lengths on entry. Now, late braking into a corner is not unique in motorsports. But consider this: AMA Grand National Championship motorcycles do not have brakes. Read that again. 100 MILES PER HOUR, with only a weak rear brake. They slow down from max straightaway speed by...throwing the bike sideways. Riders that can regularly do it later have that last .0001% of rare talent that very few humans do.
When you look at Ricky Graham's career, the 1993 season shines over all of it. RG had alienated the factory teams, and ended up riding for a privateer team on Hondas, which were considered uncompetitive. Ricky won 12 out of 18 races, 6 of them consecutively. Both of these are records, both have never been matched and Ricky made it look easy.
I had a personal connection to Ricky Graham, in that magic 1993 season. Back in a past life, I was working for a motocross apparel company that ended up sponsoring him for some of his gear. Most of my co-workers were unfamiliar and uninterested in Flat Track (I love all racing FWIW) and so I was RG's main liaison at the company. I talked with him weekly, did a couple catalog photo shoots with him. Of course I went to see him race several times, from the pits, which were some amazing memories,. I doubt I cut any wake at all in his life, but I remember the heck out of him, his team, his bike, and that year. In fact, just before one of the races, I clearly recall him with his helmet on, telling me "think I can win this one" just before heading out and doing exactly that. As I write this, I am getting a little choked up about how great a time it was.
No story about Ricky would be complete without talking about some of his challenges. If you notice, he won in 80 and 82, and then went 11 years before his next plaque. After 82, he struggled - hard - with substance abuse problems. Ricky had a side of him that that pissed off a lot of people in racing and the industry. I heard extensively about the former, and saw some of the latter firsthand. Despite these, I was in awe of him. I felt like that kid in Almost Famous that gets to follow a band around, seeing things he'll never forget, while knowing how damned lucky he is to be there in the first place.
Back to the leathers.
I was pretty shocked at what I was holding. These were a real, used, full set of Bates custom dirt track race leathers. Plenty of wear marks. Thick leather, two layers in spots, heavy. Hand-cut two-color HONDA logos on the chest, and each leg. The "Champion", "Shoei", "Camel Pro" "Honda Pro Oils", and "Bates" logos had clear plastic over them to keep them clean (it's DIRT track, remember!!). Of course, most striking are the name and number of RG in big letters.
I don't know where they were used or when. Normally, my barely controlled curiosity would have me deep in an internet rabbit hole, trying to match them up with a photo somewhere. For some reason, I felt I should not do that, that instead I should simply enjoy this life event as it passes by. To this day, I consciously avoid trying to spot them online.
I felt I should not keep them, but also should not sell them to any random dude on the internet. I cannot remember how, but I ended up getting connected to someone that was a true, great fan of Ricky, who was curating a collection of his memorabilia. We made a deal that we were both happy with, and I sent them off to him. He and I kept in contact for a few years, but I have not spoken to him in at least a decade.
Unfortunately, Ricky Graham died in a house fire in 1998. In some very odd way, there was almost a strange sense that tragedy would someday catch up to him. I hope it does not piss off any of his fans or friends. But this feeling was a real thing, somewhat like the feeling I got when watching a movie about Ken Miles.
In this case, I feel like I was in the movie.
Thanks for reading.
- The BOMBERS