~Since 2004~
A site about memories, thoughts, photos, and unrepentant opinions about motorcycles and motorcycling after four decades of twisting the throttle.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Before I Rode Motorcycles

Judging by the photo above you might think this blog entry is about land speed racing. You'd be wrong, it's about pretty much the opposite thing: slow, air competition.

If ever there was a time when I didn't need the ultra low gearing of the Yamaha TW200 it was two weeks ago. South of Phoenix, down outside of Eloy, AZ and about 25 miles from where I live was the site of a vintage model airplane contest. I'm sure nearly everyone reading 40on2 is also a radio control model airplane enthusiast and a large percentage of you are very into pre-1942 balsawood designs with now flown radio control assist. No? Really?? Ok, I'm not surprised. It's a pretty esoteric interest unlike old Bultacos which are enjoyed by tens of millions of people besides me.

In the pantheon of hobbies I've enjoyed over the years only one pre-dates motorcycles and that is balsa wood model airplanes. I built my first one when I was so young I scarcely remember it but somehow the fascination never left me. Long before I was hanging out in motorcycle shops I was hanging out in hobby shops. For a boy in the 1950s and early 1960s, the local hobby shop was the coolest place on earth. Yeah, that's me with one of my first airplanes in circa 1959.

I've wandered in and out of that hobby for my entire life, only motorcycles have been a consistent presence since I was 15 years old or so. Fact is though, I was so into model airplanes in the 1970s that I was even a partner in a hobby shop for a few years. There were still motorcycles, of course, but the model airplanes and in particular radio controlled model airplanes were my livelihood and my hobby. Radio control model airplane flying is pretty much the only "world" where I'm as comfortable as I am in the motorcycle world.

Although I've not actively built and flown model airplanes for several years now my interest has remained and I have a large stash of model kits and parts put away for those idyllic retirement days I knew would always come. Retirement, such as it is for me, will commence on February 27, 2009. It won't be idyllic but it won't involve working in 110° Arizona sunshine or toiling away in an 8x8 cubicle anymore. To me that's nearly idyllic. More about the whole retirement schitck later.

In keeping one eye on my life long interest in flying model airplanes I discovered that down south of me, outside of Eloy, AZ, a model airplane contest takes place every year. The last time I visited to see what was going on was 2005. This year I went again for the 59th annual edition of the Southwestern Regional Model Airplane Championships. Naturally my little Yamaha was part of the deal because the event takes place on a huge, flat, fallow cotton farm with certain events nearly a mile apart. The land has been fallow for so many years now it looks more like a dry lake bed than farm land or typical Arizona desert. Getting back and forth and chasing around makes this a natural place for an old dirt bike. In fact if you go out to one of these contests you'll find a hodge podge of old dirt bikes now pressed into work chasing errant airplanes. The Honda Trail 110 below is still serving it's owner faithfully long after other bikes of it's vintage have been turned into rebar and beer cans.

My long time buddy Keith, now a retired motorcycle nut, is also a lifelong modeler. Keith cruised over in his motorhome and set up shop out at the flying site for the weekend and he and I spent the time roaming around, shooting the breeze with people, and eating too much.

The Red Head was kind enough to loan Keith the Mighty Ruckus so he didn't have to run along behind me as I trundled around on the Yamaha taking pictures. Keith has a long history in motorcycles, much of which cannot be disclosed here for propriety's sake. You guys with a bent towards Bonneville racing will know the name Marty Dickerson and Keith was involved in tuning engines with Marty long, long ago.

The model airplanes in the photos are built from kits or from scratch following the original plans of long ago and the guidelines of the Society of Antique Modelers rule book. The models are balsawood and light plywood; the structures mostly traditional truss construction then covered with light fabric. A few guys will use modern shrink coat plastic films to cover the airplanes but the hard core guys still use fabric and model airplane dope of one sort or another. Fiberglass, carbon fiber, and molded snap-plastic kits need not apply. Guys who are "Master Card" modelers are looked upon with the same mild contempt as with those who buy a Harley-Davidson only for image and not the ride.

One of the things people often find surprising is the size of the planes. While many people when they were young built small 10 cent hand launch gliders or even a larger twelve or fourteen inch wingspan glider, model airplanes even in ye olden times were big, some were very big.

Every who loves gasoline power devices loves a nice well tuned engine. The little Cox .049 engine you might remember as a kid is still around although no longer produced. The planes in the pictures typically use something much larger and rather than a glow plug use a total loss ignition system and spark plug just like your grandpa did with his model airplanes back in the '30s and '40s and even into the '50s. A few planes now are electric powered; times change and not everyone wants to mess with a fiddly, 60 year old ignition engine with a prop big enough to lop off a finger when it the thing kicks back. Electric stuff is ok, just not as cool. It is sort of like the difference between an old BSA single cylinder engine and a modern, water cooled YZF 4-stroke racing single.

You'll note in the photos that the modelers tend to be antiques themselves. The planes represent and era of boyhood in America that is long gone and a lot of modelers are too stubborn or too smart to let it go completely. The style and the construction of the planes is painstaking, detailed, and requires a lot of patience. This makes the model completely at odds with the modern pre-fab model stuff coming out of China that seems to be preferred by most so-called hobby shops today. Yes, I'm a model airplane curmudgeon even more than I'm a motorcycle curmudgeon. Building and flying antique model airplanes is part nostalgia for a past some of us were fortunate enough to enjoy and it's also about preserving a bit of history, of preserving classic designs that would otherwise be all but forgotten. To that extent it's very much like vintage bike racing or restoration.

The part that is hard for young folks to realize now is that there was a time in America when building model airplanes was the equivalent in popularity of playing with an Xbox or whatever today. Boys by the millions built model airplanes. One model airplane company was cranking out as many as ten million balsa kits per year. The other thing boys did while building model airplanes was learn about craftsmanship, structure, aerodynamics, and patience, something no Xbox or Wii 1st person shooter game is teaching anyone now. Young people and America are poorer for it too.

The Yamaha trundled me around nicely all weekend and impressed everyone with it's fat tires if not it's top speed. The Ruckus served us well too. It was even pressed into service when a model went off on it's own for an extended flight.

The mighty Ruckus was there on the ground waiting over a mile away when the little plane touched down on it's own, it's radio having given up the ghost.

In short, the TW is doing just what I had in mind for it to do which isn't very exciting but it's still fun. I did take the opportunity to spin a few donuts out there in the flats as I'm still first and always will be a motorcycle guy at heart.

More pictures from the event here.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Steve McQueen's Husqvarna Resurfaces

I received and e-mail from Rob Phillips quite a while back. He had seen the old Instamatic photos of Steve MCqueen in my 2007 blog entry "Instamatic Memories". Rob had just acquired what he believed to a Husqvarna 400 Cross motorcross bike once belonging to Steve McQueen, maybe even the very one that McQueen had ridden in the Movie "On Any Sunday" or seen in my snapshots of 39 years ago. Rob was very curious to know if I had any additional or better pictures of McQueen's bike at the race. Sadly, no. I do have some Super-8 movies though that may or may not have McQueen in them. I need to get them digitized and see what I can see.

Rob has completed the restoration of the Husky and it's now on display down in San Diego. More info and the complete article on the bike over at Steve McQueen On-line. Thanks, Rob, for the link to the article. I promise that I won't be a flake forever, I will digitize my Super-8 film from the Elsinore Grand Prix. You'll be the first to get a copy. You just have to let me ride Steve's bike once. ;-)

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