By Larry D Barnes
After my own dad died, Fathers Day didn’t mean too much to me. He was my role model for many things, but particularly for my getting into motorcycles; specifically, vintage motorcycles. You see, my father, Donald Barnes, was a motorcycle racer back in the late ‘40’s, riding a twenty year old 1929 Indian 101 Scout. But since I wasn’t even born until 1949, I didn’t get to see any of that.
It was only the stories he told about racing that I grew up with. I learned who all his competitors and friends were, what bike they rode, how and where they crashed, and where they won. But Dad never bragged about where and when he won. He never told me much about those times. It just wasn’t his way. I only found how good a rider he was much later, thanks to my Mom’s diligence in taking pictures and keeping a scrapbook of their journeys to dozens of racetracks around the Midwest.
Turns out he was a nationally ranked Expert TT rider. Dad, my Mom, my older brother Skip, and my Uncle Cliff, who was his tuner, went to the races about every weekend in the summer and worked at the Dad’s small Indian dealership in Wooster, OH during the week. Dad always gave high praise to my Uncle Cliff for making his 1929 Indian 101 Scout “run so good,” and how he could always “keep up with those other guys and their new bikes.”
Don Barnes in 1947
But three things happened in the early 50’s that made Dad hang up his steel shoe: First, I was born in ‘49. Mom had lost her first husband in WWII and now they had two boys to raise; followed by a set of twins in ’52. Next, Indian went out of business and there were no more Chiefs to sell.
And finally, Dad received a letter (that I still have) from Indian’s representative on the AMA’s competition committee that ruled his 1929 Indian was too old to race in professional competition anymore. So he quit racing and “got a real job” in a factory.
When I got old enough to ride, then race a Honda, then a Yamaha, then a Bultaco, Dad always went with me and wistfully told me about what that 101 Scout could do if he still could enter it in a race. Dad was also a long-time All American Indian Club member and that’s how I found out about the cool LaGrange Engine Show and AAIMC Indian Meet in Wellington, OH. Going there with him and I was hooked! He’d haul the 101 up there and take the Saturday morning ride with the other guys.
Sadly however, Dad got a brain tumor in early 1995. They gave him six months to live. My friend Steve Doyle and I took him to see our last motorcycle race together in Norwalk, Ohio. We pushed him around the pits in his wheelchair, since he could no longer walk much. He got to shake hands with George Roeder, Sr. who we always rooted for. (After Bobby Hill retired, of course.)
On the way home from Norwalk that day we saw a Bultaco Astro sitting alongside the road for sale. Without hesitation, we doubled back to check it out and I bought it. It was the very same model that I had raced back in the 70’s. Steve and I went back a week later to pick it up. The Bultaco just went into storage, since I was dealing with Dad’s illness. My Dad passed later in 1996, shortly after Fathers Day that year. I have to say that was the worst day of my life. He was my best friend AND my father.
My Dad and I the last time he sat on his Indian
Five years went by quickly and I began to read about an organization called the “American Historic Motorcycle Racing Association” (AHRMA). They were racing old motorcycles not appropriate for AMA racing anymore. And they were sponsoring a race that summer in Ashland, Ohio, just a mere 30 miles from where I lived. And I just happened to have that Bultaco Astro sitting in the shop. I’m in!
I recruited a good friend of my father’s, Marvin Zollars, who knew Bultaco motors inside and out. He helped me prep the Astro. Together with Marv, my dear Mother, and a group of friends, off we went to the Ashland Co. Fairgrounds half-mile. I don’t remember how I did in the race, but I had started a “comeback” to racing in 1997, wearing my vintage Bates leathers.
My friend/tuner, Steve Benson and my wife Debbie always went with me (just like my Uncle Cliff and my Mom went with Dad back in the late 40’s.) We went everywhere there was an AHRMA race, from Daytona to Peoria to Davenport, etc.
So there I was, doing what my Father did: racing an old motorcycle when modern bikes were the rule. He had raced a motorcycle 20 years past its prime, and now so was I. And when I think about it now, that makes my father, Donald W. Barnes, “The Father of Historic Motorcycle Racing doesn’t it?” Well, at least it does to me. At the very least he was a “pioneer” in the vintage motorcycle racing sport that so many love today.
Unfortunately, I got hurt bad hitting the hay bales riding a Yamaha 650 in Cumberland, MD in early 2000. To add insult to injury, they cut my vintage Bates leathers off me with a pair of scissors in the emergency room. After a few days in the hospital, wife Deb drove us home. That Yamaha got sold and the Bultaco went back into storage. No more racing for me, I told myself. I’d certainly had ridden enough laps around a dirt track, I surmised.
But there was one thing I not had done that I always wanted to do: Race an Indian motorcycle. Like my Father did. I especially got to thinking about that after I met an older gentleman, Lloyd Washburn, from Pt. Clinton, Ohio. Lloyd had raced an Indian Sport Scout professionally in the late ‘50’s. For a time he was the New York State flat track Champion. And Lloyd just happened to still have a 1940 Sport Scout sitting in his shop! After a year or so of begging, I convinced dear Lloyd to sell me his bike; on one condition: That he would help rebuild it and be there to watch me race.
Thanks to Lloyd and my friend/tuner, Steve Benson, we built a beautiful AHRMA-legal Indian Sport Scout race bike and I got to run it for a few years, accomplishing what Ialways wanted to do: Race an Indian. Just like my Dad did 60 years before. Unfortunately, a bad street bike crash ended that second comeback in 2006 and I finally hung up my steel shoe. But hey, in my mind, I’d done everything I wanted to do; at least in motorcycle racing. I didn’t become a professional “Expert,’” but I did get to race an Indian like my father.
Larry Barnes on a 1940 Indian Sport Scout
The following years went by swiftly, and I sometimes wondered if I was living more in the past than I was thinking about tomorrow. Racing is like a drug; when you stop, you’ll always miss it. The buzz is irreplaceable. Or so I thought.
You’ve no doubt heard the phrase “life happens?” Well, my wife’s daughter had a son she named “Rider” (not because of motor-cycles, but because of her own love of horses) and I became a grandfather. I never had kids of my own and now I was a grandfather. And not just your “usual” grandfather, I’m a full-time grandfather. To make a long story short, my wife and I have full custody, and I am the “father figure” in Rider’s life. I’m 68 and he’s six. I’ll be 80 when he graduates from high school! That fact hit me hard this winter when my old bones wouldn’t even let me help him build a snowman outside.
But I remind myself often “it is what it is, and it ain’t all bad.” I get to experience now what most of you other guys experienced many years ago: raising a son. With all the good things and all the bad; and at his age, it seems we get a lot more bad than good. But there’s no escaping this role in life for me. He calls me “Poppa” and my wife “Memaw.” We get him in school, we take him to church, we teach him to read, and how to play baseball. And now he’s taking karate lessons, for crying out loud. I’m learning now what most of you learned years ago: There’s no rest when you’re a father.
However, last Sunday was a magnificent day for me in this ongoing saga. It started slowly enough, with me having coffee while sitting on the couch with Rider. He had gotten up earlier and had turned on the TV program “Paw Patrol.” He soon moved over against me and laid his head on my shoulder as we watched together. My heart just filled with love. I never knew that watching TV could be that rewarding.
After a bit, I got him his breakfast and dressed him for church. Both tasks are always a struggle, but we made it to the church on time. Watching him run ahead of me up the sidewalk to the church entrance always fills my heart with love for some reason. Everybody there knows him there and he makes it a point to shake hands with each of that Sunday’s door greeters.
After church we came home and Debbie had prepared a delicious breakfast for us all, just like in the movies. Afterward I took a quick nap while she connected with Rider for awhile. Then, because the sun was shining brightly, we got ambitious. So Rider and I got our winter coats on and headed down to my workshop. There, mostly due to Rider’s urging, I pulled out and began to work on the battery powered Razor mini bike that I had bought at a yard sale last summer. It took me about an hour to install the new throttle assembly I had gotten months ago. But when I tested it, I only heard a “click” and couldn’t figure out why the 24-volt motor wouldn’t spin the rear wheel?
Frustrated, I announced my failure to Rider, who came over from whatever he was busy tearing apart, and he stared at it for a moment. He calmly told me to “take the plug out of the wall and try it.” Sure enough, that worked! Here I was; ready to give up and go back up to the house, but instead I slapped high five with Rider and praised him for the insight far beyond his years. “Where’d he learn that, I wondered?”
After I oiled the chain and took the bike off the lift, he was excited to try and ride. But I insisted we go up to the house where he could change out of his good clothes and put on a helmet and gloves, which are mandatory to me. With the excuse of doing a “safety check” I rode the little thing up to the house. With me on board it hardly went as fast as a walk. And with no suspension at all, it bothered my back the whole way.
Meanwhile, Rider had run up to the house and announced his intentions to his grand-mother, who found him proper clothes and an old coat to wear. Back outside I assisted him in putting on his helmet, including fastening those pesky D-rings. “Rider, you’ll need to practice doing this yourself,” I say, as he totally ignores me. He just wants to ride.
Debbie came outside with her camera as Rider climbed on the little bike and took off down the driveway like a shot, not even putting his feet on the pegs or my telling him where the brake was. After a few screams from Deb and I, he circled back and we gave him frantic instructions, none of which he heard or cared about, of course. Then he sped off again, took the sharp turn by the wire fence that goes down to the shop and never slowed down.
Rider Breneman, age 6, on his first dirt bike
After a few moments, he rode back up with the biggest grin on his face you can imagine inside his helmet. He told us he had “only crashed three or four times, but it didn’t hurt.”
And I’m standing there all choked up with happiness. Here’s my six-year old grandson doing laps of our property on his mini dirt bike; putting his foot down to “save it” and circling around trees like he’s been doing it for years. He’d only ridden this thing briefly once before, when the throttle cable broke. The riding skills he had learned by riding his little knobby-tired bicycle worked very well on this new motorized toy. The kid seems a natural, slows by instinct and rarely uses his brakes. No Fear.
Proud “Papa” and his Rider
Dear wife Deb looks at me and says “look what you’ve created” and I almost burst into tears. We love this kid. With all the crap he went through before we got him, with all the crap he continually puts us through now, and all the crap that we’re going go though in the years to come, we love this kid!
Now I realize most of you have gone though the same kind of magnificent experience with your own children. If not with a motorcycle, it was basketball, or music, or fishing, or something else that’s significant to you. But to me, this was a first. I never had kids of my own. And now I’ve got one. And he rides a dirt bike! (Not to mention that he also wants to be an electrician and then a brain surgeon too). But he rides a dirt bike! I’m a grandpa who’s now become a father. Life is full again. And I can celebrate that feeling on this Fathers Day. Like I’ve never done before….