Nothing makes me feel young again like a ride on a motorcycle. Not cotton candy, not the sound of the ice cream truck, not even the sounds of a playground. My formative years were spent on and around motorcycles, so I developed a genuine affection for them that others may not have had at that age. My affection for them was not, however, matched with a knowledge of them or their limitations which led to doing something monumentally ignorant. So ignorant, in fact, that I, though I’ve tried, can’t find any video in the modern era of anyone else even trying to do it.
I was so impressed with my two-stroke dirt bike’s power, speed and torque that I was blind to its limitations. It was a dependable steed, proving itself time and again against the more popular Honda offerings of the day in the hollow where we rode. My confidence in her was so high that I offered her up to a challenge that I now realize it had no chance of winning.
I agreed to a back-to-back pull-off against a lowly lawn tractor of unknown and less impressive origins… probably an old Snapper, Homelite or maybe even a Hahn. The pull-off may have even been my idea. Fortunately time has erased that detail. This wasn’t even a garden tractor, but a lawn tractor with screwy front handlebar steering. Handlebars are great for bikes, but not for tractors. It had a rear-mounted engine that boasted about 8 hp and not much of a body. Honestly, harmless would be a good way to describe it and its puny little tires and economic styling. Ugly would be a better word. It certainly wasn’t a serious machine when compared to the likes of a vintage Wheel Horse or John Deere. But it was the closest thing we had to a go-kart at the time.
It was owned by Mr. Sankey, father of my friend Bill. Mr. Sankey was an educated engineer and a gearhead at heart. He often had old motorcycles and sports cars around. He had cool stuff, dual Weber-powered Alfa Romeo engines in his basement workshop and other equipment far beyond the technological limitations of his goofy-looking riding mower. Mr. Sankey had not massaged the tractor in any way. There was no need to. It would have been a waste of his engineering and mechanical ability and he probably didn’t even know we were pitting it against my bike.
I don’t remember exactly how the challenge came about, but my other friend Richard volunteered to ride the so-called tractor in the pull-off. We backed up and hooked them together and while my two-stroke’s rear tire smoked and spun, it never hooked up on the concrete sidewalk. Richard and the lawn tractor had their way with us, and would still be dragging us around today if they’d have wanted to. I’m not sure that I could have pulled it if it was riderless. Even though the mower and my bike had about the same horsepower, the lawn tractor could put that power to the ground.
That’s the day I learned a valuable lesson about traction and weight distribution. If you can’t hook up the power to the ground, you aren’t going anywhere fast—or slow as it turns out. This is, unfortunately, the way I’ve learned most of the things I’ve learned in life. The hard way. Since then, I’ve lost traction in cars, trucks, forklifts, motorcycles, golf carts, dune buggies, ATVs and probably a few other things.
Was the pull-off embarrassing? Sure it was. But there is no shame in believing in something. That little 90cc two-stroke was as faithful to me as a good dog. It never gave up and always held its own even against bigger, more expensive bikes. Even though the pull-off was a mismatch it wasn’t a shameful mismatch. The shame would have been if I hadn’t learned anything. In today’s world most learning seems temporary at best. The way you do something today most likely won’t be the way you do the same thing tomorrow, from changing the channel on your TV to starting your car or bike. Learning has become more of an aggravation these days, I suspect, because things don’t stay the same way long enough for them to become normal. Maybe I’m a slow learner. Maybe I’m just getting old. I haven’t even thought of backing up a motorcycle to a tractor since that day, so I did learn my lesson. I do miss those discovery years, though. The days of trial and error. And tire smoke.