Mid-Ohio's AMA Vintage Motorcycle Days is another one of those "bucket list" events that needs to be on every enthusiasts itinerary. Last month, a group of friends disembarked Philadelphia for an annual trip to the grounds in Lexington, Ohio. The group was compiled around a local motorcycle shop, Cast & Salvage and a weekly ride known as Chin on the Tank. Participants Jessie Jay and Ben Wentzel gave us the rundown about swapping as many parts as stories, the myths and legends carved into the Wall of Death, and avoiding (or embracing) catastrophe on their DIY flat track.
Jessie: It's hard to describe AMA Vintage Motorcycle Days at Mid-Ohio racetrack to someone who's never been there. I guess if I had to I'd say it's much more than it claims to be. Really it's one of the oldest largest vintage motorcycle swaps in the country. But to anyone who's ever gone, it's way more. It's proximity alone to a backdrop of constant vintage motorcycle racing creates the atmosphere personified in many 70s motorcycle documentaries. Watching the races was never the reason I went, but over the years has become one of my favorite things, most notably the vintage sidecar racing. Besides the track and swap there is the camp and the woods, which is its own beast all together... what's your perspective overview ben?
Ben: I am with you all the way here. There are so many reasons to make the pilgrimage to the Vintage Motorcycle Days, but for a city kid, it's your way of leaving all the work bullshit and city culture behind. A full weekend of non-stop discussion about everyone's bike projects and tech talk is so refreshing. Whether its the guy you're trying to score a sick taillight and handlebars from or the random guy who walks by the camp with a beer, everyones knowledge into some random model and year of bike is always so enlightening. If you could point out one constant at Mid-Ohio, whether you're dudes from Philly and Brooklyn, or live down the road from the swap, everyone just wants to open it up. From the pit bikes to the golf carts, everything deserves to wheelie. Luckily for us, every year they open up the raceway for all bikes to take a few laps in honor of the tracks history.
Jessie: Yeah man, it's crazy. For $10 they let you ride whatever you want on the track for two laps. The tracks no joke either. It's an official, full-on, bank-turn, wide-open professional Le Mans style road course. Our crew took a group of old DT enduros out and opened them up. As they were two strokes they sounded like they were going to explode and topped out at 75, but I think that added to the overall excitement of the experience. Besides the races and getting to ride on the track, the whole course is surrounded by thick woods littered with dirt bike trails.
Ben: I think as far as riding at Mid-Ohio goes, the trails are near the top of the list as some of the most fun. We were lucky enough to have the scramble track start right in front of our camp. The race began as a long 200-yard sprint down a fence line through grass ditches and over dirt roads to an "S" turn that took you straight into the woods. Getting to watch dudes just rip old DT's and Huskys through tight, weaving trails, bombing creeks and barely scraping by downed trees was amazing. Once the scrambler races came to an end we took full advantage of the rutted paths and hill climbs. Theres nothing like getting covered in a thick film of mud and creek water while chasing your friends through the woods! Where you exit the woods on the far side of the raceway grounds put you in a great position to grab some funnel cake, a beer and wait for the Wall of Death show to call in spectators.
Jessie: Like Ben said, the woods up until this year, was the main pull for me for sure. Just the kind of blind reckless fun that we put up with real life just to get to.
This year, though, it became much more than just a show. Through our routine camp heckling, directing every passer by to wheelie, we met Sgt. Mikey from the American Wall of Death – a spectacle of it's own, which, by all accounts, is the most amazing show on earth. A distillation of gasoline, daredevils, history, carny spirit, and Americana, it features multiple riders performing skilled maneuvers on classic motorcycles while riding full throttle around a vertical cylindrical wall...of death. It almost seems like the last true vestige of a world most vintage enthusiasts endlessly yearn for.
Sgt. Mikey's openness was potent to an unrivaled point. We invited him over for a beer as the first step to a genuinely unforgettable night. He is the hype man for the American Motordrome Company (the Wall of Death guys) and recently was promoted to go-cart stunt man. His candidness about the experience was unexpected. An army veteran, he just started helping build and tear down the wall out of appreciation, until one day he was just invited in as a performer.
Eventually once all our habituals burned out he invited us back to hang out inside the wall late night, so we taped flashlights to our bikes and burned out. Once at the wall we met Samantha, Wahl E and Charlie Ransom, other members of the Motordrome Company. And once again we encountered an inviting disposition that I am truly thankful for.
One myth-like story Wahl E (the oldest wall rider in the U.S.) told us was probably my favorite. It circled around the two vintage Indian Scout's they use on the wall and why they hold dominion over the attraction. He started by explaining the importance of the engine being sunken in the frame, unlike a Harley, providing a low center of gravity. But the best part of the conversation for me was the story about not washing them. They washed them once the entire time they've been doing the circuit, and they've never run in that location again. One important reason is so when you wipe down the bike after a show the dirt forms black lines on the white frame in any cracks, so you know where to weld them. Another tip derived from this story is that if you ever sleep in the wall, sleep with and Indian because it's the only place you can be sure the tent won't leak.
Ben: Yeah dude, when Sgt. Mikey first suggested we all come hang at the Wall of Death for a few more I immediately felt like we were being allowed to swap stories and enjoy some brews like so many others through the decades. So few other extreme attractions have stayed so purely rooted in their history as an unchanging spectacle. It has no reason to change. When you stand at the top of that wall and feel it sway as those Indian Scouts blow by you, try to keep that huge grin in. When you can see the Wall of Death, look closely at the scars torn into all the wooden boards wrapping the motordrome. You'll see the chain groove chewed a full 360 degrees around the wall where Sgt. Mikey's go cart wheel fell off mid act leaving him to ride the chain and sprocket all the way through his decent back into the flat bottom.
The next day after most of the sellers were wrapping up and with the help of a few beers we turned four metal barrels into the raddest DIY oval track right in front of our camping spot. What started out as a few friends seeing who could shoulder each other off the track to claim shit talking rights for a few fleeting moments quickly escalated into what I could legitimately call the Saturday night main at Mid-Ohio. I'll let Jessie elaborate further on the firework throwing, beer drinking, flat track sliding mayhem that ensued from there...
Jessie: It truly did escalate from fooling around with a couple friends to a site wide phenomenon attracting hundreds of spectators and a collection of racers ranging from ten year olds on pit bike to adults on 600cc dirt bikes and dads racing golf carts. I have to say the dude eating shit continuously on that 80's Honda elite scooter was hilarious. The weird part was no one was ever keeping track of winners. It was really totally fueled by everyone needing to blow off a full year of boredom from the real world. The experience was really beyond photos or words. It's one of those rare occasions where "you had to be there." After the AMA guy told us, "the boss says as long as no one dies let 'em go," I starting getting scared. But there were only a few injuries and compared to fun, it was a million-to-one for good times vs. pain. Not gonna lie, I was a little relieved that people disbanded at sundown or it could have quickly digressed into a Mad Max scenario.
The next day while packing up in the rain I kept looking over to the monument of our good time, the fully rutted oval track that was once simply a grass field with 4 barrels and thinking "what the fuck happened." Once again cementing the notion that Mid-Ohio doesn't just get better every year, but as Dr. Ben would put it "every half hour."