The top layer of the dirt track catches the breeze and turns to dust; it swirls in the air and mixes with motorcycle exhaust. The sound of the breeze can’t compete with the roar of the dirt bikes, the ones idling loudly, waiting for the race to begin. Although the bikes are vintage and the helmets and leathers are retro, there is, surprisingly, not a single hipster in sight.
The flag girl is friendly. She tells me her name is Sherri, as we stand together at the starting line. She’s wearing a bikini top, thigh-cut black shorts and wedge sandals that give her bare legs the sort of contours that are impossible to miss. Right now, all eyes are on her. But it’s not because she’s easy on the eyes. She is. Everyone’s focused on the green flag she’s lifted. The race is about to begin.
Every few months, the guys from the Hell on Wheels motorcycle club host events for amateur motorcycle racers, such as a hill climb, a flat track race, a steeplechase, and this, a dirt scramble. Their first event drew 20 racers. Today, five years later, on a sunny Sunday in Southern California, there are 130 or 140 riders gathered at Milestone MX Park in Riverside. They eye the dirt track, ready to throw elbows, cut corners and kick up rooster tails as they chase and race each other for the glory of a checkered flag.
At the starting line gloved hands grip throttles. Racers shift their weight over their bikes. The organizer, a lean-bodied man everyone calls Meatball, makes sure the racers are set. Once he’s satisfied, he gives a subtle signal to Sherri the flag girl. With a flourish of her wrist, the green flag unfurls and flaps. Knobby dirt tires tear into the earth. And they’re off!
At the first tabletop jump, the motorcycles and their riders launch into the sky. For a moment it looks like the motorcycles float among the blue. Weightless. But, of course, Gravity grabs them, and when their knobby tires return to earth, with a hard twist on the throttle, bikes leap forward. The race is underway.
With their helmets on it’s easy to forget that this first group is all women. Well, except for the woman racing in a pink bikini top, and the other woman with the fox ears on her helmet. They both make it a little easier to remember. The cloud of dust and splashes of loose dirt the racers kick up at every turn looks just the same as if they were men. It’s clear the earth can’t tell the difference.
I’m in Riverside, Calif., to watch these—there’s no better word for it—anti-hipsters elbow each other out of the way on the track, drink some beer, smoke some pot, laugh a lot and just goof around the way that Americans do best.
Hipsters. No one seems to want to wear that label anymore. Some say it’s dead. Like, this one guy who tried real hard to replace hipster with a new term Yuccie (a young urban creative). But dead or not, it still seems like no one knows exactly what a hipster is. Let’s define it by what they do:
A hipster curates their cool with their dollars. They code their bodies with subcultural signals aimed at those who know what’s what. They express their life in Instagram moments. But in each of these instances, the hipster is a performer. And their performance art they call their life.
These guys and girls on the track today, that’s not who they are. They’re busy living.
Glittering golden helmets, old school blue-and-white Honda jerseys, old Triumphs, Yamahas, Kawasakis, Husqvarna, there’s even a classic Velocette, and a converted Harley Sportster. If it weren’t for the GoPro cameras strapped to the helmets and chests of the racers you might think you stepped through a wormhole.
I’m standing right next to the retro motorcycles, waiting at the starting line. It could be 1970s California. It feels like–in the shade of a valley oak–you might see dusty-faced Steve McQueen laid out in the bed of a truck drinking beer, laughing with Bud Ekins about how he crashed in the last race. There’s a timelessness to this place.
These amateur motorcycle racers are chasing whatever feeling it is that they find cool when they go fast. They tend to let someone else take the pictures.
As the day gets dustier and the racers roar around the track, I ask people why it is that they’ve come here from hours away, why this event feels so different from modern motorcycle events, and why at a vintage bike race in Southern California you get that feeling of authentic that so many others are just chasing. Their answers shed light on the timeless appeal of mixing it up and having fun with your mates. Finish first or last, no one here walks away a loser. It seems backwards, but for these folks, the bonds of friendship grow deeper as they compete for a trophy.
Sherri Tran: “This is my fourth time as flag girl.”
Why do you this—what about this race do you like?
“You get to be in charge. You tell them where to line up and when the race starts. It’s pretty exciting getting dirt kicked in your face. (Laughs) It’s pretty cool. Plus, I know Meatball and Abby; and my boyfriend races in these. They’re all good friends, like super good friends. So, it was kind of like hey, ‘You’re a beautiful chick, would you want be the flag girl?’ So, I was like, ‘Yeah, sure. Why not?’ It’s very flattering that they asked. They’re all just really good people. So I’m glad to do what I can to help out.”
Meatball: “You can just be yourself. I mean, shit, my name’s Meatball.”
“I think money’s still tight. For the average dude, it’s hard to come up with the money to get a bike and gas up your truck to bring your bike out to race. Everyone starts out because they want to have fun. It may be easier to come out for a race when you know you’re gonna have a good time. You go out to most tracks, and there’s just so much ego. It used to be everybody was riding hogs, and I was the only one who wanted to ride a Triumph. But now, everyone wants to be Steve McQueen and they want a Triumph or a Norton.”
Chris Alamangos: “I don’t know why racing got so serious.”
What makes you drive all the way out here—like, why do you look forward to this event every year?
“At a normal race, you don’t have all this. You don’t have the music, and all the people hanging around long after the race. At a race with modern bikes, you’re going to have the guy who’s so serious. As soon as he’s done, he’s packing it up. If he didn’t win, he’s going to be so mad he drives all the way home mad. I don’t care if I win today! (Laughs) I’m driving home knowing I had some of the best fun ever. This is a lot different than modern motorcycle racing. Seriousness is boring. It’s tunnel vision. To me, this is how racing used to be. This is a lot like On Any Sunday.
“This place has a weird vibe that feels old time. I think you always look back on life and remember the good times you had, the good memories. This reminds me of when I was a kid and my dad would take me to the track. These are the people who were there. It’s like I’ve gone back in time, and it puts another good memory in my head. You look at a kid today at the track and they’re not running around having fun. I don’t see that same vibe today. Life made racing too serious.”
Andre Acosta from Deus ex Machina: “Just get out there and dick around.”
“Every day I think about getting injured. You have to. You just tell yourself: if it happens again, it happens again. Just continue doing what you love to do. You have to just keeping fucking around.”
You’re from Deus ex Machina, the custom bike shop, so you may know the answer to this: With all these retro bikes on the track, it feels like a different era. But I’ve noticed there are no hipsters here. Why is that?
“I think it really depends on what you consider a hipster. Some people might look at me and think I’m a hipster. Do I consider myself one? No. I hate that term. I like the term for what it was originally—like in the 30s—but, now, it’s become something else. It’s a way to point your finger at someone and reduce them to a stereotype. It’s like anyone you don’t like is a hipster. But this isn’t like that—this isn’t serious. It’s just a way for us to have fun. It’s all just for bragging rights.”
Lindsay Kavanaugh: “I don’t like racing dirt.”
“I love coming to the Hell On Wheels events more than any other events. You meet so many great people who are here just to ride. If you make it out it for one you meet a ton of cool people. If you make it out for two events, the people you met the first time are now your friends and you all just hang out and have a good time.”
It seems that you and the rest of the girls from The Velvets motorcycle club seem really welcome here, like, there doesn’t seem to be any second-tier status. Is that accurate? As women do you all feel fully welcome here?
“I think it’s totally accurate. Right now there’s such a huge glow of women who are riding. It’s crazy how fast it’s growing. In some ways, you feel like you’re at the forefront of something that’s new and exciting. But we’re not the first by any means. We get emails from girls that say, ‘I just bought a bike.’ And we’re always so stoked to hear that. I think it’s a great movement, and it’s becoming something that’s very cool and very now. It’s this gender-neutral space. And all the guys are so inviting and supportive. It seems like there are more and more girls every time. I always had so many boyfriends who had a bike. And I always rode on the back. And eventually, I was like, I can fucking do this. I think I would enjoy riding a motorcycle myself, not just on the back.”
Drew Bixby from BixbyMoto: “I’ve never had a bad time on a motorcycle.”
“There’s not too many places to ride old motorcycles with a young crowd. The serious racers—they’re not fans of being flamboyant or silly and goofy. These guys are a lot more open to it. There’s like a cult following to these races—like, people pass the word along.”
If that’s how word spreads why are there no hipsters here?
“I don’t really know what a hipster is? Is it someone who’s trying to be cool? I think if you’re just looking to feel or look cool, I don’t think someone like that would come out here and be willing to do all the work necessary. You have to truck up. You have to fix the bike when it breaks. You get out here and you break the bike, and then you spent a whole day for nothing. You have to have the right attitude for that. And I got nothing bad to say about Instagram. I’m on Instagram. There are no rich people here. We’re all working-class people. If we can get one of these in every couple of months, we’re doing a good job at life. I don’t run into a lot of egos here, and the egos that do come out here don’t come back out the next year. They pretty much weed themselves out.”
Nothing in life is free—what’s the price you pay for all this fun?
“I mean, sure, my knees feel like they’re blown out, and everything hurts the next day, and the day after it’s still hurting, and the day after that you’re still hurting, and sometimes that sucks, and I’m a mechanic so I’m often working on my knees, but nobody’s racing for sponsorship. Life is not that difficult as long as you’re waking up each day, and you feel good, and you’re family is good. There’s nothing else you can really need.”
Toastacia (AKA Toast) Boyd: “It means one who will rise again.”
“Honestly, the women’s race is so fun more than the more competitive races because we’re all friends and know each other, which means we enjoy a friendly rivalry. We get close enough to sort of elbow each other out. We had to have a talk with some of the other girls and be like: OK, no more racing in bikinis because we all feel all awkward passing you. We don’t want to be the asshole who took out the girl in the bikini. (Laughs) We don’t want to take it all totally seriously, but there’s like this middle ground. And I think we’ve found it. It’s fun and competitive—that’s what I love about Hell on Wheels.”
When did you start racing?
“I only started racing when I discovered these vintage races. The love of the motorcycle, the respect of the history. You’ll see some people out there in the stripes. It’s just a lot of style. It’s not all hi-tech gear. As you can see my Hodaka is a ‘72. It’s a 100cc bike. I love how it pisses off the girls on the bigger bikes when I pass them on a 100cc bike. This track is so tight and technical it’s really well-suited for that shorter wheel base.””
How did you race today?
“Usually I finish in fifth. Third is what I aim for. Brooklyn always laps us. So the real race is for second. Always. (Laughs) Brooklyn is amazing. She can race the guys and win. So for us, second is huge. And for me, this is big. It’s unusual for me to take third. That’s podium! (Laughs) I’m in for the joy. I’m always on such a high when I leave the track.”
Brooklyn McClendon: “It’s like one big competitive family.”
“I started riding when I was 30. But I started with vintage street bikes: Triumph, BSA, Norton, and then I got a vintage dirt bike. My mom and dad used to go out to the desert to ride. So I grew up around it. But I never rode back then. That was what my brother did.”
Your mother raced bikes, and yet, you got the message: girls don’t ride?
“Yeah. (Laughs) But eventually, I got over that. And I’m glad I did. Well, my body may not agree—what with all the broken bones and surgeries. (Laughs)”
With that in mind, why do you love to race dirt bikes?
“It’s the camaraderie. Everyone’s on the same page. And they really get it. They’re here to have fun, like one big competitive family.”
Hayden (with Hell on Wheels): “As long as it’s a good race, we say, ‘Run what you brung.’”
“We had a bunch of guys who don’t fit in any class. So we said just turn up and we’ll find something that matches. You might have a guy on a 1960 Triumph and you might have a guy riding a 2010 Harley. It’s kind of even—so that’s a good race. And the dirt is the great equalizer. A heavy bike with a lot of power is gonna get kinda squirrely. You’d do better with a smaller bike. That’s why this sort of race has really taken off. You can find a bike on craigslist on Friday for $250, and you can race it on Sunday and blow it up and it’s no great loss. It had a good run, know what I mean? (Laughs).”
Everyone here’s having a damn good time, and it seems to be rare, but it also seems like you’re starting to get real attention. I noticed Ducati is here. How’s that feel?
“Our first race was small. Just 20 guys. But we had fun. And we have a lot of friends. Like, the guys from Von Zipper are friends of ours. So that’s why they’re here. And after the first year, it got bigger. Now Deus ex Machina is here, and Ducati is here. They brought their new scramblers here to show them off.”
Have you been riding and racing for a long time?
“I’ve been racing for 20 years. Back in England you just fetch your bikes at the junkyard and race them over the fields. But what everyone is getting into now is desert racing. Get a Triumph or a BSA and go out to the desert and run them. That’s really taking off. All these guys here today, we’ll all take off and do a run from Barstow to Vegas. It’s kind of a throwback to the early sixties. Big heavy bikes and getting them to go as fast you can. We can ride the wheels off a ‘74 Yamaha and we’ll push it to as fast the bike can go. That’s the fun of it! It’s not like we have a lot of money. You don’t have to be in great shape. You don’t have to be serious. You can have a few beers and jump out there and race. You’re gonna get dirty. You’re gonna get knocked off. Someone’s gonna use you for traction in the corner. It’s not for the faint of heart. As fun as it is, You still got a bunch of bikes on a track all aimed at the same corner, and unless you’re willing to get roughed-up a bit, you’re not gonna like it. It’s not like you think it is. It’s not 140 guys racing for Instagram moments. It’s laid back, but you get on the line and everyone’s eyes start spinning, and you want to race. So, I don’t mind that hipsters don’t come out here. But the hipsters are welcome. Everyone can race.”
If you’re in the Southern California area, Hell on Wheels is hosting a flat track race at Perris Raceway on August 29. For more info click here.
All photos by Heidi Zumbrun