Student of Speed – Wendy Newton

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I recently had the pleasure of hanging out with Wendy Newton – the vintage racing, enduro riding, leg modeling, engine dissecting, Tour de Force from the great state of California. A wealth of racing knowledge and a true student of the sport, Wendy furnished me with so much information that I actually had to create a new filing system to manage it all. Although I’m presenting to you the tip of Wendy’s iceberg, I hope it’s enough to impress upon you the pure joy and passion she has for the sport of racing and for motorcycles in general. Enjoy!

Greg Coutu – You’ve got a very interesting and diverse story, Wendy. Why don’t we start with how you got involved in motorcycles? What was the attraction? Who were your inspirations?

Wendy Newton – Well, I guess it all started on a hot summer day on Hwy 1, about 20 years ago. I was stuck in Malibu gridlock baking in my ’64 Dodge Dart Convertible. And I can still remember this dark haired woman, whose face I never saw, splitting lanes on a very old shiny baby blue and white Harley Davidson, the kind with the spring seats. I thought wow that’s cool, look at her go, the freedom, and she just rode by everyone. I want to do that. The boyfriend at the time realized that if he didn’t get involved I was going to do it without him. So he bought a HD Heritage Softail and taught me to ride. I remember the first lap in the school parking lot. I got “the butterflies”, the kind you get when you are doing something really fun, like downhill skiing, or catching your first wave. I rode that bike everywhere, but it came with too many rules. So I saved up and bought my own, a Fatboy, it got stolen six weeks later. Then I experienced speed on two wheels on a borrowed Triumph Triple and then the adrenaline bug took over. That was almost 10 years ago. That passion has lead me to racing, working as a motorcycle rider model, collector and now an apprentice wrench.

The attraction is the sense of freedom and peace I feel on a motorcycle, it’s like therapy for me. I can’t be off a bike for too long I start getting antsy, in a week I’m climbing walls. You can also do so many things on bikes, from racing to camping. The other attraction of course is the people, doesn’t matter what they ride, it’s that they ride.

I didn’t grow up around bikes so I got a late start. I am inspired by racing friends especially the ones who have made a career out of it. And the guys who know how to make stuff, especially pretty stuff that goes fast! Like Ralph Hudson, land speed racer, and ex-AMA pro road racer with Team Ironwood, and Steve Tillack, of Tillack & Co., a renowned vintage race car restorer. Both who have been patient and share their time, and their shops, teaching me how to build and fix my own racers and which tools to buy and how to use them.

Greg - You’re the first Enduro racer I’ve interviewed for Circle One One. I’m interested in hearing about your history with that sport and what it requires of you, physically, mentally and spiritually, that may differ from what vintage track racing does.

Wendy - Greg, I’m hardly an Enduro racer. But I have raced the Catalina Gran Prix 2010, which had not been run since 1958. I knew it would be special. I entered thinking it was going to be like it was in the 50’s whereby it was half dirt and half road race. I figured heck, at least I can do well on the asphalt. I was riding high from my first full season of racing three series classes winning a championship and getting 2nd in the other two. I had also started racing vintage. Our season runs from January and end by November and this was in December. So I talked the guys into signing up with me. I scouted out the island a month before to make sure I didn’t get in over my head. I see fire roads, and the town streets and I think “Oh I got this. No problem” A month before the event Red Bull got involved, then I found out about the course change, no asphalt racing it was all dirt. Let’s just say I didn’t sleep well that night. I competed in the Vintage Race on my ’72 DT2 250 Yamaha becoming the first woman to race at Catalina. And raced again the next day in a woman’s class, I was the only vintage bike entered, everyone else had modern dirt bikes with real suspension. I finished and wasn’t last which was my goal.

Comparing dirt to street, they are opposites. I am a bit lost without traction. You have to learn to relax but in a different way on dirt bikes. Road racing you are bent over, laying flat typically gripping with your thighs. Loose on the bars, not so with dirt bikes. You use your back and legs in a much different way, standing for example. Dirt to me is much more physical, and I think more dangerous. I think they both require the same amount of mental focus. Spiritually, I feel more alive on any bike, especially in a race. The intensity of the concentration is such a high. It’s an amazing feeling when you can ride to the edge and come back and say “Yeah! I did that”. And the swing side of that is getting overly cocky, passing the edge and then getting instantly humbled.

Greg - I recently got the opportunity to meet you at the New England Café Convergence which you so graciously went out of your way to stop by on your way back from Europe. Can you tell us what you were doing over there and how everything went for you?

Wendy – I had gone to Europe to support a couple of vintage racing friends Ralph Hudson (CA) and Gary di Pietro (NY). I met them thru AHRMA, the place it seems a lot of ex-AMA pro’s go if they still have the bug to go fast. They are a couple of very cool characters. And have they got stories! Ralph has been one of my vintage racing mentors who has also been teaching me not only how to fix motorcycles, but also quite a bit about racing and life. A patient kind man until he dons his helmet! Ralph and Gary were there to race a Wes Cooley Suzuki 1000GS in the Bikers Classic 4-Hour Endurance race that takes at the amazingly fast F1 track in Francorchamp SPA, Belgium. It is seventy, two-man teams, racing 30+ year old bikes, for four hours from 7:30pm to 12:30am. So part of it is raced in the dark on an unlit 4.4mile track where it usually rains! I was part of the pit crew handling timing. This was my second year with them as they were one of the first American teams to participate last year. The bike had broken last year when they were on course to finish top twelve, but the clutch basket broke and pierced the case 90 minutes in.

The Bikers Classic 4 Hour is a true test of not only of rider abilities but also mechanical abilities and team abilities. It’s hard on an old bike to race for four hours. But oh is it an amazing site to see them all try. Mostly big Hondas, Moto Guzzis, Kawasaki’s, Laverdas, Suzuki’s, you name it. Walking thru the pits you hear all the different exhaust note of bikes revving and all the different languages. Yet there is universal language everyone there understands… motorcycles. If a bike breaks everyone wants to help, as it becomes “the challenge” to get them going for the motto is “You must race!” Unfortunately, our bike broke in the last part of night qualifying. A woman from the Netherland’s overheard our plight, and told her husband who graciously lent us his street bike, “Sandra” named after his wife. A 1979 Kawasaki Z1s, with a special Rastec race exhaust and extended swing arm. They qualified and ended up racing it. But sadly the bike broke, the generator fell off, coincidentally, 90 minutes in.

Greg – I know you tore up SPA on a borrowed CB900F while you were away. Can you tell us about that experience? How was the track? How was the bike? How were you?

Wendy - I went again to the races this year with a new curiosity about just how fast is SPA? I wanted to ride the track and see if I could race it. It is hard for me to be at a track, especially that one, watching everyone go round wondering. I got an opportunity the day after the race on a borrowed CB900F street bike belonging to one of the German magazines editors, Motorrad’s Thomas Schiemeder who was also racing. He came to get pre-race report on Team Ironwood and saw me wrenching . Asked how long I had been a mechanic. I told him I wasn’t really just helping out with the easy stuff as we were converting the street Kawasaki into a racer. I told him I also raced. He asked what, and I think he was floored when he realized I was serious. He has asked if I had ridden SPA yet, and when I replied no he offered me his Honda CB900F street bike to ride the next day.

The first session I was tentative, as the bike wallowed over bumps. The Honda was beautiful but a little tired and riding it was like riding a worn comfy couch. But by the second session I managed to ride it fast enough for me get “the butterflies” trying to ignore the suspension issues. Then I started getting racy with it, and started passing people. The goal at SPA is to be able to go down the front straight which is a long downhill and then hit Eau Rouge, a turn at the bottom that transitions to the shorter uphill section, a slight esse, without backing off. Hard to do as you feel the front end get real light and you want to instinctively roll off. I followed Thomas around and around and towards the end of the last session we flew down the straight and up Eau Rouge and when he turned around I was right there. He was surprised and gave me a thumb’s up and I was beaming! It has to be one of the fastest tracks I’ve been on. The experience gave me the answer I needed about whether I thought I could race the track. I think I can. Just need some more time on it which I’m trying to make happen by the end of this September. My dream/goal is to be one of the first American women to race the 4 Hour, and it would be really cool if the team consisted of another woman rider. So I am putting it out there!

Greg – You are surely an advocate for women in racing. What are you feelings about what that world is looking like today and is there anything that you would like to see changed or modified? Please elaborate.

Wendy - Well as you may already know the fastest growing sector in motorcycling is the women riders. This is very good for the industry, not only for the bikes, but accessories, apparel, insurance, etc. Therefore I would like to see better marketing for club racing. I live in Los Angeles and you would think there would be many women racers, but there isn’t. If you go to Northern California for example there is a much larger racing community and more women racers. Some of their racing clubs have women only series that have grown popular. It is for this reason I think it would be a good idea to start with programs structured for women and young girls, both for the dirt and road racing.

My first track day experience was with an organization called Femmoto, 10 years ago, it was confidence inspiring. A women’s only track day, with manufacturer’s providing bikes, allowing you to try a different one every session , like a dance card. There was plenty of coaches and instruction. This approach made the introduction to the track less intimidating. Unlike open track days with men, where you can feel the testosterone, see the posturing, etc., it makes for a different vibe and can be pretty intimidating for some.

I would like to see more and become more involved with track clubs and race clubs promoting female riders/racers thru events like the Femmoto concept, and/or a mentoring program once they get their license. Females can be very competitive, especially against other females, and then add awards, look out. Look at this year’s Olympics the women outnumbered the men and brought home more medals! Motorcycle racing is an amazing confidence builder, one that gets carried thru to all other aspects of life. It would be a great way to get women and girls more involved if they are at all curious about what it feels like to compete on a bike. I get approached all the time when I’m at the track, and you can see they just need a gentle push and positive encouraging words, you know the ones that are on the fence by the questions they ask. I think we underestimate ourselves, I know I did. Never thought I would be this involved with motorcycles after watching that woman cruise by on PCH on her Harley almost 20 years ago. If she only knew what she started! I’d like to pass that on. I would love to start an organization that promotes female competitors, in sports involving a helmet and wheels, a sponsorship program. I’ve already got the name, Helmets n’ Heels!

GregYou’ve got quite a number of impressive motorcycles. Can you indulge us with some of the beauties you’ve got in your stable? And if you could hold on to only three of them which would they be and why?

Wendy - I think when I talked to you last I told you about the’67 Bultaco Metralla 250 road racer I had just bought. You referred me to Bob Hogan, the Bultaco expert for advice! Another wonderful racer with stories and a motorcycle character. Well that bike turned out to be not so “race ready”. Frustrated I bought another ’67 Metralla road racer, but then it was too damn pretty, it had been restored yet never started. I decided to leave it that way. So now I’m back to restoring the rough one so I can race it. That makes three ’67 Metralla’s total, two are for show. Another show bike is a ’65 Ducati Mach 1, ’67 Triumph Trophy “Bud Ekins” Special, ’69 Pannonia 250 with Duna SideCar, ‘65 Ducati Trials “Peter Gaunt” Replica. I race a ’68 Ducati 350 single, and a ’70 Honda SL175 Road Racer. The rest are newer modern bike’s ranging from Ducati’s street bikes, ’04 Monster S4r, 1098s, and 749s. I love to motorcycle camp so the Multistrada is the bike of choice. My city scoot is my ’72 Yamaha DT250, and then a few of modern race bikes, Ninja 250r and a couple of R6’s. Down to one dirt bike. I couldn’t pick just three, I never know what mood I’m going to be in.

Greg – Time for some poetry! Please give us a four line poem that describes what motorcycles mean to you. Can be as sappy or greasy as you like – and it doesn’t even have to rhyme.

Wendy
Speedy motorcycle of my heart
Speedy motorcycle let’s be smart
Because we don’t want a wreck, we can do a lot of tricks.
We don’t have to break our necks, to get our kicks
Speedy motorcycle the road is ours….
-Band: Yo La Tengo ; Song “Speedy Motorcycle”

(My favorite motorcycle song!)

Greg – What’s on your calendar for the next 12 months? Where will Wendy Newton be racing, modeling or expanding her mind?

Wendy – All three:
Racing with AHRMA, and some modern racing with WERA, test at SPA and hopefully race Bikers Classic 2013!
Model/Support Crew Goodwood Revival Races- UK (You have to wear vintage clothing the whole weekend, even the mechanics!)
Continue expanding my mechanical mind with the apprenticeship restoring racers

Thank you, Wendy!

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You can follow Wendy at her Facebook page… http://www.facebook.com/helmets.heels