Dirty old men

When both the riders and the motorcycles are over 40

VINTAGE GROUP Each month motocross enthusiasts over 40 descend upon Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area to play in the dirt.

From the high perch where the picnic tables sit under shade structures, you can’t see the gray goatees, the bow-legged gaits and the balky knees. In their helmets and goggles and brightly colored body armor—what’s the opposite of camouflage?—the riders could be teenagers, or young men. Certainly the activity—riding off-road motorcycles in circles on dusty, lumpy trails—is associated with people who are young enough to be blissfully ignorant of hip-replacement surgery.
But these guys are not, by definition or declaration, young men. They are, officially, the 40-Plus Vintage Group, a collection of (mostly) men from all over Northern California who convene once a month at Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area to play in the dirt with noisy, potentially dangerous vehicles.
The “40-Plus” in the group’s name has a double meaning, the first of which is obvious. It’s a social group of dirt-bike enthusiasts, all of whom are at least 40 or older—in many cases, much older. But it was also about 40 years ago when the evolution of off-road motorcycles took a great leap forward. The bikes left behind, generally anything built in 1974 or earlier, are now considered “vintage.” So, in the case of this bunch, “40-Plus” applies to both bike and rider.
On a recent sunny Sunday afternoon at Hollister Hills’ Grand Prix track, about a dozen riders came together to eat burgers and hot dogs, catch up with old friends and do a whole lot of motorcycle racing. This particular weekend, the group was doing three 45-minute races (Usually, the races are shorter, about 10 to 15 minutes long).
As a spectator sport, dirt-bike racing leaves a lot to be desired. But as a participant, it has to be several kinds of fun. How else can you explain people doing something over and over again for decades?
“This is a passion,” said Matt Scott, 60, who lives in Aptos and has been coming to Hollister Hills with the 40-Plus guys for more than 15 years. “I don’t know why I’ve always loved it. But I do. It’s just something that’s in you.”
There are three dimensions to this particular passion. The first is simply the experience of being out on the track, the buzzy whine of the bikes in your ears while you navigate the hills and hairpins. The second is the fellowship of spending an afternoon with others who share the same fever.
The third? That’s the part that takes place away from Hollister during the rest of the week, the endless rebuilding, repairing and re-engineering that happens in garages and workshops all over the Bay Area, all to keep this vintage bikes in working condition.
“For me, the really big draw is the mechanical aspect of it,” said Pat Brown, 62, a cornerstone of the group. “If I’m at home and not in the house, then I’m in the shop. I go straight to the shop and decompress for a couple of hours. The idea that you’re racing a motorcycle that you built is appealing to me. I always say that the competition starts in the garage.”
Brown is considered one of the group’s most consistent riders. But nobody outpaces Frank Vest in competitive fire. “I like to get around the track pretty fast,” he said.
Vest is the club’s president. His wife and two daughters have, at various times, participated in club races as well. He is 74 years old, which means he’s just a few years shy of the “Double-40 Vintage Club.”
Vest has been riding dirt bikes since he was 12. “I put a lawnmower engine on a bicycle and pull-started it, and away we went.” That was back in the mid 1950s. Soon after, he bought a Whizzer, an engine sold in kits to assemble to bicycles. Other than a brief period when he served in the military, dirt bikes have been a constant in his life ever since. He does not, however, ride street motorcycles. “It’s so boring,” he said. “You just point it down the street and go straight. Who wants to do that?”
An ambulance sits in the middle of the track as the racers run the circuit, as required by any group that uses the GP track at Hollister Hills. Injuries are rare, said Vest, and don’t much go beyond the occasional sprained ankle. “We’ll just dust them off, put them in their truck and send them home,” he said. Racers who are approached (or what have long passed) Social Security age don’t generally take the kinds of risks that result in serious injury. The group discourages the kind of machismo and adrenaline-junkie behavior that younger riders might engage in.
“If someone comes in with that kind of attitude,” said Scott, “we squash it real quick. That’s really not acceptable, because it’s dangerous. That means you’re probably riding above your head or you think you have something to prove. We’re very much aware of our limitations. We know our bikes, and it’s all pretty safe.”
Scott owns 14 bikes, all of which are in running condition. Frank Vest owns 12. Some members of the group own many more than that. Races are set up such that the older bikes with smaller engines compete with each other. The older models are no longer manufactured and often replacement parts have to be fabricated, but old dirt bikes, say many of the riders, are adaptable enough that they can function indefinitely. If only the human bodies riding the bikes were so adaptable.
“It’s kinda like being a lifelong long-distance runner,” said Frank Vest of his lifelong love for dirt-biking. “If you do it all the time, you can keep doing it, if you’re careful. It’s really good at getting your cardio going, even in the shop with all the changing tires and lifting out engines. It’s quite physical.”
The second half of the 20th century was a golden era for the off-road motorcycle, and countless boys embraced the dirt bike as a rite of passage. Many continued to ride into adulthood. But to a few, the ride never ended.
“I don’t bowl,” said Pat Brown. “I don’t play cards. I don’t drink or gamble. I don’t do anything but this. I just do dirt bikes. This is my thing. And I feel sorry for people who go through life without having a thing.”

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