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Driven to the Past: Something Really Different…

When I did a column mentioning some indoor venues I’d worked, it was all about cars – TQ midgets indoors, and even ASA late models in the Pontiac Silverdome.

Back in the early 1980s, however, I got asked to help out with something that took me way off my beaten path.

Big Ed Beckley, who billed himself as “The World’s Biggest Motorcycle Jumper,” had scheduled an arenacross event at Freedom Hall on the grounds of the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center in December.

Ed, who I believe is still around, stretched a set of motorcycle leathers just about as far as you can stretch them. At the time, he went about 6’5″ and I think was over 300 pounds. I remembered him jumping a bunch of trucks at the old Dayton Speedway in 1980, and I was impressed.

He got into motorcycle jumping in 1950, it seems, after seeing Evel Knievel do a jump in Kansas and hearing his friends tell him he could do that. If Evel had crashed on that one, all this may not have happened.

Ed had a great career jumping bikes and promoting events, finally giving up the jumps around 1985, I understand, but the promoting is still going on.

One of the things he pioneered was the passenger jump. Yeah, Ed and his wife (or a volunteer) on the same bike, doing the jump thing. I never saw that done, but it had to be impressive.

I ended up helping him at the Louisville event when he contacted Andy Vertrees and asked for some people to staff the event. Andy was in Florida on business at the time (selling Christmas trees, I believe), so he called his wife, Sandy, and told her to put our crew from Charlestown Motor Speedway, just across the river, together and get it done.

We got there to find Freedom Hall’s floor covered with dirt, with all kinds of hills, hay bales and banners laid out.

I’m not sure Ed and all his racers were too enthusiastic about having a bunch of paved oval-track officials do their thing, especially since none of us had ever seen an arenacross event live. He explained that most of us would be corner flagmen, just using the yellow flag to let riders know somebody was down just ahead, etc.

Myself, I got to be the chief starter.

Ed took me off to the side and said, “Listen, just flag it like you would any race, but take the red flag back out to your car. Never, and I mean NEVER, stop one of these things unless it’s really serious.”

I was afraid to ask if “serious” meant the motorcycles were sliding around in blood.

He showed me where the finish line was located, and pointed out there was a small jump about 20 feet before it. I wanted to know why, and he said, “These guys like to show off and take the checkered flag in mid-air.”

The starting line was located on a strip adjacent to the finishing straight, sort of like the “chute” at a horse track. Ed didn’t have one of those fancy starting gates, so the bikes lined up, and I threw a green flag when I was ready. Then I scampered back to the other side of the finish straight and started counting laps.

It wasn’t so bad. Didn’t even get very dirty. However, I started wondering about the whole deal, when somebody brought me a Polaroid photo of me waving the white flag while a motorcycle appeared to be sailing over my head. I hadn’t thought much about the really high jump on the straightaway right behind me until then. After that, the thought that somebody might be a little off-line on their run-up to that hill had a lot of my attention.

They brought out one bunch for what they called an “old timers” race, and while watching them put on their helmets I asked Ed how old you had to be to be an “old timer” at this stuff.

“Ohh, 29 or 30,” he says.

At any rate, things went along fairly smoothly until they brought out the three-wheelers. Those things were still legal back then.

Even that race went pretty well for a few laps until the leader came screaming over the jump and his three-wheeler did a nosedive.

What was unusual about this one was that the trike went all the way over, and the rider hit the ground on his back, with this heavy piece of machinery slamming down right on top of him.

I didn’t like the sight of it, and I didn’t like the sound I heard. I pulled out the red flag and stopped the race.

Ed came charging up, yelling, “I told you not to stop a race unless it was serious!”

“Trust me, Ed, this is serious.”

“How do you know?”

“Didn’t you hear that cracking sound?”

“Probably just his flak jacket.”

“So how come he’s not moving?”

By this time the three-wheeler had bounced away, and miraculously all the other riders had managed to miss the inert body.

The guy came around after a few minutes, but the EMTs said they thought he had broken some ribs, in addition to the flak jacket.

Ed told me I had done the right thing, and the rest of the day went without any major incidents.

Never worked another one of those things, but I’ll never forget that one.

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