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Dreams, Regrets and No Brakes

By Matt Cuddy

Dreams, Regrets and No Brakes

By Matt Cuddy

I seem to have some curse placed upon me that involves the brakes on any number of motorized vehicles. Fist was at the tender age of fifteen, when my Grandpa would give me the keys to his ‘68 GTO, and asked me not to “Tear the tires off it.”

His GTO had the hot engine (366 horsepower that was actually around 400 horsies) but he didn’t order the disc front brakes. Giant finned cast iron brake drums all around, and they stopped working at any speed over thirty mph. I grew up in Silverlake, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. Around Silverlake reservoir was a road that became our race track. One section close to where we lived was a section of curves that mimicked the Carousel at the Nurburgring. Of course when Gramps would hand over the keys, I’d go pick up all my friends for a trip “around the lake.” Since the GTO had terrible brakes, my collision avoidance software was updated every time I got behind the wheel of that rocket ship.

Also, a 2 mile dead straight went into an easy left hander, taken at well over one hundred miles an hour where I’d use the Hurst shift linkage to slow down by going into second gear of the turbo 400. Next a 30 degree right hander, that the only way to get around in the GTO was flat out, in a full lock slide. Then oversteer would straighten the Goat out, that would allow me to take the two shallow turns that followed straight down the middle. Then a big left, and it was over. The GTO is the ONLY car I ever crashed. Besides Ear Bress’ Impala…ahem. It had huge drum brakes that did not work. Made me a better driver as a result.

Then we had the Jawa Trail 90. An unbelievably fast 90cc rotary valve beastie, with a 29mm downdraft Jikov residing on top of the right side case. Weighed 168 pounds in full street trim. An 11 to one sunburst head made the bike look like something out of the ISDT. But it had the worst brakes ever put on a motorcycle. The rear drum was so out of arch, it made more noise than the 3 pound horn. Didn’t work. The front brake felt like the cable was being pulled through modeling clay. No workee. A seventy MPH plus motorcycle with horrible brakes was a combination for disaster. Thankfully it was so unreliable that I must have dodged a bullet by pushing it home. On a daily basis.

Again my collision avoidance abilities got honed to a fine edge. When traffic would suddenly stop, I’d slip the Jawa down the middle. A giant boulder in the middle of the trail, and you are tapped in fifth? Throw the Jawa over and miss it by millimeters. 

I was a lucky kid. My Uncle Richard who was more like an older brother use to hand me down his old tricked out dirt bikes, when he bought a new one. So in 1979 my Uncle got a Suzuki RM 465, and I got his 1976 360 Bultaco Pursang Jim Pomeroy Replica. VR370 Forks, Straight up and down gas Curnutts, etc. It weighed 214 pounds wet, and put out around forty horsepower. It had a giant skid plate that protected the vulnerable down pipe, and cases. The trick polished front brake drum, and rear brake looked beautiful, but when they got overheated they couldn’t stop a moped. And they were always overheated. Or didn’t work in the first place.

One time in 1979, I took leave from the Navy in Virginia for the Hobo Enduro, a real race that meant points for the top competitors, held next to Cal City. The Checkers who put on the two sixty mile loop race, ran it down some horrible trail that went straight down, with giant boulders on either side. My Uncle did the first loop, and I did the second one after gassing up the 3 gallon Muria gas tank (with a clear stripe in the fiberglass that acted like a fuel gauge.) By that time the brakes were good and hot.

Over the din of the race my Uncle said something about a bad downhill, but I couldn’t hear him through the Bell Star. After about fifty miles of rock filled sandy whoops, single track with 300 foot drop offs and silt filled dry river beds came the downhill. A mass of bikes and riders were stopped at the top of the downhill, looking for any good line. There wasn’t one. So I made my way through the cluster of bikes, and over I went. Since the brakes didn’t work, I slowed down by smashing the stout skid plate into the boulders along the trail. One time I got stuck on top of one, teetering. Some poor soul went flashing by me screaming. I finally made it down the damn thing, only to be greeted by a mess of crashed bikes and riders who had to go off a four foot drop off, into a silty dry riverbed. I made a quick calculation that if I went to the right of the trail, where no bikes were, I wouldn’t get stuck in the pile of bikes and pissed off riders.

I made it off the ledge fine, but knifed the front wheel, and went down in slow motion into the silt. As I tried to right the Pursang, the silt made it impossible to get any footing. As I struggled to get the damn bike up so I could start it, another rider followed me off the ledge, crashed and stuck the right handlebar of his 250 Yamaha through my rear wheel. That only took 30 minutes of exhausting silt encrusted work, and I was off on the last leg of the Hobo Enduro. We came in with the top 100 riders.

Back in the pits, we were loading the filthy Bultaco into my Uncle’s 1972 Datsun Pickup, when a kid on a Yamaha 90 Enduro went tank slapping across the pit area, and right over a big mound of dirt that had yellow danger tape covering it. On the other side were railroad tracks. I ran over and found the young man on the tracks, his neck broken. I tried CPR, mouth-to-mouth but he couldn’t breathe, and died in my arms. As per my Navy training I stabilized his neck first, but it did no good. A sad part of my dirt riding life.

Then, after my accident, and the day to day survival of being paralyzed, I built a Honda 70 powered Titanium framed wheelchair. It steers like a Sherman Tank, tops out at over 30 miles an hour. But guess what? It has scrub brakes, operated by the control handles.

And they don’t work.