The sky is thinner up here in Mammoth, and my heart tracks to a manic soundtrack as we line up.
The dark loam of the track leads up, up to a point before us that disappears into a brilliant backdrop of crystal blue sky framed by towering pines.
A cloud of blue smoke perfumed by premix gas floats around me as everyone starts revving, edging forward until our front knobbies kiss the starting gate.
Yet in that moment I can only think of how the whine and growl of the big 2 stroke motors sounds like nothing as much as the stinging clarion call of my new obsession, of a humbucked guitar fed through a Marshall half stack.
It is not the roar of engine but the Clash, Complete Control that I hear in my head as the gate drops and we all launch forward.
The long uphill start is answered naturally by a left handed 180 that funnels the riders back to the forest floor.
I brake hard and lean the RM400 toward the inside line, hoping to make up for a midpack start and gain a few positions from the riders riding the outside berm in a higher gear.
But my front wheel catches on a rock no bigger than a clenched fist, the front end collapses left then catches traction again, sending me off the track, off the hill, into the air.
I am weightless for an exquisite moment, the big Suzuki already falling toward the boulders eighteen feet below.
And for the first time in my young life I have the very certain feeling that this is going to hurt.
As I start to fall I imagine my mom, shaking her head in a hospital room, or perhaps beside the fresh dirt piled next to a coffin, sighing one last time-those goddamn motorcycles…..
But it is not my mother’s worried warnings about to be fulfilled that I hear inside my helmet, but the exasperated bark of Joe Strummer scolding me: Oh, oh oh-have we done something wrong?
Later, as the ER doctor was pointing out the various places on my body where orchid hued bruises would soon blossom, I was considering perhaps ending my motocross career.
And by the time he held an x-ray up to the light, tracing a pen along a single lightning bolt shaped crack on my right Scapula, I had already decided to sell the bike and finally purchase that 300 watt Peavey PA system down at Cerritos Music.
I took one last look at the glowing x-ray, a wedge of bone divided like a cartoon heart broken by a long lost love.
It was no big difference, I always thought, the move from motocross to punk rock.
The threat of noise assured, the chance of violence always imminent.
The camaraderie and and good natured ball breaking almost identical, backstage and the pits.
But I found I was better at being in a band, comparatively, and- bonus!– I could do it while drunk too!
Through the next decades when music, jobs….life nibbled away at my days, I always kept a simmering interest in motorcycles.
The amazing advances of 4 stroke motors and suspension, Supercross exploding in the 90s,
The opium smell of Blendzall simmering in the air, the stench of a porta potty with leathers at your ankles and a race starting in three minutes.
To walk the pits and check out bikes, talk shit with the other guys in your class, the tickle of a pebble in the sole of a stiff calf high boot-these are the things that live on in memory.
Familiar as the song that played in the background when you, fumbling, first lost your virginity.
This year’s MotoBeach classic was joined by the RedBull Straight Rhythm race, a single half mile straight motocross track to be built atop the parking lot of Huntington Beach State beach.
As we set up the pits Friday we glance up at the starting gate, thirty feet above our heads.
The lanes are littered with insane triple and quad jumps, a section of whoops jutting up like the armored scales along a dragon’s back.
But it is the wee oval track, mercifully free of jumps or dragons, that draws us old guys back to race.
It is a chance to race around for a few glorious laps on dusty old trail bikes, sure.
But more importantly, it is a day to reconnect with those sweet rituals of race day.
A chance to walk around the pits once again, to suit up in kneepads and boots, attend a confusing riders meeting in the chill of dawn.
Chris and Tbone, fucking Schmidt. They all show up to join me in the pits.
We’ve all hung out in dressing rooms in crumbling theatres, parking lots of roller rinks while punk rock riots raged and nights ended by police brutality.
Yet we are here together, eating cold pizza and perched on folding chairs, thrilled to be here among MX pros and exotic bikes as if we were about to see The Jam reunite for a single sparkling gig.
To be once again backstage while the headliners fly above us, though sadly in this arena the lads can’t sneak into their dressing rooms to steal their beer.
I see Roger fucking DeCoster in the KTM pits and freeze.
It is like seeing Joe Strummer backstage in the flesh, an icon whose postered image has graced my bedroom wall, covered the bare studs of the garage as we clanged our way through those first awful practices.
I point my phone in his direction, trying to be sly about it, but he seems to sense his photo is being stolen once again.
He scowls toward me and I snap the picture, content to be acknowledged for a moment, even in scorn.
We see the top riders walk past our meager pop up all day.
Webb and Musquin, Barcia.
The names I’ve followed only though the 52 inch Vizio, absolute masters of the track on a Saturday night as I sit in my recliner and can barely stay up past 9.
They look small here, just kids really.
But when they take to the track it is astounding, the sheer speed as they attack the whoops, the grace and precision as they take to the sky.
On the last jump I watch as Ken Roczen casually whips his YZ sideways after an easy heat win.
As the bike twists almost backwards under him he casually points at a fan in the grandstand, 30 feet in the air and feet hovering over the pegs, certain he will land with feline grace on 2 wheels.
I am reminded then of my own last few races back then, when I realized I would never have the otherworldly skill of the professional riders I lined up next to.
Riders who seem to hover a millimeter above the bikes speeding below them, guiding them with sheer will.
I would forever be a mid pack rider, just as this band would never attain the headliner status of our heroes, but remain a good solid support act.
And that’s okay..
It’s enough to just be here, in the pits, or walking with guitar case in hand backstage, and feel part of something grander than can ever be described.
I miscalculated, and entered the vintage aircooled class.
I had pictured other old guys on clapped out pigs, but when I pull to the line I am among hissing Bultacos and Champion framed Kawasaki twins, the riders clad in full leathers, left boots heavy with hotshoe.
But I remind myself I am here on the beach, riding on a track again, and the thrill and pulse of the starting line remains the same.
Just as we have the honor of being allowed on a stage still.
Even if gifted an opening slot by a headlining band who used to listen to us back when they were kids.
The starter twirls the green flag above his head as he paces across the line, pointing at each of us in turn.
I twist the throttle wide open and try to conjure Strummer within my helmet once again.
I start at the back and stay there, passing just a couple of guys who either stall out or slide wide on the blue grooved track.
But I am grinning under that helmet, letting the back end slide out as I jump on the gas, singing a song that only I can hear.
It’s over too fast, of course, and when I pass under the checkered flag I am already regretting taking off the gear and breaking down the pits.
Letting this day go.
As I ride back through the pits I get a few people clapping toward me, just for virtue of being out there I guess.
But then a couple guys point at my jersey and give me the thumbs up, for I have had the gall to wear my own merch today.
Channel 3! Whoo!, yells one guy, pointing out my shirt to the child perched upon his shoulders.
He turns his head up to shout up to his kid, over the roar of motorcycles over the roar of time rushing past us all.
That was a band I used to go see, he yells. They used to be great!