A day at "Hell On Wheels" with Matt Collins

 

If you don't know Mat Collins, now it's a good time to know him, photographer, Vintage MX rider and ambassador of Fuel Motorcycles at California, he went to race at one of the most classic raceways in the US, the epic Glen Helen!

In the article below you can understand his mind behind the bars during the last "Hell On Wheels", and how he made his way to the 3rd place with a Suzuki TS 185 from 1971, read below. 

The morning starts at 5 am with some coffee brewing, I pick out my favorite socks. Wiping the crust from my eyes I start to get moving. The last few nights I stayed up late testing jets on the carburetor, putting clean oil in the forks and checking over my bike. It’s a Suzuki TS 185 from 1971. It was a garage find I picked up for $100. I felt like the luckiest person getting it. Not knowing what the future had in store for me and this bike, I look back and wonder if it was fate. 

My story begins on Saturday and Hell on Wheels is putting on a race at the infamous Glen Hellen Raceway. It is a 2-hour drive and I don’t even sweat it because I am so excited about what is to be my day. Pulling into the gate you see thousands of stickers, and parts of the track, somehow you can feel the history that has taken place. It’s always nice to say hello to the gate person, they always recognize I’m there for the vintage racing. Sometimes I think it’s my face but it might be my bike that’s the giveaway.

Off I go into the pits, instantly you can smell the two-stroke oil gas mix.  I look for a good spot to park somewhere easy to unload. The parking is scattered, you can tell some people have known each other for years and have big groups. I’m kind of new with one year under my belt and look for the few guys I know.  I’m still learning a lot at every race,  I’ve done what I can to my bike with minor adjustments but other than that my bike is stock.

At every race, you will see half the racers have stock bikes and the other half will have tricked out race machines. I drool over some of them. Shiny chrome tanks, modern suspension, electronic timing...every inch of the bikes have been polished to perfection. 8 am we all get practice laps which if fun because you see a lot of bikes that you might not get in your race.

The event is run by a special character known as Meatball. A true motorcycle rider that likes to have everyone enjoy racing, we are all grateful for the work he puts in. Southern California in the winter can be dry and he uses water trucks to prep the dirt. We like to call it chocolate cake when the dirt is prime.  Sometimes the corners get a little too much water and they become tricky to navigate. Push a little too hard and down in the slick mud you will go and you don’t want to be that guy.

Quickly it's 11 am and time to race. There are about 8 to 10 racers on the line in our division. I race vintage pre-1972. There are a variety of bikes from the Triumph, CZ, BSA, and Tacos then the Yamahas, Honda Elsinores, and my TS Suzuki. 

Every bike and rider has a unique story and should be told because everyone is so different from each other but somehow we all like the same thing and find our way there.  It feels great to pull up onto the line and take a look at the competition. Your mind races with thoughts from “can I win“ to “I better be safe”.  Meatball gives you a look to check one last time with each rider and as he does the bikes start revving up. It’s a loud hum.

The start is always the best and most exciting for me and it can determine how you finish up. Once Meatball checks the last rider the green flag goes up and the gate drops. The bikes go from a loud hum to a deep roar and we are off. I get a decent start somewhere in the first 5. It’s a sprint race to the first corner. I’m never in first, the little Suzuki 175 gives it all she has but it’s nothing compared to the 250s and 400s. My specialty is the tight corners and I will hold it as fast as I can.

The race to the first corner is awesome fun, the whole group is still pretty much together going from wide open to smashing on the breaks and sliding around the left 180 corners. Everyone is close, some bump elbows but not on purpose. No one wants to get hurt or hurt anyone else but we all want to win. It’s controlled chaos.

I go right for the inside corner and few guys with bigger bikes are sliding around full throttle flat track style. 20 feet goes by in a second then it’s a right hand 180 but this one has 2 lines. Again I go inside the faster bikes go outside for better drive out of the corner. The group is starting to separate, one guy breaks down, one slips out and everyone else charges up the hill.

There are two really fast guys and bikes that pull ahead and I’m around 5th. It’s pretty easy to see everything going on and funny because the whole time my mind is talking to me about the best course of action. Knowing there are 4 laps there is no reason to make a stupid mistake but still, you can’t ease off or you are done. Racing is just racing and we all showed up for a reason and that’s to win.

At the top of the hill, the track makes a hard right and we drop down into a hard left-hand corner. This is one of the sections you don’t want to overshoot it could cost you the race. There are 4 of us all in a group still trying to make some progress on the other guys. Doing our best to hold our lines we climb back up another hill. Kamikaze Bob slips a gear and I try to go around him on the inside and blow off the track. Errr. I scramble as fast as I can to downshift and get my speed back up but by then I was in the back of our 4 pack. So the chase begins.

We climb another short hill and back down into a hard left off-camber with dry hard dirt. One guy slips a little and I get by him. The chase continues into a super fun but sketchy right-hand corner drop. You could take a few lines but this corner could be a game-changer if you hit it wrong and you don’t want to tumble down the hill in front of the spectators. Of course, the guys nail it and I can’t catch em.

Down the hill, we fly into the fastest part of the track and rip into a high-speed right-hand turn to start the second lap. Everyone has some space now it’s a matter of being clean and not making a mistake. No one is letting up, it’s actually a fast lap everyone is focused and full throttle.

The third lap we are pretty tight and I’m chasing Andrew. He has a powerful bike and a good rider, I’m doing everything I can to stay right there with him. He is on a BSA Goldstar. I don’t think he hears me, I take the opportunity and slip in front of him in a tight corner while he takes it wide. I’m super excited, I just have to hang on and we are on the 4th lap halfway through. I’m starting to think... "hey I could be in the top 3..." Here comes that off-camber left turn. Andrew is right behind me and putting the pressure on,  I’m giving it all the 185 has. I downshift and double break, two-wheel sliding I slip a little oh nooo, I do a half split but hold the bike up without falling, Andrew must have seen it coming and takes the corner a little wider and brapppp I hear him coming.

I give Suzuki everything but the tire is slipping a little as he passes me on the climb. The other 2 guys are trying to also get around me but I got on the gas in just enough time to hold them off. I chased Andrew to the finish and it’s over. All of a sudden the burn of hand pump starts and reality fades back in. We give each other the thumbs up and I’m happy to be safe and full of excitement from the good battle we had.

Everyone puts their bikes up and heads over to the awards. I did not know the results but Meatball calls my name for third. Heck yeah, proud to take that hardware for my collection. It’s a small reminder of the race and I accomplished my mission for the afternoon. Only Andrew and a few others share similar memories of the fun on the track that afternoon. Next week it will be a different story and a different track that’s what we all like to chase.

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