Words by: Rick Sieman
Their markings are distinctive: a black and white checkerboard pattern, like that on the winning flag at the finish of a race. The checkered pattern is painted on their helmets, emblazoned on their jerseys and often even on the legs of their riding pants.
The club? The Checkers M.C., by far the winningest competition club to ever race motorcycles. They've been around a long time, and have a fantastic and often bizarre history. Many of the most famous names in off-road racing were members of the Checkers.
The stories! Ah yes, the stories. Some have escalated to the status of legend. Tales of racers who would do almost anything to win! Bend the rules, cut the course, anything to get that extra edge on the others.
Our mission here is to delve into that mystique, wallow in the mysterious, leap feet first into the tall tales that may or may not be true and maybe when we emerge from this little exercise, we might find out that we've learned a bit about what drives this group of hard-core racers.
TWO KINDS OF CHECKERS
First off, you have to understand that there are, indeed, two completely separate Checker clubs. One is the Motorcycle Club, and the other is the Off-Road Racing Club (for buggies). There is a certain amount of overlapping, as many of the off-road racers started out on bikes and then graduated to fast buggies or trucks as they got older, or as their knees simply wore out.
There is a camaraderie that exists, but they hold their meetings at different places. You'll find that the membership of the MC Checkers is younger, in general, than the off-road group, but there are some truly crusty individuals in the Checkers, who can tell you some stories …
There's the tale of Dingus Watkins, who suddenly started finishing quite strongly in multi-loop desert races. Even though Dingus was a good rider, he wasn't that good!
In desert races, you get a card taped to your tank or front fender, and when you stop at a checkpoint, the workers will put some sort of identifying the mark on the card. Check 1 might be a yellow felt-tip pen initial, Check 2 a blue mark made with a ballpoint pen and yet another check might use a red crayon.
This is all planned ahead of time, and when the race is completed, you should have all the right number of checks, and they have to be the right color and type of mark. Pretty foolproof, right?
Well, Dingus had a system (allegedly) that sort of smoked the safeguards. He was seen after a race taking off his riding jersey, and under the jersey was a set of cartridge holders, much like bandits used to wear, and in those bullet holders were felt-tip pens, crayons, and markers of every conceivable description.
Rumor had it that Dingus would race the first loop as hard as he could, then pull off the course and spend some time matching all the marks on his tank card. Then, on the last loop, when the leaders started heading into the finish line, he would fire up his bike and race them home. Being nice and rested, he could and would give the leaders a run for their money.
TIMING THE START JUST RIGHT
There were three Checkers . . . we'll call them Max, Bud, and Gene (not their real names), who figured out a way to get dynamite starts at desert races.
First off, you have to understand how desert races start. The engines are shut off and the banner goes up. It stays up for at least 30 seconds, then sometime in the next 30 seconds, the banner will drop and the mass of racers will kickstart their bikes into life and haul for the smoke bomb. Max.
Bud and Gene had a special technique, you see. Max would get on the left side of the line, Bud on the right and Gene in the middle. As soon as the 30-second mark passed, Max would nod his head, Gene would see him nod, then do the same and Max would then fire up his bike. When all three of these riders lit off at the same time, the mass of riders would hear engines firing and stab for the Kickstarter.
By that time, Bud, Max, and Gene were already in gear, throwing rooster rails. Often, the folks holding the banner would try to wave the false pre-start off, but more often than not, it was too late and they would simply throw their arms up in disgust and let the start stand.
The Checkers have a long and glorious history and some of the men who have worn the black-and-white colors read like a list of off-road greats. Al Baker, Dick Miller, Gene Hirst, Tim Smith, Al Rogers, Red Ludford, Bobby Ferro, Gene Ferro, Bob Ewing, Kenny Knudson, Eddie Mulder, Dusty Coppage, Max Switzer, Jack Johnson, Doyle Fields, Steve Holladay, Wayne Cook, J.N. Roberts, Whitey Martino, Ron Sloan, Don Bohannon, Bill Saltzman, Mike Burke, Bill Postel, Steve Kirk, Dan Smith, Cliff Thomas, Jeff Wright, George Walker, Chuck Stearns, Eddie Pierce, Howard MacCasland, Darrin Cartwright, Chuck Pettigrew, Terry Davis, Smokebomb Gaetz, Mike Mulconery, Rich Thorwaldson, Ted Lapadaikis, Bob Heron, The list goes on and on, and we have no doubt left out numerous names.
THE CHECKER ATTITUDE
Win, win, win. Nobody goes to a Checker meeting bragging about a solid second-place finish. They live, breathe, eat, sleep and dream about winning. Being the high-point Checker at the end of the year is a highly prized status. Their pits are compact, very efficient and they'll scramble like mad dogs to get a rider in and out in minimum time. They'll think nothing of stripping a part off a personal machine to get a top-running rider underway again.
When the Checkers show up at a race, they pit together, away from other clubs. They hang around with each other, line up on the starting line in a group, and party together.
THE CHECK CHASE
"The novices will hate it; the amateurs will have their eyes yanked wide open and the experts will love it." Those were the words said about the famed Check Chase. The Check Chase is/was about 220 miles of pure grief for the new rider, and a genuine test of skills for the savvy desert racer. It was not designed to be easy; in fact, just finishing this tough race is a point of honor. The Checkers pick the gnarliest terrain they can find, throw in ugly rock sections, ribbon a handful of nasty hills and very little smooth stuff. The top ten finishers in the Check Chase were usually the top ten racers in the West.
To unnerve the competition, the Checkers have gone to some extreme lengths. Once, at a hare scrambles in the late '60s, Doyle Fields and Marvin Steele were nowhere to be seen. Their bikes were in the front row on the starting line, propped up and ready for action.
Then, mere minutes before the banner was raised, two figures literally dropped out of the skies, with parachutes billowing out above them. Fields and Steele had just parachuted out of an airplane and landed right next to their bikes. They dumped the chutes and hopped on their bikes, leaving stunned riders gasping.
The story is told of more "air support" in the early '60s. For a period of about two years, a Checker who was a pilot would fly over the course and find the "good lines." Then he'd fly down over the racers, spot the ones with a large fluorescent "X" on their helmets and buzz down low, then dart off in the "good" direction. The "X" riders would follow the plane and allegedly save quite a bit of distance in the process.
The only problem was that often the plane would fly so slow that it would scare the riders halfway into the next county.
At a national TT race at Ascot in the late '60s, Eddie Mulder and Skip Van Leeuwen were having a great race, when Skip's motor blew up. Eddie, in keeping with the purest tradition of the Checkers, stopped on the last lap, told Skip to hop on the back of his bike, wheelied across the finish line... and won the race in the process.
Eddie Mulder was always a wild one. Once, he ran a desert race with a huge question mark on his jersey, and burned donuts around each and every check worker during the race, and still won.
The race was the legendary Big Bear run in 1960, and Eddie was only 16 years old at the time. It was a weird race. In his own words, "I was sitting in the outdoor [outhouse] and the race started. My old man went nuts. I jumped on my Royal Enfield and rode sort of nuts. I was completely over my head, but won the race overall."
THE STANDARD OF EXCELLENCE FOR DECADES
Since 1951, the Checkers have been the dominant force in District 37 (AMA) desert racing. They've won numerous club championships and many #1 plate holders have been members.
A few of their accomplishments:
•Nine Barstow-to-Vegas overall victories.
•Eleven NORRA/SCORE overall victories.
•Three Mint 400 wins.
•Three Parker 400 overall wins.
•Twenty-six #1 plates in District 37.
•Ninety-three single-digit District 37 numbers.
The list goes on...
EVEN MORE STORIES!
Ted Lapadaikis, the old DKW distributor for the West Coast, was a Checker, and he used to field the fastest Deeks in the world. Once, he challenged Jimmy Camaret (another Checker) to a drag race. Jimmy laughed. He was riding a brutal 400 Husky and Ted was on a 200 DKW.
The Deek simply blew the Husky away, and Ted just laughed. Rumors had it that Ted had figured out a way to make the Deeks close to 350cc, or maybe even more. He also had access to all the trick Six Days parts. Small wonder, then, that the "small-bore" bikes started to get overall wins.
Remember the scene from On Any Sunday where the camera is on J.N. Roberts as he's streaking across the desert at a high rate of speed? Well, right on his tail was Jimmy Camaret, riding a big 650 Triumph. Jimmy was getting ready to put the pass on J.N., because J.N. had his Husky all wound out, and Jimmy had just slipped into top gear and was closing fast.
Out of the clear blue sky (literally), a helicopter dropped down to film J.N. and threw up a giant cloud of dust that made Jimmy drop back. The chopper was only 15 feet off the ground, and every time Jimmy went left, the chopper went left, and when he went right, the chopper went right. Jimmy finally had enough of the airborne dust and was forced to fall back.
NEVER SAY QUIT!
During the '69 or '70 (dates are fuzzy) Barstow-to-Vegas race, Rich Thorwaldson was leading the race on his BSA/Rickman/ Westlake and pulled into the pits for gas. The bike was running ragged and blue flames were coming out of the exhaust pipe. Bob Heron was working the pits at the time, and he suggested that Rich shut down the bike while refueling. Rich said no, and the crew started pouring gas.
The gas vapors curled over the edge of the tank, and the bike suddenly went up in flames! Rich jumped off the bike and it fell to the ground. The crew put the fire out with their bare hands, literally burying the Beezer under the sand.
When the fire was out, the bike was a crispy critter, and Thor figured it was all over. No way. "Kick it over and get going!" yelled Heron. Thor booted the BSA and it lit off. He took off, promptly got two flats, and still somehow managed to finish and salvage the third overall.
The early '70s. Stoddard Wells Road in the Mojave Desert. There was a five-mile run to the smoke bomb, but the crafty Checkers had thoroughly scoped out the terrain and found a smooth, fast fire road two miles off the course. They all lined up and blitzed it off to the bomb via the fire road. At the bomb, an estimated 15 to 20 Checkers were there before anyone else, adding immeasurably to the legend.
MORE FAMOUS NAMES
Howard Hawks, the movie director, was also a Checker and was good pals with John Wayne. Once, the Checkers wanted to have a race go across some land that was on a Marine base in the desert. Hawks called Wayne, who rode a few times with the Checkers, and The Duke placed a call to some friends in the Pentagon. Sure enough, a few hours later, they received official permission to use the military land for their race.
Legend has it that Clark Gable was a Checker. Famed flat tracker Gene Romero also wore the black and white colors.
THEN CAME BILL
Bill Saltzman has been under fire off and on for a few years for "bending the rules." I raced against Bill for many years and can tell you that he is a rocket, and does not need to cheat to win.
Once, however, at the SoCal Grand Prix, I was part and parcel to actual course cutting with Bill. It was a LeMans start. We ran to the bikes and my KTM oddly took about 20 kicks to get fired up. I was last off the line and furious with myself for not putting in a fresh plug before the race.
I wailed down the pavement section leading to the dirt and saw Bill picking his bike up off the ground and banging his bars straight. I clutched in and waited until Bill got going again, and followed him.
A few miles later, he darted off to the left, picked up a sand wash and flew! Ten minutes later we crested over a rise, and there were the leaders. We pulled in about fourth or fifth and proceeded to ride as hard as we could. Bill won and I got second, I think. Yes, I "bent" the rules a bit. Sue me.
Bill recalls his early days with the Checkers. When he got his prospective jumper, he found two pockets on the inside of the jumper. The left pocket had some pills in it, and it was labeled "To go fast, take these." In the right pocket were some more pills. This pocket read: "Get hurt take these." By the way, all of the "pills" were common aspirins.
Bill recalls the times when they would ribbon the course on a false trail. Riders would sneak out the day (or night) before, and scout the course. At pre-dawn, the Checkers would pick up the false ribbon and re-lay the correct ribbon. Then, when the race started, numerous riders would zoom off on the wrong trail, leaving a cluster of Checkers in the lead on the right course. Good fun!
Then there was the time the Checkers held a race, and Bill decided to have a real twist on the start. The banner was raised, and it sat there and waited to be dropped, signaling the start, but instead of dropping the banner, they ignited a fuse which in turn lit off a bunch of dynamite under the banner. The banner blew to smithereens, and the entire line of racers sat there, stunned. Except for the Checkers, who charged to the bomb like mad dogs after a pussycat.
Bill was under heavy fire for cheating, and the club decided to do something weird to counteract this. So, about ten riders all put on jerseys that had "SALTZMAN" emblazoned across the back. This drove people nuts, as Bill was seen everywhere, doing everything.
Bill says he has more fun working the races than anything else. Once, he was working a check and an exhausted rider pulled up and asked, "How far to the finish line?" Bill responded, "About five miles." The guy roared off, refreshed. Thereby the legend of "five Checker miles" was created. The actual distance left was 48.5 miles. Thus, five Checker miles is equal 'to 48.5 real miles
BITS OF HISTORY
Red Ludford told us about the early days. The Checkers started racing in 1951 but were not much of a force. Then, about three years later, the top ten finishers in a big race were all Checkers. The legend started.
Eddie Mulder typified the wild and rowdy attitude of the Checkers. While most of the Checkers were desert racers, Eddie did it all and specialized in flat-track and TT racing. Eddie loved to blow people's minds. Once, during a TT race at Irwindale, he stopped during the main event, while his mechanic handed him a hot dog. After a bite or two, Eddie continued onward … and yes, he did win the main event. Eddie says he did this to tweak his buddy, Skip van Leeuwen.
In '66 or '67 (again, dates are subject to lapses), a slew of European riders were invited to Ascot Park to put on a riding demonstration for the packed stands. The entire CZ and Husky teams were there in force, as well as several English riders on Greeves and Triumph Metisse machines.
A.J. Agajanian, the owner of Ascot, turned to Eddie, and said, "Here's a spare bike from Torsten Hallman. Why don't you go out and kick their butt?" So Eddie lined up against Roger DeCoster, Joel Robert, a bunch of Swedes and Englishmen, and let them all go into the first turn. By turn three, Eddie had slipped by all of them to take the lead. Like he said, "They didn't know how to slide on hard-packed surfaces." Eddie went on to win the exhibition race by a landslide on the borrowed Husky. Later, he noted: "They're nice guys … good racers … and they invited me to race a motocross next Sunday."
That next Sunday, they "put a squish on me," said Eddie. "I pulled the holeshot, and then when they hit the bumps I might as well have parked it. Those guys were rockets!"
THE BOTTOM LINE
They've been accused of being cheaters of bending the rules to win … of being elitist … of being arrogant. However, the true bottom line is this: The Checkers exist to win. They know the desert better than anyone else … and do their homework. Like Sam Burg (a longtime Checker member) said: "We've been accused of cheating a lot, but most of the accusations are because we've been so fast that no one else ever saw us. We were in front. Anything goes to accuse the Good, Bad and the Ugly."
Who was the fastest Checker ever? Some say that Bob Ewing was the best during his time. Few will argue that J.N. Roberts was the King of the Desert during his reign.
Now? There's a fresh crop of Checkers, and all of them run up front, in the tense air of the leaders. They race to win, live to win and ride to win
They are a tight-knit group, driven by the need to be the best. You can accuse them of bending the rules, but you cannot accuse them of being slow. It's estimated that every charge of cheating leveled against the Checkers is based on 99 percent envy.
Bob Heron put it all into perspective: "Being a Checker is like being a member of King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table."
For more amazing stories and understand the unique culture of being a "Checker" head to -> http://www.checkersmc.com