Iron Butt Rally
Ojai, California
8/29/99 - Day 0

Robert Higdon

        This place has been like a war zone the day before a war comes to town.  People chatter nervously without actually communicating any meaningful information.  They go to bed late, get up early, and wander around aimlessly the rest of the time.  On the way here Michael McDaniel and Carolyn DeMelo, riding two-up on a Ducati, stopped by a weddings-while-U-wait chapel on The Strip in Las Vegas and got married.  Now really, is this not straight from the script of a 1942 war movie?  In the next room I can almost hear someone singing "There'll Be Bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover."

        This is the second (and last) day of registration and tech inspection.  Ninety-eight bikes will head for Kennewick, Washington tomorrow morning, a field 25% larger than that which took to the starting blocks in 1997.  They come from places as far away as Great Britain, Germany, and Australia.  For the first time Iron Butt rallymaster Mike Kneebone, like Queen Victoria before him, can legitimately claim that the sun never sets on his empire.

        Pat Widder, the king of electric clothes, opened his shop in this fern-bar town in the mountains of southern California to accommodate contestants and rally volunteers.  Parking lots and alleys around the building have been swamped with some of the most exotic motorcycles imaginable.  The high-tech craze has settled upon these riders with a fury.  Global positioning satellite units are a dime a dozen --- even Leonard Aron's '46 Indian Chief has one --- as are auxillary fuel cells, notebook computers, monster driving lights, and mapping programs.

        Most of the machines in the rally are heavily prepared BMWs and Hondas, usually not more than a few years old.   But there are aged and bizarre ones too --- Aron's Chief, the beautifully restored BMW R75/5s of Doug Jacobs and Kevin Chase (with odometers so primitive that they read only to the nearest mile), and Ken Hatton's hopelessly underpowered Suzuki GN125, essentially a hair dryer with wheels.  He wants to be the smallest bike ever to finish this rally.  I'm wondering how he's even going to climb through the mountains north of Ojai, much less push that little piglet around the entire United States.

        One of the truly competitive bikes --- Morris Kruemcke's Gold Wing --- had its picture in Motorcyclist magazine earlier this summer.  It is justifiably famous.  The machine carries, in addition to the customary warehouse of electronic weaponry, four 8" PIAA driving lights and a drain tube that enables Houston's favorite son to avoid stopping for nature's calls.  Morris once rode this machine over 1,200 miles without putting his feet on the ground.  If you go for a long trip with him, do what you can to stay in the lead.

        If the machines are tough, the machines' owners are even tougher.  This is easily the finest group of riders ever to have entered the Iron Butt Rally.  Three former winners of the IBR are here (Rick Morrison, Gary Eagan, and Ross Copas).  The best rider never to have won a major rally, Peter Hoogeveen, returns after heartbreaking second place finishes in '91 and '97.  The top three riders in the this year's five-day Butt Lite --- Eric Jewell, Gary Parece, and Richard Bernecker --- are ready to go, as are the two top finishers in the recent Where in the Hell Is Peter Heesch rally in Nevada.  Virginia's Paul Taylor showed up yesterday on his BMW R1100GS.  In his brief career he has run just three rallies, all on the east coast, but has won each one.  Eddie James, Shane Smith, Mary Sue Johnson, Tom Loftus, Heinz Kugler, and Harold Brooks all were highly-placed IBR finishers two years ago.  They've returned.  So has Fran Crane, this time on her BMW K1200RS.  I know of no steadier, more determined rider in this group of world-class contestants.

        Tonight former Iron Butt finisher and neurosurgeon Mike Murphy gave the group a safety lecture before dinner.  The rules were reviewed.  Mike Kneebone assigned numbers to the riders and handed out the first leg's bonuses.  There's nothing for them to do now but figure out a route north and try to get some rest.

        They may have trouble, but I plan on sleeping like a baby and dreaming about bluebirds and white cliffs.

Troutdale, Oregon
8/30/99 - Day 1

        Beginning at 0930 this morning, after a reasonably rotten night's sleep for a lot of people, the contestants in this year's Iron Butt Rally began assembling in a parking lot adjacent to Pat Widder's business in Ojai,  California.  Television camera crews, newspaper reporters, and spectators began lining the alley that led from the staging area out to the street and into the real world.  It was a '60s kind of happening.

        The plan was to bring the 98 riders out of the lot and into the alley in double file, hand out an identification towel to each, read the bike's starting odometer, remind them one more time to be careful, and propel them into the void.  It looked like the deck of an aircraft carrier on the morning of a major launch.  A couple of the bikes had engine or rider stalls and had to be pushed over the side of the ship until composure was regained.  Eventually and happily they all took flight.

        By 1030 Pat Widder's place had returned to normal.  Only rally organizers and volunteers remained, looking somewhat stunned.  We began to clean up, pack in, check out, and move on.  This time, instead of running a rental car to the next checkpoint, Mike Kneebone and I decided to let United Airlines do the work.  Four hours later we were in a Motel 6 on the Columbia River 1,000 miles north of Ojai and it had cost us only about 400,000,000 frequent flier miles to get here.  These airplanes are OK and incredibly fast; I think they're going to catch on.

        But the bad news wasn't long in coming.  I'd been waiting for it since the last rider disappeared down Pat Widder's alley.  You cannot send 100 people on a bunch of motorcycles around the length and breadth of the country for eleven days and not expect something to go wrong.

        We had been in the motel room just two minutes when Mike's cell phone went off.  It was Herbie Saint, the hugely popular rallymaster of the Tarbutt Rally in North Carolina.  Coming up the California coast road near Monterey, his rear wheel bearing seized.  Herbie somehow avoided an accident on a barely controllable bike.  He had it taken to the nearest BMW dealer.  The optimistic case is that some parts can be stolen from one of the other bikes at the dealer's shop, though even there Herbie will miss the Washington checkpoint; the worst case is that repairs cannot be effected in any sort of reasonable time and Herbie's first Iron Butt will be over.

        You cannot imagine the time, effort, and money all these riders have put into just showing up at the event.  To be knocked out so early is hellish.  It is particularly unfair in Herbie's case.  The average mileage on all bikes in the event is over 44,000.  Saint's has not even 30,000.  We're still wishing him the best of luck.  He's going to need it.

        The riders had all night to consider their route to the first checkpoint in Kennewick, Washington.  There were four distinct choices, but they shared a common theme: They were all bad.  The unannounced theme of the leg was "Just Say No."  My guess is that a lot of the riders are not saying "no" at all.

        The mildest choice went up the California coast with some bonus stops along the way.  It was the route Herbie Saint had chosen.  No one can fault a rider for taking this option.  It isn't going to garner a massive amount of points, but it isn't going to tire a rider out in the first hours of the rally either.  It is the least evil of the evil options.  Kneebone designed this route with Butt rookies in mind.

        The three remaining routes are much, much worse.  One involves going to Sequoia National Park, taking a picture of a big tree there, winding over the Sierra Nevada mountains, crossing Death Valley in the late afternoon, and stopping for a bonus in Beatty, Nevada.  To finish that string of bonuses off, the rider might also hit Cedar City and Salt Lake City, Utah.

That is a terribly difficult ride at this stage of the event.  Anyone who does it will be the first round's leader, but only by a whisker.

        Another route takes the rider straight across the Mojave desert at midday, past Phoenix, and along a 22-mile dirt road between bonus stops at Tortilla Flat and Roosevelt dam in Arizona.  The rider would then head north for about nine million hours tonight and tomorrow.  This route selection is worth exactly one point less than the Sequoia route.  It is also not designed for the faint of heart.

        The third of the ugly sisters requires running to the La Brea tar pits in downtown Los Angeles, up a rock road that has a bike-breaker reputation into the Ancient Bristlecone forest on the west side of Death Valley, and finally to a copper mine near Salt Lake City.  This is worth about 33 points less than the other routes; this too is a wretched, dreadful ride with no redeeming social value; this finally is no way to spend one's vacation.

        None of these latter rides is even remotely worth the points that will be gained in the effort.  Intellectually, all the veteran riders know that.  If you divide the number of points the bonuses are worth by the number of miles required to obtain them, you'll wind up with a figure like 1.0 --- ride a mile, pick up a lousy point.  That doesn't sound like much, and it isn't, particularly when every rider in the rally has been repeatedly told that the points-per-mile ratio increases dramatically as the rally progresses.  On the final leg, for example, you may ride on average one mile and pick up five points.  How can it make any sense at all in this stage of the event to break a bike or wear yourself out or both for 1.0 point/mile?  It can't, period.

        But somewhere tonight I know to a moral certainty that there are more than a few riders bouncing through Arizona and Nevada and Utah and other lonely places where they have no conceivable business being because for a few minutes tomorrow afternoon at the first checkpoint they will be the king of the world --- the emphasis there being, of course, on "for a few minutes."

Troutdale, Oregon
8/31/99 - Day 2

        Let's see.  We don't drive from checkpoint to checkpoint this year.  We fly, using up lifetimes of frequent flier miles.  It's faster and more efficient.  How fast and efficient?  Last night we went to bed at 0300.  We got up at 0700, packed the car, rode 220 miles to the checkpoint, and worked for about twelve hours checking almost 100 riders in.  Then we had dinner (lunch was a diet Dr. Pepper at the computer), drove 220 miles back to the motel, left a wake up call for 0600, and will go to bed at 0430.  The plane leaves at 0850.  And I wrote a story about Day #2 with palsied fingers on a rotten little computer in a shaking, dark car as we rolled through the night, just as I did in 1997.

        At some point my long-suffering Susan called to say that she thought her mother was having a heart attack but wouldn't go to the doctor.  I told Susan I was checking in a rider and would call her right back.  But I forgot to.

        In 2001 I'm holding out for a private berth on the Concorde.

        This afternoon Rick Morrison and Gary Eagan together walked into the Crocodile Motorsports Honda  dealership in Kennewick, Washington, the location for checkpoint #1 on the 1999 Iron Butt Rally.  These two riders, the winners of the '97 and '95 IBRs respectively, had ridden together before.  They evidently have resumed their old habits of showing up with the same list of bonus points.

        Morrison sat down and checked in.  Since he was the first rider to be scored by the rally computer, at 1309 PDT Morrison found himself leading this year's Iron Butt Rally, right where he left off two years ago.  A few moments later he was predictably tied by Eagan.

       "You guys are riding together because you have some plot," I accused.  "Don't deny it."

        "We deny it," they said in unison.

        "I know you're lying," I said.  "You have a secret agreement to ride together until twelve hours from the finish, at which point you will revert to a vicious sort of every-man-for-himself cannibalism.  Admit it."

        "We deny it," they repeated.

        I know they're planning something evil.  I just can't prove it.  They seem happy and relaxed.  That too must be a ruse.  I'm never happy and relaxed when this rally is underway.  I don't know why anyone else should be.

        Soon they were joined at the top of the leader board by Fran Crane, Shane Smith, and George Barnes, each one a serious, skillful rider.  They had all taken the great eastern arc through Nevada and Salt Lake City, racking up an average of 1,500 miles in about 28 hours.  That is 20% farther than the longest day I've ever had.  For them it's warming up.

        Then Morris Kruemcke walked in.  He's not tall, the Texan with the molasses-like drawl, but he's l-a-r-g-e somehow.  The checkers went through his paperwork and passed the forms to Mike Kneebone for final approval.  Mike began reading the details to me: Rider number, odometer, gas bonus, bonus codes.

        "TF," Mike said.

        "TF?" I repeated.  It was the bonus location code for Tortilla Flat, Arizona.

        It was true.  Morris had done Arizona, almost an 1,800 mile ride, with six hours to spare for sleep before the next leg began.  It was an amazing performance.  Two other superb riders --- Alan Barbic and Al Holtsberry --- would try to duplicate Kruemcke's run but each would hit the rocks.  Barbic arrived very late, took a heavy hit in penalties, and wound up 16 positions below Morris by day's end.  Holtsberry fared even worse.   Twenty-five miles from the checkpoint the rear wheel bearing in his R1100RT failed, the same problem that yesterday whacked Herbie Saint, and he finished the leg in a tow truck, uncertain whether he can continue.

        Kruemcke's lead didn't last long.  Phil Mann, a 66 year-old BMW rider from Michigan, arrived with bonus stops in Sequoia National Park, Nevada, and Utah.  It was a harder route than Kruemcke had taken and worth just one additional point.  In mid-afternoon Mann, who once rode over 113,000 miles in six months, led the Iron Butt.  No one could beat that score, but Eric Jewell, the winner of the '99 five-day Butt Lite rally, quickly tied Mann.  And that was it for the top places.

        Fifteen riders tied for fourth place behind Mann, Jewell, and Kruemcke by hitting the bristlecone pine park and a mine near Salt Lake City.  The cluster led by Morrison and Eagan follows them.  The difference between first place and fiftieth is about 600 points.  At this stage of the event 600 points is beneath nothing.
        No one reported any accidents, but there were moments of sadness nonetheless.  In addition to the no-show BMWs of Saint and Holtsberry, Marsha Roach's Panzer developed stator problems in Oregon.  She couldn't make the Washington checkpoint but said she would try to reach Maine.  Mary Sue Johnson, the sixth overall rider in the '97 IBR, lost a gas receipt and, consequently, the 500-point gas bonus.  That oversight cost her 37 places in the standings, but she knows that this event is still young.
        That's more than I can say.  I'm growing older by the minute.  We've found that trying to manage 100 riders is an administrative nightmare.  I'm trying to convince Mike that in 2001 we should reduce the field to ten riders and charge each an entry fee of $25,000.  As nearly as I can tell, the only thing such a large field is good for is a limitless supply of really terrific stories.  In the ensuring days I hope to be able to relay a few of them.
        But here's one I can't resist.  Fritz and Phyllis Lang of Pennsylvania, in just three IBRs, are already legends.  As desperately as Phyllis tries to drag Fritz along the route, he just as desperately wants to sit around and talk to people.  He is perpetually late.  They were late again today.  They had picked up two bonuses for 325 points, but their lateness penalties amounted to 330 points.  Every bonus stop they made was thus worth 2.5 negative points.  This is abnormal.

        "See, Phyllis?" I said.  "If you stop for 100 bonuses between here and Maine, you'll lose 250 points.  What does that tell you?"

        "I tell him to keep going," the saintly Mrs. Lang said.  "But he won't.  You know that."

        Yeah.  I did.  But Fritz likes people and they like him.  And if you can't talk to people, what's the point of riding around?

        Mike Kneebone passed out the bonus locations for the second leg, from Washington to Maine.  It too follows the usual script of multiple routes.  You pick one, then grab the bonuses only on that route.

        One of the paths is to Hyder, Alaska.  It sounds impossible.  It isn't.  If someone can do it, he or she will be leading the rally in a few days.

        Another path generally follows the main interstates eastbound.  It's a straightforward route with a bundle of easy bonuses that collectively aren't worth the one bonus in Alaska.  The rookies will go this way.

        The final path leads to Plano, Texas, a suburb of Dallas.  This route is drawing the heavy riders like a magnet.  Peter Hoogeveen and Paul Taylor asked me to calculate the distance to Maine by way of central Texas on a computer mapping program.  I did.  It was close to 3,900 miles.  They looked at each other and smiled.  A few minutes later Shane Smith asked if the Texas bonus was really as easy as it appeared.  Normal people would laugh at such a ridiculous comment.  No one was laughing at him.  He once went to a dinner in Alabama from his home in Mississippi by way of northern California and wasn't even late.

        I began packing up my scoring weapons.  Michael and Caroline McDaniel, the Iron Butt newlyweds, asked me if I thought they should go to Texas.

        "Are you delusional?" I asked rhetorically.  "You had a television crew here today interviewing you.  People all over the world are talking about this insane honeymoon of yours on the internet.  Forget Texas.  People you don't even know are waiting for you in Maine.  Go to them, my children.  Go to them now."

        But everyone thinks they're going to Texas.

Washington, D.C.
9/1/99 - Day 3

        We are taking fire.

        Mary Sue Johnson has dropped out of the rally, citing emergencies at work.  SuzyQ is about three feet tall, weighs fifty pounds, has the competitive instincts of a wet raccoon, and drives a tractor-trailer rig for Roadway Express.  In 1991 Jan Cutler turned her away from the IBR because he felt she lacked experience.  On the '97 IBR she finished sixth overall out of 78 starting riders.  I know she enjoys being reminded of that wonderful bit of IBR trivia almost as much as Jan hates hearing it repeated.  We will miss Mary Sue's presence during the remainder of this event.

        David Bankhead's bike has oil emerging where it shouldn't.  We know nothing else.

        The stator in Peter Withers' 13 year-old Yamaha Venture went belly up.   You might blame the bike's long teeth for the problem, but you would merely be discriminating against seasoning, you agist thug.  The stators (a/k/a alternators) in these kinds of big Japanese tour bikes have a documented history of meltdown for no reason at all, sometimes before they even leave the assembly line.  Peter, one of the Butt's truly nice veterans, may not be out, but he's definitely down.

        One rider narrowly missed being beaten to death this morning by Mike Kneebone and me.  In rallies past Mike would deliver an harangue to the riders at the preliminary banquet about dealing with the press.  This time he met privately with every rider in the event, reminded each of the obligations of the press (i.e., to report lies, foment rumors, and make things up), reviewed the ethics of media representatives (i.e., at or below the level of  disbarred attorneys), and suggested effective methods to ensure that the rider has been quoted correctly (i.e., don't speak to the miserable bastards at all).
        But inevitably a reporter shows up at a checkpoint, sticks a tape recorder in a rider's face, says, "Hi!  I'm Brown from the 'Sun.'  Let's talk," and proceeds to pop a few innocuous questions:

        Q.  How fast do you ride?

        A.  With the flow of traffic.

        Q.  How fast is that?

        A.  I don't know.  I'm looking at the traffic, not at the speedo, you fool.  You think I want to die?

        [Reporter writes: "Rider has speed-induced death wish.  Blasts through school bus zones at 155 mph while tapping a vein for his next crystal meth injection."

        Q.  Do you ever sleep?

        A.  Of course I sleep, you idiot.  Don't all animals?

        [Reporter writes: "Rider confesses that he's an animal who never sleeps while speeding through school bus zones."]

        I sent out my daily e-mail report this morning just before 0300 PDT.  The program then picked up incoming e-mail, among which was a message from George Mastovich, an attorney and former vicious, blood-death enemy of mine.  It contained the text of a story in the Monday edition of the Chicago Tribune.  As my distribution list consists principally of God-fearing, kindly citizens, I decline to reproduce George's comments, but permit me to quote some of the more outrageous passages from the hack newspaper:

        "Ken Hattom [sic] has a passion for motorcycling. He has blasted down the nation's highways at speeds of up to 173 m.p.h., and he holds the record for the fastest land trip ever between New York City and San Francisco: 41 hours.  But this year, he's traveling a little bit more slowly . . .

        "As a participant in the biannual [sic] Iron Butt Rally, he is about to attempt to travel 11,000 miles in 11 days, touching the four corners of the United States in a bizarre combination of speed race [sic] and scavenger hunt . . .

        "And while Hattom [sic] has ridden a 124-horsepower Kawasaki in the rally before --- driving with so much power that the bike's sprocket teeth ripped off --- this time he's riding a 6-horsepower Suzuki GN125.  Its maximum speed is about 50 m.p.h."

        I read this drivel to the  bitter end.  Mike was asleep.  My hands began to shake in fear and rage.  At 0410 I took the cell phone into the bathroom and called the long-suffering Susan.  When I absolutely, positively need a legal opinion I can trust to the dark, cold grave, I call her.

        "This article is gibberish," I said.  "They didn't even spell Ken Hatton's name right.  It isn't a biannual rally; it's a biennial event.

       "Furthermore, Hatton couldn't do 1,000 miles in one day on that slug bike if he were dropped from the space shuttle.  And a SPEED RACE?   A simple DEATH-DEFYING race isn't enough for these hyenas?  But even in its abject illiteracy, this trash is a time bomb.  Suppose he really said this horrid rot and we ignore it.  If he has an accident, we're all going to jail."

        "Did he say it?"

        "It sounds like Hatton," I said.  "That reporter didn't dream up the crap about the sprockets.  Hatton DNF'd in '93 and '95 on that swine ZX-11.  Both times he said the sprockets crumped.  That excuse is all over the internet.  Hell, I wrote the stories myself.  They're in national rags."

        "If the reporter doesn't substantively retract this piece, I think you have to disqualify the rider.  You can't ignore this."

        "I agree," I said bleakly.

        "You have some hope," Susan said.  "Remember that photo of Harry Truman laughing and holding up the newspaper on election night in 1948 with the headline that he had been beaten by Tom Dewey?"

        "Not the Trib," I said.

        "The Trib," she said.

        I slept an hour. The motel's wake up call came at 0600.  Mike snapped up.

        "Get your e-mail, " I said.  "Right now.  I forwarded you a love letter from Mastovich."

        He picked up his e-mail.

        "Oh, God," he groaned.  The day wasn't ten minutes old, and already it was way old.

        We knew that the odds of the reporter retracting his story were zero.  Between us in maybe 100 lifetime years of newspaper interviews, neither of us had ever been misquoted.  By mid-afternoon, following a few telephone calls from Mike, the reporter retracted.  Mike is being sent a letter of apology.  Hatton never said anything remotely similar to that which was reported.  Yadda yadda.  There was some confusion between the reporter and his editor.  Yadda yadda yadda.  Freedom of the press.  Yadda yadda.  Rocket's red glare.  Yadda yadda yadda.  These people are worse than I ever was.  I'm at least a recovering lawyer.  These Inside Edition/People Rag creeps get worse every day.  Yadda.

        Morris Kruemcke reports that he passed Ken Hatton's whining lawnmower bike on I-84 early this morning. I'm here to tell you that neither of them was going 173 m.p.h., OK?

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