Forced Busing

Moving out on Veterans Charity RideMonday morning was hurry-up-and-wait, but every rider was cheerful and the feeling was as familiar as leather personnel carriers: we were embarking on a squad-sized vehicle road march, with a support team in larger vehicles. Up in our room, George and I had fiddled with gear, packing and repacking bags and pockets and jackets and pouches, anticipating tactical balance, sharing jokes and coffee and the nearly sure knowledge that no one would try to blow us up today.

Still, it’s a test of fortune. Would the bikes run right? Would anyone nod off in the heat and scout the bar pit terrain? What about unexpected dumb drivers? But we’d stick together to fend off semis and sedans, because when a little risk pays off in joy it’s a much bigger jackpot than anyone gets from sitting home in the dark, peering into a virtual world of war.

Or remembering a real one, night after night, without finding anyone to talk it out with. Find a buddy; take a ride; blow your brains out with clean highway wind instead of a meticulously cleaned and reassembled Beretta 92F. This is wisdom that my co-riders understand.

At the curb, we munched on bananas and doughnuts while we waited after dragging our luggage — “bag and baggage,” as Josh reminded us was the military term for, apparently, a load of TA-50 and assorted uniforms so profoundly overweight that it transcended mere “baggage” — down to the front of the excellent Burbank Marriott and waited for our bikes to show up.

And waited. And waited. And then filed onto a hotel bus after learning that the truck delivering our tribe of Chieftains had broken down a couple of miles away.

The bus ride over was identical to running out to a training range, except with less gear (we put the heavy stuff on a U-Haul, packed in our bag and baggage). Same late bus, “boys on a hike” attitude, same unfocused nervous energy, and the same shouted jokes of the kind people who believe themselves civilized, educated and tolerant wouldn’t tolerate for a second. Those jokes won’t be repeated here, but this description will: “If anyone overheard even five minutes of this, they’d need to take penicillin.”

Along the way our guides got lost, the driver got mad, and we all pitched in with conflicting directions until the bus finally nosed through a gate into an industrial compound somewhere in Los Angeles County and we all filed back off, still playing ‘cruit-level grab-ass but with everyone politely thanking our chauffeur on the way out.

“Your bikes are in this warehouse,” said I don’t know who, because the next thing that happened was a roll-up door did what roll-up doors do best, revealing a fleet of completely invisible Indian motorcycles.

Polaris has done the new Indians proud. They look right. They sound proper. They have the torque an American continent hopper requires. Cloaked in quality finishes, our bikes shone like Imelda Marcos’s shoe closet. Still, we looked right through them.

When the door went up, the smiling guy wearing jeans and a perfect tan was Jay Leno. He’s pretty much never invisible, but we kinda looked through him as well.

“These are all the Indians,” Leno said, “and obviously, you guys are the cowboys.” He went on in that vein, totally friendly and approachable, and still we looked past him with our jaws dropped clean onto the polished epoxy flooring.

He was standing in front of Jay Leno’s garage. Let that sink in for a moment: Jay Leno’s garage. A hundred years from now, his motorized collection will still be as well-known as the man is now. Behind him were rank upon rank of fabulously collectible dream cars, most of them out of reach of most of us. All the bitching and joking that characterize any movement of military personnel stopped cold, replaced by a sound embarrassingly akin to an unfaked cargasm.

More alive than any museum, Leno’s collection reveals a perfect-pitch sense of what is fine and good in American motors — which is a roundabout way of saying that he demonstrates a well-developed taste for automobiles and motorcycles motivated by very large aircraft powerplants. In this garage, go 27 liters or go home. Hell, he’s even got a car with a 1,400-h.p. M47 tank engine in it, which he says is “just stupid” — but he grins like a little kid when he says it.

There’s also a car I’m fond enough of to have considered buying when it showed up on for a reasonable-seeming $10,500: a mid-Sixties Ford Falcon, road-registered but thoroughly prepped for endurance road racing in Baja. My-Ford-extBastard probably got a discount, too. I console myself with the truth that he’s taking better care of it than I ever could have.

That’s not all. There are Vincent motorcycles, including a hot rod bike that looks suspiciously like Big Sid’s Vincati; Brough Superior motorcycles; bevel-drive Ducati motorcycles and just, well… motorcycles everywhere. Every bike looked capable of a hunnert-twenny in second gear.

There’s a one-off, aluminum-skinned car built by a 17 year-old aspiring engineer who drove it all over CONUS and Alaska. There’s a row described by Leno as, “and these are the Duesenburgs.” I counted up to a double-digit figure there. Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Vettes various… sure. Lots of that stuff.

There is a room devoted to steam, including Howard Hughes’s 135-mph steam car, industrial engines, a steam-powered motorcycle using the heat exchanger from a Titan missile, a 14-h.p. steam tractor with the torque of a platoon of locomotives, and homages to Steam Man of the Plains — with an early Tesla electric motor thrown in for leavening.

Everything runs, from a 33-liter early 20s speedster to a stock Chrysler turbine sedan that sounds like every airfield where anyone waited on the green ramp.

There’s another building that I’m not supposed to talk about, so I won’t. If you ever get in there, you’ll be as lucky as we were yesterday. Significant parts of the future of cars are shaping up in that building as you read this. Mr. Leno has transcended his ultimate collector status to become mechanical legacy. I’ve begun to believe that it will eclipse his entertainment legacy in a very positive way — and if you think I’m pie-eyed about that, it’s because you haven’t been in That Building yet.

After good-naturedly fending off numerous applications to perform live-in site security, Jay kicked over his 1940 Indian Four to lead our happy band out on the first leg of our road to Sturgis.

Naturally, it wouldn’t start. Out of the hundreds of vehicles and industrial engines there, that was the only rig that he couldn’t just fire off.

“Funny,” he muttered, tinkering with the ticklers, “it never does this. She usually starts right up.”


Finally he looked around at the assembled vets and noted that it was like trying to take a leak with all of us watching. Hey, it’s Jay Leno — it takes a joke or two to get him going.

Robert Pandya of Indian Motorcycles and I were the only riders besides Jay to take off on sidecar rigs, and we tucked in right behind the entertainer. A couple dozen blocks of sweet Castrol-scented exhaust brought us to a fire station where the L.A. County Fire Hogs Motorcycle Club waited with coffee and snacks and an escort out of town.

I’m not normally sentimental about formal ceremony, but pulling into a firehouse where more than 50 firefighters, both in uniform and in riding duds, render a simultaneous hand salute will send a chill up the most cynical writer’s spine. If ever I doubted that certain subcultures share a kinship of risk, those doubts were obliterated by the plethora of cuts sporting both firefighter and veteran patches.

We hit the desert from there, and we’re still in it. It’s hot, the bikes are amazing, Las Vegas was very Vegas, and everyone waves at a gleaming stick of Indians moving on the road.

More very soon, but there’s riding tomorrow and I must sleep. Roadspeed to you all.





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  1. SO MUCH YES! I’m giddy FOR you that you got to go into his garage! Lots of expletives were hurled or of my mouth in excitement for you.
    Waiting for the next episode.

  2. I’ve been waiting for this one. Congrats, and have a great trip!

  3. SQUEEE!!! What a great kickoff for a most excellent adventure!

  4. Daughtergrrl says

    Shiny eyes and a big grin over here. Roadspeed, Dad.

  5. AWE-some writing, awesome experience.

  6. Bill Warner says

    Count me in on the Falcon. That body style exudes KOOL. I can remember like it was yesterday ‘Cruising the Square” and being badass in one of those little rides. I enjoy reading Jaxworks.

  7. Christian says

    I can see that you were head over heels– all the pictures are upside down. 🙂

    • Well that’s a funny thing! They only show upside down in a few situations: pull them up solo, or view them on certain phones (iPhone is what I confirmed on — not sure what you’re using but on my Android with Chrome they were fine.)

      I’ve manually corrected them and re-uploaded, so I think they’re ok now. If you get a chance, would you tell me what you were using and whether they look ok now? Thanks Christian!

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