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1999 Iron Butt Rally

by Bob Higdon

Ojai, California, August 29, 1999

Day 0

This place has been like a war zone the day before the 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 Vera Lynn singing "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 percent 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 auxiliary 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 it 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 eight-inch 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, August 30, 1999

Day 1

Beginning at 9:30 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, record their bike's starting odometer reading, 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 10:30 a.m. 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 11 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 then 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 Iron 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 off that string of bonuses, 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 Pine 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 per 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, August 31, 1997

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 3:00 a.m. We got up at 7:00, packed the car, drove 220 miles to the checkpoint, and worked for about 12 hours checking in almost 100 riders. 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 6:00 a.m., and will go to bed at 4:30 a.m. The plane leaves at 8:50. And I wrote a story about day two 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 No. 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 1:09 p.m. 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 percent 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 Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest and a mine near Salt Lake City. The cluster led by Morrison and Eagan follows them. The difference between first place and 50th 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 10 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 ensuing 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., September 1, 1999

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 50 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 ageist thug. The stators (a/k/a alternators) in these kinds of big Japanese touring 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 a 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 email report this morning just before 3:00 a.m. PDT. The program then picked up incoming email, 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 4:10 a.m. 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 wakeup call came at 6 a.m.. Mike snapped up. "Get your email, " I said. "Right now. I forwarded you a love letter from Mastovich."

He picked up his email.

"Oh, God," he groaned. The day wasn't 10 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 mph, OK?

Washington, D.C., September 2, 1999

Day 4

Flushed with overwhelming victory in our brief war with the Chicago Tribune, we now find ourselves immersed in some pathetic argument I don't understand with an online motorcycle website. We thus go metaphorically from battling Vasectronia, Destroyer of Worlds, to being bitten to death by a duck. Two years ago this little rag loved us; now we're just another bunch of psycho-bikers from Hell. I knew they'd never respect us in the morning.

Mike Kneebone received a call before dawn this morning from Herbie Saint. The king of the Tarbutts was at the border of Idaho and Wyoming. His bike had been fixed and he was heading for Maine. This is wonderful news for Herbie's many, many fans. Taking a miss at Washington and not being able to pick up bonus points on either of the first two legs guarantees that Herbie will finish toward the bottom of the field. But pressing on in the face of utter hopelessness is part of the Iron Butt tradition. Naturally that kind of behavior doesn't make a grain of sense; nothing in this event makes sense. You have to love something so cruel.

Just as Herbie was crawling out of the mire, Ken Hatton's 125cc Suzuki was crawling into it. The bike had been giving him trouble all day, as one might expect from a machine that had been running near the redline for three days. Hatton had no choice. The bike was so slow that it probably could not legally be ridden on interstate highways or in some Walmart parking lots. Cranking it up to the max occasionally produced a heady 50 mph downhill, but the stress to the engine was predictably high. In Laramie, Wyoming, after yet another mechanical seizure this evening, Ken took the bike behind a shed and put a bullet through its crankcase. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Of the three possible paths from Washington to Maine, the mildest led through Chicago. The big bonus there was to have a burrito with Ed Otto, the demented pilot of the 250cc Honda Helix that had Iron Butt followers holding their collective breath in 1995. Roger Van Santen, Richard Smith, Jeff Lambert, Ed Farrell, and Australia's John McCrindle (closing in on an IBR record for perpetual smiling) all had visits with Otto this evening. One of the riders reported that John Laurenson had been stopped short of Chicago with a bad flat tire.

Reports began filtering in from Ron Ayres' home in Plano, Texas, a Dallas suburb. A visit with that Iron Butt vet was worth a mammoth 5,701 points, more than all the bonus points available on the first leg of the event combined. Fran Crane had been the first to show up. She was followed by Richard Bernecker on a bike he calls the Rolling Bordello. That he has made it this far into the event is a wonderment. The day before he was scheduled to leave Virginia for the ride to Ojai and the start of the rally, his K1100RS was diagnosed with drive shaft crud. No one knew when the part might croak. Tomorrow? Maybe. Next year? Maybe. Bernecker decided to chance it. Then in Texas a fuel problem developed. Every 200 miles the bike would wheeze, stop, and take a 10-minute break. That problem too was a mystery. It has now cured itself and the Bordello raucously rolls on, squealing happily.

After Bernecker, other big dogs began lining up on Ayres' porch �� McFadden, Shane Smith, Barnes, Hoogeveen, Eagan, Morrison, Ray, Holland, Cunningham, Bob Brown, McQueen, Todd, Loegering, Taylor, Parece, Pipes, Moses, Terry Smith, Ulrich, Austin, Roy, Brooks, Sameiro, Kugler, Kruemcke, Mutchler, and great-grandmother Ardys Kellerman.

That is a roster of some truly heavy hitters. It includes everyone who has a reasonable shot at winning this rally, right? Yes, it does. Almost. But it doesn't include the two guys who were in front of the pack at Kennewick, Phil Mann and Eric Jewell, nor does it include a couple of top-10 finishers in '97, Eddie James and Tom Loftus. Is it possible that these riders have actually taken off for Alaska?

We should know tomorrow morning. It is 1,900 miles from Ayres' house to the Maine checkpoint via Dollywood in Tennessee, a bonus stop that they can't afford to pass up. That is a trip of at least 31 hours on highways that will be packed on the last summer weekend of the year. If they're not pulling out of Ayres' driveway by 6 a.m. CDT tomorrow, they're either not going to make Dollywood or the checkpoint or both.

Washington, D.C., September 3, 1999

Day 5

No Takers for Alaska?

After the Day 4 report went up on the IBA website last night, Ron Ayres had a few more stragglers appear at his bonus stop in Plano, Texas. Eddie James, Tom Loftus, Eric Jewell ��- three of the four riders that we thought might have ridden to Alaska �� showed up during the night, along with Bob Grange and Alan Barbic.

Jewell's co-leader in Kennewick, Phil Mann, probably took the straight-shot route to Chicago. One bonus location worker in the Windy City said that "the guy with 113,000 miles in six months" came through, but without any better identification of rider or bike, such a report barely rises to the level of rumor. The truth is that we don't know where Phil is. We hope Phil knows where Phil is.

With the dust now having settled in Plano, we note in passing that better than one-third of the starting field of 98 bikes looked at a map of the United States and concluded that the best way to ride from the state of Washington to the state of Maine was through the middle of the state of Texas.

The motorcyclists who made that long, lonely ride are different from you and me. They really are.

We Win Some, We Lose Some

David Bankhead's wife relayed a note to the long-distance rider internet list last night that her favorite Butt was up and running again. The message wasn't clear �� well, it wasn't clear to me �� but it appeared that Dan Drom, the service manager at Wild West Honda in Katy, Texas, had something to do with the solution to the problem of the oil leak, if it really had been oil and if it really had been leaking. The part about Dan made sense. He's good. I have had more work done on my bikes at his dealership in the last six years than everywhere else combined. All I have to do to make my appointment is ride 1,900 miles, but I'll take six days to make the trip, not 20 minutes.

As soon as one contestant rises from the ashes, another plunges into them. Marsha Roach called me at noon today. Her Panzer, a Harley knock-off, was breathing again, having survived two electrical failures. She had done over 1,000 miles in the previous 24 hours. I asked where she was. Lincoln, Nebraska, she said, a fine town but in the middle of nowhere.

"You're heading to Maine?" I asked.

"If I can make it," she replied, ever the optimist.

"I don't think you can," I said, ever the pessimist.

I took her number and promised to call her back in five minutes. Then I ran three mapping programs on the computer. They all said the same thing: Marsha was doomed. For a fresh, wide-awake, skillful rider on a reliable motorcycle heading toward high-speed western interstates, covering almost 1,600 miles in 28 hours is not really a big deal. Marsha is skillful. That was the only thing in her favor. At that moment Mike Kneebone called me. I relayed the gloomy picture to him.

"Do you want me to give her the bad news or will you do it?" I asked. He said he'd do it and he did. Suggesting that she turn back home to Colorado was the only realistic option. She'd missed one checkpoint and was virtually certain to miss the next. Two misses constitutes an automatic DNF. She decided to turn around.

A few minutes later I picked up email. Doug Jacobs reported that he and Kevin Chase, having experienced some terrible wind on the Pacific Coast Highway on the first leg, were being battered by even more bad weather. They were holed up in a motel in Fargo and were trying to catch a little sleep. He thinks their chances of making the Gorham, Maine, checkpoint are at the trace level.

At this juncture you might be thinking, "Ah, the wimps. What's a little weather? They're bikers. They ought to expect it." For most of the machines in the IBR, that point is well taken. These motorcycles by and large are behemoths �� 800-pound monsters with barn-door windshields and fairings �� that insulate riders from anything up to and including earthquakes, typhoid fever, and Jerry Springer reruns. But Jacobs and Chase are on bikes that are more than 25 years old, BMW R75/5s. They don't have windshields. They barely have motors. Sure, they were chic when they were new but they're creaking pigs now �� beautifully restored, I admit, but oinkers for their current job. I used to have one; today I wouldn't trust it to take me to the corner. Still, it'd be fun to see what happens to anyone dumb enough to call Doug Jacobs a wimp.

At this stage of the '99 IBR, 110 hours into the event, the status of The Can is:

Definitely in The Can

? Mary Sue Johnson

? Al Holtsberry

? Ken Hatton

? Marsha Roach

Heading for The Can

? Peter Withers

? Doug Jacobs

? Kevin Chase

Emerging from The Can

? Herbie Saint

? David Bankhead

My guess is that The Can will be a little more full soon.

Portland, Maine, September 4, 1999

Day 6

The Dollywood Seige

The checkpoint in Kennewick had not been closed for five minutes before we were asked to post on the internet the bonus locations for the leg from Washington to Maine. Naturally we ignored the requests. If people knew where the riders were going for bonus points on the current leg, they'd go there to meet, to greet, and to observe the gnarled, wrinkled seat of the Long Rider.

If that were all they were doing, we wouldn't mind. But the fans don't stop there. They begin to trespass and to ignore the requirements of civilized society. They shoot off fireworks, dance the lambada, and congeal. They invariably fail to act in an age-appropriate manner. In a word they act like . . . er, motorcyclists.

Somehow, by conspiracy or blight, the bonuses for the second leg of the rally were posted for some indeterminate amount of time yesterday. As soon as Head Butt Mike Kneebone realized that his website had been wormed, he yanked the bonus-site information down. Ah, too late. Adoring Buttphiles began to gather at Dollywood, a spectacularly kitsch place but private property withal. Dollyguards, a humorless lot, sensed impending violence. I don't blame them one bit. I sense violence every time I see a motorcyclist. And if you looked the way Dolly does, you'd surround yourself with guards as well, I suspect.

As the eager motocrowd began to drape their illegally posted "Go Butt Go!" welcoming signs all over Dolly's estate in the middle of the night, the Dolly Bureau of Investigation swung into action, ripping the offensive material out of the trees, dispersing the trespassers, and restoring the entrance pasture to its pristine, bosom-like state. Peace was restored. Once again Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, was the land of milk and oh, honey, the Biblical (and Fruedian) symbols of Dollyness.

Ten minutes later Shane Smith showed up. He wanted to take a photo of his ID towel at the Dollywood entrance sign, a 340-point bonus. Lightly does he place the towel upon some identifiable part of Dollywood; gently does he step back to focus his Polaroid upon the bucolic scene; in horror does he realize that a Dollyguard has leaped out of the underbrush to seize the felonious towel and thence to run away with the same.

Now it is difficult for any reasonable person to understand just what the ID towel means to an Iron Butt participant, much less an Iron Butt participant who has a really excellent chance to win this rally. Smith, a modest and unassuming pharmacist from McComb, Mississippi, knows the significance of the towel: It is the difference between winning the event and having his teeth kicked in. That towel is proof of his very existence. Give up my scooter? Fine. Give up my towel? Never. And so at this wretched time of his life, Mr. Smith was either going to have to retrieve his towel from the uncooperative Dollywood management or he was going to have to pharm a Prozac for himself, which is almost certainly illegal. He chose to recover his towel.

The story ends happily, thank Dolly. Shane gets towel. Mike Kneebone mollifies Dollypeople. Iron Butt organizers are asked as soon as the Maine checkpoint closes today when we intend to put up the bonuses on the next leg to Florida. We reply that we hope to do so within the next 15 years.

The Maine Checkpoint

Mike and I arrived at the Reynolds Motorsports dealership �� site of a checkpoint in every IBR since 1984 �� in Gorham, Maine, shortly after 10:00 this morning. Waiting for us were the sad messages, as predictable as the tides:

Garve Nelson, the oldest (at 71) finisher of the IBR, has headed home. The same rains that yesterday stopped vintage riders Doug Smith and Kevin Chase in their tracks have made this ride a misery for Garve. Now at the tender age of 75, he knows that when the ride stops being fun it is time to turn around. He turned around.

Bob Grange's motor burned out. He was finished.

Al Holtsberry, whom we'd already consigned to Definitely in The Can, confirmed that he was Definitely in The Can. Any DNF is a disappointment, but for Al it is doubly so. Earlier this year he set a record for the earliest finish on the Four Corners tour, a mark that may never be equaled.

Peter Withers appeared in front of me as I sat at the bridge of my battle-hardened scoring computer. I was looking at a man I'd said just yesterday was Heading for The Can. He advised that he had indeed avoided The Can but that his odometer, a necessary instrument for procuring bonus points, was eviscerating itself in a hara-kiri style appropriate for a wide-bodied Japanese bike. In my capacity as the Iron Butt Association's chairman of the rules committee, press spokesman, chief scorer, sergeant-at-arms, and general counsel, I ruled that Withers would thenceforth be permitted to use a GPS unit to crank out mileage. The Iron Butt's president, Mr. Kneebone, attempted to countermand my well-reasoned decision, but I summarily overruled his objection on the ground that I had more jobs in the organization than he did and/or that if I didn't get my way I would pout.

Leonard Aron's '46 Indian Chief ground to a spectacular halt on the New York throughway at dawn this morning with a skid mark �� described by one witness as "twice as long as the longest skid mark I have ever seen before" �� when the primary drive chain locked up and slowed the rear wheel's revolutions from lots per minute to absolutely none. No one likes to see an old Indian take a hit, particularly while off the reservation, but I'd already bet Leonard $10 (at 8-1 odds) in California that he'd never go the distance. See? It's an ill wind that blows no good. He paid off. I tried to talk him out of it. He said it was a debt of honor. I reminded him that he was an attorney, so his words were meaningless. It's a stand-off, I think, but I've got the 10 bucks.

Aron's contretemps was salvaged in significant part because he had earlier been serendipitously picked up and sandwiched like a waif between Paul Glaves, the president of the 27,000-member BMW Motorcycle Owners of America, and Chris Cimino, a vicious S&L investigator and stringer for Motorcyclist magazine. They helped him through his downtime.

Rick Morrison, the '97 IBR champ, and Gary Eagan, the winner in '95, continued to ride joined at the hip on the second leg, a formidable pair of riders if there ever was two, so to speak. Morrison is trying to shake the curse of the Iron Butt winner (they always screw up after they've won); Eagan is trying to shake the curse of some horrific accidents in recent years. These two have dominated every rally they have run this year. At the end of the first leg they were tied for 28th place. Tonight they are tied for second. Watching them is like watching another shoe drop.

Three points behind Eagan and Morrison is George Barnes, a Colorado rider on everyone's short list for the victory platform. He has run almost exactly the same route as the guys in front of him, but he didn't stop for a pathetic three-point gas bonus in Staunton, Virginia. I'm not sure why. He'd spent some time earlier in the day fixing Eagan's flat tire.

Kerry Willey sent his secretary to check in for him. I looked at her. She was too clean to be an Iron Butt rider. I sensed a plot. Then I saw Kerry in the corner laughing at me. Not bad. I pride myself on being in total control of my section of the checkpoint. Kerry Willey obviously prides himself in being in total control of me.

Where We Are

Everyone who looks at the entry list of these riders says the same thing: Wow. There has never been assembled anywhere as fine a group of long-distance rallyists as these. It sounds hyperbolic. It's just true. Any one of 20 of these men �� and one woman �� could take this event. They're tough, they're smart, and they're all proven.

And alone at the head of the pack, by 216 points, is Eddie James, one of the most remarkable riders ever to terrorize the Iron Butt Rally. He wound up 22nd of 24 riders in 1993 with a checkpoint miss, the excuse for which, even if true, is the stuff of Iron Butt legend. In 1995 he finished second overall but was disqualified for picking up an after-hours receipt at bonus location.

In 1997 we told him that everything he did on the rally would be reviewed by a dozen eyes and three computers. If a receipt squinted, he'd be popped. If a photo was blurred, he wouldn't get the benefit of the doubt. He finished fourth, withstanding pressure from organizers and contestants that I don't want to think about. After the finisher's banquet he came unannounced into my room, sat down at my desk, and as he began to speak saw five checkpoint folders in front of my computer.

"They have my name on them, those things," he said. He seemed almost hurt.

"They do indeed," I said. "I told you: We watch your ass like a hawk."

When the checkpoint results went up this afternoon, he said that he wasn't sure he liked being in first place. But he's looking pretty good �� excited but rested, cleaned up but always the human pinball machine. I knew the first time I saw him that he was a bag of distilled trouble and he's never let me down. This afternoon, smiling, he said he was going to Prince Edward Island in the maritime provinces of Canada for a big bonus, then he'd backtrack and straight-line it down I-95 to Florida. He might. He's Eddie James. He's liable to do anything.

Tonight he's the king of the Iron Butt world.

St. Augustine, Florida, September 5, 1999

Day 7

Film at Eleven

Mike said that the crew from the local Fox TV station wanted to do an interview in the Reynolds Motorsports parking lot. It would be a good background shot with bug-spattered bikes, sleeping riders, and psychotic organizers. Most of the riders had checked in. I didn't have anything else to do except worry where the missing 18 bikes were.

"Massage them," Mike said.

It's my job. I routinely go out to tell the media that this isn't a race and that it isn't socially irresponsible to set these tired riders loose on an unsuspecting public and that everyone's having the time of their lives, including the guy throwing up in the ditch back there. I'm good at it. On days when I'm really rocking, I could make the sociopathic Clinton look almost normal.

The reporter was young and eager. He didn't yet realize that he was an incipient whore. He'll learn soon enough. We went through the preliminaries. He liked the line about me being a recovering lawyer. After that he was pretty much in my pocket, at least until the film arrives at the editing room. There we'd be trashed royally and for keeps. But I can't help that. I try to win the battle; we'll never win the war.

The interview went well. I mentioned some of the exceptional riders who were involved in the rally. Over there is Ardys Kellerman, a great-grandmother and holder of the BMW MOA record for the most miles ever ridden by a woman in the club's mileage contest. There's Paul Glaves, the president of that huge club. His wife, Voni, is in the process this year of annihilating Ardys' record, and Ardys is clapping for Voni all the way. Then there's the guy with the sidecar, Bob Mutchler. You'll notice he's on crutches? For most of the first three years of his life he was in an iron lung. Polio. The doctors told his parents to give up. They ignored the doctors. Mutchler wants to do 13,000 miles in 11 days. There's Don Moses, the chemistry teacher from Nevada. His kids are starting the school year with a substitute while Don finishes riding around. Those two sleeping against the wall are on their honeymoon. On and on. These people are unbelievable.

"Is there anything we didn't cover?" the reporter asked.

"Yeah. When, despite my desperate pleas to the contrary, you persist in calling this event a 'race' in your voice-over, I want you to know I'm going to write a vicious letter to your editor, OK?"

"I won't call it a race," he laughed.

"You will," I sighed. "You always do."

A Soft Butt?

Ron Ayres', a sixth-place finisher in 1995, put a cryptic note on the long-distance rider internet list the other day. He thought the number of ties at the first checkpoint was "ridiculous," and wondered if the Iron Butt wasn't getting too easy. He should have been in Gorham. It looked like the day after the Battle of Gettysburg. The "ridiculous" number of ties at the first checkpoint had evaporated by the second. The only ties there were among seven pairs of contestants who were riding together.

Five riders were late, taking punishing penalties at 10 points per minute. Eighteen riders were time-barred, including Phil Mann, the co-leader in Kennewick. He retired with mechanical problems after coming through Chicago. Also in the no-show tank were Alan Barbic and Bob Grange, riders who had clearly overextended themselves on the first leg. Heinz Kugler, a top-10 finisher in 1997, DNF�d with a broken shock. The Langs called to say they would be taking a miss in Maine, would try to regroup, and would aim for Florida. The Slash 5 pair of Jacobs and Chase DNF�d. Melody Albers took a miss but was hopeful of continuing.

Thirty-two riders rode from Washington to Maine via Texas. Thirty-one of them made it to Gorham. They are the top 31 riders in the standings. Mike Kneebone feels that 10 years ago not three riders would have attempted such a jaunt. Higher speed limits make a difference, true, but the fact of the matter is that this is the finest field of endurance riders ever assembled in North America. They could make riding to asteroid B612 look easy. It isn't.

Historically 26 percent of the starting riders in the event have been lost to attrition. In 1993 it was a grim 40 percent. So far 19 percent of the riders have taken checkpoint misses. It will get much worse. And it isn't just rookies who are falling back. Every other rider on the starting line in Ojai was an Iron Butt vet. This is a tough event, and it's getting tougher.

Ayres was the high-mileage finisher in 1995 with 12,007 miles. At the point that penalties began accruing in Maine in this year's rally, 22 riders were on a pace to beat that mark. Five of them were projected to run more than 13,000 miles. Anything beyond 12,777 miles will break an Iron Butt record that has stood for 13 years.

A weak Butt? Sure. You try to keep up with them.

Neither Rain nor Sleet nor Canada�

I noted at the riders' meeting in Maine that tropical storm Dennis had moved most of coastal North Carolina 10 miles into the Atlantic. It was still hanging around, trying to figure out what to do next. Probably they'd be best served by avoiding the bonuses around the Outer Banks. The storms rarely come far inland, I said. Raleigh should be OK, and everything to the west. At that very moment T. S. Dennis was preparing to put Raleigh under 356 feet of water. The coast was clearing up beautifully. What the hell. I'm no weatherman. Even the weathermen aren't weathermen. No one can predict the future. And anyone who'd trust my predictive abilities deserves what he gets.

Besides, the serious riders shouldn't have been thinking about anything to the south anyway. They should have been looking at a map of Canada and the maritime provinces. There's a bridge 450 miles north and east of Portland that runs over to Prince Edward Island. You could hardly find a worse way to travel to the St. Augustine, Florida, checkpoint than by way of the Confederation Bridge, but it is worth 4,000 bonus points to anyone who can do it. No other stop on the third leg comes close to it in value. There is another 650-point bonus in Cutler, Maine, that adds to the attraction.

But be honest. Can you deliberately set out as the sun begins to fade in a direction opposite to the next checkpoint, aim yourself toward a foreign country, ride 450 miles through the night in deer-infested forests, take a photo of a bridge, turn around, and backtrack 450 miles over the very roads you have just traveled? On the longest day I ever lived I could not do that.

But someone will. Whoever does has a chance to win the rally. Whoever doesn't almost certainly doesn't. It doesn't get much simpler than that. Or harder.

St. Augustine, Florida, September 6, 1999

Day 8

With a flawless ride on the third leg, Colorado's George Barnes took over the lead of the 1999 Iron Butt Rally today. He and three other riders �� Eddie James, Peter Hoogeveen, and Bill Kramer �� made the long ride to the Confederation Bridge at Prince Edward Island in Canada, but Barnes additionally was able to pick up a 997-point bonus in Tennessee on the way south. That effort, a ride of almost 2,800 miles in 46 hours, was enough to move him past James, the leader in Maine, as well as former IBR winners Gary Eagan and Rick Morrison.

John Laurenson had a single-vehicle accident near Valdosta, Georgia, this afternoon. It was merely the last straw in what had been a very difficult week for him. Moments before I began posting this report, John appeared at the checkpoint, not as a rider but as a passenger in his significant other's car. He broke his left wrist and a few ribs, but his spirit hadn't even been bruised.

The never-give-up R75/5 team of Doug Jacobs and Kevin Chase, having been hammered by weather almost from the start, could not overcome a final pounding by tropical storm Dennis. Most of the riders reported running through periods of rain with this lingering weather system, some being pelted for as much as five or six hours, but Jacobs and Chase were far more exposed to the elements than were other riders. In seeking to be purists on this ride by forsaking windshields, fairings, and electric clothing, they eventually paid a predictable price. They missed an on-time arrival at the Florida checkpoint by a few hours. With that second checkpoint miss, they will soon be on their way home.

Contrary to anyone's expectations, the attrition of riders actually reversed itself on the third leg. Heinz Kugler, Alan Barbic, Gerhard Memmen-Krueger, Dennis Kesseler, Will Lee, Fritz and Phyllis Lang, and Melody Albers, who'd all taken DNFs in Maine, had perfect arrivals in Florida. Nineteen riders were either out of the rally or in perilous trouble in Gorham; tonight there are just 11 riders in the tank.

Mike Kneebone began passing out the bonus listing for the final leg at 7 p.m. EDT. The very first one was the largest, a massive 13,456 points. You would not expect it to lie along the route from Florida to Southern California. It doesn't. It requires a visit to the Westchester BMW bike dealer in White Plains, New York, the fourth and final leg equivalent of the Confederation Bridge bonus in Canada. The rally will almost certainly hinge on who goes there and who does not.

Late in the evening Mike Kneebone was handed a message from Richard Bernecker, the proprietor of the Rolling Bordello: "He's tanned, rested, ready, and heading to White Plains." Bernecker is 5,000 points and 20 places behind Barnes as the last leg begins, but New York conceivably could make him well. My guess is that others tonight are feeling the same way.

Washington, D.C., September 7, 1999

Day 9

This appeared on the LD rider internet list this evening: "Following is a list of Long-Haulers [sic] who have showed [sic] at Westchester BMW in White Plains today follows [sic] (chronological, in order or [sic] appearance): Bernecker, Fischer [sic], Barnes, Egan [sic], Krumke [sic], Roy, Crane, Johnson (Gary), Levi, McFadden, Hoogeveen, Harold & Manny, joined at the hip, Kessler [sic], Jewell, Todd, Brown, Cunningham, [and] McQueen."

Aside from the Germanic capitalization, trashed verb tense, errors of diction and grammar, four misspelled names in one incomplete sentence, and the failure to include '97 Iron Butt winner Rick Morrison's name in the list, this pretty much says it all. Because the New York bonus is so large, anyone whose name (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) appears above has some measurable chance to win the event; anyone not on the list doesn't. That's the story.

The author is Dale Wilson, who previously distinguished himself in this year's event by prematurely publishing the second leg bonus locations, a move that nearly shut down the Dollywood bonus site. He is a former Iron Butt participant, runs the IBR's web page (the one that takes about a week to load with a T-1 line), and is, as you can see, an enthusiastic reporter of the Mad Dog school.

We look forward to more of Dale's insight.

Washington, D.C., September 8, 1999

Day 10

Yes, it's a war out there, and with war comes fog, confusion, and the cold, dead hand of the censor. Some people received the Day 9 report. Others apparently didn't. It's just as well. There's nothing like a little rumor to fan the conspiratorial flames. This will be over soon, and few people will be happier about that than I.

Let's backtrack and get everyone on the same page again. When we last looked, the riders were studying their bonus listings for the final leg and wondering whether it was going to be worth it to go to Southern California by way of White Plains, New York. Since the bonus north of the Big Apple was worth 13,456 points �� dwarfing every other bonus on the final leg �� the answer was "yes." If you could successfully make the wretched, backtracking ride, you had a chance to win the event; if you didn't, you almost certainty didn't.

Twenty-two riders rode north: Richard Bernecker, Jeff Fisher, George Barnes, Gary Eagan, Rick Morrison, Morris Kruemcke, Leonard Roy, Fran Crane, Gary Johnson, Berti Levi, Ira McFadden, Peter Hoogeveen, Harold Brooks, Manny Sameiro, Dennis Kesseler, Eric Jewell, Bobb Todd, Bob Brown, Dennis Cunningham, Greg McQueen, Tom Loftus, and Eddie James.

The first 21 of those contestants arrived on Tuesday, September 7. Eddie James, hammered from his ride to Prince Edward Island on the previous leg, showed up the following day on an ailing bike. The chances of his making it to the finishers' banquet Friday afternoon are depressingly small.

We began receiving other dire reports:

David Bankhead rode to Lajitas, Texas, to watch Clay Henry, a goat, drink beer. That, at 5,015 points, is the third most valuable bonus site on the leg. Lajitas is west of Big Bend National Park, not far from the dark side of the moon. He crawled out of there in one piece only to have his bike crump in El Paso. There really is no justice.

Citing personal reasons, Gary Parece (12th in Florida), has gone home. Bob Mutchler, whose only missions in this rally are to rack up miles with his sidecar rig and to raise money for polio research, broke down on the way to Texas. He was towed to New Orleans for repairs. Then he rode to Oklahoma City to visit the memorial park at the Murrah Federal Building for a heavy bonus, not to mention many out-of-the-way miles.

George Barnes was thought to be near Fargo, North Dakota, running on three cylinders. This is ominous news. He had apparently been heading for both the geographic center of the U.S. in Rugby, North Dakota, and the geographic center of the contiguous 48 states near Lebanon, Kansas, a combination bonus worth almost 8,000 points. If he could hit both �� making this a 4,900-mile ride from Florida to Ojai in 88 hours �� the rally almost certainly would be his. But in the 1997 IBR George had a similar motor failure on the same bike while crossing from Florida to California.

With stunning rides from Maine to Florida, Tom Loftus (eighth overall in 1997) and Peter Hoogeveen (second overall on every rally he's ever run and carrying the No. 2 rider plate this year) moved past prior IBR winners Rick Morrison and Gary Eagan into third and fourth overall respectively, within easy striking distance of Barnes and Eddie James.

James is now finished; Barnes may be in deep trouble. It is entirely possible that with just 24 hours to go, Samoan Tom Loftus is now leading the 1999 Iron Butt, followed by . . . oh, no. Not again. Peter, is that you?

Ojai, California, September 10, 1999


The '99 Iron Butt Rally was decided on the final leg of the 11-day event by 317 points, the closest contest since 1991. Inasmuch as the underlying theme of this year's rally was tragedy �� contestants had visited bonus sites memorializing plane crashes, train wrecks, toxic-waste spills, homicides, floods, volcanic eruptions, meteor strikes, and nuclear meltdowns �� it was only fitting that this year's finish would also be the usual combination of thrill, victory, agony, and defeat.

The key to the final leg required backtracking to New York from St. Augustine, then plotting a route to Southern California to maximize bonus points along the way. Pressures of time �� only 88 hours were available from the moment the bonus lists were distributed in Florida for the contestants to reach the finish in Ojai �� as well as increasing fatigue would explain why few of the riders would have considered a ride back up the terminally ugly I-95 to White Plains under any conceivable circumstance. Yet 25 percent of the riders in Florida made that ride. I would emphasize here that we are not talking about a profound, perhaps rally-ending commitment on the first day or so of the event. No. These riders were wondering whether they could make such a backbreaking ride on the ninth, 10th, and 11th days of the event.

One of the riders who skipped due west, Shane Smith, began kicking himself around the Midwest for days, regretting his decision to bypass New York. He knew the oversight might cost him at least 15 places in the final standings, so valuable was a visit to White Plains, but Shane's determination to vacuum anything not nailed down in the Great Plains saved him. When the dust settled, he had bagged 13 bonuses from central Texas to North Dakota and points west, dropping only a single position in the standings. In the process he had ridden a total of 12,780 miles, breaking, if only temporarily, the record previously set by Barry Norman in 1987. It was an amazing effort.

Virginian Paul Taylor, a rider undefeated in three east coast endurance rallies, had an even more unbelievable final leg. He too had forsaken New York, but managed to gather up 17 bonus sites on the ride west and actually gain two places at the rally's end. For unalloyed aggression in sucking up bonus sites, however, no one could top the 19 bonus hits that Jeff Simmonds accomplished, lifting him four places on the leg to 31st overall.

But the heavyweights went north, and the event ultimately would be decided by who went where from New York to Southern California.

George Barnes looked like an odds-on favorite until his K-bike began running on three cylinders. He had hoped to charge over to North Dakota then drop straight down into Kansas, thereby picking up over 8,000 bonus points with just two stops. That plan became impossible with the bike's failing engine. Barnes somehow concluded that the oxygen sensor in the fuel injection was the culprit. In such a case the engine will revert to a pre-programmed fuel map. That caused the bike to run fuel rich, which in turn fouled a plug. Which one? Barnes dropped to his hands and knees, grabbed each exhaust header with his bare hand until he found a cold one, then changed the plug for that pipe. If you can't treat the disease, at least treat the symptoms. Problem more or less solved, if only momentarily, and off to Ojai he went with his five bonuses ��big bonuses �� in hand.

Barnes in the meantime was being dogged by serious rivals �� Tom Loftus, Peter Hoogeveen, Harold Brooks and Manny Sameiro (riding together from the outset), and the always dangerous Eric Jewell, winner of the five-day Butt Lite earlier this year. Previous IBR winners Gary Eagan and Rick Morrison were also mathematically in contention. If Barnes faltered, it would be one of these riders who would take the win. Eddie James had already knocked himself out of the running by an agonizingly late start to New York from Florida.

Loftus became the first to drop out. He became sick. He stopped his ride west, tried to shake whatever bug he'd picked up, but couldn't. Twice he tried to continue and twice he could not. But with an eighth overall finish in 1997 and a third overall placement with one leg remaining in 1999, Tom Loftus has already shown that he is one of the most capable riders in the game.

One by one the riders began rolling into Ojai at dawn this morning. All had taken dramatically different routes to the finish, with the exception of Brooks and Sameiro, who had ridden together from the start to the bitter end. Had anyone found a way to circumvent Barnes' apparent stranglehold on the '99 Butt?

Mike Kneebone began calling the contestants' names off in inverse order at the finisher's banquet. Listening to a recitation of the names on the list could not help but remind those in attendance that never before had there been a gathering of endurance riders such as this. Even the dead-last-but-finished rider, Fritz ("the second nicest guy in the world") Lang had averaged 811 miles/day, riding in a week what the average motorcyclist will do in a year.

Kneebone reached the top 20, that spot occupied by Tom Loegering, a man as cursed by fate as any who has ever entered the event. Bill Kramer, who was mortally locked in a perpetual smile contest with Australian John McCrindle for 11 straight days, was 19th. Kramer had more points than the Aussie, but in overall smiles smiled it was a clean draw.

Berti Levy, at 28 the new kid in the group, proved his mettle with a ride up I-95 on the final leg. He finished 18th. Bob Brown and Dennis Cunningham, riding together, tied for 16th. Then came Morris Kruemcke, Bobb Todd, and Greg McQueen, the latter two also riding the entire distance as a pair. Richard Bernecker's Rolling Bordello rose from 21st to 12th with a huge final push. Asa McFadden took 11th.

Maryland's Leonard Roy was 10th, greatly improving on his finish two years ago. Shane Smith took ninth, and Paul Taylor eighth. Peter Hoogeveen closed with a predictably hard ride but could grab no better than seventh this year. Such a finish would be a lifetime accomplishment for almost any rider in this world-class pack. For the star-crossed Canadian, it must be a disappointment. He has such talent and such skill that it is incredible he has been deprived of the victory platform for so long. I truly hope he will not give up his riding.

The 1995 winner, Gary Eagan, rolled in at sixth. Five men then remained. Fifth overall went to Eric Jewell, who'd lost an entire place with a lateness penalty of 2,400 points earlier in the morning. He had come within one minute of being time barred. But even with the penalty, far and away the most severe of the entire rally, his ride from Florida had been so fierce that he still gained two places on the leg. He is simply an incredible motorcyclist.

Manny Sameiro and Harold Brooks were next called, tied for third. They are an improbable pair, the young New Jersey prosecutor and the grizzled IBR veteran from Virginia who has more miles in the event than anyone. There is some obvious synergy at work here: Sameiro two years ago was dead-last-but-finished, laboring in negative points for half the rally, and Brooks has never come close to finishing this high. Together they did what neither could do alone.

It was now between 1997 IBR winner Rick Morrison and the leader going into the final stretch this year, George Barnes. Two years ago Morrison had come out of the middle of the pack with two gigantic final legs to snatch a victory from Peter Hoogeveen. Could he do it again? Not since the first two IBRs in 1984-85 has anyone taken a second win. Would the curse that seems to hang on the necks of former champions like an albatross continue?

It sure would. Morrison's ride had been another for the books: eight bonuses worth 23,511 points, the best in the field and almost 3,000 points higher than Barnes' total. But Rick had too much distance to make up from his ninth-place position in Florida against one of the hardest riders the endurance motorcycling community has ever seen. Barnes not only grabbed the most points in the 11 days but in doing so he rode 13,346 miles, setting a new record for the event by over 560 miles.

In Barnes, the easy-going Coloradan, the Iron Butt Association today has a new king, but this cannot be a surprise to anyone who has watched his endurance career. Today was inevitable. He's that good. He really is. And he rode against a group of men and women who play a different game than do the rest of us.

This was an awesome 11 days.

Ely, Nevada, September 14, 1999


Antoine de St. Exupery's novelette, The Little Prince, is usually found in the children's section of bookstores. Like most good children's stories, of course, the tale of the diminutive visitor from asteroid B612 is really an allegory for adults. It is a story about life and death and letting go.

St. Exupery knew those subjects firsthand. He had been one of the first French aviators, had flown mail routes through the Andes in the 1930s, and had crashed in the Sahara during an air race from Paris to Saigon. He seemed able to survive anything. But on a routine reconnaissance flight in northern France during World War II, he disappeared, as they say, without a trace.

I once knew a woman from St. Exupery's asteroid B612. She was a motorcyclist, a very fast and efficient motorcyclist, and she could stay on her bike for so long that it seemed as if she and the machine had bonded together. One day we rode together for about 50 yards. That's when I figured out that she wasn't from around here.

It was at a CLASS session at the Willow Springs Raceway. I had jumped into the sub-novice "B" group and was plowing around the course on my K75 at speeds that were slow even by sub-novice standards. But I was learning. Even the downhill, off-camber, left-hand corner that had been designed by the devil himself was succumbing to my iron will.

By the middle of the day, I was hammering through there at speeds well in excess of 18 mph. As I approached the corner for perhaps the 30th time, I slung the bike over to a frightening angle of maybe 10 degrees off vertical, geared down, cranked up the throttle to 2,500 rpm, clamped both hands on the grips, and hung on for dear life. At that moment my eyes were blurred, naturally, but I still could see a rider coming around the outside of that hellish corner at an unbelievable speed, pointing at me with a left thumb up in the air and grinning. In a couple of moments the bike and rider had disappeared, as they say, without a trace.

I am not easily impressed, but that particular feat stepped me back so much that I came into the pits and made an inquiry about the little guy in the gray leathers on the K-bike. I was told that the little guy was Fran Crane and that she was one of the CLASS instructors.

That was the only time I ever saw her ride, those 50 yards. It was enough. It told me that she wasn't from around here. But, hell, everybody knew that.

If it was a motorcycle endurance competition, at one time or another Fran held the record. The quickest time touching each of the 48 states? In 1988 she and Mike Kneebone did it in 6.6 days, shattering the old record by more than four days and establishing a new one that would stand for 10 years. Forty-eight hours later, she went back home across the U.S. in record time from New York to San Francisco. When the American Motorcyclist Association's museum did a tribute to women in motorcycling some years ago, the rider from asteroid B612 was a significant part of the exhibition.

Now she has gone, the target of a perverse concatenation of bad luck. With 96 percent of the Iron Butt Rally behind her and only minutes after filling the bike's tank, she mysteriously lost control of the motorcycle on an interstate highway. A helmet that should not fail failed, but she was otherwise injured only slightly. She was taken to a modern, reputable hospital suffering from nothing more critical than a concussion. She began to recover, but then was mistakenly administered a drug that ended her life. At any point the fracture of a single link in that inexorable chain of circumstances would today have Fran alive and well. But nothing intervened. When people speak of cruel fate, this is what they mean.

It is neither surprising nor ironic to me that the airplane which gave St. Exupery's life such meaning and expression was also the instrument of his death. Thus it is with Fran and her motorcycle. No machines that toy with gravity the way airplanes and motorcycles do will ever be safe. Those who love to fly them or ride them appreciate that inchoate risk and accept it for what it is worth. You hope your bet won't be called; but you know that if you fly or ride long enough and fast enough, it likely will be. When that happens, sadness reigns. It is inevitable.

St. Exupery left us his beautiful words and images; Fran has left us her beautiful grace, skill, and spirit. We cannot ask any more of them than that. We are lucky to have known these magnificent people at all, however tangentially and however briefly. In their deaths they have taught us about life.

Along the lonely roads of Nevada at night, you simply cannot believe the light show that the heavens produce. The stars literally are without number. They wink and sputter and rip across the sky joyously. You can almost hear them laughing. There are comets and meteors and space junk, constellations and nebulae and galaxies, and worlds without end.

There are asteroids up there, too. Look for the one called B612. Any child can point it out to you. That one's my favorite. I once knew a person from there.


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