Inspired by those who came before me – Steve "TFS" Bruhn and Steve "GuyB" Giberson – I set out this summer to hit the AMA Nationals towing a travel trailer behind my Toyota Tundra. On the road over the past month-and-a-half, I've frequently recalled the time not too long ago, before semi trucks, when mechanics hit the AMA circuit in box vans, often traveling with their riders, finding practice tracks on the road between rounds.

This went on so recently that many of the mechanics who drove the box vans around the country are still working in the paddock at every AMA round. Things have changed a lot since then.

"It's always been a circus, but now, with semis and all that stuff, it's a little more animated," says TwoTwo Motorsports' team manager Dave Osterman. "I mean, I kind of did everything, as far as engine, suspension, making the bike look pretty, making the guy lunch, doing his laundry... Now you've got a dedicated guy for everything. And it's not that it's easy now. The bikes have escalated; everything has escalated. It's more of a show. But in the box-van days, a lot of the riders used to stay.... The guys like [Chad] Reed, [Ryan] Villopoto, [Ryan] Dungey, they have property now; they have heavy equipment, they do their own deal. Years ago, guys like [Bob] Hannah and [David] Bailey, [Johnny] O'Mara, they would stay back east and ride around in the box vans. I remember Rex Staten stayed back with me for a while, when Mike [Bell] got hurt. He was the fill-in guy and we bonded pretty good. It was awesome because we rode all these tracks, traveled around and I watched him train during the week. In those days, there were no rowers or mountain bikes. The mountain bikes in those days were garbage anyway. So everybody ran, or they swam, but most ran. But the box-van thing, it was a totally different deal. No big RVs. For me personally, the sport hasn't changed that much. I mean, instead of the box van, you've got 18-wheelers and a lot more crew. It's just more commercialized now; big sponsors. Back in my day, there were really no sponsors. It was 100% factory."

Even Lee McCollum, who still works as a wrench – wrenching for James Stewart at Yoshimura Suzuki – remembers the box-van days, back when he worked with Phil Lawrence and Timmy Ferry at Suzuki.

"Well some of the differences between the box-van days and the semi-trailer days, in the box-van days, the mechanic drove the truck, worked on the motorcycle, did the shopping, made lunch most of the time. You know, you did a little bit of everything. Do your own laundry and stuff," McCollum confirmed. "You had to ship parts back and forth from the hotel each week, suspension every two weeks. Things like that. But the major thing for me, when I think about it, is driving the truck, then stopping somewhere and rebuilding the bike on your way to the next Supercross or National. Sometimes there wasn't a week off, obviously a lot of times. So sometimes I stopped at a truck stop and worked out in the back somewhere, and did my bike stuff there. Then I'd shower up and hit the road again. Because at the truck stop, nobody really bugged you. You could spill a little bit of oil or something and it wasn't a big deal. So it was a little bit easier than finding a hotel. Then another thing about the hotel was, in the box van, you always tried to find what we called a 'down and out' room. A room that was on the ground floor with the door facing outside, so you could back your box van up right to the curb, pull an extension cord out, plug it into your room and have power [in the box van]. You didn't have to run your generator. You could put your extra wheels and stuff in the room. So there were a lot of tricks to it. We had these special couplers you could hook up to the sink and fill your water tank in your box van. Weird stuff like that so you didn't have to find a water outlet somewhere..."

Today, the mechanics fly in just like the racers do – albeit earlier. Today's factory mechanics fly in a day or two earlier than the racers, then fly out a day or two later, depending on the team's schedule and the needs of the motorcycles to be made fresh again for the following race. Gone is the bonding time of mechanic and rider as they go from race to race. The dynamic has changed. Now, mechanics and racers can be married and have families, which was really rare in the box-van days. Rare today are stories like this one:

"I think maybe one of the last couple races, Timmy [Ferry] rode in the van with me," McCollum said. "I don't know if it was maybe Binghamton to Steel City or something, I forget. Anyways, he was like, 'Man, I've got to take a leak.' So we stopped on the side of the interstate. We both got out of the box van and he hit the lock button and locked the doors. The truck was running. So, there we were, pissing on the side of the freeway and the truck was locked. I'm like, 'Shit, how are we going to get back in?' Luckily, one of the other guys came along, maybe 15-20 minutes later. I flagged him down and he stopped and had one of those slim-jim things and he unlocked the door. There was one guy in every box-van crowd that had the slim-jim thing to break into the truck, and that was a good thing. But you know, there's a lot of stories with the box vans and a lot of good memories and stuff like that. Nowadays it's totally different."

It's much less of a nomad lifestyle now.

"Yeah, so you just cruised around the country and you stayed with friends along the way," McCollum said. "You worked on your bike and that was it, you had fun. But when we changed to the semi trailer, all that stopped and everybody is like, 'everybody has to live in California and you have to be at the shop everyday if you're at home.' So everything changed. And now it's changed even more-so with these four-strokes. With that, and in addition to the TV schedule nowadays, to try and have this stuff on TV. So now it takes a couple of mechanics to work during the day, whereas before it was just you. It was one mechanic and the rider against the world. It was fun, and you'd tell your guy, 'it's me and you.' But now there are a handful of guys, it's not just one guy... It's hard for a guy like myself, or some of the guys that are still left around from the older days, to do that, because it's hard to delegate and it's hard to stand back and watch some other guy working on your race bike, but that's just the way it is nowadays. It's not just one guy and a bike anymore."

Osterman detailed some more differences.

"There was a time when we were going from one state to the next and everything was just flowing just right," Osterman said. "I remember I ran over a sheet of plywood. I just looked in my rear-view mirror and I remember it kicking back into Jim Felt's truck. He was Broc Glover's mechanic, now of Felt bicycle fame. And it just blew up on the front hood of his truck. And his fiancé at the time was in his car. It was a deal. But I mean, there were a lot of crazy stories. The riders were a little more off the hook. Even the authorities in those days; they wouldn't taze you, let alone shoot you. The finger was all you needed to get your point across. Now people go after you. But, it was crazy in the hotels, the riders were off the hook. Whether they had their clothes on or off, it was a different day. Now everybody's contracts: got to have good grades, good hair, good this and that. And that's cool... It's elevated. I mean we're on TV now. We were pretty lost before, but I think everybody is doing a good job."

But there's still a part of me that longs for those days, when wild racers were allowed to be wild, and it was two men vs. the world. What about you?

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Nerd Nerd 7/2/2013 10:52 AM

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