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Interview: Risking It all To Compete



Hap Eaton is not a household name, but many of the most extreme competitors and hobbyists at Adrenalist aren’t on the majority of people’s radars. Hap Eaton was on a lot of radars in the 1970’s and 1980’s. That’s because he raced motorcycles for 13 years while also working as an engineer at RCA to “pay the bills.”

Motorcycle racing is still inchoate in the American consciousness and relative organization sponsors. Riders aren’t given huge endorsement deals, and even the top riders on the professional circuit often have a second job to augment the paltry sums winning can provide. So why do drivers risk serious injury to compete? It’s a question we could ask any Adrenalist that flies, glides or rides shrouded by the anonymity of their given pursuit.

We spoke with motorcycle rider, Hap Eaton, about the sport of motorcycle racing back when he competed: 1973-1986. Below are his answers.

Adrenalist: Tell me how you got into motorcycles, and especially the actual racing of them in the early 70′s?

Hap: I think riding a bicycle as a youngster started the whole thing. And then of course thinking it would be nice to have a motor on it. Close friends of the family owned a motorcycle shop in Indianapolis and I often rode on the gas tank and was allowed to steer and control the throttle! What a thrill! The memory has faded some but it seems I must have started on a mini-bike with small wheels and a Briggs & Stratton engine. My first real machine was a used Harley 125cc that I bought from the family friends.

A long time friend, Rick, had a Honda 50 that was faster; like most young males we were speed junkies. We and other friends progressed to larger and faster bikes through our high school years. By today’s standards they were slow but still fast enough to get into trouble. On our street bikes we would hill climb, tried drag racing, and always rode fast on the streets racing with each other. Only by the Grace of God we all lived through it with only minor incidents.

At some point three of us went together and purchased a small dirt oval race bike – no brakes allowed back then. We took turns racing it at amateur events. I got first try. Won! Hooked!

The need for speed and adrenaline grew. Death wish? No, never even considered it. I just want to go fast and win! Over the next several years I bought larger machines and a professional race license. Went faster but couldn’t even qualify. The Army and work took me different places and disrupted my racing but not the NEED! Then one day Rick asked if I had thought any more about road racing – closed circuit paved sports car tracks? No, but what a great idea! I bought an entry level (250cc) Yamaha, applied for a Novice license from the American Motorcycle Association (AMA) and headed to Daytona bike week, the biggest race in the country, for my first race. Lots more speed, thinking: ‘this is more like it.’ At dirt tracks, I got to go maybe 80 mph and race for 2 minutes and not qualify. Here top was probably 120 – 130 mph, the race was 75 miles long, and I finished well.

Adrenalist: What races or circuits did you compete on during your time racing?

Hap: Professionally, I competed in the AMA National Championship series. That consisted of about 8 races per year all over the country. Tracks included Daytona, FL., Talladega, AL., Road Atlanta, GA., Pocono, PA., Loudon, NH., MidOhio, Road America, WI., Brainerd, MN., Texas International, Laguna Seca, CA., and Sears Point, CA. The rules also allowed me to race in amateur events at other more local tracks, like Raceway Park in Indianapolis, and other tracks in surrounding states.

Adrenalist: Was motorcycle racing a full-time gig, or just a hobby?

Hap: Like a “Gentleman Farmer,” racing was always a business, but my engineering job at RCA paid the bills.

Adrenalist: Tell me about the type of bike involved in the racing, and how that evolved over the 13 years you competed?

Hap: My racing carrier occurred during the heyday of the 2 stroke bikes and the most common was the Yamaha TZ 750. When I started, Novice riders rode 250cc bikes and Junior and Expert ranks rode 750cc bikes. You earned points for your finishing positions and then moved from Novice to Junior to Expert when proper points were earned. In my Novice year, I earned enough points to move to Junior. The next year I purchased a 350cc bike, which could run well against the larger capacity machines and again earned enough points to move up to Expert class. I purchased a TZ750 the following year but elected to stay in the Junior class to improve my skills before running with the big boys. My 4th year I moved to the Expert class on the same machine and remained in the top class for the remainder of my racing. During my carrier the TZ750 remained the bike of choice.

Adrenalist: How were things organized and was there a good payout if you won, or was it more the experience than any prize money?

Hap: During my time it changed from heavily loaded at the top, to paying everyone that qualified something; although, not much at the back. Sorry I don’t remember the numbers well but I made enough to nearly cover expenses and on some years had a profit. This was as a privateer who did not have a sponsor and paid all my own bills. Some of the riders were sponsored by the factories and many of them had a shop or a product sponsor. Another benefit as I finished better was that I was given free tires, helmets, clothing, lubricants, etc. If I remember correctly, during my expert years I managed to be ranked in the top 15 in the country each year.

Adrenalist: Explain some of your more gnarly wipeouts and the broken bones, concussions etc. that ensued? I don’t mean to make light of crashing and how close to “dropping off this mortal coil” a motorcycle racer comes when they crash going upwards of 180 mph, but I think the Adrenalist audience would like to know exactly what’s at stake when you get on your bike to race.

Hap: I did crash several times during my 13 years of road racing but only broke my collarbone. I had scrapes and bruises often though. My first fall was at my 2nd race, in Texas. I learned 2 things. 1) Although most of the braking comes from the front wheel, too much brake going into a corner is instant crash and 2) Just because you broke your bike doesn’t mean that you are done for the weekend–get busy and fix it.

Perhaps my most spectacular crash was at Pocono Raceway. I had won my heat race and felt I had a good chance in the final. In the second turn , however, I fell and broke the clutch lever. It is possible to shift without the clutch, though it is rougher, and I remounted and joined the chase. Riding hard I was making up time until accelerating through one of the high speed bowl turns I shifted and the rear wheel lost traction and moved sideways. As I was hanging on at over a ton (100 mph) and trying to get the bike straightened out, I noticed the retaining wall coming up. Not wanting to hit it straight on I pulled the bike over to turn and slid sideways into wall. I remember sliding and tumbling down the track for what seemed like an eternity and thinking “when will this end?” It did end, I came to a stop, got up, and ran to the side of the track. Nothing broken but the bike. I was sure sore.

I remember one year when a well known British racer crashed at the Daytona start/finish line doing about 180 mph. He certainly did not get up and walk away but he did live to race again. I know it is said that tempting death and living is the ultimate rush, but I don’t remember thinking about dying. To me the adrenaline rush is in the speed and the competition.

One year, when I was riding very well and finishing well, a newspaper “Cycle News” interviewed me and wrote an article titled “It’s all in the adrenaline rush,” and during that time there where T-shirts that read “Life begins at 150 mph” and had a picture of a road-racer. “Faster, faster until the thrill of speed overcomes the fear of death.”

Adrenalist: Why did you retire? What prompted the decision to hang it up in 1986?

Hap: In some ways, motorcycle racing and NASCAR are similar. On the motorcycle scene, manufacturers hope to sell bikes based on racing success (remember the male need for speed). Sales are even better if the race bike looks like the one you can buy at the shop and ride away. Therefore, manufacturers want the racers on production-looking machines, and what I raced did not. Many street bikes of today can go faster than my race bike could. The year after I quit, modified production bikes (Superbikes) became the premier class and Formula 1 was demoted. To stay in the top class, I would have to buy a new bike.

Adrenalist: You told me on the phone you were getting “too cautious” to continue. Explain what that means in the context of motorcycle racing (taking turns slow etc.)?

Hap: We all know that when we are young we are immortal and have no fear. We old farts take longer to heal and recover and we remember that. I found myself being more careful in race traffic, braking too soon for corners, slowing too much in the rain, getting nervous when sliding. To top things off, the year I quit, I had a major project at work (remember paying the bills), and the season was half gone before I could get started. I didn’t think I could even qualify on a new bike. Time to quit!

Adrenalist: Why do you think you were drawn to motorcycle racing? It’s a highly dangerous “hobby.”

Hap: I think it is something that I kind of grew into; riding faster and enjoying it more and more, and I am a competitive person. As I said above, I really didn’t think much about dying or cheating death. I do enjoy the thrill of speed in most things I do.

Adrenalist: Since retiring in ’86, do you follow the circuit anymore? How would you compare and contrast today’s racers with what you did in the 70’s and 80’s?

Hap: I have not followed racing at all since I quit, but I think that most of the pro’s now have some sort of sponsor to pay the way. I know that the organization has changed but I am not sure just how. I suspect that the change to smaller bikes had some to do with the bike manufacturers and probably some with the tire safety. I know that the AMA was always concerned about keeping the equipment costs down so that there were plenty of riders. It is not very exciting to watch 10 racers on a 3 mile track. I remember Bill France of Daytona saying that he did not care what we raced as long as there were several on the track and it was loud.

Adrenalist: What do you do to satiate that speed need since retiring? I know you do some bicycle racing, but is there anything else Adrenalist readers would enjoy?

Hap: Even bicycling can be a “go fast” sport, and I find myself braking later and taking turns like I did when racing. Speed is relative though; I don’t think I have gone faster than 60 mph on a bicycle. Besides road biking, Diane [Ed. Hap’s wife] and I enjoy mountain-biking. We actually enjoy the challenge of climbing as much as the downhill. Skiing can be quite exhilarating also. Mind you, Diane and I are not into extreme skiing, but a fast run down a steep slope, or standing at the top of and working your way down a very steep slope, can certainly get your heart rate up. One of our main loves is bicycle touring. Generally, there’s not much speed involved, but it’s certainly a challenge. Our longest has been a 1 year-10,000 mile perimeter ride of the USA carrying all out gear with us. It is all in speed and challenge isn’t it?

Adrenalist: We Agree! Thanks for talking with us, and take those turns as fast as you can!

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