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MIKE DUFF Image-maker on wheels
As a roaring beast, the motorcycle made a name for itself — mostly bad. So they’ve changed it, with a small, trim, “in” machine that’s as gentle as a kitten. Duff’s job: to burn the track at 100-plus, proving that a kitten can be a tiger, too
MANY MEN HAVE LOST their integrity and plenty of starlets have lost their illusions in the service of the imagebuilding industry. But Michael Alan Duff, a young man from Toronto who happens to be one of the world’s fastest motorcycle racers, almost lost his left index finger in furtherance of one of the great image-reshaping campaigns of the 1960s.
There he was, semiconscious and flat on his back in a Tokyo hospital. An ambulance crew had just scraped him up off the pavement after a onehundred-mile-an-hour spill during a practice run for the Japanese Grand Prix. His finger, which looked like a segment of government-rejected sausage, was dangling from his hand by a single tendon — and there was this long-faced Japanese doctor eyeing it in the most speculative way.
“Don't chop it off! Don't chop it off!” Duff kept shouting through the anesthetic. He can still remember the sickly feeling he had when the doctor gave him that obliging, unmistakable grin that meant he didn't understand a word of English.
"What do you do when you can’t communicate?” asks Duff. "I just kept
shouting and shouting until finally he got the idea.” The doctor stitched the finger together and, according to Duff, it’s almost as good as new.
That was 1964’s narrow escape. Last November, with an eerie repetitiveness, Duff again found himself in a Tokyo hospital after a high-speed spill during a Japanese Grand Prix practice run. This time he had injured his hip and left leg. but there was one consolation: this time his doctor spoke English.
Will these latest injuries affect his racing career? When this was written, no one knew. But Duff’s ability to bounce back after serious accidents has already become a major ingredient in an astonishing but little - knowm Canadian career. After only three seasons of international competition — an activity which, to remain at the very top. emphatically requires the use of all ten fingers — Duff finds himself. at twenty-six, rated as one of the world's top-five motorcycle racers.
There are thirteen races that count toward the world's championship, and Duff was close to the top in events in Holland, Britain and Finland, and came second in the Irish and Czecho-
Mike Duff, who at twenty-six makes about thirty thousand dollars a year as one of the world’s top-five motorcycle racers, leans into a corner on a Yamaha of the 250 c.c. class in which he came second in the ’65 world championships.
slovakian events. On one class of motorcycle, the two hundred and fifty c.c., he came second in the 1965 world championship. In another class he placed fifth. He is one of the few men who’s succeeded in lapping the treacherous Isle of Man course at more than one hundred miles per hour. In Eastern Europe, where motorcycle racing is a major spectator sport, Duff is probably better known than any other Canadian athlete. He is also better paid than most: around thirty thousand dollars a year.
For all his prowess and profit, Duff is not risking his life simply to prove which motorcycle goes fastest. In the larger context, his job is nothing less than to help overhaul the public image of the motorcycle. If the campaign succeeds — and the sales figures indicate that it already has — it will be a major exercise in commercial brain-
washing. This is because the motorcycle, for reasons best left to Freudian theorists, is probably the most symbolsoaked conveyance ever invented.
In the 1950s, its image was not the sort that sold a lot of motorcycles. To most North Americans, those big machines connoted cops, leather-jacketed hoods, inchoate rebellion, nihilism, freeway fascism. The late James Dean, who was the big teenage rebellion figure of the 1950s, often rode a motorcycle. So did Marlon Brando, whose 1954 movie, The Wild One, depicted the rape of an isolated California hamlet by two rival gangs of motorcycle hoods.
It wasn’t just that motorcycle gangs usually spelled trouble, or that motorcycle hoods were usually distasteful slobs; there was also something sexual about those great, roaring, black machines, and the symbolism was not lost
on the outcasts who rode them. One Toronto rider of the old school — and there are still a few of them around — expressed it this way: "You get a thrill when you see that ground going by undei your feet, when you get your knees locked on that gas tank with all that Dow'er between your legs.
Well now. what right-thinking parent is going to allow his teenage son to get involved in a scene like that?
Net many. It was obvious that if motorcycles were to be sold in large numbers, there would have to be a different kind of motorcycle — and a new breed of motorcyclist.
As everyone knows by now, it was the Japanese who invented both. The major Japanese manufacturers, Honda. Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha, introduced an ingeniously engineered line of smaller snappier cycles. They range in size from fifty cubic centimetres
(this refers to the volume of the engine cylinder) models to bulky five-hundred-c.c. models than can often top one hundred and ten miles per hour without special adjustments. The smallest Japanese machines are not much more menacing than a bicycle, and the biggest ones are still smaller than the roaring. U. S.-made "beasts" of the 1950s.
But size and speed are not everything. Image is. And the image that the wily Japanese have manufactured (with the assistance of U. S. advertising agencies) is of a machine that housewives. draftsmen, chartered accountants and — most important of all — teenagers can ride with some semblance of middle-class respectability.
The campaign has been wildly successful. On high-school and college campuses across the country, the Japanese motorbike has become a principal
conveyance of the go-go generation. In several Canadian cities you can rent them (for about $2.50 per hour); the rental receipt issued by one Toronto agency bears this slogan: "Have fun. don't hurt yourself, find yourself a date and don't tear up my bike." In Deep River. Ont., several physicists are reported to be driving Hondas to work at the Atomic Energy Commission. Several MBs have bought them. Eskimos are riding them in Frobisher Bay. And in Oakville. Ont., an account executive bought a fiftyc.c. model for his wife as a Mother's Day present. Some of the hipper suburban housewives in hilly West Vancouver are using motorbikes as "second cars" for quick trips to and from supermarket and nursery school. Presumably, they meet the nicest people en route.
The trend max be more than a
middle-class consumption fad; the way sales of small motorbikes are going, it could mean a small-scale revolution in urban transportation. Four years ago, Canadians bought fewer than five thousand motorcycles and scooters. Sales for 1965 were about thirty thousand.
Regrettably, the motorcycle boom has brought a large increase in highwax accidents, and a lot of worried noises from traffic-safety officials. In London, Ont., for instance, where motorcycle sales have doubled in a Near, the accident rate has tripled. In British Columbia and Ontario, the two provinces that are supporting much of the motorbike boom, there were about thirteen hundred accidents in a single year—which works out to about one for every fifteen machines. BC and Nena Scotia have passed legislation making crash continued on pape 29
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helmets mandatory, and other provinces are considering doing the same. Meanwhile, the carnage continues. Winnipeg safety officials have urged a ban on lightweight motorcycles during the winter months, and Fred Ellis, general manager of the Ontario Safety League, wants to ban them from expressways if they can't maintain the posted speed.
Regardless of the safety factor, thirty thousand motorcycles are a lot of motorcycles, and Mike Duff s performances on racecourses in sixteen countries have had something to do with it. Madison Avenue's image merchants have convinced North America that lightweight motorbikes are youthful, fun. “with it" and clean. Duff's task, on behalf of Yamaha, one of the big-four Japanese manufacturers, has been to convince the rest of the world that, just the same, motorcycles haven't become too tame.
He does this by winning races, a pursuit w'hich has obsessed him since his early teens in Toronto. In the spring of I960, after five years of spare-time competition in Canadian events, he decided that big-time racing was more urgent than his aeronautical engineering course at the then Ryerson Institute of Technology in Toronto. He borrowed several thousand dollars from his father, a prosperous management consultant, then hopped over to England, bought a better motorcycle, and coolly set out to conquer the Continental circuit. Less than four months later he was back home, flat broke and sobered by the fact that he hadn't come close to winning a single race.
“European racers are much faster than we are," he says. “I came back to Canada determined to try again, to improve."
He also had the idea of borrowing a few thousand more from his father.
The second time, his scheme worked. He returned to England in 1961. bought two new competition machines worth three thousand dollars, and began winning a few small races. He concentrated on perfecting the technical minutiae that spell the fractional difference between winners and alsorans: such things as learning to take a corner at close to one hundred miles an hour, his cycle slanted almost level with the track, without skimming the sole of his boot along the pavement to stabilize himself.
By last season Duff had improved to the point where factories w'ere offering him their best machines. He won the Belgian Grand Prix, one of the thirteen races that count toward the world's championship. He finished fourth in the world championship last year in two classes, the 250 and 500 c c., and placed third in the competition lor the 350 c.c. models. In East Germany, where three hundred and fifty thousand people turned out for one weekend race in which Duff was featured, sportswriters trotted out unaccustomed adjectives (he was “brilliant" according to one East German paper). Admiring Communist officials once waived travel restrictions so he could catch a Baltic ferry to his next race in Finland, without re-entering West Germany.
Duff s Japanese sponsors have gam-
bled a lot of money on his carefully nurtured riding skills. He and Britain's Phil Read, a 1964 and 1965 world champion, are the only two riders in Yamaha's stable; and the firm spent three hundred thousand dollars on racing and development in 1964. In addition. Duff is paid to ride two English makes of motorcycles in English races, and he picks up still more income from prize and starting money, and by endorsing products ranging from gasoline to motorcycle gloves.
All these chores have enabled him to live, and travel, in style. He tow's his motorcycles, his Finnish-born wife Kriss and their two children, all housed in a bathtub-equipped trailer, from race to race in a nine-thousanddollar Mercedes-Benz. Unless his current injuries force a change of plans, he will spend the winter in Finland, resting up for his -next big race: the U. S. Grand Prix to be held in February.
Motorcycle racers — quite apart
from their mortality rate — don't stay on top for more than a few seasons. Duff is fully aware of this, and is planning accordingly. “In a few more years." he says, “I hope to have my pile. Then I'll return to Canada and get into my own business in something or other."
Whatever that business turns out to be. no one will be surprised if Duff, in common with thousands of his countrymen, drives to and from it aboard a lightweight motorcycle. ★
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