Say It Ain't So

The Man is Gone but the Photograph Remains

The rider’s name is Rex Beauchamp. And since he’s from Michigan and not Marseille, there’s no continental influence in the pronunciation of his surname. It’s Bowchamp. Let’s call him Rex—were he alive, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.  

 

Rex was a whole-lotta-sideways in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1974, when Dan Mahony photographed him. Or didn’t photograph him. Rumour says a corner worker was handed a Nikon loaded with Tri-X, so Mahony could photograph the other end of the track. Like all good hearsay, the issue has never been settled conclusively. All that matters is someone took this photograph.

Motorcycle racers have always drawn photographers. The way a rider moves side-to-side—or is bucked brutally away from—a motorcycle makes them infinitely more interesting as subjects than car racers, who while strapped into a seat turn a steering wheel one of two ways.

 

Nothing looks better than a crossed-up motorcycle. Because it can’t be faked. A motorcycle photographed in a straight line doesn’t divulge its speed—a capable photographer with a sluggish shutter speed can make 60 km/h look like 260. But a bike pitched sideways speaks the truth, and in the case of this photograph, catches a moment gone awry.  

 

The quickest way round a flat track is to keep the wheels mostly in line. A slightly stepped-out rear wheel makes a faster lap than one wildly hung-out. Sideways motion is forward motion squandered. Rex is massively out of shape. (If that rear wheel comes any farther around he’s headed back into the direction from whence he came.) Note his throttle hand. It’s in his crotch. The steering is at full lock. Rex is positioned at a 90-degree angle to the direction he’s travelling. Try it yourself; put your back to the wall and slide into the next room sideways. It’s not the quickest way forward. 

 

What makes this photograph ageless is that it preserves a moment that lasted an instant. Rex, who was on the Harley factory team and a national race winner, was active in one of flat track’s golden eras. He didn’t forge a career at this level flinging bikes sideways. This is a save. His good form has, for the moment, departed. His torso is cantilevered overtop and his left leg is slipping under the bike. Once he reigns in that tail end he’ll straighten up and make up for lost time.

 

Flat track is violence made beautiful. Look behind Rex, at the guardrail against a wall decorated with hay bales. Road racers complain of tracks with limited runoff. Run off this track and you’re dead. Rex, with his left arm forward and his right pulled back is a runner mid-stride. And follow that whorl of dust that trails in his wake, the dust that howls down a hushed main street in a John Ford western, just before everything’s shot to hell. 

 

Rex Beauchamp died on July 24, 1988. He was 37. He’d been retired for a decade when his street bike was hit by a car close to his home of Drayton Plains, just outside Detroit. It’s painful to fathom that the man forever saving a slide at the Louisville half-mile lost his life in the saddle of a Virago. The thought of it knocks the wind out of me every time I see this photograph.