Being There

Jay Springsteen did the impossible. He was superman—and everyman—in a 30 year career

 

Moby, the musician, was at a party in Los Angeles. Across the room was his hero, Neil Young. The two had never met, but Moby declined the offer of an introduction. Why? “Because what if I catch him on a bad day,” said Moby, “and he’s a dick? I risk losing 20 of my favourite songs.” 

 

As a magazine photographer in my 20s, I met great writers: Martin Amis, Kurt Vonnegut, and dozens more. I trailed Salman Rushdie, with trepidation, at the height of the hysteria surrounding the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini. (I feared the gunmen would miss Rushdie and hit me.) Amis and Rushdie, wearied by PR demands, would rather have been home, writing. Vonnegut, who was tipsy, would rather have been at the bar. In every case, the work writers produced was more enchanting than the worker.

Springsteen out front and on the march. Before motocross and road racing became mainstream American racing disciplines, flat track was where it was at. 

What’s the point in meeting those we admire from afar? What do we want from them that they haven’t already given? Dating tips from Bob Dylan? Home renovation advice from Bobby Orr? If that celebrity is a motorcycle racer the question is no less murky. 

 

Great racers have nothing to give us. Danny Walker, of flat track school American Supercamp, approached Chris Carr with a request: make me a curriculum to teach flat track. Carr was startled. Seven titles and he’d never given riding a moment’s thought. For Carr, riding was as instinctive as wrapping a scarf around your face to fend off a north wind. Riding wasn’t something Carr thought about, just something he did. Racers are doers, not thinkers. If you have the chance to meet a rider you admire, what are you going to say that won’t make you appear mere fanboy? 

And then I turned around and Jay Springsteen was standing behind me. What was I to do?

 

Springsteen, the son of a Michigan auto worker, turned pro as an 18-year-old in 1975. He signed to the Harley factory team and won three titles by age 21. He was aggressive, wild, the epitome of a natural rider. He won at tracks where winning was said to take years of experience. No sensible person would have bet against him winning the title for the next decade. But Springsteen never won another championship. 

 

It’s hard to cuddle up to brilliance. It’s why we love underdogs and grudgingly respect overachievers. The first half-dozen years of Springsteen’s career, when he won, often, with ease, were legend. He was, unquestionably, one of the best, ever, maybe the best. But then something happened. Springsteen struggled. He suffered from a mysterious stomach ailment and missed races. 

Syracuse, 1981. The closed throttle tells us Springsteen is on the way into the corner, and, on the mile, that means he's carrying 100 mph. Look at that style. Perfect. The proximity of the wall is not an illusion. It's that close.

But Springsteen didn’t retire, as many would have. He continued, with—for him, given his talent—workmanlike results. He went 10 years without winning, and then, in 1995, won the Pomona half-mile. His lifestyle had improved, his stomach had quieted. In 2000, 25 years after his rookie season, he won, for the first time, the Springfield Mile, flat track’s most prestigious race. A folk hero was born. 

 

Springsteen’s struggles made him one of us. In winning those races late in his career, he clawed back the promise he’d lost after those early, brilliant seasons. He showed that you should never, ever, give up. And who can’t warm up to that? 

 

Jay Springsteen was still standing behind me.

 

Fifty miles down the road from Sarnia, Ontario, is Lapeer, Michigan, and Springsteen’s home. A dozen years ago, racer Steve Beattie promoted a race at Sarnia’s half-mile, and tempted Springsteen across the border with appearance money. And there stood Springsteen, shirtless, with his steel shoe and the bottom half of his leathers still on. No one else was around—no mechanics, no hangers-on, no-one at all. This would never happen again. I walked up and introduced myself to Jay Springsteen, and in doing so, went against every theory of interacting with celebrity I’d concocted. 

Springsteen, nearly 50 at the time, looked fit, like he wrestled for a living. He pointed at a chair. “Sit down,” he said. I did. I thought of a question. What did he think of the track, especially the bump that upset bikes as they entered corner three? “That’s not a bump,” said Springsteen. “That’s a fucking ramp.” He laughed hard enough that I could see his saw-toothed smile. And then another racer—Jess Roeder, who won that night—came over seeking setup advice. Springsteen was up and away. Without reason to move, I stayed in the chair, alone, next to a pair of number 9 Jay Springsteen XR750s. 

A few minutes later a woman appeared. “Hi, I’m Judy, Jay’s wife,” she said pleasantly, as if she’d expected to find me next to her husband’s motorcycles. As we chatted I asked how Jay was feeling—you know, the stomach thing. In language so profane I blushed, Mrs. Springsteen said Jay’s ex-wife had been the problem, and that now he’s just fine, thanks.  

 

I still share Moby’s view that it’s better not to meet our heroes. But who says we have to do what’s right, every single time?

All hail the moustache. Springsteen, sharing a laugh, in the white T-shirt, stands behind the bikes of teammate Scott Parker, at far left. Parker won twice the races and three times the titles, but never matched Springsteen's aura.