Trailer Tales

Getting to the track is the hardest part  

Chapter One

 

The street ahead is empty. I look up to the rearview mirror. No movement. No lights. No sound. I reach for the door handle but hesitate. I scan the street again. Wrecked cars and curbside dumpsters jammed nose-to-tail, fronting corrugated tin industrial buildings giftwrapped in razor wire. And then the unexpected—a pang of guilt.

 

In front of a scrapyard, I stand overtop my trailer with its unscrewed license plate in my hand. I’ve unhooked it from the car and nestled it behind a Chrysler LeBaron. A sad pair, car and trailer, death row companions destined for the crusher.

 

I think of the times we’ve shared. The half-mile years, with a brakeless methanol-burning Speedway bike or a fearsome Rotax-powered Knight-framed flat tracker strapped to its deck. And then, after a hiatus, a second life ferrying a Honda CRF-450R flat-tracker to nighttime short-tracks and a bellowing Ducati 888 superbike to road racing circuits. And in-between trips to the track, more pedestrian duties; hauling bikes to repair shops and dragging rotted backyard decks to the dump. But the relationship ends tonight, on a dead-end street after midnight.

Years ago, burnt out on racing, I sold the bikes and pondered the fate of the trailer. (I kept the Norton, but, in its disassembled state, it could be moved in a bicycle’s wicker basket.) Eventually, the trailer migrated to my brother’s country backyard, and then, after a year or two, it crawled off his property to an adjacent field and buried itself in a swamp to die.

 

A decade passed. My interest in racing rekindled, I went trailer shopping. Plenty of options existed at the high end; enclosed trailers sized from that of an ice fishing shack to the square footage of a San Francisco bachelor apartment. Even old-fashioned exposed trailers had gone up-market. Catering to the behind-the-motorhome on-the-way-to-Florida cruiser-crowd, the single motorcycle trailer had ballooned in size and expense.

 

My requirements were strict. The trailer had to be light enough to be towed behind my car or VW Bus, and it had to fold flat against the wall of my city garage. I couldn’t find anything under $2,500 that worked. Which is what led me back to the swamp in the field beside my brother’s house to the trailer I’d abandoned.

 

I skidded the trailer on seized wheels to my brother’s driveway. With new tires, rims, bearings, and a $35 lighting kit zip-tied to its tail, it was ready to go. But the frame rails were terminally rusted, the plywood top had warped up and away from the bolts that held it down, and the lights sagged drearily, giving the trailer, from the rear, the look of a sad frown. I’d make do with the old trailer for a season, no more.  

 

Five years passed. With the same trailer. I justified the carrying of expensive motorcycles on a trailer unfit for dump runs with logic at its most illogical; as a single-track vehicle, I surmised, motorcycles were less likely to fall off the trailer than they were to fall over in use—and no bike ever did fall off. The trailer’s last hurrah was a doozey. Hauling a Ducati Panigale V4S on a 12-hour round-trip on bumpy, twisty (and occasionally gravelly) roads to a far-off racetrack.

 

With the Panigale safely returned to Ducati, I had dinner with my daughter in the city and set off late to my home in the country. But the trailer’s taillights wouldn’t light. I rolled on the ground jiggling wires and tapping lights, without success. I slumped on the curb, and rubbed the grease from my hands onto a lawn with a texture as inviting as velour. I was in one of the better neighbourhoods in the city, and from the windows of mansions I could see, and sense, eyes watching.

 

A low, flat trailer without a bike is virtually invisible (I’d had this trailer knocked off before by an oblivious driver—there was no way I could make it home without lights). And then I knew what I would do. With the surety of a man given guidance from on high, I drove away and filtered through neighbourhoods of decreasing desirability until I reached the street where I would abandon the trailer. It was still registered in my father’s name. He would not have been pleased to have his name besmirched by my actions, but he died a long, long time ago.

Chapter Two

 

A trailer, given its simplicity—neither an engine to power it nor a set of wheels to steer it—should be a paragon of hitch-it-up, forget-about-it reliability. But no. Mechanical devices do not take kindly to owner indifference or infrequent use. Aside from the lawnmower, it’s hard to imagine a more neglected contraption than the trailer.

 

Hammering down the highway to a clay quarter-mile flat track, Martin’s trailer (which carried his Knight-Rotax as well as mine) made an almost imperceptible twitch. Followed, thirty seconds later, by a high-pitched wail, like the sound of air escaping the tightly-drawn mouth of a balloon. Martin dove to the shoulder, and from the ditch we marveled at the thin black skid line that stretched across three lanes of roaring traffic.

 

A wheel bearing had seized. We drove the remains of the bearing from the hub, reinstalled the wheel, and rejoined traffic with the wheel flapping wildly. We exited the highway and pulled onto a residential street.

I knocked on the door of a well-kept bungalow and a man appeared at the screen. I explained our situation, smilingly, and asked if we could lean our bikes against his shed overnight. He listened, unsmilingly. “No,” he said. “Why not?” “I can’t be held responsible,” he said. “I’m not asking you to be responsible, I’m asking you to help a guy in a jam.” As the man reached for the door handle, I crested a wave of frustration and anger that had been building since the almost imperceptible twitch of Martin’s trailer an hour ago.

 

“Are you a family man?” I asked. (Teenage voices came from the backyard.) The man stepped back. “I hope,” I said, startled by the calmly sinister tone of my voice, “that if your kids ever need a hand one day, they don’t knock on the front door of a house where a miserable little man like you lives.”

 

We got back in the car and thumped around the corner to a gas station. I explained our predicament to the kid at the pumps. Without letting on that he understood, he walked to the side of the building and unlocked the washroom door. Without asking for clarification (was there a second washroom?) we unloaded our bikes and wedged them one-in-forward, one-in-backward, against a toilet alarmingly foul even by gas station standards.

 

We stashed the trailer behind a pile of tires and headed back to the city, to return the next day with bearings and a tire. The drive home was long and conversation was sparse. “I think I’m done with this shit,” one of us said, though we can’t remember, even today, who said it first.

Chapter Three

 

The impact was hard enough that it drove the ashtray out and scattered change as far as the back seat. (Months later, I found dimes and quarters in far-off reaches of the interior.) I looked into the rearview mirror at the crumpled hood of a Corolla. As I pulled onto the gravel shoulder, I knew my car would be undamaged.

 

A previous owner of my Buick had welded a trailer hitch from shards of irregularly shaped steel. Square tube, round tube, bits of angle. It was so massively overbuilt, that had I inadvertently backed into a prison wall, I’d have punched the inmates a hole to freedom.

 

The young driver of the car that hit me swung from profuse apology for his inattention to great lurches of deep sobbing for his fate. The car, his mother’s, was a mess. The bumper was on the ground, the radiator was holed, and the hood, viewed from the side, had the profile of an A-frame cabin.

As expected, the impact hadn’t even flaked rust off my hitch. Before setting off, I suggested to the driver he concoct a lie. “Tell your mother you hit a fridge on the road. You’ll think of something.”

 

But something had happened to my Buick. A month later, coming home from the speedway track with my 500 Jawa on the snowmobile trailer I’d gotten for free, I heard a loud clank as I stopped at an intersection. I eased to the shoulder. From the rear of the Buick could be heard the screeching of an 80-car freight train starting from a dead stop.

 

One half of the hitch was on the ground; attached to it was the rusted-through subframe of the car. I unhitched the trailer, and pulled it into the yard of the heavy truck repair shop across the road. Then I went back for the car. The noise of the dragging hitch attracted the attention of a half-dozen mechanics. Could they, I asked, weld the hitch back on?

 

The man who looked to be in charge nodded to the youngest man, who flicked his cigarette onto the ground and, with breathtaking agility, swung beneath the car in a single arc. The verdict was terminal. “The only good metal down here is the gas tank,” he said. The Buick would never tow again.

 

A torch was rolled into the yard and the other half of the hitch cut off. With the excised apparatus exposed on the ground, the mechanics swarmed it, prodded it with toes, and dissected its construction. They were ruthless. As pitiless as art critics.

 

I asked how much it would cost me to leave my trailer with them. “For how long?” the man in charge asked. “Forever,” I said. The men found this funny. It’s OK, just leave it, the man said with a grin. And then I turned to the young guy who’d surveyed my car. “Can you give me a hand?”

 

From the driver’s seat, I could see the end of the handlebar in the left-side mirror. The right-side mirror was filled by a half-dozen mechanics doubled-over in laughter. The speedway bike, at 185 pounds, had been an easy lift into the trunk with a helper, and a bungee cord held the trunk lid two-thirds of the way closed. As I drove away some men waved; some couldn’t manage to hoist an arm into the air.

 

By the end of the racing season, I’d tired of the quips, the dumb questions, and the fingers pointed at me from kids in the back seats of passing cars. But the legacy of the year I turned the trunk of a Buick into a hauler extended long beyond the final race.

 

When the Buick was parked in the sun, the fuel and oil that had leaked from the bike and saturated the trunk’s carpet fermented. The instant the trunk lid raised, the acidic eye-blast drove me onto my heels. But that wasn’t the worst of it. Every time I used the trunk the aroma from racing prompted starting line jitters—the butterflies that hit every racer who’s ever lined up on a starting grid. My heart pounded, my palms sweated, and I had to urinate. Right here, right now, in the parking lot of a grocery store on a snowy Saturday morning in the middle of February. And it was that, as much as the rust and the slipping transmission, that condemned the Buick to the crusher.