Leno: My nine lives

Jay Leno's Garage

I remember in 1978 when Bill Harrah, the famous car collector and casino owner, died. He was 66. I was in Lake Tahoe opening for the singer Johnny Mathis at the time, and I remember thinking, “Hey, 66, that’s pretty good.” Well, I’m 72 now, and, despite recent events, I’m certainly not ready to go!

I wrote in this column a few years ago that I thought I had one good motorcycle crash left in me. And then a pretty good one happened a couple of months ago. I was out riding my 1940 Indian Four with the sidecar and there was a fuel leak. I decided to pull into a parking lot, hook a U-turn, and head back to the garage. But some workers had strung a cable across the parking lot without hanging any rags or flags on it, and it hit me in the chest and took me right off the bike. I broke a couple of ribs and my collarbone and banged my knees up pretty bad. The bike kept going and crashed into a building, so we’ve got to patch that up as well. But it could have been a lot worse. I was out of the hospital in a day and back on stage a week later.

A 1940 Indian with a sidecar carried our man to a rendezvous with a steel cable that swept him right off the bike. Be careful out there. Jay Leno's Garage

Riding any motorcycle, especially in Los Angeles, takes some skill and focus. Whenever I’m at a light, I look right at the other drivers and try to make eye contact so I know they see me. But that’s getting harder with everyone staring at their phones. It’s especially challenging riding vintage bikes because there’s a lot more for you to do. You have a manual choke, a manual spark adjustment, and on bikes like the Brough Superior, which was built before the twist-throttle became common, you have a lever for gas and a separate lever for air. So as you accelerate, you have to move both levers to increase the amount of fuel and air, getting it to match up all by ear.

So it’s kind of amazing that I have been so lucky, though I’ve had my share of close calls. For example, I was riding my Brough once and had just exited the freeway. I grabbed the brake right as I hit a bump and the wheel bounced up and the whole hub and brake came apart and locked up. I skidded down the street, but I managed to stay upright. And I realized that if that had happened on the freeway when I was doing 80, it would have been much scarier.

Jay Leno's Garage

Once, I was at Sturgis, the big motorcycle rally in South Dakota, and this guy said, “Hey, I built this chopper. Would you ride it?” I said, “Well, OK, but I’ve got my wife,” and he said she could ride on the back (this was obviously a number of years ago). So we rode through town in a bit of a parade, and then when we got out of town, I opened the throttle. But the bike started to slow down, and I had to keep the throttle pinned just to maintain the same speed. At some point, I realized I had to pull over as the bike was getting slower and slower, and as I was coming to a stop—screech!—the front wheel locked up. The builder had fitted the brake on the front but didn’t adjust anything, and the pads were dragging and got hot. Finally, they seized on the disc. But thankfully for us, they seized at 3 or 4 mph.

Another time, we were doing Jay Leno’s Garage, and we featured a guy who was taking brand-new Triumph motorcycles and making them look like 1960s flat-trackers. They took the muffler off for the shoot, and it was so loud as we rode along shooting video. I was on the bike behind the camera car, and the crew said to open the throttle to make some noise. As I opened the throttle, the rear tire broke loose. I thought, “Wow, this thing’s got some power!” Then I applied the brake and the rear tire started sliding a little, so I stopped and took a look at the rear tire. The guy had put a crankcase breather on it that ended right in front of the rear tire, so the rear tire was getting covered in oil. I realized it wasn’t the tire breaking loose under power, it was simply spinning in its own oil—but miraculously, I didn’t go down.

When I think back on the number of close calls I’ve had on antique motorcycles, I realize how lucky I’ve been. But eventually everyone’s luck runs out, as it did with the steam car and the Indian, all within a few months of each other. But I’m still here, and while I may not have another big motorcycle crash in me, I hope I still have a few more miles to go.




This article first appeared in Hagerty Drivers Club magazine. Click here to subscribe and join the club.

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    I love bikes and would lover to ride but today with the way people drive I want at least some protection around me.

    Two things finished it for me. One was the day I saw a bike get hit by a kid on a Moped making a left turn into the bike. The rider high sided and got run over. He hit so hard it knocked off his cowboy boots. He has a survior head injury but did recover. We had to lift the car off of him. He was lucky.

    The other was when a texting driver pulled in front of my new car and I had to go off the road to miss him. If I had been on a bike I would have been killed.

    Then one other thing influenced me to give it up. Working for a medical company suppling beds and wheel chairs to people coming home from the hospital. I got to meet many bikers and learn what put them where they were. Most were lucky to be alive and most were going to have to deal with injuries they will have for a life time.

    Fused back. Legs and ankles that no longer worked as they should. etc. In 85% of the cases it was not their fault. It is one thing when you control the odds but on a bike with no protection it is difficult to protect yourself.

    Now this is not my choice for all. It was my choice for myself and my family. It is one that we all have to make for ourselves. I can understand why people take the chance but for me it just lost that luster.

    I have remained mostly off road today where the trees don’t move and if you hit one that is your own fault and I can better control those odds.

    It is a shame people show so little regard for others today. Is that e mail really worth some ones life?

    My wife is a trauma ICU nurse, she says I can have a motorcycle, but she never wants to see me professionally.

    Where I live, in a semi-rural northwest town, we hear about local motorcycle fatalities monthly. The number one cause of loss of control is excessive speed.

    I live just off a backroad that both cars and motorcyles are enjoyed on. While I have seen plenty of cars speed by my house at 20-30 mph over the 35 mph limit, you wouldn’t believe the rate of speed at which some of the sport motorcycles fly by. They are a mere blur, gone in an absolute instant. I would guess speeds at well over 100 mph on a two-lane backroad lined with homes and driveways.

    I’ve been riding for nearly 30 years and had one major crash in 2004. I learned I wasn’t immortal that day. Scared me enough I didn’t ride again for a couple of years after. I bought a used virago 250 to get back in the saddle and it was an absolute lemon. I learned a lot about bike parts trying to fix it up. In the end I sold it for a big loss and bought my 2009 Vulcan 900 Custom. Still riding it today and kept it running on my own since 2011. Sometimes accidents bring about opportunity for growth … assuming it doesn’t kill you.

    I have been riding for 50 years, had many accidents, but like a true rider I got back on! I ride a 89 FXLR I built into a bobber

    I had exactly the same problem with my 1981 Harley Low Rider. The engine opened up at about 120 mph on the clock and the oil went straight onto the rear wheel so that when I took the freeway off ramp I couldn’t slow it down other than with the front brake. I ended up going through the stop street, across the 2 lane road that was crossing the freeway and down the on ramp back on to the freeway. I sold the POS next day!

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