Photography by Manny Pandya
Austin is one of those cities I imagined all of America to be like before I moved here. It’s luxuriously quirky, a concoction of old-time cowboy, southern style green and ever-expanding professionalism served in a very distinctive red, white and blue cocktail.
It’s also one of the cities I’ve been to with an air of optimism about it that’s strangely hypnotic. The people are the kind who will tell you why you can do something as opposed to why you can’t (which is refreshing for an Aussie like me), so the idea of dirt tracking a 500lb motorcycle against a sprawling city backdrop that’s better at 500 mile road stretches seems somewhat fitting for this oh-so-American slice of Terra Firma.
Like many things in this job, I say “yes” first and think about the consequences later. This is exactly what happened when Indian/Polaris’ big man Robert Pandya asked if I’d want to race against Roland Sands, Cameron Brewer, Jamie Robinson and U.S. demi-god Dave Aldana on a flat track not much bigger than my office on one of Sands’ Indian Scout Super Hooligan bikes.
I figure I can live with myself if I try and fail dismally than if I say “no”.
The Austin Super Hooligan event was part of the wider celebrations marking the fourth time the world’s fastest motorcycle racers made the pilgrimage for the Circuit of the Americas MotoGP, which was of course won by Captain America, Marc Marquez. The Hooligans were run alongside the impossibly cool Handbuilt Motorcycle Show in Downtown Austin, a collection of some of the wackiest and finest custom bikes on the planet. As a result, well over a couple of thousand faces lined the walls of the tiny, very temporary dirt oval just across the road from the show, watching pros like Stevie Bonsey and Jared Vanderkooi do it properly and me do it poorly.
For me, watching a pro do dirt track is a lot like watching a porno. I think I look as good as them while doing it, but really I’m just a mix of flailing arms and legs and inevitable disappointment.
And the Indian Scout Hooligan bike is not like Bonsey’s skinny, purpose-built Harley. It’s a long, heavy, brute of a bike with crushing levels of torque and the sound of a mating gorilla.
I ask Roland’s right hand man Cameron Brewer for a bit of advice on how to steer my new love. After all, the pegs are like speedway (right foot forward, left foot rear mounted), there’s no front brake, and it’s twice the weight of a dirtbike. He looks and smiles.
“Just get on the gas hard, get it in the corner and fire it out – you’ll be surprised at how well they handle.” Easy for you to say, pal.
The Hooligan class was not just for Harleys and Indians in Austin. Jamie turned up on a new Ducati Scrambler that just had an angle grinder taken to the tank, there were Triumphs and homebuilt specials, but the event was promoted by Sands, the man behind the Hooligan concept altogether, so the stars were the Indian Scouts.
After first practice, you may as well have fed me to the lions. Not once did I take one of the corners with even the most remote remnants of skill or finesse, rather just bumbled my way around the very un-flat track as the Scout did its best to turn me into a hood ornament in the adjacent car park.
But what Cameron said was ringing true. The Scout was handling much better than its size would led you to believe, and the factor against a good lap was purely rider skill, not hardware hassles.
Soon it was time to race and after watching Cameron and Roland smack these beasts around like zoo keepers I figured I needed to man up and ride the Indian, rather than let it ride me.
One thing I’ve become good at during my time as a bike journo is learning how to launch a bike. Riding thousands of different clutches has left me with a bit of a knack for getting a bike moving swiftly, and off the line in heat one I landed in second ahead of none other than former AMA GNC Champion Joe Kopp.
That lasted all of two corners as Kopp dived up the inside, hunted down Sands at the front and promptly took the heat one win. But my new, aggressive mindset yielded a touch of much needed confidence, and even though I finished third and those guys were the length of the straight in front at the flag after four laps, it was far better than I faired in practice.
The second race, things got better. Hammering the rear brake, tiptoeing through the initial part of the turn before jamming the gas open on the exit, the Indian and I started to gain an understanding. Big, burly blokes don’t like pussy, weedy nerds, and the big, burly Scout doesn’t like a pussy, weedy rider. Get it in, turn it, fire it out. Just like what Cameron said…
On the account of two third places, I missed out on the A-final. I ended up second in the B-final, again growing in confidence as the leader got closer and closer to me at the finish.
At the end of the night, I was paired with Vanderkooi in a teams race. I totally missed a dubious start but even though I knew I had no chance of taking the lead, Cameron, Frenchman Dimitri Coste and I went toe to toe until the bike changes after five laps. I finally felt I’d figured out how to ride this most American of bikes, but once Vanderkooi took over my time on board was done. Vanderkooi hadn’t even sat on the Hooligan before he was chucking it sideways, proving his incredible level of skill over mine. The bike swap was botched and we ended stone motherless last, but, what the hell, it was all good.
What was even better than all good was the reception the Hooligans got at the end of the meeting. The Indians never had any less than two deep around them the entire time, and even legends like the best MotoGP commentators on the face of the planet, Keith Hewan and Julian Ryder, popped in for a proper chat about the bikes. The buzz about these most un-dirt tracker machines is something to experience as they positively thunder around the ovals thanks to that gorgeous RSD exhaust, and with riders as skilled as Sands and Brewer at the controls, they are a sight to see (not necessarily in my clumsy hands, but I held my own by the end).
The Super Hooligans tour has stopped for the time being, so if you missed them at Portland, Daytona, Austin, Del Mar, or Las Vegas, bummer, dude. But don’t worry, Hooligan racing is only in its infancy so there’ll be plenty of action on dirt tracks around the country in the coming months and years.
Cheers to Polaris and Roland Sands for indulging me on that memorable Friday night in Downtown Austin.
Say "yes" first, ask questions later.
Gazing into the distance, imaging the glory that will unfold.
Come on, Rennie, get moving! The first laps were not pretty.
Don't miss the start, Rennie! Oh, bummer, too late.
That's better! Rennie gets on the gas and the Indian responds like a real dirt tracker.
The legend Dave Aldana made a hugely popular race appearance.
The legend, Dave Aldana resting between sessions.
Robinson's Scrambler, with freshly angle grinded tank.
Rennie grills AMA gun Tler O'Hara for some sweet race lines.
Dimitri Coste was all over the place but still extremely fast.
Later in the night and the style and speed is coming to Rennie and the Indian.
One happy clown! Robinsoon rode like a beast in the A-final.
Rennie is happier about being paired with Jared Vanderkooi than Vanderkooi is with being paired with Rennie.
What a night - certainly one Rennie will remember for a long time.