LOUDON, New Hampshire — Motorcycle engines buzzed and rumbled, impatient, behind the painted starting line stretched across a patch of scorched pavement. Anticipation and gasoline fumes permeated the atmosphere.
Then, a sudden flash of color. The green flag flapped, flying through the glaring June sunshine.
They were off.
Throttles twisted. Clutches popped. The pack of hungry bikes, eager for asphalt, shot down the front stretch toward the first turn.
Eleven curves and one hill later, they all came thundering back around the straightaway in a blur of helmets, leather and hammering pistons. Some bikes screamed past at more than 100 mph.
After eight laps around the one-and-a-half mile circuit, the checkered flag came down, and the fastest rider was crowned victorious.
The scene repeated itself many times over the weekend as the United States Classic Racing Association held the North America Vintage Road Racing Championships at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway as part of the 99th edition of Laconia Bike Week.
The almost annual, week-long motorcycle rally was first held in Laconia in 1916 and racing — both formal and informal — has always been part of the festivities. From 1934 until 2001, it even hosted one of the most prestigious races on the national stage. But over the past few decades, the festival has morphed into a mostly commercial spectacle in downtown Laconia, featuring endless stalls of Harley-Davidson tchotchkes, black T-shirts and anti-Joe Biden bumper stickers.
Amid that rowdy lakeside scene of bars and rubber burnouts, the motorcycle races, still held all week in Loudon, a half hour south of Laconia’s main drag, have faded in prominence.
Clockwise from left: A knob atop a gas tank mounted hand shifter celebrates a long-ago rally on a motorcycle at a vintage race meet in Loudon, New Hampshire, on Sunday, June 12, 2022; A pair of gloves lay beside a 1970s Honda motorcycle; An exhaust pipe swoops down the side of an antique, single-cylinder Vincent motorcycle. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
But for some, like the nearly 100 vintage racers who gathered on Saturday and Sunday, testing their metal machines and human skills, it’s still all about who can get to the finish line first.
Meet some of the Mainers who were in on the action.
Clockwise from left: Ray Saperstein stands by his motorcycle at a vintage race meet in Loudon, New Hampshire, on Sunday, June 12, 2022; Saperstein adjusts his bike’s suspension in the paddock before a race; Saperstein of Cape Elizabeth (center) competes in a vintage motorcycle race. The race was part of Laconia Bike Week’s deep racing roots dating back more than a century. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
Saperstein, a Cape Elizabeth coronet player and historian, has ridden motorcycles all his adult life. Originally from Long Island, New York, he started racing vintage bikes in 2021 at age 56.
“Last year, I was a novice in the masters class,” Saperstein said. “I’m still learning the ropes.”
To race in the Vintage Racing Association, riders must be on bikes at least 25 years old. Some are much older, from the 1940s and ’50s. Race classes are based on a machine’s age, engine displacement and configuration.
The association hosts two-person sidecar races, too.
Over the weekend, Saperstein raced a mid-sized, two-cylinder Kawasaki Ninja, designed in the 1980s and popular with new racers for its simplicity and cost.
“It took me $3,000 to get started for the bike, helmet, gloves and leathers,” Saperstein said.
Winning is not that important for him. Saperstein said he’s mostly racing himself, trying to get better. Right now, he’s energized by simply getting to go as fast as he can.
For safety reasons, Saperstein has always tried to keep his road velocity in check, whether riding across town or across the country. But on the closed race course, without cars or errant deer to worry about, he allowed his inner speed demon to run wild.
“Now I can let it rip,” he said.
McGough is an experienced nonprofit director and artist from Gorham. She got into racing last year, alongside Saperstein. The two, who have known each other for years, race the same model bike.
They’re currently trying to settle on a team racing name. “Twinjas” is on the table, but they’re not sure yet.
McGough said she was drawn to racing because she loves motorcycles and the creative people the Vintage Association attracts.
“I always wanted to race, somewhere in my head,” she said. “I’ve always been taken by people who make their own bikes, their craftsmanship. There are a lot of artists and musicians here — and they’re all really nice.”
McGough also appreciates the classic motorcycle designs involved. She’s not interested in modern bikes. Her everyday ride is a blue, British-made, 1971 Triumph TR6R.
For her, there’s a kind of purity of thought and spirit in two-wheeled travel.
“You’re moving forward, thinking about the past, getting things together in your mind,” McGough said. “You have that feeling when you take off, that feeling of acceleration — it clears your mind and everything is easier, afterward.”
On the track, it’s much the same.
“When I’m racing, I’m in the moment,” McGough said. “There’s no mind garbage and that’s hard for me. There’s definitely some mind ninja stuff happening.”
Clockwise from left: Troy Hogg of Kennebunk gets suited up in his racing leathers with help from friend Jason Newman before a vintage motorcycle race in Loudon, New Hampshire, on Saturday, June 11, 2022. The race was part of Laconia Bike Week’s deep racing roots dating back more than a century; Hogg (left) and Mike Aberle of Falmouth compete in a vintage motorcycle race; Hogg smiles as he and Aberle commiserate after a race. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
Hogg rocketed around the track all weekend on a bright blue and yellow bike. The custom paint job, recently completed for him by students at the Sanford Regional Technical Center, was in honor of the Ukrainian flag.
A former active-duty Marine, Hogg doesn’t look his professed age of 59. In addition to racing motorcycles since the 1990s, he skis, surfs and competes in track events including the shot put.
“I like to stay active,” Hogg said. “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”
He’s a little more intense, and into the competition itself, than newcomers Saperstein and McGough.
“I love the adrenaline. It’s a big part of the fun,” Hogg said. “And if you ain’t having fun, don’t do it.”
His day job as a regional sales manager for a firm selling high-end scientific equipment is miles away from what he does on the track. Looking ahead to retirement, Hogg said he’d like to buy an RV and travel the country, racing at different tracks across the nation.
With classic bike racing, he doesn’t see any end to his competitive days.
“There’s guys out here in their 70s faster than me,” he said.
Clockwise from left: Mike Aberle of Falmouth (left) and Ray Saperstein of Cape Elizabeth laugh together after a vintage motorcycle race in Loudon, New Hampshire, on Saturday, June 11, 2022. The race was part of Laconia Bike Week’s deep racing roots dating back more than a century; Aberle (center) competes in a vintage motorcycle race; Aberle removes his helmet after a race. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
Aberle, who has a giant, explosive laugh, likes classic bikes because of their refreshing lack of modern doodads.
“I can do the work myself,” he said. “I don’t need a computer.”
Before getting into racing in 2015, Aberle thought of himself as a fast rider.
“Turns out I wasn’t so fast,” he said, laughing again. “But I was hooked as soon as I got on the track. You can go as fast as you can out here — you can’t do that on the street.”
Since then, the stone mason from Falmouth has been trying to get faster, and succeeding. On Sunday, he won a race, edging out the more experienced Hogg.
But there’s no bitterness.
After one race, Aberle strode to the next garage, where Hogg was stabled. Still in his racing leathers, an intense look on his face, someone not in the know might suspect trouble was brewing.
Instead, Aberle hugged Hogg and the two sweaty, 50-somethings recounted the race with smiles and wild, gesticulating arms.
“The people here rule,” Aberle said.
It’s not unusual to see a crowd of riders and mechanics gathered around someone’s balky machine, group-thinking the fix so everyone can have their shot on the race course.
“We don’t all see eye to eye on everything. We don’t talk about politics.” Aberle said, “But we all love motorcycles.”
Till next time
When the races wrapped for the weekend, riders and their supporters began pushing bikes onto trailers, vans and pickup truck beds.
At the awards ceremony there was no roaring crowd, no champagne and no press coverage except for a single photojournalist from Maine. Winning riders received plaques and handshakes from their fellow competitors.
Like the original, dirt road racers who gathered near Laconia in the years before WWI, the riders remained motivated by the thrill and camaraderie.
After the awards were handed out, the goodbyes began, with most saying, “See you in Canaan.”
The next two Vintage Association road races are scheduled for July in Canaan, New Hampshire. The fourth and final race meet of the year will take place in Loudon in September.
Saperstein, McGough, Hogg and Aberle all plan on being there.
“I’m going to get both my knees replaced, so I can do this forever,” Aberle said. “I went and had them both drained and stuffed full of Cortisone just so I could make this race. This is important. This is it.”