At 8:30 AM on a Saturday in April, the heartier members of the Peoria Motorcycle Club have been hard at work since sunup. The club's biggest race is four months away, meaning the mostly over-50 bike fiends here have four months' worth of fences to repair, drainage ditches to dig, and bumpy terrain to contour. Chris Tucker, a towering, tattooed man who was a wall of muscle until he developed Parkinson's disease three years ago at the age of 66, is sweeping up dead ladybugs in the club's VIP lodge, a wood-and-brick structure built into a hillside. Brad Van De Veer, at 40 a youngster in this group, is obscured inside the cab of a bulldozer, with which he nimbly sculpts a hillside.
On their 80-acre grounds near Peoria, Illinois, the club members host a race each year called the Peoria Grand National Tourist Trophy (TT). The Peoria TT has the largest attendance of any professional dirt-track racing event in the country, drawing about 16,000 fans in one day, and is one of the last living examples of motorcycle racing as it was done before World War II, on a homemade dirt track with open seating in the middle of rolling farmland.
"It's some of the rawest, most beautiful racing you can still see in motorcycling in this country today," says Todd Erickson, a member of the BMW Club of Madison, Wisconsin, and an avid racer. He's attended the Peoria race for the past four years.
The Peoria TT is one of about 80 annual races around the country sanctioned by the American Motorcyclist Association, which has six distinct series: Motocross, Superbike, Flat Track, Supermoto, Supercross, and Hillclimb. (The AMA is the leading sanctioning body for professional racing in the United States.) Racers usually stick with one series or another, since each is highly specialized, and earn points for each Grand National win in their particular style of racing; those wins determine their national ranking. The Peoria race is a flat track, or dirt-track race, which is the least profitable kind because the big motorcycle manufacturers--Yamaha, Suzuki, KTM--tend not to sponsor races that use customized old-school bikes like the ones ridden there. About 45 racers compete in the Peoria TT each year; that number is winnowed through "scratch heats" to 16 in the final.
Within flat track racing there are four divisions: short track, half-mile, one mile, and TT. The Tourist Trophy style got its start in Britain at the turn of the 20th century, when motorcycle clubs started putting on backroad and off-road races to bring in tourists and raise money. Only two professional flat track races in the United States are TT; Peoria is one. The other, which has been around since 2001, is in Springfield, "but it's just a little hill put in the middle of a flat track race," says Val Schonberger, a resident of Chillicothe--15 miles north of Peoria--who hosts an annual party during race weekend. Each year Schonberger has 20 to 25 out-of-towners sleeping on the floor of his three-bedroom house--his record is 52 guests, three years ago.
At most professional races the crowd is far removed from the action, with high fences and 100 yards or so of grass or asphalt between the grandstands and the race. In Peoria there are no grandstands and all that separates racer from spectator is a strip of grass and a chain-link fence. Thanks to a pedway that cuts under the track, fans can even watch the race from inside the track.
"You're very close to the action," says Roland Thompson, who has traveled to Peoria from Madison to see the race seven or eight times in the past 15 years. "If you're not careful, the dirt that spins off the tires will end up in your beer cup."
The Peoria TT is the only professional motorcycle race in the country that's hosted by a small, not-for-profit motorcycle club, which keeps admission and food prices down and allows spectators to bring their own picnic lunches and soda. The other races are put on by for-profit promoters, like Clear Channel or the Illinois Motorcycle Dealers Association, and held at rented tracks or arenas that are meant for other purposes like county fairs, auto racing, or rock concerts. Most places charge major-amusement-park prices and tack on an additional $20 to $30 per ticket for a "paddock" pass and the privilege of mingling with the riders and their crews. In Peoria admission runs about $40 for a family of four and there is no paddock; the riders sprawl out on lawn chairs between heats or work on their bikes amid tube-top- and bandanna-wearing fans. "You don't feel like you're looking into a special country club of extremely high-paid people," says Erickson.
Erwin "Smitty" Smith, the owner of Tri-City Motorcycle Shop in Rock Island, has attended every Peoria TT since the first in 1947. He considers Peoria the best track in the country for its masterful layout and the attention to detail of the workingmen who maintain it.
Bert Sanders, a strapping, avuncular 71-year-old who's been a member of the Peoria Motorcycle Club for 35 years, and Tucker, a retired cement finisher, built the outbuildings for concession, the press, and VIPs and poured concrete for service roads on the club grounds.
"We built the box culvert under the straightaway there," Sanders says proudly, pointing out a length of track that runs, bridgelike, over a creek. "It took most of the winter. We'd be down in that mud, with the panels you use to pour concrete that we borrowed from the company Chris worked for."
"Every year they've improved on it," Smith says. "They work constantly on it. That's a big operation to keep that thing in the shape it's in."
Though it takes a full crew to put it on each year, the race is really the legacy of a singleminded fellow named Bruce Walters. A scrappy family man known for riding cross-country in sleet, snow, and mud with nothing but newspapers as leg armor and his wife and child in the sidecar, Walters took over Peoria's Harley-Davidson dealership in 1932 after running a smaller dealership in Galesburg. At the time, the Peoria Motorcycle Club was a loose group of eight guys who liked to drink beer, barbecue, and talk about their bikes. Walters, who'd competed in races around the country, signed on, and things changed. He talked up the club to the millworkers and factory foremen that came to his shop, and membership grew enough that in 1935 he rented land for a track and the club hosted an Illinois State Championship race, part of the AMA professional circuit. The club's first Turkey Run was also held that year, a backwoods "enduro" race--in which racers have to average 24 miles an hour on rough terrain--followed by a pre-Thanksgiving dinner prepared by the club's Ladies' Auxiliary.
"They awarded a tom turkey for first, a hen turkey for second, and a chicken for third," recalls Sanders, the club's informal historian. "And these were live. Can you imagine somebody taking a tom turkey home on a motorcycle? The only thing they could do was tie it on back or come back and get it later."
Four years later, Walters bought the current club grounds off Route 116, making the payments out of his own pocket and eventually selling the land back to the club when it was prosperous enough to pay its own bills. (Membership was--and still is--limited to 100 men.) He also laid out the track, the basic design of which has changed little over the years--a five-eighth-mile elongated oval of packed dirt with a 12-foot hill and a couple of hairpin turns.
In 1941 the club hosted its first race on the new track; six years later they held their first Grand National TT. Annual club dues were only $1 in the beginning--they've since gone up to a whopping $5--but members paid in sweat equity. Sanders spent his two weeks' vacation from the steel mill each year toiling on the grounds. "Back when we started, we had the old grass whips," he recalls. "Then the Weed Eaters come along--boy, that was like hot butter then."
In 1980, at a cookout hosted by some club members, Bruce Walters died. "He had a plateful of food and he just collapsed," says Sanders. "What a way to go." Walters's widow, Gladys, or "Glady" to her friends, worked the food stand at the track; the sign still reads glady's stand.
The year Bruce died, club members insisted that Gladys sit in a place of honor up in the VIP stand during the race. But she missed hearing the motors below, so the next year she was back at her station selling PMC burgers, sandwiches of loose ground meat prepared by the Ladies' Auxiliary.
Gladys died about five years ago but, true to her memory, the Ladies' Auxiliary sold 2,500 PMC burgers last year in two hours. In the old days, they stored the ground meat for the burgers in ten-gallon milk cans, but then the race got so big the Peoria Health Department took an interest, so the milk cans have since been replaced with metal pans.
"We never did poison anybody," says Sanders.
Besides the Grand National and other races, the club has hosted five funerals and a wedding. "I just got a phone call from a wife and son who want the father's ashes spread around the track," says club president Melvin Dearing. "They requested to be on the jump."
The TT starts at 2 PM and ends two to two and a half hours later, so the riders who've come long distances can get home before dark, according to Sanders, who speaks proudly of the club's reputation for punctuality. The winner goes home with a $6,500 purse--paltry by AMA racing standards, where the top award is $100,000 (for the Maxxis U.S. Open, an October arenacross race held in Las Vegas). Each year things get started with a color-guard bike procession by the Motor Maids, a group of female bikers who in their heyday in the 1940s pledged to barrel through the muck and mire like men, but not without applying fresh lipstick first.
Sanders's wife, Pauline, has been in the Ladies' Auxiliary for 40 nonconsecutive years. She missed one year, 1977, when she divorced her first husband, also a club member. Club rules state that after a divorce, the wife has to leave the club and the husband can stay. But when Pauline married Bert in 1978, she was back in.
A few men have been kicked out over the years for excessive laziness. "We've got a few that were voted down because of the fact they didn't do nothing for two years, so why keep 'em?" says Sanders. "We don't need freeloading, we need labor." New members must own a motorcycle in operating condition, be sponsored by a full-fledged club member, and work a minimum of 24 hours a year at the track.
The work ethic has paid off. Each year the Peoria Motorcycle Club makes $180,000 to $200,000 on the Grand National, most of which goes toward maintaining the track and clubhouse. They are not the oldest or the largest motorcycle club in the country. But they are very possibly the richest, because hosting one Grand National a year brings in much bigger money than a year's worth of the small-time amateur races that other clubs host. All the dough comes in handy when the average age of your members is 62. If you can't do the heavy lifting anymore, you've got plenty of money to hire someone.
"As we get older, we'll con-tract it out more," says Lee Patridge, a 66-year-old club member and retired diver for the Army Corps of Engineers. "That's why it will survive."
"It's not going to die with us," adds Sanders. "It's too big to die."
Grand National Festival Weekend in Peoria begins on Friday, August 19, along the riverfront, with live bands, a hog roast, a swap meet, and an antique and custom motorcycle show. Gates open at 8 AM on race day, Sunday, August 21. Practice begins at 10 AM; the race starts at 2 PM. The Hotel Pere Marquette (309-637-6500) offers a special TT rate. Other places to stay include the Radisson Hotel (309-673-8040), Randolph Terrace Historic Bed & Breakfast (877-264-8266), and the Stoney Creek Inn (800-659-2220). The official TT campsite is Leisure Oaks Park in Bartonville (309-697-4871).
Peoria Grand National Tourist Trophy
When: Sun 8/21, 2 PM
Where: PMC Race Park, 605 Cameron Lane, off Route 116, Bartonville, IL
Price: $15 in advance, $20 at the gate, children under 12 free with an adult
Info: 309-697-4871 or email@example.com
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Laura Putre.