Backmarker: Flat Track’s Willie McCoy

June 7, 2012
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
Contributing Editor|Articles|Articles RSS

In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

Wausau Harley-Davidsons Willie McCoy didnt realize how narrow his victory was until he saw this photo.
Wausau Harley-Davidson’s Willie McCoy didn’t realize how narrow his victory was until he saw this photo.

Last fall, when AMA Pro Racing’s Springfield Mile was won by Willie McCoy – his first Grand National win ever – I did a double-take. At the time, the only ‘Willie McCoy’ whose name rang a bell was the character in the Jim Croce song, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim.”

Croce released that song in 1972, and I wondered if Willie McCoy – the racer – had been named for Willie McCoy – the pool hustler. Then, a couple of weeks ago, McCoy won Springfield again. And again, I couldn’t get that song out of my head. If you’ve ever seen the Springfield Mile, you know that any rider who wins it is, in fact, a total badass and worthy of the lyric.

The Texan strung me along for quite a while when I finally caught up with him. He fibbed, enthusiastically, that his dad and Jim Croce had been good friends. Then, when I asked him how old he was, he deadpanned, “Seventeen.”

That would make for a real impressive age for that first Grand National win last September. But it would not be any more impressive than the truth, which is that he took his first win at 41.

I should have recognized him; McCoy’s a second-generation flat tracker and ex-GNC regular who was Chris Carr’s teammate when he first got sponsorship from Ford’s Quality-Checked used car operation. Still, it’s been years since Willie’s raced the whole series and his previous best result in a Grand National was second, way back in 1995. Nowadays, he’s something of a Mile specialist, because at his age he’d rather win with his head than his right wrist. He limits his schedule to a number of races that his XR750 (and family life, and job) can sustain.

Basically, his two-in-a-row Springfield record makes him a classic case of an overnight sensation, about 25 years in the making. His dad, Eddie McCoy, raced out of Ross Downs, back when riders from Freddie Spencer to Terry Poovey were learning their lines on that Texas track. When Willie and his brother started racing seriously, his dad shifted his emphasis to supporting the kids’ efforts.

In recent years, Willie’s most important mentor has been Kenny Tolbert, who was Chris Carr’s mechanic for years. (Tolbert is now running his own team on – cue gasps – Kawasakis. I’ve been trying to hook up with Kenny to talk to him about his changing brand allegiance, which you’ll probably read about in some future Backmarker.)

“Kenny’s one of my best friends,” McCoy told me. “We built my first Harley in ’91, and for years I worked on my bikes at his shop. He’d be on one bench, building Chris Carr’s motor, and I’d be on the other bench building mine. Every now and then, he’d look over my shoulder and make sure I was doing it right.”

You have to understand that the XR750 is a very primitive motor. It’s been years since Harley-Davidson’s sold a complete one; if you want one now, you take possession of a bunch of very raw parts. And while it’s not too hard to assemble those parts, assembling them into a competitive package with even marginal reliability or longevity requires a lot of very arcane hot-rodding knowledge. If you had to pick anyone in the entire world to apprentice under, it would probably be Kenny Tolbert or one of, literally, a handful of his peers.

“It’s unbelievable what he’s done for me. I could never afford it; I don’t even know if you could put a price on it,” Willie told me. “Sometimes we’d be out there at three or four in the morning and we’d sit and talk. I’d say I was thinking about trying something, and he’d say, ‘Well, I tried that and it didn’t work, but why don’t you try…’ and he’d confide in me.”

Responsibility for his wife and kids weighs on the racers mind  but McCoy believes his fate is in anothers hands.
Responsibility for his wife and kids weighs on the racer’s mind, but McCoy believes his fate is in another’s hands.

Another advantage McCoy’s got is, he’s a member of the Waco Eagles Motorcycle Club. The club has its own half-mile practice track, so he can put in laps any time he wants. Before Springfield, he was turning laps there with Brandon Robinson and Brad Baker (on Kawasakis tuned by Bill Werner and Tolbert). Together, the two Kawi riders add up to McCoy’s age.

Although the Waco track is often in rough shape when he’s just cutting practice laps, it’s not a typical half-mile. They had a race on it this spring and it formed a wide, smooth groove that allowed him to get a good setup that he took into Springfield.

“The day [of his most recent win at Springfield] started out okay.” he recalled. “I wanted to get fast time, but I was eighth. I won my heat, and we were second fast time to Bryan Smith. I didn’t have that fire and burn of excitement that I usually have, but I remembered that last year I was just relaxed and calm all day, so I thought, just stay that way.”

In the Main, McCoy fell back in the first few laps, lost the lead pack’s draft. He spent a long time getting back up to the lead group. Those guys weren’t passing each other much, they were just staying in line, which made it hard for him to work his way to the front. “If you draft past somebody, you can’t pull back in line, because there’s another bike there.” He said that laconically, but when you actually see a drafting battle on a fast mile track, there’s nothing laconic about it. In roadracing, people describe gaps that are actually 20 or 30 feet as ‘a bike length’ but at Springfield, they’re literally nose-to-tail at a buck-thirty or more.

Bit by bit, though, as the riders in front of him made tiny mistakes, McCoy worked his way into second, behind Bryan Smith. “I wanted to pass him down the back straight,” McCoy told me, “but we got off on top of the groove and my tire spun up a bit.”

(Smith, who has been a Harley rider most of his life raced a Kawasaki for Bill Werner in 2010, then went back to his own Harley last year, and this year is riding a Kawi built by Rick Howerton and owned by Skip Eaken. That thing is flat fast and IMHO the sexiest motorcycle anywhere. Again, that’s a story for another Backmarker. Meanwhile, back to that last lap…)

“On the white flag lap, he got away from me a bit on the back straight and now I’m, like, ‘Holy Crap, if I want to win this thing I’ve got to catch up to him,” Willie told me. “I ran it into three as hard as I could and the bike hooked up great and I caught him on the way into four and about that time he decided to go low. Jake [Johnson] followed me and I thought I’d won it. I didn’t realize how close Jake was until I saw the pictures!”

Willie McCoy took the win in the Springfield Mile.
Willie McCoy taking his well earned victory lap at the Springfield Mile with his wife and two daughters.

McCoy took a popular victory lap with his wife on the seat behind him holding his younger daughter, and his older girl sitting on the tank.

The first Mile of 2012 was a Harley-Davidson 1-2, but there’s definitely a shift towards metric bikes, in particular the Kawasaki ‘650’ Twin. I asked Willie if he’d consider making the switch. “I might if I was 15 or 20 years younger,” he told me. “It’s great that Kawasaki’s involved, and we’ve got Ducatis and Suzukis out there. But Harley-Davidson of Wasau has been supporting me since 1988. There’s no way I’d ever bail out on them; they’re not just a sponsor, they’re family.”

Mile tracks are dangerous places, and a lot of racers hang up their steel shoes when they have kids. Inevitably, I asked him about retiring. “After I won [last fall] people asked me, ‘Are you going to quit now?’” he said. “The thing about winning was, if I was going to quit it would be easier. But I’m not ready to retire; my wife’s still pretty supportive. I have two young girls and I pray every day that I’ll get to see them grown up.”

“I believe that my life’s already planned,” he told me. “If I’m supposed to get killed racing motorcycles then that’s what’s going to happen. I hope it doesn’t happen, but you can’t worry about that.”

If anything, his second win last month has given him a new goal: Now, he wants to prove that he isn’t just a Springfield specialist. His next target is the Indy Mile, which is a very different deal to win than Springfield. Whereas Springfield is, in flat tracker geometry, a ‘perfect’ oval with two 1/4-mile straights, and a pair of symmetrical 1/4-mile turns, Indy’s more of a paperclip shape. It’s got tighter turns that you have to ride more like a half-mile, using the cushion.

Between now and the MotoGP weekend at Indy, you can be sure that Willie McCoy will be putting in lots of laps on his home track in Waco. And while field will be stacked with young hustlers who’d also love to win in front of the biggest motorcycle industry audience of the season, I wouldn’t write off the 42 year-old.

My advice to the promoter is, make sure you’ve got that Jim Croce song to play over the loud speaker at the end of the night.

Willie McCoy may trust Providence when it comes to his fate on the Grand National ‘Mile’ tracks, but my friends at Lloyd Brothers Motorsports are also looking out for him. David and Mike Lloyd are raffling off a cool ’09 Buell. All of the money raised is used to supply Airfence, like the stuff that prevented Nichole Cheza, Brandon Robinson, Sammy Halbert and Robbie Pearson from suffering much worse injuries in this first lap melee. Your donation is tax-deductible. You can buy tickets at any Grand National race, but why wait? Go to Lloyd Brothers Motorsports and make a donation right now.

Facebook comments