Back to Racing After 35 Years

Retired research physicist Bob McMillen takes up vintage motocross racing—and wins

If the current economy hasn't forever banished the concept from their minds, for most folks retirement means slowing down, sitting in rocking chairs, baby-sitting the grandkids, and puttering around the yard. Retired research physicist Bob McMillen is spending his golden years doing something a little faster.

Unlike some guys who ride motorcycles their whole lives and continue into retirement, the Knoxville native raced a little bit in the late '60s, put his bikes away for 35 years, and then picked them up again in retirement. He went racing in American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association (AHRMA) motocross. And won.

In the middle-1960s, Bob raced a Kawasaki Big Horn (his "junk bike") in local motocross events around Knoxville. "It wasn't designed for racing. It didn't have a racing engine; it didn't have a racing frame. At best it was an enduro bike." Then in 1968 or 1969 he bought one of the first Husqvarnas in town: "There wasn't a dealer in town. It came from a guy in Hendersonville, North Carolina." The Husky "changed me from a middle- or back-of-the pack runner to the top three. Usually you can say it's the rider, but in this case it wasn't."

The sport of motocross was relatively new in the U.S., having been introduced from Europe, and the Swedish Husqvarnas were state of the art. Of course, a state-of-the-art motocross bike in 1968 was a piston-port two-stroke single with one Bing round-slide carburetor, drum brakes, and four inches of suspension travel. Bob raced on the weekends and practiced three days a week, never really having to do any work on the bike. "You didn't have to do anything except maybe put a ring in it. I had it bored one time."

Bob put the Husky away after three or four years, stashed in his mom's basement. "I quit all that when I started a little business, and I didn't have time to race," he explains. The Husky stayed there for 30 years. Much later, after retiring in 2003 or so, and after hanging around with some guys who all rode, Bob took up street riding and picked up an old BMW K-bike ("It rode like a damn truck.") and later a Suzuki SV650, which was better, but still not as nimble as a dirt bike.

But an old friend from Knoxville, who had exposed Bob to motorcycles before he took up riding himself, called Bob in 2004 or so and asked to meet him at the Time Warp Tea Room after seeing a bit about the place on television. Bob "Rabbit" Adams, who had moved away to Kansas and then to Kentucky, showed Bob his AHRMA jacket and explained that he was a national champion in vintage motocross (in class). "Ya gotta do it," Adams told him. The seed was planted.

It took a while before Bob bit the bullet, but a year after that conversation he went and dragged the old Husky out of his mom's basement—and with some fresh gas, it started. "It didn't run too good, but after a few tanks of gas it got better," he says. Bob raced that Husky (a 400) a couple of times, "but I always felt happier on a 250," so he sold the 400 and got a 250. Bob gathered a few additional Huskies on the cheap: "None of them cost more than maybe $1,200." He has since amassed 10 Huskies, "But only about four of them run." Bob raced 250 Huskies in 2006 and 2007, winning the AHRMA Vintage 60-plus Novice class in 2007. Bob also finished second in the post-vintage 60-plus Novice class. Bikes eligible for post-vintage still have twin shocks, but more suspension travel. Gas prices put a crimp in the travel budget for 2008, so Bob competed in fewer events last year, this time in the Intermediate class. He also had some mechanical failures, and ended up ninth in vintage 60-plus and eighth in post-vintage. He doesn't anticipate hitting a full complement of rounds in 2009 either.

Bob borrowed his friend's Czechoslovakian CZ motocross bikes for a couple of races, and Bob liked the way they felt, and won on them. "You gotta go with what's working," he says, and so last year he picked up a couple of CZs and raced them last year and will be racing them this year.

Practice time is tough to come by these days, according to Bob, which hurts his ability to keep in top form. A lot of those ex-champions have farms or land or access to private tracks to practice on whenever they want. There's very little public land available anymore. "I've been out to Joe Terry's farm a few times to practice, but even that's all the way in Lenoir City."

Bob also touched on the risk factors of motocross riding after age 60: "Guys have heart attacks." A rider he knew fairly well "the old Husky dude," died at an event a few minutes after talking to Bob. "But I think my heart is okay," he insists. A street accident a few years ago prompted Bob's wife Ingrid to ask him to give up street riding, and the SV has been sold and the K-bike is for sale. "But I picked up a trials bike (a 1974 Suzuki 250) and I want to try that." Many of the AHRMA motocross events are held in conjunction with trials competitions, so Bob will be competing in two disciplines when he can in 2009.

Unlike a lot of motorcycle racers, Bob doesn't have motorcycle iconography all over his house (although he did wear a faded AHRMA shirt for this interview). He doesn't spend all his free time working on bikes, reading motorcycle magazines, or hanging out with bikers. He rows with the Knoxville Rowing Association, rides bicycles, and recently began taking spinning classes, which benefitted his racing with improved stamina. "Motocross is pretty strenuous, even if it's only for 10 minutes."

But it's not just about winning races: "Going and camping out, and hanging out with these guys, it's really a nice atmosphere," Bob explains. "I get to race with my boyhood heroes, ex-world champions, ex-national champions: Dave Aldana, Jeff Smith, Brad Lackey, Barry Higgins, all these guys. I've been in heats with them, but generally they ride in a different (Expert) class. There's nothing cooler to line up with Dave Aldana on one side and Brad Lackey on the other. Damn, you can look as good as they do, until you come to the first corner."