Moto man

| February 01, 2006

The more primitive the road, the better for this trucker.

Imagine a trucker who just loves a road full of hairpins, S-bends and high-speed curves, sudden drops and ridiculously steep inclines, narrow bridges at the end of fast, tight downhill turns – all taken at high speed with lots of wheel spinning, sliding, flying dirt and mud.

Not me, you say?

Select 1 Transport driver Kurt DeWitt loves it so much he’s turning his back yard into just such a road – a race track. DeWitt, a lifelong motocross fanatic, plans a course that will challenge the best two-wheel riders around Urbana, Ohio., but will also let his racing children, Sarah, 5, and Noah, 1 1/2, enjoy the ride.

DeWitt, 42, and his younger brother David began racing motocross motorcycles when they were youngsters. Their father got them into the sport.

“He’d always been around motorcycles,” DeWitt says. “I got into it really young. I remember everything I wore as a kid had to have something to do with a motorcycle on it. Dad and Mom and my brother and me would all load up and go to races. It was a family thing. It took so much of our time during the week – practicing, working on the bikes – and racing on weekends, it kept us boys out of trouble.”

DeWitt did well, rising through the ranks to race at a semi-pro level before leaving the competitive side of the sport. “But my little brother was better at it than me; he won state titles. He still races.”

Motocross riders race on closed dirt tracks anywhere from a 1/2 mile to 2 miles long and from 16 feet to 40 feet wide. The courses are irregular, with both left and right hand turns, and jumps and other problems that force riders into gear changes and tactical decisions. Supercross is a version of the sport that can fill covered stadiums with 60,000-plus people, who watch pros throw their bikes into spectacular racing and jumping.

“Supercross,” says DeWitt admiringly, “now those guys are crazy.”

DeWitt still loves to ride. “When I come home after two or three weeks on the road, I go right into the garage, put on my stuff and go riding.”

DeWitt even worked as a motorcycle mechanic for several years. But motorcycle mechanic work was seasonal and didn’t pay as much as he wanted. So he turned to trucking.

DeWitt hauls high-end new and exotic cars, Select 1 Transport’s specialty, usually from the Midwest to California and Arizona and back again in a Kenworth T600 with a 120-inch sleeper. Most of his cars are destined for the test track as auto makers try to get their new models ready for the market. DeWitt is an eight-year Select 1 veteran, a job he started after a decade with United Van Lines hauling household goods.

Hot cars are his profession, but motocross is still his passion. And DeWitt is training a new generation in the love of motocross. He bought his son Noah a 50cc bike. He figures by the time the boy is 3 he’ll be riding it around the track in the back yard. In the meantime, Noah knows his toys – it has to be a motorcycle figure of some sort. DeWitt’s daughter Sarah is a girl who knows her own mind. She opted for a four-wheeler rather than two. Wife Mindi, DeWitt says, likes to ride but prefers to take care of the bruises and Band-Aid side of the sport.

The new track will wind around and across about 10 of DeWitt’s 17 acres of “back yard” and be about 1.5 miles long.

“I started building it, and we were racing on it last year. But it was pretty flat. I didn’t have enough dirt for good jumps and other features I needed to build,” DeWitt says. “But now I have a neighbor across the street that is digging a pond, and I have plenty of dirt. Pro jumps are almost straight up, and you’ll see the Supercross guys on TV get enough height to clear two or three jumps at a time. But you can get yourself in all sorts of trouble if you try to clear that many jumps and don’t have enough distance. My brother wants to see more pro-style jumps, but I want to make sure the kids can use it as well as us. We’ll work something out.”

DeWitt is planning to build a bridge on the track that joins two high mounds. He, David and expert friends will arrive at it running full speed, turn into it and jump. Their wheels won’t touch the bridge but fly over it, land on the other side, and then they’ll make a hard turn and ride back under the bridge. But the kids will be able to roll over the bridge at their own chosen speed.

While a motocross bike won’t fit into his trailer, a racing bicycle will. DeWitt got into the sport when he was working on motorcycles as a way to keep in shape. “In winter I’d go down to Florida and race,” he says. “I got to be pretty good at it.”

Now he brings along his racing bike on every run and finds time to ride it for at least a few hours each week.

“I pretty much know every area I’m going to stop at. A lot of truckstops are out in the country, and there’s a country road running by and I’ll use those,” he says. “It seems like when you drive for a living, the first thing to go is your legs. Riding not only helps me stay fit, it helps me keep leg strength.”

The DeWitt Equipment
Safety is a prime concern for Kurt DeWitt. When he (or any of his family) rides, he wears a chest protector, helmet, goggles, gloves and racing pants, and as a concession to age, knee braces. Over the years, he says, knees can get torn up in this sport by hitting the ground or taking the punishment from hitting ruts and holes or being a pivot when you have to put your foot on the ground.

DeWitt’s main machine is a Yamaha YZ 450F (one of the greats in the sport), but he also rides a Yamaha YZ 125 (another hot machine). He also has a Yamaha PW50, a bike used to get beginners into the sport. He bought it for his brother’s son, but it came back when the boy outgrew it. Also in the stable is a Yamaha YFM 50, a four-wheeler to accommodate Sarah’s talents, and a Yamaha TTR, a smaller dirt bike.

DeWitt owns two racing bicycles. A Cannondale with an aluminum frame goes with him on the road in his trailer because it is a good, but relatively inexpensive racing bicycle. At home he keeps a high-end Lotus SLX for the roads around Urbana.


A Magic Carpet Made of Steel
Cross-country truckers roll over famous rails

Cross-country truckers constantly roll over some of the most famous railroad tracks in the country, steel rails that carry the train that rolls through the heartland of American music, places where the blues, jazz and rock and roll were born and began to grow. If you roll all 48, you’ll constantly run back and forth over (or maybe under) the tracks that carry perhaps the most storied American train that’s still running. She’s the City of New Orleans, the legendary train celebrated into a hit song by writer Steve Goodman and singer Arlo Guthrie, and run up the charts a second time by Willie Nelson.

Music also gave us other favorite trains you might imagine out your windshield as you cross their steel road. Out in California you might run along beside the train that Johnny Cash so famously cites in “Folsom Prison Blues,” the one that “keeps on rolling” down to San Antonio. In the south you might have to wait at a crossing that once let the “Orange Blossom Special” roar by. In the Midwest there are the lines that once carried the famous “Rock Island Line” trains, and in the Midwest and the East you might hear the ghost whistle of Roy Acuff’s “Wabash Cannonball.”

Unlike most of these other favorites, the City of New Orleans still runs, recently getting back into New Orleans after having to stop short when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Delta. Arlo Guthrie and some of his musician friends actually rode the train (Guthrie’s first time) in December, performing at stops along the way as a fundraiser for New Orleans’ musicians who lost instruments, homes and jobs in Katrina.

The train runs more than 900 miles between New Orleans and Chicago. Before Amtrak’s formation in 1971, the train was operated by the Illinois Central Railroad, later the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad, along basically the same route. The original train ran only during the day, operating with just coaches and a club car starting in 1947. It was a cheaper version of a luxury train that ran through the night, the Panama Limited, which began service in 1911 and was so named because it connected to steamships that began running from New Orleans to Panama in that year.

The original City of New Orleans stopped running in 1971, but in 1981 Amtrak changed the Panama Limited’s name to City of New Orleans because of the song’s massive popularity. Today the run takes about 19 hours.

But long before these changes, the original train helped spread the jazz that came to life in New Orleans and the blues native to the Mississippi Delta. Because the daytime fares were affordable, the daytime train became a central figure in the movement of poor black families from the south, especially the Mississippi Delta, heading north looking for work and a better life. Chicago was the favorite destination. And they took the music along on the ride to their new communities.

Some of America’s most famous musicians are synonymous with stops the train makes. In New Orleans think of Louis Armstrong and his powerhouse style that took jazz and gave it the power to grow and develop until it not only went to Chicago but around the world. As the train rolls out of the Big Easy toward Memphis, it runs through the land of Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton and Son House, the first legends of the blues.

In Memphis, Beale Street lays claim to being the place where the blues came of age and begat rock and roll. The music began to lose it country simplicity and pack people into places all over town to hear the new music on what was then Beale Avenue. And to enjoy everything legal and illegal that the bustling city had to offer. It was there, in that town, which at the turn of the 20th century had a lively cosmopolitan population, that some of the first modern blues songs were written, with the legendary W.C. Handy leading the way. Late in April comes the Beale Street Blues Festival, so if you’re crossing the tracks about that time, maybe you can find a layover in your log book to take in one of America’s most American music festivals.

It is Memphis that Elvis Presley, a Tupelo, Miss., native, came to call home. In 1954, Presley recorded at Sam Phillips’ Sun studios in Memphis, the regional hit “That’s All Right, Mama,” an old blues song. At the same time the studio brought out the first work of Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins. Rock and roll was on the way and here to stay.

The rock and roll of Memphis exploded and ran north to Chicago, too, until that city was alive with all of America’s own music.

When poor blacks from the South headed north in search of jobs a hundred years ago, they took the simple blues of guitar and harmonica with them. In Chicago the blues that began cooking in Memphis were urbanized, and drums, bass guitars and pianos became part of the music. Saxophones and electricity came along and added to the changes. Later still came the dance beats that help popularize the city’s “electric blues” scene. Today every blues aficionado knows the electric blues and the Chicago sound that started so far away, so long ago, carried North on the rails by the City of New Orleans.

Where You Could Meet the City of New Orleans
When you run from coast to coast, you’ll roll through some of the towns that the City of New Orleans comes to and across her tracks.
Chicago, Ill.
Homewood, Ill. (cross tracks, of course, on I-80 )
Kankakee, Ill.
Champaign, Ill. (cross tracks on
I-74 where I-72 ends into it)
Mattoon, Ill.
Effingham, Ill. (cross tracks on I-70 where I-57 crosses)
Centralia, Ill.
Carbondale, Ill.
Fulton, Ky.
Newbern, Tenn.
Memphis, Tenn. (cross tracks, of course, on I-40)
Greenwood, Miss.
Yazoo City, Miss.
Jackson, Miss. (cross tracks on I-20)
Hazlehurst, Miss.
Brookhaven, Miss.
McComb, Miss.
Hammond, La. (cross tracks on I-12, the northern loop around lake Pontchartrain off I-10)
New Orleans, La. (cross tracks here, of course, on I-10)
If you get the chance to do a run between Chicago and New Orleans, you can reach a lot more of the legendary train’s stops. I-57 will run you past all the Illinois stops. I-55 will run you through Memphis. Greenwood and Yazoo City, Miss., are on state highway 49, but Jackson is back on the big road, I-55, as are Hazlehurst, Brookhaven and McComb. Hammond, La., is also on I-55, and if you want to find the beginning of this famous road, you’ll find it in downtown New Orleans.

For a close look at the train’s route and some of the highlights of each stop, go to www.amtrak.com and especially try this site.

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