ROCKINGHAM — There’s nothing like a close brush with death to get the juices pumping.
Take it from Sam White, championship Nitro Harley rider from Chapin, South Carolina, who was the main attraction at this weekend’s 19th annual SmokeOut Rally: “It will change who you are, it’s hard to explain.”
“I want to make sure before (the end of) my lifetime that I have no regrets,” said the 63-years-young thrill junkie, who spent the hours before his final run of the weekend finely tuning his bike to take into account the character of the track and weather conditions.
Though he was the one doing 180-plus miles per hour, White wasn’t the only one pushing the limits. Pair after pair of riders challenged each other in friendly races. Those with more flare popped high-tilted wheelies and burned out for the ladies watching.
The most intense events were likely the mini-bike and go-cart races. Riders dressed up in custom costumes — the theme was “superheroes” — and hopped on rickety bikes and flimsy go-carts that only reached a top speed of about 20 mph but were the most dangerous vehicles on the track Saturday. The riders weaved around the track of six barrels, bumping and swerving into each other with two taking serious falls and a dozen others who had close calls.
Often when the races would start, at least one bike would lose some component of unknown function. During the sidecar race, the side seat of one broke its welds, dangerously close to disconnecting entirely. A vice grip was holding something together under the engine, but surprisingly, as the passenger in broken seat noted, “that wasn’t the weak point.”
The winner of the sidecar portion was Chad Hood, 44, and his wife Dawn, 45, who were dressed as the Big Bad “Woof” and Little Red Riding Hood. The Hoods were the reigning champs, and Chad said the other competitors had been sending him pictures of the modifications to their bikes all year, gunning to dethrone the couple.
“I knocked the cobwebs off mine and still won,” he said.
Richard Hatcher, part of the Rodeo Riders, a Wilmington-based team of mini-bike riders, won the drift-bike heat handily in a bike he put together from scratch — but he didn’t get the memo about the costumes. The drift-bikes are low to the ground with go-cart bodies and have sections of 10-inch PVC pipe over their tires, allowing them to slide enough to whip around a turn but not so much that they lose control … most of the time.
One of drifters, Charlie Smith, also of Wilmington, lost a tire and spun out, causing the breasts of his “sexy nurse” costume to spill out of his lab coat for the audience to see.
The mini-bike race was the most competitive. Cameron Carter, 31, of Belews Creek, wore a red, white and blue top hat, an American flag shirt and had empty cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon strapped to his legs as shin guards. He said before the race that his strategy was to get out ahead early to avoid collisions and let his superior bike do all the work.
“I want to win so bad,” he said, his last victory coming in 2016.
Carter’s main competition through each round was Chris Griffin of Monroe, who had fashioned a medieval helmet out of a case of Budweiser and flew a Confederate flag and a marijuana-leaf flag from his green bike. The two changed positions over and over again, exchanging after almost every corner turn.
In the final, Carter’s bike struggled to take off at the beginning but he caught up to Griffin in the later portion of the race. They bumped each other, Carter swerving aggressively at Griffin and on a late lap the two got briefly tangled, sending Griffin head over handlebars and Carter wobbling into bystanders. Carter was able to recover more quickly, while Griffin — who didn’t wear a shirt — had a bad case of road rash down the left side of his back.
Carter celebrated with friends and family who showered him with beer as he burned out his bike. He and Griffin did a nose-to-nose burnout and embraced in a show of sportsmanship. After the victory, Carter said he was still recovering from a broken back and was wearing a brace.
“Grown-ups get to play with their toys,” said Carl Wilson of Wilmington, who was dressed in a Mexican poncho with a fake mustache that stretched wider than his shoulders. Wilson, who owns an auto shop and has been racing mini-bikes since he was 10, was part of the side car duo “Jos-A and Jos-B” — a play on the Spanish name José.
“It’s pure fun,” he said after a heat in which he spun out twice and got his poncho caught in his go-cart’s rear axle.
Earlier in the day, a crowd of about 250 gathered to judge a painting contest with topless women as the canvas and the highest-volume drunken jeers as the scorecards. One had the “stars and bars” crossing a big heart on her chest with “Southern Pride” written on her stomach. Another had dream catcher-like feathers hanging from a pattern that cupped the model’s breasts. The most intricate design was an octopus that took up the woman’s entire torso, but the big winner was a fluorescent, flowing-line pattern that accentuated the model’s assets.
The announcer had to repeatedly remind those assembled that it was an art contest — not a breast contest.
Anyone who left their homes over the weekend likely saw a pack of riders rumble down the streets around Rockingham. The surrounding area of the dragway was packed with RVs and tents, the festivities peaking with a concert and party in the middle of the camp ground Saturday night. Every bare patch of grass or asphalt became a parking lot for some chrome monster.
With all the chaos going on, in the center of it was White, calmly tinkering with his bike’s clutch cap before his run. White, who started racing in 2000, sees every 7-second ride as a chance to beat Death. He said the most important part of the run isn’t whether he went fast or slow, “it’s that I wasn’t afraid to do it.”
On his final run of the weekend, White clocked in at 180.52 mph, finishing the 1,320-foot track in 7.914 seconds based on the readout of the speed clock — not his best, which is 209 mph and 6.71 seconds. He said that was “as slow as I could make it go” to be able to cope with the less-than-ideal track conditions. Still, it was a treat for the crowd to see him in action.
“That’s part of why I’m deaf,” said Lisa L., a vendor for the event and avid race fan who made sure to get as close to White’s two-wheeled rocket as she could. White was at the other end of the track before this reporter could look up from taking the last picture of him before he became a blur.
Bill Ernst, who was coordinating the event, said there was a study done of the power generated by two Nitro Harley bikes taking off at the same time which found that, at the starting line, they register as a 4.2 magnitude earthquake.
When asked how he stays on the bike, White said it’s physically impossible to hang on. The only thing that keeps him attached to it is him sitting deep in the seat to “load himself” and help keep weight on the front wheel — his arms are only there to reach the engine’s kill switch or trigger the parachute. He wears two titanium plates on his chest in case the engine he’s splayed out over explodes, with armor over every other part of his body designed to disperse pressure from impact.
Before he starts, he picks a spot on the horizon and stays focused on that, presumably creating a light speed-like effect. Because it was slower than normal, White said this last run wasn’t quite “cheating Death” but regardless, “it only takes one mistake.”
“I cheat him every time.”
Reach Gavin Stone at 910-817-2674 or [email protected]