Gary Hite of Hite Crane Part 2

 The story I wrote last month on Gary Hite featuring his business career was a  great topic but it was not the story I started pursuing him two years ago for. Everyone knows a few successful entrepreneurs but I bet no one knows one who is going to Daytona in March to race his 750 Harley sideways through the corners and 140 miles per hour on the straightaways. That is unless they know Gary, who has raced flat track both as an amateur and a professional since 1961 when he was a ripe old 15 years of age.

His love of motorcycles dates back to more like 12 years old when he got caught up in the scooter craze of the late 50’s. “My dad made me a deal that he would match whatever I saved for a Vespa scooter,” Gary said recently during a visit at his private work shop at his home in Idaho. By the age of 13 he earned enough money delivering newspapers to take his dad up on his offer.
That was before Honda came out with their small mini bikes and so when he outgrew the Vespa he had to jump up to a 250 cc motorcycle, which he soon began racing.  “At that time it was more of a men’s deal. There were not any kids classes,” Gary said, adding that even though most of his competition was 5 to 10 years older, he still came in fourth place in his first race.
“I think my parents thought they’d let me race a time or two and I would decide that I didn’t want to be around those ruffians,” Gary said laughing. “That didn’t work.” Gary kept at it and turned pro in 1966. Kawasaki sponsored him for three years and then he joined the Harley team. “It was not a big money sport but it did pay for a portion of my tuition,” said Gary, who graduated from the University of Washington in 1969.
One person he competed against in the early days was Evil Knievel, who Gary  knew by his first name. “Bob was very capable. He got the name Evil because he was always cheating at racing,” he said, adding that during intermission at the races, the promoters would hire some of the riders to perform stunts to entertain the crowds. Knievel saw how much people enjoyed their wheel walking and jumping and soon left racing to be a daredevil.
Gary kept racing while he built the Hite Crane Company until 1982 when he retired from professional racing at the age of 36.  Normally that would have been the end of the racetrack because just as there were no youth classes when he started in 1961, there were no senior divisions when he retired 21 years later. But Gary was born in 1946, the first year of the Baby Boom Generation, which has a tendency to change things as they come through. Two years after he retired, the American Motorcyclist Association , opened divisions for older amateur riders and Gary has been racing ever since.
“I like racing at the national level. It is a good caliber of competition and they don’t make mistakes,” he said, adding that most of his competition is older guys that have raced professionally or very good young guys who soon will be pros. It is all the more impressive then that Gary has won 5 Grand National Championships as an amateur, but he has not raced at this level completely unscathed.
He has gone down several times going more than 100 miles per hour, and usually got back up and ran in the next race. Only twice in all those years and all those races has he wound up at the hospital. Once in 1992 when he broke his knee in six places and then two years ago when he crashed and broke his collarbone, a few ribs and tore his intestines. But now he is no worse for the wear. “I actually feel better now,” he said. “I guess they made some adjustments on me.”
While it is impressive how long and successfully Gary has raced, I found it difficult to comprehend that he also builds the engines for the motorcycles that he races. I had to see his shop because I was having a hard time wrapping my head around that Gary was not only a national-level motorcycle racer but also a national-level motorcycle builder. I figured it had to be a shop worth checking out.
It turns out that a visit to Gary’s two-story private motorcycle shop is like taking a magical motorcycle mystery tour.  Elaine and I were lucky enough to go on one last month.  The first part of the tour was the lower level where Gary works on the motorcycles. It was obviously  a serious shop, judging by a couple of very nice bikes being worked on and the heavy- duty, metal-machining  equipment  like lathes and milling tools bolted down at different work stations around the room. The skeleton of the Harley he will race in March stood strapped on a computerized diagnostic machine that allows him to run the bike at full speed. On the workbench a few feet away sat the shiny and powerful-looking 750cc Harley engine that Gary built and will soon put together on the chassis with all the other working parts.
He explained how his custom Harleys are tailor-made to give him a competitive edge.  “I’m bigger and older and so I want my engines to be smoother.  My engines have more torque in the mid-range to pull me out of the corners,” he said, explaining that he carefully fabricates, calibrates and adjusts things like the weight of the pistons, the balance of the flywheel and the timing of engine to make the bike smoother.
As Gary was showing us around the first-floor shop where he keeps three bikes race-ready at all times, he kept mentioning something about a museum upstairs.  We had never heard that he had a museum but we assumed it must have something to do with motorcycles.  Not having toured too many private museums of any kind, we really did not know what to expect when he took us upstairs.
Sergeant Pepper himself would be hard pressed to come up with a more colorful and fascinating display. To give Gary’s collection the justice that it deserves, I would have to do a Gary Hite Story Part 3 and like the Toy Story series, Part 3 could easily be the best. There is not room at the end of this story to adequately describe his 30-plus, perfectly-restored antique motorcycle collection or the racing memorabilia, let alone the tastefully rich and rustic décor and furnishings.
This is where our visit took a turn towards the magical as he started telling story after story about the history of motorcycles. Some of it was personal like how he became friends with Steve McQueen and his legendary stunt double, Bud Ekans and how he bought a vintage Harley Hill Climber , one of only 15 originally produced, from McQueen himself. Other stories he told were about motorcycle history in general like how tires were white before they started adding carbon to make them harder.  All the stories were interesting.
They were stories gathered over a 53-year span between age 12, when he first schemed to get his Vespa, through today at an age when talking fast is most people’s closest brush with real speed. Gary just rides fast and he’s planning on taking a trip down to the Bonneville Flats to go faster than he has ever gone before. “I want to do it before I quit running,” he said. He should have a bike ready for the speed run by next fall. “I have a personal goal to go at least 180 miles an hour. That may not sound fast, but it is,” Gary said.  I found it easy to believe that 180 was fast and that Gary would have no problem going that fast on a bike he built to get him there.

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