Phone call. Long distance. Late one night in September.
“John,” said a female voice John Howard recognized as that of his ex-wife in Houston. “I’ve been having these dreams, John.”
“Bad dreams. Dreams that you're going to die. I see you crashing on the salt.”
“I’m not going to crash,” Howard replied. “Nothing is going to happen. Everything has been calculated. It’s a risk, but a calculated one.” Strange that his ex-wife should speak to him like this. They’ve been divorced for three years; no children, no ties — a clean break. They’ve barely spoken to one another in the past year. Now this call.
“I’ve had these dreams several times, John. I'm scared for you. I’m begging you. I’m pleading with you. Don’t go to Bonneville.”
But he did go. Early on October 12 John Howard — for nearly a decade America's best cyclist — arrived in Wendover, Nevada, a whistle-stop casino and hotel town on the Utah border, ready to take the gamble of his life. The next day the thirty-seven-year-old cyclist/triathlete intended to leave Wendover and head for an austere spread of briny white called the Bonneville Salt Flats; specifically, the thin ten-mile speedway amid some seventy square miles of rock-hard salt.
On this barren salt carpet (according to Howard, the flattest surface on earth), in the slipstream of Rick Vesco’s 500-horsepower Bonneville Streamliner race car, Howard would try to pedal a bicycle up to 150 miles per hour and break the present land speed record. Without falling. Without killing himself. Without performing the script of anyone’s nightmares.
Why do something like this? The payoff is dubious: a record few people know or care about; some transient publicity; possibly a few contracts to endorse products; at the outside a meager increase in his* fame.
But worth risking his life? Howard is inarticulately philosophical about admonitions from friends regarding the dangers of the land speed attempt. “I’m doing it because it’s there,’’ he says. “I know I can do it. I want to be the fastest human on this planet using his own power.’’
Like a soldier just back from war, Howard strains to express the ineffable, to convey the esoteric horrors and joys of an extraordinary experience only he has had. “Friends who tell me not to pursue the land speed record have never put on that leather suit and ridden over a hundred miles an hour,” he says. “They don’t know the thrill, the incredible kick of blasting like a gangbuster behind the deafening roar of a speeding race car. There’s a quote from Norman Mailer’s book The Executioners Song that says ‘No psychic reward would ever be so powerful as winning a dare with yourself.’ Winning that dare is important to me.
“I can't even begin to describe the pure bliss I get from competing, from challenging myself. I’ve only felt it a few times, but I know that no drug in the world is better than it.”
Anticipation was high at Bonneville. Howard was psyched up, in a state of concentration that made him oblivious to the world. This attempt was his crucible, and he emanated a sort of adrenalin glow, an almost palpable sense of intent and purpose. His parents had come from Springfield, Missouri, the family home. A helicopter was brought in at great expense to film the attempt from the air. Journalists and photographers from both coasts were on hand. Friends from California and Texas had driven hundreds of miles to see the show. But there was no show, because for the second time in as many years, the weather had done Howard in. The previous night, after weeks of dry conditions, it had rained — so hard that when veteran race car driver Vesco got on his Yamaha dirt bike to survey the speedway, he had to splash through an extended puddle. “The attempt is off,” declared Vesco, back in front of Howard’s hotel. “There’s a sixteenth of an inch of water on the surface of the salt. If we try it under these conditions, the race car will hydroplane and we’ll both be killed.’’ “Oh shit,” replied Howard, succinctly expressing his own feelings and those of every vicarious thrill seeker who’d made the great Bonneville trek that weekend. There he was, John Howard, who minutes before had been a man enveloped in mystery, wonder, and awe, an inhabitant of a forbidden zone of the psyche. And now, with Vesco’s definitive words, he was transformed: just a tall, skinny guy in a baggy sweatshirt standing in a casino parking lot, looking like any other hopeful tourist who’d come to spin roulette wheels and tug at one-armed bandits.
For the past six years Howard has had his eye on Dr. Allan Abbott’s land speed record of 140.5 miles per hour, set at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1973. He’d wooed sponsors; first Campagnolo, then Pepsi, then Specialized and Hooker, now Wendy’s, Spenco Biotechnology and Power Shoes. “I sweated blood getting money for this thing,” he says. “I mean, how do you convince Pepsi, who’s putting all that money into Michael Jackson, that they need the land speed attempt too?” He’d hired Skip Hujsak and Doug Malewicki (the latter has done work for Evel Knievel) to design and build the $10,000 bicycle with motorcycle tires and double-reduction direct-drive gears that could handle the task. And he’d contacted Rick Vesco, of the famous racing Vesco family, who was eager to participate in the attempt, though he wouldn’t be paid. In July of 1982 they went to Bonneville, where Howard, still learning the art of motor pacing (riding in the slipstream of a race car), clocked in at a shaky 114.9 miles per hour on his final practice run. Not bad for the first time out. Plans to return three months later for a serious attempt at the record were washed out by some of the worst rains in Salt Flats history. So Howard borrowed a stretch of highway south of Mexicali in January of 1983 and tried again, but the road was too narrow and bumpy and he achieved a speed of only 124.189 miles per hour. Even though it was the fastest he’d ever gone, and even though That's Incredible! bought TV rights and aired the attempt, Howard was disappointed. He’d invested too much in this project to fall short. He knew he could go much faster — if only he could get back to the salt.
At first glance it seems obvious that a champion bike racer would be interested in entering the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s fastest cyclist. But many have asked whether this event really has much to do with “cycling.” Of course, there is no question that the extraordinary strength in Howard’s legs will help power him to great speeds; but according to Malewicki, there is little doubt that the bike, sucked along in the slipstream of Vesco’s race car, is capable of going 170 miles per hour or more. Pedaling to 150 miles per hour is no great feat of strength in itself. Several friends have told Howard that when talking to the press he should play down the slipstream effect; that will be perceived as “cheating,” they say. Howard talks about it anyway, because the real issue is control, he says. “When you’re in that slipstream it goes beyond riding the meanest bucking bronco in the world.” Certainly Howard’s nineteen years’ experience as a competitive cyclist comes in handy riding that bronco, but then there are a lot of cyclists, professionals and amateurs alike, who could use their experience to learn successful motor pacing. No, there is something else John Howard has that compels him to pursue Abbott’s record, and that makes him the ideal candidate to break it. It’s more than just drive. It’s the willingness to seek out that forbidden zone. It’s that magical union of mind, body, and spirit that makes a champion, that character mix of ambition, selfishness, compulsion, arrogance, modesty, killer instincts, patience, intelligence, foolishness, moxie, and guts.
Early in his career Howard learned the kind of mental toughness he needed to be a champion bicycle racer. At the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, the first of his three consecutive appearances in the Olympics, the twenty-year-old cyclist stood near the starting line of his opening race when, ten feet away, an emotionally distraught man stuck a gun in his mouth and blew his brains out. Howard was splattered with blood, but there was no time to change his outfit, so minutes later Howard began his first Olympic bike race under conditions that seemed morbidly foreboding. He rode well, but another teammate was so shaken by the incident that the U.S. team finished well back in the standings.
Two years later he was again racing in Mexico, this time in the international Vuelta de Mexico on a mountain course. A Mexican cyclist was alone several hundred yards ahead of the pack on a descent as he approached a sharp turn. From his position Howard saw him round the bend, but when the pack completed the turn the Mexican cyclist was gone. “He'd vanished,” recalls Howard. “Seconds before, he was in front of us, then we made the turn and looked down the straightaway and he just wasn’t there!” At the end of the race the riders learned what they’d all suspected: the fellow had missed the turn and fallen to his death. “He made a mistake,” Howard says. “We assumed that he went over the cliff, but you can’t even think about it during the race. It didn’t happen to you, so you just move on.”
The ability to cope with life-threatening situations is a requirement of the cycling breed — at least it is among the best. When Henry Ford needed a driver for his new “999” race car back in 1904 he turned to the famous bicycle racer Barney Oldfield. “He needed somebody with balls,” Howard explains. “So he approached Oldfield and said, ‘Listen, you’re over the hill as a bicycle racer, why don’t we put you behind the wheel of this car.’ ” British auto racer Mike Parks once said that bicycle racing was the closest thing to Formula One, and that if the money were there, more auto racers would be found in bicycle competition. “That makes a lot of sense to me,” says Howard. “I’ve raced both bikes and cars and that pure thrill is very much the same.
“People don't realize what balls it takes to be a bike racer. On a sprint, you've got to be willing to charge, never to compromise by hitting the brakes, never to worry about personal safety. You may win, or you may crash. There are few sports that require you pay for your mistakes with your flesh, blood, or even your life. Many times in a pack you’ll be thundering down a hill at fifty, sixty miles per hour and you’ll think about the vulnerability of all those riders, knowing that if just one person makes a mistake, any number of us could be wiped out.”
Howard has left a lot of skin on America’s highways. He has “gone down” more times than he can count, skidding, scraping, tumbling, and rolling on asphalt and concrete, protected only by a helmet. “I’ve had the shit kicked out of me many times,” he says, “but I’ve only broken a couple of small bones and I’ve never lost any teeth. Overall, I’ve been lucky.”
He began racing bicycles in his home town of Springfield, Missouri when he was eighteen. In his first race, a 102-mile trek through Kansas, he placed second and was instantly hooked. “I was really caught up in it back then,” he recalls. “That was before the exercise boom and nobody could figure out why I would ride my bike from dawn to dusk up and down the Ozarks. Friends would see me out riding sixty miles from home and they’d just shake their heads.
“I remember I used to read the French cycling magazines, like Miroir du Cyclisme and L’Equipe. The theme of all the articles and photos was ‘pain.’ They’d show the riders grimacing in agony as they crested a hill in the Pyrenees or the Alps, and the attitude they conveyed was, ‘You never quit a bike race.’ Eddy Merckx, who I consider the greatest cyclist of all time, once finished a race with three broken ribs he received when he was punched by a French spectator who hated Belgians. The magazines really played that one up. Europeans love to think of their bicycling heroes as sufferers.”
The cycling magazines were not above gory sensationalism when the occasion presented itself, which it often did. “I remember when Jean-Pierre Monsere died back in 1971,” Howard says. “He was hit head-on by a Mercedes during a race and one of the magazines showed a photograph of him lying dead on the sidewalk. He was still wearing his rainbow jersey with the horizontal stripes, the sacred jersey that designated him as the reigning world champion.”
Howard doesn’t like to think about death. When his ex-wife called to tell of her nightmares, he blocked her words out of his mind because he didn’t want to be influenced by “negative thoughts.” He says he doesn’t like to suffer, either. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t good at it, or that he hasn’t had plenty of practice. One of his most memorable races was the Tour de California in 1971. Howard was the defending Pan American Games gold medalist, the first male American cyclist ever to win a gold medal in international competition. As the leader of his team, he felt great pressure to make a good showing, so, two minutes behind the leader, he decided to “close” by descending a hill with minimal braking, the ultimate test of cycling courage. Two other riders followed him and they took several turns at astounding speed, chopping the apexes, cutting the tightest inside line possible. But the hill was steeper than they thought, and at one point when Howard braked he actually felt his rear wheel begin to lift from the road. And then, rounding a turn, the riders saw, of all things, a pickup truck coming the other way. A pickup truck? In the middle of a bike race? They hadn’t closed the damn road! And here’s Howard barreling at forty feet per second down a northern California mountain that’s steeper than he thought it was and staring into the grill of a pickup truck that’s not supposed to be there. If he hits the brakes too hard his rear end goes light and he flips head over wheels like a circus tumbler right smack into the truck. He can’t veer left because another cyclist is in his way. He can’t veer right because there’s a cliff there and he doesn’t know how to fly.
The driver of the pickup realizes what’s happening and stops. Howard somehow manages, by hitting the rear brake and shifting his weight, to get into a stalling slide slightly to the right, a desperate attempt to avoid a head-on collision. It works. But he nonetheless creams the truck broadside on the rear quarter panel. Fortunately, the bike absorbs most of the shock when the panel gives in and Howard finds himself sprawled on the pavement next to his bent bicycle with a hole in his ankle and a broken wrist, but miraculously in one piece. One of the cyclists slips by the truck on the left side, but the guy next to Howard has nowhere to go and hits the pickup head-on at thirty miles per hour and cartwheels over the hood and sails ten feet down the cliff into a pile of rocks. He’s alive, but he’s broken his femur in three places, he’s ripped his thigh muscles to shreds, he’s got a severe concussion, and he'll never race bicycles again. Howard has been knocked silly but eventually gets up and, without another thought, grabs his front tire and bends it until it’s round again, straightens his handlebars, and performs makeshift surgery on his broken derailleur. Blood has soaked his sock and collected in his shoe. His wrist hangs in languid pain and probably needs immediate medical attention, but . . . You never quit a bike race . . . so he hops on his bicycle and starts chasing — instinctively, like a wounded animal — and he catches the pack, finishing his stage of the race in sixth place. His speed after the accident is actually faster than his speed before.
Although bicycle racing has spared Howard serious injury, it did not spare his marriage, which ended in 1981. “Early in my marriage, when I came home from bike races, my wife would meet me right at the airport gate," he says. “Then a year later she'd be in the lobby. Then at the baggage claim. Then out front. Then it was, ‘Take a cab.' I think you could say her enthusiasm for my cycling diminished." Part of the problem was that she needed more attention, needed to know she counted as much as the damn bike. But there was something else; there were the injuries — constant injuries — the danger, and the obsession. “I remember once I crashed real bad,” Howard recalls. “I was going down a hill by myself at forty or fifty miles per hour and ate it badly. I was lying unconscious on the side of the road, miles from civilization, and two guys came along and offered to take me to the hospital. I had abrasions over sixty percent of my body, over my arms, legs, shoulders and back — I mean I looked bad — but I told the guys to take me home, where I dressed my wounds alone. There was gravel embedded in my flesh so I had to irrigate the wounds with hydrogen peroxide and scrub them with a toothbrush. It hurt so bad I had to put a washcloth in my mouth to keep from breaking my teeth. When I finished I called my wife at her sister’s house. I remember telling her that I was really hurt, that I needed her, and I almost passed out while talking on the phone. But she told me, ‘Oh no, not again. I've seen you that way too many times before. I’ll be home tomorrow.' then she hung up. That was the beginning of the end."
This wasn’t the first time Howard had insisted on dressing his own wounds. “I don't like the way th^y do it at hospitals,” he says. “They shoot you full of Novocaine.” When asked why that isn’t preferable to the pain of scrubbing exposed flesh with a toothbrush, Howard looks a bit embarrassed. “I don’t like needles,” he admits sheepishly. “When I was in the army I would just about pass out when they drew my blood. I hate needles.”
John Howard sits in the living room of his split-level home in Encinitas. He was up at dawn today to run ten miles, and now, in midafternoon, he is limbering up for a casual twenty-mile bike ride. “I had a little confrontation with an old girlfriend this morning,” he says, “and I’m anxious to go for a ride. I work out a lot of problems on the bike.” An open door leads to the garage, where two cars are parked, a vintage white Porsche and a bright red 1974 BMW. a vehicle Howard calls a “four-cylinder, street-legal rocket.” His home is decorated sparsely but tastefully, with handmade furniture and rustic wall ornaments that reflect their owner’s love of antiques. Howard, who left school only a few courses away from a bachelor of fine arts degree, once possessed a valuable collection of African art, but lost it in his divorce settlement. What remains in his possession has more sentimental than monetary value: for example his father’s old aviator gloves and flight helmet from World War II, a nineteenth-century Martin rifle, and two antique duck decoys. On the fireplace mantle sits one of Howard’s own sculptures, the jawbone of an ass, and next to it is his prize possession, his oosik, the fossilized penis of a bull walrus.
Just back from Hawaii where he competed in the Ironman Triathlon on October 7, Howard is continually interrupted by phone calls. He politely tells the same story to each caller: “I finished sixth, winning my age group by fifteen minutes, and breaking the previous record in the bicycle race by seven minutes. I got dehydrated on the run, though. If I hadn't, I could have beaten Mark Allen [generally regarded as the most promising young triathlete] and had fifth place. He had to be hooked up to an IV machine at the finish line. If the race had been a mile longer, I’d have caught him.” Between calls Howard explains how he’s supported himself during nearly two decades of cycling. As a cyclist with “name recognition,” it was relatively easy for Howard to get companies to hire him as a consultant or a public relations man. He was a PR liaison for Campagnolo for several years, representing that company at trade shows. He also worked for Exxon, managing their racing team and helping them develop a graphite-framed bicycle. As in other sports, the line separating amateur and professional cyclists has blurred in recent years, allowing amateurs to receive money for appearing at races, to wear the logo of a paying sponsor, and to collect prize money. Howard has taken full advantage of these privileges. However, he recently lost his amateur status when he refused to pay the United States Cycling Federation the required ten-percent cut on his earnings.
Because of his frugal lifestyle and what he calls his “professional attitude” toward cycling, Howard managed to bring considerable savings to San Diego when he moved here from Houston in 1982. Like so many others, he got involved with a man named Dominelli, both as an invester and as a member of Team J. David, an elite group of triathletes. “Dominelli made me a lot of money on the foreign currency markets, enough so that there was a point where I could have retired and never worried about money again, but I lost it all,” Howard says, shaking his head. “If I’d pulled my money out a month before Dominelli’s fall, I could have had an income of about $40,000 a year for the rest of my life.”
Howard is undaunted by what many would consider a catastrophe. “It’s only money,” he says. “I’m reminded of ants. When you step on their burrow, they start over. I was getting pretty complacent for a while there, so maybe this crisis was good for me. I’ll make money again. I’ve never had any problem making money.” Indeed, Howard has numerous sources of income. In addition to his sponsors, he has written two books, the recently published Cyclist's Companion (The Stephen Greene Press) and Multi-Fitness, to appear next spring. He’s teamed up with local bicycle builder Dave Moulton to produce an elite John Howard signature model, and he recently made a deal with KHS, the largest manufacturer of bicycles in the world, to endorse a line of their bikes as well. Howard also has plans to start a company that will distribute bikes, market a new line of sporting apparel, and promote corporate fitness seminars.
He is a tall man; devoid of fat, and his well-stretched muscles are long and sinewy — except his thighs, those bulging quadriceps that have pumped that iron sprocket tens of millions of times in their thirty-seven years. Like Popeye’s forearms, they are hyperbolic, curvaceous caricatures of the human thigh, certainly the most notable feature of John Howard the physical specimen. Howard is a country boy from the Ozarks, an aw-shucks, show-me kid from Missouri with as pleasant a demeanor as any Southern gentleman. His character was carved with the same Southern chisel that cut Junior Johnson, the rum-running good-old-boy race car driver who was a legend when Howard was a boy. Howard says he never ran rum, but he admits that he frequently took his first car, a vintage XK140 Jaguar, deep into the Ozarks where “you could use a car the way it was made to be used.” After a while the real kick was to find somebody with fifty or more horsepower than you and race him into the ground. Timing acceleration just so. Rounding hairpin turns at full tilt. Stretching the limits of the car. Beating the opponent on pure guts and skill. It was here that Howard first discovered “the envelope,” that thin margin at the limits of safety, that dazzlingly exciting edge where courage and recklessness fused to become one, and where victory became the propaganda of survivors.
“That was another era,” says Howard. “It was very macho. Somebody said, ‘Hey, my car can go faster than yours,’ and you'd say, ‘Well, let’s see about that,’ and head for the back roads in the Ozarks. My Jag could do 150, and could take thirty-five-mile-an-hour turns at eighty-five. We used to just terrorize the countryside. I had several friends who died. Every week you’d pick up the paper and read about some high-school kid who was killed in a car crash.
“Did I ever lose a race?” says Howard with a wry smile. “Naaawww.”
One wonders what kind of psychological mechanisms cyclists develop to deal with the inevitability of crashes, and with their consequences for other riders and for themselves. “A. J. Foyt once claimed that he avoids making friends with other car racers, because you never know who’s going to be next,” Howard says. “Cycling isn’t that bad, but you have to become pretty callous. You learn not to have sympathy for anyone. Early in my career I’d feel sorry for some poor devil who crashed, but not anymore. You have to become that way. Privately I’m not like that, but I become a different person on a bike. I do things I'd never do normally. For example, sometimes I’ll pound on cars, just bang on them. When a driver does something stupid, something that endangers my life, I feel I have to let them know they’ve screwed up. In California they take it pretty well, but in Texas I used to have to carry a tear gas aerosol to protect myself from irate rednecks.”
One day while training outside Houston, three ten-gallon rednecks in a pickup truck edged Howard off the road, so he made an obscene gesture at them. Unfortunately, they turned around and came back. The guy on the passenger side emerged with a tire tool in his hand, while the driver got out and grabbed his shotgun from the gun rack.
Hmmm, thought Howard, this never happened in Missouri. “Listen, guys,” he said, dipping into his plentiful reserves of boyish Ozark charm, hoping it would work on redneck Texans. “I’m sorry to have shot you the bird that way, but you broke my concentration and that was the only retaliation I had.” Ten-gallon silence.
“Let’s be reasonable about this.” Howard’s Missouri twang had bled into a Texas drawl. “There’s three of you and there’s only one of me, and you’ve got tire tools and a shotgun and it wouldn’t be a fair fight, now would it?” More ten-gallon silence.
Things were getting pretty scary. Here were three rednecks, armed to the teeth, squaring off with a tall, bony guy who looked like Dudley Do-Right in a skin suit, armed with a water bottle and an aluminum tire pump. “Aw shucks, guys, I didn’t mean anything. It was just a gesture of frustration. Besides, I got your license number and this could be assault and battery, you know. What do you say we just forget this?”
Finally they decided Howard was all right, even if he did wear a sillylooking Bell helmet instead of a ten-gallon hat, and they let him go. Howard recalls it was after this incident that he started carrying tear gas.
Howard is a survivor. He certainly has the knees of one. They have come through his many crashes — an average of four per year, he estimates — with no structural damage: no crushed cartilege, no snapped tendons, no shattered caps, no tears of the cruciate ligament. Which seems remarkable when you look at them. Both knees present an epidermal tableau, a sort of keloid collage of splotchy pink, burgundy, and black (embedded dirt) that transforms itself with each new fall. Surprisingly, Howard hasn’t crashed in a year, a testament more to his dumb luck than to any new found deference to credos of middle-age prudence. He's still a risk taker, still as hungry for thrills as he ever was, as his quest for the land speed record suggests. But it’s strange; to meet him, you’d never think he was an Evel Knievel-type daredevil, dialing death’s number and placing bets that no one will answer. In fact he’s one of the most down-to-earth fellows you’d ever meet: considerate, obliging, eminently reasonable. And yet he does some . . . well, weird things. “People often ask me how I train for the land speed attempt,” explains Howard. “Do I go out and motor pace? No, it’s all up here,” he says pointing to his head. He continually primes his psyche. He stalks his fears, taunts them, shadow-boxes with them. Training on El Camino Real in Encinitas, he fantasizes, imagines that he can keep pace with those huge V-shaped dirt-moving tandem trucks that shuttle to and from construction sites: “Sometimes I have this weird fantasy of actually getting between the tandems, slipping into that airspace, riding with it, realizing that if I make just one fuck-up I’m dead.
“When I lived in Houston I used to prepare myself mentally for races by playing with traffic. I’d extend myself over the margin of safety, beyond the ‘envelope.’ When you push beyond that envelope, you're risking your life. I’d find myself in a thick line of traffic and get frustrated because I wasn't getting the quality of training I wanted. So I'd see what 1 could get away with, changing lanes rapidly, weaving back and forth, bumping a few cars, anticipating by experience what the driver is going to do, imagining that the driver is some kind of computerized mechanism that’s been programmed to do this and this and this. You anticipate what the machine behind the wheel will do. They’re not real people. They’re robots. I’d just go blasting right through the middle. I can’t describe the adrenalin rush. It’s something like going 125 miles per hour behind a race car.”
From his position behind the Bonneville Streamliner, which looks like a twenty-one-foot-long bullet on wheels, John Howard is in an accelerated world all his own. All he can see is a blurred image through a tiny Plexiglas window in the fairing, a five-foot-high wind-blocking device attached to the rear end of the Streamliner. Howard is towed by a cable up to about sixty miles per hour, but once the cable is released both driver and rider must increase speed at exactly the same rate. But how? Initially, they had built radio transmitters into their helmets, only to discover that at high speeds the noise of the engine made direct communication impossible. Then it was decided that Howard would control the car’s acceleration himself by means of a hand-controlled throttle on the handgrip, but he found that the ride was too rough to allow smooth acceleration. All alternatives exhausted, Howard and Vesco were forced to rely on their own instincts, on a phenomenon they call ‘‘dialing in.” With practice they have learned to match acceleration, to anticipate each other’s movements, to establish a sort of telepathic merging of minds. So far, it has worked successfully.
But so many other things could go wrong. Either Howard or Vesco could blow a tire, for example. A few years back Vesco blew one on the salt flats and sailed through the time traps at more than 300 miles per hour upside down. Unlikely he'll blow a tire at half that speed, but Howard could. The bike might hit a bump. Howard might break a chain. Vesco might sneeze. What if Vesco sneezed? What if a tiny particle of salt or dust wafted into his helmet while he was slowing down from 150 miles per hour after the time traps? Slowing down is generally no problem for a race car. But behind Vesco on this run is 155 pounds of frenetic, pinwheeling bone and sinew on a forty-six-pound bike trapped in a four-foot by seven-foot cavity of dead air. Howard must stay in that cavity until he slows to below one-hundred miles per hour. The greatest technical problem in preparing for this land speed attempt was how to slow down the bike. It has brakes, but at speeds greater than over one-hundred miles per hour they would melt. To solve the problem, the bike’s designers came up with a crude, yet effective device. Protruding from the front fork of Howard’s bike is a foot-long vertical bumper bar; attached to the rear of the Streamliner's fairing is a corresponding three-foot-long horizontal bumper bar. Howard brakes himself by slamming his vertical bar into the horizontal bar — steel against steel! This is the most dangerous stage of the land speed attempt. Vesco has to reduce speed ever so gradually to protect what is essentially his “passenger.” A tiny sneeze could cause a throttle jerk that might send Howard crashing into the bar, throw him off balance, out of the dead air cavity, and into a 150-mile-per-hour wind that would lift both rider and bike off the ground like a child’s toy and then drop them with a deathly thump followed by a skid, like a pebble skipping on a pond.
Last June John Howard did the unthinkable: he quit a bike race. He didn’t crash. He wasn’t sick. He wasn’t injured. He just quit. “It was the Nevada City Classic,” Howard explains, “a grueling forty-five-mile race that has nearly 6000 feet of vertical climb. I was standing at the starting line and some of the riders were getting on me, saying, ‘Look at this old man.’ They were amazed that I was out there mixing it up with some of the best young riders in the world. From the moment the gun went off it was clear that I wasn’t properly trained, and that I was outclassed. I kept asking myself, ‘Have I lost it? Have they improved? Am I over the hill? What would it take to compete with them?’ The end result was that I quit the race. I didn’t want to deal with it, with that mental punishment. It was more intense than anything I’ve ever felt before, just horrendous.”
In a sense Howard set himself up for his disappointing performance. His rigorous cross-training — particularly his running — in preparation for triathlons has had a detrimental effect on his cycling. Besides, he’d been sloughing off on his workouts and was in no shape to race against world-class cyclists. But Howard wonders whether he could match pace with his younger competitors even if he were in peak cycling form. “I’m not sure I want to answer that question. I'm afraid the answer might be no. Ultimately, I guess I’m going to have to admit I can't compete with them.” Howard’s body is hardly anything to be ashamed of, but like all athletes in their thirties he recognizes that he has “flattened,” lost the snap he once had in head-to-head combat. “As you age, your anaerobic threshold lowers,” he explains. “My heart now maxes out at about 200 beats per minute instead of 220 like it used to. My ability to perform aerobic activities [e.g., endurance sports] is as good as before, but that anaerobic capacity has decreased.” In the last lap of a close bike race, that’s precisely what you need, a final, explosive burst of anaerobic power, something John Howard had, but has no more.
In 1980 Howard entered the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon, the quintessential endurance event, one that seemed tailor-made for the thirty-three-year-old bike racer on the wane. After a decade as America’s premier cyclist, Howard was still virtually unknown outside the cycling milieu, where, granted, he was idolized. Fame and recognition, the expected payoff for excellence, eluded him. As did financial security. The triathlon burst into the sporting world in 1978 like a cry of protest from an oppressed minority — individual sportsmen. For years the swimmers, cyclists, and runners of this country felt subordinated, victims of media indifference. They longed to cut their piece of the media pie, to gain some of the attention football, baseball, and basketball players received; and, most importantly, to reap some of the wealth hoarded by the tripartite elite of American professional sports. The organizers of the first Ironman must have said to themselves, “What, for God’s sake, do we have to do to get media attention?” The answer was, of course, a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike race, and a marathon — all in one day. Outrageous! The media thought so too.
Cycling had gotten Howard, the ambitious show-me kid, out of the Ozarks and into the world of international competition. He'd taken advantage of everything that sport had to offer, winning six U.S. national championships and setting numerous records. When his dominion in cycling ended (he won no major races after 1976), Howard turned to the triathlon circuit. He placed third in 1980 but came back the next year and won. Being the Ironman brought him glory, write-ups in national magazines, coverage on Wide World of Sports, offers to endorse products, invitations to be a sports commentator for the major networks. But being a triathlete gave him more than fame and new ways to make money; it provided a new challenge, an opportunity to triumph over the fresh field of competitors. He didn’t compete in the 1982 Ironman, and in 1983 was forced to withdraw after blowing several tires in the bike race. This year he finished sixth. Though he beat his 1981 winning time by a few seconds, and broke the triathlon record in the bike race, he finished nearly three-quarters of an hour behind Dave Scott, whose time of eight hours and fifty-four minutes was by far the fastest ever. Howard knows it is extremely unlikely he’ll ever win that event again. In fact, he knew in 1982, when Scott demolished Howard’s 1981 record by thirty-one minutes, that his future as a champion was probably not in triathlons. So the question was raised, what now? Where’s the next triumph?
A couple of answers have come and gone. In August, 1982 Howard competed in the Great American Bike Race, a 3000-mile, round-the-clock test of sheer endurance. He placed second, riding from the Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles to the Empire State Building in ten and a half days. That race, he says, is “a contest of sleep deprivation, the most insane thing I’ve ever done.” He dehydrated in the Mojave Desert and eventually lost consciousness. He nearly crashed several times after falling asleep on the bike. He braked repeatedly for hallucinations. Long before his destination, while pedaling through Missouri, his knees were already numb with pain. ‘‘I've never wanted to quit a race so badly in my life,” he recalls. ‘‘It was just inescapable torture. By the time I reached New York, the nerve endings in my fingers were damaged, and it was weeks before I had enough strength in them to turn the key to start my car.”
In October of 1983 Manufacturers Hanover Bank offered Howard $10,000 to run the New York Marathon, wearing their logo on his jersey. Nothing unusual about that, except that last year the New York Marathon occurred the day after the Ironman Triathlon. Even if he wouldn’t have had to fly overnight and run on sleep deprivation compounded by jet lag, the idea was foolish, but Howard seriously considered competing in both events. “It would be an extraordinary feat of endurance,” he says. “Nobody has ever done anything like that before. And $10,000 is a lot of money.”
Wisely, he decided against it, recognizing that he probably would have crawled across the finish line with shin splints and stress fractures. Not a dignified way to earn ten grand.
The land speed attempt in comparison seems noble, not a graceless display of brute endurance, but a test requiring intelligence, courage, and skill, a more elegant response to that atavistic urge to discover the limits of the possible. Or is it? Howard has in his files an article from a 1962 issue of True magazine about a previous bicycle land speed record holder, the Frenchman Jose Meiffret, a multilevel loser in life who apparently botched everything he ever did — except his attempts at the land speed record, which he broke several times. Describing one of Meiffret’s triumphs, True wrote, “As the crowd swept down over him, Meiffret experienced an exultation which was, to him, ineffable, incredible, and he forgot ‘all the failures, all the mortifications, all the loneliness of my life. I was free!’ ” The True story evokes more pathos than admiration for Meiffret. Behind the inspirational hype one reads the story of a poor soul who thought he’d be a less pitiable fool if he could ride extraordinarily fast on a bike. Those who know Howard are confident that their friend — who appears psychologically balanced — is more than some poor fool immured in obsession and self-destruction. They don’t see this attempt as Howard’s Armageddon in the great war with himself. The thought of going 150 miles per hour is seen merely as a new challenge, the answer to the question: “Now what?”
Howard plays down the dangers of the attempt. “To me racing bicycles is more hazardous than the land speed attempt,” he says. “More things can go wrong, and you’re unprotected. Especially in track racing. Track racers are the most fearless human beings on earth. At Bonneville we plan to make several runs, increasing speed only about five miles per hour each time. That way we cut down on the unknowns and minimize the risk.” Howard took every precaution in his attempt in Mexico twenty months ago, but it was a frightening attempt, one marred by the limitations of the track’s surface. “I've never been so frightened of doing anything in my whole life,” he admits. “This horror, this fear of what might happen. I kept thinking, ‘Something could happen!’
I looked at the reflector poles on the side of the road each eighth of a mile and I was thinking, ‘Jesus! If something happens I might hit one of those things.’ And when you hit one, they don’t bend; you bend.”
Unlike the salt flats, even the smoothest manmade highways have imperfections that become apparent when racing at high speed. Slight undulations in the pavement, which Vesco calls “whoop-de-dos,” would cause the race car to get airborne for a fraction of a second, sometimes actually moving the car a foot or two sideways. For Howard, trapped in his four-by-seven-foot cavity of dead air, such a sudden shift could send him crashing into a wall of wind blowing at 125 miles per hour. Whoosh! And down he’d go.
It almost happened. One hundred yards into the time traps on the final run in Mexico, Vesco hit a whopping whoop-de-do. Within a tenth of a second the car shifted sideways a foot and a half and Howard felt a powerful thrust of air from beneath him. To his horror, the car was no longer directly in front of him. He was at the edge of his protective pocket of calm air when the bike’s front wheel jerked sharply to the left, then to the right. He thought he was going down, about to become part of a Mexican picket fence. But somehow he managed to bank himself against the thrust of the furious wind, pull the bike up, straighten it out, and finish the run — his fastest ever.
Later Howard learned that Vesco had struggled desperately to recover from the whoop-de-do as well. From the very beginning Vesco hadn't liked the surface; piloting the Bonneville Streamliner on this elevated twenty-seven-foot-wide highway felt like sprinting knobbly-kneed on a tightrope. That last whoop-de-do was more than he could take. It was time to quit.
When he got off the bike, Howard noticed something strange about the right pedal. Its bottom portion, the point that would touch first in a fall, had been shaved slightly. Holy shit! he thought. The asphalt did that!
What with the noise of the race car and his concentrated effort to recover from the whoop-de-do, Howard hadn't noticed that he had leaned far enough to have his pedal actually touch the pavement. At over 120 miles per hour. He’d come that close.
“As an athlete I’ve already made my statement,” Howard says. “My attitude has changed; rather than expecting to win every time, I can accept fifth or sixth place if that’s all I’ve got in me.” To hear him speak, things couldn't be better. He’s diversified his lifestyle, pursuing business and creative interests that alleviate the boredom of being a one-dimensional jock. Unlike years ago when he dreaded training, he now enjoys it, sees it more as an avocation than as a job. It sounds as if he’s been infected with middle-age wisdom. He’s doing everything right, charting a future, aging slowly and gracefully. But there’s still this land speed attempt, this embedded thorn that’s been trying to get out for two years.
Howard had planned to go back to Bonneville on November 24 for another shot at the record, but last weekend it rained again and all hopes of dethroning Dr. Allan Abbott in 1984 have been buried. “I’m pissed,” Howard says. “But how can I bitch at nature? I’m just going to have to drop back ten yards and punt.” Come next July the salt flats should be baked dry by the summer sun and conditions should be ideal to try again. The mechanics, timers, journalists, photographers, sponsors, friends, and local speed groupies will gather once more in Wendover, and on a hot, dry morning they’ll all head out to the speedway and watch Howard roll his dice on the salt. There’s no telling how fast he’ll go. Two years ago he was saying he might reach 200 miles per hour, but he’s more cautious now. “There’s no way to predict,” he says. “There are so many unknowns. I may break the record by two miles per hour and say, ‘That’s it, this is too dangerous.’” Howard doesn’t expect that to happen; he expects a textbook performance. It is possible, of course, that the combination of superior equipment and Howard’s honed motorpacing skills makes breaking this record a foregone conclusion. What if he goes out and reaches 150 miles per hour on the first day? Would he shoot for 160? “Well,” he says, “we’ve got all the equipment, don’t we?”