At 73, Jim Hovanec knows that he should make wise decisions regarding face coverings and social distancing. So, on a typical weekend, he will put on a helmet (and full leathers), stay about 6 feet away from his fellow motorcyclists, and enjoy himself at 140 miles per hour.
“I have raced about a dozen times this year,” Jim told me, “half of them at the new track in Pineville, several times at the New York State Safety Track and we did a three-day event in Michigan. That was great. It was a two and a half mile track, and we raced going in different directions (in separate races, of course) and it felt like a different track.”
When I asked about that 140 mph, Jim said, “At the track, people ride at their own skill level and my KTM 990 Super Duke tops out around 140, but some of the BMWs and Yamahas often hit 180.”
Hovanec (who was featured as Jimmy Ho in my April Fool’s Day story about guys riding on the back of their wives’ bikes) climbed aboard his first road bike in 1966, and he has spent more time in the saddle than just about anyone I know. He owned and operated his own shop, Progressive Powersport, for many years and he sold the sleek, sassy and highly technologically-advanced Ducati brand. Selling those bikes gave Jim a lot of satisfaction, but it also reinforced something he’d already known: There is, too often, a dangerous gap between a bike’s capabilities and the skill level of its rider.
I could hear a degree of frustration in his voice when he recalled, “I talked a lot of my customers into going over to Watkins Glen to attend the riding school and sharpen their skills on the track. With no instruction, too many guys were crashing and then selling their bikes.”
Jim and I had a conversation about road riding, and as two guys with 102 years of combined experience, we’ve seen a lot. “I have only had one serious incident,” Jim said. “I was coming back from Alaska in 2007, and some lady in a mini-van took off my front wheel of my Harley.” “The ambulance guy told me if I didn’t have the top-shelf safety gear I had on, I’d probably be dead.”
I shared my close calls stories: how turning into my driveway, I was almost rear-ended by a car going 55 mph; and had the driver not realized what was happening until one second later, it would have been catastrophic. Jim nodded and said, “You really have to be aware. Drivers are so distracted. You have to scan front and back, and you have to have the right equipment...There is the old saying, ‘You have to dress for the slide, not for the ride,’ and you have to be aware that the old myth about not using your front brake is not helpful. The newer bikes – especially with good tires – have great stopping power. I’d talk to guys who said, ‘I had to lay it down,’ and I’d see a 150-foot skid mark and it was clear that if they knew how to use their front brake they wouldn’t have crashed.”
As for those high-horsepower, high-speed weekend track adventures, Jim said “Ironically, it’s safer to ride on the track than on the road. There are no guard rails, no oncoming traffic, and there is an ambulance on site.” He continued, “One of the cool things they do at the New York Safety Track is to host a ‘Rookie Day.’ They do a ‘follow the leader’ thing, and they show you the right lines to take, proper braking, how to read the pavement.” Asked to clarify, Jim said, “You see those ‘black snakes’ when they patch roads, and those can make a bike feel very different. When you get the right training, you learn that a little wiggle doesn’t have to mean you’re losing control.”
Hovanec and his racing buddies will get on the track as often as they can until it gets too cold, and then Jim – unlike most people – will get happier as the temperatures plummet. When the ice gets thick enough, he will get on his bike with the metal-studded tires and ice-race on ponds until it gets warm enough to get back on the road and track.
When you’re 73, and you know you only have 15 or 20 years left to race competitively, you follow the advice of Freddie Mercury and Queen. You “Get on Your Bikes and Ride.”