Heart Racing

A True Story of a Motorcycle Racer
By George Jonas
Macmillan, 270 pp.

It opens in the second person singular: you, you, you.

Here you are at Grattan Speedway outside Grand Rapids, Mich., the night before the races. No money for a room at the motel, so you’re camping out. Not even enough money for a case of beer because all your cash has been sunk into entry fees and racing fuel and the bike itself – the only reason you’re here.

So you prop yourself up against a rock in the twilight, a can of insecticide at the ready, and you kill the time by killing mosquitoes.

Except that it’s a conceit, this second-person voice: a journalist’s trick to place the reader in the scene, as though Jay McInerney had written Bright Headlights, Big Cylinders.

Because you are not camped on the Michigan grass on a hot August night, and probably never have been. You have never been catapulted through the fairing of a Yamaha at Mosport at 90 km/h, face first into a rock, obliterating your nose and pulping yourself into eight days of unconsciousness. You do not have a permanent limp, a pin in your ankle and a life history of cracked ribs, separated shoulders and dislocated thumbs.

You, in short, are not Frank Mzarek, the motorcycle-mad Czech Canadian – Crazy Frank, the Bouncing Czech – still racing after more than 40 years on the circuits, at the age of 53.

But author George Jonas is not to be faulted for his first-chapter indulgence in direct address. No, neither you nor I invite near-penury, marital disintegration and violent injury just for the thrill of chasing like-minded fanatics through hairpin turns every weekend weather permits – but only the dead of spirit could fail to be intrigued by the folk who do.

What does it feel like to be slung across a howling 1,000 cc Ducati two-stroke, dicing wheel to wheel with racers half one’s age? What does the world look like to such a creature? The question is not what if it were, but why isn’t it . . . you?

And that, in part, is the merit of A Passion Observed. This is not a profound book, but neither does it pretend to be. There’s nothing startlingly original about how it’s written; it lopes along like a lengthy magazine piece, as effortless and pleasant as basking in the sun. But it draws the reader into the universe of the two-wheeled speedsters, right into the mind of one of its most stalwart members.

In that regard, it’s more pop sociology than adulatory sports biography: a guide to the physics and metaphysics of motorcycle racing. Usually, books like this chronicle the careers of champions. But Frank Mzarek, though he’s won his share of titles and trophies – he’s been Canadian and North American champion in a couple of classes – was never a Gretzky or a Stenmark. He’s a natural talent all right, but circumstances somehow always intervened to keep the brass ring maddeningly out of reach.

For a start, he grew up in the wrong country. In Czechoslovakia, motorcycle racing was a national passion, but the socialist-engineered bikes were no match for what the West could produce. Worse, Mzarek had the misfortune to be the son of a “kulak” – his father, before the coming of the socialists, had been a reasonably well-to-do businessman. No son of a kulak was going to receive the state’s blessing to ride motorcycles for a living.

Later, when he and his wife defected (scrambling in the pitch dark across the Yugoslavian border into Austria), they would emigrate to Canada – possibly an even worse country for a motorbike junkie. Canadians did not make motorcycles. There were no factories to sponsor world-class riders. The racing community in the late ’60s was a tiny kernel of hard-core enthusiasts. Mzarek ran headlong into that distinctly Canadian condition: you could be the best there was, but still no one would care.

The fact that A Passion Observed isn’t a story of chequered flags and laurels makes it, if anything, more interesting. What’s exceptional about Frank Mzarek isn’t his collection of tin cups, but his spirit and love of the sport. Without such people, there would be no motorcycle racing (or rock climbing, or sky diving, or any of the weekend hobbies that can kill the hobbyist).

It’s impossible not to like Mzarek – the army draftee who snuck out of camp weekend after weekend to go racing, returning unrepentant to repeated spells in the brig; the young man convalescing from a crash who saw a picture of Czechoslovakia’s new figure-skating sweetheart on the cover of a magazine, vowed to marry her one day and did; the guy who woke up in a Toronto hospital after eight days of blackness and asked, in his fractured English, “You know if Yamaha is bang up pretty bad?” This is the stuff that movies are made of – or a hardcover at any rate.

Like anyone whose life centres on a passion, there’s a certain selfishness to Mzarek. He convinced his wife to defect against her own judgment. When she landed a job in Los Angeles with the Ice Follies, he persuaded her to give it up after two years. Things that came between him and the track were inconveniences to be dispensed with. But that, too, is part of the enthusiast’s constitution.

George Jonas should know. He’s an enthusiast himself, racing a Norton in vintage motorcycle events. That’s how this book came to be written: Jonas astride his Norton, being lapped again and again by 50-year-old Frank.

Jonas has more money than Mzarek – the proceeds from his books (Greenspan: The Case for the Defence) and radio work (Scales of Justice) subsidize his hobby. He also has better connections. So Jonas put together a small syndicate of his pals – people like Eddie Greenspan and Norman Jewison – and with a little backing from Labbatt they gave Frank a pit crew and a classic Ducati, the aim being to win the prestigious Pro Twin Grand Prix at Daytona.

On March 10, 1989, Mzarek made the fourth row on the starting grid at Daytona. On the first lap, the Ducati’s rear wheel seized and for him the race was over.

Not to worry. He’s only 53, and there’s always next year.eg

  • Montreal Gazette July 8, 1989