As 70-something former track race legend Bill Lloyd absent-mindledly strums a few chords on his banjo, it’s clear he’s finally revelling in a more laid-back way of life.
But as he chats about his glory days and how he never expected to get beaten, the glint in his eye gives a nod to the determination needed to reach the top of his trade.
To the uninitiated, flat track racing might sound like a foolish way to push the limits of rider and motorcycle in search of that split second of uncertain ecstasy.
No front brake, dirt surfaces of varying levels of stability, and a balls-out dash down a straightaway heading into a controlled skid around a wide corner within inches of a flurry of other riders inches from each other. Equal parts skill and dumb luck are all that lies between you and a crash.
But that was Bill’s life throughout much of the 60s and early 70s in a career that he sums up as “never a time I couldn’t win, and while I wasn’t always the best, it always took the best to beat me.”
Bill’s racing career included wins on many of the East Coast’s most famous venues and against or teamed with some of the era’s most accomplished riders – racers like Larry and Chuck Palmgren, and the legendary Swede Savage..
In fact, Bill was one of only six amateurs who received a national number at the end of his amateur year, and that included fellow Triumph rider, Sholly. That would be a bit like a 14 year-old footballer being able to play for a professional club.
It was Bill’s Uncle Bill Adkins that was responsible for Bill’s entry into racing.
“He was like a father, brother and a friend to me the whole time I was growing up. He rode a 1947 or ‘48 Harley Davison, and he always took me everywhere he went on that bike. Well, around 1955 I decided I wanted to race, so I got on a little 125 cc bike and bought it for $35 with money I’d saved delivering papers. I told my uncle I wanted to race that bike, so he helped me get it to where I could.”
Bill’s first race on the bike was in Petersburg, Virginia and he took third. His racing career in both flat track and road racing took off from there.
That 125 was quickly replaced by a 200 cc Tiger Cub that Bill said had barely been ridden by the owner. He wanted to race that bike too, but his uncle didn’t think it was fast enough. A local (Washington DC) dealer and former hill climber named Herb Reiber had seen Bill ride and offered to make the Cub faster, so Bill wisely let him. And he began winning.
“I was 15 or 16 years old and I was winning a lot of the races race I entered. Rod Coats from Triumph saw me at one of the races and offered to get me on a bigger 500 cc bike. Triumph ended up giving me all of the latest equipment, and I was the top amateur in the nation in 1964.”
Bill relays all of his exploits with a Texas drawl and a matter-of-factness that belies his accomplishments. It’s not that he’s not proud of them or doesn’t appreciate what it took to win the 50 to 60 times he ran both flat track and some road races. For him it was just to be expected.
But racing, regardless of what form it takes, is not without dangers…and an inevitable crash or two. And the faster you go and the less protection you have, the easier it is to get hurt and hurt badly. While Bill managed to mostly avoid such disasters, the one that put him into a multi-day coma is the one that eventually brought an end to his racing career.
“I was with Herb (Reiber) and we were loading up the bike after a race in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. It was October 9, 1972. Never forget that date. And I turned to him and I said, ‘Herb, I’m done.’ And I didn’t race any more after that. My reaction time and reflexes just weren’t the same after that wreck. I had a wife and kids to take care of.”
Since riders back then were expected to work on their own bikes, Bill’s wrenching skills landed him a job as a mechanic for TWA, a now defunct airline. After they went under, he moved to Texas and became a mechanic for a trucking company and the city of Round Rock.
Which brings us in a roundabout way to banjos.
Music, like motorcycles, has been a constant in Bill’s life. His mother played the piano, and his Uncle Bill played the guitar and harmonica. But a guy named Smitty Irwin would spark Bill’s interest in the banjo.
“I’d watch Smitty play when I was a kid and wanted to learn to play the banjo just like him. So when I was 18 or 19, I bought a banjo and have played ever since. After I retired from racing and we were living in Austin, Texas, I formed a bluegrass band and we started playing around town. We even opened for Ray Price a couple of times and got some attention on one of the local TV stations.”
Today, Bill’s band, The Showman Blue Grass Extraordinaire, performs around the Austin area, including weddings, parties and wherever a good bluegrass band is wanted and appreciated.
But what’s missing from Bill’s life and garage is a motorcycle. Although, that doesn’t keep him from getting on one now and then.
“I have friends who let me ride their bikes once in a while, and a guy up the street named Steve Kline has a bunch of old bikes, including a 1966 Triumph I helped him rebuild.”
Bill is 74 now, and his stories about racing and performing are endless. Some with fast, straight stretches, and others with big sweeping curves that eventually bring you to the finish – much like his racing and the music he loves.
Every win and every note are parts of a whole to be remembered and told again to anyone willing to stop for even a moment and listen.