Banzai Hill

By Kevin Sleeth

I am 45 years old and have ridden and raced motorcycles since I was 16. I have never achieved a status higher than a novice racer, but I love to ride just as much as any Pro.

When I first started racing, my favorite place to race was Saddleback.  I raced Saturday Saddleback with CMC and enjoyed every minute of the 45 minute plus one lap motos.  I never missed an opportunity to come out and watch the Pros when there was a National or Trans-Am.  Every once in a while, the weekend after one of those races, Saddleback would leave in sections of the track so that it was just like the track my favorite riders ¿ ¿The Rhinestone Cowboy,¿ “Hurricane,¿ “Magoo,¿ “Rocket Rex” and “The Bomber” rode on the week prior.  I couldn’t ride like those guys, but just riding a track they had ridden on was an experience I knew few people were lucky enough to have and boy did I look forward to it.

One part of the track they never left in, however, was Banzai Hill.  And was I ever glad for that.  I saw Banzai every weekend when I would race at Saddleback, but it was one of those things that stood silent and ominous, off in the distance, shadowing you with its eerie presence.  I saw Banzai attacked by the Pros with what appeared to be absolutely no fear.  Just standing there watching riders fly down Banzai, touching the ground just a few times on the way down, scared the crap out of me.  It was terrifying just to watch.  In fact, I remember vividly the day Banzai took the life of Jim West.

The weekend following a National, I arrived in the pits at Saddleback running a little late to the race.  Being excited and familiar with the track, I put my gear on and bolted out to practice without checking the track first.  As I pulled a long fourth gear pinned wheelie on my Maico up the crest of the start hill, I hit fifth.  I was flying and it seemed odd that it was taking longer than normal to get to the first turn.

As I began my turn, I saw a bunch of riders to my left, all gathered up and so I went wide to avoid them.  Then I realized why they were stopped at the top of the start hill and what they were staring at.  This was why it took so long to get to the first turn, they had extended the start to leave Banzai in and I had just committed myself to going down.

This was one of those moments where time stands still.  In the matter of probably less than a second I was barraged with a couple of hundred different thoughts.  With adrenaline driving my thought process, each thought was perfectly analyzed and worked to conclusion in my mind.  To this day I can remember it as if it were yesterday.

Oh sh*t! – This is Banzai – Should I stop? – Can I stop? – Will I die if I don’t stop? – I want to race – This can be done – People around me are going down – If I go down I can’t just ride down, I have to pin it – If I race today I will have to go down every lap, damn! – Where is the best line? – If I ride to the side, at least if I cartwheel nobody will hit me, maybe? – Should I leave it in fourth? – What is going to happen at the bottom? – What the hell – Here it goes!

I gassed it and decided to play it safe and go a little slow, so I left it in third. 

Quickly, I was at a speed that was way beyond my ability for the circumstance I was in.  I would have applied the brakes, but it would have been useless as I was spending most of the time airborne.  I think I touched the ground two or three times (this part I don’t remember as total fear took over).

I do remember feeling as if the ground had been pulled out from under me and my eyes felt as if they were pressed against my Carrera goggles like a cartoon character.

The sound of my bike red-lining brought me back to conscious reality like being slapped awake out of a bad dream.  If I could just figure out how to slow at the bottom and not cross rut on the boot deep grooves, I would survive.  Somehow, someway, as the G-forces slammed my internal organs into the tips of my Hi-Point boots, I made it.  I immediately pulled off the track.  There was no way I could finish a lap with my heart pounding like it was.  I had over-revved my heart like a beginner twisting the throttle on a mini bike for the first time.

I asked around and sure enough they were going to run Banzai.  All right, I decided, even though I was petrified from my experience, I was going to race today.  All I had to do was figure out the “good line” down Banzai and everything would be just fine.

I rode over to Banzai and looked down from the top.  The ground dropped away and tucked back into the hill like a huge wave sucking out and folding over on itself.  I couldn’t see a thing.  As I looked over the edge I got the same sick feeling you get in the pit of your stomach as you creep forward and set the edges of your skis just before you drop in from the ledge of a steep chute you have never skied before.  Only this time I was on a dirt bike.

I decided to ride slowly down and pick out my line.  I went over the top and it was like riding over Niagara Falls.  Gravity took control and held me captive.  My ride down was committed to a full locked rear brake and trying to stay on two wheels.  I was just trying to survive my trip over the falls and¿I didn’t remember a thing on the way down, let alone pick the “good line”.  My heart was racing again and my eyeballs were really starting to hurt from being pressed against the inside of my goggles for the second time.

When I got to the bottom I stopped, took a breath (as I forgot to breathe on the way down) and looked back.  I saw a mountain.  It was a hard slippery rock and shale nightmare.  It was full of bumps, little rocks and ruts.  There was no line!  This was insane!  I got dizzy.  I rode away.

As I sat on the tailgate of my truck, I was faced with a huge decision.  I knew this would be a turning point in my life.  Do I race and risk life and limb?  Do I ask to have my race and gate fee returned to me?  What would my friends think?  I looked over and stared at Banzai.  I tried to picture myself going down the face.  My mind was filled with terror and anxiety, the likes of which I had never experienced.  This was not good.

As I left the track that day I rationalized my decision.  It was worth the gate fee and entry fee to have ridden down Banzai twice and survive.  Hell, that was a lot more than most.  Besides, I wasn’t going to tell anyone I chickened out anyway.  I felt as if I was becoming a man (I was 17).  I had made a mature decision that probably saved my life.

Later that week, I learned too many people were injured in practice so they took Banzai out for the race.

I felt vindicated.

To this day I have never told my race buddies what happened.

They would have had to have been there to understand.