The Critics Respond, Part Thirty-One

rz350

My editorial for R&T yesterday on the uninspiring nature of electric “performance” cars generated all sorts of responses, at least a few of which somehow decided from reading nothing but the headline that I was in favor of electric cars and proceeded to call me an idiot for it. And then you have this fellow above, who thinks I should check out a Yamaha RZ350. As fate would have it, I did check out a Yamaha RZ350, some thirty-two years ago.


rZ3501

The Yamaha RZ350 was the last great two-stroke street motorcycle sold in this country. With about forty horsepower to push 375 pounds, it could run a thirteen-second quarter mile in 1984. Just for perspective, the Ferrari Testarossa was also introduced in 1984. Car and Driver said at the time that “It blows through the quarter-mile like Hurricane Freddy, in a sensational 13.3 seconds at 107 mph.” Although the ’84 Testarossa stickered at $89,995 or thereabouts, transaction prices were closer to $110k for most of 1984 and 1985, leading Ferrari to raise the sticker all the way to $135k in late ’85. By contrast, the 1984 RZ350 retailed for $2,399, in your choice of red-and-white or Yamaha Racing’s team colors of yellow and black.

It’s a Dairy Mart now, but thirty-two years ago 3760 Snouffer Road in northern Columbus, Ohio was the local Yamaha and Kawasaki dealer, a Seventies-era ski-lodge-styled angular building in that brick red so common to the era, with plenty of glass to let the sun shine on the small showroom floor. It was about an hour’s walk each way from our little townhouse in Riverside Green, through backyards and across a couple of fallow cornfields complete with rotting, abandoned farmhouses. In the five years afterwards, those fields were cleared and the homes were burned and a wave of development would wash concrete and asphalt over the whole area, grocery stores and strip malls breeding like lilacs out of the dead land. But in 1984 my peregrination to the Yamaha store would not have been terribly unfamiliar to any Midwestern farmer or rural child.

It’s worth noting that I found the motorcycle shop by chance. I was twelve years old when Bark and I moved to Riverside Green. I had a lot of free time, particularly in the summer, and I was restless. The roads were still arrow-straight two-lanes thick with truck traffic, so I left my bicycle at home and simply walked for hours at a time, mapping out the neighborhood and what lay beyond with the patience and dull repetitive motions of an insect. The Yamaha dealer was more or less alone on Snouffer Road at the time. I have no idea why anybody thought it was a good idea to locate there; the only other major business in the area was a Ford dealership that located at the 270-and-Sawmill Road exit by the imperial orders of Ford itself and which struggled mightily for two decades until the development finally arrived and it began to mint hard cash hand over fist.

My companion for those walks was usually my friend Bobby, half a year older than I was but a foot shorter, stooped and crooked with severe scoliosis. Sometimes Bark would come along; he was seven years old. Looking back, it probably wasn’t the most brilliant idea for us to wander around like that. If I found out that my son, who is that age now that Bark was then, was taking six-mile walks across traffic and whatnot, sometimes even daring to cross the shoulderless two-lane Sawmill freeway overpass, with two other children as his only guides, I’d be too furious to speak.

All through that summer of 1984, the Yamaha shop had RZ350s on the showroom floor. The first time I walked into the dealer, sweating from the walk and afraid of my own shadow in adult company, I was afraid to even touch it. Over the course of the season, as I got taller and bolder, I eventually got to the point where I could engage the salesmen in brief, stuttering conversations. Then, around the time I cleared the six-foot mark, I sidled up to a yellow-and-black RZ and, with a quick glance around me to ensure the coast was clear, swung my leg over the bike.

There I was, sitting on an actual sportbike! It was as close as I’d ever been to one; it goes without saying that my father and his peers would be no more likely to own a motorcycle than they would be to don overalls and start working as pump jockeys at the local SOHIO gas station. I half expected the bike to fall over and crush me beneath it, but instead I was able to flick up the kickstand and just sit there, the RZ’s nose facing the big glass windows and the street beyond.

“Vroom,” I said. Bobby was as far away from me as he could manage without leaving the building; he was terrified that I’d be arrested for sitting on the bike. I shuddered with a surge of desire strong enough to made my shoulders wobble. Earlier that month I’d kissed one of the eighth-grade girls from my apartment complex up against the blank brick side of the northern building and she’d briefly stuck her tongue in my mouth; that’s what it was like to sit on the RZ350, only much better. It occurred to me that I could maybe meet a lot of girls if I had a motorcycle like this, but I would also have the option to just ride the motorcycle around and not waste time with girls at all. “Vroom,” I repeated.

“Hey, kid,” a salesman said from the dark alcove of the finance office, “you can’t sit on that bike. It’s sold.” My veins turned to ice with terror.

“Bobby,” I whispered. He wasn’t even daring to look at me. “BOBBY!” I whispered, louder this time. “You have to help me get off this thing and put the kickstand down.”

“N-n-n-no way,” he said, turning and facing the wall like the next customer to enter the dealer was going to be the Blair Witch.

“It’s okay,” the salesman said, walking up and terrifying me with his facial hair and broad-set jollity. “Put the stand down like this.” And he showed me. And helped me get back off the bike. And, wonder of wonders, gave me his business card and the brochure for the bike. “Come back,” he winked, “when you’re sixteen.”

If my feet touched the ground during the three mile walk back home, I didn’t feel it.

The prosperity that came to the Sawmill/270 area didn’t save the Yamaha dealer; it swept it away. The whole showroom was ripped off the building by a front-end loader, replaced with gasoline pumps. The rest of the showroom became a Dairy Mart. And now perhaps it’s appropriate to move directly to the end of this story:

Bobby died in his thirties from health complications related to his childhood.

Your author bought a 1986 Ninja 600 in the summer of 1994, almost ten years to the day after he’d first sat on an RZ350.

The RZ350 was discontinued for 1986, a victim of the EPA’s no-excuses attitude towards two-stroke engines and the sportbike market’s demonstrated preference for 600cc “supersports”.

Yamaha introduced the R3 last year. It’s the same size, weight, power, and performance as the RZ350, although it spins to a much higher redline and perhaps isn’t quite as ice-cold cool as its bumblebee-colored forebear.

Mrs. Baruth owns an R3. It lives in my house, as does she.

And everything is going to be alright in the end.

50 Replies to “The Critics Respond, Part Thirty-One”

  1. Michael

    Congratulations to you and the new Mrs. Baruth. On a unrelated note, are you coming back to South Jersey Motor Sports Park for AER this summer?

    Reply
  2. Brian

    Great story with an awesome ending, Jack. I’m happy for you and the Mrs.

    Pretty cool that the salesman treated you like a future customer.

    Reply
  3. Shocktastic

    I wish I could write an excellent or brilliant comment but all I can tap into my phone is that this is some excellent prose and a taut essay. Thank you.

    Reply
  4. DeadWeight

    This is the kind of story (whether non-fiction, as in this case, or not) that makes your writing & written sentiment so incredibly relatable to persons such as myself, who shared such incredibly similar experiences in childhood.

    I look back in awe at how, at the age of 7 or 8, I would stray from home for a half dozen miles or so, sometimes with a friend or two, often on my own, on bike, to explore meadows, woods, creeks – without concern for a world where 24/7 * Breaking News Everything* Cable New Networks blared dangers, hazards and imminent threats.

    It truly was a genuinely more calm and far less hysterical age, where few people compared to today vaginally bled from every orifice over every real (however minor) or imagined transgression (PC Principal @ SouthPark).

    Reply
  5. DeadWeight

    Oh yeah – minor omission – Congratulations to you & the new Mrs. Beauty, Jack.

    You’re so non-dramatic about these things that I’ll beg your forgiveness for failing to comment on what really is a momentous occasion.

    Reply
    • DeadWeight

      “Mrs. Beauty”

      That was supposed to be Mrs. Baruth.

      That was autocorrect. It changes Baruth to Beauty and always has on my tablet.

      Reply
      • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

        I assume when your phone does that it’s thinking of some of my female cousins, who have been acclaimed as being quite beautiful, and not my repellent mug.

        Reply
        • DeadWeight

          Dude, you’re a man, not a template upon which the empowered modern woman can design her vision of what a 21st century submissive, smooth, nearly body-hairless, sculpted, non-analytical male should appear to be.

          Reply
  6. Gene

    “… an appointment in downtown Las Vegas early Saturday morning that absolutely required we be on time.”

    Congratulations, good sir.

    Reply
  7. -Nate-Nate

    ” If I found out that my son, who is that age now that Bark was then, was taking six-mile walks across traffic and whatnot, sometimes even daring to cross the shoulderless two-lane Sawmill freeway overpass, with two other children as his only guides, I’d be too furious to speak.”

    Seriously Jack ? do you live in a dangerous area or what ? .

    I booted my 7 Y.O. Son out the door in the first day of Summer and told him to go explore , he’d come back every night and tell me all about the ghetto we live in then as he learned to range further afield , the mountains and canyons etc. .

    Kids who don’t explore are never going to be good self sufficient Adults .

    The story is great , I remember looking at a yard full of pre war Indians and Hendersons in rural New Hampshire in 1966 .

    Nice to hear you’ve gotten some to go through life with and help you raise up John .

    -Nate

    Reply
    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      Intellectually, I believe in “free-range” parenting.

      Emotionally, John is all I have and I’m loathe to let him go too far.

      The problem with my neighborhood is that in order to leave it you need to be able to play chicken with relatively stout 50mph traffic.

      Reply
      • rwb

        “Intellectually, I believe in “free-range” parenting.”

        If you haven’t already, and you want to see what that looks like applied to education, look into Sudbury schools.

        Far be it from me to advise you on raising any form of life never mind your child, but I went to one and will advocate for it given the chance. Obviously, it won’t work for everyone, but it works very well for some.

        Reply
      • Disinterested-Observer

        Jah I would love to let my kids do like I did, but I just can’t. When I was six I walked away from summer camp all the time and just wandered around in the woods.

        Reply
  8. -Nate-Nate

    I hear you John ;

    When Jr/ left @ 18 Y.O. I almost choked to death on those goddamned apron strings he’d never even noticed me tying…..

    Your job like it or not , it to make sure he knows what to do when you’re not there .

    -Nate

    Reply
  9. tifoso

    Nice piece, it conveyed a lot in both substance and emotion. Congratulations to the newly minted Mr. & Mrs. Baruth.

    Reply
  10. aircooledTOM

    Proud RD 400 owner here. I bought one on eBay in 2003 or 04. It was the first bike I regularly rode on as a passenger with my dad. I treasure it. Same goes for his Sportster 1200s which I inherited. Can’t imagine parting with either.

    I have similar memories of exploration and throwing a leg over bikes at my local Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki, ducati, KTM, etc, etc… dealer.

    Heartiest congratulations on your wedding. Marriage can be difficult, but it’s been so wonderful for me.

    Reply
  11. viper32cm

    Congratulations, Jack! If I was local to you, I’d offer a celebratory round, but, failing that, please know that, although we’ve never met, I am genuinely happy for you.

    Also, your bike story reminds me of the many times I begged my dad to take me to car dealerships so I could snag brochures. I had a whole pile of the things spanning a ten year span, but, much to my chagrin, the one time I got my dad to take me to a Porsche dealer, they wouldn’t give up the goods. I do remember them being nice enough about it though.

    Reply
  12. SIV

    I used to ride my Schwinn Collegiate Sport 5 speed over to the industrial side of town turn at the RR tracks down a narrow potholed, gravel-strewn narrow dead end road through alkaline clouds of silica dust and hexavalent chromium dodging the cement mixers and dump trucks over to the Ferrari dealership (FAF) across from TUCCO Cement Company. The new models leaned heavily to 308s but there was always plenty of better-looking used inventory in the $25k range. I remember what I think now was a Vignale-bodied Inter coupe and how it would make a good sleeper because who would know it was packing a tiny displacement V-12 under the hood.

    Reply
  13. Brian

    Now that, is a brilliant way to end a story. You took the reader on a journey, brought him home, and left him hopeful that better times and stories are to come. Great work and congratulations!

    Reply
  14. paulinlasvegas

    Congrats!!! Got me a little emotional with the surprise ending. Now I’m gonna get a kleenex. I’m sure my wife’s just cutting some onions.

    Reply
  15. davefla

    For me, it was the Suzuki GS1000. I never tried to stand next to the big silver scoot, let alone sit on it. The showroom floor was too crowded and I was always with Dad since the dealership was twenty minutes away. I knew from reading Cycle every month that my first street bike shouldn’t be an inline four, let alone a liter bike. It still grabbed my attention every time I came in for Yamahopper parts or to replace yet another piece fallen off of my RM 100.

    Thanks for the reminder and congratulations. This should keep you happier and healthier, if not off the streets and out of trouble!

    Reply
  16. VolandoBajo

    Congrats to you and the new Mrs., Jack. From the little bit of an opportunity that I have had to try to get to know you a bit better, it seems to me like you have your head on straight, and that you and the Mrs. are both willing and able to make whatever adjustments you find necessary in order to keep each other happy, through all the binary options of traditional wedding vows…richer and poorer, better and worse, in sickness and health, etc. Though I sincerely hope that it will be mostly the better half of those dichotomies. Nevertheless, true love takes work to work out the inevitable differences that arise between two strong-willed individuals. As long as both people know that and are willing to compromise with each other, it can stay fresh forever.

    All the best to both of you. Drop me a line when and if you might be in NJ or eastern PA…though we will be in full swing with year two of Matt’s lawncare business, we will endeavor to take a day or two off to come visit and to see you race, if that’s in the cards.

    The fact that Matt and I will be working his lawncare business this summer is reason for me to be happy, way beyond its surface meaning, as it means he will NOT be living in NC.

    Your comments on free range parenting coupled with fears of anything bad happening to John really strike a resonant chord with me…and for me, the loss of a young son, especially an only son, is almost incomprehensible to me. In the end, I just tried to train Matt to keep an eye out for risky situations, and take evasive actions when advisable.

    Re: your new status…the Spanish language equivalent of “lived happily ever after” is “todos estabamos felices y comen perdices”, which translates to “…and everyone was happy and ate partridges.” All that and more to you and the new Mrs. Danger Girl Baruth…

    Reply
  17. pbr

    Torque vs revs … why not both? Talk your way into ride on one of the old V-twin superbikes … Apriila RSV, Honda RC51, ‘Zook TL1000 …

    PS — have you seen anyone driving a Tesla in an HDPE yet?

    Reply
    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      As a few people have pointed out, those old Twins have very uncompromising seating positions.

      There was a fellow driving a Tesla in the AER Friday practice at NJMP last year. I lapped him in a Prius.

      Reply
      • pbr

        Yes. Well. I figured you weren’t up for owning one, between your (ahem) vertical challenges and history of sudden stops. I was thinking more along the lines of “ride it long enough to store the beautiful noises,” not “you should buy one.” Curious tho, was that ’92 FZR tolerable for you? It doesn’t look clearly more comfortable on http://cycle-ergo.com/ than the old twins above. Forgive me, I’m not going looking for an FZR to try on b/c looking at old bikes leads to old bikes following me home … and I have enough problem children just now, thanks.

        Did the Tesla guy get a day out of it, or was it melted/drained/bluescreened after a couple of sessions?

        Reply

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