Between the Motos:  Cycle News’ Paul Carruthers

Between the Motos: Cycle News’ Paul Carruthers

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Paul Carruthers is the longtime editor of Cycle News, the weekly newspaper that was the bible of American motorcycling for five decades. The paper went all-digital a few years back and is doing nicely at www.cyclenews.com. The Cycle News staff, now with the MAG Corporation, also had thousands of issues of the newspaper that were difficult to navigate—if you could find someone who had all the back issues. Now, thanks to a very long project of scanning and archiving all of the pages of those fifty-plus years of Cycle News, interested readers can access all of the back issues for a small subscription fee (though if you're a bench-racing enthusiast like I am, you would pay much more for a treasure trove of information and photos like this).

I recently spoke with Paul about the process he and the staff went through to open this vast resource to a whole new generation of motorcycling fans.

Racer X: Paul, back in February I was sitting with you and a few industry friends at the Indy Trade Show and you blew our minds when you showed us a preview of the Cycle News Archives. How did the whole project come together?
Paul Carruthers: Well, when things went south with the old Cycle News and I got together with the people at MAG, I realized, Okay, at least now we might be able to have the financial backing to make it work. Because it’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time because there’s so much value there. One of the things I made sure that when we got Cycle News from Sharon Clayton was that we had all the archives, all the old photos, all the bound volumes. I knew there was a heck of a lot of the value in the entire company.

So MAG was on board right away when I told them. There’s just so much history and information there that nobody else really has. So they were on board from the beginning and said, “Yeah, let’s do this. Let’s figure out what it takes to get it archived in a digital format.” Then when we started to do Cycle News weekly in that digital format, so we obviously we had a platform in place. We grew accustomed to how it worked, how the procedure worked. From there it was just like, Okay, let’s figure out how to get this done.

And one of our original concerns was we quite honestly thought we were going to have to send it abroad to get it done.

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Like, seriously, where else can you find cool stuff like this?

You’re talking about the scanning here, because the idea that digital files exist of the 1981 Motocross of Nations story, that’s not the case. Everything was done on paper back then.
Exactly. What we had was bound volumes from every Cycle News that we’ve ever done. So my concern was that somebody was going to have to take those bound volumes and scan them in, which I couldn’t even imagine what the process was going to be like. I thought the only way that we’re going to be able to afford to do this is to send it overseas, which frankly had me worried because I just didn’t want to see these big bound volumes shipped somewhere, where they were completely out of our control and we had no idea what was going to happen. Obviously, I was thinking of the worst-case scenario, but I sort of had to.

So Sean Finley did some research, and he actually came up with a company in Irvine, which was right down the street from the MAG office. The project wasn’t cheap by any means, but it was affordable. And we were able to get it done around the corner from us, so we felt safe. We delivered the things there. They would scan them and we would take them back right back. So we had control of everything and it made it comfortable.  I thought the whole project was going to be really big and time-consuming but we were able to get it done and we were able to get it into a format where people could read it, and now here it is.

I have Cycle News collection that goes, here and there, back to maybe ’74, and really continuous volumes from 1985 or so. When I go digging through them, it’s a huge, time-consuming thing to find out, like, who the top ten were at the first 125 supercross at San Diego or Anaheim back in 1985. That stuff is just not very accessible, like finding one needle in a haystack, so I can’t imagine what scanning an entire haystack must be like, to just make that process easier for bench racing kooks like me or Larry Lawrence or Eric Johnson or even yourself!
I’m really happy with how it turned out. I’ve got one up on my desk. I’m kind of behind this week, just because I keep going back and looking at stuff that I shouldn’t. And I really worry about people like Eric, who got hooked up with a subscription recently and may disappear in those archives!  You can just spend so much time looking at this stuff—even the old ads. We always tend to think that what we do is the most clever thing that’s ever been done. But if you look back in time and you look at some of the ad campaigns that people were doing back then, a lot of it’s pretty cool stuff. These people were very clever and cutting-edge.

Again, you can pull over this stuff for hours and hours, but it’s just nice to have it there and to see it. The search feature works really well. Obviously, it takes a little time to get used to, but there’s actually a search feature where I could put in “Roger DeCoster” and it will search for that particular issue that I’m in, or I can put in “Roger DeCoster” and it will search that entire decade.

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Old school.

Not only is there the historic record, and it’s fun for people like us that grew up in the industry and around all these people, it’s fun to go back and see what was what, but there’s also a personal attachment. You see a report on the ’88 Blackwater 100 and you start thinking about where you were then and what that time was like. We live in an industry where the attrition rate is probably a little bit higher than it is in golf or volleyball or whatever. And you see names of guys who aren’t around anymore. It just gives you pause, and pretty soon you’re reading their stuff. I’m blown away that we can go back and discover what a great motocross journalist the late Henny Ray Abrams was, because his stuff back in the day was amazing.
I think Henny spent that one summer or a year in Belgium working for the United Press at the time. He wanted to cover some world motocross events. And also back then, as you know, we used to shoot our own photos. You’d be out there on the track and you’d shoot your own photos, you’d write your own story. It’s funny because you can read a lead that you wrote twenty years ago and you’re like, ‘Oh man, I remember writing that!’ It seems kind of crazy but it all comes back. It’s a cool thing. If you’re interested in moto journalism at all and where people have come from, you can go back there and you can see Davey Coombs wrote this, Ken Faught did this, Donn Maeda did this, and so on.... And you know where these people are today.

Among the Cycle News alumni are Jody Weisel, the late Terry Pratt, and of course TFS [The Factory Spectator, Steve Bruhn]. It’s amazing the alumni that though here. Some are still involved in the industry and others are well on their way to the hall of whatever fame there is for motocross media.
Exactly.

I know that when we finally were able to launch the Racer X Vault, which was a very long project that Larry Lawrence helmed for us, people didn’t understand what a valuable tool it would become to have the full results of every outdoor national or supercross.  And I can’t even begin to explain how valuable this Cycle News Archive is to me as a fan, as a promoter, and a magazine guy, as a research tool. It’s just a record of what my mom and dad did. It’s truly a gift from you and Sean and everyone at Cycle News. To build out something like this is quite a cool thing.
Originally we didn’t like the fact that we kind of had to separate it into decades, but actually I think it worked out better that way because it’s easier to find.… Everybody’s got that decade that they were either a part of or that means something to them. So it’s easier for them to just go to that decade: the sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties.... That’s at least where they can get started, and from there you just want to start going back and forward and all over the map.

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Captain Cobalt on the Cam-Am.

With 2,300 issues, there’s got to be decades because you’re looking at probably three generations in some families, like your family, of people that have been involved in the sport. The names that pop up, like Dan Villopoto wrenching for Mike Healey at Steel City in ’91, it’s amazing.
The other good thing is you can be reading a national report from 1979 and you’re reading about a superstar at the time winning a national, but if you go farther back into the local event section you can read about a kid that you’re going to recognize his name because five or ten years later he’s the next superstar. He’s a 12-year-old racing in some local event and he’s featured in the back of Cycle News.

You can go through and find all those old Mike and Anna Adair photos of the Florida Winter Ams and there’s #586 Nick Wey, and there’s #167 Ricky Carmichael, and there’s #259 James Stewart, and there’s all Team Green kids, all winning at Gainesville. So, explain how people can sign up with this? How does the whole process work? Once you’re signed up is it for a week, a month, a year?
It’s really easy to do, you just go through CycleNews.com. Upper left-hand corner there’s an Archives button that you click on, and then it gives you all the information right there. But basically what we decided to do is you actually pay for access for a given time period. Like, you can do three months or you can do a year. Three months of viewing, so you can stay up twenty-four hours a day for three months if you want! It’s unlimited access for just the time frame that you decide to purchase. People spend more for a cup of coffee at Starbucks in the morning for what they get an entire year’s worth of Cycle News.

My 5-year-old bought an $11 app last night and I about hit the roof.
[Laughs] Sometimes people have a hard time spending money on the internet, but when you break it down, if you go into a store and you grab something off the shelf and you spend 15 or 20 bucks, you don’t even think about it.

I bought the ‘80s for starters. And immediately I got good use out of it because my old friend Jeff Chambers, who was one of the original Team Green technicians, he and I were debating over who won their world championship first in August of 1982—was it Brad Lackey or Danny LaPorte? And he even found in the FIM Annual that says that LaPorte won his title a few weeks before Lackey. And I’d sworn up and down that was wrong. We couldn't find it anywhere, and then all of a sudden I get the press release about the Cycle News Archives. I started doing a little investigating and in three minutes I had the answer to a question that had been bugging Jeff and me for weeks. So thank you. You saved me a lot of time, and a $5 bet!
And one of the other things that is really cool about it is obviously you can find that information on.... You can pull up a particular issue of Cycle News on you iPhone for example. So you could be out to dinner or at a bar and one of these bets comes up and you can settle it right on the spot, instead of somebody going back to their garage and trying to rifle through old issues.

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In this October 1986 issue, you'll find coverage of what many consider Team USA's finest hour.

Let’s settle a bet here right now. How many world champions are in the Carruthers family?
Actually, one: my dad [road racing legend Kel Carruthers].

This, of course, means though that you have to tell your son that you were not a world champion!
[Laughs] Yes, I’ve got to go back on my story and let him know that Grandpa was the only world champion.

Also, the cover galleries alone are priceless. The cover you put out in the press release with the girl on the bike—pretty awesome. Off the top of your head, name one of your favorite Cycle News covers ever.
There was the one cover—you’re better with years than me; you can fill in the gaps—but there was the one cover when basically America won everything.

The 1982 Riders of the Year issue.
Yes, exactly. We had that classic cover with all those guys standing there in their gear. That one obviously jumps right out. Ray Abrams and I went up to Kenny Roberts one year and we did kind of an at-home-hanging-out-with story with him. He had a Yamaha dealership at the time, so we went there.  He took a V-Max off the showroom floor, made me ride it to his house, and then he proceeded to flat track the V-Max on his short track and we got a cover photo of him pitching it sideways, which you can find in there.

A lot of the covers have meaning to me. It was something that was really important in motorcycling history at the time, and those are fun to look back at. But there’s so many of them. Think about it: there’s fifty covers a year. You’re bound to find something in there that you think is cool or meaningful to yourself. People are going to have a lot of fun with it. I’m already hearing a lot of good feedback.

One thing I do want to bring up is the fact that people are asking for the East issues [Cycle News used to print an East issue and a West issue]. We decided to start with the national issues and the West issues, but we’re going to get to the East issues. They’ll eventually be on there. We’re just catching our breath. We’ll get that process done and those will be up as quickly as we can do it. There are a lot of people that have a soft spot for the Cycle News East. And they did tell us some different things, so yes, the East issues will be coming.

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Go to CycleNews.com to find access to it all.

One other thing: I also think it’s great that the record is there for people to go back and read about things like the Bartstow-to-Vegas environmentalist fight, with the Phantom Duck of the Desert, and the Green Sticker fiasco, and the Mike Goodwin/Mickey Thompson murder saga, and whatever other issues came along.... It’s not just racing. It’s truly the history of the American motorcycle industry, and in some degree the world motorcycle industry.
I’ve been here, it’ll be twenty-eight years. So I’m proud of the body of work that we’ve produced over those years, and I’m proud of the work that was produced before I was even here. I look back at those and it’s very easy to be proud of what we’ve accomplished with Cycle News. I think even worldwide we’re somewhat unique in what we’ve been able to do. I’ve even heard from people in Europe that are happy with it and they can’t believe we’ve done it, and they’re going through back issues and they’re going to use it for their research on stories. I think it’s going to be a big help to everybody, for research and entertainment value. I’m stoked we were able to do it and I’m glad it’s out there for everyone to share.

It truly is the record of our last fifty years of this industry. Congratulations, Paul.
Thanks. And Sean Finley was a great help, and again, he took the lead on the project, and he’s the guy that really made it happen, so big thanks to him.

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