Searching for Hamersville

Searching for Hamersville

May 16, 2014 12:00pm

By Steve Lorbach

‘It’s now or never,’ I thought as I traveled east along the Cincinnati outer belt. Up ahead the exit sign for Ohio St. Rt. 125 came into view. I was about to fulfill a long awaited journey dating back to 1974. My destination – the tiny southwestern Ohio town of Hamersville. But as I drove down the exit ramp and turned east on Rt. 125, I began to wonder if perhaps I had waited too long. After all, I thought, today was January 4, 2013.  

As I made my way through the town of Amelia and its many traffic lights, I began to think back through time. On May 19, 1974, Grand Am MX Park was the site for round five of the A.M.A. 250cc National Motocross Championship, located at the edge of Hamersville. I was fourteen years old and motorcycles, motocross in particular, were everything to me. My cousin Keith, my dad, and I made the two-hour trip west from our home in Jackson that morning to see our very first pro motocross race. After seeing many local races for the past couple of years, I wondered with anticipation how it would be to actually see the national riders that until now I had only read about.

Pierre Karsmakers was one of my favorites. I even had the factory team Yamaha yellow jersey with the black and white armbands like he wore. Dad had told me long ago that I would not be racing while living under his roof. He and my mother were too afraid of me getting injured. All I could do was “pretend” on my 1972 mini-enduro at our neighborhood so-called MX track on the abandoned property behind the city shopping center.

Pierre Karsmakers on the line in 1974.
Pierre Karsmakers on the line in 1974. Photo: Jim Gianatsis /

We came into Hamersville that day and immediately saw a white billboard sign that read “Grand Am MX Park”. I vividly remember sitting on the edge of the front seat with my hands gripping the dash. We turned right at the sign. Up ahead I could see the crowd, team vans, and banners. My heart was pounding. We parked and walked in. Practice had just ended as I remember and the rumors going through the crowd was that the riders were complaining, saying that the track was “too easy”. Then it began to rain… and it rained… and it rained. We took refuge under a large tent nearby with a bunch of new Yamahas under it. Thinking back, it was likely a dealers’ display. After we stood there for a while, and maneuvered for the best view of the track, I suddenly realized that I was standing right beside a brand new 1974 YZ 250 (Yes, the real YZ of the era, the one with the gray gas tank and strap!) This was another ‘first’ for me, to see this exotic machine in the flesh. I reached out and touched the seat. I was sure I had to be dreaming.

As the rain continued to fall, we could see the bikes lining up across the way for the first moto. I remember thinking, ‘surely they are going to postpone the start until after this downpour passes’. But right on time, the announcer’s voice came to life on the P.A. system, and the riders fired up their machines. When the gate fell, I couldn’t believe what I saw. With all the rain that had been falling, I expected to see nothing but slipping and sliding all the way to the first turn. Instead, the entire pack rocketed down the start with their throttles pinned as if the ground beneath them was bone dry! They exited the first turn, facing us straight on. Already their number plates were covered in slop. There was a massive spray of mud and water going up in all directions as they shot down the first straightaway. But what was most unbelievable to me was the fact that not a single rider went down in that first turn, and everyone had their feet on the pegs!

After a few laps the rain began to taper off to a fine drizzle. We came out from under the tent and found a place to watch from near the top of a small uphill section. The riders were on the gas coming up the incline. I was amazed at how close we actually were to the action. The track was really starting to get chewed up and was taking a toll on the riders. Suddenly my dad shouted “Look Out!” while pulling my cousin and I back from the fence. I saw other spectators around us scattering, some who were sitting in lawn chairs fell over backward in the mud. A rider on a CZ had the throttle on his bike stick wide open. After he fell off the back, the bike became airborne and shot into the spectator fence, after first glancing off a pole. Luckily, no one was injured, although the bike actually grazed my cousins’ hands. I remember my Dad with a huge grin on his face, saying “I bet they don’t think it’s ‘too easy’ now!”

Mike Hartwig racing at Appalachia Lake the same year.
Mike Hartwig racing at Appalachia Lake the same year. Photo: Jim Gianatsis /

Much of the rest of the day is now lost in my memory, but I do remember that I got to see my hero, Pierre Karsmakers, and that he won that day. As we watched the race, I knew it was him when he came by on every lap. I could make out his name on his mud-soaked jersey, and I remember how his Yamaha sounded…sick, like it had taken in water, either through the ignition or air box. But he was still way out in front, lapping riders and feet always on the pegs.

The years began to pass. When I got my license, I traded for a 1977 Suzuki TS 250. I graduated, found a career in the Sheet Metal Industry and got married a few years later. I became less interested in motocross and got into off-road racing, and started riding Enduros around 1984. I became active in an enduro club of which I am still a member, and received my A.M.A. life member pin in 1996. But the memory of Hamersville was always in the back of my mind…and I always had a desire to someday go back to find the track before it was bulldozed by development or taken over by Mother Nature.

After exiting the McDonalds drive-thru at Amelia, my mind returned to the present day and I resumed my trip east on Rt. 125. Another half hour or so of driving passed, and then suddenly I saw the Hamersville corporation sign. I drove through town slowly. I remember Dad making a right turn that day and since I was coming into town from the west, the track site would have to be to my left. I saw a sign that said “Municipal Building.” ‘They should be able to help”, I thought. I went in and explained to the nice lady that I had last been to her town in 1974 and had attended a national motocross race. I told her I was curious as to where the track had been located and would like to see the site. Unfortunately, she had no idea of the location of the track and other people in the room also drew a blank. I thanked them, and drove a little farther through town. I noticed a chain saw dealer. In many ways, dirt bikes and chain saws go hand in hand, so I parked and went inside. The young man behind the counter was also at a loss to my request, but told me to head back West to the used auto parts store at the edge of town. He thought that they were involved in racing, and might be of some help. I left and headed back west as he suggested.

Looking northwest today on Main Street (Ohio Highway Rt. 125) in Hamersville.
Looking northwest today on Main Street (Ohio Highway Rt. 125) in Hamersville. Photo: Courtesy Creative Commons

“Can I help you?” a polite gray haired man about my age asked. I began to tell the reason why I was in town and what I was looking for, but halfway through my monologue, he began nodding his head in agreement. “I was also there that day” he said. ‘Jackpot!’ I nearly said out loud. He continued to describe his own personal account of the track, the owner, and how he and his buddies used to sneak in and play ride on the course. He also confirmed my assumption that the track had closed many years ago. But then came the moment I was waiting for…. he grabbed a small piece of paper and began drawing me a map of how to get to the site. I thanked him, and could barely wait to get back in my car. I headed back east slowly, glancing down at my little hand-drawn directions. I drove past the eastern edge of town. “This doesn’t seem right”, I thought, as I continued on. But then I saw the road he had written for me to turn on. I turned left. I could feel my pulse quicken as I made my way down the blacktop road. “It didn’t seem this far off the state route” I thought, but I kept driving. I came to a bend in the road and then a stop sign. I turned left again, as his map directed, and then made a right turn onto a narrow gravel drive. YES!! I remember this long driveway! I looked to the left, the right, and straight-ahead as I drove slowly along the gravel lane with my pulse quickening more. I passed by a house, and a little farther up ahead the lane abruptly ended at another house. The man at the auto parts store had told me a house had been built on the track site in later years. I wanted so bad to get out and walk around, but knew I was on private property. I sat there for what seemed like an hour, but was probably only ten to fifteen minutes. My eyes scanned the landscape, searching for the slightest hint of what was once there. Perhaps the faint embankment of ground over there is the remains of a jump? Maybe the flat open space to my left served as the starting gate? Where was that uphill where the CZ rider crashed? Could it have been over there among the trees where the dealer’s tent stood, where I touched the YZ?’

Daylight was beginning to fade as I turned around and headed back out the lane that I last exited nearly thirty-nine years earlier. Yes, I had waited too long. I made a final glance back, thinking doubtfully if I would ever return.

I began picking up speed as I turned back onto the paved county road, and pointed my Nissan east once again on Rt. 125. I thought about the events of the past couple of hours as I took the long way home. A search that began years ago in my mind had now come to a close in a virtual instant. I experienced a feeling of satisfaction and remorse at the same time. Satisfaction in the realization that I had finally concluded a search for a place from half a lifetime ago; remorse in the fact that, sadly, there was absolutely no physical evidence to the untrained eye of the event that took place here over 38 years earlier. A place where riders from across the nation gathered, and a fourteen-year-old kid stood in awe.

For the next several days, I couldn’t get my blast from the past out of my mind. Then, another thought occurred to me. What makes a motorcyclist think this way? On the one hand, we look with anticipation as each year rolls around, with its new race schedules and events, the excitement of seeing the new bikes from the manufacturer and their latest trick components. But then, look at the huge success of AMA Vintage days, the interest in vintage motocross, and who doesn’t drool at the sight of a restored steel-tanked Penton? I guess to sum it all up would be to say that the motorcycle experience is one long joyful journey, past, present and future, whether riding, racing, working on your bike, on foot cutting brush for an enduro, or reading your favorite magazine, and yes, spectating. But for me, among my standout motorcycle moments, would be the year 1974, as this story has told, and 2013 – the year I found the lost motocross track.