This summer marks 50 years since Bruce Brown’s film On Any Sunday sparked a motorcycling boom in America. The film followed the exploits of riding buddies Malcolm Smith, Mert Lawwill, and Hollywood star Steve McQueen in an ode to many different forms of motorcycle racing, to universal critical acclaim. Brett Smith of We Went Fast is helping celebrate the late Bruce Brown’s masterpiece with cool new memorabilia, T-shirts, posters (by @goodtimbo on Instagram), a long-form feature on wewentfast.com and his new podcast, “50 Years of Sundays: On Any Sunday will change your life.” I had a chance to spend a couple days last week in Michigan riding with Smith as well as Simon Cudby, Dave Frazee, and “Six-Time” himself, Jeff Stanton, on a Jeff Stanton Adventure Tour. In between sessions Brett and I sat down to discuss On Any Sunday and what it’s meant to motorcycling in America these past 50 years.
Racer X: Happy birthday, On Any Sunday.
Brett Smith: Yes, Happy birthday. You know I’m a sucker for anniversary stories, and when I knew that On Any Sunday was turning 50 in the summer of 2021, I wanted to do something. I just didn’t know what. I think it has been a couple years. I decided I wanted to get a licensing deal with Bruce Brown Films first, because that’s how We Went Fast makes money. I sell apparel, T-shirts, accessories, stuff like that. I’m small potatoes, and I just nudged them enough to where they finally said, “Yeah. We’ll do that. We’ll give you a licensing deal. We like the vibe at We Went Fast. Let’s try this.” Then I thought, well what’s the story? There has to be a story attached to the product. So many people have written good stories about On Any Sunday, and that doesn’t change. We all know the story of Steve and how he was the one who got them on to Camp Pendleton. We all know about Mert, Malcolm, and McQueen. So then I thought about how that movie still has a lot of influence for people getting into motorcycling. So that’s what I focused on. The title of the story is “On Any Sunday Will Change Your Life.” It’s a collection of anecdotes of people who got into motorcycling or had their life affected by watching that movie.
It definitely happened that way with my parents—the Blackwater 100 idea grew out of the Elsinore Grand Prix in the movie, and that in turn led to the whole Grand National Cross Country (GNCC) Series and more. Who are some of the people that really had a unique or telling story about the movie?
In addition to Big Dave and Rita, Steve Masterson from KISKA North America [a design firm deeply entrenched within KTM] had a unique story about how he wound up watching the movie and started riding motorcycles. You would think that someone who worked in and around KTM for almost 20 years would have been riding as long or longer, but he wasn’t. Joy Burgess, who now works for the AMA, had never ridden a motorcycle before she watched the movie. Ryan Sipes, who we call “The General,” and maybe the modern-day Malcolm, didn’t watch the movie until 2016, yet it has become the soundtrack of his life. So it’s stories like that. Dan Geary, @DG533 on Instagram, his life was changed by watching that movie. He was already into riding. His parents didn’t like motorcycles, but his dad took him to the theater and when they left, they still didn’t want him to become Mert Lawwill, which was who he wanted to be. Jim Odom, Jim Rice, those were the guys that he hung out with at the local Yamaha shop. Dan’s dad at least got it. He’s like, “Son, I understand why you like this so much.” He got into motocross racing because of that movie.
I know the way that you do stuff with We Went Fast, or any of your magazine contributions, you always do a deep dive into the background and whatnot. What kind of work did Mr. Brown have to do in trying to even get that film into theaters?
I didn’t dive into that in the story, but he produces this film and from what I understand from reading, he hired a promotions company to help him get distribution, to get it around. When he was traveling around trying to explain it to people, he got different things in different parts of the country. People wanted to fixate on different things. I interviewed him ten years ago and he was telling me about going out east and everyone was like, “Wait, you’re riding on the sand dunes? You can’t do that. You’re ruining the growth.” Well, no. It’s different out west. There’s nothing in the sand. It’s just sand. But here in Michigan, you can’t go ride in some of the sand dunes along the shores of Lake Michigan because it’s vegetation. You would destroy the growth there. People wanted to focus on, “It’s so dangerous.” Bruce is like, “Yeah, that’s the point. It’s dangerous.” These are people who are willing to risk their lives for a little bit of money and a thrill. You don’t have to put yourself in extreme risk to go enjoy a motorcycle. You don’t have to be Mert Lawwill to have fun. He was just trying to focus on everything. It wasn’t about the dangers of motorcycles. It was about all of motorcycling and the thrills that you get from doing it.
That was kind of the same formula he used for the seminal surfing film Endless Summer, where he followed two fairly anonymous guys they went simply chasing the perfect wave. It wasn’t about winning or losing; it was about the lifestyle.
Right. He wanted everyone to realize, these aren’t beach bums. These aren’t all Hells Angels. This isn’t Hollister. This isn’t that Life Magazine cover (which featured motorcyclists in Hollister, California, in a very unflattering way). These are just regular people out enjoying themselves.
When was the first time you saw the movie?
My parents rented VHS tapes at their business, which was Motosports in Clio, Michigan. So I would have seen the movie there. We had On Any Sunday, as well as On Any Sunday 2, the Larry Huffman, Roger Rydell re-pop. I just remember watching those over and over again. I can’t remember the exact first time that I saw the movie, but I would have already been racing motocross. My daughter will remember the first time she saw the movie, which was just a few weeks ago. She’s seven and a half. She had learned how to ride a motorcycle two days prior, and then we showed her the movie and she loved it. Even my four-year-old, who does not like adult movies, and she’ll scream “Turn this off!” if it’s not a cartoon or something geared towards kids—they giggled the whole way through. That is the magic that Bruce has created. You can enjoy this 50 years later. Name another documentary that still does that.
It is a time capsule of sorts, but what has never changed in motorcycling are also the core storylines, the camaraderie, the adventure, the danger, and also I think the uniqueness of it. Not everyone is into riding motorcycles, but when you are, you suddenly belong to like a club. On Any Sunday sort of became the anthem for that. If you know On Any Sunday, you know you’re talking about motorcycles.
Exactly. Like watching Rocky makes you want to go lift weights and train and get in the ring and be a gladiator. On Any Sunday makes you want to go riding.
With We Went Fast, you’re helping celebrate the 50th with some cool products. How did they come about?
I like to attach a product to every story, because that’s how I keep this brand going. So my wife and I sat down and just started designing T-shirts. I worked with Tim Glasspool in England (@goodtimbo) to do some posters and prints. The T-shirts, one of them is “Mert, Malcolm and Mushman,” the three heroes of the movie. Another shirt says “Neat, Malcolm.” When he’s riding the trials bike and Bruce says, “Try this one on.” Malcolm goes up and back down. So, it’s just my favorite moments from the movie. We have the koozies, which are characters from the movie. “Sawed off his cast.” Dick Mann. “A.K.A Harvey Mushman.” I just wanted to celebrate the movie with a bunch of fun products. We also have two other shirts. One is an On Any Sunday 50 graphic, and then the fourth one says, “Ba Ba Da Ba.” It’s hard to get at first, but I have a neat jingle that I married up with some video that when you get it you’re like, I got it! I sent the shirt to Malcolm’s son, Alexander, and his daughter, Ashley. Alexander writes back and says, “What’s this fourth shirt on the bottom? I don’t get this one.” And then Ashley writes back, “I get it. I love that one.” She got it right away and he didn’t.
Mr. Brown unfortunately is no longer with us, but you did get to talk to him. What was he like? How proud was he of basically creating the perfect motorcycling film?
I’ve had ten years to think about this, and there’s a podcast if you search We Went Fast in your preferred podcast platform. I worked in a bonus intro to the podcast story. My podcast is me reading the article, but at the beginning I told this five-minute story about that trip that took, meeting Bruce, meeting Mert, and meeting Malcolm. It was me and Doug Frankie. We were working with the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame. Mert and Malcolm were being honored that year as legends, being sort of re-inducted and given a big to-do. So we did the On Any Sunday tour. We started up in Tiberon, CA, and interviewed Mert. We somehow lost the footage and had to interview Mert all over again. Then the next day we went down to Bruce’s. I remember pulling up the driveway off 101 to his ranch north of Santa Barbara. There’s this old man wearing a complete denim outfit, and he has a bottle of Elmer’s glue in his hand, and he is gluing the weather stripping back on his blue Subaru rally car, or at least I think it was a rally car. I probably said something stupid like, “Are you Bruce?” Because he was crouched down and I couldn’t see him. He said something smart back to me. He’s like, “Welcome,” and showed us around. We sat on his porch. Have you ever had those moments where you look at it years later and you’re like, Man, I wish I had that interview to do over again? Because I don't know if I wasn’t prepared or I just was a little star-struck. I asked him a bunch of questions and I listen to it ten years later and I’m like, Why did I ask those questions? What did I expect? He had been answering those same questions for four decades at that point. You’re not going to get any new answers. It’s sort of like interviewing John Penton—the answers haven’t changed. We could have gone and found those same answers in old magazine articles. But it was a cool experience. He’s smoking his Swisher Sweets or something. He had this dog named Rusty who had gotten into a fight with a skunk. The dog kept getting into the interview and jumping on everybody. How do you tell Bruce Brown, Hey, go lock your dog up? There were like bugs all over the place because we were out on his patio. Still, it was a cool experience, but I wish I had that one to do over because I think the interview would have gone completely different. But it was just one of those things where I didn’t really know what to ask him. What do you ask Bruce Brown? What do you ask that he hasn’t already answered before?
If that was hard, what would it have been like to interview Steve McQueen? You’ve got to admit—he has kind of become something of a saint in the motorcycling world. We still talk about all things Steve McQueen, whether he actually said it or not. People are still like, “Racing is such a cruel mistress.” He played such a significant part, not only in the film but in getting the film into production. We all still owe something to Steve McQueen.
None of us have had that chance. In research for this project, somebody at Cycle News went and interviewed Steve McQueen. Went to Solar Productions and he’s all busy and he’s got phones all over the place. He knew that someone from Cycle News was there to interview him. I think this would have been before the movie came out. It was in the early ‘70s, so Steve McQueen would have been 40. He’s at the height of his career. As most A-list celebrities—you hear about like Tom Hanks, and how when you get his time, you’ve got his time. He gives you his full attention. Steve put everything down. They piled into some junk truck that he had, so he could go incognito. No limousine, nothing fancy. They just disappeared down to this secluded waterfront and they just sat there for hours talking dirt bikes and stuff. It was a cool interview because any Steve McQueen book or thing that I’ve ever read and that you’ve probably read was more focused on Hollywood and his exploits, but not our world. That interview was just focused on that side of his life, riding dirt bikes and why he did it. I think that’s the only interview I’ve ever read that focused on that. We can only sit here and wonder what would that have been like…
How could you even get to him? What would be the Hollywood equivalent today of how big of a star Steve McQueen was? George Clooney? Maybe Brad Pitt? Matthew McConaughey, probably?
Yeah, on that level for sure. The Thomas Crown Affair, the Great Escape, Bullitt. He was big time.
In closing, what did On Any Sunday mean to you?
Wow, that’s a tough question… I appreciate it for its ability to endure and to stay influential. The older we get, the better the movie gets. It’s one of those movies—Sipes told me this. He’s like, “Every time I watch it, I pick up something new.” You can keep watching it and enjoy it. You have kids. You can only watch some of those kid movies so many times, but Mary Poppins, I could watch Mary Poppins all day, every day. That movie, there’s a reason why it has 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes… I have daughters, so those are the types of movies I’m watching! But On Any Sunday is one of those movies that I can keep watching it and enjoy it and think that Mert is going to win the Columbus Half-Mile. If he just hadn't ground off that little bit from the cam follower, would his throttle cable not? The stuff that he was doing to the bike, could he have saved that season? You want it to have a different outcome, but it doesn’t. But to get that feeling every single time you watch it. Bruce did something special there.
Tragically, unfortunately, that was 50 years ago. Some of those guys, Bruce Brown is already gone. Obviously Steve McQueen is gone, earlier this year both Joel Robert and Bengt Aberg passed. And we just lost one of the cameo stars—Dick Mann. That is truly an iconic scene.
Dick Mann, the guy who sawed off his cast and decided to go for it anyway. It’s been a rough year for On Any Sunday characters. Joel Robert and Bengt Aberg were featured in the motocross scene at the Trans-AMA. Everybody is in their 80s now. Malcolm is 80 now. Mert is 80 now. But they’ll forever be 29.