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The 1991 Iron Butt Rally: Lazarus Awakens

by Bob Higdon

The Parking Lot in Fallon

Life was simpler then. In 1991 Bill Clinton was just a hick governor from a state no one had ever heard of, sharpening his lust for Big Macs, plus-sized women, and the White House. Osama bin Laden sat in the hot sands of Sudan, scheming to turn tall buildings into dust. And in a small office in Chicago, Illinois, a computer-systems engineer ground his teeth and remembered an endless night in driving rain on a motorcycle.

Being the self-anointed World's Nicest Guy, Mike Kneebone wouldn't appear at first blush to be the sort of person who could carry a grudge for five long years, but the memory of that rain-swept night on the bike on the second leg of the 1986 Iron Butt Rally had branded his soul, and not in a good way. He and four other riders had been victimized by sloppy directions to a bonus location. While they knew what they were doing, it didn't help; other riders, unaware that the magnetic poles had reversed, stumbled across the bonus by chance and were rewarded for their blind luck.

And that wasn't even the half of it. Prize money was at stake. To Kneebone's mind that demeaned the nature of the quest. Knights didn't slay dragons and rescue damsels in distress for gold and silver; they did it for immortality and the chivalric code. The world's toughest rally needed full-time adult supervision, dedicated administrators, publicity, and attention to detail. Reputations are lost the way bankruptcy occurs: first gradually, then suddenly. By 1988 the bloom on Mike Rose's rose had vanished. As for the rally's allure, only Emily Dickinson could describe it:

It dropped so low in my regard

I heard it hit the ground.

Step by step Kneebone gathered up the crumbs of a dying rally, a mailing list here, a trademarked name there, a newsletter somewhere else, all the while struggling to keep the original concept on life support and vowing one day to resurrect, promote, and deliver a clean event to a pack of enthusiastic riders. In the summer of 1991 the table was finally set. Reno BMW's Jan Cutler, who himself had labored in the vineyards by organizing local rallies following the collapse of the Iron Butt in 1988, volunteered to host the start and finish of the event at his dealership in Nevada. Kneebone reserved for himself the Last Say on Everything. And thus the word went forth throughout the land: The Butt Is Back.

Twenty-seven riders quickly signed up, just six of them Bill Pharness, Harold Brooks, Robert Gerberich, Gregg Smith, Fran Crane, and Dave McQueeney were veterans. It was the largest field in the IBR's brief history, almost double the turnout of 1987.

Still, as was noted initially, it was a simpler time. The entire rule book consisted of barely 1,000 words. GPS receivers and tracking devices were the stuff of Buck Rogers' dreams. Automap, the first commercially-available computer mapping software, had just come on the market (for $79.95 plus shipping), but it wouldn't do a rider any good unless he could carry a desktop computer with a 20-megabyte hard drive and a monitor in his saddlebag. For the first time riders would compare their odometers to a known standard over a 60-mile stretch, though measurements would laughably be taken to only the nearest whole mile. This useless exercise produced an odometer correction factor of 1.0000 for 10 riders. It was a kind of progress, however halting.

By noon on the last day of August the field had assembled at the Best Western in Fallon, Nevada. In my capacity as the Association's general counsel, I gave a benediction at lunch, pronouncing the rally to be well and truly blessed. I continued the ritual benedictions for the next several rallies until I came to believe that they were very likely doing more harm than good.

That night I stood in the motel parking lot swilling beer with Fred Rau, the editor of Road Rider magazine. The riders had long been in bed, dreaming of cheap gasoline, endless tailwinds, and sugar plums. "Of all the bikes in this lot," I said, "surely mine is the most fortunate." Rau asked why. "Because it doesn't have to hump my wrinkled ass around this entire country during the next eleven days." Fred, then possessed of a frightening body-mass index, allowed that he was exceptionally fond of steak but that he didn't want to eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We cracked open another round of Budweisers to celebrate our wisdom before heading off to commune with our own sugar plums.

As we did, Lazarus began to stir.

The Angry Writer with 400,000 Readers

"Who's the betty on the back of the Gold Wing?" I asked Kneebone. The riders were minutes away from the rally's start. "I didn't know there was a two-up team."

"She's John Burns' girlfriend. He's dropping her off in Wisconsin."

"John Burns the writer?” I gasped. "You think it's a good idea to have a guy from Cycle magazine telling the world what we're doing? You better hope he's in a good mood."

Burns wasn't even close to that. In the weeks running up to the rally John had been fired from Cycle magazine, State Farm had canceled his car insurance, and the California Department of Motor Vehicles was threatening to suspend his license. That wasn't the bad part. David Edwards, the editor of Cycle World, had offered Burns a special assignment for a show-and-tell on the Iron Butt Rally. This is huge, right? The Babe Ruth of moto scribblers is going to put our little dumpling of a rally on the world stage! Yes, except for the part about how Burns utterly despises the idea of long-distance scavenger hunts and if he's in any kind of mood at all, it's a mood to reduce everything he sees, hears, or senses in the next 11 days to radioactive dust.

What Child Is This?

Not all rookies are created equal. Jimmy Clark, then the reigning Formula 1 champion, had NASCAR's yellow rookie bumper on his Ford when he raced at Rockingham, North Carolina, in 1967. He accepted the categorization with perfect grace. In the 1991 Iron Butt the rookie label wouldn't intimidate Peter Hoogeveen, either. He was the protégé of the legendary Canadians Roy Eastwood, Ross Copas, and Frank Kujawa. Steve Chalmers and Frank Taylor, Salt Lake City's favorite sons, were hardcore riders. Joe Mandeville and Dave Mishalof, riding as a team from Los Angeles, were destined to rewrite the BMW MOA mileage-contest record books. Another Angeleno, Ron Major, would soon be the go-to guy for setting up a Honda ST1100 for endurance riding. Steve Losofsky was Jan Cutler's partner at Reno BMW. Each would say the other was the better rider, skating quickly past the fact that few motorcyclists could keep up with either of them. Rookies, yes, but riders? Oh, hell yes.

Kneebone and Cutler told the riders that the first couple of legs would be easy warm-ups to get everyone used to the pace. They said they expected a 27-way tie for first at the second checkpoint. Then, they warned, as the rally headed into the northeast corridor, the attrition would start. Sure enough, there was a 16-way tie for the lead at the first checkpoint in Spokane, Washington.

It didn't take long for one of the co-leaders to fall out. Shortly after the start of leg No. 2 Dave McQueeney, veteran of the '86 and '87 rallies, drifted off the road and broke his wrist. He was assisted by fellow Californian Steve Black who, as luck would have it, was a registered nurse. Being a rookie, Black probably didn't know it is axiomatic that such acts of selflessness have a wonderful effect on the Good Samaritan's finishing position.

At the second checkpoint in Illinois, contrary to the massive knot that Kneebone and Cutler had envisioned, just five riders were tied for first: the always dangerous Fran Crane and rookies Charles Perry, Rick Shrader, Ed Sutton, and Peter Hoogeveen. The latter, the youngest rider in the field, had overcome an awful mistake. He'd left his rally documents in a diner in Red Lodge, Montana, not realizing the error until he'd ridden more than 70 miles. Riders agonize about ways to save five minutes a day; Hoogeveen had just thrown away two hours. Forty points behind the leaders was a clump tied for sixth: Harold Brooks, Ken Hatton, Ron Major, and the Good Samaritan Steve Black. Bill Pharness, another 60 points back, had sole possession of 10th place. He was hoping to improve on his DNF in 1987.

Go East, Young Man

The riders by now were getting a sense of Mike Kneebone's bonus rhythms. He was using locations that featured former IBR riders (Jim Plunkett's tire store in Spokane), places with motorcycle themes (suppliers, museums, factories, and dealerships), or scenic routes (U.S. 12 in Idaho, Yellowstone National Park, and Beartooth Pass). Most of all he loved forcing riders to backtrack, knowing how much he despised backtracking himself. One bonus on the third leg to Gorham, Maine, northeast of the Illinois checkpoint, was Times Beach, Missouri, 350 miles to the southwest. Worth a mere 24 points, it was a frivolous offering as had been unreachable bonuses in Tok, Alaska, and Dallas, Texas, on the first two legs ? but it was a portent of more diabolical things. In 1999 Kneebone would force riders on a 1,000-mile backtrack that would determine the outcome of the rally.

For many riders who lived on the west side of the Mississippi River, being on the east side of the Big Muddy was more than a little uncomfortable. Eastern riders had won (or tied for) every Iron Butt Rally to date. During the next 54 hours they would be in the northeast highway corridor, the belly of the beast. The route was relatively straightforward: hit a Harley dealer in Pennsylvania, attend a lecture in New Jersey by police officer Richard Frost, a rider from the '87 IBR, on the evils of speeding, and visit an Indian motorcycle museum in Springfield, Massachusetts. It was not a leg designed to shake up the standings, but it did.

This is the part of the rally where it devolves from a Ride into a Grind. The initial excitement has fled, yet the end isn't anywhere in sight. Every mile becomes a slog through mud; the body and the brain begin ingesting themselves. John Burns felt it more than the others, particularly since he'd never wanted to run away with the circus in the first place. He called it "Iron Butt dementia," though he thought he might become more competitive after he'd dropped his girlfriend off in Wisconsin. That didn't happen. He would pick up a bonus or two, then arrive at the next checkpoint so late that he'd lose everything he'd gained and more. "The Gold Wing feels very small, a tiny boat in heavy seas," Burns wrote for Cycle World. "It's at this point that I begin to miss Jane. I think about my cozy house, my fireplace, my refrigerator, my cat." He didn't want to, but he kept going.

Fran Crane's BMW was the first casualty of the third leg. It developed incurable fuel-injection problems, putting her out of the rally. Both Frank Taylor and Ken Hatton had mechanical failures but, unlike Fran, were able to continue. Charles Perry had a terrible run, dropping out of a first-place tie to sixth overall. Another co-leader, Peter Hoogeveen, decided to break from the pack and try for a difficult bonus in Detroit. That was a serious mistake. He bailed out, but not before he'd run out of time to make Frost's lecture, the largest bonus on the leg. He compounded his errors by coming in 20 minutes late to the Maine checkpoint. He lay a disappointing fifth overall.

Rick Shrader and Ed Sutton had made no mistakes. They were now the rally's sole co-leaders. Ron Major and Steve Black were tied for third. Virginia's Harold Brooks moved into seventh, Robert Gerberich climbed into eighth, and the team of Mandeville and Mishalof were tied for ninth. The field headed for Montgomeryville Cycle, the birthplace of the Iron Butt, in the suburbs of Philadelphia. They had 15 hours to make it.

The riders faced a routing problem with three potential bonus stops: Bangor, Maine (61 points), Brattleboro, Vermont (64 points), and Newport, Rhode Island (38 points). You don't have time to do all three, so which two can you grab Bangor required a demoralizing northeast backtrack when the checkpoint lay to the southwest. It was the Times Beach bonus revived, except that now the distance wasn't as great and the points were substantially more. Was it worth it, the 23-point gain for hitting Bangor-Brattleboro vs. Brattleboro-Newport?

At times like this you can almost see the riders' collective blood pressures rising as they wrestle with the variables: Bangor = backtrack, Newport = traffic, and Brattleboro = deer-infested forests with small, crappy roads. And no matter what they decided, waiting for them to the south was the George Washington Bridge in New York City and an absolutely must-have receipt worth 200 points. As Hoogeveen learned on the ride to Maine, a guaranteed way to go from first to fifth on the scoreboard is to pass up the leg's biggest bonus. Steve Black stared at the map. He'd been a nurse in intensive-care units long enough to know the first rule of medical emergencies: In a crisis the first blood pressure you take is your own. He took a deep breath and headed for Bangor. No one followed him.

Traffic was heavy near the checkpoint that Saturday morning. Not even half of the riders had made it to the Cycle Center when penalties began accumulating at one point per minute. Of the leading group only Steve Black, Ron Major, and Charles Perry had arrived on time. Black had picked up Bangor and Brattleboro; Major and Perry had settled for Brattleboro and Newport. Co-leaders Sutton and Shrader were 19 and 26 minutes late respectively. Worse for Sutton, he screwed up the bridge receipt. Yards shy of the checkpoint Peter Hoogeveen was nailed for speeding by a local cop. That would cost him 24 minutes in penalties.

When the dust settled, Steve Black's decision to backtrack to Bangor had put him into the lead by 23 points over Ron Major. With a rough run Rick Shrader dropped from first to third. Hoogeveen's leg hadn't been much better, but he actually gained a spot in the standings. Sutton was in fifth but so exhausted that it was questionable whether he could even continue. Perry and Brooks maintained their positions at sixth and seventh. The Mishalof and Mandeville team climbed a spot to eighth with Robert Gerberich's inability to get the bridge receipt. It had been a short, brutal night, but at least the worst of the congested northeast was behind them. They continued south.

Things That Go Bump in the Night

There weren't many bonuses between Montgomeryville and the Baldwin, Florida, checkpoint west of Jacksonville. The leg was designed to be a recovery section. So it was. The top 15 spots remained unchanged from Montgomeryville. After an hour's break the field, still with 25 riders, turned west for the Mansfield, Texas, checkpoint, 30 hours and about 1,360 miles distant.

It, too, should have been an uneventful romp. Harold Brooks and Rick Shrader made sure that it wasn't. Brooks lit out for a mom ‘n’ pop grocery in Hot Coffee, Mississippi. At 90 points it was the leg's biggest, reachable bonus. Harold's dilemma, as he began to realize, was that he had no chance of getting a receipt at the store before it closed at 7:00 p.m. Can you see where this sad tale is heading? Brooks called the store and had them leave a receipt for him under a brick by the front door. He wasn't the first scoundrel to be caught pulling this trick. Kneebone easily discovered the scheme before Harold reached the checkpoint in Texas and he wouldn't be the last, but perhaps because of the little town's unique name, an attempted deception of this kind would forever be known as a violation of the Hot Coffee rule.

In Louisiana, far to the south of Harold Brooks that night, riders came upon an unholy scene. A motorcycle had run off the highway, plunging into a moccasin-infested bayou up to its headlight. Something in the form of a bearded mountain man was struggling to crawl out of the water onto dry land. The riders, justifiably fearful of what they beheld, approached cautiously, then realized that the apparition was none other than Rick Shrader. The bad part was that in two-fifths of a second Rick plummeted from third overall to DNF; the good part was that upon hearing the story, John Burns immediately christened Shrader "Swamp Thing," a name that belongs to the Iron Butt ages. It was the most spectacular exit in the history of the Rally.

Steve Black solidified his hold on first place with an excellent ride from Florida to Texas. He and Robert Gerberich picked a route that looped north through Arkansas while the rest of the pack stayed south. Black now led Major by 163 points and Hoogeveen by 288. Ed Sutton fell further behind Black but gained a spot to fourth with Swamp Thing's retirement. Charles Perry, who had run steadily from the start, was time-barred in Texas, diving 17 spots to 23rd, 105 points behind John Burns.

There were but two legs remaining, and it was becoming increasingly clear that the ICU nurse was preparing to give his very nervous patients some medicine that they'd rather not take.

Your Choice

When archeologists sift through the remains of Iron Butt records 10,000 years from now, they will conclude that this was the leg where Mike Kneebone morphed from rallymaster to rallymaster. In Texas he handed the riders a bonus list that provided a stark choice: Take a route that basically parallels Interstate 10 all the way west to the Santa Ana, California, checkpoint, or loop up instead through Colorado and back down through Utah. The bonuses on the northern arc were worth 148 more points than those on the southern route.

If you look at a road map of the continental United States, I promise you that there is no way you can conclude that going through Colorado and Utah to California makes an atom of sense. To Steve Black it looked like, in Burns' words, "a much longer route." It wasn't; it was actually 15 miles shorter than running through the Big Bend, New Mexico, and Arizona.

This is the sort of mapping problem that is trivial with today's equipment. In 1991 only two riders, Peter Hoogeveen and Ed Sutton, saw through Kneebone's optical illusion and in so doing gained significant ground on the field. Every other rider stayed to the south. For Sutton, who had somehow recovered from complete collapse at the mid-point in Montgomeryville, it was a moral victory, but his failure to obtain a receipt at the George Washington Bridge had put him too far back to have a realistic shot at third place. Nor had it been enough for Hoogeveen to catch Black, although he was able to leapfrog over Ron Major into second place.

The Last Night

When the scoring was completed in Santa Ana, California, Steve Black held a lead of 142 points over Peter Hoogeveen and 163 points over Ron Major. As the bonus packages were distributed at 6:00 p.m., the riders feverishly inspected them. After a few minutes Steve Black smiled. This is why:

Location State Points

Fresno CA 25

Oakland Bay Bridge CA 327

Kramer Corner CA 100

Beatty NV 60

Tonopah NV 15

Ely NV 131

Austin NV 190

Carson City NV 200

He did some quick calculations on the back of a napkin. Black ignored Major; languishing in third place, he was clearly out of the running. Hoogeveen, however, still had a chance, although a small one. Peter would have to ride east, picking up the bonuses in Kramer Corner, Beatty, Tonopah, Ely, Austin, and Carson City: 100 + 60 + 15 + 131 + 190 + 200 = 696. Add that to Peter's 16,960 total at Santa Ana and, tossing in the 2,000-point checkpoint bonus, Peter's best score, Black calculated, could be no more than 19,556 (16,960 + 696 + 2,000). To pull off that trick Hoogeveen would have to make a 900-mile ride in the last 16 hours of the rally.

Black, in such a case, would need only the Bay Bridge and Carson City for 527 points. Add that to his 17,102 current total and, with 2,000 points for the checkpoint bonus, he’d finish with 19,629. He would win the 1991 Iron Butt Rally by 73 points and there wouldn’t be a thing the young Canadian could do to stop him. It was almost icing on Steve Black's cake that for every three miles he rode to the finish in Reno, Hoogeveen would have to ride four.

And so the last leg of the resurrected Iron Butt Rally symbolically commenced, 10 years to the day before the twin towers in New York collapsed, the leader heading toward the bright lights of San Francisco for a certain win and his only remaining competition beginning a doomed trek toward Death Valley. They must roll into the parking lot of Jan Cutler's Reno BMW dealership by 10:00 the next morning.

There are long nights on the rally, and then there's the last long night. John Burns, as usual, was struggling. "I ride ten minutes and park for an hour, ride eight minutes and park for an hour. Nothing is harder to do than stay awake when your brain doesn't want to, and nothing is more dangerous on a motorcycle." Three hours before dawn on that night, Harold Brooks went off the road south of Mina, Nevada, 180 miles from the finish, wrecking his bike, his collarbone, and what would have been a certain fifth-place finish.

Steve Black was the first serious contender to arrive in Reno. Apart from missing a 40-point gas receipt on leg No. 2 and taking the southern route to Santa Ana on leg No. 7, his had been a flawless ride. It was not until he reached the scoring table that he saw what he would remember for the rest of his life as The Problem: He'd made a mistake in addition when he was calculating Peter Hoogeveen's best possible score. The total wasn't 19,556 as Black had originally believed; it was 19,656, 27 points better than Steve's 19,629.

For a moment the nurse thought he might need a nurse. He tried to collect his thoughts. Maybe Hoogeveen would be late, as he'd been at the checkpoints in Maine, Pennsylvania, and Texas. There was still hope, however faint. Moments later Ron Major rolled his Gold Wing into Cutler's parking lot. Black stared at him. Had he too gone to Ely? Major had indeed. The 696 bonus points he'd picked up along the way were 169 more than Black had collected. In a staggering turnaround Major had managed to wipe out his deficit of 163 points and had now become the leader of the '91 Iron Butt Rally by six points.

Still, it wasn't over. Peter Hoogeveen, the last rider with a chance for the win, was nowhere in sight. At 10:00 a.m. the penalty clock began subtracting one point per minute from Hoogeveen's score. With a 21-point lead over Major at the end of leg No. 7, Peter needed to be at the finish before 10:21 a.m. to win the rally.

He arrived at 10:25

At the finish line, Peter cooly reached in his tank bag and handed his mentor, who had been anxiously awaiting his arrival, 1986 Iron Butt Rally Ross Copas, a cold beer.

Around the Campfire the Legends Grow

This is how folklore begins. Knights on white chargers go forth, battle dragons, and return bloodied but unbowed. For Steve Black the end had come in a low-rent way. He had taken everything that Mike Kneebone and Jan Cutler could throw at him and brushed it all aside. No rider had plotted better routes, as his top scores on five of the eight legs attested. No highway, bonus, penalty, or dragon had stopped him. He had aided fellow knights in distress on two occasions. His Achilles heel was nothing more than a careless error of arithmetic. But for that, he would have headed north to Kramer Corner and Austin and taken first place with ease. But for that . . .

In Peter Hoogeveen's case the most formidable dragon he'd faced during the lengthy quest was himself. His adventures had been an almost comical litany of pain: the forgotten papers in Deer Lodge, the missed big bonus in New Jersey, the traffic stop in Montgomeryville within sight of the checkpoint, and the late arrivals on three other legs. Remove five minutes from one - just one - of those unforced errors and he returns to Ontario in triumph. But for that . . .

The last man then standing was the knight errant engineer from Los Angeles, Ron Major. He'd done nothing particularly spectacular during the 11 days but, more importantly, he'd done nothing to blow himself out of the water, either. Peter could outride him and Steve could devise better routes, but if you were teaching your brother how to deal with this event, you'd tell him simply: Ride like that guy, Ron Major. Don't get any tickets, don't be late, and don't piss in the soup. Above all, take Napoleon's advice: “Never interfere with your enemy when he is making a mistake."

And so it came to pass that of all the wonders and deeds of daring that transpired during the 1991 Iron Butt Rally, one tale was destined to outshine all the others, that being the myth of the six-pack of beer. Around the fire in countries far and wide and in languages strange and fearful they tell of how Peter Hoogeveen stopped for five minutes on the way to the finish of the IBR in 1991 to buy some beer, that he accrued five points in penalties for his lateness, and that he lost the rally by four points. They tell of how for the next 20 years Mike Kneebone would require riders to bring a cold six-pack of beer to the scoring table at the finish as the rally's final bonus, and they tell of how Kneebone would hold the beer in his hand to ensure that it was indeed cold. They tell of how the riders and staff would laugh and jeer at Hoogeveen's ancient sin and warn the rookies of the dangers of beer and wasted time and ruined lives.

It never happened. At least it didn't happen like that. Peter had stopped in Beatty for the bonus and gas late on Wednesday night. Some loose cans of beer lay on ice next to the check-out register. He picked up a couple and paid for the gas, tossed the cans in a saddlebag, and forgot about them until the next day. From that acorn grew the mighty, apocryphal oak.

Curiously, though the myth haunted him for the remainder of his long, illustrious riding career, Hoogeveen never denied the story. Maybe he sensed that his heartbreaking loss on the '91 Butt could serve a higher purpose. Maybe he hoped another rider could be taught to stay constantly focused, even if the legend had nothing to do with Hoogeveen's own unwavering concentration. Myths like the six-pack, and heroes like Peter, Steve, and Ron, are the core and common glue of all social groups. If the 1991 Iron Butt Rally gave us nothing else, it surely gave us that.

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