We try to make the trip to the Barber Vintage Festival in Alabama each year. It's a chance to see old friends, make new ones, and rubber neck at all the motorcycles and racing you can handle in a long weekend. In 2017 we made an effort to spend some time with a couple of the racers, and try to see what motivates them. Our visit with Larry Morris proved to be just before a crash sent him to the hospital, and sent his future on a different collision course altogether. - GSCo
NEVER MORE PRESENT
Entering The Turn With Larry Morris
Words and Images: Mike Higgins
When I find Larry Morris he is huddled over his vintage racing motorcycle. He has to squint into the brightness of the early morning light to see me. The sun has cracked the horizon and sends its beaming nudges out across the array of motorcycles assembled, and being assembled, for another big race day at Barber Motorsports Park. Larry’s lopsided grin sends me the only hello I need, but he extends a hand, still clutched around a wrench, to give me a proper, grease smeared fist bump.
The paddock area is waking. Signs of activity come to life throughout. The engines are quiet, but the place is abuzz with nervous energy. A still sleeping giant beckons, its twisting tarmac cutting a black swath through the color of the Alabama autumn just beyond the paddock walls.
Larry hasn’t slept much, having to overhaul the transmission overnight to ready his bike, a ’74 Triumph T100, heavily modified to get everything possible out of its 490cc displacement. He’s still at it, creating a makeshift gasket as he works to reseal the engine cases. I set down my gear and join him, eager to get some insight, or lend a hand if it’ll help.
Vintage racing at this level is very much a DIY experience. Larry has been at this for 3 years now, but by his own admission he’s still learning plenty. An enthusiast, collector and avid rider turned racer, he remembers distinctly the moment he made the decision to trade his Levis for leathers and get serious. Walking through this very same paddock at the time, he told anyone that would listen, “This will be the last time I will ever come to Barber, and not be racing at Barber.”
Founder of New York City Motorcycles, Larry had long since embraced the lifestyle. Having riden for years, and partial to vintage bikes with some racing pedigree, he fesses up to being the guy that had to be the fastest in traffic.
“I was a street rider making some dumb choices, and living to tell about it,” he says, lamenting that he looks back to everything he was doing on a bike before with a bit of disgrace. “How could I think I was so fast if I wasn’t even willing to go to the one place where you can be fast, and prove it?”
Like about everything he does, he went “all in,” skipping track days on his own bikes altogether. He jumped straight to buying the Triumph racer off NYC Norton’s Tim Joyce and showed up at race school. This baptism by fire got Larry quickly into the thick of all of it, and quicker still to some humbling realizations.
He learned immediately that he wasn’t the fastest. He may have even been the slowest when he got lined up on the grid for the first time. And he learned that there is a hell of a lot more to racing than going fast.
With the T-100 back together, Larry slips off his coveralls, the lingering morning chill burning off, and has me help him push the bike down to the inspection station. As we pass the rows of paddocks, each now hurrying through its own version of the morning rush, Larry reveals the biggest realization that he has had since getting out on the track. Now, nearly sixty races behind him, he’s still struck by just how utterly present you are once the flag comes down.
“There’s nothing ever in my life that I’ve done that I was ever as present,” he says, his usual lightheartedness taking a more stoic tone. “It’s the one place I know where there’s isn’t anything but what is at that very moment … and that’s extraordinary.”
He goes on, losing himself a bit as he describes the overpowering sense of hyper awareness he feels on the bike at speed. How there’s no past and no future, only the pure essence of cause and effect, the all-consuming physical presence of what’s right before you – the road surface, the lean angle, the braking, everything up to and including the next turn, but nothing else.
“You’re physically lifting up the atoms yourself,” he says, admittedly getting existential about it all. “It feels like it, anyway.”
The sun has flooded the entire valley by now. The crackle and roar of engines has displaced any semblance of a tranquil countryside. Larry too, has shifted into a different mode. Relaxed and jovial by nature, he’s not without a more serious, surly side, but its matched by a disarming quality that let’s you know it’s good intentioned, and temporary.
A check of the start times and grid assignments seems to strike a sense of urgency in him. We return to his paddock quicker of pace and stricter of purpose than our previous stroll. I gladly take on a new roll of staying out of the way. Short of an extra hand to steady the bike as he wrestles with it, I become an observer.
As much as every nuanced turn of a carb screw or tightening of a clutch linkage is significant, I see Larry dialing in as well. It’s that time. It’s time to tweak the machine, and the mind. Time to recheck the equipment, and the strategy. It’s race time.
Turn nine at Barber is part of a chicane that follows a short straight coming out of what’s known as Museum Corner. It’s a dipping left, followed by an immediate, sharper right. The racing lane between the two bends shrinks to about the length of the Triumph Larry straddles as he shifts his weight to push the bike into the turn. He doesn’t see, and has no memory of the events that pile up against him at this instant. Thousands of miniscule, micro-second happenings. Forces act. Counterforces react. Those atoms lift … and ultimately fall. Larry goes down with them.
Another bike inters his racing line. Trying to overtake, but without the speed or the room necessary, it introduces itself into the physics of that moment. All it takes is a touch. A bump of the handle bar … a wobble … a crash. A disruption to that inviolable present, making it forever a part of Larry’s past, and leaving him to wonder about the future.
He wakes hours later, in the hospital, and in a state of denial about what transpired to put him there. It takes some real convincing from friends and doctors alike before he concedes that he has in fact been in an accident. “Don’t you think I’d know if I crashed?” he questions. The shattered foot that will take surgeries and multiple pins to reconstruct surely works against his morphine-fogged case against reality. “There ain’t been no crash.”
This memory, or lack of it, becomes a point of good spirited joking as he recounts the story from his home in New York weeks later. He reflects on everything with his own brand of realistic optimism. It changed him, of course. It made him take stock of everything he was doing, and all that he hoped to do with racing.
“There comes a time when you ask yourself, is what you’re getting out of it worth what its asking of you,” he says. Admittedly, racing is a hobby for him, a by-product of his love for motorcycles, of the lifestyle, and yes, of the sport of pushing the machines and yourself to the limit. But what is that limit? That’s an individual question. One Larry has had plenty of reason, and suddenly plenty time to contemplate.
For him it’s not about any fear of getting back on the bike. He’s definitely riding again. But will road racing be part of it? He’s already gotten to experience the thrill of victory, and now that clichéd, but far too real agony of defeat. He’s raced all over the country, battling it out with some great people on some great tracks. Must he keep doing it? Again, he returns to that overwhelming sense of presence that he feels on the track, and feels is absolutely paramount to success.
“Whether that presence is now violated by a memory … that I don’t actually have … which could conjure up a fear?” he contemplates. “I don’t know the answer to that.”
Recovering from the physical injury takes time and process, but it’s tangible. Recovering the confidence and the clarity of mind necessary to race is much more abstract. Now, several months into the process Larry feels good about both sides of that recovery. It has really pushed him to make some decisions, and he’s made some changes. In so many ways it seems to have inspired in him a renewed and even intensified desire to go “all in.”
In the months since the crash he’s moved west, to make LA his home base, and to make vintage motorcycles more of a business than a hobby. By the time I catch up with him in in February, he’s slowly eased into riding again, getting comfortable and feeling his way through it all. It’s all going remarkably well for him. Except for the injury itself, he looks back on the past six months as a really wonderful time.
“I experienced things that I couldn’t have if it weren’t for the crash,” he says. “You gotta take what you can from bad things. Otherwise, what was it for?”
He’s been crisscrossing the country in the old Airstream motor home he purchased as well, attending events and getting back in the thick of things. And he plans to continue pointing it, and himself, in whatever direction he chooses – as long as it’s forward.
“That includes getting back on the horse that threw ya,” he says, referring to his determination to not stop at simply riding, but to get back into racing. “What else am I gonna do?” he continues, regaining a touch of his surliness to add with a chuckle, “I sure am not going to sit in the damn bleachers.”
I wouldn’t fault him if he did, but wouldn’t bet against him either. Regardless, it certainly seems that one thing can be said about Larry Morris – he’s never been more present.
Post Script: Larry Morris is set to race his Triumph T-100 in the Sportsman 500 class at this year’s Corsa Motoclassic at Willow Springs International Raceway on April 21. We wish him all the best, and a heartfelt … Godspeed.