A couple of days ago, I left you in the rain, as the horde of fans and swap meet treasure hunters abandoned the Circuit Linas-Montlhéry in the face of an advancing rainstorm.
I retreated to Eric Saul’s huge tent. Saul, who won a couple of Grands Prix back in the day, occasionally promotes classic races based mostly on the rugged Yamaha 250 and 350 twins that filled GP grids in the 1970s. The day before, Eric had highsided his Bimota 250 and broken his collarbone, for the nth time. I learned that the French word for “highside” is pronounced, “eye-side”.
“I think,” said Saul with a one-sided shrug, “that there might have been oil on the track. Have a glass of champagne.” Hundreds of people were packed in with us, the hard core that didn’t want to leave, even though the Coupes Moto-Légende was over. Eric’s girlfriend, also a racer, was playing the accordion. Some song that was so French it hurt. She was tall enough, pretty enough (and fast enough by the way) that it looked and sounded good on her. I thought about pushing through the crowd to say hello to Giacomo Agostini, but I stayed on the fringes.
It’s not an accident that the expression “joie de vivre” is French. Eventually though, all things must end. The party fell quiet and the last of us filtered out, leaving the great track silent once and for all–if by “all” you mean, the public.
What does the future hold for Montlhéry? The land belongs to the government. Decades ago, the track and associated buildings were basically handed over to UTAC, a company which provides testing and consulting services to the car industry. UTAC, in turn, is controlled by Renault and Peugot/Citroen. This tangled ownership always made it easy to duck responsibility. When Montlhéry locals complained about noise and traffic, the administration said, “What can we do? The land belongs to the government; they’re the ones who made it a national monument; we’re sort of obliged to open it to the citizens every now and then.”
At the same time, when 40,000 Coupes fans got up in arms over the impending closure of their favorite track the administration said, “Well, it’s not us that want to close the circuit.”
But in fact it was them. UTAC never wanted the public on the site. They do almost all their physical testing in modern buildings built outside the track, and more and more of their business is in computer simulations. The company’s web site doesn’t even mention the legendary oval.
The road course was occasionally rented out to car clubs, but the owners said the use they got from it, and the revenue it generated, didn’t justify the cost of basic annual upkeep.
A few years ago, they got the perfect excuse to close it: the French government being, well, French has a committee that exists for the sole purpose of homologating the country’s race tracks. Every track needs a valid certificate to stage events. For Montlhéry’s certificate to be renewed in 2004, someone would have had to spend $15 million repairing cracks in the concrete and repaving the whole thing.
“15 million!” UTAC’s spokesmen acted suitably taken aback, and sputtered, “Who’s got that kind of money? We’ll have to stop holding public events.”
Without a showcase event like Coupes Moto Légende, le Circuit de Linas-Montlhéry faces continued neglect, and slow decay. Eventually, it will be unusable, and the owners will be glad to padlock it once and for all. Weeds will push up through the cracked asphalt and vines will slowly overtake the concrete banking.
Motorcycling itself only goes back a hundred years; and Grand Prix racing barely goes back 50. So until now, as motorcyclists, the most interesting parts of our past have been held in our collective living memory. As a historian of our sport, I have always liked the idea that I could talk directly to the people who made our history - that I could see their motorcycles run, and hear them.
No one would have thought – riding like we did, half the time without helmets – that we’d even last long enough to reach this point. But as time marches on, motorcycling’s history is starting to reach back past living memory. Into history history. That would be what? Dead memory?
It’s funny. I went to the Circuit de Linas-Montlhéry for the bikes. Because it might’ve been my last chance to see and hear a bike like that Norton kneeler in its original context. I thought that hearing it would somehow make that memory my own; real, not just a historical note beside a static display.
Then I went back a second time for the empty track. I was prevented from seeing it, not because there was any secret testing going on there that I might photograph, just because a typical, emasculated French petty functionary relished the opportunity to say “no.”
I never expected to be so interested in the track in the first place. There was a certain, melancholy poetry to being denied a final visit, not that there’s any great philosophical conclusion to draw from it. Except that while it’s worth it to keep our history alive, it’s also important to remember the things we’ve lost.