World War II Camera Gives New View of Motorcycle Racing

Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Channel
February 11, 2004
Heart of Speed, the TV segment covered in this story, airs on National
Geographic On Assignment
at 7 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT on Thursday,
February 12, on the National Geographic Channel.

When James Siddall wiped out on the racetrack in 1994, his racing career skidded to a halt. Another rider, after tumbling from his bike while rounding a turn, struck him head-on, smashing Sidall's pelvis, legs, and ribs. Siddall nearly bled to death on the track.

As he was airlifted to the hospital, one thing was clear: James Siddall would never race again.

But, defying the odds, he has returned to the racetrack as one of the country's top coaches. His teams have won the American Motorcyclist Association national championships in 1999, 2000, and 2001. Now he trains the Graves Motorsports Yamaha factory race team, based in Van Nuys, California.

Sam Burbank, a producer and correspondent for National Geographic On Assignment, used to race with Siddall and wanted to tell the story of his disastrous accident by using a recreation. The challenge was how to do this tastefully.

"Re-creations tend to look and feel cheesy, with these halo effects," Burbank said. "I knew if we were going to do this, we have to shift the look and feel from the rest of the piece. Film seemed like an obvious choice, because it would feel older and keep the quality very high."

For the re-creation, Burbank wanted to use a real racing bike—he wound up with a monster.

"When it was raced a few years ago, the thing was so fast no one could catch it. It was very heavily modified, and other teams complained, eventually getting it banned from the racing circuit," said Burbank.

Vintage Camera

The bike, the fastest Yamaha R1 on the planet, is plastered on the cover of the February 2004 issue of Performance Bikes. With nearly 200 horsepower it can hit at least 200 miles per hour (322 kilometers per hour) on the track. "It's an absolutely terrifying machine," Burbank said.

The remaining question was how to film Burbank while on the bike.

Film cameras are notoriously heavy, bulky items that could be dangerous if rigged to the rider or bike. The solution to the problem came from San Francisco-based cameraman Tom Chandler.

He suggested using a vintage camera from a World War II fighter plane to film from one of the most modern motorcycles on Earth.

World War II 16mm strike cameras were used on plane wings to capture shots of target sites as the guns fired. They were triggered as ammunition was released and only had about a minute's worth of film—enough to learn whether a mission was successful.

Chandler thought the obscure devices would be just light enough to fit on the race bike—and rider—at high speed.

He outfitted Burbank's bike with a number of strike cameras.

Chandler inherited the cameras from his father, who acquired them from surplus stores. Chandler's father was in the motion picture business, with his feet planted firmly in film technology. He stripped the strike cameras of the moldings that held them to plane wings and modified them with different lenses and cables.

A View From the Hot Seat

The advantage of these cameras is that they are small and cheap. "When I was a kid my dad rigged one underneath my skateboard—it was that small and it only weighs about a pound, pound and a half," said Chandler.

Technology wise, there is no modern equivalent of the strike camera, said Chandler. "All the recent technology has gone into the film chemistry and developing process. If a camera has a nice lens, then you basically can't tell the difference between something shot on a 1940s camera and something from today."

The size made the 16mm strike the perfect choice to film high-speed bike racing from the rider's point of view.

"It's always more dynamic and fun to put the viewer on the motorcycle, put them where the action is," said Chandler. "So we taped the camera directly on Sam's leg."

Unfortunately for Burbank, he had to hit a toggle switch to start the camera. "Just riding the bike, which has twice the horsepower of anything I've ever ridden before, was hair-raising enough. But trying to find that toggle switch on the gas tank while speeding around a curve—that was quite a ride."

The result is a dizzying perspective on a moment in the life of a professional racer as he shaves the track—balancing friction, momentum, and gravity.

"I wasn't expecting much from these 12 little boxes Tom showed up with. Figured it would be a grainy, jumpy picture—instead they gave us these crystal-clear, perfect images," said Burbank.

National Geographic On Assignment, airing at 7 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT, is available only on the National Geographic Channel.

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