Friday
Nov182011

Something to get revved up about

James Jackson
Woolwich Observer
Published Nov. 18, 2011Breslau-native Herb Becker has made a name for himself on the vintage motorcycle racing circuit as one of the best mechanics around, prompting him to be inducted into the Canadian Motorcycle Hall of Fame on Nov. 5.

If you walk up to the front door of Herb Becker’s Kitchener home and ring the doorbell, chances are no one will answer.

You’re more likely to find him in the garage behind his house. With its white paint peeling slightly around the edges of the large rollup door, the garage’s humble exterior belies a bevy of activity inside.

From the 1960s-era dragster sitting in one corner, to the shell of a 1928 Model A Ford Coupe in the other, along with the myriad parts, tools, and tires piled nearby, it’s clear that Becker knows a thing or two about fixing up old cars.

There are also two vintage Norton motorcycles on the floor of the shop, one propped up near the door and another on a stand awaiting work.

He’s fixing the bikes up for a guy from Rockford, Illinois, he says, and hanging on the wall behind him are two more Norton motorcycles of his own.

For the past 25 years Becker has made a name for himself in vintage motorcycle racing circles as one of the preeminent bike builders in the country, and on Nov. 5 the Breslau-native was inducted into the Canadian Motorcycle Hall of Fame in the builder category during its sixth annual induction banquet held in Mississauga.

The honour, however, is one that Becker would rather do without.

“I’ve got to admit, it didn’t make me feel particularly good,” said Becker, leaning against his worktable and his arms crossed over his chest.

“I’m really kind of struggling to deal with it. I find my new-found celebrity feels rather awkward.”

The humble man has equally unassuming roots. Born in 1946 and raised just outside of Breslau near the airport, Becker grew up idolizing the city kids who seemed to have more excitement in their lives than he did growing up in the small town.

Breslau was far from the booming town it is now, and he said there was scarcely a thing to do.

“Your movement was restricted (living in Breslau),” he said. “You got to meet kids from the city, and you think everything is happening in the city.”

It was during the 1950s and early 60s that Becker said he developed his love for cars. Back in those days the 401 and other major highways in the area were non-existent, so when racers and fans made the drive from Hamilton and Cambridge to the Bridgeport Speedway, they would often go right by the Becker homestead.

“Bridgeport Speedway on a Saturday night was a pretty big deal,” he said. “So every Saturday night this was a big event for me to sit and watch the cars.

“I really think that’s what piqued my interest in racing.”

His father didn’t share that interest in cars or racing, so Becker was not allowed to go to the races until he was 16 and could drive himself.

The family moved to Kitchener that same year and Becker started to apprentice as a tool and die maker in town, an occupation that leant itself well to his passion for working with his hands and building or repairing engines.

“My hands really are my way of expressing myself; I think I’m hardwired from the brain to my hands, and it’s intimate and a meaningful expression for me.

“When I started as a tool and die maker I didn’t even know what it was, but I’m lucky because it’s exactly the right job for me.”

Becker was married in 1971 and they had a son in 1972. His wife at the time wanted him to give up fixing cars and they moved to a larger house – with no garage – a few years later.

That move was what prompted Becker to make the switch from cars to motorcycles.

“I was always interested in bikes, mainly from a technical standpoint, and I thought if I got a bike I could wheel it into the basement and work on it there, so that’s when I got into bikes.”

His brand of choice was Norton, a British motorcycle company, originally from Birmingham, founded in 1898. He said he chose Norton because the parts were cheap and at the time he could build one from scratch for about $500.

In the past 25 years he’s made about 10 or 12 bikes and had three different drivers compete for him at tracks all across Canada and North America, from Daytona to Shannonville, Ontario.

He’s earned widespread praise for his technical skill, and fans and opponents alike have come to recognize Becker’s trademark baby-blue motorcycles as they make their way around the track, dominating the circuit for a quarter century.

That was one of the primary reasons why he was inducted into the hall of fame this year.

“There aren’t too many in the vintage motorcycle races that wouldn’t know Herb’s name,” said Vada Seeds, the chair of the selection committee at the Canadian motorcycle hall of fame and a member of its board of directors.

“His bikes and his engines are known throughout Ontario and the United States.”

While renowned for his technical skill, Becker never raced a motorcycle a day in his life, and for good reason: Becker said that winning a race comes down to the best racers riding the best bikes, and the better the team, the better your chance of winning.

The best mechanics in the business want to ride their own bikes, and that is their downfall, he said, because most of them are only mediocre riders. Likewise, the best riders are often only average mechanics.

Becker’s recipe for success all these years has been to build the best machine possible, then find the best racer he could to ride it to the finish.

“It didn’t take me long to figure this out at all, when you prepare a good bike and have a good rider on it you have a good shot at winning, and I liked that.”

He has also developed a strong respect for the riders, and while they’re often perceived as crazy daredevils with a death-wish, he says the opposite is true.

Becker retired about 10 years ago from the tool and die trade to devote more time to racing, yet he admits as he gets older – he turned 65 in October – and as the cost of parts continue to rise, he’s beginning to lose that drive for motorcycles he once had.

He would much rather turn his attention to restoring that Model A Coupe sitting in pieces in the corner of his garage.

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