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Greta Rybus

Greta Rybus is a photojournalist and photo editor living in Portland. She started her blog, “Who I Met," as a way to begin juicy conversations with interesting people she meets. The blog has migrated with her from Montana, Europe, and, finally, to her new and dearly-loved home in Maine. You can see more of her work at www.gretarybus.com

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Who I Met with Greta Rybus
Posted: May 25, 2014

Kerry Smith – Vintage Motorcycle Racer

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When I met Kerry at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, she had just finished her last race of the day. Her hands were slightly smudged with motor grease and she was still zipped up in a full leather suit that protects her from falls, which –it turns out– happen fairly regularly. It is a dangerous sport, a loud sport, and a sport largely made up of male racers. And Kerry is very, very good at it. She has won two Lightweight Supervintage Championships: One at the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme in France and another at USCRA in New Hampshire. She also won the 2013 Clubman 350 class at Mid-Ohio Vintage Days and has raced on the famed Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit in Australia. She’s very humble about these successes.  In fact, when emailing about this interview, she asked if she could include a paragraph of thank-yous, which I will abbreviate here:

Thank you to: Kerry’s parents, friends and adopted family in Maine, her boyfriend, and her team: Giannini Racing.

 

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TELL ME ABOUT MOTORCYCLE RACING

I race a built 1971 Honda CB350. I say “built” because it is modified for power and far from its original form. My bike is nine years older than me (did a lady just give up her age?). I mostly race against Honda CB350s with a few other bikes mixed in. Depending on how much you want to travel, which I do along the East Coast, you can race all over the country almost all year long.

HOW DID YOU START RACING MOTORCYCLES?

My father raced motorcycles ever since I was a baby. Actually, my parent’s first date was to a drag strip and that was almost 50 years ago! My first trip was to Bike Week Daytona Beach in 1981 at six months old. I really didn’t have a choice but to love motorcycles and racing. When I was growing up, I thought everyone had a family member that raced and that they just weren’t at the same track. Little did I know that my dad participated in the coolest sport. Fast forward to 2006, a dear friend named Pete Talabach told me on a road ride that he thought I would make a good road racer. I said,  “No….you think?” My dad had stopped racing in 2005 after a bad crash, so as you can imagine, my parents had some reservations. I started with Dad because I was fairly certain he would be into it. Once I convinced him ­(it didn’t take too much) he said, “Let me tell your mom.” I took a race school in April of 2007 and the rest is history.

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TELL ME ABOUT YOUR BIKES

 I have one race bike and it is quite special. It is one of only three like it in the entire world. My Honda has many special parts, but the first thing people notice is my handcrafted frame, which is a replica Honda GP162 frame. I race for Team Giannini and the mastermind Frank Giannini built this frame with the help of Aleksey Kravchuk of Works Engineering in Brooklyn, New York. My first season on this generation of the bike was 2011. The bike I raced prior was the same bike my dad raced, which obviously had some serious sentimental value to me. My current bike still has some parts of that old bike, which make me happy. I also ride the street and do track days on a 2003 Suzuki SV650. I can definitely apply some of what I learn from the Suzuki to the Honda.

WHY VINTAGE MOTORCYCLES?

 Honestly, when I started, it was the only race bike we had. I wasn’t sure if I would like it as I had only been riding modern bikes on the street, but I fell in love with the bike, even with a drum brake. My father raced vintage motorcycles for most of my life, so it was natural for me to do that type of racing. I also grew up with this crowd so I feel like I am with my close family and friends.

 

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WHAT DO YOU FEEL WHEN YOU ARE RIDING?

 Wow. I feel lots of things. There are those “oh no” moments when you go into a corner hot and you’re not sure you will make it, but most of the time you do. There is that feeling when the bike accelerates out of the corner hard and the sound it makes is incredible! There are those few times that they say you “see red.” The last time I saw red, I crashed. It is a crazy place to be, like nothing else matters but the race and who is ahead of you. And how could I not mention the thrill of winning? There is absolutely nothing like that feeling!

DOES IT ALMOST FEEL LIKE YOU HAVE A BOND OR FRIENDSHIP WITH YOUR BIKES?

 You definitely feel a bond with the machine. This bike takes you around the track at fast speeds. You have to trust that the bike was prepared well and will keep you safe. I may or may not blow my bike a kiss when I leave it.

WHY DO YOU COMPETE? WHAT ARE THE COMPETITIONS LIKE?

I have always been a bit competitive. It’s in my blood. After high school, I stopped swimming competitively. As I was in my early to mid-twenties, I felt like I needed something. Racing gave me that outlet. I will admit that there are times that I think I might be a bit crazy, but that all goes away once I am on track. The competitions really vary depending on what track and what organization (is involved). I actively race with two organizations: United States Classic Racing Association (USCRA) and American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association (AHRMA). Some racers are active in both organizations and will travel. USCRA mainly races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on the road course. AHRMA is nationwide and I will race this year at New Jersey Motorsports Park (NJMP) and Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama.

My races are mostly against men, but there are some women out there. Last year, at Barber, we had a large contingent of women. Although it is a male-dominated sport, women are definitely making a name for themselves. Race days normally consist of practice in the morning and a full day of races. There can be anywhere from 13-15 races that vary in laps depending on the machine. Some tracks might be easier than others depending on how technical they are. New Hampshire is considered a technical track, so eight laps on it is pretty tiring. Others are faster with longer straights and these are more of a mental game trying to make sure you don’t roll off the throttle when you don’t have to.

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TELL ME ABOUT THE HAZARDS. WHAT KIND OF CRASHES DO YOU SEE?

 I will first start by saying that we are all geared up from head to toe – helmet, full leather suit, gloves, at least a back protector (although I wear a chest protector too) and good boots. This helps prevent road rash and injuries from an impact. My suit and chest and back protectors are both custom made to me. Gear is very important. The most common crash is a low side. This is when the front or rear wheel loses traction in a corner and you go down. These tend to be fairly easy crashes and most of the time people will walk away from them. The other less-common crash is called a highslide. This is when you lose traction with the rear tire and it catches and spits you off. You then do something called “ground, sky, ground, sky” because that is often what you will see a few times before you hit the ground. These are a bit more serious but can be walked away from as well.

Crashes are a part of our sport and it is something that will happen, whether it is your fault or not. We race in the rain so this can make things interesting. But if someone gets hurt, we rally around them, pack up their gear, make sure all of their stuff is taken care of and then support them however we can. When my dad crashed in 2005, he was in the hospital for a month. We already know that the USCRA and our racing friends were like family, but we never realized how loved and supported we were until that time. It is a truly amazing community with some of the best people I have ever met.

TELL ME ABOUT SOME OF THE CHARACTERS YOU MEET WHILE RACING

 Characters is a great way to put it. The great thing about this sport is that is attracts all different kinds of people and each of them has at least a few screws loose to do this. There are doctors, lawyers, marketing professionals that all come together for the love of the sport. Things like geography, political differences, all off that is put aside – well, most of the time. We are just a bunch of adrenaline junkies!

 

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TELL ME ABOUT YOUR DAY JOB

 I am the director of workforce giving at United Way of Greater Portland, which means me and a team of five run all the workplace campaigns in Cumberland County. I have been there for over six years. I love what I do because I not only raise money to help the community, but I get to meet some of the most fascinating and generous people. The Greater Portland community is a very special place and I get to experience that every day.

HOW DO YOU BALANCE BOTH?

I am so lucky to work with such a supportive and awesome group of people. One of my coworkers has actually come to the track to watch me. Everyone is so great about my racing, asking questions and showing a real interest in something that is probably pretty foreign to them. My passion for it is probably a bit infectious.

 

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WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU?

 It is so cliche, but my family and friends are so important to me. I have the most supportive parents, Frank and Cathy Smith, that come to every race and really are there for me every step of the way, both in racing and in life. And beyond my family, I have such supportive friends, both racing and non-racing. My racing friends are there to bench race at any time of the day. We talk lines and strategy and general racing fodder. My non-racer friends humor me by listening to my racing stories and understand that my love and passion takes me away from home often. I am a very lucky girl to have so many great people in my life.

TELL ME ABOUT A LESSON YOU ARE LEARNING OR HAVE LEARNED RECENTLY?

 I am really trying to live in the moment and enjoy the ride. As someone who is constantly on the go, I am really trying to take some time and savor what is going on right at that moment. I am attempting to do this in all aspects of my life. Some days are easier than others.

 

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WHAT IS THE BIGGEST BLESSING OR GIFT IN YOUR LIFE?

 I think my biggest gift is the ability to chase my dreams. I have been given the tools in the way of confidence and in how my parents raised and supported me to go out there and be bold, try new things. I wouldn’t be able to race without them. They supported my crazy move to Maine six years ago with nothing but a place to live. I have that safety net in so many ways, and it has helped when I have made big, somewhat unknown leaps.

THE BIGGEST STRUGGLE?

 This is a tough one, so I will focus on my racing. Right now I am trying to lower my lap times. For the first few years of my racing, I relied on talent to get by. Now that I have been at it for eight years, it will take real work to bring down my times, because ultimately you race against everyone else and yourself. It is a mental game of brake markers and finding reference points that will push you further into the corner. Lowering lap times is a mixture of entry speed and getting on the throttle quickly, but not too quickly. I have been actively working on this though and hope to see my lap times come down this year.

WHAT IS THE BEST MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY?​

 The moment I crawl into bed! I love getting off my feet for the day. And this time of the year, it is rivaled by the sun waking me up in the morning. My windows face the east and my place just lights up in the morning!

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