Claiming the checkered flag: Walksler wins antique motorcycle race
Keeping vintage machines humming is what Matt Walksler lives to do. He gets it honest, as he spends his days working alongside his father, Dale, who owns the Wheels Through Time motorcycle museum in Maggie Valley.
Aside from helping run the museum and co-starring with his father in a popular reality show called "What's in the Barn," Walksler is also an accomplished competitor in vintage motorcycle racing.
He just recently brought home his second first-place win from a vintage motorcycle race and swap event in Wauseon, Ohio.
It's an event he and his dad have attended for years and where they love to mingle with fellow motorcycle lovers and acquire new and rare items to bring back to Haywood County.
Racing modern motorcycles has never much appealed to him, but growing up watching his dad's enthusiasm for racing vintage machines sparked his interest. As a history buff, coupling the vintage motorcycles with the racing aspect made it all the more exciting for Walksler.
During this year's race at Wauseon, there were 15 competitors in the board track class racing vintage motorcycles built in years from 1911 to 1926.
Walksler raced a 1926 Harley Davidson that he built himself over about a year using only authentic parts.
"It's got a rare 1926 engine — they just built a handful of them that year," Walksler said.
The 200-pound motorcycle is a dangerous ride. For starters, it doesn't have brakes, a gearbox or a clutch and can only be pushed to start.
Because of that, it makes it illegal to ride the antique motorcycle on the roads, which means Walksler never gets a chance to practice. The first time he raced was the first time he had actually ridden the motorcycle.
"I just got on it and winged it," he said with a laugh.
Competitors are usually given a two lap practice and four-lap heat race before the actual race, but it usually amounts to only about 20 laps in a weekend, he said.
But being around the machines all his life helps with his understanding of how to stay safe — and how to win.
While the race is on a dirt track, all the motorcycles in his class are the types of bikes that were seen racing on board tracks in the early 1900s.
Board track racing quickly disappeared at the onset of the Great Depression because, though the tracks were initially inexpensive to build, the cost of maintenance was high and required replacing every couple of years.
"As rickety as that thing looks, it will run about 135 miles per hour," he said, pointing toward the old motorcycle.
During the race, he kept the speed at about 85 miles per hour.
Being on the track around all the vintage bikes right as the race is about to start briefly feels like stepping back in time, he said. But as soon as the green flag is waved, he feels nothing except the adrenaline of the competition.
"It's the best feeling I've ever had," he said.
With a crowd of about 5,000 screaming above him, Walksler won the race by only a half a wheel's length.
"It was the closest finish in that race in years," he said.
It was also the second first-place win he's gotten after winning the same race last year.
"The first time I won it was absolutely awesome and the second time was just as sweet as the first," he said.
In the end, winners don't take home a cash prize or a trophy, and that's OK with Walksler. For him, it's more about the camaraderie and less about being competitive.
"We get to spend time with like-minded folks. Everybody just wants to see everybody do well," he said.
However, he's still proud to display the winner's checkered flag at the museum alongside the winning motorcycle and dozens of other vintage racing items.
"There's more early motorcycle racing machines and memorabilia here than anywhere else in the world," he said.
Walksler will be taking the same bike to Davenport, Iowa, on Labor Day weekend in hopes of bringing home another checkered flag.