At 100 miles per hour, there's no time to contemplate the fact that the only singer/songwriter/guitar player in recorded history ever to rhyme ice water with flyswatter is right behind me.
But there he is--Lyle P. Lovett, Lone Star leathers and all, railing through the Streets of Willow's turn one aboard the most monstrous Ducati Monster yet devised by human hands. One lap later, a look over my shoulder reveals the kind of monster wheelie that gives an intimate view of Lyle's oil drain plug. One lap after that, we pull in. The man is learning his lines.
As he slides off the matching Lone Star motif Arai back in the paddock, two things are clear: The signature coif is almost completely immune to helmet head; and motorcycles are right up there with nuclear Mexican food and well-tuned guitars on his personal greatest hits list. Lyle Lovett, you see, is a hard-core motorcycle guy. The guitar came first. But a 1969 Honda Z-50 for roosting around Klein, Texas (about 25 miles north of Houston), followed a few years later
Fans (OK, sue me, I'm one, I admit it) familiar with 10 years and six albums worth of evocative, incisive music know the face and the voice as well as any old friend. But from the second he'd arrived early that morning, even people who don't know Bob Wills from Bob Weir from Bob Dole know the boots, jeans and jacket unfolding from the black Ford Explorer. "Hey, It's him...the guy who was married to--."
As he meets a paddock full of people with easy grace and genuine Texas charm, the slings, arrows and tabloid speculation that celebrity is heir to evaporate in the high desert heat. Today Lovett doesn't have to think about tours or albums or Rolling Stone interviews. Today he doesn't have to be a star. Today he gets to be a motorcycle guy, and Lyle P. loves that.
Today, Lyle Lovett is a motorcycle guy waiting for a particular motorcycle: a Ducati Monster with slightly less carbon-fiber composites and titanium alloys than an F-117, plus muscle enough to raise blisters on Godzilla in a scuffle. Lyle aims a calibrated East Texas squint at the Mojave horizon and wonders out loud, "What time did Earl say they were bringing the bike out?"
"Before lunch," I tell him, "which leaves us plenty of time to ride." Minutes later, Lyle P. is race-ready in a red (what else?) Ducati shirt under (mostly) black "Don't Mess With Texas" Vanson leathers, nattily emblazoned with the Lone Star State ensign on a field of Ducati logos.
Having secured a full-course "No Strafing" policy from our 24-hour GSX-R pilots and the multifarious Friends of Nick Official Hangers-On Society & High-Speed TZ250 Drill Team, L. Lovett is issued a fresh ZX-7R Kawasaki as I fire up our YZF750R Yamaha test bike. Hide the women and children, folks, we're going out.
Having just finished a 125cc roadracing school in Texas some months back, Lyle knew the track drill; run counterclockwise, keep to the paved parts, show no fear and no stopping on cuts or blood. But these aren't 125s, and for better or for worse, this ain't Texas. Willow's "big track" (so named for its effect on human eyeballs, though Mr. Sphincter more often exhibits an inverse reaction) is roughly as warm and welcoming to first-time riders as the Banzai Pipeline on a Boogie board. Having lost control of various involuntary smooth-muscle functions when Kev Schwantz staged a supersonic fly-by during my maiden voyage through turn eight, let's just say I can sympathize.
The racing line makes little sense at first, and my lines rarely make sense to anybody but me...and the paramedics. But Lyle is patient, riding with the controlled aggression you'd expect from a man about to launch an 11-week, 64-date summer tour. He'd just as soon not call the record label to announce the untimely wrinkling of his irreplaceable Texas self whilst harvesting 125-mph Willow Springs sagebrush. Lyle's a smart guy. "I feel extra cautious when I'm out doing something like this," he says, " but I really enjoy learning about it."
Time to chase the adrenaline with Gatorade and lunch. Besides, Earl and his Pro Italophiles have ceremoniously arrived with the star of our show: Lyle's Monster. Requisite oohs, ahhs and boy-howdys greet its emergence from the van. The consensus? If Cartier, NASA and Gianni Versace created a beast, Lyle's would still beat it up.
Adjourning to our air-conditioned recreational vehicle/24-hour nerve center/atomic chili bistro, Lyle Lovett speaks with the sort of candor you don't expect from a man whose albums regularly sell over 500,000 copies. Ask him questions and you get genuine, articulate answers. Especially to questions about motorcycles.
Lyle's motorcycle roots run back to dusty Honda Mini-Trail 50s and 70s ripping up the pasture/track near his folks' house. "After the first year we had the bikes, my mom, my dad and I would all go riding in the national forest. We still have our old 1970 CT-1 Yamaha," he says, nursing a jug of the really scary blue Gatorade. The bike bug had grown teeth by '70.
"I got a job in a motorcycle shop in Houston called Cycle Shack," Lyle remembers. "It was a Penton/Husky dealer. I was 14, so at the end of the summer the owner of the shop, Richard Sanders is his name, gave me this Husky 125 since I couldn't really be on the payroll. The first time I rode it...it was such a big difference."
Lovett's motocross career lasted three years, ending with expert plates on a 1974 Husqvarna 125 that still sits in his parents' garage. "I led from the start once at a little track in Crockett, Texas, the first time I raced my new Husky. That was the greatest feeling," he says, with a tiny glint in one eye only an ex-motocrosser would notice.
From there it was school (he holds degrees in German and journalism from Texas A&M), playing music in clubs around Texas and elsewhere, and well earned a record deal with MCA/Curb records in 1985.
The ensuing half-dozen albums wrap everything from blues to gospel to Texas swing and big band jazz around penguins and a 40-gallon Stetson (with 38-foot brim), boats, ponies, cheeseburgers and greasy plates of enchiladas. Then there's Fiona, the one-eyed, six-foot-tall bayou girl on his latest effort, The Road to Ensenada, who's really dangerous with a cup and saucer.
Motorcycles and music push similar neural buttons for Lyle. "When I was 17, I stopped riding and started playing music, and I think it was kind of an even trade. The feeling I got from playing was enough to take the place of riding," says Lovett.
Then the bike bug rode out of hibernation, on an H-D Heritage Softail he got for his birthday last November 1. "I'd never ridden a streetbike before, let alone a Harley," Lyle says. "Then I rode it back to the Cycle Shack in Houston where I used to work and started hanging around again.''
One test ride on a 900 SP Ducati while the band was on tour near Washington, D.C., and Lyle's bike bug developed an Italian accent. "Ducatis have such great style," he says, "and even though I don't begin to utilize everything these bikes are capable of, they're just so cool. Nothing else sounds like that." Is it the same brand of cool that makes 11-year-old fingers sweat holes through a Honda Z-50 brochure? "Sure," he says, "it's always like that, isn't it?"
Passion is passion, lust is lust. "I get to work with people who are really passionate about what they do," he says. "I've had the good luck to work with some great musicians over the years...what they do is their whole life. When people are passionate about what they do, it brings an incredible quality to their work. That's what I experienced the first time I walked into Pro Italia. Earl [Campbell] is an artist. I was so knocked out by his shop, I wanted him to build me a bike," Lyle says.
Everybody is knocked out by the result. The Monster Earl built is more than a bike, just as the perfect Stetson transcends mere cowboy hat status. Both are very personal expressions of heart and soul, born of much blood, sweat and midnight oil. Approach either at your own risk. Look carefully at the art and you see the artist. Or just listen to Lyle on his new album and you'll understand: "If it's her you want/I don't care about that/You can have my girl/But don't touch my hat."
Building the Perfect Beast
From Italia to Tejas...via Glendale
Lyle wanted the frame red and a black fuel tank," says Pro Italia's Earl Campbell. "Beyond that, he pretty much left everything up to us." When you ask what all was done to Lyle Lovett's Monster, "everything" pretty much covers it. Some scary monsters have escaped Pro Italia's Glendale, California, works, but none scarier than Lyle Lovett's big-bore 944cc Desmodue twin, built by Pro Italia's Ray "Mr. Monster" Roberts.
Atmosphere and unleaded get acquainted in 39mm Keihin flat-slide carburetors, then adjourn to C.R. Axtell-ported cylinder heads.The 94mm JE pistons (2mm over stock) spin a polished, rebalanced Ducati crankshaft equipped with Carrillo rods. The VeeTwo V2034 cams concentrate maximum ooomph between 3000 and 7500 rpm.
The succession of 472cc bangs registers about 90 rear wheel horses at 8000 rpm (versus about 72 for a stock M900). Lumpier cams would make more peak ponies, but the V2034s are more effective on the street, letting Lyle's M-944 beat a 904cc stocker by about 10 horses in the heart of the real-world rev range at 4000 rpm. A Corsa billet clutch modulates power flow to the Regina gold link chain. Magnesium valve covers add style whilst subtracting a few ounces.
From there, the stock steel skeleton was adorned with the requisite red powdercoating, and Rick Baddon painted the nearly weightless carbon-fiber fuel tank. The fenders, headlight shell, clutch and sprocket covers--and even the ignition key cover--are carbon fiber, too. But those Marvic wheels are by far the most impressive composite components: magnesium centers bolted to carbon-fiber rims shod with Pirelli Dragon radials. And since serving steel with carbon fiber is so, well, unrefined, the M944 is largely screwed and bolted together with titanium.
Both axles are titanium, as are the swingarm pivot and steering stem. Magnesium triple clamps grip a standard M900 fork that's had the full Race Tech treatment. A Works Performance shock handles rear suspension chores. Braking rotors allied with Brembo G.P. calipers and master cylinders convey decelerative capabilities equal to Mr. Monster's majestic go power. The entire beautifully executed package weighs in at about 340 pounds damp, markedly lighter than the 416-pound off-the-rack M900.
Lyle is far too tactful to mention anything as crass as price. So are we. But let's just say that if you've already saved up enough for an SB6 Bimota, there will be some gas money left over. So imagine my surprise/delirium/sheer terror when Lyle asked if I'd like to ride it. "Sure, I mean no, thanks, I mean...I'll be real careful.''
Four real, real careful laps around the Streets revealed the pushed-forward riding position (enforced by one-off Pro Italia bars and rearset pegs) improves ergonomics and control. Now the front end only points skyward when you want it to, even under the 944's spleen-flattening torque onslaught. Fast? Fast enough to drop our mildly breathed-on YZF750R like a bad habit. Brembo brakes bring all the high-speed festivities to a halt with impressive power and predictability, and the suspenders were reasonably well-sorted as well. The clearest indication came after the sun and the photographers left for the day: Lyle asked if we had time for a few more laps. If we hadn't run out of fuel, he might still be out there. --T.C.