American Motorcyclist March 2018

Missed Chances

Of Homer Knapp And Lessons Learned

Homer Knapp, left, and Perry King

By Perry King

Homer Knapp, aka “Homer Drown,” was one of the coolest guys I’ve ever known.

I didn’t meet him until a year or so before he died. But I knew him since I was a young man.

When I was a college student, dreaming of motorcycles and freedom, but locked down by East Coast rain and snow and poverty, I saw a photo of a young man kneeling in a desert stream, obviously trying to get his ancient motorcycle moving again.

The shot is clearly from the 1950s, and it captured one of motorcycling’s most iconic moments.

That photo fascinated me. I wanted everything that was in the shot: the ancient bike, the desert, the paradoxical stream, the leather jacket and battered helmet, even the old prospector’s canteen slung around his shoulders.

I carried that photo for decades, through years of wanting a bike and not having one and years of working when I wanted to be riding.

When life seemed wrong or boring or downright crappy, I could stare at that photo and feel better.

Then, just a few years ago, having drawn psychic substance from that photograph for decades, I went to the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame Concours D’Elegance in Las Vegas, rounded a corner, and there on a poster board was that photo! My photo. And, incredibly, there were many other photos of the same young man and the old Harley-Davidson JD.

And then, I realized that posed in front of the photo board was the actual bike, the old JD.

As I stood frozen by the power of the moment, I saw an old man talking to some of the crowd. And I slowly realized that it was him—the kid from the photo. It was like meeting the person who inhabits your dreams. I shook his hand, mumbled some inanities and we traded information.

A few weeks later in Los Angeles, I went around to meet him at his shop, Hollywood Motorcycle Machine. This was Homer Knapp. He was a former mechanic for Jay Leno, a still-active racer, an AMA Charter Life Member and among the most authentic people I have ever met.

I tried to tell him the story of the photo and what it meant to me. But there was no way to truly convey something so personal.

I think all Homer got from it was that I had seen his photo years ago and that I thought it was neat to meet him.

I told him I wanted to write a story about him and about this thing that ties us all together—the deep love of motorcycles. He understood that perfectly.

His life had centered improbably around this old Harley JD from the 1920s.

It had entered his life when he was a teenager, and he was still racing and riding it as an old man. In 2010, Knapp competed on the same bike at the Catalina GP.

I asked him why. He said something that still resonates with me because of its simple, pure wisdom: “When you find something you like, you stick with it.”

I told him I would write the story of his love for that old bike and the odd way it had propelled my life forward, as well.

But, as we do in life, I put it off…and put it off…and put it off.

Then, Homer died in 2015.

I had missed the chance to show him the published article. I had missed the chance to please him, as his photo had pleased me. I had missed the chance to honor this wonderful old man, and give him something that I knew he would like.

But I decided I wasn’t going to miss any more chances.

So, Homer, if you’re listening, thank you for making me see how dumb we can be in our lives, putting off the stuff that matters, because of all the stupid stuff that doesn’t.

I hope I see you again somewhere, sometime. And, if I do, I plan to thank you in person.

Keep riding, Homer, wherever you are.

Perry King is an AMA Life Member, a member of the American Motorcycle Heritage Foundation Board of Directors and a former member of the AMA Board of Directors.