Meeting up with Malcolm Smith stands as one of the most unique interviewing experiences of my life. Seated in the large showroom of Malcolm Smith Motorsports in Riverside, CA, I find myself mulling over a variety of ways to approach my introduction. Do I start off with, “Hey, how have you been? Long time, no see”? Or maybe, “Hi, I’m with ABILITY Magazine. I’d like to take a minute of your time”? Or what about, “Should I have set an appointment?”
Yes, this is indeed a surprise visit. My thoughts rush upon me, awkward and stumbling. But why should I be nervous? After all, I’ve had sit-downs with plenty of famous, high-powered people. And yes, Malcolm Smith is famous. Famous for his many bike races, and famous for winning. Most of all, he’s famous for “On Any Sunday”, a documentary in which he starred with Steve McQueen. That film has developed something of a cult following.
Today Malcolm Smith is grey-haired and nearing seventy. But years ago, kids like me marveled at his skill, speed and charm. Fans of all ages were wowed by his bravery and strength. But my connection to this icon is of a different kind altogether. In short, Malcolm Smith changed my life.
As a teenager, I moved from the Pine Barrens of New Jersey to the motorcycle mecca of sunny California with a dream of racing motocross. (And after that? Well, maybe then I’d start thinking about college.) Upon arriving in Southern California, I tracked down the great Malcolm Smith—I was riding Huskys at the time and he was a major Husky dealer—and informally “auditioned” for him. Apparently he liked what he saw. He gave me a job.
It might not sound like much on paper, but at the time, it was the biggest opportunity of my life—a circumstance that many back home couldn’t even believe. While out chasing my dream, I not only got to meet a legend in the field but had also been hired to be his salesperson. I seemed to have fallen into a lucky wormhole. My new boss would power my racing dreams, I was certain, and maybe someday soon I’d be racing my Husky with fellow rider Steve McQueen.
That’s not exactly how it played out. In fact, Malcolm fired me after my first day on the job. As high as I had felt just a day earlier, I suddenly felt just as low. I gathered myself up and changed my plans. Instead of pursuing motorcycling, I went to college—a decision that led me to writing about my encounter with Malcolm Smith in this magazine I created 20 years ago.
And today, meeting with Malcolm again after all these years, I find that I am nervous. Though Malcolm is older now, he still has that memorable handshake, with hands like a vice from years of hard riding. I’ve started riding again, too—but my handshake is more like that of a marshmallow.
Malcolm and I sit in his office, where I share my story. He says, “I remember your face, and I know the salesperson who was working at that time, but I don’t remember that.” You see, Malcolm had fired me the first day on the job because his one and only salesman had quit and then had returned. Malcolm could only afford to keep one salesman at that time. I had to go.
Today Malcolm Smith Motorsports has over 50 employees. Before the financial slow-down, it had boasted close to twice as many. His eyes gleam as he tells me about his latest adventure: “This is the newest thing I ride,” he says. With a smile, he shows me a video on his iPad. I can’t quite figure out what I’m seeing—and I certainly don’t understand what he means by ‘ride.’ I see what looks like a whale. But where’s the motorcycle?
“Watch,” he says. “That’s me. And those are my kids. On a shark.” Malcolm points to the screen. “Largest fish in the world. It’s called a whale shark. It’s a filter feeder.” The underwater footage shows Malcolm and his adult children, each equipped with snorkels, holding onto the dorsal and tail of a huge sea creature.
I imagine this is about the strangest thing Malcolm could have shown me. But then I find his little aside is connected to a deeper meaning: in 1995, Malcolm and his motorcycle buddies began taking trips to Mexico, where they started a non-profit and built an orphanage called El Oasis. The bay near that orphanage happens to be the feeding area for about 20 whale sharks.
Malcolm and I talk about his trembling hand. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease eight years ago, Malcolm tells me he went to Europe for stem-cell therapy but found it a waste of time and money. I ask if he has ever thought about deep brain stimulation (DBS), a procedure in which a probe is inserted into the patient’s brain, allowing doctors to map out areas of concern. I’ve seen firsthand evidence of the surgery’s efficacy. Malcolm says he doesn’t know if he’s ready for that just yet. (See pg. 54 for more information on Parkinson)
The more time Malcolm and I spend together, just talking, the more aware I become that he hasn’t taken his medication. His hand begins twitching. I mention this to him and learn his medications are in his car. I urge Malcolm to go out and get them. “I do well with the meds,” he says with a half-smile, “but I don’t always take them on time.” I suspect his doctor would not approve of this self-guided medication schedule.
Because numerous people angle to talk to Malcolm as we walk through his shop, it takes almost 30 minutes for us to leave. On our walk, Malcolm decides to share some of his family background. His father met his mother while traveling in Alaska, he says with a glow in his eyes. “The two hiked up a mountain together and talked for a long time. A day later, they got married. When I was born, my mom was 33 and my dad was 81”.
After Malcolm’s father had died, Malcolm’s mother reconnected with her first love, and they married. Malcolm grew up with his step-father. Was there a chance that Malcolm’s step-father might have actually been his father? Malcolm says no. The family resemblance is too strong, he says, between himself, his father, and his own son.
In 1998 Malcolm Smith was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame. Today he oversees his motorcycle dealership and conducts special invitation-only, off-road rides in Mexico and South America. On the television program National Geographic Explorer, Malcolm Smith was profiled with singer Lyle Lovett on a motorcycle ride in Chile. Parkinson’s hasn’t slowed down Malcolm’s riding one bit, and he still finds time to give talks about the early days of off-road riding and preservation of riding areas. If you ever want to join Malcolm for a ride, there’s only one condition: no wimps. After all, he’s still a legend.
by Chet Cooper