That Smell

Motorcycling’s Saving Grace

By Scot Harden

“Whiskey bottles and brand new cars…”

Near the end of his short but brilliant career as the barefoot frontman for Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ronnie Van Zant penned the rock classic "That Smell." A cautionary tale about "too much coke and too much smoke," addiction, depravity and the toll that drugs take on the rock n’ roll lifestyle, “That Smell” became a massive hit for Skynyrd, although posthumously, and one of the band’s more relatable anthems, especially for me. “That Smell” conjures visions of dingy bars, dark, blacklight filled rooms, dope dens, and tour buses, locales synonymous with the drug culture of the late '60s and early '70s. By the time Ronnie wrote the words, Skynyrd was at the end of a decade long run of touring, recording and general hell-raising fueled by copious amounts of alcohol, speed, nicotine, barbiturates, weed, and piles and piles of cocaine. Through his lyrics, you get the sense Ronnie knew he was already in a very dark place, one foot in the grave, so to speak. And, unfortunately, before he could clean up his act, his life and the lives of several bandmates came to a tragic end in a swamp just outside Gillsburg, Mississippi; the twisted wreckage of the band’s chartered Convair CV-240 standing testament to the “angel of death” that surrounded them. 

“Look what’s going on inside you…”

“That Smell” draws on the fact that odors are closely linked to memory and emotion. The olfactory senses serve as a direct link to the limbic system, a set of structures within the brain that control mood, memory, behavior, and emotion. It’s often regarded as being the oldest, most primitive part of the brain because these same structures were present in the earliest mammals. The perfume industry exists today almost entirely because of this connection developing fragrances that convey a vast array of emotions and feelings from desire to power, vitality to relaxation. On a one to one level, smell is paramount to sexual attraction; body odor and pheromones playing a huge role in our partner selection process. Kissing, in fact, is thought to have come into existence as a way to "sniff” or “taste” a potential mate to determine their desirability as a mate.

“Got a monkey on your back….”

The same smells that plagued Ronnie’s life for a time plagued mine as well, but fortunately, there are many other smells more closely connected to my life as a motorcyclist. Certain smells take me back to specific times and places, evoking memories and emotions more vividly than any photo or memento can do.  Here are the top five smells from my life as a motorcyclist. See if any pass the sniff test with you:

Say you’ll be alright come tomorrow…"

Orange Blossoms. The scent of orange trees in bloom takes me immediately back to my earliest rides in the southern California desert. My strongest associations are with visits to one of my very first sponsors Malcolm Smith Racing Products and their headquarters in Riverside. The Malcolm Smith Racing Products warehouse on Marlborough St. was surrounded by acres and acres of orange groves and every spring visit coincided with the orange blossom bloom. A visit to Malcolm’s office was like a pilgrimage to Mecca and not only meant a chance to visit my hero, Malcolm but also a bunch of other great guys that werte part of his team, guys like Jimmy Lewis, Gary Drean and Wayne Cornelius. Man, I loved spending time those guys; so much positive energy, spirit, and passion for off-road riding and racing. They always made me feel special and welcomed. Another place where the scent is pervasive is Borrego Springs in late March and early April. The orange groves there mix with the desert air and convey a sense of renewal, of health and wellbeing. Nothing smells cleaner, fresher or more invigorating than the smell of orange trees in bloom.  I connect the smell to some truly exceptional people I’ve met through motorcycling and to some of my most memorable Dual Sport/Adventure rides.

“I know I been there before…”

“Castor” or “Bean” Oil Pre-Mix. No smell is sweeter, more intoxicating, or creates a stronger connection with motorcycle racing than the scent of "bean" oil in two-stroke exhaust. Growing up in the late '60s, and early '70s the smell of “bean” oil equated to high performance, permeating the atmosphere in the pits and alerting the senses that racing was about to take place that it was about to get serious. Sure it burned dirtier than synthetics or petroleum-based oils and later fell out of favor for gumming up rings and creating excessive carbon deposits but back then if you wanted a security blanket, an extra measure of protection to prevent piston seizure, you ran “bean” or “castor” oil.  No smell was more distinct or was more connected to racing. If you want another reason to hate the advent of four strokes, this would be a good one. 

“One little problem that confronts you….”

The Husqvarna Factory. To be clear, I'm talking about the original, some might say "real," Husqvarna factory in Sweden. As a former factory rider and later an employee of Husqvarna USA, I opened many a crate with a new Husqvarna motorcycle in it, and the odor emanating from inside was as unique and unmistakable as any I know. A combination of assembly oils and protective solvents used in the assembly of the bike, fresh Trelleborgs, and plastic, the smell of the Husqvarna factory hit you like a Scandinavian gut punch every time you opened a crate. I loved that smell because it meant I was putting together my next race bike, and it always spoke the promise of new technology, more speed, and better handling. My first Mag 250, my first cantilever Husky, my first liquid cooled and single shocked Huskies, all of them exuded this exotic odor, the scent of a factory populated by a race of super smart, blond-haired engineers, all named Sven or Jon-Erik, in a cold but beautiful land far far away. Nothing against the bikes that later came from Husqvarna Italy or even KTM but they never smelled quite the same. I’ll always remember that smell. It reminds me of my youth, chasing dreams and the excitement and anticipation that getting a brand new motorcycle entailed.

“Just one more fix Lord, might do the trick…”

Baja. Once you cross the border at San Ysidro or Tecate headed south, your nostrils are overpowered by the smell of Mexico. A mixture of dust and open car exhaust, smoldering campfires and wood burning stoves, the smell of the ocean, maquiladoras, diesel fuel, livestock, and refuse all mixed together in one glorious aroma that slaps you in the face and lets you know without question you aren't in Kansas anymore. I love that smell because just like Robert Duvall’s famous line from Apocolypse Now, “It smells like victory”.  Pre-running, racing and winning; the promise of high adventure mixed with danger, and a degree of lawlessness. Fantastic seafood, cerveza, and margaritas, hand-made flour tortillas, and real Coca-Cola. Hussongs, the Bahia Hotel, Estero Beach and Mikes Sky Rancho. My first whiff of Baja came in 1974 at the Tecate Enduro. In 1976 I took my first class win at the Baja 500 and my first overall at the 1977 Baja 1000 and every year after that for almost 30 years including dozens more wins and podium finishes and countless more trailrides. 40 years down the road and it smells the same today as it did back then, thank God, and a sure fire way to take four decades off my life just by crossing the border. 

“Ooh-ooh! That smell. Can't you smell that smell….” 

1.) The Desert After It Rains. Topping my list of all time favorite smells connected to motorcycling is the smell of the desert after a good rain. Growing up in the desert, rainfall was rare, and when it fell, it was glorious. Desert rains come in distinct forms; the soft, soaking rain of a winter storm; the showers that occur in the spring and fall; the torrential downpours and thunderstorms from the summer monsoons.  The result though always the same: the smell of wet creosote and sage, cactus and mesquite, mixed with grasses like Big Galleta, Indian Rice, Fluff and Red Brome. Combine them with fermenting soil consisting of decomposed granite, alluvial fan, caleche, and clay, and together they are quite simply the smell of heaven on earth. The fragrance of damp desert evokes a level of anticipation and excitement that no other smell can provide, a harbinger of cooler temps, clean, crisp air, deep, blue skies, unlimited traction and visibility, regeneration and rebirth. Some of my absolute best days spent on this planet took place with this scent as a backdrop and why I long for it more than any other smell connected to motorcycling.  If I could bottle it, I would wear it as cologne. 

“You’re just a fool, just a fool, just a fool…”

I’m not ashamed to admit that the song “That Smell” resonates with me for the very same reason Ronnie Van Zant felt compelled to write it. I'm just grateful I fared better in the end than he did mainly because of motorcycling. At least the smells I relate to now are life affirming. BTW, the summer monsoons are about to start-up. I can almost smell rain in the air.



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