Friday, January 30, 2009

The Rally Series

Sixth grade was the last year I would spend in Bear Creek Elementary School. Nowadays, sixth, seventh, and eighth grades are lumped together as middle school, which makes a whole lot more sense to me. Back in the 70s, prepubescents shared the halls with kindergartners before finally moving on the junior high school. It makes an 11 year old feel kinda lost: am I still a kid or am I a teenager? The answer is, you are neither. It's a strange netherworld made all the more bizarre by the finger-paint-and-building-blocks surroundings of an elementary school.

As an avid reader, I was confused about what I should be reading at that age as well. Most of the books in the school library were aimed at those who were either beginning readers (Cat in the Hat, Where the Wild Things Are) or slightly more mature readers (Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew). None of this material felt quite right at age 11. The summer before, when the whole world went crazy over the movie Jaws, I had read the novel. Once you've read an adult bestseller with a foul-mouthed sea captain and bloody dismemberment, the Hardy Boys didn't quite cut it.

Then I noticed several of my male classmates were checking out these books with the word "challenge" in the title. There was Minibike Challenge and Motorcycle Challenge and Go Kart Challenge. If it had wheels, it had the word "challenge" after it. Known as The Rally Series, the books were all written by Edward Radlauer who illustrated the books with photographs rather than drawings. All the boys at school were wild about these books, and it was difficult to find a chance when the books weren't already checked out. Finally, one day in late fall, I managed to grab Minibike Challenge from the shelf and take it home.

The story involved two boys, next-door-neighbors Terry Brock and Cliff Crane, who develop a passion for minibikes when Cliff's eccentric uncle gives him a minibike he picked up at a swap meet. Trouble is, they have nowhere to ride the bike and Terry is pulled over by the police when he tries to ride it in the street. Terry and Cliff read in a magazine that some communities have minibike parks where minors can ride minibikes under adult supervision, so the boys nag Terry's dad into proposing such a park to his Rotary Club. He's reluctant, but soon learns that other dad's have had similar requests from their kids, so the plan moves forward.

In typical kids book fashion, the minibike park is set up in no time flat and Terry and Cliff take Cliff's bike to the park. Sharing the bike soon becomes a nuisance and Terry talks his dad into buying him a minibike from a used car salesman dad at the park. Of course, the bike turns out to be a lemon with a cracked engine block. Without enough money to have it repaired, Terry appears to be up a creek. Then Cliff's Uncle Flum comes to the rescue with a used engine that only has a cracked piston. With the money Terry has left, he and Cliff are able to repair the bike just in time for the big race. Terry and Cliff race well, but don't win. They are, however, rewarded with good sportsmanship awards.

Although the story was pretty simple, it's really just an excuse to provide loads of information about how minibikes work and the types of things minibike enthusiasts do. I had no interest in minibikes, per se, but I loved all the technical jargon and the chance to live vicariously through these boys who were doing something decidedly male. This book felt exactly like the kind of story an 11 year old should be reading. Also, given the enthusiasm all the other boys in my class felt for the books, there was a certain fellowship surrounding these pre-teen stories.

I think the photographic illustrations also provided a unique appeal. Obviously, the author was an enthusiast for motorized sports and took his camera along to rallys and such to photograph the goings-on for his books. The real life illustrations brought a sense of immediacy to the stories and allowed a novice like me to see up close how these vehicles actually worked.

Although I was 11 and trying to read more mature books, I still had my imaginary play time and most of my activities were structured around made-up TV shows airing on my made-up TV network. The photographs in Minibike Challenge made me think that a TV series based on the book would be ideal. A budding writer even then, I decided that instead of placing the focus of the show on the two boys, the real star of the show should be Uncle Flum since he was the only person in the book who was a fully developed person rather than a stock figure. From the book, I retained certain details like the fact that he lived in a run-down house full of junk and made his makeshift living by attending swap meets and flea markets. However, I also made him a handsome young man with a motorcycle and the person who urges the Rotary Club to create the park. I thought an eccentric hippy type wooing a bunch of stuffed shirts provided more drama than Terry's dad talking his fellow Rotarians into it. I also had the Rotarians put Uncle Flum in charge of the park, so he would be an integral part of each episode. Honestly, I can't remember what the episodes were about, but they probably involved busted bikes that are repaired in the nick of time and exciting races with spin outs and crashes.

As with all my made up TV show, Minibike Challenge had a set time in the evening when I would act out the show (usually in our dining room). I did several episodes until my attention drifted to something else and I stopped acting out any more episodes (the equivalent of being cancelled in my imaginary world). During that time though, I read all the Rally Series books in my school library, including the ones mention above. I didn't particularly care for Motorcycle Challenge because the main character's parents are going through a divorce. Since my own parents were on the verge of separation at the time, the story hit too close to home, but I still enjoyed all the nuts-and-bolts talk about motorcycles.

The Rally Series books were a brief passion for me, as I was beginning to develop the next passion that I would carry into my teenage years: science fiction. A friend got me interested in Star Trek, and I began to notice all the science fiction books at my local book store. These were grown-up books, but they had lots of action and ray guns and spaceships, so they appealed to my child-like interests. Science fiction became my gateway literature into adolesence. I kinda look at the Rally Series books as a comforting friend who held my hand through the awkward transition from childhood to pre-teenhood until I could fully discover who I wanted to be.