As this month opened, I got the sad news that a close colleague of mine had died. I worked for five years at Hi-Torque with Bill Lanphier on ATV Action magazine, and it was my first full-time job in the wacky world of motorsports journalism.
After spending time in the entertainment industry, I finally decided it wasn’t right for me, even though I might have been right for it. When I resigned, I told my boss I was leaving because I was doing a lousy job. He said, “What? You’re doing a great job!” It’s funny how people have different standards.
That allowed me to pursue my nearly lifelong dream of being a teacher. However, once immersed in the public school system in California, it quickly became apparent that they wanted bureaucrats, not teachers, in the classroom. Ta-ta!
Fortunately, at that time, I was also working part-time as Editor for two small independent motorcycle magazines—Feet Up! and Dual Sporter. So, it wasn’t like I didn’t have plenty going on.
One day, I was surfing through the off-road forum posts on America Online. I came across an intriguing want ad for an editor for a motorsports publication. Well, okay—tell me more.
I dropped the ad's author a message, inquiring about what sort of motorsports. The response was ATVs. I politely explained that I had absolutely no experience with four-wheelers—sorry! I quickly got a note back asking what my experience was. After sharing that info, I got a request to come in for a job interview.
I went over to Bill Lanphier’s condo in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Valley Glen. I walked into his immaculate apartment and noticed two things—a bass guitar and a cat. That immediately put me in a great mood, and we hit it off instantly.
Despite my protestations that I knew nothing about ATVs, he insisted I could do the job. Bill persuaded me to take one of the test quads, go for a ride, and let him know what I thought.
Bill gave me a highly modified Yamaha Banshee. Even if you’re unfamiliar with quads, you might recognize the motor—it was the twin-cylinder, liquid-cooled two-stroke from the Yamaha RZ350 sport bike. This was a high-performance four-wheeler—definitely not something for a beginner. He gave me zero instruction or advice—he just handed it over.
I was thrown into the deep end by Bill, even though he knew I didn’t know how to swim. If I had known his nickname, WBGO, an acronym for Wild Bill Get-Off, which described his ATV riding style while belying his thoughtful personality, I might have had a warning.
Having no idea what to do, I took the Banshee to San Gabriel Canyon OHV Area for a spin. It’s a rocky riverbed and ill-suited to the high-revving motor and dune-oriented chassis. I didn’t like it, and I was about to give up. But, I decided to give it a chance in another venue—Hungry Valley State Vehicle Recreation Area.
I rode the Banshee around on the dirt roads, which was considerably more fun. I tried a couple of hillclimbs and nearly killed myself when I didn’t make one. No one told me that aborting a hillclimb on an ATV is serious business. Fortunately, I didn’t wad the quad and avoided getting hurt.
As the day wound down, I headed for the sand wash through Hungry Valley. All of a sudden, the Banshee made sense. I was spinning up the breathed-on twin, roosting sand, pitching it sideways, and generally having a blast. “Okay,” I thought, “I can do this.”
I brought the Banshee back to Bill and told him to sign me up. I still had to interview with Hi-Torque owner Roland Hinz and legendary Motocross Action editor Jody Weisel, a childhood hero of mine. That went smoothly—they were amused that I have a BA in Journalism—and I was hired on the spot. They were desperate, I’m sure.
Hi-Torque was something out of a sitcom, with all sorts of wacky characters and goofy hijinks. There was little adult supervision for this group of overaged teenagers, which worked great for me.
Bill was never quite as amused about the menagerie at Hi-Torque as I was. He would get agitated about this or that, and I’d talk him down. Coworkers played practical jokes on him, and he didn’t like that. I wouldn’t have liked it either, but I let it be known that if they tried anything like that with me, they’d come to work to find a computer with a blank hard drive—ha, ha, just a little practical joke, right?
The reality was that the people who worked at Hi-Torque liked Bill a lot more than he liked them. It’s a shame he never realized that.
When he decided to quit and go freelance, I was as disappointed as he was excited. I loved working with Bill, and we were a great team. We enjoyed riding together, even though he was much faster, and we were on the same wavelength on many topics outside the magazine world.
Bill and I shared the distinction of being only children. Like me, Bill loved his parents, and I saw the hurt he suffered when his parents died. As Bill wasn’t married, they were his only family. Though he had a partner when he died, his obituary said he was survived only by unnamed “distant cousins.” Except that I was married, I could relate.
Bill was also a modest guy about his skills. I mentioned his bass earlier. Bill was an accomplished musician with an insatiable desire to expand his abilities. That came to include playing highly complex eastern European music and meters. I knew he played bass and keyboards at Madonna’s first live performance, though he never bragged about it. What I didn’t know was that he backed the Material Girl at Live Aid. While I’m not a big fan of that sort of music or venue, that’s still impressive—yet, he never mentioned it.
After having scant contact with Bill after I got out of the ATV industry and into the motorcycle world at Robb Report MotorCycling, we reconnected on Facebook.
Bill was never a big participant on Facebook and, eventually, he started to disappear—not completely unusual. Then, news came on his Facebook page that Bill had Alzheimer’s disease. That was followed by news of a bad reaction to medication—something called neuroleptic malignant syndrome. It didn’t take long to kill him. Bill was a cerebral guy, so given his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, I’ll consider that an act of mercy.
I was privileged to know Bill Lanphier, and it seriously bums me that he died in a difficult way. I feel especially bad for his significant other, Janice Woo, who took care of him until the end at his Northern California home in Albany. If the afterlife is a just place, Bill is roosting around on endless sand dunes at this very moment on that same Banshee he loaded into my truck in 1995.
Send it, Bill!