Saturday, September 19, 2020

Alex Caemmerer III


I met Alex when I was a junior at Syracuse University in 1983. He was a sophomore at the time so he wasn’t in my classes, but we were both in the electrical engineering program and more importantly, we were both avid motorcyclists and motorsports fans. We became friends very quickly. Syracuse had just started a cooperative education program where they connected you with a tech company for employment and the students alternated semesters with school and work. This led to working semesters where we had a little money and time, so Alex and I spent both on all sorts of motorsports adventures and beer.

I remember being amused at Alex’s proud “III” at the end of his name. He enjoyed being the 3rd Alex Caemmerer (with 2 “m’s as he occasionally reminded me). He was some descendant of the “Livingstons”of the Hudson river valley, and I grew up near there. He claimed there had been some money in the family handed down from his ancestors, but joked that his father was intent on spending the last of it.

We’d take off on our motorcycles at every opportunity and explore the countryside around Syracuse. I remember hopping over humps in the road as small jumps and hiding from the police down side roads. He led us on a couple expeditions to the “13 curves”, a haunted road with great sweeping turns on a tree lined road Southwest of Syracuse.

Back then, I was riding a 1981 Suzuki GS450EX, a sporty but inexpensive motorcycle. Alex went shopping and brought home an awesome 1983 Kawasaki GPz 550, a real sport bike. Our bikes were basically similar, and I pretended mine was close to his, but really, his was a far superior bike. We talked endlessly about the differences! We occasionally swapped bikes and he would complain about the lesser power of mine and I about the weight of his… It was a good natured exchange.

I heard in high school that Alex had a Datsun 240Z. He told me the story of how he had rolled it and ended up upside down dangling from his seat belts with glass in his hair. He told me that after high school he worked in an engineering role at a small tech company. After a year or so of that he had made some money and had a decision to make… he could buy a Porsche or go to college. He figured that not having a degree was going to be a problem, so he headed to Syracuse. That explained why although he was a bit older than me he was a year behind me in the engineering program. When I met him Alex was driving a Pontiac 6000, that I guess had been the family car before he took it over. It seemed like a regular sedan, but he was proud it had the accolade of having been on Car & Driver’s “10 Best” list.

Alex drove the Pontiac hard. We would often go out for a few drinks at night and on the way home would detour into Oakwood Cemetery near the school. It had a narrow winding road through it and Alex would attack that route like it was the Targa Florio. As navigator, I would urge him on, laughing all the way. One night he missed one of the corners and we entered the high weeds that lined the side of the road. We could see nothing but their tan stalks in the headlights. Alex kept his foot down and I remember pointing out the road was to our right and he over corrected as he tried to get us back on it. Suddenly the weeds parted… but instead of regaining the road, we dove straight across it and into a ditch on the other side. As we regained our wits, Alex pronounced; “All in all everything was under control!” We found the whole situation hilarious of course, until we realized we were having trouble getting out of the ditch. We had to get some help for an emergency extraction before the local police found us. All ended well and we had a great story.

There was another “racing venue” close to us in Syracuse… It was called the Skytop. Skytop was a university run student apartment complex with a twisty access road that ran around all the buildings. In the summer it was completely empty of students. And so, at random times, we would declare it was time for a “Skytop Grand Prix” and we would hop in Alex’s car for a few hot laps around the complex. One day another roommate had rented a car because he was going to have some visitors, and Alex and I grabbed the keys declaring it “Grand Prix” time! We made it home safely but the next morning all 4 tires were flat! All we could think is that we must have pulled the tires loose from the wheel bead with our wild cornering on under inflated rental car tires. Of course, the roommate who had rented the car was rather upset at having to pump all the tires up early in the morning while we were still sleeping off the adventure.

I also remember that with that same third roommate, Alex and I had started a strange cap gun battle game. It started in the apartment, a two floor duplex. But it was summer and much of the complex was empty and after a couple drinks sometimes the game would head outside. The three of us would sneak around the dozen buildings in the dark, often dressed in black “spy clothes”, trying to find each other and then blast away with our cap guns. I can’t imagine what any of the neighbors thought!

Of course Alex and my favorite pastime was taking our motorcycles out into the countryside that surrounded Syracuse. We would escape for hours chasing each other over the hills and through the curves. This was before either of us had gone racing, and we were still just learning what we were doing. I remember flying off a road once when I couldn’t make a corner and Alex walking out to help me extract the bike from the muddy field. He stood there picking weeds out of my bike for a while before I convinced him to help me push it back to the road.

Another time, after a long fast ride together in the countryside, I was feeling a bit too aggressive. He was ahead of me but I was hoping to beat him home so at the last intersection I dove up the inside to cut ahead of him. But there was no way I could slow down in time for the turn and I forced us both to run wide and miss the corner. It was a big mistake on my part and he chastised me, appropriately.

Alex and I enjoyed a place near campus, Harry’s bar. We loved it because it was a bar and not a nightclub and they served fantastic roast beef sandwiches. It was a regular hangout for us. We’d talk and enjoy discussing motorcycles, music and other things. We’d talk about helmets; Alex wore a Shoei helmet, and I wore an Arai Signet. The helmets were a big investment for us in those days, so we discussed them a lot. The choice was really about your head shape and what brand fit better, but we also talked about which racers wore which helmet and why one helmet was better than the other. Alex would also joke about a cartoon character, “Racer X” who was some kind of hero. Apparently he loved the cartoon as a kid, but I had never seen it. He would use that moniker, Racer X, as a self imposed nickname when he had a fun opportunity to use it.

We made a trip one summer to see the GTP cars race at Lime Rock. I remember the first lap the GTP cars came around the track in front of the grand stand. The roaring sound was glorious and I can clearly picture Alex turning around to look at me, grinning ear to ear. I’m sure I was smiling the same way back, it was a connection we both shared.

At some point we made an expedition to see the motorcycle races at Pocono in Pennsylvania. It was a long trip for us, but I think we were both lightning struck by the event. We both knew that after college, somehow we were going to race motorcycles. Back in those days they let the few spectators wander the track and we could sit feet from the edge as the racers flew by and left us amazed in their wake turbulence.

In 1985 I graduated a couple months late and I had a last Summer in Syracuse while I finished a few classes for my degree. That was the only time Alex and I were roommates, along with the third guy whose name I don’t remember (he wasn’t a motosports guy). It was a good three months but I remember being very sad when I left. Graduating late, all my other friends had already left town months before. I had to leave to go back to Albany, and Alex stayed in Syracuse as school started up again for the new fall semester.

During the next few months I went back to Syracuse occasionally to participate in the job recruiting that happened on campus. Once I took my Dad’s car, and I discovered it wouldn’t start when I was there. Dad needed his only car back, but I was forced to stay overnight with Alex while we debugged the problem and found it needed a new alternator. I remember being in the cold garage and working with Alex, the car crusty underneath with snow and salt. We struggled to replace the alternator ourselves with Alex’s simple hand tools. We got it done together.

By January of 1986 I had found a job in Boston and started work. It wasn’t long before I wanted to start racing motorcycles and Alex joined me for our first track experience. He came to Boston and we went to the California Superbike School at Loudon, New Hampshire. It was a thrilling experience. I remember Alex politely disagreeing with the instructors about using the rear brake to stabilize the bike exiting the corner. They probably just didn’t want the novice students mucking about with advanced techniques. The renowned expert, Keith Code, told him, "I know what you mean, and no." For Alex and I, it was just another bonding moment. After the fantastic school experience, we both received photographs of ourselves riding on the track. Alex signed his for me, Dear Carl, Remember, “all in all, everything is under control.” - Alex “Racer X” Caemerer III. I’ve always cherished the photo.

I think Alex had grown bored of school at Syracuse and he stopped going and instead was working at GE, as an engineer. We discussed the wisdom of that decision a couple times on the phone, but he wasn’t going back to school. Eventually GE warned him they required that he have his degree or be working on it to be employed there, and he left for a job he found in Portland, Oregon. At about the same time I started racing at Loudon near Boston, Alex started racing at PIR near Portland. We would share stories and notes in phone calls, both excited to finally be “real racers”.

Alex and I didn’t see each other much after college but we did keep in touch. In 1988, after 23 years away from the United States, a world championship Grand Prix was scheduled to come back for a race in Monterey, California. Alex and I hatched a plan to meet there. I flew out from Boston to San Jose, and he drove down from Portland and picked me up at the airport and then we continued to Monterey. We camped at the track for the long weekend. It was fantastic and from that event I have my only photo of us together, standing by the track. The scene at the track was raucous at night with wild parties, burning cars and noise all night. While we enjoyed a bit of fun, this was far beyond what we were comfortable with and Alex was concerned about his new white Honda Acura. Luckily the car ended up being fine and only covered with ash.

As years passed Alex and I went our own ways. We exchanged Christmas cards and a rare note and let it be that.

Eventually I heard Alex had an apartment in New Jersey. He was playing darts with a team and seemed to enjoy it and won some local championships. And he finished his graduate degree at Columbia in 2000. Although we weren’t in touch much, I was happy to check in on Alex occasionally.

And then Alex showed up on Facebook in 2010 and somehow that renewed our connection. Sharing motorsports jokes and simple comments made me feel connected to him again. I found out he was also a fan of Krampus and we shared some great holiday cards. My wife Lorraine also met Alex on Facebook and they enjoyed sharing and commenting on various posts together.

Around 2012, I bought a 1981 GPz 550, very similar to the bike Alex had purchased in Syracuse. Frankly, it was the impression Alex and his bike made on me that convinced me I needed to have one myself so many years later! I wanted it to relive memories of our back road experiences in Syracuse.

Last year in July of 2019 he sent me a message, he bought a new motorcycle, a GSXR 750! Alex had always wanted one and decided to get one and start motorcycling again. We exchanged messages about riding again and what kind of helmet and boots and other gear he was getting. I was thrilled to hear he was riding.

Recently I heard on Facebook that Alex had moved to Poughkeepsie, NY. He said since his father had died and the estate was settled he didn’t have anything holding him in New Jersey. We didn’t chat for a while and then last week I bought a new motorcycle and so I went to Facebook to share the excitement with him… and I saw his brother Bill’s message on his page that Alex was gone.

Godspeed Alex.
Your friend, 


Alex's racing page.

1 comment:

  1. I was reading this post again today. And I realized that if Alex read this I'm sure he would laugh and point out some things he remembers a bit differently. And more importantly, he would have so many of his own great stories. I just wish I could hear them from him again!