Bill “Sputnik” Strain, probably the best known biker’s rights advocate in the United States, died June 23rd, 2010.
Everybody knew Sputnik. He was a beefy, gnarled, old Cherokee with tattoos framing his Mohawk haircut. He wore a thick goatee without a mustache and he was so well respected by people across the political spectrum that he could get away with wearing a knife on his right hip at the Texas State Capital. Sputnik rode a Suzuki because, he said, he didn’t think Harleys were tough enough.
Sputnik Strain might have been the last hurrah of the 1960s “Biker’s Right Movement” which, before it became quaint, was sort of the Tea Party with patches and bowie knives.
The movement started after a gadfly named Ralph Nader published Unsafe At Any Speed in 1965. The next year Congress passed the National Highway Safety Act which was intended to keep Detroit from selling dangerous cars. (This was in that ancient time when most cars were still made in America by American companies headquartered in Detroit.)
A slew of reforms ensued. Bumper heights were standardized. Crumple zones and safety cages were incorporated into car designs. Gas tanks were redesigned so that they did not blow up. Dash boards were padded. Steering wheels were built to collapse under impact and seat belts became standard equipment. This same 1966 law also contained a little noticed provision to withhold federal highway funds from states that refused to enact mandatory motorcycle helmet laws. The fight started there.
Sputnik joined up in 1992 after he heard a United States Senator, Dave Durenberger, say “Bikers are the last hope of America to remain a Free Country. You are the only ones who care enough about your individual liberty to stand up and fight for it. I’m here to tell you tonight that you better get off your ass and you better start fighting, because you are losing it every day.” The Senator’s words changed Sputnik’s life. He spent the last 18 years of his life fighting for what he considered to be “individual liberty.”
He Marked His Spot
He founded the Texas Motorcycle Rights Association on July 4, 1992 and it soon became the largest Caucus in the Texas Democrat Party. Sputnik talked Texas out of mandatory helmet law for adults, got Handicap License Plates for motorcycles and changed the law to allow bikers to carry concealed weapons. He was largely responsible for new rider training in Texas and his best known accomplishment may have been the establishment “Legislative Biker Day” when thousands of bikers, many wearing patches, descend on Austin on the fourth Monday each January and tell the politicians how they are doing.
Sputnik calculated that had ridden about 1.6 million miles in a motorcycle saddle and he was a friend of this page. He died alone of a heart attack, working as the sun came up, in the offices of the Texas MRA. He died doing what he lived to do. Bill Sputnik Strain was 70-years-old.
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