Attention motorcycle enthusiasts! It’s time for the 17th Annual Inland Northwest Motorcycle Show and Sale. Once again, attendees at the motorcycle show are in for a thrilling spectacle: The Seattle Cossacks Stunt Show.
The Seattle Cossacks Motorcycle Stunt and Drill Team has been amazing audiences with their stunts since 1938. The Cossacks wow spectators with formations of multiple riders on a single or multiple vintage Harleys, climbing higher, defying the natural laws of physics. According to their website, “people watch in wonder and fascination, waiting for the next man to climb higher. No ropes, no props, no skyhooks, no gimmicks—they just climb.”
How do they accomplish such feats? I spoke with Seattle Cossack team member and historian Rob Root to find out. Rob had just returned from a performance in celebration of a “former” Cossack’s 90th birthday. This member had performed with the Cossacks from 1954-1959 and at his birthday performance rode through the drills on the back of a bike. As Rob proudly notes, “once a Cossack, always a Cossack.” This also sums up in part what Rob loves about being Cossack. “It’s the camaraderie and the tradition.”
It’s a long tradition indeed. It started back in the 1930’s, when a group of Seattle motorcycle racers needed to entertain themselves between events by creating and practicing stunts. By 1938 the group had organized adding “riders, delivery personnel, businessmen, and other interested folk.” They developed a set of by-laws that included ‘to entertain and promote the positive image of motorcycling. Later they would include promoting rider safety into their by-laws. These by-laws and mission statement have guided the Cossacks to this day.
The name “Cossacks” is rooted in this deep history. In the 1930’s, Russia’s cavalry, the Cossacks, were world renowned “masterful” horse riders. In those days, motorcycles were coined “Iron Horses.” The group decided it was a fitting name. While they have expanded on their repertoire of over 80 different stunts, some traditions have remained the same. “We still ride vintage Harleys of the 30’s and 40’s. The oldest is a 1930 VL and the newest a 1949 45 CI. There are 74” and 80” VL’s, UL’s, and 45’s, and 61” and 74” Knuckleheads. All bikes are stock except for the handlebars, which are late-50’s Flanders, these great old bikes are sturdy and stable enough to bear the weight of multiple riders.”
Rob Root began his adventures with the Seattle Cossacks after a tragedy. A rider since his youth, he was hit by a drunk driver on his motorcycle and didn’t ride for 25 years. At one point he decided he wanted to restore an antique bike. He happened to see a Cossacks show. When he heard all the engines start up at once, he felt “enthralled.”
Becoming a Cossack, however, is not a simple process with membership governed by strict by-laws. The first requirement is to obtain a hand-shift, foot clutch, vintage bike from 1930 to 1948. The Cossack paint scheme is another requirement. Attendance at all practices is mandatory. After a year, a unanimous vote by all team members determines if the rider becomes a full-fledged member. If team members find the prospective member needs more practice, they can continue practicing with the team for another year as “a rookie.” After that year, membership is put to another vote.
While this process sounds restrictive, Rob assures me that almost everyone gets voted on the team. One exception is the age restriction of 18, which is why 16-year-old Riley, the first female to request membership with the Cossacks, will spend two more years as a rookie and apprentice. Riley’s father is a Cossack and built an antique for her to ride. Her youth and small size serve as a great advantage for her role on the team, as she’s training to be the “top person,” standing on the shoulders of a lower team member.
Rob is excited about Riley’s potential as a Cossack. “She’s doing great! She stands up straight on top of a three-machine pyramid eight feet off the ground!”
While one would think members need special physical prowess to perform the stunts, Rob says that most important attribute riders need is the ability to control their iron horses during performances. “Every member can recount at least one harrowing experience when a bike threatened to get away from him.”
The stunts are also risky, but Rob tells me the number of injuries is relatively small—a few broken arms, a broken leg, and one concussion. To ensure safety, the Cossacks focus on training. The drivers’ “walking speed” also helps with safety.
I asked Rob about the video I saw on the Cossack’s website involving driving through a ring of fire. I assumed that was one of the many new stunts. However, Rob says this stunt was one of the originals from the 1930’s called “Crashing the Wall of Fire.” The Cossacks resurrected this stunt for their 75th anniversary after determining a safe way to do it. While the Cossacks typically perform 20-30 shows per year, COVID led to a temporary hiatus, with only one show in 2020. That was the first year the Cossacks hadn’t performed since WWII when the members were serving in the armed forces. They were able to perform a few more times in 2021 and, finally, 2022 is looking good for their schedule. “We’ve had a lot of requests for bookings. There’s a pent-up demand.”
Cossack performances can be found at three different venues. One is traditional parades with big community audiences. Another venue is community events, such as 4th of July celebrations around the Puget Sound. Of course, the other venue is motorcycle meets and shows. They perform at the Harley Davidson meets in Milwaukee and at Sturgis, South Dakota. Most exciting for us in Eastern Washington is their performances at the Spokane Motorcycle Show and Sale. The Cossacks’ goal for 84 years has been to entertain and promote a positive image of motorcycling and motorcycle safety, which they plan to do for many years to come.
When asked what he loves about being a Cossack, in addition to the tradition and camaraderie, Rob says, “It’s the joy we bring to audiences and service to the community.” The Cossacks are involved with several charity events. They support the Children’s Hospital and perform to help children with special needs. They have raised funds for pediatric cancer for over 10 years.
Rob spoke fondly of meeting the kids and forming friendships. “We laugh together. Maybe we can bring a little joy in the world. That’s what the Cossacks do.”
Friday, 3/11 at 5:00 pm Saturday, 3/12 at 12:00 pm, 3:00 pm and 6:00 pm Sunday, 3/13 at 11:00 am and 2:00 pm
Visit the Seattle Cossacks website for their performance schedule, videos, and an impressively detailed explanation of why the vintage bikes make the best bikes for their stunts! www.seattlecossacks.com