A BSA Built for the Island | Catalina Special

By Thad Wolff, Photography by Andrea Wilson, Joe Neric

This whole Catalina Grand Prix thing started when I was a kid, riding dirtbikes north of Los Angeles. I heard they used to race motorcycles over on that island that I could see from my favorite riding spots. Those racers must have had the time of their lives back in the ’50s, loading their bikes on a barge, hopping on the old Catalina Steamer and rolling into the little town of Avalon to race through the streets and off into the hills. The whole idea always seemed so cool to me.

Now fast forward to 2010. BSA built a Gold Star 500 single in ’59 and named it after the race in honor of Chuck Feets Minert’s win in ’56. The logo is really neat, with BSA Catalina Scrambler printed across an outline of the island. Having never been into old English bikes, I decided to turn a ’58 BSA A10 Super Rocket 650 into something similar. My twin would wear the Catalina Scrambler logo on top of its fuel tank, along with the words Twin Special.

It’s not a dirt-track replica. I wanted something different—something more off-road oriented. The bike was almost done when it was announced that there would be a Catalina GP again. Obviously, this was meant to be! I went out to the garage, traded lights for numberplates, mounted a Race Tech-fortified Honda Elsinore front end, Works Performance shocks and a giant 58-tooth rear sprocket. The bike was starting to look pretty racy for a 52-year-old, 400-lb. streetbike. Getting physically ready for the race entailed a lot of mountain biking, countless laps around a secret motocross track on my Honda XR650R, plus flat-trackin’ and fireroadin’ on trails I’ve been slidin’ around on for more than 40 years. Training can be fun!

The excitement was building as my wife, Jody, and I hopped aboard the Catalina Express ferry with hundreds of racers and fans, all in their favorite motorcycle apparel. I was runnin’ a vintage Castrol jacket, Bud Ekins T-shirt and a BSA I Love You hat. Talking to friends, making new ones and just people-watching was fun. When the outline of mountains appeared out of the fog, followed by the famous Catalina Casino and the beautiful little port town of Avalon, cameras started clicking. Everyone knew this would be a special weekend.

The lucky ones had golf carts waiting, while the rest of us dragged our gearbags along the boardwalk, searching for our hotels. All I wanted to do was find my bike to make sure it had survived the 26-mile boat trip. I worried about that beautiful chrome Gold Star gas tank. Just out of town we found the impound lot: a sea of nearly 800 racebikes. Old ones. New ones. Everyone was welcome. Then I spotted mine, tie-downs hanging from the bars, and heaved a sigh of relief

Since there’s no practice before an off-road Grand Prix, I decided to at least scope out the first few corners. There was a flurry of activity. Tractors and water trucks prepped the track. Officials were setting up banners, haybales and ribbons. Red Bull signage was going up all over the island. The transformation from sleepy little resort town to race venue was impressive.

Up two hours before the sun on race day, I wasn’t the only one. My vintage race was the first of the weekend. I felt sorry for everyone who had to wait longer. By 8:00 a.m. racers were kick-starting old motorcycles. Excitement was ramping up. I love the sights, sounds and smells of vintage racing, but it’s a good thing I was wearing a bandana over my face—that CZ in front of me was way too rich! Before every race I close my eyes and say my prayers to stay safe, but this time I was just praying the old Beezer would keep going for 45 minutes!

The green flag dropped and I got the holeshot from my spot on the fourth row. Plowing through a fog of two-stroke smoke, the A10’s straight pipes sounded fantastic. Everything was working great until the first big jump. Not knowing what was on the other side, I should have just rolled it, but didn’t. Somewhere in mid-air I braced myself for one hell of a suspension test. The impact rotated my handlebars all the way down, so I yanked ’em back up and said to myself, It’s going to be a looong race. Despite suffering from Popeye arms for the remainder of the moto, it was a blast. I won my class, and only nine vintage bikes posted faster lap times.

Let the post-race fun begin! Everyone was happy to be part of this history-in-the-making. Will this be a yearly event or a one-shot re-run? Nobody really knows. But I can tell you one thing: I’m already getting ready for next year!

By Thad Wolff
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