Carlsbad Raceway, redux: Dropping off the lap-ending Cliff Edge (left), and an overview of
These days there are all sorts of reproductions: events, motorcycles, and now an accurate replica of a classic track. Carlsbad Raceway was one of the earliest permanent motocross courses in the USA, and one of the most famous thanks to 16 years as home to the United States Grand Prix, broadcast by ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
Carlsbad Raceway was a dragstrip and sports car track when members of the Continental Motosport Club (CMC) came south to check out the facility in 1967. Owner Larry Grismer could see no purpose for the hills surrounding the track, since they were too steep to park cars on, but the undulating terrain was perfect for MX. At the time the CMC really was a club with about 10 members, all of whom had full-time jobs. Northern San Diego County was a long haul from the San Fernando Valley, so when it came time to lay out an MX track, Californian Stu Peters (a recent AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame inductee) and Australian Kelvin Franks were the only ones who showed up. When Grismer told the pair he would prefer to deal with them, they attempted to resign from the club. Except the other club members—seeing their way out of future work parties—turned over the CMC name and the meager treasury along with it.
Drawing on his experience competing in Europe, Peters laid out a natural-terrain track with wooden stakes and ribbons. Once the track was built, it rarely changed. A water truck was deemed too expensive, so a sprinkler system was installed along with snow fencing to satisfy insurance requirements. Eventually the dirtbikes dug down through the topsoil to the baked adobe beneath, giving the track an almost subterranean feel. The resultant earthen banks were often used as berms by the competitors, making for spectacular action photos.
The first race was held in February ’68. Promoters Gavin Trippe and Bruce Cox brought European-style motocross to Carlsbad in the early ’70s, their Hang Ten USGP a points-paying round of the 500cc world championship from ’73 to ’86. Europeans dominated in the early years, but after Marty Moates’ surprise win on an LOP Yamaha YZ465 in ’80, Hakan Carlqvist was the only European rider to win. The era of American motocross domination had begun.
In ’86 Grismer could no longer resist the desires of his partners in the property and it was sold to developers. The raceway became a separate business operated by his sons on a month-to-month basis. With the track in constant danger of closing, it was difficult to justify expenditures for improvements, and the facilities deteriorated. Major races requiring long-term planning stopped coming. As it turned out, the track lasted through 213 (!) one-month leases before closing its gates for good in 2004. Carlsbad was a memory.
Then, last year, something truly unexpected happened. The CMC took over operation of Ryan Hughes’ former Rynoland in Anza, California, renaming it The Ranch (www.theranchanzaca.com). Stu Peter’s son Marc, an internationally acclaimed track-builder, armed with blueprints of the original Carlsbad Raceway and a topographic map, duplicated the original 1.5-mile USGP track in the hills of northeast San Diego County. The final layout is an almost exact replica of the original, right down to the clay dredged up from beneath San Diego Harbor that’s slippery when wet and hard-packed when dry. Peters went so far as to dig deep into the earth where holes routinely formed at Carlsbad, so they would again form in the same places. The biggest difference is Rattlesnake Gulch, 15 feet shallower than the original because the bulldozers encountered a massive rock beneath the soil. Peters even tracked down old-school wooden snow fencing and is talking about replicating the old spectator bridges to make the track look authentic.
Though they may have trouble finding The Ranch (it’s about 10 miles north of Cahuilla Creek, down a dirt road), veterans who raced at the original Carlsbad track give the new one two thumbs up, claiming they barely needed to re-learn the layout. If that’s not enough, a replica of the old Saddleback Park track is in the works.
Watch an onboard video lap of the Carlsbad replica track, below.