American Motorcycle Roadracing 50 Years Ago

California Screamin’ in the Golden State

California Screamin: 50 years ago American roadracing came of age in the Golden State
Ken Smith (85) leads a young Steve McLaughlin (111) and boy racer Dain Gingerelli (77x) up the hill to turn four at Carlsbad Raceway in the 200cc production race, circa 1969.©Motorcyclist

My first roadrace took place on a dragstrip. Actually, a modified dragstrip; the quarter-mile’s Armco gauntlet served as the main straight, the return road leading back to the pits formed the esses, and an impromptu chicane composed of hay bales and witch-hat pylons strategically placed on the asphalt slowed racers down before entering the quarter-mile’s grease-stained staging lanes that emptied into what we called the Tower Turn, ultimately leading back onto the main straight. As its name suggests, that 180-degree turn looped around the dragstrip’s scorekeeper tower, which occupied its rightful place adjacent to the quarter-mile’s starting line.

That racetrack was the now-defunct Orange County International Raceway, situated on agricultural property along Interstate 5 about a quarter-mile north of Motorcyclist’s stately office structure today. But on November 24, 1968, OCIR, which sat miles from any urban development, was the site of the Inaugural California Grand Prix hosted by the AFM (American Federation of Motorcyclists), and I was racing in the 200cc production class aboard my Suzuki T200 Invader. Then, as now, the AFM was considered America’s premier amateur roadrace club, and my little Suzook proved to be a worthy bike for the newbie racer that I was.

I finished second in that race, but if you scrounge a tattered issue of Cycle News from that era, you'll see that my brother Alan was credited in the race results column, not me. I was underage and my parents were out of town, unavailable to sign the mandatory parental consent form for my AFM license. My solution: Use my older brother's license and race under his name.

Things were indeed different then. Trackdays were non-existent, and we had no rider schools with which to nurture our racing prowess; lessons were learned through the school of hard knocks, and we tempered our skills with hard racing and harder crashes. A few months after my first race I witnessed a racer smash through a huge wooden sign near OCIR’s chicane. The few hay bales stacked against the sign failed to protect the errant rider, and he spent subsequent months in a body cast. Earlier that year Art Baumann, who eventually gained distinction as the first racer to win an AMA National roadrace aboard a Japanese two-stroke by scooping first-place honors at Sears Point Raceway’s (now known as Sonoma Raceway) inaugural event in 1969, was said to have put a Yamaha 250 through the wood barrier that formed the perimeter around OCIR’s greasy pits and Tower Turn. He had been auditioning for the tuning fork company’s official US team that day. Ultimately, in an effort to make that section of track safer, AFM officials reversed the direction of racing at OCIR; during the first race in the reconfigured clockwise track a co-pilot in the sidecar race lost his life exiting the new, slower, “safer” chicane. Things had changed, but they remained the same, and the hard knocks continued.

1969 California GP race program
The program from the 1969 California GP, which took place only blocks from the vast office parks that house Motorcyclist's current office.©Motorcyclist

While it’s unclear when amateur roadracing in America first began, AFM records show that the California-based club was officially organized and incorporated November 27, 1956, though racing had begun two years prior under the auspices of the American Association of Grand Prix Riders. Among the AAGPR’s primary movers and shakers was Alan Tompkins who, according to AFM documents, maintained close communication with the FIM (Federation Internationale Motocycliste), the heartbeat of roadracing worldwide, in hopes of making the AAGPR the hub of roadracing in America.

Initially the AFM sprouted chapters in other states, too, among them Florida, New York, Illinois, and Mississippi, where racing sporadically took place. But for the most part AFM racing was confined to Willow Springs Raceway in the Mojave Desert north of Los Angeles and Hourglass Field, a former US Navy airfield east of San Diego. Among the top AFM competitors at the time were gentleman-racer Buddy Parriot and future Bonneville record-holder Don Vesco. As destiny proved, the AFM would be the staging ground for many future American roadracing stars. The AFM 1960s grassroots movement was where AMA Experts such as Baumann, Ron Grant, Ron Pierce, Steve McLaughlin, Jody Nicholas, and Don Emde got their starts, and even Kenny Roberts’ name pops up in AFM race results dating back to 1969. Those racers paved the way for a later generation of AFMers who went on to gain glory on the national and international roadrace scene. Randy Mamola, Eddie Lawson, Fred Merkel, and Wayne Rainey, to name a few, cut their teeth on AFM tracks before winning their national and world championships. As 1972 Daytona 200 winner Emde, who had earned the AFM Number One Plate for 1969, explained about his and other racers’ success: “The variety of tracks [in California] helped you adapt to [AMA] tracks quickly.”

But to allow that to happen the AFM had to come of age, and by the mid-1960s racing had spread to other California racetracks, chief among them the airport track of Cotati, the combination dragstrip and road course of Vaca Valley Raceway (simply known as “Vacaville” to the racers) in the north, and Carlsbad and OCIR within the reaches of Southern California. Both of the SoCal tracks were simply dragstrips that used the return roads, staging lanes, and pit areas to help form their respective closed circuits.

Yamaha RD350 in the 1969 California GP
The racing was always close: Dick Fuller shadows Alan Gingerelli (86) during a 410cc Modified Production race in 1978. Both riders were aboard RD350s, the favored bike for the class.©Motorcyclist

Club racing later took place at Riverside International Raceway, and records show that AFM racers were invited to put on an exhibition race at Laguna Seca Raceway in 1962 as part of the Sports Car Club of America’s annual races on that fabled Northern California track. Ron Grant, riding a Norton Manx 500, won that brawl. Another amateur racing association, the lesser-known and short-lived ACA (American Cyclists Association, headed by Wes Cooley Sr., father of future AMA Superbike champion Wes Cooley Jr.), entrenched itself at Willow Springs and Riverside during the late 1960s and early ’70s, giving California racers plenty to choose from in terms of where to race.

Various other short-lived tracks dot the AFM’s storied past, too, including a bold adventure of a temporary closed-circuit road course that meandered through the Sacramento Expo fairgrounds during the California State Fair. The date was July 2, 1967, and the 2-mile course looped in a counterclockwise direction through the fairgrounds, using a series of small and narrow connector streets and parking lots lined with hay bales and construction sawhorses. Admission into the fair got you into the races too. AFMer Jim Keys, riding his Suzuki 250 X-6 Hustler in the production class, recalls falling on an oil spill caused by another rider that went unchecked by turn workers: “The turn marshal was standing there, talking with his girlfriend [and not raising the caution flag].” In fact, Keys remembers that “flagmen were in some corners, but there were people walking across the track all day. It was like riding on the Sunday Morning Ride [another Northern California mainstay that’s a story in itself].”

Ontario Motor Speedway, 1975
There were plenty of empty spectator seats for the start of this race at Ontario Motor Speedway, 1975.©Motorcyclist

Despite what would be deemed amateurish crowd control and track safety conditions today, the racing then, as now, was fast and furious. And good. In an effort to promote California roadracing nationally, the AFM staged a non-points race in late 1964, sending an open invite to the AMA's stars to compete against the best from the west. In a Cycle World article (January 1965) Carol Sims wrote that the "AFM's better riders did give the AMA contingent a fairly decisive thumping, but it was also clear that the latter were handicapped by lack of experience in road racing, and in many cases by motorcycles not really properly set up for the job at hand."

Future Motorcyclist editor Tony Murphy won the much-touted 75-mile 250cc-class race at Willow Springs aboard his Yamaha TD-1B, with AMA star Dick "Bugsy" Mann (TD-1), Grant (Parilla), and future motorcycle author Joe Scalzo (TD-1) dicing for second spot. Eric Dahlstrom, whose sketches could often be seen on the pages of CW, won the 350cc GP race that included future Motorcyclist columnist Gordon Jennings in the field of riders. Grant returned to win the main event, followed by Murphy in second place. Truly a successful day for California's amateur club racers. Added Sims, somewhat triumphantly, in the CW article, "We consider it to be a good portent for the future of road racing [in America]."

But within six or seven years the future turned bleak for the AFM and its band of club racers. The track surfaces at Cotati and Vaca Valley had deteriorated to the point that racing was suspended at both tracks. That left the AFM’s San Francisco Chapter no place to sanction races; Sears Point Raceway had yet to open its gates to club racing.

Black was the favored choice of racing leathers back in the 1960s
Black was the favored choice of racing leathers back in the 1960s.©Motorcyclist

And in the south, the Los Angeles Chapter faced strong competition from Cooley’s ACA club, which pretty much enjoyed a monopoly at Willow Springs and Riverside, leaving only OCIR and the dilapidated Carlsbad Raceway to the AFM. By 1972 the San Francisco Chapter ceased sanctioning events (though the chapter maintained its charter and continued to serve as the AFM’s “national” headquarters), and the Los Angeles Chapter was, for the most part, financially broke. (I know because I was the Los Angeles Chapter president that year, inheriting a club bank account totaling about $90.)

Fortunately, a new promotions company, known as Trippe-Cox and Associates—headed by Motorcycle Weekly publishers and expatriated Englishmen Gavin Trippe and Bruce Cox—had ambitions of one day staging an AMA National race at Laguna Seca. But before you can run you must first learn to walk, and the AMA suggested that Trippe-Cox prove they could sanction a roadrace event elsewhere before signing a contract to promote an AMA National at Laguna Seca—or anywhere else for that matter. So Trippe and Cox took their fledgling race promotions company to the AFM to see about promoting the races at OCIR for 1972. The two parties struck a deal, and for 1972 the AFM racing consisted of races at OCIR only. The reprieve also allowed the LA Chapter to build up its cash reserves again.

Those circumstances paved the way for eventually expanding the AFM’s race calendar to other tracks, while Trippe-Cox moved on to sanction its first AMA event at Laguna Seca the following year. After a major makeover, AFM club officers set their sights on what were to be a pair of major prizes in coming months. Recalls Bob Crossman, “Fred Walti and I ran the AFM South [LA Chapter], and we successfully negotiated with Bob Graham [Ontario Motor Speedway’s general manager] and Les Richter [Graham’s counterpart at nearby Riverside Raceway] at RIR to have AFM race at those tracks.” It helped, too, that the AMA had, since 1971, staged National roadraces at Ontario, and management at RIR was casting a jealous eye on that track’s expanding enterprise into the two-wheel market.

Future Formula 2/250cc star Harry Klinzmann shows what pressing Dunlop K81 tires to the limit can do on a box-stock racebike.
Future Formula 2/250cc star Harry Klinzmann shows what pressing Dunlop K81 tires to the limit can do on a box-stock racebike.©Motorcyclist

By that time momentum was growing in the northern chapter too. Fueled by the LA Chapter’s success at Ontario and Riverside, the AFM settled in for racing at Sears Point Raceway. Soon enough, the AFM put Willow Springs back on its calendar, and by the mid-1970s racing in California was healthier and more robust than ever. It helped, too, that motorcycle sales were topping out during the 1970s, and roadracing in particular was gaining acceptance throughout America. By 1977 America had its first roadrace world champion in young Steve Baker (Formula 750), and the following year Roberts became the first AFM alumnus to win a world title when he capped the 500cc Grand Prix Championship. No doubt, Thompkins and his AAGPR cronies, AFM racers, officials, and workers who subsequently followed their lead had reason to be proud. Sims was right—that chilly day back in 1964 at Willow Springs proved to be a portent of things to come in America and the world.

2002 AFM Reunion at California Speedway
The AFM held a reunion at California Speedway in 2002. Among the attendees were former competitors in the popular 410cc mod-prod class. Standing: Malcolm Hill, Curt Relick, Scott Clough, Bob Tigert, and Dick Fuller; kneeling, John Lassak, Dain Gingerelli, and Alan Gingerelli.©Motorcyclist

Where Did All Those Tracks Go?

Actually, nowhere, though only Willow Springs continues to hold race events. Remnants of Vaca Valley Raceway’s (1958–1972) track can still be seen today from Interstate 80. Cotati (1957–1972) has since been covered with residential and commercial development, as have Riverside (1957–1989), Ontario (1970–1980), Orange County (1967–1983), and Carlsbad (1964–2004).

Ontario’s life cycle is perhaps the most interesting. The track was originally funded by the city of Ontario using industrial revenue bonds to the tune of $25.5 million to build the massive “Indianapolis Motor Speedway of the West” complex. But the California track never proved itself profitable, and by 1980 its bonds sold for $0.30 on the dollar. Its 800 acres originally sold for $7,500 per acre, but by 1980 the value had risen to $150,000 per acre, something that the Chevron Land Company recognized enough to purchase the bonds, which led to foreclosure that paved the way for the commercial real-estate development that followed. But first the wrecking ball was turned loose on the track’s vast, and highly recognizable, spectator and scoring structure that faced nearby Interstate 10. When I photographed the massive structure being torn down, I couldn’t help but think that it looked as though Godzilla had taken a big bite out of its concrete walls. It marked the end of a truly golden era for roadracing in the Golden State.

"Flagmen were in some corners, but there were people walking across the track all day."
"Flagmen were in some corners, but there were people walking across the track all day."©Motorcyclist