It is said by many long-time motocross enthusiasts that the 1970s were the golden era of USA motocross…in particular the Southern California scene. I’m not wise enough to say whether or not it was a golden era, but I can say that the 1970s Southern California motocross scene was an erupting volcano of increasing participation unlike anything that the sport had ever seen before, and unlike anything it will ever see again.
At the risk of over-simplifying it, the 1970s was an era of countless racing participants at every skill level, racing almost daily in night and day races, and motocross tracks were scattered all over Southern California. Every rider was hoping to ascend to the elite level of racing. That meant traveling the world and riding factory-prepared bikes in front of thousands of fans and I was lucky enough to see a good number of those racers reach that level.
At the beginning of ‘70s, the suspension of everyone’s bike was short, the motos were long, and the “real pro heros” rode at least four 45-minute motos every Sunday. The mechanics of the day worked without 40-foot semi-truck transports, no cell phones, no computers, no easy-ups and precious few days off in a year. Serious pro riders, as well as most factory riders, typically raced 38 or more weekends a year. All the serious players were working, traveling, testing and developing at a frenetic pace that was intense and non-stop. You simply could not pay sane people enough money to do it all. So the guys that remained at the top were the few that were fit enough to operate on little sleep, enthusiastic enough to not wonder why and smart enough to get the job done right all the time. The truth is, most of the guys who did it, never really cared what the job paid. They just knew they wanted to be “part of it.”
In the 1970s, there was an abundance of incredibly talented folk in the motocross sport nationwide. Given that, it’s fair to ask, “what was it that made Southern California so special?” Simple, the weather and the geography. In Southern California, riders could race at any one of dozens of tracks 12 months a year…and they did. At the nucleus of this year-round Southern California motocross scene was the world-class racetrack facility at Saddleback Park. Not far away was world-famous Carlsbad Raceway. During my 12 years as a pro-MX mechanic in SoCal, you could go to Saddleback Park seven days a week and always find factory teams and top local pros testing their newest machinery and honing their riding skills.
Saddleback was a long, tough and unforgiving racetrack. If you could go fast for two 45 minute pro motos at Saddleback, you could go anywhere else and do well. The U.S. headquarters of every Japanese motorcycle manufacturer was within 40 miles of Saddleback Park, as well as the headquarters of many of the European brands. There was no Internet at the time, so the weekly goings-on at Saddleback were the motocross “blog-osphere” of the day. The Saddleback pit area is where news of racers’ sponsorships and racing innovations quickly spread around the community. If you took a new bike or a new design to Saddleback on Sunday, other race shops would be trying to build their own version of it by Tuesday.
Saddleback also became the primary battleground for all the “alphabet” race shops of the day. Shops like FMF, DG, T&M, C&H, R&D, TNT, J&B and countless others went to Saddleback every weekend to show their stuff to both customers and bike manufactures alike. If your race shop looked like one of the top guns at Saddleback, the manufacturers would often donate bikes and parts to your racing efforts…a relationship like that was “gold” for any race shop.
Just as important as the Saddleback racetrack, were the dozens of local MX tracks all over Southern California that ran weekday night races and Saturday races. Local racers would work hard to become the pro-class “king” of their track before venturing to show their stuff at the 45-minute motos of Sunday Saddleback. Every top pro I ever met was the “king of somewhere” before coming to Saddleback. For many of those kings, their first day of pro-class racing at Sunday Saddleback was a humbling and humiliating experience. There was a deep field of pro talent every week, and not a single one of those pro riders cared what other track you were “the king” of.
Finally, Southern California was a technology center of the day. During that era, about 30-percent of the United States gross national product was being spent with the numerous large and diverse defense firms all over southern California, to wage the hot and cold wars that the USA military was involved with. As Ross Liberty (owner of Factory Pipe Products) reminded me, “guys who engineer SR-71s during the day, don’t knit sweaters or write poetry in their spare time. They engineer their recreational toys.” In my years of Southern California motocross racing, I encountered numerous dads and mechanics that had impressive technical expertise from their defense industry jobs, and they were always anxious to use that expertise for their kid’s racing efforts.
Story Index (Click on any title to read the episode)
Episode 1: Understanding The 70s SoCal Motocross Atmosphere
Episode 2: My Road Into Motocross
Episode 3: Getting a Foot in the Door
Episode 4: Reality in the Race Shop
Episode 5: Building a Race Team
Episode 6: Building the Team Bikes
Episode 7: Understanding the Goals of a Racing Business
Episode 8: The DG Front Office
Episode 9: The Competition
Episode 10: Painting the SoCal Racer’s Atmosphere
Episode 11: From Mechanic to I.T. Before There Was I.T.
Episode 12: A Few Words About Engine “Formulas”
Episode 13: Mechanic Buddies
Episode 14: 1976 Turning Points at DG
Episode 15: Facing the “Race-Gas” Era
Episode 16: The Retail Chamber Birthplace
Episode 17: The Mammoth Motocross Classic
Episode 18: The DG/Saddleback Launching Pad