Harry Klemm’s “The DG Years, 1975-1976” – Episode 17: The Mammoth Motocross Classic

After the DG team successes of early 1976, the team was a motocross racing machine looking for the biggest of challenges, and we were about to meet the biggest of all. Since the late 1960’s, a small group of motocross enthusiasts have put on the most epic “stand-alone” motocross event in the entire USA. The venue is at Mammoth Lakes, California, at 8000+ feet in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Central California. It is simply known as “Mammoth.” Mammoth offers no points toward any championship series, nor any gigantic prize money. However, among western USA motocross racers, there is no greater prestige than being the Mammoth Champion. Mammoth is the motocross equivalent of Isle of Man or the Baja 1000. It is a place where heroes are made. Ironically, most factory racer contracts specifically forbid racing at Mammoth because the injury risk (in the middle of the points season) is so high. Given that, it is a perfect venue for privateer racers to win a historic title.

The only thing tougher than racing at 8000-feet altitude is the crushing layout of the Mammoth track. The two-turn start hill at Mammoth very literally goes up the side of a mountain and is second to none in horsepower demands. Once done with the start hill, the track offers treachery like no other. The soft and loomey mountain dirt, used only once a year, offers incredible traction. Sadly, that soft loamy dirt also cloaks monstrous mountain boulders that are mere inches below the surface. Those boulders don’t just “surprise” your suspension, they routinely destroy rims, and send racers over the bars.

A beautifully brutal motocross track at 8,000 feet.

I had never been to Mammoth before, so I didn’t know what to expect. However, with a race team van filled with eight pro class race bikes, I knew it would be a ton of work. Mammoth is always held in late June to hopefully get the warmest possible weather of the year, but the Mammoth organizers have a “mixed” relationship with Mother Nature. In 1976, Mother Nature was not in a mood to play well with others. The pro racers practiced on Saturday and raced on Sunday. With that, I arrived at our mountain lodge in Mammoth with the fully loaded DG race team van on Thursday night. It was our plan to do a carburetor tuning session at an “off track” ride spot to avoid the chaos of the intermediate class Friday pits at the track. The plan was to meet in front of the lodge at 8am and be done with testing by noon. I exited my chalet room at 7:30am Friday morning to find freezing temperatures, and four inches of snow on everything. The only guys who showed up at 8am were Broc Glover and his dad. Apparently, the night before, all the other racers had closed down the local pizza joint/pickup joint (the only nightlife restaurant in Mammoth at that time). Between wondering about the “condition” of my pro riders, and the tragic weather conditions, it was hard to remain positive. Since I had never done carburetor fine-tuning in the snow before, I wasn’t completely heart broken about testing running late. By 10am, we finally summoned together all the droopy-eyed pro riders so we could head out to the test spot. While I was still trying to stay positive, It was f$%^&*g snowing! I’m from southern California, and I had never, ever done carb tuning while it was f#$%^-g snowing. This was ridiculous.

Despite the frigid temperatures, and the smattering of quickly melting snow all over the mountainside, the test session went surprisingly well. Within a couple of hours, we were done, and loading up for the Saturday practice at the track. DG owner Gary Harlow was present, and he “spoke” to the pro riders about avoiding the pizza joint Friday and Saturday night, and focusing on getting up early to do business.

Saturday practice was a real eye opening experience. It was the first time at Mammoth for many of the riders, and they had clearly underestimated the difficulty of the track, and the absence of oxygen in the 8000-foot air. Luckily, I had Pat Alexander as my mechanical wingman, and we were able to deal with the numerous mechanical dramas of the day. At the end of practice, we had all the bikes well prepped, and all the riders were properly “humbled” by the challenging Mammoth track. We were ready for Sunday.

The 1976 Mammoth Mountain 125 pro start.  Riders 14, 9, 52, 39, and 92 crowded the first turn and were all Team DG bikes. Harry was exhausted yet elated.

The majority of the bikes we brought to Mammoth were 125 pro class machines, and every rider was convinced that they could win the day. Being an engine tuner, the only race that mattered to me was the race to the top of the start hill. The start hill is the “tuner’s” race, and the next 40 minutes is the riders’ race. By the time the 125 pros were lining up for the first moto, the three days of warp drive race prep at 8000-foot air were catching up with me. I watched the start of the first 125 pro moto to see that our 125 Hondas and Yamahas dominated the top of the start hill. After the start, I strolled back to the race van, and very literally collapsed. After moto one, most of the riders were having more oxygen problems than mechanical problems. Pat was easily able to deal with the dramas, and get everything prepped for moto 2.

The moto2 start went as well for us as the first, but the Mammoth track eventually took its toll on each rider. DG put on a great showing, but we did not win the 125 pro race….Arrrg.

I had very mixed feelings about the weekend at Mammoth, but I had a whole new respect for what it took to win there. There are many tracks that can be dominated by horsepower, but Mammoth was not such a place. In 1978, we sent the incredibly fit John Tessatore, and his very capable mechanic Ward Ring to tackle Mammoth with a ’78 DG team YZ125. We gave him with a race bike, a practice bike, and a spare set of wheels. John handily won the 125 pro race, and irreparably destroyed all six wheels in the process. In my eyes, Mammoth was a beautiful racing venue that ravenously devoured all the race machinery and riders that came near it. To this day, I’ve never been back to Mammoth.

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

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