My first MX bike, a used Yamaha 1976 YZ125, was my pride and joy. My boyfriend and I brought it home on our trailer from the other side of the Bay. I kept glancing through the back window to admire its sleek, athletic lines; hardly believing my good fortune.
The next week-end when I rode it I discovered that it had a power band like the bikes I had read about in the magazines. I rode mostly with guys I met at Redwood Road and the Berkeley Marina. We raced on makeshift tracks that wound around the vacant lots which were our unofficial riding areas. The photographs at the top of the photo-gallery are some of those guys. There weren’t’ any girls (besides me) who rode locally in those days.
My enthusiasm did not fade, not even when I discovered my new bike was not as powerful as the bigger, more up to date MX bikes my friends were riding. By that time I had had enough of play racing. It was time to go racing at a real motocross track.
I started racing at a now defunct track called Baylands in Fremont, California. It was a night track. The smell of castor oil drifted across the pits. I remember sound of race bikes revving their engines. Artificial lighting glittering off the surface of my tear-offs created a sparkling effect. The romance and glamor of night racing was addictive.
The most popular class was the 125cc novice class. There were no powder puffs. My first race found me on the line bar to bar with a pack of adrenalin charged teenagers in the thick of screaming two-stroke motorcycles. I was in gear with the clutch pulled in and the throttle pinned ready to take off as soon as the gate dropped.
You’d have to have been there to understand what I meant when I said that I had butterflies in my stomach. After releasing the clutch with the throttle pegged, I wondered why the pack was leaving me behind. At that point I remembered the shift lever. SHIFT DUMMY Whoops…
Although in the next moto I stayed with the pack, I wasn’t able to position myself with the leaders in the first turn. In those days you couldn’t just buy an aftermarket pipe or set of reeds; you had to port the engine to get extra horsepower. My bike was woefully down on power. When it came to working on my bike I didn’t have a clue.
I leaned that the throttle had a stop when you twisted it open, and it had to be held to the stop when accelerating. Also, the shift lever had to be worked relentlessly to stay in the power-band. At least then I could stay in the pack. . Can you say WFO (way f*cking on)?
My suspension wasn’t plush. A stiffer mono-shock spring from an YZ 250 had been installed by a previous owner. The bike had air forks and an air reservoirs on top to control bottoming. I pumped them up to balance out the handling.
There were no compression or rebound clickers and there was no concept of setting preload. It was race what you” brung”. But with low center of gravity and rigid suspension, the bike excelled in turns where I learned to keep up my momentum. When there was a solid berm or when riding through a rut, I leaned way over and rocketed around the outside like a wall of death rider in a metal globe.
I never bottomed out, which wasn’t always a bad thing. At Carlsbad in 1978 at the Woman’s Nationals during practice I was scoping out the track for places to pass and made a big mistake. I tried blasting by riders who were braking hard coming up to the infamous Carlsbad drop-off.
I went off at speed. Predictably when I hit the bottom on the flat ground my suspension compressed all the way. Then the bike bounced back up and sideways, almost crashing into the wire link fence running along the side of the track. Note to self: Slow down before launching off the drop off next time around.
Some of my early learning experiences were somewhat embarrassing. I raced my first marathon with my more experienced buddy, Dennis, on his Maico 400. After he rode the first few laps it was my turn. I was waiting for him beside the track, but in my excitement forgot to put on my helmet, gloves and goggles.
I was holding the gas can getting ready to refill the tank as he slid to a stop. Rather than getting off the bike he yelled at me to get suited up and went out for another lap. I hurriedly got into my gear and waited for him to pull in a second time. He was still really pissed off when I arrived back in the pits after the race was over.
I adapted and learned from my mistakes. Even as my technique improved and I modified my lines to make up for the bike’s lackluster power output, trophies in those days, were just a distant dream, something that other people won.
None of this deterred me. I kept racing and eventually found a sponsor at Bay Lands who hung out with us in the pits. He had a small shop in Fremont where he sold motorcycle supplies. As my sponsor, he gave me a bright yellow Bell helmet (my first full coverage helmet), a leather tank guard, and a chest protector.
It was a good thing that he didn’t expect results because they didn’t come.
During this time I did get a chance to race a fast bike. A friend of mine from the racetrack knew Suzuki’s, Rodney Smith, (my hero) and rode with him and his brother. Rodney’s brother agreed to let me race his Suzuki RM125, a model that consistently won 125cc shootouts in the motocross magazines.
I met him and his buddies at a local practice area, an abandoned land fill in Concord. They devised a track with a few jumps and some fast sweepers. I rode his bike and tried to keep up as I got lapped by much faster riders.
Sunday when I actually got a chance to race the bike at Sand Hill Ranch I didn’t do much better. I was never comfortable riding the unfamiliar feeling motorcycle (I guess I can give up on the idea of being a magazine test rider).
Eventually I found a local track (Argyle) which had a woman’s class (only tracks with no women used the term “powder puff”) and I started racing two classes. At last I was able to augment my almost non-existent trophy collection because there were very few serious women racers in those days.
There was, I remember, one super-fast woman, who raced in Northern California. I didn’t know her personally (Dorene Payne), but I had seen her at the track. Her bikes were blazingly fast. She raced in the regular men’s expert class where her dad developed a starting technique that allowed her to get the hole-shot.
The trick was lining up a few feet behind the others at the gate. As soon as she noticed the first glimmer of movement in the gate’s starting mechanism, before it dropped, she dumped the clutch and got a jump on the rest of the pack.
Then the challenge became who could take her out in the first turn (or so they said). She was not overly friendly to her competition and wasn’t about to win any popularity contests, especially being a girl. Never-the-less, she had her own pit crew of hangers on and won a lot of local races against the guys. I seemed like everybody at the track knew of her and respected her ability to win motos.
In addition to the local races, I traveled to San Diego once a year for the Women’s Nationals at Carlsbad. It was a one day event in those days. I would buy a brand new set of Metzlers and mount them on my bike in preparation for the event.
After a full day of traveling, the problem was often finding accommodation near the track. Once when there were no rooms, we slept on the beach. Another time we found a room but were unable to sleep because it was near the local drag strip where the roar of souped-up engines continued into the early hours of the morning.
The Carlsbad track was a lot of fun. It was a rough, hard surfaced track with big hills. The bottom section of the track was indented and muddy offering an opportunity to really rail the turns. The whoop infested uphill was my specialty. I blasted up full throttle managing to keep the front wheel light, glancing off the top of the whoops.
One year I finally succeeded in passing all the other girls. There was nobody in front of me except lappers. Then a few corners after the white flag came out my seat flew off the bike. I hadn’t replaced a missing seat bracket and when the remaining bracket broke I lost my seat. A short time afterwards my front wheel slid out in a turn and I crashed.
I quickly picked up the bike but it wouldn’t start. I kept kicking as the other riders went racing by. Finally a spectator yelled to turn off the petcock and hold the throttle wide open. “Then kick the bike over”, he said. I had never heard of this starting technique, but when I tried it the bike started first kick. The only problem was that the spectator’s daughter and most of the front runners were already gone.
On one occasion I lost my clutch in practice at the Women’s Nationals (I was stuck in neutral). When my boyfriend took the clutch cover off, he discovered that the nut which held my clutch mechanism together had come loose. He was still wrenching on my bike when we lined up at the starting gate.
With the other motorcycles waiting for the gate to drop, the race was held up while my mechanic finished tightening things back together. The race organizers were very friendly. When they found out that we would have to make the seven hour trip back to the Bay Area that evening, they offered us a place to sleep so that we could go back the next day.
My lack of racing success changed, or at least should have changed for the better, on my thirtieth birthday when I graduated into the Veteran’s class (Vet class). The Vet class did not turn out exactly as I had hoped. The older riders were supposed to be slower.
My problems began when I was advised to trade in my beloved Yamaha YZ-125 for a bigger motorcycle. There were no displacement classifications in the Vet class and everybody agreed that my Yamaha would not be competitive against the bigger bikes.
A local shop owner persuaded me to purchase a used red 360 Bultaco Pursang. He claimed to take an interest in my racing, although in retrospect I realize that his interest consisted mainly in profiting from my ignorance.
Heck, I told myself; my heroes race Pursangs, but as it turned out, not this particular bike. It had a down pipe and crappy non-stock muffler installed by a previous owner. The power band was non-existent. I tried to fix it without success.
I continued to get bad starts and fell back on my time worn technique of picking off other riders in technical portions of the track.
My exploits on this bike included a serious tank-slapper that led to a gnarly crash after trying to follow some expert 80cc racers who overtook me while I was leading the women’s class at a race in Sacramento. I didn’t have a manual for the bike and put too much oil in the forks with disastrous results.
In the early to mid-eighties, when super-cross was becoming popular, the local tracks started incorporating double jumps. The first time that I encountered these obstacles was at a marathon at Sand Hill Ranch.
They were not configured like today’s doubles so that you can land on the down slope, but shaped like the letter M. To me they looked like normal jumps except with steeper, pointier faces. While some of the racers rolled the first jump, I went for it at normal race pace and had no problem clearing the second jump. They were intimidating, not hard if you don’t mind a flat landing.
Dick Mann, a legendary racer on a BSA from the sixties, (my hero) who often raced at Sand Hill, did did not even bother to unload his bike. He said that he preferred natural terrain and didn’t care to race that day. Never-the-less, generally he was faster than almost everyone except for the local pros.
My friends and I were in our prime when Dick Mann raced in the local Northern California tracks. He had retired decades ago but still enjoyed the sport. He liked racing marathons at Sand Hill Ranch. He was a regular at the legendary “Hang Over Marathon” on new years day. He had an advantage at that race because he didn’t drink. I remember hearing his his booming four-stroke as it went by lapping us. I knew it was him. Back then everyone except Dick rode two-strokes. It sure was a sweet sounding four-banger.
Sure… I did OK at some races. I even won a few, but I lost far more than I won. I can’t explain my love for motocross. It is a life-style. Most Saturdays we worked on our bikes, and Sundays we raced. I was usually broke because a race bike is a high maintenance toy. It was a good thing that I had an understanding boyfriend.
Most of the time my friends and I raced each other in the pack. I could be battling for sixth or seventh place, and still feet good if I beat the other rider to the checkered flag. I don’t remember individual events, but I won’t forget the time when I beat my buddy, Patrick Burman, through the last turn for fourth place (no trophy) or when I was ahead of the pack at the white flag until I crashed.
Racers like myself and my buddies, mostly mid-pack riders, did not get any publicity beyond occasional race results in Cycle News but we loved racing. Back in the nineteen-seventies and eighties we were the backbone of the sport. ” What a queer strange trip it has been.”
Racers participating at the local level today are the sport of motocross. They might not have the best equipment or the greatest coaches, but without their dedication and perseverance the sport would not exist. The pros are fun to watch, but don’t ever forget the local racer who struggles to afford a new pair of tires or a new pipe. They buy the bikes that support the race teams.