MY CATALINA GP

By Jeff Petron AKA The Dentist

Contrary to popular belief, here in southern California we do have a distinct change of seasons. In the cooler months, riding is wonderful, and the occasional precipitation keeps the dust down and the traction up. But in the summer. all but the most radical riders take a sabbatical, lest they wilt, dehydrate and die. The only reasons not to switch to watersports are the inability to swim or an irrational phobia of sharks.
 
The impound area was well-organized. Note the shipping containers on the left.
      Catalina Island has always been a focus of my summer activities. It’s a great place to fish, dive, swim, hike or just relax. The surfing is fair. When I was 14, I saw “On Any Sunday” at the Casino Theatre in the island town of Avalon. Malcolm Smith became my hero on that day. The casino was built as an actual casino, but just before it opened, prohibition became the law and gambling was taboo. It still stands almost 100 years later as Avalon’s most prominent feature. It functions as a theatre and a ballroom.
 
 
Every dirt biker has fantasized about racing across a golf course at least once. This was as close as you’ll get.
 
      I knew that there had been an important race back in the day at the island. It was hard to imagine dirt bikes racing through the streets and back into the steep island mountains. It seemed vague, like knowing that guys with names like Bud Ekins raced bikes with old pushrod four-stroke engines that broke your leg when you tried to start them without engaging the spark retard lever. And with environmentalists dominating California’s politics, it was unimaginable that the race could ever be revived in an eco-sensitive place like Catalina. The last time the race had been run was 1958. Legend has it that unruly hooligan revelers caused so much trouble that year that the racers were never allowed back.
      By July of this last summer, I was fully into watersports mode with at least 20 days of surfing already behind me. But when I got to Catalina for my annual two weeks of water play, there was much talk of a promoter named Vinnie Mandzak bringing the race back in December. Like most everyone else, I thought it would never happen. It seemed like dreaming of racing from Barstow to Vegas with Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein as my pit crew. But I kept a close tab on Vinnie’s website, just in case. Registration was delayed, little by little, until months had passed. This helped reinforce the belief that the race would never take place. During this time when seemingly nothing was happening, Vinnie was busy with environmental impact reports, making plans to mitigate all of the islanders’ concerns, working out logistics and securing sponsors. It’s impossible to imagine the burning hoops he was forced to jump through. God bless Vinnie Mandzak!
 
Here’s the incomplete Grand Prix course, with Avalon Bay and the Casino in the background, just before sundown on Friday. Somehow this morphed into a well-marked and fun course by sunrise.
      Finally, after months of waiting, something happened. But instead of registration opening, the website announced that rider résumés were required and that only intermediates and experts need apply. A list of approved riders was made, but Halloween had passed and there was still no registration for a race on December 4th and 5th. I started making other plans.
 
  
It doesn’t seem to matter where the venue is, there’s always a problem with the water truck.
 
      Registration opened mid-November, about two weeks after I became certain there would be no race. In the next five days about 800 racers sent in their registrations and money. Eight hundred racers means about 800 bikes. This wouldn’t ordinarily be an issue, but we were going to race on an island. The next weekend we all took our bikes to Wilmington, where they were loaded into 25 containers and towed across the 28-mile-wide channel. It became apparent at the loading dock that this wasn’t going to be just another race. There were racers from northern California and Arizona. Rumors of racers from Argentina and Japan were circulating; Malcolm Smith and his son would be flying in; Preston Petty was going to race; Kurt Caselli, Kendall Norman, Travis Pastrana, Johnny Campbell, Quinn Cody, Ryan Dudek, David Pingree, Ronnie Renner and even Rick Johnson would be racing the pro race; and Dana Brown would begin filming “On Any Sunday 3.” Could this be any cooler?
 
  
There just aren’t many aftermarket companies making sparkies for 1961 Triumph BSAs anymore. The parade went right through the heart of town.
      The vintage class bikes were as remarkable as the racers. There were over 100 entries and included anything you could imagine. Velocets, BSAs, Triumphs, CZs, Elsinores, Bultacos, Rickmans, Hodakas, Harley Davidsons, BMWs, DT1s, twin-cylinder two strokes, you name it. I had no desire to race one of these bikes, but they are sure cool to look at.
      Loading the bikes was also a preview of how well-organized the entire event was. You might expect the daunting task of processing this many motorcycles put a serious dent in your day’s plans. I was there about half an hour and the labor for the entire event was donated by the wonderful members of seven AMA District 37 clubs. They were amazing.
 
 
Hogan’s Heroes?
 
      Most of the 20,000 or so people who made the channel crossing rode the Catalina Express from Long Beach. It’s about a one-hour boat ride, and it is very common to see seals, porpoises and even whales on these crossings. One lucky boatload got to ride across the channel with Travis Pastrana. The weather report called for calm weather, so my family and I took our boat over. It was shocking to see all of the moorings full when we got there. Dirt bikers had filled the bay and the town.
That afternoon, I tried to walk part of the course, but it wasn’t completed enough to fully tell where it went. There was still a lot of dirt to be moved, very few markings were up and it was almost dark. I thought they were in big trouble. Once again, I underestimated the crew.
      Saturday morning featured a 7:30 a.m. vintage bike parade through the town before their race. It was lead by one of the island’s ubiquitous golf carts. Most of the bikes kept running, and it proved to be an entertaining spectacle.
 
  
An old Harley on the move.
 
      My race followed the vintage race. I was shocked to find a well-groomed, clearly marked course on the first lap. The course workers must have finished it in the dark! The vintage bikes hadn’t done much damage, so the course was pretty smooth, and friends in later races told me that changed.
      The start straight funneled into a three-turn chicane. After a steep drop-off and an equally steep climb came the motocross course, complete with a water hole. This was followed by a one-mile horse trail leading into a half mile of pavement. A couple miles of fire road completed the six-mile loop. As you apexed some of the blind right turns on the fire road, a panoramic view of the bay and channel unfolded in front of you. But there were 200-foot drops along the left, covered with prickly pear cacti! Even so, for me it took a conscious effort to concentrate on the road and ignore the scenery. Most of the course was lined with spectators and course workers all cheering the riders on. There was a guy in one corner ringing a cowbell, giving it an air of a Portuguese soccer match. It was a far cry from the obscurity I am more familiar with on an enduro course.
 
 
One sweet Harley.
 
      I hammered out a really good start but faded quickly. I eventually settled for a mid-pack finish after an hour of epic riding. I didn’t really mind where I finished, the atmosphere and ambiance of the whole event was so great that it was just plain euphoric. With my race over early Saturday, I had a full day and a half of spectating left. The pro race had Kurt Caselli leading Kendall Norman early on by a good margin with Travis Pastrana in third. But a blown motor for Caselli and a seized motor for Pastrana left Norman alone in front at the end.
 
The Dentist, Jeanne and Jeremy helping to distract Malcolm before his race.

      When this all began, I thought this would be a once-in-a-lifetime event. Even if it were allowed again, I thought that I’d only race it this once. It takes a lot of planning and energy to fill out a résumé, get your bike there, pick it up, get lodging and get over there, but it’s so worth it! If they do it again, I will be there. It seems that in December, California’s two seasons are no longer distinct.
      Special thanks to My Cuz Vinnie, Red Bull, members of the Dirt Diggers, View Finders, Hill Toppers, Shamrocks, Prairie Dogs, Vikings, Prospectors clubs, and the people of the town of Avalon.

 

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