It’s hard to compare mid-century American motorcycle racing with what was happening across the pond. The good old US of A was fixated on dirt track racing - flat track, scrambles and hill climbs – while going neck to neck in the streets on fully-faired factory race bikes was the way of the Europeans. However, for the first 8 years of the 1950′s, Catalina Island (20 miles off the Californian coast) became the closest thing to the infamous Isle of Man TT, with a decidedly State side slant… The grueling 10 mile course on Catalina Island was not just trails and hills, but roads through the City of Avalon, too. People flocked from all over the country and beyond to participate in the daring island dash that started on paved roads at sea level up into the rocky and dusty hills and back again. All sizes of bikes qualified in the variety of classes and two days of racing. A 50-miler on Saturday and 100-miler on Sunday provided plenty of opportunity to get hurt.
Not surprising, the British bikes made up the majority of the middle and heavyweight contenders. Harley did compete and occasionally placed in the top ten throughout the years, but the heavy 750′s were no match for the lighter 500 singles and 650 twins. In 1956, Chuck “Feets” Minert won the 100 mile race on a BSA Gold Star. So prestigious was this win, that BSA named a Gold Star scrambler “The Catalina Scrambler” in honor of the win – albeit in 1959 – one year after racing stopped on the Famous Island.
Near the end, among the other smaller displacement bikes such as Puch, Maico and Zundapp, Yamaha got in the game with a twin, two-stroke 250, specially modified for the Catalina course and placed 6th over all. This was the first Japanese bike/rider to compete on the island. However, it would be another decade and a half before they’d become the unbeatable force to dominate tracks like Daytona for 10 years straight.
Why did it all end? The races brought revenue to the town of Avalon, but as years passed by enthusiasm of the townspeople dwindled. Ultimately a few motorcycle hooligans ruined the fun for all after they mugged a man late one evening after a race. The man who was mugged turned out to be Mel Porter, the mayor of Avalon. The races were called off for good.
Fast forwarding to 2010 – Red Bull sponsored a Catalina Island GP comeback. Again, thousands flocked to the island to hear the sounds of classic bikes and the clatter of modern two strokes revving on the starting grid. Participants ranged from young riders, pros and even some seniors who raced the Island GP the first time around. Just like the old days, there were classes for all sized machines and anyone with an AMA membership qualified. The event was a huge success and despite not holding it again in 2011, December 2012 looks like it’s a go.
Is Catalina the Isle of Man of the States? It certainly has the prestige in the eyes of many American race fans. It had a bike named after the course (just like Norton did with their Manx). Arguably, the Isle of Man had more races over a longer period of time, but each Island possess their own unique qualities that sets apart from any other race around the world. Whats unarguable is the allure of the individual Islands have on the people who have braved the course.
BY: TSCM Eastcoast Writer MATT SMITH of smokeandthrottle.com
Want to be on The Self-Centered Man or have comments? Please tell us what do you think, any kind of feedback is highly appreciated.