Catalina Diddy by Dave Ekins
Following is a story written by Dave Ekins about the historic Catalina Grand Prix.
Those Great Catalina Races
Sub title: They Really Did Do This
Can you imagine having our own Isle of Man? A replica of the most famous race in the world. 200 motorcycles racing ten laps on a ten mile race course that runs thru mountain and town? A race with so much prestige motorcycle manufacturers built special bikes for it.
A dream? No, they had this for eight years.
26 miles off the coast of California, in the town of Avalon, Catalina Island. The first weekend of May from 1951 thru 1958 contestant's bikes were put on a barge and towed across the channel in the wee hours when the ocean is flat. These races were staged Saturday and Sunday. This story is about the Catalina Grand National and its' relationship to the development of motorcycles as we know them now. This is when a cup of coffee was a nickel and a gallon of gas cost about the same as a pack of cigarettes, 25 cents.
During the `50s and `60s controls on motorcycles were not all the same. Harley-Davidsons had a foot operated clutch along with a shift lever on the side of the gas tank. For the 1952 race H-D introduced their new unit construction side valve 45 inch V-twin with a shift lever for the right foot, it was the K model. (Forerunner to the 883 Sportster.) The following year 14 of the H-D K models entered were of 55 inch displacement. Harley-Davidson put three K models into the top ten in both the '53 and '54 races. Then there was Ray Tanner who rode his hand shift 74 inch H-D to 6th in '51, 4th in '52, 7th in '53, 2nd in '54, and 7th in '56. Tanner had an advantage, he would get the bike sideways and drag his floorboards to slow the big V-twin down.
British made bikes (The majority of the entries.) had a shift lever under the right foot while German (Maicos and Zundapps) placed the lever under the left. Then to complicate matters more, some would pull the lever up for first gear and others would engage first just by pushing down. This is OK if you are used to the bike, ridden it in a race or two. There were a few guys who rode a European bike one day and a British opposite shifter the next. Glenn Clinton,(Winner of the 125 class in '51 and the 200 class in '54.) rode a Puch Saturday, then a BSA on Sunday. To do this you would have to re-train yourself Saturday night, not easy.
Catalina was a sporting event, no prize money. 300 plus riders (many rode both days) were selected by committee. Ninety percent of the guys owned and maintained their own race bikes, only a handful were 100% sponsored. The 60 mile Saturday race started at 1:30 in groups separated by displacement class. That first Saturday race had only two classes, 125 and 250 allowing the popular 200cc 2-strokes to compete in the 250 class. That first year Saturday's race started 5 abreast at 30 second intervals. In '52 they added a 200cc class and mass started each of the three classes at 2 minute intervals, 140 bikes were allowed for this contest. The race course stayed in and near town with about 50% of it on pavement, a dirt road then the famous Hour Trail, (because it took an hour to walk.) and back into town to complete a 6 mile lap.
Sunday's 100 miler also went ten laps, up the mountain, across the top of the island then down to pick up the Hour Trail. Bikes started five abreast every 30 seconds, and by the time the last wave was off the first group was thundering though town. After the first man into the first turn there was always someone to pass. Sunday's start was 12:20 and the whole race lasted more than 4 hours. 350cc bikes were mixed in with the others although they had a separate class. John McLaughlin took a 350cc Velocette to the overall win in 1953 the day after winning the small bore race on a similar 250 Velo. This double feat was not to be repeated.
In 1951 the only bikes with swing arm rear suspension were Matchless/AJS and
Royal Enfield. Triumphs had springs in the rear wheel hub, BSA and Ariel featured plunger type rear units as did BMW and Zundapp. Most every design had settled on Telescopic front forks. On average the front forks offered about 6 inches of travel with 2 inches on the rear. The seat was so close to the ground a five foot eight inch rider could plant both feet. On average, suspension increased to 7 and 4 by 1958.
In '51 and '52 Sunday's uphill start turned into dirt after turn 4. Then for 1953 the town found enough money (Generated by the first two races no doubt.) to pave the uphill section to Avalon's airport in the sky. Added pavement made the 100 mile race about 17 minutes quicker. You could drive a pickup truck the whole ten miles (Nearly 6 of it being dirt.) so suspension was not too critical although necessary. Walt Fulton won the first race with a sprung hub 650cc Triumph. Nick Nicholson won the next year with a plunger 500cc BSA single. From then on it was swing arm equipped bikes that saw the winners circle. Still, in 1954 Ray Tanner forced his 1760cc rigid Harley-Davidson within 4 seconds of Jim Johnson's winning time. Jim was riding a 500cc Velocette single, the AMA race sanction also changed from a Grand National to a Grand Prix. Bud Ekins won the '55 race by half a lap on a 500cc Triumph twin. Bud was in the lead at the 50 mile distance five of the seven times he raced. (Bud finished three times) Feets Minert took a 500cc BSA Gold Star single to the checkers the next year. Then Bob Sangren won in '57 and `58 on a 650cc Triumph TR6. He was the only 2-time Sunday winner. Most could make a lap in less than 20 minutes, a few aces in less than 19. Yet in the results half a dozen riders would finish within one minute after 100 miles. In '53 eleven minutes separated 1st thru 25th, and remember, nearly half the guys DNFd.
From '52 thru `58 the race held on Saturday was limited to 250s and smaller displacements. There were exceptions like Walt Fulton's 22 cu. in. side valve Mustang, but for the most part they had 250s, 200s, and 125s. The AMA slipped in a two-stroke165cc class in '54 to allow H-Ds and 150cc OHV Triumphs a chance. 200s with their better horsepower to weight ratio would put in the fastest overall time. (9 to 15 hp, under 200 lbs.). And generally small 4-strokes would out perform similar size 2-strokes. Indeed, '52, '53, and '54 they handicapped the displacement of 4-strokes in order to allow larger 2-strokes an even break. (sound familiar?). 100cc OHV raced against 125cc 2-strokes, and the 98cc NSU won in '53 and '54. By 1955 2-strokes got faster so the rules read inch per inch. Schnurle porting and expansion chambers begin to appear on 2-strokes. In '55 NSU introduced a 125 OHC Super Fox that won two of the next three years. Triumph's 200cc Tiger Cub OHV single dominated in '55-'56-'57-'58. 250 four strokes that won in the beginning years were blown away by a Puch and a few Maicos in the final years. The growing importance of the Catalina Races drew Yamaha Motor Corporation to enter six very special 250cc 2-stroke twins for the 1958 race. They appeared on the starting line in '58 with five well known local riders and the Japanese Champion Fumio Ito. At that time Japanese motorcycles were few and far between in the States, a novelty.
These Yamahas were painted flat green, had little chrome. Sounded like a swarm of hornets, and faster then anything else that day. By the end of the race Ito crossed the finish line 6th behind Maicos, Zundapps, and a lone, obsolete NSU. The other five special Yamahas had expired.
Sunday's 100 miler was a battle between singles and twins, all 4-strokes because that's where the technology was. Half the races were won by singles, the other half Triumph twins. The father of the Catalina Grand Prix, Frank Cooper, was also the AJS/Matchless importer. Only BSA, Triumph, and Velocette found the winner's circle, Frank was never rewarded with a victory even though he put more work into this event than anyone. Harley-Davidson's great effort also went un-rewarded.
So, what happened? There are several reasons as to why they terminated this race. One of the reasons is that money commitment to cover the costs of the programs didn't show up. After all, can't have a race without a program. Another was actor Lee Marvin trying to incite a mutiny from the fantail of the homebound steamer. Marvin never needed a microphone even when shouting against the wind and it was all in jest anyway. But the Captain took Lee seriously enough to strap on a sidearm and stand on the bridge. The ship was escorted to the dock by the Harbor Police. Marvin had some explaining to do. Probably the most damaging was when Waikiki Bar owner Mel Porter closed up Saturday night and was mugged on his way home by several scum bags. Mel didn't take kindly to this treatment and the Chamber of Commerce decided no more races. They chose the wrong person, Mel was the Mayor of Avalon.
By 1958 coffee was a dime. And motorcycles broke the $1000.00 barrier. Fifty years later they handicap 2-strokes. Coffee is a dollar, gasoline a $1.50, and who can afford to smoke?