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1954 catalina

By Dave Ekins


    In 1953 NSU motorcycles had won the International Six Days Trial (Enduro) Silver Vase for West Germany. The ISDT is an off-road reliability contest which has special tests thrown in to make a contest.  At that time this factory situated on the Necker River held World land speed records from 50cc through 500cc.  They also had won the 125 and 250cc world road racing titles two years in a row, `53&'54.  NSU looked to Catalina as an avenue to increase their market share in the U. S.  In `53 I had won the 125 class riding a 98cc Renn Sport Fox engine stuffed into a standard Fox chassis. There were two NSU Renn Sport Foxes in the U.S., only 25 were ever made.   Norm Illsley won the 125 class in '54 on an original Renn Sport Fox.   I had used Norm's Renn Sport engine in a standard chassis the previous year.
    Late April of 1954 NSU shipped a one of a kind 250 Renn Sport Max with mechanic Fritz Kocheise, plus a spare engine.  West coast NSU distributor Earl Flanders had Fritz install the spare engine into a standard Max frame that had been modified for the Saturday race at Catalina.  Besides the Saturday event I was to race the 250cc Renn  Sport Max in the 350 class of Sunday's 100 miler.
     There were a half dozen other 250cc NSUs entered, replicas of the ISDT winning 24 hp sport models.  The Renn engines I had to control produced 30 hp at 9500 rpm. (Most 250s at that time made 18hp at about 7200 rpm.)  Prior to loading the bikes for the races I got a chance to ride the Renn Sport Max on a dirt road near the Flanders operation.  It took about a minute for the oil drain plug to fall out and immediately this horrible clanking noise, and that was that.  Fritz rebuilt the engine, and with no time to test, the bike was on its way. Sailing time was at midnight, 30 miles down the road in San Pedro.
     Saturday's 250cc race was a unique experience. Here I was sitting on a motorcycle with an engine/gearbox configuration that had not even been fired up, or ridden. It was the only bike there with a tachometer and reverse cone megaphone.  Fritz's instructions were; “It makes power after 5500 rpm, peak power at 9500 rpm and disintegrates at 11,000, it is best to shift at 9500”.   In other words miss a shift and the engine is history.
    I was about to race a bike with no bottom power and a close ratio four speed gearbox; which means slipping the clutch in 1st while the other guys are hooked up in 2nd.  This Renn Max engine made just enough torque to overcome its own internal friction until it reached 5500 rpm at which time all power comes on in a micro-second. Basically, I could not ride it on the tight multi switch-back race course of this island.  It was a rocket in a straight line and a turkey to turn.  I would blow by the leaders, then they would casually motor past me while I was wrestling it back onto the race course.  I finished 3rd; the other NSUs were behind me. On lap 9 Vern Hancock hearing the terrible racket of my bike pulled his 1939 Rudge over thinking I was about to lap him, Vern finished 4th.              
      Sunday's 100 miler was a whole different story.  We lined up five abreast and each wave started every thirty seconds.  I burned the clutch to get rolling, fouled a spark plug.  Stopped at turn one, changed the plug then hurried up the hill cornering by riding into the outside rain gutter so the rear wheel could break loose instead of doing a wheelie.  The Max had enough power to spin its 3.50 by 19 tire on any surface, ounce you found it.  Problem was getting enough forward speed to fully disengage the clutch so the thing would break loose.  Basically the throttle was a switch, on or off.
      It doesn't take long for dirt roads to get full of stutter bumps.  Not a problem for most bikes but the NSU road racing chassis and suspension were too soft.  By the second lap I had blisters on both hands.  End of lap five is the gas stop at the Golf Course.  
I took my gloves off and asked Fritz what he could do about the blisters, most were broken open.  Kochiser poured engine oil into my gloves and I left for another 50 miles.  The castor engine oil helped.  During this race you really don't know where you are at, who's ahead, who's behind.   The only way to judge yourself is by how many guys pass you. Ray Tanner and his 74 inch Harley-Davidson blew by me in the late laps, he had ten minutes on me at the finish and missed winning by just 4 seconds.   In those days about 40 percent of the starters never see the finish.   We later figured the spark plug episode set us back eight to ten places.  I finished seventeenth overall, good enough for first 350, so we did get a class win.  Blister goop, castor oil and blood were soaked into what had been a new pair of gloves.  I never rode that motorcycle again. They sent it back to Neckersolm, Germany.  I did race NSUs another four years, but not with factory backing.