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Wheels on Reels

Classic motorcycle videos selected by the editors of Motorcycle Classics


The Original Catalina Grand Prix

by Richard Backus


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new catalina 1956 
Riders in the 250cc and under class roar off at the start of the
1956 Catalina Grand Prix
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From 1951 to 1958, legendary riders like Bud Ekins, Ed Kretz Jr. and Jack Thurman competed in the Catalina Grand Prix, an on/offroad event that saw riders racing through the streets of the port city of Avalon and out onto fire roads and horse trails in the surrounding hills. In its day, it was among the most anticipated races of the year.

Inspired by the U.K.’s historic Isle of Man TT, the two-day Catalina Grand Prix included a 60-mile race for bikes up to 250cc and a 100-mile race for larger machines. Races were 10 laps, with the 60-miler running a six-mile course and the 100-miler a 10-mile course.

In 1957, 150 riders lined up for the 60-mile race, while another 199 watched the flag drop to start the 100-mile race. Fans loved the event, and in its last year, 1958, it’s estimated some 7,000 people took the Catalina Ferry from Los Angeles to Catalina Island to take in the racing action. Here's a promotional video made by Yamaha to promote its involvement in the 1958 Catalina Grand Prix:


British bikes were very popular in the Catalina races, thanks no doubt to their light weight and high performance, with Triumph and BSA particularly well represented; 66 of the 199 starters in 1957’s 100-mile race were on Triumphs and 48 on BSAs.

The race’s prominence prompted BSA, whose first big win at the island came in 1952, to introduce the Gold Star-based Catalina Scrambler in 1956. Fittingly, BSA won the 1956 event — after the Catalina Scrambler had been added to its lineup. BSAs nabbed four of the top 10 Open Class slots in the final 1958 race — including first.

2010 Catalina Grand Prix
When My Cuz Vinnie Promotions and original race sponsor AMA District 37 announced they had made a deal with the Avalon city council to bring racing back to the island for a 2010 Catalina Grand Prix, interest was immediate and intense; 786 riders registered for 12 races on the six-mile island course, far more riders than the original event ever drew. Including racers, it’s estimated some 20,000 people descended on the island last December 4-5 for the revived running.

The big question is, was this just a one-time event or a template for the future? Nobody’s saying just yet, but like everyone else, we’re crossing our fingers — and hoping for another fabulous weekend of racing on Catalina Island in 2011.

Read more about the Catalina Grand Prix: 
2010 Catalina Grand Prix