After a 52-year hiatus, motorcycle racing returns to Catalina Island, California
Thad Wolff (center) waits for the start of his race.
Editor’s Note: From 1951 to 1958, Catalina Island, a small, 76-square-mile spot of land 22 miles off the coast of Los Angeles, hosted some of the most legendary motorcycle racing ever held in the U.S. in an event called the Catalina Grand Prix. California native Thad Wolff grew up riding and racing dirt bikes in the L.A. area. He went on to a successful career in AMA road racing, including racing in the now-legendary ABC Carlsbad Superbiker events, the start of today’s on- and offroad Supermoto, in the early 1980s. Good as he is riding a bike, Thad also happens to be pretty good with a wrench. Yet while he had a number of builds under his belt, prior to 2010, Thad had never really gotten into Brit bikes, something he kept telling himself he ought to do. As fate would have it, when the return of the Catalina Grand Prix was announced, Thad was putting the finishing touches on his first-ever Brit-bike build, a 1958 BSA Super Rocket modified for scrambles duty. As someone who’d grown up hearing tales about the original Catalina Grand Prix, Thad knew he couldn’t miss what might be a once in a lifetime event, and with his BSA freshly prepped, he also knew he had just the bike for it. What follows is Thad’s account of the 2010 Catalina Island Grand Prix.
When I found a 1958 BSA Super Rocket earlier last year, I thought it would make a cool street bike that would look the part with chrome upswept straight pipes, big knobbies and of course that neat Catalina Scrambler logo on the tank! The bike was almost finished when it was announced that racing was coming back to The Island. Was this meant to be, or what?
As soon as I found out about the plan for a 2010 Catalina Grand Prix, I went straight to the garage, stripped the lights off, put on longer travel Honda forks with Race Tech innards, Works Performance shocks, a 21-inch wheel, Dunlop knobbies, a 58-tooth sprocket and number plates. Now I had a Premier Open Twins Catalina racer! Oh yeah, and one thing all you Brit purists will cringe at: I used the rear brake crossover shaft to bring the shifter over to the left side of the bike. I’ve spent my whole life shifting on that side, and this old dog doesn’t want to learn that new trick.
As the race date drew closer, rumors were flying and no one knew if it the race was really going to happen. Everyone who’d pre-entered had their fingers crossed, and everyone else started thinking they’d missed the boat not entering on time, worried they’d be standing on the side watching everyone else race their way back into history. But the race was on.
Three days before the race, I showed up at the dock in Long Beach to load the bike into a container to ship it to the island. The helpers took one look at my Vintage BSA with its beautiful chrome tank and asked if I could load my own bike. I did, and I was a bit worried walking away from my racer; it looked like a sardine in a can with all the other bikes.
That left three days to wait before reuniting with my bike at the impound lot just outside the town of Avalon. The last afternoon at home, my wife, Jody, and I rode down to the beach and gazed across the water at the island. We’d seen it thousands of times, but this time was different.
The Catalina experience really started to ramp up when Jody and I boarded the Catalina Express alongside hundreds of other racers and spectators. I knew a lot of people on the boat and it was neat to meet new friends.
As the outline of the island came into view, Avalon’s famous casino magically appeared out of the fog, and within seconds everyone had their cameras and cell phones out taking the first of many pictures. After checking into the hotel, we walked up to the impound area. There were more than 800 bikes, all grouped in one spot, including my Beezer.
The next thing on my mind was the track. We hiked up to the starting line where there was a flurry of activity. Tractors were at work and volunteers were putting up ribbons and lining the track with hay bales as Red Bull and other sponsors hung banners and flags.
The morning of the race is finally here. The clock says 3:46 a.m. The alarm is set for 5:30 a.m., but my eyes are wide open. There is no possible way I’m getting back to sleep. It’s pitch black outside, and walking the streets, the only sound I hear is the squeak from my hand squeezer. As it starts to get light, I figure it would be a good idea to scope out the beginning of the race course. There is no practice, so I thought I would at least look at the first few corners. The rest of the track is going to be a surprise. I don’t know if my start line position will be the first row or last. I guess I’ll find out soon enough.
Suddenly it’s time to put helmets on. The sound of kickstarters and sweet sounding vintage engines gets louder and louder. The atmosphere is absolutely electric! Fifty-two years earlier, they were lining up in town and ripping down the streets before going out into the mountains, but with lawyers and lawsuits these days, all we get is a parade lap to the boardwalk and back to the start area. There are thousands of people waving and clapping, cameras and cell phones capturing the moment. Bikes are finally back on the island!
I end up on the fourth row. I’m at the tail end of the expert riders on the largest, oldest bikes, Premiere Open Twins Expert, with the newer vintage bikes like early 1980s Honda CRs and Yamaha YZs in front. Those guys have twice the suspension travel and half the weight of my BSA.
Row by row take off with a roost of fresh loam spittin’ off new knobbies. Everyone starts with their left hand on the rear fender, and when the green flag flies I get the killer hole shot!
There’s nobody close behind me, and my sights are set to catch the guys up ahead when I come into the motocross section. I don’t know the track and I want to hit this first jump at speed; I slow and don’t fly too far, but it’s a double jump and I know that when I hit the face of the next jump I’m gonna bottom out big time. Thank God for Works Performance and Race Tech, but my own race prep doesn’t look too good when my bars slip all the way down! I yank them back up and tell myself it’s going to be a long race.
We get up on the fire roads and the bike handles great. I’m catching and passing people, and on the second lap I start feeling real good on the fast, smooth stuff.
There’s one corner where no spectators are allowed. The turn is marked with arrows, skulls and crossbones, and there’s one guy standing there with a camera. I come in there too hot and all sideways, but I figure it’ll be OK after I hit the little berm on the outside that is supposed to keep people from going over the cliff. The only problem is that right where my back tire is going to hit, there’s a little open spot where water runs off. That’s right where the back of the bike goes off and I go down. The handlebars do, too, but I look back at the guy and wave, yelling “Help!”
Luckily, we get the bike up, and after finding neutral we start pushing. I hop on sidesaddle and the bike just barely starts. I’m running alongside the bike, bars still all the way down, levers pointing straight up, and I almost crash trying to hop back on. I’m back in the race, and it takes all my might to pull the bars back up without falling off the back of the bike. OK, it’s time to settle down and bring her on home. I do, and there’s the checkered flag … and it happens — First Place! I’m surprised to see on my timing sheets later that the last lap was my fastest, and in fact there were only nine guys in the whole race with a faster lap time than me. What a relief, and now it’s time for the post-race fun to start.
The rest of the races went off without a hitch. All the city folk loved us being there, and you can only imagine the town wants us back next year. Who knows if it will happen or not?
As Jody and I relax on the boat ride back to Long Beach, with the big old First Place Trophy in the seat next to us, we contemplate just how this weekend will go down in the history books. Time will tell, but it sure felt good to know we were part of a very significant event in motorcycle racing history. The Catalina Grand Prix is BACK!! MC
Read more about the Catalina Grand Prix:
• The Original Catalina Grand Prix