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1971 Champion Spark Plug 250

It was to be the motorcycle race to top all motorcycle races in America.

The start of Heat 1, with BSA rider John Cooper, No. 28, at the left of the photo, and Yvon duHamel, No. 11, farther left (top). Yvon duHamel leads the pack early in Heat 1 of the Champion Spark Plug 250(bottom).

The 1971 Champion Spark Plug Classic 250 was, according to sources at the time, the longest road race in AMA history, boasting the largest prize purse ever. It also was the 1971 season finale where the championship would be decided between BSA/Triumph teammates Dick “Bugs” Mann (BSA) and Gene Romero (Triumph), who also happened to be the defending champ.

Another thing: The Champion Spark Plug Classic, in terms of spectator attendance, was a bust. A big bust, boasting way more vacant bleacher seats than spectators. That was a pity, because the 1971 Champion Spark Plug Classic gave race fans one of the closest finishes of all time. Here’s how it played out.

The 250-mile race, held at the new super speedway in Ontario, California, was run as a pair of 125-mile heats. Aggregate scoring determined the overall winner, and by chance the second heat race went down to the wire, literally, featuring a photo finish between England’s BSA factory-sponsored rider John Cooper and Australian Kel Carruthers riding a Don Vesco-sponsored Yamaha TR3. Adding to the drama, the first of those two riders to the finish line would tally the highest score for the overall win. Winner takes all, simple as that.

But wait, there was more: The drama continued after the checkered flag when Bob Bailey, an irrelevant rider in terms of the AMA Grand National standings, used an obscure claiming rule to purchase Cooper’s priceless Doug Hele-built BSA triple for a mere $2,500. More about Bailey’s coup later, but first, let’s see how Cooper and Carruthers figured into the wild finish, and how Mann became man of the year to earn his second AMA Grand National Championship.

Bigger than big

It was no secret that the AMA wanted the Champion Spark Plug Classic 250 to do for west coast fans what the Daytona 200 meant for the people on the other side of the continent. Moreover, the two races would, hopefully, forever serve as bookends to the series; Daytona would open the AMA season in March and Ontario would close it out in October.

No doubt, Ontario Motor Speedway’s enormous size and expanse was enough to put some fans in slack-jaw awe. The speedway essentially consisted of three race tracks in one: Foremost was the 2.5-mile four-corner oval similar to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of Memorial Day’s fabled Indy 500; Ontario hosted what became known as the California 500 each Labor Day. The oval race course’s front straight also served as a quarter-mile strip for NHRA drag racing, and as the finish line for the 3.19-mile road course that snaked through the vast infield. The road course included 20 turns that piqued road race fans’ interest during the first Ontario National, held Oct. 17, 1971. The infield also was as flat as the Kansas horizon.

For its time, Ontario’s spectator concourse seemed massive. The infield was flat and featureless, offering riders few reference points for brake and apex markers. Leaderboard at left shows Nixon (10) leading duHamel (11), Cooper (28) and Carruthers (73).

Perhaps Cycle magazine’s glib editor Cook Neilson stated it best in his race report for the February 1972 issue: “Ontario Motor Speedway erupts from the flatness of the desert between Pomona and Riverside, an overwhelming, tilted temple of leaded glass and reinforced concrete and long, rumbly, echo-filled corridors and high-roller corporate suits behind dark blue doors. The enormity of the track is beyond imagining.”

Years later Randy Hall, who served as Racing Development Manager for Kawasaki in 1971, described OMS in his book Lean, Mean and Lime Green! as a “huge speedway complex with seats for 250,000 spectators and parking lots for 100,000 cars [that] covered an area of hundreds of acres.

Cycle World’s Bob Atkinson was more succinct when he wrote in the January 1972 issue: “Ontario’s $35 million racing complex is immense; only part of the track is used for bikes.”

Let’s race!

The buildup to Sunday’s National race mirrored Daytona’s traditional Speed Week schedule of that era; practice opened on Wednesday, and subsequent racing on Thursday included heat races for Sunday’s 250 miler, with Friday hosting the mains for the Novice (250cc, won by Howard Lynngard) and Junior (750cc, won by Mike Lane) classes. Saturday’s docket featured the Junior/Expert Lightweight race for 250cc bikes, with Carruthers taking the checkered flag ahead of Ginger Malloy who made a breathtaking late-race charge to catch the former 250cc world champion. Next up: Sunday’s nail-biter National.

A study of two riding styles: Dick Mann (4) dabs a toe to get a feel for lean angle; John Cooper (28) tucks tightly, relying on field of vision to maintain his course through turns.

The Big Picture, of course, focused on the championship decider between Mann and Romero. Everybody knew that Romero’s chances of retaining the Number One plate were rather slim; he had to win the race outright, while Mann could place no better than 16th position for that to happen. Based on Thursday’s qualifying heat race finishes, Romero had his work cut out for him. Bugs finished second to Cal Rayborn (Harley-Davidson) in the first heat while Romero posted a come-from-behind fourth in the second heat behind winner Yvon duHamel (Kawasaki 500 triple), Gary Nixon (Triumph 750 triple) and Carruthers aboard his potent Yamaha 350 twin.

Despite placing in the top three in the second qualifying heat, Carruthers expressed concern about the track’s penultimate right-hander, Turn 19. The low-speed, 90-degree corner taxed the little Yamaha’s torque that, coupled with the bike’s excessively tall final gearing, meant that Carruthers had to be spot-on at the apex for a quick exit towards Turn 20 before heading onto Ontario’s painfully long main straight — and the finish line. If, for any reason, Carruthers missed his mark at Turn 19, he lost precious momentum towards the finish line.

Heat One

Cooper (28) follows close behind Nixon (10) during Heat 1. Both bikes featured low-boy frames and other special equipment, making them the fastest of the Brit bikes. 

DuHamel and Nixon took off like rockets, leaving Rayborn, Carruthers and Cooper to argue over third place until Rayborn’s Harley developed piston trouble. Meanwhile Romero’s bad start put him back in the pack, requiring the defending champ to ride as if he stole the Triumph triple that he rode. He worked his way up to fourth at which point he crashed his bike as if he stole it, effectively presenting Mann with the championship in the process.

Suddenly all eyes turned to duHamel and Nixon’s scrap for first place that ultimately favored Nixon when duHamel’s thirsty 2-stroke Kawasaki required a pit stop; Nixon’s 4-stroker Triumph was less demanding of fuel, and he motored on to win the first 125-mile heat, followed by duHamel, Cooper, Carruthers, Ron Grant (Suzuki 500), Mann, Art Baumann (Suzuki), Cliff Carr (Kawasaki), Mark Brelsford (H-D) and Dave Smith (Yamaha) to round out the top 10.

Half-time at the race; Kel Carruthers tends to his Yamaha for Heat 2. 

Heat Two

A 45-minute recess ensued, allowing riders to refresh their bikes with fuel, new tires and whatever else was needed. The second and final heat opened with Nixon and duHamel again arguing about who should lead, and then came, as Neilson wrote in his race report for Cycle, “the dust storm on Turn Nine.” 

Dick Mann awaits pit crew to change tires.

The dust storm was man and machine made, consisting of a small cadre of crashing bikes and riders. As Neilson wrote, “Nobody knows how it happened — the oil reportedly came from some Honda that had stuck a connecting rod through the crankcases.” Down went Nixon, while Cooper managed to motor cautiously around him. Then duHamel slid to a stop, followed by Grant who managed to slow wayyyy down before his Suzuki gently tipped over in the dirt, allowing him to remount and finish the race. Mann tumbled to a stop, too, as did Dave Aldana (BSA) and Carr, “and finally,” wrote Neilson, “our [Cycle magazine’s Technical Editor] own Jess Thomas.” By that time the corner marshals were feverishly waving their yellow flags to warn oncoming riders.

A multi-bike crash during the Expert/Junior combined 250cc race left Cal Rayborn (right) and future world champion Kenny Roberts (80) standing.

Bugs could have parked his BSA right then and there to perform his championship victory dance while singing “that’s all folks,” but he remounted to finish the heat, and race, anyway. Champions do that, you know.

Mechanics tend to Roger Reiman’s Yoshimura Engineering-backed Honda 750 Four. 

Another champion soldiered on, too. Despite no chance of retaining The Plate, Romero came storming back in the second heat to eventually catch, pass and leave the Cooper-Carruthers dice. This was Romero’s final race as Number One, and he went out with dignity and style, even though his Triumph’s throttle cable broke with a few laps remaining, officially ending his day — and season. Goodbye, Number One, and job well done.

Romero’s exit left Cooper and Carruthers to decide who was going to bring home the most bacon from that $100,000 purse. It was a vicious battle, too, but with one lap to go Carruthers managed to build about a one-second lead on the BSA rider. Then, as they approached that tricky Turn 19, a gaggle of slower riders impeded their progress. The rolling chicane especially hampered Carruthers’ little 2-stroke more than it did Cooper’s big-inch triple, and so heading onto the straight momentum favored the BSA as it rocketed forward. It was a drag race to the finish. As both bikes crossed the line nobody in the expansive racing facility knew for certain which rider had won. Eventually it was decided that Cooper crossed the line first. Even the photograph that I snapped just a few feet before they breached the finish line pretty much proved that the BSA’s front wheel was a mere inches ahead of the Yamaha’s front tire.

Years later Carruthers recalls: “I was a bit concerned when I rode up against a lot of them [slow riders in Turn 19]. But I figured that I was all right, to be honest.” Then, as he headed to the finish line, he heard the thunder of the BSA’s 4-stroke engine creeping up on him. “I thought to myself, he’s [Cooper] got more power [than me], and it’s the right kind of power.”

The photo finish! Cooper’s BSA edged Carruthers’ Yamaha by half a wheel. 

Let’s make a deal!

And what about Bailey and his $2,500 deposit to “buy” Cooper’s race-winning bike? Well, rules is rules, and the AMA rule stated that anybody entered in a National race could claim the winner’s bike, the purpose being to keep factories like the lads working for BSA and Triumph from relying on big bucks (or Sterling Pounds) to build big bikes with big horsepower. In the case of Cooper’s BSA (and Nixon’s Triumph), the factory relied on some very special components to produce two of the best Class C road racers for their time. Before BSA handed over Cooper’s bike team members suggested to Bailey — in so many words — that it might be difficult for him to get replacement parts for such a unique bike when (and not if) the time arose. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, and the chaps might have added “If you know what we mean, Mr. Bailey.”

Bailey realized he had, in a manner of speaking, been given an offer that he couldn’t refuse so he opted for a BSA race bike of perhaps lesser quality and stature. But, promised the good lads from Birmingham, there most certainly would be replacement parts available for that bike when Bailey’s need would arise in the future.

For these reasons and more the Classic was, indeed, a classic event. Yet it proved to be one of the AMA’s biggest flops. The Classic continued for five more years until the AMA silently scrubbed it from the championship calendar, allowing Champion Spark Plug Company to strategically relocate its sponsorship dollars 350 miles north to Laguna Seca Raceway. MC


Ontario Pit Chatter

While most of the race action takes place on the track itself, there’s drama, of sorts, to be found when talking with the riders and crew members in the pits and garages after the racing ceases for the day. Cycle magazine’s editor Cook Neilson understood that and took his pad and pencil into Ontario’s trenches to talk with some of the Champion Spark Plug 250 racers. Like any seasoned journalist, Neilson never met a quote he didn’t like, and here are a few that appeared in his race report for the February 1972 issue.

Suzuki factory-rider Ron Pierce chats with his mechanic Mitsuo Itoh during pause in the pits.

Cal Rayborn (Harley-Davidson) describing what it was like riding through Ontario’s endlessly flat infield section while following Dick Mann: “There’s a couple of places over here in the infield where he’s screwing up … But when he screws up, I screw up too: Im following him, you know, and I’d do exactly what he was doing. Boy, it sure is hard to see.”

Dave Aldana (BSA) shared similar thoughts: “I don’t see nothing. I just keep turning, keep turning, keep turning. I see another corner, I say whoa! Time to turn.”

A young Kenny Roberts rode a Yamaha 350 in the Junior support race. His bike sported a 350cc twin built by Yamaha engine guru Don Vesco. Unfortunately, KR’s engine seized while dicing with eventual winner Mike Lane. Initially it was thought that a low fuel level prompted a lean fuel-air situation that normally causes 2-strokes to seize. So why didn’t KR’s crew call him in for a gas stop? Vesco simply reasoned: “If he had stopped, he couldn’t possibly have won.”

Roberts reasoned even further about the seizure when asked the following day if his crew had inspected the stuck engine yet: “No. Lucky thing, too — if I took it apart, I’d do it with a torch.”

Mann (BSA) had a few colorful words about Kawasaki-mounted Yvon duHamel: “I don’t ever race with Yvon. Either he just plain leaves, or blows up, or runs off the track, so I never have raced with him.” Neilson then pressed Mann about why duHamel was able to ride so much faster than him. Replied Mann ever so stoically, “He’s a better road racer than I am.” End of quote by the man (Mann!) who had just won his second AMA Grand National Championship at the Big O.

Perhaps the best exchange was between the race announcer holding the microphone in victory lane after the Junior race. Interviewing race winner Mike Lane, he asked, “Mike, what do you do for a living?” In deadpan seriousness, Lane replied, “Race bikes.”

Published on Aug 7, 2020

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