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On Any Sunday: More than a Film — A Game Changer for Motorcycling

More than just a film, On Any Sunday was a game changer for motorcycling.

moto-racing
by Dain Gingerelli

Fifty years ago this July, motorcycling experienced a rebirth in America, if not the world. That mid-summer month is when, in 1971, Bruce Brown’s movie On Any Sunday premiered on the big screen, in the process changing the sport — and industry — of motorcycling forever.

After years of suffering Hollywood’s steady stream of low-budget, B-grade biker flicks that depicted motorcycles and motorcyclists in a dark and dreary light, Brown’s documentary lit up the silver screen in a refreshing, even magical, way. Gone were those brawny brawling bikers, replaced by real people with a genuine affection for motorcycling. The movie’s ensemble of characters included the entire Class C brigade of professional Expert-class warriors who chased the Number One plate every year in pursuit of the AMA’s coveted Grand National Championship; weekend warriors who composed California’s grass-roots sport of desert Hare & Hound competition that typically rewarded those amateur racers with broken bones and bikes, with perhaps a small trophy to the winner; budding motocross legends who, only a few years later, would command six-digit salaries; and many more unknown heroes.

OAS also introduced the world to the quiet, unassuming and ever versatile Malcolm Smith who, with his mischievous ear-to-ear grin, soon became the movie’s unofficial poster child. Finally, and almost with passing, the cast included a nondescript amateur racer named Harvey Mushman, better known as actor Steve McQueen who, with the princely sum of $313,000, served as the film’s initial underwriter when production began in 1969.

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Image by Dain Gingerelli

Bruce Brown himself makes adjustments to the helmet camera that future 1972 Grand National Champion Mark Brelsford wore for on-track filming. MX action stirred the souls of future champions, too.

We could end this exposé right here and chances are that you could finish the ride down Memory Lane in your own mind, recalling your favorite scenes of the movie, perhaps stacking them with the nostalgia of your first-ever motorcycle ride, a life-altering experience that hooked you forever into this wild, wacky and wonderful sport of motorized two-wheeling. This magazine’s mantra, “Ride ‘Em, Don’t Hide ‘Em,” might even mystically trace its origins to July 1971. 

But let’s get back to the show, and even before the theater lights were turned off and the film projector turned on for the long-awaited premier, Brown, McQueen and more than a few other members of the film crew weren’t so sure how the movie would be accepted by the general public. The acid test, Brown & Co. figured, would be at the official screening in New York City, home to many of the industry’s film critics. Cycle magazine’s Frank Conner was among the media guests at that screening, and in the October 1971 issue he described the film critics as people who “don’t go to the movies for relaxation; it’s their job, and if anybody in that crowd was looking forward to seeing this particular film, he certainly managed to hide his enthusiasm.” Hmmm, OAS was already playing to a tough crowd.

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But, as Conner wrote in his report, moments after the lights turned off and the projector reels began their slow roll, “the audience was locked into the action, laughing or gasping or sitting entranced as they gained their first real insights into motorcycle racing.” Conner added that, at the movie’s conclusion, the critics left the theater “in bunches, talking excitedly.” Translation: On Any Sunday was going to be a box office hit with motorcyclists and non-motorcyclists alike. (Pause now as you duly reflect again on that first motorcycle ride of yours. Nice memory, isn’t it? Yeah, mine was too, even though my clumsy clutch hand stalled the engine more than a few times during that glorious and wonderful day.)

OAS, Take Two and … Action!

Several factors played a role in the movie’s success, chief among them that Bruce Brown himself was a motorcycle enthusiast, although even by his own admission he didn’t consider himself to be an extraordinary, nor gifted, rider. Like his affection (and addiction) to surfing, though, Brown had a knack for understanding a sport’s underlying attraction for the people who enjoyed participating in it. That was certainly apparent in his first big-screen hit, Endless Summer, a movie about surfing that chronicled several well-known surfers in their search for “the perfect wave.” When Brown decided to test the waters for a documentary about motorcycling, he took that same enthusiasm and understanding to the project.

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Image by Dain Gingerelli

The movie’s three main stars: Mert Lawwill, Malcom Smith and Harvey Mushman, aka Steve McQueen.

Brown especially had high admiration for the Class C flat track racers featured in the film. Chief among them were the key players who figured most in the featured 1970 racing season, which included defending AMA Champion Mert Lawwill (1969 champ), BSA team riders Dick Mann and Jim Rice, and challenger and eventual winner, the late Gene Romero (1970 champ).

“I don’t think the good [Class C] riders themselves really appreciate what they are doing,” Brown related in the Cycle interview about how and why he decided to make the film in the first place. “But I kept thinking, ‘You go through the whole world looking for guys who can do that [race flat track] well enough to win, and there they are — [only] 15 of them.'”

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Image by Dain Gingerelli

Looking more like the sun-bleached Southern California surfer that he was, Bruce Brown joined his film crew on the dusty racetracks across the country. Many miles of film later, Brown had his movie about motorcycling. In the process, he introduced the world to a great and wonderful human being — Malcolm Smith and his signature ear-to-ear grin.

Boom, and just like that Brown had the movie’s plot figured out. However, eventually he broadened its scope to include other aspects of motorcycling, including recreational and competition venues alike. As Brown added, “I just wanted people to know about the racers; I wanted to show them,” and with that he ably mixed in the human element with the race action. It was a beautiful blend of magic and poetry highlighted by unforgettable eye-popping action.
By the time Brown & Co. finished filming in late 1970 they had miles of unedited film to sort through. That included spectacular super slow motion action footage, some extraordinary crash sequences (Dave Aldana, please stand up and take a bow for our audience), some funny — even silly and hilarious — scenes that revealed the lighthearted, sometimes humorous, side of the sport (among them Cal Rayborn’s low-speed wobble in a land speed record streamliner that resulted in a ridiculous 6-mph spill on the Bonneville Salt Flats!), plus the bone-chilling drama that underscored Jim Rice’s ugly crash at the Sacramento Mile.

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Mr. Demille, I’m ready for my close up

Indeed, it was the up close and personal side to Brown’s filmmaking that separated On Any Sunday from all other motorcycle movies at the time. As film critic Roger Ebert pointedly said in his OAS review, “Despite the work that went into his [Brown’s] film, and despite the desperately difficult experiences that professional motorcycle racers endure, he somehow makes the whole thing seem informal, casual, relaxed.” Brown’s efforts also netted a 1972 Oscar nomination for Best Documentary category, eventually won by the film The Hellstrom Chronicle.

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Image by Dain Gingerelli

H-D factory team rider Mert Lawwill struggled through the season — and movie — with his new XR750 (see Parting Shots, May/June 2020). In the end, the patch-work engine wasn’t enough to retain No.1. We’ll close with the movie’s memorable scene showcasing the playful antics of Lawwill, Smith and McQueen on the Pacific Ocean sand dunes.

No doubt, too, On Any Sunday came at a time when Americans were searching for fun and diversions from the stresses that the 1960s had presented. Civil Rights, peace protests and big-city riots, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and three political assassinations had drained our nation of the harmony and good times that defined the happy days of the previous decade, the 1950s. It helped, too, that the Baby Boom Generation was entering a new phase in their lives; it was when that generation’s vanguard of citizens were entering college, starting their careers and families, and generally (whether they liked it or not) ebbing their way into the “Establishment.” Many of us also discovered motorcycling as the 1960s began to wind down.

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After the film’s remarkable success, Bruce Brown was able to retire from the hectic grind of producing films, allowing him to enjoy life at a more relaxed pace. So when the OAS film was put into the can a final time he closed shop before retreating for some much-needed R&R. At the conclusion of Conner’s interview, Brown confided, “I think I could just go out and ride every day for the next ten years, and enjoy each moment of it.”

The End? Hardly, and Brown’s closing statement, above all else, tells us why On Any Sunday will be remembered as the movie that changed motorcycling forever. MC

In memory of Bruce Brown, Steve McQueen, Gene Romero, Cal Rayborn and countless others who helped make our sport what it is today. — Dain Gingerelli

Published on Feb 3, 2021

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