Motorcycle Classics

Taking It to the Streets

Forget about gravel runoff sections on a racetrack. And don’t even talk about safety barriers like Airfences and other high-tech devices that line racetracks today in the name of rider safety. When motorcycle road racers took to the streets for a sanctioned AMA meet as part of the Formula 1 Grand Prix car race through the city streets of Long Beach, California, in April 1977, only a few feet separated the field from contact with the cement K-Rail barriers marking the 2.02-mile course.

The Long Beach race was a true road race, a rarity in the U.S. even then. The 38-lap, 77-mile race spawned from an effort to help fill the Formula 1 race program when Long Beach Grand Prix organizers invited the AMA to host an invitational motorcycle race as a support feature prior to the F1 race itself. The major draw was Team Suzuki’s Barry Sheene and his factory RG500. Among the American invitees were former AMA Grand National Champions Gary Nixon, Gene Romero and Gary Scott, accompanied by a bevy of aspiring and established stars such as Mike Baldwin, David Emde, Ron Pierce, Wes Cooley, Dale Singleton and eventual race winner and Kenny Roberts protégé Skip Aksland. All of the Americans rode 2-stroke 4-cylinder Yamaha TZ750s.

But the real draw was the race course itself. In the April 1977 issue of Cycle magazine, Cook Neilson wrote that the turns were “laced with bumps, spotted with oil and edged with linked 4-ton concrete crash wall sections.” After acknowledging the course’s two fast stretches — the main straight along what was normally Ocean Boulevard and the fast sweeper otherwise known as Shoreline Drive — Neilson pointed out that “the rest of the course had the bikes rooting around in first and second [gears], popping wheelies in all directions and dodging curbs, manhole covers, stutter bumps and
parking lot paint stripes.”

This was actually the second time that motorcycles were part of Long Beach’s F1 program. The year before, LBGP organizers presented an exhibition race consisting of half a dozen Kawasaki-Team Hansen race bikes: It was really more of a geek show-turned-parade than an actual race.

The 1977 event was a bona fide race, with Sheene and his square-four Suzuki grabbing pole position, posting a time of 1:40.7. However, poor tire selection for the race itself relegated him to third place behind Aksland and Romero, who set the fastest lap at 1:38.9. Subsequent years featured more motorcycle racing, and by 1981 sidecars filled the docket. Eventually, though, the bikes and side hacks proved to be more bother than worth. Rider safety became a priority, and the streets were closed to all but four-wheelers for future LBGP events.

The 1977 race proved to be a springboard to future road race success for Aksland, who proclaimed after the race, “I might make a road racer [of myself] after all.” — Dain Gingerelli

  • Published on Feb 5, 2016
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