Saturday, 1 January 2011
... another door opens - Thad Wolff
Few people make motorcycle history. Fewer still do it twice in one year. To do so twice in two different events on two bikes that couldn't be as different from each other on two completely different circuits, one off-road one on... well that's got to be very special - right?
So - let me introduce Thad Wolff.
Since most of the people reading my blogs are BSA enthusiasts, if Thad hasn't previously come to your attention then you should know that he's a pro- bike racer living in California who has ridden both superbikes and vintage bikes.
His first historic achievement was in October 2010 when he became the first person ever race an electric motorcycle against petrol powered bikes in a governing body sanctioned race. This happened at Barber in Birmingham, Alabama in October 2010 and you can read about it here.
If Thad has gone electric and won you can bet your boots you'll soon see other people trying and probably Thad again too but this is another blog topic altogether.
Now then, his second historic achievement was to win the premiere open twins expert class in the revived Catalina GP in December 2010. Tou can read about it here and here and here.
Catalina is not just a name used for a US market Gold Star and a flying boat. It's a small, rocky island lying about 22 miles West of Los Angeles. In 1919 chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr loved the island so much he bought it with a view to promoting it as a tourist destination. William Wrigley is long gone and doesn't own hte island anymore but left his mark there in the form of an imposing art-deco casino, and his mark on the pavements of the rest of the world ever since.
I went to Catalina in 1998, accompanying my wife to LA on a business trip. A boat trip to Catalina was available and knowing that there used to be a bike race there I wanted to take a look. Catalina is rocky, fairly bare and the original race run mostly on small roads and dirt tracks around the island - more like an enduro than a road race - but was very popular until it stopped. I don't know if it was a growing environmental awareness that stopped the race but when I visited I thought that a far more active environmental lobby now would make sure it never ran again... then in 2010 it did!
I don't know much about the people who managed to pull of this coup but hats off to them. For this blog entry I'm concentrating on Thad Wolff.
Although Thad is no stranger to vintage bikes, he's a recent convert to BSA and thanks my buddy Don Bradley for his help and advice about BSA. For his 'Catalina Scrambler' he took a fairly standard Super Rocket, upgraded the suspension and hubs front and rear, took advantage of the hollow swing-arm spindle to move the gearshif to the left where he's more comfortable, modified a two-into-one exhaust to exit on the left and that's mostly it. The engine itself was not tuned beyond standard specification or meticulously rebuilt and blueprinted before the race, Thad pretty much "run what he brung" - way to go, Thad!
Now over to Thad to tell the story himself.
"Now, my story starts when I was born 1 year later in L.A. I grew up riding, then racing dirt bikes about 1 hour northwest of the city where I grew up. I became an AMA roadracer, and even raced the ABC Carlsbad Superbiker event in the early 80’s, which was the start of the on and off road super motoracing of today. I guess I consider myself a versatile and well-rounded motorcyclist and racer. I’ve also built all kinds of bikes, but never anything English. So, always learning more and more about that Catalina race, I decided to build a BSA 650 Catalina Scrambler “Twin Special”. I found a 1958 Super Rocket early this year with the original black and yellow plate. I thought it would make a cool street bike that would look the part with the chrome upswept straight pipes, big knobbies, and of course, that neat Catalina Scrambler logo on the tank! The bike was almost finished, when lo and behold, race promoter, “Vinnie”, announced that he was bringing back the races to the island. Was this meant to be, or what? Ok, straight to the garage, strip the lights off, longer travel, Honda forks with Race Tech innards, Works Performance shocks, 21” wheel, Dunlop knobs, 58 tooth sprocket, and number plates. All of a sudden, I have an Open Premiere Twins Catalina racer! Oh yeah, and one thing all of 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.
The race date was getting closer and closer. All sorts of rumors were flying around about the race and nobody knew if it was really going to happen or not. Everyone that had the foresight to pre-enter on-time, had their fingers crossed, and everyone else started to think they missed the boat by not entering on time, and they were going to be left standing on the side of the track watching everyone else race their way back into history. Things started to look promising when I showed up at the dock in Long Beach to load the bike into the container to ship it to the island. The helper kids took one look at the vintage BSA, with its beautiful chrome gas tank, and asked me if I could load my own bike. I did, but I have to admit, that I was a bit worried about walking away from my racer when I looked back and it looked like a sardine in a can with all the other bikes. So, now I have 3 days to wait before getting reunited with my bike at the impound lot (pits) that was just outside the town of Avalon.
Part of my race training is riding my mountain bike. I can leave my house and after 45 minutes of riding over the mountain range, I’m at the beach, and am looking out across the water at that now mythical space in my mind, called Santa Catalina Island.
I’m telling you, I can’t think of anything else for those 3 days, so I kept busy riding my different bikes. I knew most of the course was going to be fire roads, so I rode near my house on trails that I figured were going to be similar. I’ve been riding these same fire roads for over 40 years, and when someone asked me if I was any good at fireroadin’, I replied, “I better be!” Come to think of it, my race training program is a lot of fun.
The last afternoon at home, my wife, Jody, and I rode down to the beach. We sat at one of our special spots on the sand to relax and gaze across the water at the island. We’ve seen it thousands of times, of course, but this time was different. The thought of racing my bike on that island, in what could be a very historic race, gave my stomach a small case of the butterflies.
The whole Catalina experience really started to ramp up when we boarded the Catalina Express alongside hundreds of other racers and spectators. Everyone was so excited. I knew a lot of people on the boat and it was neat to meet new friends and just check out everyone’s choice of apparel. I was wearing a vintage Castrol jacket, a Bud Ekins t-shirt, and a BSA, I Love You hat. I was representing the vintage thing and it was fun to tell people I was going to race a ’58 BSA. The outline of the island and then Avalon’s famous casino magically appeared out of the fog, and within seconds everyone had their cameras and cell phones out to start taking the first of many pictures. I would like to know how many pictures were taken on that weekend. It must have been millions.
After checking into the hotel, we walked up to the impound area. There was a sea of bikes (over 800), all grouped in one spot. What a sight, all the variety of classic racebikes. Alright, there’s the Beezer parked next to John Hateley’s Triumph and there’s a crowd around them taking pictures. We walked up and I was proud to be able to answer their questions with the statement, “Yep, that’s my bike!”
The next thing on my mind was the track. We hiked up the way to the starting line where there was a flurry of activity. Tractors at work, a water truck, volunteers putting up ribbons and hay bales lining the track, people walking and mountain biking the track, Red Bull and other sponsors hanging banners, flags, and all kinds of colorful race stuff. Wow! I can’t wait for tomorrow morning.
The morning of the race is finally here. The alarm clock says 3:46. It’s set for 5:30 and my eyes are wide open. There is no possible way I’m getting back to sleep. It’s still pitch black, and while walking the streets, the only sound I hear is the squeak that my hand squeezer is making. I know my forearms are going to be hating it about 3 hours from now. As it starts to get light, I figured it would be a good idea to scope out the beginning of the race course. There is no practice and I thought I would at least look at the 1st few corners. The rest of the track is going to be a surprise. Hey, check out this steep downhill with a tight right, left, then straight back up to a steep uphill. I don’t know if my start line position will be the first row or last, but if its last, there could be a huge bottle-neck, pile up there. Who knows, I guess I’ll find out soon enough.
It’s time to put helmets on, and with a good luck, I love you kiss from Jody, the sound of the kickstarters and sweet sounding vintage motors get louder and louder. Hateley’s Triumph lights up. I respond with the sound of the BSA’s straight pipes. You could see everyone saying, “Man, those British twins sound sooo good!” I think such a big part of the Vintage Bike races is the sound. I couldn’t help but think of being at places like Ascot. Aldana’s BSA, Romero’s Triumph, Nixon vs. Lawwill.
Man, the atmosphere was 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 got to do was a parade lap down to the boardwalk and back up to the start area. That turned out to be so much fun. There were thousands of people waving and clapping, hooting and hollering. Most with cameras and cell phones capturing this special moment. The bikes are finally back on the island! All of a sudden, a guy with a homemade cardboard sign saying “Go Lupo!” jumps out of the crowd right at me! It’s my old racin’ buddy, Richard Chambers. When we were in Italy, they nicknamed me “Lupo” (that’s “wolf” in Italian). I give him a big high five as I go by and howl like a wolf. I didn’t want that parade lap to end, but off to the start line we go. I end up on the 4th row. I’m at the tail end of the expert riders on the largest, oldest bikes. Premiere Open Twins Expert was my class with the newer vintage bikes in front, like early 80’s CR’S and YZ’s. Those guys have got almost twice the suspension travel and about half the weight. I sure am glad to have a bandana over my face because that CZ in front of me is running way too rich.
Row by row takes off with a roost of fresh loam spittin’ off new knobbies. I’m going to totally roost my buddy from town, Andy Reid. I can’t believe he lines up right behind me. Hey, he’s a funny guy. Maybe he wants the Old Beezer to pelt him. Everyone starts with their left hand on the rear fender and when the green flag flies I get the killer hole shot! Now can you just imagine the sound those straight pipes made going through the gears up that start straight? I’ve got 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, but I slow and don’t fly too far but it’s a double jump and I’m looking down knowing when I hit the face of the next jump on this 355 lb. bike, I’m going to bottom out big time. Thank God for Works Performance and Race Tech but my race prep didn’t look too good when my bars slipped all the way down! I yanked them back up and told myself it’s going to be a long race. I don’t know if any of you have raced with loose bars before, but it’s not good. Oh well, nothing I can do about it now. We get up on those fire roads and the bike handles great. It’s the same frame as the legendary Gold Star and it slides bitchin’. Now, I’m catching and passing people. I can tell what they’re thinking when they hear the sound of that bike coming right up on ‘em. Maybe it would be a good idea to kind of get out of the way. On the second lap I started feeling real good on the fast, smooth stuff. There was one corner where no spectators were allowed. The turn was marked with arrows, skulls, and crossbones, and there was one guy standing there with a camera. I guess when you get rider and photographer together, sometimes the rider goes a little faster. Do you know what I mean? I came 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. Only problem was right where my back tire was going to hit, there was a little open spot where water runs off. That’s right where the back of the bike went off and I went down. The handlebars did too, but I looked back at the guy and waved, yelling “HELP”! Luckily, we got it back out of there and after finding neutral, we started pushing. I hopped on sidesaddle and the bike just barely started. Now I’m running along side the bike, bars still all the way down, levers pointing straight up and I almost crashed trying to hop back on. That could have been very bad. Anyway, I’m back in the race and now I’m trying to think of how I can come up with enough energy to yank these bars back up. It took all my might that I could possibly ever come up with to pull them up without falling right off the back of that bike. Ok, it’s time to settle down and bring her on home. I did, and was surprised to see on my timing sheets later that the last lap was my fastest. As a matter of fact, there were only 9 guys in the whole race that had a faster lap time than me. There’s the checkered flag. It happened…1st place! What a relief, and now the post race fun starts! I could go on and on about that. Dan Gurney was there to watch his son Justin race. He told me I was going pretty good out there with an emphasis on good. That sure made me feel good. Hey, lets all gather around for more pictures!
Well, that’s my race report. 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 1st place trophy in the seat next to us, we contemplated just how this weekend will go down in the history books. Only time will tell, but it sure felt good to know that we are part of quite possibly a very significant event in motorcycle racing history.
The Catalina Grand Prix is BACK!!"
I'm delighted to to have another welcome BSA owner keeping BSA winning in 2010 and hopefully beyond.
One comment to signoff with. You'll have noticed that Thad is wearing an Indian t-shirt in some of his pics? Don't panic - I sent him a BSA Team Daytona t-shirt.
Welcome to the gang, Thad.