Carlsbad’s Last Motocross Grand Prix Is Today : Raceway Where the Sport Developed Has Produced Its Share of Memories

Times Staff Writer

Can this really be the last United States Motocross Grand Prix to be run at Carlsbad?

The Nissan USGP for 500cc motorcycles will be held today on the same twisting mile-long course--built on a dusty hillside a few miles inland from the Pacific Ocean--as it was when it was first run 17 years ago. But today’s will be the last.

Carlsbad Raceway will continue to operate with weekly programs for at least a few years more--until it is done in by spiraling insurance costs or urban industrial development--but as the site of an international spectacle it will bow out this afternoon with two 45-minute world championship motos.

Gavin Trippe and Bruce Cox, the British pair who first promoted world championship motocross here, are moving their future Grand Prix site to Hollister, a state-owned facility midway between Salinas and San Jose.


“Grand Prix schedules are planned two to three years in advance,” Trippe said. “With the building going on so close to Carlsbad Raceway, there is no way we could guarantee that the track would still be there. Especially the parking areas.”

Since the first international race in 1970, Carlsbad has been synonymous with motocross, first as a showcase for European champions and later as a training ground for young American riders who would finally take control and dominate in their own way.

It was at Carlsbad--before Mike Goodwin introduced stadium motocross to the world in 1972--that the American motocross boom was nurtured.

It was at Carlsbad that first Torsten Hallman and then Joel Robert and Roger DeCoster came from Europe in the early ‘70s to demonstrate feats of derring-do never before seen on a motorcycle in this country. A new generation of teen-age Americans watched in awe as a parade of riders from Europe churned up the dust and sand and mud ahead of them.


DeCoster, a handsome Belgian, became a legend in this country, taking time off from winning five world championships to also win four consecutive Trans-AMA championships, at that time representative of the U.S. championship.

But one of the wonders of Carlsbad and its place as the site of this country’s only 500cc Grand Prix is that the great DeCoster never won here. Neither did Brad Lackey, the plucky Californian who became this country’s first, and only, world 500cc motocross champion.

For 10 years the Europeans were so dominant that there was one prize for the overall winner and one for the first American. No one expected it to be the same rider.

The first three Carlsbad races were not part of the world championship schedule but were national events held to convince international authorities that this country--new to the flourishing European sport--was capable of putting on a world event.

Robert, a six-time world 250cc champion from Belgium, rode a Suzuki to victory in the inaugural event in 1970 when it was part of the Trans-AMA 250cc series. The first American was Gary Bailey, a 6-foot 5-inch Californian riding a British Greeves two-stroke. Bailey’s son, David, was the overall winner last year.

Two more non-points races were won by Sylvain Geboers of Belgium in 1971 and Ake Jonsson of Sweden in 1972. A surprising fourth behind Geboers was Lackey, then a bearded teen-ager from Northern California, riding a Czechoslovakian CZ machine.

The Grand Prix received world-championship status in 1973 and Willy Bauer of West Germany, riding a Maico, stunned world champion DeCoster, becoming the overall winner. DeCoster finished second in the first moto and his bike broke in the second. Bauer was later paralyzed in an accident in Europe and never won a world championship.

Carlsbad almost lost its world championship status that year because fans broke down the flimsy snow fences and darted back and forth across the track, often right in front of the speeding competitors.


“It was a bloody zoo out there,” Trippe recalled. “It was a hot day and after a few beers, some guys looked like they were playing chicken with the riders.”

Fourth, behind Bauer, was Gerritt Wolsink, a Dutchman who gave up dentistry to ride motocross. Wolsink was little known then and no one, not even his European peers, was prepared for what he was to accomplish. Wolsink won the next four years in a row and then came back in 1979 to win a fifth U.S. Grand Prix.

Wolsink’s first win was the most spectacular in Carlsbad history. DeCoster had won the first moto and was running third behind Wolsink and Heikki Mikkola of Finland in the second. If he could pass Mikkola, or if Mikkola could pass Wolsink, DeCoster would be the winner.

On the final lap, Mikkola was gaining on Wolsink coming out of every corner as he and his Yamaha charged toward the finish line.

A few yards from the finish line there was a jump, followed by a sharp left-hand turn. Wolsink came off the jump with his bike out of control, careened into a bump and crashed in the dust--right on the finish line.

Mikkola bolted past the fallen Wolsink, but judges ruled that the Dutchman had reached the line first. DeCoster was denied again.

The first signs that the Americans were catching up was seen in 1975, when Jimmy Weinert placed fifth, behind Wolsink, DeCoster, Pierre Karsmakers and Mikkola, and U.S. riders filled the finishing spots behind Weinert through 15th place.

DeCoster would win his fifth world championship in 1976 and his American fans came out in record numbers that year to cheer him on, but once again it was his Suzuki teammate, Wolsink, who won going away. Wolsink won both motos and led all but one lap during the entire day.


“I had a perfect day,” he said. “I didn’t make any mistakes. It was just one of those days when nothing goes wrong.”

Lackey finished second that day, the highest he or any American had ever placed in a world championship race.

DeCoster won his fifth and last world championship that year and got Belgium’s sportsman-of-the-year award, but he couldn’t conquer Carlsbad.

“Maybe I want to win too hard here,” he said.

One of the myths of Carlsbad has been the attendance figures. In Europe, motocross had attracted crowds close to 100,000, so when the compact area around Carlsbad Raceway was jammed for the 1973 races, enthusiastic press and promoters estimated the crowd at 35,000.

When even more came in 1976, which remains the largest crowd for an American outdoor motocross, the estimated figure was given as 40,000.

It made the sponsors feel good, but Trippe and raceway operator Larry Grismer admit today that the record attendance in 1976 was “no more than 15,000.” Only the IRS knows for sure.

Mikkola broke Wolsink’s streak in 1978 en route to winning his second straight world championship, beating back a determined bid by Lackey in the second moto after Herbert Schmitz of West Germany had won the opener.

In 104-degree heat, Wolsink returned in 1979 to win yet again, although it was apparent that the Americans were not going to wait long before scoring their first international victory. Mike Bell of Lakewood led most of the first heat and would have been the first American to win a Carlsbad moto, but heat prostration forced him to quit four laps from the end of the 45-minute moto.

A most unlikely rider, Marty Moates of San Diego, made the American breakthrough in 1980 by winning both motos, beating world 250cc champion Hakan Carlqvist of Sweden in the first heat and Lackey in the second.

Moates, 23, had never won a national event of any kind, but that day he beat the best in the world. His biggest previous win had been the California 250cc championship in 1977.

“All I was hoping for was to finish in the top five,” Moates said later. “Winning surprised me as much as everyone else.”

That day was also notable because it marked the final appearance of DeCoster, who had left Suzuki after retiring as a rider to help develop a new cycle for Honda.

When DeCoster proved faster than Honda’s regular riders during tests, he came back for one season, but at Carlsbad the comeback was a disaster. He crashed on the first lap of the first moto and did not start the second.

Once Moates proved that an American could win, the Europeans were never the same.

Chuck Sun, a Chinese-American from Oregon, won in 1981 and Danny (Magoo) Chandler, a rider from Foresthill, Calif., with the reputation as a crasher, won in 1982. But Lackey, like DeCoster, couldn’t win in front of the home fans.

In ’82, the course was lined with fans waving American flags, hoping to root Lackey closer to the world championship that he would win that year. Lackey didn’t win at Carlsbad, but events that occurred that day certainly helped him become champion.

Andre Malherbe, the reigning champion from Belgium, broke his leg in the first moto and Lackey’s second-place finish behind Chandler moved him into the world points lead.

Chandler, like Bauer before him, was paralyzed in an accident last year in Paris.

Carlqvist briefly stemmed the American tide in 1983 when he was declared the winner over Broc Glover of El Cajon after each had won a heat and placed second in the other. Officials gave Carlqvist the win because his winning time was faster than Glover’s.

Lackey, who did not attempt to defend his world title, came out of partial retirement and finished fifth and sixth in the two motos.

Glover, frustrated in ’83, came back a year later to win in front of his hometown fans. His El Cajon neighbor, Ricky Johnson, finished second.

Last year it was Bailey, accomplishing something that had eluded his father, who dominated by winning both motos. Glover finished second in the first moto, but lost all chance of defending his title when he fell and was disqualified for riding a short distance against traffic while rejoining the race.

Today, it will be defending world champion David Thorpe of England, three-time champion Malherbe and Eric Geboers of Belgium against a strong American contingent of Johnson, Bailey, Jeff Ward of Mission Viejo, Jim Holley of Woodland Hills and Ron Lechien of El Cajon, who won the 250cc support race here two years ago.

The first moto will start at noon, with ABC-TV carrying the championship on San Diego’s Channel 10 at 3:30 p.m. and Channel 7 at 4:30 p.m. as part of “Wide World of Sports.”