The first time I made it out to Willow Springs International Raceway out there in the Mojave desert was frightening enough. The desert inhabitants were an unfamiliar breed, I wondered how long Cycle magazine would take to comprehend that I was vastly unqualified for my new job, and the Fastest Road in the West was intimidating just on the face of it. Scared enough at the prospect of riding on a real racetrack for the first time, when I stepped out of the hot sun and into the dark track office, there sat in a Lexan case a truly frightening motorcycle, a menacing black mid-’80s Kawasaki ZX1000R that had been stripped for battle, ridden to the 1986 Formula USA Championship (the first one), and named “The Terminator.”
It reminded me of the thing that sprung from the guy’s chest in Alien, and I was glad it was sealed in a case. Its owner and ‘86 F-USA Champion, it said on the plaque: Earl Roloff. In reality, 1986 was only a few years distant, but the glass case lent an outscale historical weight to the thing, and I assumed Earl Roloff was some kind of Viking warrior in a horned helmet.
Then, a couple weeks ago, the name Earl Roloff popped up on the West Coast Dirt Trackers page on Facebook. Earl had started rooting through some old photos, apparently, and decided to play with his new FB account. It’s amazing the things I don’t remember anymore, but I remembered the Terminator, and the name Earl Roloff almost instantly. Looking at the first pic, suddenly he seemed more approachable.
We are Born
Earl Roloff: At the tender age of 10 months, on my first motorcycle in Baltimore, 1957, a Triumph dirt tracker. The reach to the bars was a bit much and in typical Triumph lore the gearbox was awful. My dad didn’t want a baseball, basketball or football player, he wanted a motorcycle racer. And so it began…
My dad had a Triumph shop in Baltimore at that time; too many rough winters convinced him to move to California in 1963. In the late ‘70s through mid-’80s, we owned a Yamaha shop – Roloff’s Yamaha started in 1976, and in ‘81 we purchased and renamed the local Kawi shop to “Seaweed Kawasaki” (more on Earl Sr. later). (Note the Seaweed Kawasaki sticker on the Terminator’s nose.)
Earl’s got a good memory too. The stories that accompany his old black-and-white photos are as much fun as the pics. More than that, they’re a journal of what might have been the best motorcycle place – southern California – during a time that might have been the best motorcycle era. Or maybe it just seems that way to me, since it was my era, too. And probably especially so, since I experienced it stuck in Missouri. While my dad forbade motorcycles and wanted a baseball player, Earl’s was just the opposite. Journey with us back to the ‘60s, won’t you? (I hate to say it, but pretty much everything was better then.)
ER: In contrast to a modern world of toy haulers, $60,000 pickup trucks, and SUVs with fancy trailers, the pilgrims of racing found unique and practical ways to get their rides to the races. A very popular choice (at least for The Roloffs in the mid ‘60s), was the incredible Comet Station Wagon. A durable, but somewhat cramped ride, it got the job done! Other than one incident, where we hit a large dip on Main St. in Chula Vista and one of the bikes flew out the back onto the road, it was reliable transport!
ER: Why is this guy so happy? Well if you read the top of the pic the answer is revealed. My first trophy, in 1967, for 6th place in the 100cc Novice Main at Brown Field (aka South Bay Speedway). Back then they would award a trophy for every six riders in the class. The day of the race there were 39 entries after heats and semis, which meant six trophies. I made it to the Main, with 12 riders, and finished 6th! – my personal best. It was a great day and I’d been working hard to get “the first one.”
The clubs used to engrave the trophies before they handed them out at the following event: After knowing I’d trophied for 6th, I had to wait almost three weeks, which seemed like a lifetime before I’d get my prize (not yet knowing how much faster the years go by as we get older). As they were announcing and handing out the trophies for the 100cc Novice Class, I was waiting impatiently for them to call my name. Finally, the guy announced, “6th place 100cc Novice Main Event, Bruce Draper!”– and the air came right out of my balloon. I will never forget that moment. I liked Bruce and all, but he was 7th!
Fortunately, the officials realized there was a scoring error and Bruce manned up and admitted I was the real 6th place finisher. I’d always heard the phrase fight to the finish, but never fight for your finish. Another life lesson learned and two weeks later I finally received that first trophy I’d fought for in so many ways!
ER: After that first one, it got a little easier. This photo is at the Tijuana Autodrome, circa 1967, where I’d won my race on a Yamaha YL1. I’m #32, and as you can see I had a serious weight advantage over my competitors that day.
Getting across the border back then was quite simple. In fact, getting anywhere back then was quite simple. Here’s a partial list of the places we raced in the ‘60s and ‘70s: Southbay Speedway, Dehesa Raceway, Tijuana Autodrome, Perris, Elsinore, Corona, Ascot, Trojan Speedway, Baymare, Huntington Beach Cycle Park, El Centro, and Adelanto are all SoCal venues I raced at. And there’s a couple more I didn’t, including El Toro Raceway in Orange County.
Wide Open Spaces
ER: It’s hard to ever believe that San Diego was the land of wide open spaces. When my dad moved us here in the early ‘60s from Baltimore (probably the best thing he ever did for us!), most of San Diego was more like the Midwest. It was a dirt bike rider’s paradise, trails everywhere, very few houses, except near downtown, and you could literally ride miles from one city (Spring Valley, National City, Bonita, Miramar, South Bay, Poway etc…) to another, barely crossing a road.
In 1963, my dad bought a new home in Spring Valley, just above where the Swap Meet is today. When we moved in, we were the only people on our street who had motorcycles, except Butch Reinhardt, who lived a few doors down and had a Tote Goat. Within a few years, many of our neighbors became interested in motorcycles (thanks to the Roloffs) and started riding.
There were a few trails in the field in front of our house, but not much good riding. We’d have to head over the hill to 8th street, which had a few tracks and trails all the way to National City. Or go to Proctor Valley or Rice Canyon in Bonita, or load the bikes and go to Palm Ave. towards Brown Field. An occasional cutting of a fence and riding around Sweetwater Lake was fun, but the Water Patrol guys used to chase us away.
Then one day, the neighbors on our street had an idea: Why don’t we all chip in and build a track down the hill in front of our houses? It wasn’t fenced off, nobody even knew who owned the land, and we weren’t asking. So, everybody chipped in and rented a bulldozer and grader. They just went into the field and cut out a TT & Short Track. Only took a day.
After that, I would get home from school, jump on my bike and go practice almost every day, it was great. The neighbors would come down and ride, we’d have races amongst ourselves, real grassroots racing. It’s where Jimmy Brockman and I first met. I was practicing one day and this kid rides up on, as I recall, a little Suzuki, saying “wanna race?” I said sure, we rode and battled for the rest of the day.
Our friendship and rivalry grew over the next few years at the race track. We rode there for a couple more years before the Sheriffs started showing up, chasing us off the property. Soon they fenced it off, the bulldozers showed up again to level the land, and our track was gone. To this day, I have fond memories when I hear the words “Track and Field.”
ER: Ah, a young racer’s dream of kissing the trophy girl. Unless you were 11 years old back when 11-year olds knew less about life then their parents, and the real pursuit was still the Trophy! This one was after that win in Tijuana.
END PART 1
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