Monday, December 22, 2008
I started taking photographs of dirt-track races in the early 1970s. Back then the San Jose Mile ran twice a year, once in May and again in September. This was the era of AMA racing in which riders vying for the Grand National Championship competed in five forms of racing—mile, half-mile, short-track, TT, and road racing. The rider who went home at the end of the season with the Number One plate damn well earned it.
A lot of American riders who would later become famous road racers got their start on dirt tracks like San Jose. Wayne Rainey, Eddie Lawson, Freddie Spencer, and of course Kenny Roberts all learned about traction and bike control while sliding around dusty dirt ovals.
The photo at right shows Rob Morrison on a Norton and Kenny Roberts on a Yamaha accelerating out of turn 2 at San Jose. Top speed on that track was something in the neighborhood of 140. Look closely at the bikes—the spindly frames and skinny tires, the brakeless front wheels—then imagine pitching them into a corner at that speed, and you can see why these men were giants.
A few of the photos I took at San Jose and other tracks, including Laguna Seca and Sears Point, are available as art prints from Vintage Arte. If you were a race fan during those years they’ll remind you what it was like when fearless young men with gunfighter eyes duked it out on Yamahas and Harley-Davidsons and BSAs and Triumphs and Nortons on podunk tracks from coast to coast for a little glory and less money. If you weren’t lucky enough to witness it first-hand, you owe it to yourself to see what you missed.