The president of the American Road Racing Assn. thinks that two Westside motorcycle racers are sure bets to take top honors in the long 1985 amateur road-racing season, if they can maintain their health and their machines.
Earl Smith, ARRA president, is high on British-born Nigel Gale of Culver City and Chris McNellis of West Los Angeles.
If Gale has as good a season as his last, he would again be ARRA champion and keep the top Southern California trophy (knows as the No.1 plate) given to the racer who scores the most points over the season.
Or he could move up to No. 1 in the Southern Nevada Road Racing Assn. (SNRRA), after finishing second last year.
For McNellis it could mean a chance to take the top spot after disastrous setbacks last season.
"For me, this is a make-it-or-break-it year," McNellis said.
Gale, who skipped the first ARRA race of the season in early February to appear in a TV commercial, is continuing his winning ways with four first-place wins, two seconds and one third.
Estimating that he will spend up to $9,000 to compete this year, Gale said he will enter more American Federation of Motorcycling (AFM) races to defray the high cost of amateur racing. "I'll try to get the ARRA No. 1 plate again, but I'd rather be ahead in the money at the end of the year," he said.
$500 Goes to Winner
This year motorcycle manufacturers began awarding cash prizes to those who finish in first ($500) through fifth place ($50) in AFM competition. The cash prizes do not affect the motorcycle racers' amateur status.
Neither Gale, who recently opened a motorcycle shop, nor McNellis, a mechanic, is sponsored by manufacturers, as are many professional racers.
Both have been recommended by the ARRA for a professional racing license, but neither is making a move toward that status. If Gale were offered a sponsorship, he said, "I wouldn't turn it down, but I'm not living on hope. I just want to see how far I can go in this sport."
McNellis, who spent $10,000 to race last year, exclusive of his high medical expenses because of injuries, said, "For amateur racing, it's crazy, but to be competitive you have to spend the money."
Bad luck started for McNellis last season when he hit an oil slick on the Willow Springs Raceway at about 110 m.p.h. That sent him on a 100-yard roll with his 475-pound bike tumbling beside him. "I kept wondering, 'When is this going to stop?' " Result: One dislocated shoulder and one shattered bike.
A month later, with the bike rebuilt, his engine blew up during a race at Riverside Raceway.
And Another Injury
Then an old injury, not related to racing, became painful enough to warrant wrist surgery. McNellis, his right arm in a cast, didn't race for four months. In the ARRA's final standings he ranked 28th, dropping from the top 10.
McNellis may have turned his luck around. Driving a new motorcycle, he won the first ARRA 600-cubic centimeters, stock production class, 25-mile sprint race of the season at Willow Springs, a track in Rosamond in the Antelope Valley.
But in the second round of ARRA competition in March he came in twice in third place and twice in fourth. "I've got to do better than seconds and thirds to make racing worthwhile," he said. "It's going to be a long season."
Nevertheless, he and Gale are ranked among the top 10 in the young season, an ARRA spokesman said. The ARRA season ends in early December while the AFM concludes in late November.
In the season's first AFM meet in late February, Gale took first place in the 750cc stock production class. But he may lose out on the $500 award because he drove his 600cc bike out of class. In other races at that meet, he placed second to Doug Toland in the 600cc stock and 600cc modified production classes.
Some racers lodged formal protests that Toland was driving an illegal bike, with an engine doctored beyond AFM regulations, after he took a 10-second lead in a race in which the leader is usually less than a second ahead of the pack. But AFM officials checked the engine's compression and found it normal.
In the same race McNellis got into a 110 m.p.h. motorcycle-battering fight fop third place with racer Pete Carroll. At the track's first turn Carroll bumped into McNellis. "I came in underneath him," Carroll said.
Coming into the second turn, McNellis said, "I banged right back into him."
McNellis, finishing fourth behind Carroll, dismissed the incident. "It doesn't matter. I've got to catch Eale."
As fop strategy, McNellis said, "There isn't any in this kind of racing except to stay on the leader's tail."
Gale will compete in the American Motorcycling Assn. Nationals at Sears Point, Calif., in June. He said NcNellis might have a chance to take first place. "He's right on the . . . edge."
Last week Gale took a first in a SNRRA Formula 2 race and took two seconds in 600cc competition. But hard luck got in McNellis's way again. He placed third in one race, but he crashed when a rider went down in front of him in another. McNellis was not injured, but for him that race was over.