CARLSBAD — 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.