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Room to Vroom

Willow Springs, where roaring motorbikes are a spectator sport

April 12, 1998|RICHARD O'REILLY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ROSAMOND, Calif. — The third weekend of every month brings what I consider one of the best recreation bargains in Southern California.

That's when the Willow Springs Motorcycle Club stages two full days of motorcycle road racing at the Willow Springs International Raceway, tucked against a hillside near here on the northern flank of the Antelope Valley, about 75 miles from Los Angeles.

For $10 per person (kids under 7 are free), you can spend the whole weekend at the track as a spectator. Spend the night if you like, in an RV or even a tent under the stars. Or you can retire to any of a number of motor inns in the nearby towns of Lancaster, Palmdale and Tehachapi.

If you'd prefer to watch stock cars race or sports cars run time trials, those events are available on other weekends, usually with the same low admission. Bikes or cars, you can see virtually all the 2.5-mile paved road track from several fine vantage points, and there's not a tree for miles around to block the view.

There are many kinds of motorcycles--and motorcycle riders. Road racing, which is done on a paved track with left and right turns, fast and slow turns, up hill and down, is the venue of sport bikes, most of which are built in Japan and Europe. They come in one-, two-, three- and four-cylinder varieties, and top speeds range from 100 to about 175 miles per hour.

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To keep things as fair and safe as possible, similar performing machines race together. At Willow Springs there are a dozen or more races each day, most of them lasting 10 to 15 minutes. Competition is usually fierce.

One of the beauties of a Willow Springs weekend is being able to tailor the trip to time available. A busy weekend might leave time enough only to ride my own sport bike out on a Sunday, arriving as late as 1 p.m. But it's a lot nicer to make a full weekend of it, as we did in March, when the national event, Formula USA, was being staged along with the club's usual races. That increased the price of tickets to $25.

The raceway is about seven miles west of California 14 at Rosamond, on Rosamond Blvd. Taking the Antelope Valley Freeway is the boring way to get there, however. With my companion, Julia, piloting her van (the weather was a little too raw that weekend to be comfortable on the bike), we took a back-road route, via Bouquet Canyon. Tony's Hideaway Cafe in Green Valley is a good breakfast stop, with a variety of omelets at $4.95, including biscuits and gravy, if you want.

At the track, my favorite vantage point is from the bleachers at "Budweiser balcony," the highest point, about 200 feet above the start-finish line. It offers a commanding view of the entire track and close-up views of the most demanding turns. Down below, bleachers line Turn 1, where riders are slowing from their top speeds. It's also fun to wander through the pits and see the bikes and racers up close.

Crowds are small, mostly friends and relatives of the racers, so we generally have our pick of seats and no one to block the view. Food prices are reasonable: sodas $1.25, hot dogs $1.75, cheeseburgers $3.50.

Many of the bikes are so heavily modified to increase performance that they are no longer "street legal." This is not ride-it-to-the-track, race-it-and-ride-it-home racing.

Spills happen, and they are often spectacular as leather-clad rider and streamlined machine slide or tumble across the pavement and off into the gravel and weeds. Life-threatening injuries are rare, but broken bones are not, and the two ambulances standing by are not merely for decoration. At the March race weekend, ambulances carted riders off four times.

After the races Saturday, against a threatening but spectacular backdrop of storm clouds over the mountain ridges, we opted to spend the night in the railroad town of Tehachapi, about 25 miles northwest, rather than seeking a motel in the nearby suburban towns of Lancaster or Palmdale. The drive over Oak Creek Pass is beautiful even through the forest of electricity-generating windmills. Nestled in a valley between the southern end of the Sierra Nevada and the Tehachapi Mountains, the little town makes up in scenery what it lacks in lodging and dining choices.

The Tehachapi Summit TraveLodge is just east of town, where California 58 crosses the surface road. A comfortable room with two queen beds was $59 plus tax. The motel restaurant is OK, but we chose to go where the desk clerk said he goes for special occasions: Kasagiri Restaurant, in the middle of town, where traditional Japanese dinners are served in lacquered wooden boxes. My $14.80 combo of tempura, teriyaki chicken and beef, sashimi and sushi was generous and tasty.

In the morning a two-mile drive south from the motel took us to the Mountain Valley Airport, a glider port where the Raven's Nest Coffee-Sandwich Shop overlooks the runway and you can take a scenic flight for $40. Breakfasts in the $3.75-to-$4.95 range are ample, and the varnished pine picnic table seating is fitting.

We retraced our route back to Willow Springs and enjoyed a warm desert morning as the day's races got underway. But the last couple of races near sundown had us bundled up in a cold wind and glad not to be riding home on the bike.

The next Willow Springs Motorcycle Club races are next Saturday and Sunday. The American Motorcycle Assn.'s National Championship Motorcycle Road Race is April 24 to 26; for tickets, call (800) 993-7338.

O'Reilly is director of computer analysis for The Times Editorial Department.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Budget for Two

Breakfast, Tony's Hideaway: $13.91

Lunches both days: 21.03

Race tickets: 50.00

Tehachapi Summit TraveLodge: 64.90

Dinner, Kasagiri Restaurant: 35.67

Breakfast, Raven's Nest: 13.80

Dinner, Villa Basque: 30.00

Gas: 11.76

FINAL TAB: 241.07

Willow Springs Motorcycle Club; tel. (805) 256-1234.

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