Print of David Aldana by Tom Fritz. Available from www.fritzart.com. Titled "Chew on this!"
ASCOT HALF MILE MAGIC – AND A “LOTTA TORQUE ABOUT NORTON” By Mike Jackson
Pictures by Dan and Walt Mahoney and Motor Cycle Weekly Archive
Dateline: January 1972, Long Beach, California. It was a dull Thursday morning in the Norton Villiers USA office and sales were slow. Out back, NVC’s energetic expat Service Manager, Brian Slark, was giving one of our road test 750cc Commando Roadsters a physical check-over, before we handed it over to yet another publication. Such tests, when published, always generateda few extra sales, but, with the lengthy lead-times applicable to US magazines, the test that the bike was being prepared for would not be published until April. Meanwhile, I was musing on how to keep the names in front of our Western US customers between road test features.
Slarky, as Brian was affectionately known, was a-buzzing. “Jeez Mike”, he enthused, “these Nortonsare so torquey!” He’d spent a few years at BSA-Triumph’s operation, as well as working for Bud Ekins, so Brian knew one end of a British vertical twin from the other. Over a coffee together he kept mumbling such phrases as “so much torque with these Nortons” and “terrific torque with a Norton”. I began writing them down. One of these mutterings, I thought, might even prove useful for us to use in our local advertisements, for which we had a modest budget of a few hundred dollars. The famous ‘Norton Girl’ ads, always positioned on the inside front covers of Cycle and Cycle World magazines were of course masterminded from our London HQ…and cost several thousand dollars a time! As Slarky drained his cup I read out the results of his “thinking out loud” session and one of the phrases stood out like a sore thumb. At one point he had said, “There’s a lot of torque about Norton!” Eureka! It clicked with both of us. OK, we suddenly had a splendid slogan, but how could we use it?
By coincidence I had recently been approached by the management of Ascot Park – the famous half mile dirt track in Gardena, Los Angeles, where Jody Nicholas (riding master tuner Harold Allison’s Norton) had won countless races since returning in 1970 from flying reconnaissance planes from aircraft carriers off the coast of Vietnam. The Ascot folk were seeking an annual customer for their highly visible tracksidebillboard on the back straight right opposite the main grandstand and which measuredaround 8 x 30 feet. The cost was $800, plus $200 for painting the graphic.With only just over a thousand dollars in the budget I had originally politely declined. But I suddenly had that ‘Eureka moment’ realised that I knew the precise place for Slarky’s slogan, despite it meant committing virtually the whole of the year’s local ad spend. That billboard would be seen by the fans every Friday night and especially at the two National Championship events and a big 50-Lap TT (sort of an early stadium motocross on a graded track) that was televised in the ‘Wide World of Sports’ programme on the ABC-TV network…one of the ‘big three’ in the USA. After quickly sketching a lay-out, by which time Slarky had “Americanized” the phraseology to Lotta Torque about Norton, I jumped into the company Chevrolet and drove ten miles west to Ascot Park. Yep, the billboard was still available, and the deal was concluded. There was a Norton company rule that every single ad must include the corporate Green Ball logo, which symbolised the Commando’s Isolastic engine mounting.But, with nearly250 square feet of billboard to play with there was plenty of room to play with and, in fact, it was a real eye-catcher. Sitting across the table from with the Ascot Park manager, Don Basile, I obviously tried negotiating a lower price. “No deal”, he cried, “Suzuki are also interested, and called us this morning!” I didn’t wholly believe him but quickly shook hands on the $1000 deal, and they duly had the world’s largest-ever Norton sign in place for Ascot’s first Half Mile of the 1972 season. This story, though, doesn’t quite end there. Twelve months later, by when I was back in the UK working for Norton Villiers Europe, I heard that, try as they might, Ascot had been unable to find a billboard customer for 1973. Rather than erase Norton’s magnificent message of the previous year they happily left everything exactly as it was…thus gifting us an additional year’s exposure free of charge!
Given how closely the anecdote is linked to Ascot Park [whose UK equivalent would be Brands Hatch in the 1960s] this is clearly a timely opportunity to explain its importance within the US competition scene, and the enormous contribution it made to American racing in general. Sadly, the circuit and carpark were demolished in favour of an industrial complex in 1990. Ascot witnessed innumerable hard-fought Half Mile and TT battlesduring its 35-year lifespan. Situated in a rather shabby suburb of Los Angeles – five miles inland from the Pacific Ocean – the ‘Park’ consisted of an oval clay track measuring about 1000 yards, alongside which stood uncovered tiered benches stretching the length of the Start/Finish straight and into the first turn. Spectator capacity was 7000 but deemed too small compared with most of the US Half Miles, many of which were sited within County Fairgrounds. The Pits, as often the case, lay in the infield, next to a murky lake, bordered by a clutch of unhealthy-looking palms. Created in 1957 on the site of a former dump, Ascot was in the ‘triangle’ formed by two adjoining freeways, inevitably creating a permanent background hum. Glamorous it was not, but, thanks to a skilfully prepared track and bumper entries, close racing was guaranteed.
Ascot Park in later years - after the 'murky' lake (upper left) had been drained and filled in.
Sixteen hefty 750 twins on the start line for an Ascot National Championship flat track race.
Half Mile dirt track racing is best described to UK audiences as speedway on much longer tracks and for stripped-down 750 street-bikes rather than the spindly Jawas and their ilk.. The main contrast with speedway is that whereas four speedway riders go at it hammer and tongs for four laps of an oval track typically of 250 yards or so, a US dirt track race has 16 riders on the start-line and with race distances around the 880 yards oval varying from ten to 25 laps! There are even races with 25 starters on the big one-mile horse racing ovals where packs of riders slipstream one another nose to tail in freight train formation at 120mph+!
Ascot ran every Friday night, March thru October, hosting a National Half Mile on one Saturday night per year, and a National 50-lap TT on a Sunday afternoon in mid-summer. A TT in American dirt track terminology (and in particular at Ascot) is like a small stadium-style motocross run on a smooth graded and watered dirt track with both left and right-hand turns – all within the tight confines of a half-mile oval. It utilized the main start/finish straight of the oval track as well as placing a huge earth-mound ‘jump’ on a parallel section of the track in front of the grandstand so that the fans could hoot and holler at the sight of hefty 750 twins leaping high in the air.
Eddie Mulder was a 1970s Ascot TT ace.
Steve Eklund (a future AMA Champion) & Tom Berry in the Ascot 50 Lap TT daytime race.
Ascot’s status was confirmed by fact it was the sole venue to run two Nationals within the American Motorcycle Association’s 25-round Grand National Championship, in which factory riders battled for the right to proudly carry the Number One Plate throughout the following season. The AMA Championship – which in my day began in Texas in the (then) awesome Houston Astrodome (at that time the only large stadium in the world with a roof on it) in February, and concluded at Sacramento (California) in September – consisted of races on Mile, Half- Mile, and Short Track (quarter mile or less) dirt ovals, the aforementioned TT events and a handful of road races, including Daytona. Americans back then reckoned that a National win was equally as prestigious to them as an Isle of Man victory to us on this side of the pond. On Any Sunday, Bruce Brown’s seminal motorcycle movie, chronicled Mert Lawwill’s epic struggle to retain the 1970 Number One plate from strong challenges by Gene Romero, Dick Mann, Jim Rice and rookie (first year expert) David Aldana. Unfortunately, the film’s distributor insisted on a maximum playtime of 90-minutes, forcing some excellent Ascot footage to finish on the cutting-room floor… There are several factors that helped to create Ascot’s historic reputation, which was unarguably on a high when I was fortunate enough to be there in the early 1970s. At that point, and until 1974, there were five different brands of motorcycle capable of winning; BSA, Norton, Triumph, Yamaha, and once sorted, Harley’s overhead valve XR that replaced the venerable but still competitive KR side-valve vee-twins. Prior to 1970 the AMA’s ‘C’ Class Rules ‘permitted’ overhead valve 500s to compete against side-valve 750s but, however bizarre that might sound, the level of competition between Britain’s 500cc Triumph twins – plus singles like BSA’s Gold Star and even some highly tuned Royal Enfields – was a pretty even match against the 750cc Harley Davidson side-valve ‘flatheads’. Then in 1970, in a rather cunning ruse to be seen to be moving with the times, came an AMA rule change allowing overhead-valve 750s to race in all forms of Dirt Track, This was a decision that, of course, had no connection (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) with the fact that Harley Davidson [whose execs sat on the AMA board] would shortly be introducing its own overhead valve twin; i.e. the XR750!
Fortuitously, I arrived to work for Norton Villiers Corporation in Los Angeles in June 1970. It was a two-year stint and my task was to sell street-model Commandos, and off-road AJS Stormers, into what had become a boom market. Over the following 24 months I happily attended 50-plus Friday night Half Miles at Ascot – a love affair that began on only my second day in California, when Brian Slark took me to the hallowed track for the first time. Having watched and competed in innumerable motocross races since 1951, I found spectating at a Half Mile something of a culture shock…but I enjoyed what I saw! Practice began at 6pm in daylight, but by the time of the first elimination heat it was completely dark. Thanks to super-efficient lighting, the track and surrounding area were completely transformed. By night the stadium assumed an exciting aura, the total opposite of its scruffy daytime image.
Typical handlebar to handlebar night-time Ascot action in a National Championship event, On the inside is Gary Scott, alongside is Keith Mashburn and veteran star, Sammy Tanner. Kenny Roberts is right on the outside and Gene Romero at the back of the group.
The weekly race programme comprised three Classes: Novice, Junior, and Expert, each with its own heat races and final. With so many entrants several heats were necessaryfor the lesser classes, and two for Experts. Clearly the night’s most anticipated race was ‘The Main’ - effectively a 12-lap Final for Experts only. Slarky fixed for us to enter the infield’s well-lit Pit area, at the same time bombarding me with tales of Ascot’s rich history. Morphing swiftly into blotting-paper mode I was immediately hooked by just how much fine racing had unfolded at this historic venue, including open-wheel sprint car events which ran at weekends. Given its proximity to two freeways Ascot was never likely to attract a noise protestation from the occupants of adjacent area’s somewhat low rent housing. I was captivated from the moment the flag dropped for that first Novice heat. Here we were, standing on the inside of Turn One, under a galaxy of stars that could indeed be seen thru a light coating of summer smog, the echo of open-pipe engines [even two-strokes], the silhouettes of the palms and, most evocative of all, ‘Roxy’ Rockwood’s resonating commentary over the PA; a wholly new but exciting experience. Amongst Slarky’s quick-fire briefings ahead of the evening were a couple of contemporary snippets, which became significant in the months and years ahead. He suggested I specifically observe two fast young Novices, Gary Scott & Kenny Roberts. By all accounts they were a visible cut above their rivals and, already, their intense early season rivalry was a race-community talking point. AMA Novices were restricted to 250cc two-strokes; Gary, from the LA area, was on a Suzuki twin and Kenny was astride a similar Yamaha. The tip-off was spot on, for this youthful duo went at it hammer-and-tongs. I learned later that Kenny had driven almost 400 miles down from Modesto to compete,and it was fully expected he and Gary would be repeating their Friday night battle at another track in California within the next day or two. Within five years both Scott and Roberts had gained Number One plates as National Champions!
Champions in the making! Gary Scott leads Kenny Roberts at Ascot in their Novice season.
Slarky’s second snippet was of direct interest to Norton. Jody Nicholas, who had won two road race Nationals on a BSA Gold Star in 1963, had now returned from flying duties in the military, and was workingas a journalist for Cycle World. In addition to riding ‘works’ Suzukis on tarmac at weekends Jody had apparently decided to have a serious attempt at dirt track and was riding Harold Allison’s Norton for the first time that night. Allison, an L.A. based builder of dirt bikes, preferred Norton’s 750 motor to the more popular (but same size) Triumphs and BSAs, which in 1970 were T140 and A65s with special 750cc race kits. From memory, Jody won the Main that night, albeit the fact that several quick Ascot ‘specialists’ were ‘back east’, competing in the AMA Championship. However, this was the first win of any consequence for Norton and augured well for the future. Jody was to be a regular winner at Ascot until injury cut his career short.
Former US Navy pilot, Jody Nicholas, was a star in both dirt track and road racing.
Another asset particular to Ascot was its long-running connection with JC Agajanian, a flamboyantly successful Armenian-American, long revered for promoting numerous events and for sponsoring Parnelli Jones and other top auto racers at Indianapolis etc. ‘Aggie’ rather regarded Ascot as his ‘home track’; he had after all promoted hundreds of weekly races there, in addition to securing two events a year on the Grand National Championship schedule. It is hard to believe, perhaps, but Ascot’s day-to-day management didn’t actually organise every event per se, many of which were the responsibility of individual promoters who, having obtained an AMA permit, would start gathering an entry together, advertising the forthcoming meeting, funding the prize money, printing aprogramme, and so on. The track owners, meanwhile, provided the venue and services and, in the majority of cases, prepared the track…a Black Art in itself. Aggie famously wore a white Stetsonhat all day/every day and was a lot more than a race promotor. Resident in an exclusive enclave within exclusive Beverly Hills, he ran a very large-scale municipal refuse disposal business servicing most of LA as as well as owning large pig farms. One business fed the other, so to speak! Reputedly, on one occasion he was undergoing a race-day TV interview when the unusually genteelfemale broadcaster unexpectedly asked the nature of his main occupation. “Lady”, he drawled, “I’m in the used food business!”
JC Agajanian with sons Jay (left) and Chris, both later involved in Ascot's promotion.
Contradictory to an earlier comment there was a short-lived low point in Ascot’s history – circa 1968/69 – at which stage [shortly before the Class ‘C’ Rule change] the Friday night meetings went into decline and, worst of all, spectator numbers were reduced dramatically. Folk claim that Aggie was so occupied by events elsewhere he fell into a trap thinking Ascot would run itself and therefore he’d not increased prize money levels for severalseasons. Whatever the reason, in 1969 crowds were down and he decided that the weekly race would be curtailed, although his two Nationals were unaffected. Drum roll: enter Gavin Trippe and Bruce Cox, two freshly arrived expats - respectively ex MCN (Gavin) and Motor Cycling, Motorcycle Mechanics and MCN (Bruce). In 1969, they had started publishing Motor Cycle Weekly not far from Norton’s offices in Long Beach. Trippe Cox Inc, as they became, ultimately went on to run MXGPs at Carlsbad and initiated motorcycle racing at Laguna Seca; they also established the popular TransAtlantic Series, held in the UK at Eastertime for 15 years from 1971. As a result they were later elected to US motorcycle racing's Hall of Fame.
Against all odds they rejuvenated Friday night Ascot. Whilst there’s a synergy between a magazine and the racing scene it was still a brave move, for Trippe Cox were not overburdened with funds, but they were already attuned to the dirt track scene, and they knew many of the competitors. Their policy was to pay riders via a guaranteed 40% of the proceeds of that particular night’s gate receipts. Successful riders thus earned more from a sizeable crowd than a sparsely populated evening…and it worked from the outset; Ascot’s hard-bitten racers respected the new arrangements. Within a few weeks, entry quality had improved, the racing was again competitive, and the turnstiles began revolving more rapidly.
The only fly in the Trippe, Cox ointment was that Agajanian retained both of the cash-productive National Championship dates for their first year of Ascot operation. But they took a philosophical view, inasmuch they hadto start somewhere…and they did get the Nationals for the following year. One of their successes was the introduction of commercial sponsorship into the AMA Nationals scene when they sold Yamaha on the idea of a weekend of racing that featured the Yamaha Gold Cup half-mile on Friday night and the National Championship TT the following evening. Both evenings were sold out thanks to lots of promotional back up, including ey-catching freeway billboards with artwork that looked more like the current ‘psychedelic’ trend for record albums than for motorcycle races.
So, what about the bikes that ran Ascot? Flat trackers have featured in various UK publications over recent years, familiarising British readers with the genre. Inevitably, any bike capable of winning at Ascot was hand-built and incorporated that competitor’s personal ‘tweaks’. Typical early 1970s Half Mile vertical twins gave around 65bhp on the dyno, albeit the one-off factory Triumph prepared by CR Axtell for Gene Romero probably churned 10% more, as did the Nick Deligianis/Ron Wood Norton ridden by David Aldana.
So who is Number One? That would be David Aldana on a Norton! Purpose-built flat track frames were available from Redline, Champion, Dallas Baker or Trackmaster, and there were similarchoices for front and rear suspension systems. Rear tires [note spelling!] were a critical item. Made exclusively by Goodyear they sported a functional tread pattern, into which riders promptly ‘cut’ their own modifications to suit their own preference. Race-ready machines, therefore, bristled with non-stock modification; no two machines were identical. One night, in mid-season 1971, an off-duty CHP [California Highway Patrol] officer brought along a ‘speed gun’ to Ascot Park. In an endeavour to obtain accurate figures, and with official approval, he was positioned on the Grandstand straight, at the exact point riders momentarily throttled off for Turn One. Yes, he did click the trigger! Jody Nicholas on the Norton was confirmed as the fastest that night, repeatedly hitting92 to 93mph before shuttingoff. A similar exercise was later conducted in daytime at the San Jose Mile, where top speeds were reported at just over 125mph! Harley Davidson’s much anticipated overhead valve XR750 was first seen in 1971, ridden by factory riders such as Mert Lawwill, Mark Brelsford, and Cal Rayborn. Early versions were reputed to be good for “an easy 70bhp” but with their cast iron cylinders, they suffered from overheating and other teething problems. The Milwaukee company, however, was developing an all-alloy engine…though it took a couple of seasons before it succeeded. That utterly reliable later version XR750 stayed in production for over a quarter century, by which time its power output had risen to over 85bhp. Given the above ingredients it should not be difficult to imagine the thrill of an evening at Ascot; racing under the lights, the noise of fourteen racing motorcycles in tight company, the speed of their fearless racers, Roxy Rockwood’s mellifluous commentary, a multi-race series of heats building up to anunpredictable final 15 laps. Ascot Park in the 1970s was truly a magicalplace!
ME AND ‘OLD MJ’…
Writes Bruce Cox - Motorcycle Files Publisher
Mike Jackson is well known as one of the elder statesmen of the British motorcycle industry. In the 1960s he combined his job as sales manager of Greeves with riding their machines in international trials and motocross events to a level that saw him gaining top-six placings in Grand Prix races. In the 1970s he began a long association with Norton Villiers (and latterly Norton Villiers Triumph) and he is now one of the motorcycle gurus for the famous Bonhams Auctions company, Mike and I have been firm friends since our California days, racing or just riding together “on any Sunday” in the Mojave Desert and later that evening replenishing our energy with the legendary steaks, baked potato and glazed carrots (absolutely nothing else on the menu!) at the equally legendary Sid’s Blue Beet little ‘’hole in the wall’ restaurant in Newport Beach. Apart from a liking for a rare rib-eye, the other thing that Mike and I had in common during our California days was a real enthusiasm for flat-track racing at the famed (dare I even use the word ‘legendary’ again?) Ascot Park dirt oval. Flat track racing on Friday nights, desert riding ‘on any Sunday’ and Sid’s glazed carrots…life couldn’t get much better for Mike and I during our days in California! Which is why I am so pleased to have persuaded Mike to pen some features to take us back down Memory Lane to a period when British bikes, and Norton in particular, still played a significant part in the global motorcycle business. There will be more from ‘old MJ’ in future….