My baptism to Motocross was in 1971. I was thirteen years old. My interest in motorcycles was pretty much limited to docile trail riding on my Honda Trail 70. I was quite content to tool around the Santa Monica Mountains, occasionally attempting a small jump. My uncle called my father one day and asked if “the boys,” me and my brothers, would like to attend a motorcycle race on Sunday. Although I hadn’t thought much about motorcycle racing, it sounded like fun.
Come Sunday we arrived at my uncle’s house pre-dawn. My Uncle was Swedish and had a friend staying with him who was visiting from Sweden. He was going to the races with us. An hour later we arrived at the front gate to Saddleback Park. It was then that we discovered my uncle’s friend was the president of Husqvarna. And the event was the Trans-Am, a sanctioned series designed to introduce the European sport of motocross to America.
Issued an all-access pass I had the run of the place. Being an F.I.M.-sanctioned event there were no engines allowed started before 9:00 a.m. In the quiet of morning I wandered up to the top of Saddleback’s legendary start hill. There was an early morning fog hanging over the track. Then, at 9:00 a.m., the quiet was broken by a strange and foreign sound. It was a combustion engine, but nothing like I’d ever heard before. The throaty snap and snarl emanated from the pits, outside my field of view at the base of the start hill. I listened as a motorcycle, still unseen, started up the hill, shifting through the gears, that glorious sound drawing ever closer.
Then, cresting the rise like some apparition from a netherworld was World Champion, Swede Bengt Aberg, balanced on the rear wheel of his Husqvarna 400, crossed up, casually staring at the spectators lining the snow fence. He appeared like an alien, wearing a Husqvarna jersey (a name I had never heard before), a Jofa chest guard, and an open face Bell helmet with a Jofa mouth guard. It was the first time I’d seen any of that gear.
The roar of that Husky 400 (in a time long before silencers) being throttled in anger, cresting the hill at speed was aural and visual sensory overload. Aberg kept the front end of the Husky in the air all the way to the top of the famous Bonzai Hill, before dropping it to blast down the sheer face of that cliff and begin his first practice lap. A moment later, as the crack of that 400cc 2-stroke faded off, the smell of burnt pre-mix wafted in over me. Motocross. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew I liked it.
Following Bengt came an incredible thunder as the field of open-class machines came out for practice, cresting the start hill in a continuous stream of aliens on alien bikes; a host of European riders from Belgium, Germany, France, and Britain whose names I couldn’t pronounce, with foreign logos on their jerseys. The bikes were Husqvarna, Maico, CZ, Montesa, AJS, BSA, and three new prototype Suzukis, ridden by Joel Robert, Roger DeCoster, and Sylvain Gobeors, the only Japanese bikes in a field of European steel.
The sound was tremendous. Save for the 4-stroke BSA machines the entire field was comprised of open-class 2-stokes with irascible powerbands, rear wheels kicking up clods of California loam.
For the rest of the day, I tirelessly ran around the course in order to see every turn, every hill, and every jump. I was in heaven, awed by the sheer magic of these foreign motocross stars. I was completely enveloped in a new world I was determined to be part of.
That night when we got home I went directly to the garage and stripped my Trail 70 of its headlight and taillight. I was going to be Motocross World Champion. That is where my lifelong love affair with motorcycles had its genesis. The experience gave new meaning to world maps because I wanted to see the countries where my new-found heroes were from, and where the various Grand Prix events were taking place. Call it geographic education by virtue of motocross.
It wasn’t until some years later, after having immersed myself in motocross and racing, would I realize the significance of that day at Saddleback. After years of European manufacturers dominating the sport of motocross, Suzuki’s Sylvain Geboers won the series, (DeCoster and Robert entered the series late, dashing their chances for the title), ushering in a new era, which would see the Japanese brands virtually decimate the various icons of European manufacturing—both on the track and economically. In the ensuing years, stalwart motocross brands CZ, Montesa, Bultaco, AJS, DKW, Sachs, Greeves, Monarch, and Rickman went belly up, followed by Maico and Ossa. Of the lineage of European brands the only ones that remain active today are Husqvarna and KTM.
One by one, many of the top Europeans were scooped up by the new powerhouses of Suzuki, Yamaha, Kawasaki, and Honda. Bengt Aberg eventually went to Yamaha, riding a one-off four-stroke in the World Championships.
Along with the great changes in motocross machinery over the ensuing decades came the reality of real estate development. Saddleback Park, once a bastion of racing—a playground for motorcycle enthusiasts seeking fun and a training ground for emerging motocross stars—was closed down (victim of complaints from tract-home owners whose carbon-copy neighborhoods were encroaching on the sacrosanct moto landscape) and eventually succumbed to obscurity. People driving past the overgrown hills of the once world-famous track today will have no idea of the legacy embedded in the soil. A once magical haven for enthusiasts who flooded the park to witness pieces of history as it was made, famous rivalries and races among the world’s elite, unfolding with all the sounds and smells and thrills of motocross. A place where a thirteen-year-old kid found their direction and passion in life one magical day after seeing Bengt Aberg crest the start hill on his Husqvarna, oh so long ago.