YE. AFM History pt. 4, 1973-1978: Years of Growth

Published May 26th, 2015.

The end of the 1972 season (see the page titled “YG. AFM History 1970-1972”) found the L.A. chapter in stable condition, with some minor sponsorships and a decent racetrack at Orange County International Raceway in Irvine, CA. It wasn’t perfect for the AFM as there was stiff competition from two other amateur road race clubs, the ACA and the CMC. One bright spot was the running of an exhibition race at Ontario Motor Speedway during the weekend of the 1972 USAC Ontario 500, witnessed by 177,000 people.

Up north it was very different. The two race tracks that had been the mainstay of racing in Northern California, the abandoned airfield at Cotati and Vacaville Raceway, were gone. The Cotati airfield was being torn up to make way for a housing development, and Vacaville’s surface had deteriorated so badly it had become unsafe. In the 1972 season the club had to put orange traffic cones on the main straight to warn the riders of the potholes. Neither the owner nor the local SCCA region was able to secure the $15,000 required for repaving and other improvements. There was a real possibility that there would be no racing in Northern California. The Sacramento chapter was even offering a cash reward to anyone who could find a location suitable for a race track. A racing club without a track is little more than a social club, which interested very few.

Early in 1973 two things happened that were real turning points for the AFM. First was the re-opening of the Sears Point Raceway near Sonoma, giving NorCal AFMers a place to race. When the track was build in 1969 the owners had grandiose plans and wouldn’t talk to groups as small as the AFM. There was an AMA National road race there in 1969, won by Art Bauman on Suzuki. The bike, whose motor was based on the 500cc two-stroke twin from the Titan, was the first time an AMA road race National was won by a Japanese 2-stroke.

The original vision went bust and the track lay idle from 1970-1972. The new owners in 1973 had lowered expectations and were happy to negotiate race dates with both the S.F. and Sacramento Chapters of the AFM. The club ran several events at the track in 1973 including a 250-mile production race.

Sears Turn 7The view of Sears Point from the turn seven hairpin. Far below, on the right of the image, is the old scoring tower just in front of the drag strip staging area. Just to the left of that building is a set of bleacher seats. Both building and bleachers are long gone.

[On a personal note, 1973 was the year I started racing with the AFM, and I remember that first year well. If you’ve been to what is now called Sonoma Raceway recently you would never believe how undeveloped the track facilities were in 1973. There was one building that held the snack bar and the restrooms, a scoring tower and a set of bleachers between turn 10 and the start/finish line, which was also near the staging area for the drag strip. The track was too far from any town to have water or sewage hook ups, so they had their own water treatment system, with catchment ponds in the hillside above turn three. It didn’t work well enough and you couldn’t drink the water. It was OK for flushing toilets but wasn’t potable. Things improved and in 1974 the water was clean enough to drink.]

The second big development was the first AFM race held at Ontario Motor Speedway (OMS) in late January 1973. That exhibition race in 1972 left a favorable impression and the track owners were now willing to talk to the AFM. OMS was definitely a step up from the Orange County track.

FirstOntarioThe first AFM race at Ontario was on a cold day in January, 1973. This looks like a 350cc Production race or practice. Note how bundled up the course worker is. Image scanned from a old, yellowed copy of the Lap Times.

Also in 1973 the Lap Times, under the urging of Dain Gingerelli and the editorship of Bob Crossman, went from being an L.A. Chapter newsletter to serving all members of the AFM. Getting news from the other chapters meant for the first time in many years the members could feel they were part of a statewide organization.

Perhaps the good showing at OMS led to the L.A. Chapter staging its first race at Riverside Raceway on May 20th, 1973. Prior to 1973 the Riverside track wouldn’t talk to the AFM, considering them too small to be worthy. This gave the AFM three tracks in SoCal and one in NorCal for racing. The S.F. Chapter was also talking with Laguna Seca, although nothing came of that in 1973.

RiversideBMullinsLightweight race gets off the start at Riverside, circa 1977. Left-hand turn one was right after the start line. You can see turn 6 in front of the distant grandstands at the top right of the photo. Image from Bill Mullins collection.

On the political front things were improving, but there were still problems. The by-laws of the AFM had the Board of Directors being one person elected from each chapter. The Chairman of the Board was appointed, I think, but this arrangement gave the two northern chapters a 2-1 advantage, even though the L.A. Chapter had more members than the S.F. and Sacramento chapters combined. This sometimes caused some bad feelings.

The way it worked when I joined the club was the Board of Directors (aka National) collected all membership fees from the members, and each chapter got a portion (as I recall it was $500 in 1974) so they could get started organizing races. National was responsible for setting the rules, printing and mailing the rule books, and publishing and mailing the Lap Times newsletter. Each chapter put on races, and collected entry fees. The track got its share by charging admission to riders, crew and spectators alike. As long as there were enough people to race, cash flow was always slightly positive so there would be enough money to start the next race.

The club had affiliated with the AMA to get a good deal on insurance. This caused massive headaches at registration because AFM memberships ended on Dec. 31 of the year, but the AMA membership was for 365 days from the date they processed your paperwork. This meant the racers had to show both membership cards before they were allowed to race.

The 1974 schedule looked much like it does now — see the page “ZQ. California Club Racing in the 1970s” for details. The L.A. Chapter ran 10 races at Ontario and Riverside, including the very first Ontario endurance race. It was a 300-mile Production race, a forerunner to the very popular Ontario 6-hour event. The S.F. and Sacramento Chapters held eight races at Sears Point. OCIR was dropped from the schedule – with races at Ontario and Riverside there was little need to continue to compete with ACA and CMC for race dates at Orange County.

RaceDay ScheduleThe 1974 schedule did include something that is missing today. On Sept. 15th the S.F. Chapter ran the one-and-only AFM race at Laguna Seca. Earlier in the year a few racers had an exhibition race during lunch break at the Oly Sprints, a popular sports car event. The bikes made a good impression and a bike-only race date was arranged. The lure of the famous Monterey track drew over 200 entries, which was quite a few in 1974. There were hopes that the AFM would have an annual event at Laguna Seca but a change in ownership (from the U.S. Army to Monterey County) and noise complaints from the nearby residents made it impossible.

As an all-volunteer club I wanted to do my part, so I ran for and got elected co-treasurer of the S.F. Chapter. My job was to collect race receipts, square the amounts with the number of entries and report on gross income for each event. My co-treasurer handled the checkbook, and was supposed to pay the bills and make a monthly report available to me and other Chapter officers. As things turned out, getting a monthly report from the guy was like pulling teeth. He finally came up with one, late, and I demanded one for the second month. When the 2nd report came in there was something wrong. Some of the expenses he listed were clearly duplicates from the first report. In fact only he knew how much money was left in the bank. After a short investigation it was clear that my counter-part was not doing his job, and could very well have been stealing from the club. He denied it all except one thing – he had taken $500 from the club’s bank account and put it in his own account. His excuse was the $500 was the original amount of start-up money for the chapter and he wanted to protect it from being “stolen back” by National. Nobody thought this made much sense. He was replaced by someone who actually did monthly reports.

They say about academia that the infighting is so vicious because the rewards are so small. Maybe this applies to not-for-profit volunteer clubs too.

There was one other event in 1974 that significantly altered the make-up of the club. After some behind-the-scenes maneuvering the charter of the Sacramento Chapter was pulled. All the chapter members were informed that they would be members of the S.F. Chapter, which changed its name to the Northern Chapter There were a number of reasons given why this was necessary but it was basically, in my opinion, a power-play.

Regardless of the reasons, the Sacramento Chapter, a part of the AFM since 1964, ceased to exist. This action left only two voting members on the Board of Directors, not a very stable situation. The AFM by-laws were re-written for 1975, led mainly by then Chairman of the Board Dick Lewis, to allow each chapter to elect two board members. In addition there would be three positions elected from the membership at large, giving the board seven members. This situation eventually was accepted by the membership and the organization was fairly stable for the rest of the time I was involved with the club.

I wasn’t very happy about the political situation, the firing of the S.F. Chapter co-treasurer and the elimination of the Sacramento chapter. I decided not to seek office again but I still wanted to help. I volunteered to edit the Lap Times, which had languished somewhat in 1975. Its format changed to a small newspaper, 8 to 12 pages, that I honchoed from 1976 through 1978. [These history articles are taken from the pages of my copies of the old, yellowed, newsprint.]

That’s not to say there haven’t been changes in the past four years, it’s just that they have been more gradual. At the end of 1975 the the club terminated its affiliation with the AMA. The club would still be an AMA charter club but would no longer run AMA-sanctioned races. The underwriter of the AMA’s nice insurance package decided not to renew in 1975, so the AFM had to buy its own insurance for the riders. Aside from the insurance there was very little tangible benefit in having an AMA sanction and it wasn’t worth the effort of enforcing dual membership and putting up with the problems of race-day registration.

One of the important changes during this period has been the evolution of the AMA’s class structure. In 1973 there were 15 officially supported classes, nine in Grand Prix (50cc, 125cc, 200cc, 250cc, 350cc, 500cc and Open) and six in Production (125cc, 200cc, 250cc, 350cc, 500cc and Open). Occasionally there would be a Thumper class for single-cylinder bikes or a Superstreet race (for bikes with accessories such as aftermarket pipes, custom bodywork, or cast wheels), or an endurance race but these were optional put on by the sponsoring chapter. During the last five years the following changes have taken place (not necessarily in this order): 100cc GP was added as an official class, the Open Production class was divided into 750cc and Open classes, the Superstreet class was made an official class with two divisions: up to 600cc and 601cc and above. The 350cc and 500cc GP classes were combined into a single class, and the 350cc and 500cc Production class limits were upped to 410cc and 550cc, respectively, to accommodate the new non-traditional displacement bikes from some manufacturers. Most recently three “box-stock” classes were added for bikes exactly as off the showroom floor: 410cc, 675cc and Open. There are now 20 official classes with enough variety to have a spot for just about any motorcycle. [Note that all classes were by displacement – there were no performance-equalization Formula classes like today.]

The other significant change has been the steady growth in membership, which has nearly doubled since 1973, from 600 members to over 1,100 this year. Race entries have gone up correspondingly. In 1974 the record entry was just over 200, today the record is just under 400. Imagine 400 racers competing on a single-day event!

By 1978 the AFM had grown from a few dozen members in 1954 to become the largest road racing group in the country. The club has certainly had its ups and downs through the 24 years since its birth, and it’s on an up cycle right now. The club is probably in the best shape it’s ever been in, with the largest membership, the best racetracks, and the most stable financial condition since the beginning.

Postscript: it’s been over 30 years since 1978 and the AFM still exists, so the logical question is, what happened next? In truth, I don’t know. My involvement with the club ended after the 1979 season. I know the Ontario track closed after the 1980 racing season, and the Riverside track was lost to development, closing in July of 1989. Orange County International Raceway was open until October 1983; did the AFM return to that track? Did they start having regular races at Willow Springs Raceway? This could not have been good for SoCal racers, leaving only Willow Springs in the Mojave Desert after 1983. Perhaps one of the people involved with the club can tell us what happened during the 1980s and forward. How about it, folks? Barb Smith, Vance Breese, anyone?

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