As seen in the latest issue of MXP Magazine Mike McGill and photographer Bill Petro takes us back to the glory days of Canadian Motocross. As you will read in this wonderful story, there were a lot of big names racing in Canada in the mid-70’s. For this and many more great stories, make sure you pick up the summer issue of MXP Magazine.
Motocross in Canada has come a long way since its formative years back in the mid to late ‘60s. Motocross, as most of us know it, didn’t really start taking shape in this country until the early ‘70s, and it may surprise many readers to know that by 1975 the sport had grown to unprecedented levels in this country. In fact, the moto boom was so big in Canada that our professional racing series rivalled the US in its prestige and professionalism. This explosion in popularity culminated in what many believe to be the greatest motocross race in the history of this country. The 500cc Grand prix of Canada was held on the 29th of June, 1975. It took place at a legendary natural terrain track in Copetown, Ontario just outside of Hamilton.
The sport of motocross in Canada has evolved tremendously in the last thirty years, no doubt. After rebounding from the brink of near extinction in the early ‘90s, CMRC developed a successful National series that pumped some much-needed new life and new blood into what could have arguably been seen as a dying sport at the time. Over the next three decades, CMRC continued to build Pro racing in Canada into what it is today – an extremely professional, nine race National series that attracts top talent from not just Canada and the US but countries around the world.
Of course, things change, and that’s usually a good thing. This season JetWerx has taken over our National Series and added some Arenacross and Supercross-style racing to the mix, along with our traditional outdoor series. So far, things have been good and it looks like the new regime is set to take the sport to even higher levels in the country.
But let’s get back to 1975 shall we. I realize that most readers of this fine publication were not even born when the great Copetown GP took place but, you must believe me, it was a great time in the history of the sport.
I consider the “Golden Age” of motocross to span the period from the early ‘70s into the mid-‘80s. It was new and exciting; the first of the extreme sports I guess you could say, although surfers may disagree. And nobody referred to it as “extreme” at the time anyways. It was a time of relative prosperity in North America, and the bikes were cheap. Especially so after the big Japanese manufacturers began flooding the market with good quality, affordable racing machines in the early ‘70s. Pretty much any young guy looking to get into a cool new sport could afford to buy a bike and go racing at the time. And that’s what they did. In droves. Sales of motocross bikes have never come close to what they were during this period.
Of course, the manufacturers took full advantage of this great surge in popularity and began fielding full factory racing efforts in hopes of attracting even more people to the sport, and of course selling more bikes.
Motocross, as most of you will know, originated in Europe and was already well established there at this time. The top European bike manufacturers of the day were brands like Maico, which were built in Germany. Sweden provided the Husqvarna to the mix while the Czechs made CZ machines, although not as technically advanced as the Maicos or Huskys, but were decent, bulletproof bikes that were significantly cheaper to buy than the aforementioned higher-end brands. Spain was responsible for providing the growing masses of enthusiasts with the Bultaco and Montessa brands. Beautiful looking machines but not so reliable.
While the early ‘70s were dominated by the European brands, it wasn’t long before the Japanese big four of Yamaha, Suzuki, Kawasaki and Honda came into the scene full force. Once Honda released the 1974 Honda Elsinore, a technically superior and very reasonably priced machine, the days of dominance for the European manufacturers became immediately numbered.
It may come as a surprise to some to realize that the racing scene in Canada was really happening in the early ‘70s. So much so that the manufacturers began searching outside of Canada trying to find riders capable of winning Championships. Sound familiar? In fact, as early as 1971, Canadian Kawasaki signed a Finnish ace named Kari Nissinen to come over and ride their new machine while Canadian based Bombardier signed former World Motocross Champion Jeff Smith from England to come over to race their new prototype bike, which would eventually come to be known as CanAm.
Canada’s top rider during this period was Newcastle, Ontario’s Ron Keys. Ron was Canada’s first real professional Motocross racer. He competed often in the US and was sponsored by several manufacturers over his career including Greeves, CZ, Husqvarna and Maico. Ron won the Canadian Grand National Championship aboard a Husky in 1971 but his big break came in 1972 when he was hired by Yamaha to debut the brand new YZ brand for the Japanese manufacturer. He rewarded them by capturing the 125, 250 and 500cc National Championships, beating out former World Motocross Champion Jeff Smith of England in the process. It was a clean sweep of all the classes for the man from Newcastle, Ontario. Ron followed that great season up by winning the 250 Championship again for Yamaha in 1973.
Obviously, each company wanted to have the big winners representing their brands, and at that time they were willing to bring in some outside talent and spend some serious money to do it. In 1974, Kawasaki enticed Swedish Factory Husqvarna ace Jan-Eric Sallqvist to come to Canada and race for them. “I’ll never forget it” remembers former Team Kawasaki Manager Carl Bastedo, “Jan-Eric was in St. Gabriel du Brandon, Quebec for a race. He was with Husqvarna at the time and I just walked right up to him and made him an offer, right in front of Gerry Young who was the Canadian importer for Husqvarna during that period.” Bastedo admits that he and his Kawasaki brethren were a little brash at the time. “I just sprung it on him,” chuckles Bastedo. It was a great deal for him, though, and obviously he accepted it.”
1974 also marked the emergence of Molson’s / Laurentide breweries as sponsors for Pro racing in Canada. Molson’s, and its Quebec counterpart Laurentide, sponsored a 5-race series throughout Ontario and Quebec, and the National Championship consisted of two rounds for the first time that season. Thunder Bay, Ontario and Kamloops, BC hosted events that were dominated by the Kawasaki mounted Sallqvist, who took the Championship in the 250 and 500 classes respectively. Kawasaki did not have 125cc machine at that time.
While the bulk of the prestigious events took place in the Ontario and Quebec regions during this period, I would be remiss if I did not mention the vibrant moto scene that was developing in Western Canada as well. Perhaps the top talent out west during this period was Burnaby, BC legend Bill McLean. Bill won the 125 National Championship for Yamaha Canada in 1973, his rookie pro season. By 1974, motocross in BC was ripe with other talented riders such as the brother combinations of Larry and Dan Mackenzie, and Bob and Wally Levy, as well as Rick Sheren and Can-Am rider Jim Small to name a few, but Bill always stood out a little bit from the rest. In 1974, McLean had another great season winning the BC Provincial Championship and finishing second overall and first Canadian in the National Championship. Unfortunately, Bill suffered a badly broken leg the following season, which knocked him out of racing for almost two years.
All this backstory leads us to 1975, the peak of the “Golden Era” of Canadian moto. By this time there were, if you can believe this, seven, yes seven, factory teams vying for Championships and prize money in Canadian racing.
Team CZ featured Vlastimil Valek, an extremely fast Czech GP rider and former World Champion, as well as George Chap, another Czech import. Husqvarna, had Swedish GP rider Gunnar Lindstrom, who some will also remember went on to invent the Gunnar Gasser aftermarket side pull throttle which took the moto world by storm in the late ‘70s. They are still made and in demand today for the ever-growing vintage bike market. Lindstrom’s teammate at Husqvarna was Seppo Makinen, who had recently immigrated from Finland. Yamaha had BC riders Bill McLean and Larry McKenzie in the fold along with Japan’s Nobuyasu (Nicky) Kinoshita and Finnish immigrant Heikki Ylonen. The Suzuki team was comprised of Finnish import Kari Nissinen and Japanese rider Masaru Ikeda. CanAm had the former World Champion, Great Britain’s Jeff Smith, Californian Mike Runyard and Washington States Buck Murphy on their payroll. Surprisingly, the smallest team on the circuit that year was the Honda team that consisted of just two BC riders, Dan Amor and Marv “Captain Marvel” Cross.
The biggest team in Canadian moto in 1975 was the Kawasaki Team. “I had a $200,000 race budget in 1975,” remembers Team Manager Carl Bastedo. “Yvon Duhamel took some of it in road racing, although Kawasaki Motor Corporation US supplemented his budget.” The team was comprised of Sweden’s Jan-Eric Sallqvist, who is now an official with the FIM, Californians Jeff Wecker and Eddie Cole (Cole went on to found Answer Products on his return to California), along with Finnish immigrant Jorma Rautiainen. BC’s Bob Levy and Ontario riders Jay Kimber and Paul Duncan rounded out the squad. Jan-Eric’s mechanic and head mechanic for the team was Californian Cliff White who, after his tenure in Canada and upon his return to California, worked for American Honda, eventually becoming the Race Team Manager for Honda prior to his retirement.
Not everyone at the time thought this influx of foreign talent was such a great thing for Canadian motocross, however. Many Canadian riders complained that the “foreigners” were taking possible jobs and money away from them, and that it just wasn’t fair. Some things in motocross never change as we can see. It got so bad, as a matter of fact, the editor of CMA Magazine at the time, Mike Kerlee, a native Californian himself, felt he needed to address the situation in an article he wrote entitled “Lo, The Perfidious Foreigner.” In the article Kerlee describes the plight of the Canadian Pros and their sponsors who felt “they had little chance against the kind of competition provided by Sallqvist, Kinoshita, Murphy et al. The argument is that it’s not fair to bring in experienced pro-class riders to pick up the top money and prizes, leaving little for “real Canadians.” The article goes on to suggest that perhaps some of these hired guns should have to establish residence in Canada for a certain period of time before being allowed to compete for National honours. In the end, however, the author felt that the increased level of competition and prestige the top foreign riders provided to the sport outweighed the negative effects on our Canadian boys and the practice should be allowed to continue.
So why were there so many teams filled with wold-class talent back then you may be wondering. “Money of course,” laughs Bastedo. As mentioned, Bastedo had a large budget to work with that year as the manager for the Kawasaki team. “All the factory riders, we called them experts back then,” states Bastedo, “had a salary, and they made lots of prize money. Sallqvist came over because I guaranteed him a base salary of $30,000, and all of his expenses were to be covered. That was a lot of money in those days.”
Bill Fullerton, who was hired by Suzuki Canada in 1974 as their chief mechanic, sheds some more light on the situation with the foreign riders in the mid-seventies. “It was so competitive between the manufacturers back then,” remembers Fullerton, who currently runs a parts distribution business for Bombardier in Bracebridge, Ontario. “All the companies were so eager and aggressive in their efforts to gain market share that they were putting some big money into racing in those days. Of course, at the time we didn’t really realize how big and competitive it was. We were just busy doing our jobs. We were great friends off the track and real rivals on race day.” Fullerton spun the wrenches for Kari Nissinen and Japanese rider Masaru Ikeda in ‘74 and ‘75. “Suzuki hired me to develop a racing program and we worked a lot of hours trying to make that happen.” In ’76, Suzuki hired Californian Jim Turner to ride for them and Turner responded by winning the National Championship from Sallqvist, who had moved over to Maico at the time. Fullerton goes on to explain that after the Championship in ‘76 a new President took over at Suzuki Canada and, according to Fullerton, “decided that they had achieved their goal of reaching an appropriate market share and there was no more need for a race team. “Yes, there was no Suzuki program at all in ’77,” remembers Fullerton. “Obviously, I thought it was a bad decision but the new President had absolutely no interest in racing so that was it. No more team.”
On top of their salaries in 1975, the riders were eligible to take a piece of two points paying World Championship GPs with a $15,000 purse, a 4-round National Championship Series with an $8,000 purse plus a $10,000 overall purse, a 5-round Molson’s Series in Ontario paying $5,000 a round plus a $5,000 overall purse. Same for the 5-round Quebec Laurentide Series.
That’s 16 well paying races plus Provincial Championship races, which where always scheduled around those events. The purse at Provincial events was a minimum $2,000, so as you can see there was plenty of cash available for those who were willing to go for it. And to top it all off, all the manufacturers were offering decent contingency money for all the big races. Approximately $1,000 for a race win was pretty much the standard for the time. Bastedo estimates that Sallqvist easily could have earned between $50-60,000 in salary, prize money and contingency during the ‘74 and ‘75 seasons. Not too shabby. In fact, I did some basic research and figured that would be worth around $275,000 in today’s dollars. Now, I’m not sure what today’s top riders in Canada make. I’m thinking it’s got to be decent, but I’m not sure it’s anywhere near that much. “And he wasn’t the only one,” stresses Bastedo. “Jan-Eric made the most but there were at least 15 other guys making a good living racing in Canada at that time.”
But how could this be, you may be wondering? Bastedo explains, “Throughout the ‘70s, motorcycle sales in Canada were skyrocketing. The Japanese manufacturers went from selling 30 thousand units in 1970 to 100 thousand by 1979. The industry has never seen growth like that before or since.” Bastedo goes on to explain that the Japanese business philosophy back then was based more on volume rather than profit. “That changed in the ‘80s, but during the ‘70s they just wanted to flood the market with their bikes and they were not as concerned so much with making huge profits. That explains in part why they were willing to spend big money on racing. Of course, our overhead was nothing like it is today either,” explains Bastedo. “Back then with Kawasaki we had a van, and people thought we were being extravagant. Look at the pits at a National today. It’s not too hard to tell where all the money goes.”
So, the ‘70s really were a wild and wonderful time in Canadian motocross. “Electric” is a word that could be used to describe the moto scene at the time. And it all seemed to culminate with the running of the Canadian 500cc GP at Copetown. Copetown was no stranger to holding big races. As early as 1970, the track was playing host to Inter-Am and Trans-AMA races, which featured top riders from Europe and America along with our Canadian hopefuls. Always organized and prepared by Hamilton’s Steel City Riders, a club that has remained active to this day, the Copetown stop was always a favourite of the top European riders on the circuit.
All the big-name riders of the day were in attendance. The list of Euro stars included 4-time World Champion, Suzuki’s Roger Decoster, and Gerrit Wolsink. Defending World Champion Heikki Mikkola was on the factory Husqvarna and Pierre Karsmakers was the lone USA Honda entry. Bengt Aberg was there representing Bultaco along with Americans Brad Lackey – Husqvarna, Tony DiStefano – Suzuki, and Steve Stackable – Maico. Canada’s hopes of course lay with Swedish import Jan-Eric Sallqvist on the Kawasaki, although the term Kawasaki may be a bit of a misnomer in this case, which is just the beginning of another great and colourful story surrounding this event.
You see, Sallqvist, prior to coming to Canada, was a factory Husqvarna rider back in his native Sweden. Jan-Eric was not happy with his KX 500 that season so his mechanic, Cliff White, in an attempt to make the bike more competitive, converted the factory Kawasaki into what became affectionately known in the pits as the “Kawavarna.”
The legend of the Kawavarna was recently confirmed to me by Bill Fullerton, who was close friends with Sallqvist’s mechanic Cliff White back in those days. “Both Cliff and Jan-Eric were not impressed with the amount of horsepower the Kawasaki was producing. They didn’t feel the bike was competitive,” remembers Fullerton. “The bike Cliff built for Jan-Eric had a Kawi bottom end with modified cases and a Husqvarna top end on it. Cliff was a real perfectionist so the build was immaculate. He hand-made a beautiful pipe for it, of course, and it also had Husky forks and wheels on it as well.” Fullerton goes on to add that, “while they didn’t advertise the fact that the bike was in large part a Husqvarna, everybody knew it, but that’s just the way things were back then.”
Jan-Eric was able put the Kawavarna into the top 10 overall that day, carding 11-9 moto scores for 9th overall. In an interesting side note, Canadian Kawasaki was the title sponsor of the GP event that year, and in, I guess you could say, an ironic twist, their top guy was out on the track riding what essentially amounted to a green Husqvarna. Classic!
As a ten-year-old motocross fanatic at the time, the Copetown GP race weekend was like a dream come true for me, so, for that reason, I thought I would relay a story that captures some of my experiences from that memorable weekend. My father was helping out an Ontario Pro/Expert Rider named Brian Forsyth, who was racing the 250cc support class on a YZ 250, so I got to go along and hang out in the pits all weekend. Can you say Heaven! Armed with my scrapbook filled with photos I had painstakingly cut out of a Popular Cycling magazine (what a nerd), I cruised the paddock on Saturday afternoon checking out the legendary figures of motocross and securing a few key autographs. Steve Stackable, a long, tall Texan who raced for Factory Maico USA, was the first to sign for me. I was lucky to get him because it was hot that weekend and when he wasn’t on the track he seemed to spend most of his time sleeping under his van. My dad was a hardcore Maico man so he approved of that autograph. Next on my list was Bengt Aberg. The Bultaco factory rider and two-time World Champion was parked right beside us in a van…by himself. Things were a little different back then. Unfortunately, I had not included Bengt in my scrapbook but he graciously agreed and signed his name beside a photo of American Bultaco rider Jim Pomeroy. Things were going well and by the end of the day I had landed signatures from most of the big players including the current champ Heikki Mikkola, fellow Husky factory pilot Brad Lackey, and American Suzuki aces Toney DiStefano and Billy Grossi. I was quite pleased and having the time of my life yet the Holey Grail of MX autographs still eluded me. The Suzuki squad was the only team that had any semblance of security around their pits and DeCoster had been elusive on Saturday. In fact, I had only caught a couple of glimpses of him lurking around the back of the Ryder rental box trucks the team was using.
Sunday morning got off to a less than stellar start. My dad’s guy, Brian, got his foot run over in practise by American hot-shoe Frank Stacey. Brian was pissed when he got off the track and confronted Stacey over the incident. For a minute it looked as if it could get ugly but fortunately cooler heads prevailed, although Brian was out for the race, which was a bummer. I couldn’t worry about that, though, as I had more pressing matters at hand – DeCoster!
“Don’t bug him,” said my Dad as I trudged off, scrapbook in hand, “it’s race day!” “I won’t,” I lied, as I made my way towards the Suzuki pits. I wasn’t too optimistic as I made the short walk over but as I got closer my spirits were buoyed. There he was, sitting in a lawn-chair by the fence chatting with Tony D. I flipped my book open to Roger’s page and walked up to him, being careful not to interrupt the conversation. The Man looked at me and I held out my book and a pen which he took from me. Instead of just signing it and handing it back to me, as most of the other riders had done, he studied the picture for what seemed to me to be an unbearably long time. Finally, he looked at me, then back at the picture, then at me. “That’s not me,” he said matter-of-factly. What? What was he talking about, of course it was him.
I didn’t know what to say so naturally I just stood there dumbfounded and said nothing. “That’s not me,” he repeated, “It’s him,” he said as he pointed to Tony D. “Get him to sign it.” What the heck? Why was he doing this to me? I was panicking and didn’t know what was going on. I had already gotten Tony’s signature the day before but what was I to do? I shuffled towards “The D,” feeling totally dejected. Tony stood there staring at me looking less than impressed, and then it happened. They both started laughing. I looked back at Roger and with a big smile on his face he reached out and took my book from me and signed the photo. Wow! They really had me going there for a minute. “Thanks,” I mumbled still feeling a little confused. The feeling of confusion, however, was soon replaced by one of total victory. I had done it! I had landed my White Whale. The autograph was mine and I rushed back to the van to show my Dad.
I must say, it really was one of the most memorable experiences of my young life and I look back on it fondly and vividly to this very day. In the end, both DeCoster and Mikkola, who were duking it out for the World Championship that year, had DNFs in the second moto, and Pierre Karsmakers, based on his 2-2 moto scores, took the win ahead of Wolsink (4-1) in 2nd and American Tony DiStefano (6-3) in 3rd. The headline in Motocross Action magazine read – “What could have been the climactic battle of the GP season turned into a personal victory for Pierre Karsmakers.” For some reason I’ve never forgotten that. It was the one and only 500cc GP victory of Karsmakers’ long and illustrious career.
So, there you have it moto fans. The year was 1975. Canada played host to several more World GPs over the next few years, and while successful, none were as big as the ‘75 Copetown race. Never before or since has there been such a variety of riders and teams competing for moto supremacy in this country. It certainly was a great time to be a motocross fan and proved to be a big part of the colourful history of motocross racing in Canada.