In its glory days, Daytona was the world's most important motorcycling race, and the wildest
I had been fascinated by America’s super-speedways for years before I actually got to see one in 1971. By that time the ultimate lap record around Daytona’s 2.5-mile tri-oval stood at a barely credible 194.015mph, a speed set by Cale Yarborough in a Mercury stock car (ie saloon car) the previous year, on primitive crossply tyres.
I tried to walk up Daytona’s east banking, to examine the feared wall that Yarborough and other stock-car greats such as Fireball Roberts and Richard Petty must have scraped (or occasionally gone over) in their tussles in the track’s 500- mile car races. Near the top, my shoes slipped from under me, and I had to get on all fours to reach the rim. Daytona’s bankings are really steep – 31° at the top.
I fell in love with everything about Daytona: the scale of this vast celebration of speed, the hedonism of America in the early ’70s and the Florida sunshine. For the 200-miler that year, no less than 117 riders formed up in waves on the grid (the Spanish 500cc Grand Prix that year had just 14 starters). The mad policies that prevailed at BSA-Triumph led the group to field ten works riders and a support crew of 60, even as the water was swirling over the captains’ ankles on that doomed ship.
We were staying at the same hotel as the BSA-Triumph crew, and I remember that every time a journalist walked through the foyer, a PR puppet would spring from the bar and ask: “Would you like a drink?”
Word came that Forkin’ Frank, whoever he was, was holding a party in his basement room. He turned out to be a manufacturer of chopper forks from the mid-west, but he also seemed to be an alcoholic, because when we filed into his place there was an entire wall lined with cases of booze. Frank spent a lot of time crawling about on the floor, which we put down to him being drunk. But when it was time to go, we found that he had taped together everyone’s legs. You had to get a knife or scissors to cut yourself free.
It may have been later in that unending night that I flung my passport to the far corners of the hotel bar, declaiming: “I’m never going back to England!” It must have been later still that ‘friends’ wedged my bed (with me in it, unconscious) diagonally into a lift and pushed the button for the ground floor. No idea how I got out of that mess.
At the speedway, wonderful technical battles were unfolding – Harley V-twins, Honda CB750 fours, 500cc Kawasaki triples, 500cc Suzuki twins, 350cc Yamaha twins – it was the peak of Daytona’s glory days, when manufacturers vied for success in the booming American market.
Through the speed trap New Zealander Ginger Molloy was fastest at 155.17mph on a Kawa triple – nearly 4mph quicker than the fastest four-stroke, Gary Fisher’s Honda. Mike Hailwood was on the fastest of the BSA-Triumphs, at 151mph. But qualifying on the 3.81-mile infield/banking circuit was a different matter, with Paul Smart on a Triumph heading the Harleys of Cal Rayborn and Mark Brelsford.
Smartie deserved to win the 200-miler; as the miles droned past under the Florida sun, he was leading by 26sec with only a few laps remaining when his factory bike holed a piston. He explained his woes to millions of listeners on 130 radio stations around the USA, while the 37-year-old Dick Mann, track-wise from a zillion battles on America’s harsh dirt-track circus, emerged to win the race and £3000 (£40,000 today). This curious event on a track woven together from a NASCARstyle oval and artificial infield turns had produced another surprise winner.
Hailwood’s bike dropped a valve when he was holding second place after 15 of the 53 laps, but the British triples still dominated, thanks to their policy of flooding the grid. Gene Romero finished second on a Triumph, and Don Emde third on a BSA.
But it was the last time the British company was to taste success on the high banking. By the following year the water was washing over the bridge, and the two-strokes were to take over.