Kawasaki Flat Track Calistoga Tour

August 27, 2010
Bart Madson
By Bart Madson
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Bashing away at the MotoUSA keyboard for nine years now, Madson lends his scribbling and editorial input on everything from bike reviews to industry analysis and motorcycle racing reports.

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Watch as Motorcycle USA journeys to the Calistoga Half-Mile in the Kawasaki Flat Track Calistoga Tour Video.

Cracking peanuts and sipping beer, fans watch from the grandstands as riders pop off the line and barrel into Turn 1. Steel boots kick out to the left, flesh and blood outriggers, as the racers’ flat track bikes pitch around the bend, biting for traction on the packed clay. Down the back straight they draft into a group, basking in the half light of dusk. AMA Flat Track racing has returned to Northern California.

The Calistoga Half-Mile hosts the first AMA Flat Track National in Northern California since 1999, and Motorcycle-USA.com is there, guests of Kawasaki. The Team Green folks pitch the byline “Let the good times roll” and we did exactly that, accepting an invitation to motor up to the Calistoga event from the company’s Southern California headquarters.

Out of the City

Motorcycle USA made tracks from our Irvine California offices up north to catch the return of AMA Flat Track to Northern California at the Calistoga Half-Mile.
Motorcycle USA made tracks from our Irvine California offices up north to catch the return of AMA Flat Track to Northern California at the Calistoga Half-Mile.

Two days earlier our trek began in the parking lot of Kawasaki HQ in Irvine, California. For our tour we sampled the Kawasaki Vulcan Nomad, a touring bagger with windscreen and integrated luggage. The majority of our touring troop sourced the fully-kitted Voyager touring model. While 100 miles of unappetizing LA freeway were the first course of our 700-mile tour, the payoff came once off the main arteries, as California backroad byways feature some of the best motorcycle roads in the world.

It doesn’t take long after the Frazier Park exit off I-5 to get in the groove. The curving two-lanes of Forest Highway 95 meander through Los Padres National Forest. The surrounding pines look more like Montana than California, with the occasional open vista revealing the broad Central Valley in the distance. The Nomad handles the sweeping terrain well for an 800-lb cruiser, with the floorboards transmitting glee as they scrape through the tight terrain.

Hitting the backways through Californias coastal range  we pass by the memorial for actor James Dean.
James Dean memorial is located just west of the junctions of Highways 41 and 46.

Meeting up with Highway 33 we drop down into Taft. Founded more than 100 years ago and booming with the discovery of oil, the derricks are still pumping away. The up and down progression of the pumps are a steady counterpoint to the Nomad’s thumping V-Twin as we motor north to the junction with Highway 58.

Ripping through the said scenic byway to the coast, 58 features rolling hills toasted golden brown by the thick heat. On the West Coast it’s difficult to find a bad ride from the I-5 corridor to the coast, but 58 is one of the gems. Enjoying the high-speed pace and smooth surface, we turn off onto one of the many side roads that pass through small agricultural valleys that litter the coastal range.

California has molded so much of American culture, and these lonesome backroads feel like the old haunts of ‘50s hot-rods and Brando’s The Wild One. Fast roads, rock-and-roll and the cult of speed. We’re headed north through alfalfa and tomato fields, our morbid destination the James Dean memorial. It’s a strange stop, the nearby Jack Ranch Cafe featuring a tourist trap of Dean memorabilia. Not far down the road is the Y-shaped junction of Highways 41 and 46, where the Hollywood icon’s fatal crash traded his Porsche for eternal youth.

The curves of Highway 58 en route to Cambria.
Tossing the Kawasaki Nomad around the bends en route to the Pacific Coast Highway, one of America’s greatest touring destination roads.

Crossing the Highway 101, El Camino Real, the climate changes – the unforgiving sun now tempered by a maritime breeze. The route of 58 clips the tops of the coast mountains, with the panoramic views netting endless blue to the west, while to the south is the distinctive profile of Morrow Rock and Morrow Bay. Dropping down to sea level, we hitch up with Highway 1 and our night’s accommodations at Cambria, a scenic tourist town halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Coastal Run

The Pacific Coast Highway is a must-ride section of road, and the narrow two-lane stretch between Cambria and Monterey is some of the most scenic. Of course, that means everyone else wants to see it too, so there’s plenty of traffic, including gigantic motorhomes. This isn’t a high-performance route, but our cruisers are the perfect tools for the job, motoring on through the easy sweeping corners and tight first gear turns as the PCH hugs the winding cliffs.

San Simeon and the looming Hearst Castle are a popular tourist destination, the famed estate built by the media tycoon William Randolph Hearst (The castle is the Xanadu of Orson Welles’ famed film Citizen Kane). The castle remained invisible to us due to the morning marine layer, so instead we take a gander at the Elephant Seal colony San Simeon beach. Our Kawasaki group sharing the parking lot with a host of comparable Harley-Davidson machinery (2009 H-D Electra Glide vs Kawasaki Voyager).

The road only gets more scenic rolling through the fog into Big Sur and then eventually on to Carmel and the Monterey Bay. Stopping in Monterey’s Cannery Row for chow brings back familiar memories of travels for another motorcycle race, the Laguna Seca USGP. Leaving town, the more congested area through Monterey Bay to Santa Cruz holds things up, but from there the views return on the PCH.

It’s lofty columns shrouded in fog, the Golden Gate Bridge always makes for a dramatic entrance or exit to San Francisco.

Passing through coast stops like Half Moon Bay and Pacifica, soon we’re knocking of the gates of San Francisco. Thanks to some savvy navigation from a Bay Area resident in our riding group, we avoid traffic and catch more beachside views in San Francisco. Before we know it we’re rolling through the tree-lined Presidio and on over the Bay on the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s not the first time we’ve traversed the International Orange-colored suspension bridge, but the excitement never fades. The deep blue of the Pacific on the left, clear view of Alcatraz to the right, the fog-shrouded towers of the bridge ahead… The romance of the Golden Gate draws visitors of the world over, with tourists prevalent on the roadside walkway.

The rest of our evening sees us take the 101, turning off at Santa Rosa for our destination, Calistoga.

Off to the Races

We awake in the morning to discover Calistoga. It’s a pity our arrival in the evening spoiled what are fantastic roads, the Napa and nearby Sonoma County backroads a mecca for riders. Calistoga itself is a small town, tucked away in the forested hills. Local hot springs have made the spa town famous, the surrounding wine country a frequent destination for nearby Bay Area residents and international guests alike. The guests rolling into Calistoga this weekend, however, have a grittier look about them. The nearby fairgrounds are within walking distance and the sound of riders flocking to the grandstands begins early.

Kenny Roberts’ TZ750, still imposing after 35 years. Calistoga fans gaped and couldn’t help but smile.

At the racetrack, the fans have already started filtering in. It’s been too long since Flat Track visited the region and the spectators are eager. Northern California has produced some of the greatest racers in the sport’s history, with names like Gene Romero, Jimmy Felice, Ricky Graham, Kenny Roberts and Dick Mann. The pre-race festivities at the fairgrounds include a vintage flat track show, with plenty of rides from the aforementioned local greats on display. Dick Mann originals draw racing aficionados, with the Hall of Famer renowned for his race bikes, often built from the ground up by Mann himself. Fans stare and snap photos of them all. None, however, get as much attention as the notorious TZ750 piloted by King Kenny Roberts at the Indy Mile in 1975. More than once I hear “I was there…” as insiders recount Roberts kissing the hay bales with his rear tire en route to a dramatic come-from-behind victory at the line. Even 35 years later the Yamaha Flat Tracker looks like a sinister brute.

Earlier our group spied Mann at breakfast. Still spry at 76, most racing fans will recognize Mann from his appearance in On Any Sunday, where he sawed off his cast to compete in the Sacramento Mile having broken his leg just three week prior (Mann would go on to fight for the win, eventually forced to pull in due to the pain). Winning Nationals in Flat Track, Motocross and Road Racing, Mann is living legend, on hand for the Flat Track return to Calistoga.

Bill Werner and Jay Springsteen spearhead the Monster Energy-
sponsored Kawasaki Ninja 650R team in the Expert Twins class.

Strolling the pits, Flat Track’s blue collar vibe is apparent. The closed-door access found in most racing is replaced with open easy-ups and a laid back feel. Even when economic times were flush for the industry, Flat Trackers weren’t rolling in the cash like their road racing or motocross counterparts. Now that times are leaner only one rider, Kenny Coolbeth, has a full factory sponsorship. The defending Twins champion, Jared Mees, was actually dropped from the factory Harley squad in spite of snatching the Number-1 plate (good luck finding any H-D badging on his 2010 XR750 race bike – we sure didn’t see any). Still the sport is enjoying something of a resurgence and the mood seems energetic with the return to California and the all-new venue at Calistoga.

Nichole Cheza nabs an early holeshot  the fastest woman on the circuit qualifying for the Calistoga main.
The qualifying heats and semis make for exciting moments including Nichole Cheza (15) taking the holeshot and heat win, as well as Joe Kopp (3) surviving a nasty get-off – the former champ faring better than his XR750.
Joe Kopps night nearly ended with his failed XR750 at Calistoga.

We pay a visit to Kawasaki’s Monster Energy squad. Legendary engine tuner Bill Werner, who wrenched for the multi-champion duo Jay Springsteen and Scotty Parker, has teamed with Springsteen to campaign the Ninja 650R in the Expert Twins class with rider Bryan Smith at the controls. The Harley-Davidson XR750 still reigns supreme in Flat Track, with the major title contenders returning to the tried and true H-D for the Half-Mile and Mile rounds, but the Kawasaki effort is joined by Ducati, BMW and Triumph-powered Twins. The upstart Kawi squad just missed victory earlier that year at Springfield, with Ducati claiming a win earlier this season at the Arizona Mile with former champ and current points leader Joe Kopp at the controls.

The paddock is harried as riders prepare for afternoon practice. Going out in quick four-lap waves, the teams look to dial in settings, searching for the right tire and gearing combination. There’s no time for small talk as the teams get familiar with an all-new venue. Watching from the infield corners, riders search for grip on the clay oval, rear ends skipping around and biting on loose sections, with bar-shaking results. Over time a rubber groove begins to form on the established line, the rider groups taking to the track without letup.

By the opening ceremonies, the grandstands have filled in and prime fenceline spots are long gone. The national anthem gets underway with the usual indifference from the fans, but when the PA system gives out the fans pick up in unison and belt out the last half. It’s a genuine moment that unites the crowd and sets the tone. We’re ready for racing.

Brad Baker  1  and Jeffery Carver Jr duke it out in the Pro Singles Calistoga main.
The Motorcycle-Superstore.com Pro Singles main featured Brad Baker (1) and Jeffrey Carver Jr. (24) delivering a show to the sold-out Calistoga grandstands.

Flat Track’s program format makes for happy spectators. All the action is visible from the grandstands, with the racing furious and broken into numerous heats and semis. Tension builds with the steady stream of short races in the run up for the main event finales.

The points leading Kopp falls hard in his heat race, crumpling into the airfence after a failed linkage on his XR750 breaks his bike in two (Kopp competes on either a Harley or Ducati Twin depending on the conditions). Motionless for a time, Smokin’ Joe gets the crowd on their feet when he gets to his own. Kopp acknowledges the fans adoration by lifting his helmet. The cheers increase. Nichole Cheza, the fastest woman in Flat Track, curries favor with the fans by winning a heat to qualify for the main. When Kopp returns to win his semi starting from the back row, the fans are primed for the final events.

The Pro Singles support class, sponsored by Motorcycle-Superstore.com, delivers the excitement between Brad Baker and Jeffery Carver Junior, but the real show is the Expert Twins main. In it, Chris Carr shows why he remains a fan favorite. The veteran rider and seven-time champ bagged the last two AMA Nationals in Northern California, but is still competitive more than a decade later. Carr shoots out to the lead in the opening laps, getting the crowd going, though he can’t hold the advantage. The earlier hero, Kopp, can’t find the pace either. Instead, young guns Jake Johnson, Sammy Halbert and Steve Bonsey steal the show. Bonsey ices the cake for the local crowd, with the Salinas rider claiming his first career Twins victory on his home circuit.

Native Californian Steve Bonsey took his first Twins victory at Calistoga, the young rider hailing from Salinas.

Featuring high attendance, packed grandstands and spirited racing, the Calistoga Half-Mile lived up to its billing. Venue promoters all but guaranteed a return for 2011 and it appears the Northern California stop may become a regular round in the Grand National Championship calendar, with at least two more rounds rumored for California.

The motorcycle industry may be struggling, but you wouldn’t have guessed it at the Calistoga Half-Mile. Riders are still getting out there having fun, and a flat track national makes for a perfect destination ride. It’s time to pack up the gear, twist the throttle and let the good times roll.