THE CATALINA GRAND PRIX 1950S HEYDAY | AMERICA’S VERSION OF THE ISLE OF MAN

“The Catalina Grand Prix was one of the biggest races In the country at the time. It was a 100-mile event held on Santa Catalina Island of the coast of Los Angeles. The 10-mile course was a mixture of road, dirt fire trails, singletrack, and even went through a golf course. Cycle Magazine noted that many of the big AMA national riders skipped Catalina so as not to suffer embarrassment at the hands of Southern California scrambles riders who dominated the event.” –AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame

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It was a time and energy completely unrivaled in all of motorcycle racing history. Many of the AMA’s best motorcycle racers, local SoCal riders, shop owners, and colorful MC’s (The Checkers, Shamrocks, Rough Riders, Dirt Diggers, and more) mixing with Hollywood actors, stunt riders, and thrill-seekers– all converging on the tiny vacation island from 1951 – 1958 for an event like no other. Actors Keenan Wynn avidly raced, Steve McQueen famously attended, and Lee Marvin infamously raised holy hell. In fact, Dave Ekins went so far as crediting Lee Marvin for being partially responible for the Catalina GP’s demise in 1958–

“So, what happened? There are several reasons as to why they terminated this race. One of the reasons is that money commitment to cover the costs of the programs didn’t show up. After all, can’t have a race without a program. Another was actor Lee Marvin trying to incite a mutiny from the fantail of the homebound steamer. Marvin never needed a microphone even when shouting against the wind and it was all in jest anyway. But the Captain took Lee seriously enough to strap on a sidearm and stand on the bridge. The ship was escorted to the dock by the Harbor Police. Marvin had some explaining to do. Probably the most damaging was when Waikiki Bar owner Mel Porter closed up Saturday night and was mugged on his way home by several scum bags. Mel didn’t take kindly to this treatment and the Chamber of Commerce decided no more races. They chose the wrong person, Mel was the Mayor of Avalon.”  –Dave Ekins

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catalina gp motorcycle race 1953 finish

1953– The Catalina GP finish. Overall Winner, John McLaughlin (far right, #18) on his famous Velocette motorcycle, on which he won the top honors Open Class. He in fact won 3 trophies that year– riding Velocette to victory in the 350cc, and 250cc Class competitions. Hot damn! MacLaughlin started riding back in 1948 after serving in the USAF for six years as a fighter pilot– spending one of those years in a German prison camp. Dave Ekins (brother of Bud) is #128 at far left, having won the 125cc Class on his NSU. Ralph Adams is #58 in the middle, and won the 200cc Class on a Francis Barnett motorcycle. Marty Dickerson won the 250cc Class racing a Jawa 2-stroke. He later humorously recalled, “My competition wasn’t very stiff. I had to stop three times to screw the top back on the carburetor and still won the race.”

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Catalina start 1956 200cc

In 1956, Ed Kretz, Jr. (son of the legendary “Iron Man” Ed Kretz, Sr.) was victorious in the 200cc class at the Catalina Grand Prix riding a Triumph Cub. Here’s an amazing shot of the 250cc and under class start, he’s in the vicinity there somewhere… Kretz, Jr. missed a few seasons in the early ’50s while he served his country in the the war, and came back strong having his best pro years in 1956 and ’57. In 1956, he scored a pair of top-five national finishes and finished tied for sixth in the final AMA Grand National Championship standings. He was again a top-10 rider in 1957 and scored his fourth career podium finish at Peoria. via

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Nick Nicholson Catalina GP

“‘Nick’ Nicholson, winner of the 2nd annual (1952) Catalina Grand Prix. In 1951, Nicholson won the Catalina Grand Prix 250cc race. He also led the premier 500cc event by a large margin before the gas tank on his motorcycle split with just three miles to go in the 100-mile race. A fan gave Nicholson some gas and he was able to make to the finish in fourth. In 1952, Nicholson returned to Catalina and defended his 250cc victory, and also won the 500cc class, beating 182 other racers. Both his 250 and 500cc wins came on a BSA, solidifying the reputation of the burgeoning British brand.” via Let’s just say, he won a few trophies in his day…

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nick nicholson catalina gp motorcycle racer

“‘Nick Nicholson’ one of the most accomplished and versatile motorcycle racers of the 1940s and 1950s, who competed in off-road, trials, road racing and flat-track; as well as being a motorcycle dealer.” via

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Chuck Feets Minert Catalina

“1956 Catalina GP winner Chuck ‘Feets’ Minert. ‘I raced Catalina that year with a big five-gallon tank so I could go the entire race without a pit stop,’ Chuck ‘Feets’ Minert remembers. ‘I stepped off early on and bent my handlebar down pretty bad. I remember coming into the pits and Louie Thomas coming over and with all his might pulling on the handlebar and getting it almost completely straight.’ With the bar straightened, Minert continued on to win the race. It was one of the closest races in the history of Catalina with the top three finishing within 50 seconds of one another. Walt Axthelm and C.H. Wheat finished second and third on BSAs, making it a clean sweep for the British maker.” via

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Catalina 1956 250 race Walt Axthelm first  and Charlie Cripps second.

1956 Catalina GP 250 motorcycle race Walt Axthelm 1st place winner, and Charlie Cripps 2nd place. “Riders were not able to practice the course, but Walt and some of his buddies figured out a way around that. ‘We would always try to get on the haybale crew so we could at least drive around the course setting haybales so we could see what the course was like,’ Axthelm explained. Looking back on his victory in Catalina’s 50-Miler, Walt most remembers a run-in with Triumph flat track rider Don Hawley. ‘I knew how aggressive Don was from track racing,” Walt said. “He had a reputation for running into people. We came out of a corner heading up to the golf course and Don got inside of me and coming out he reached over with one arm and gave me a big thump on the chest. I thought ‘Whoa, what’s with this guy?’” via

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1957 catalina gp Keenan Wynn

Great photo of Hollywood Actor, and motorcycle racer, Keenan Wynn cutting off and over-taking fellow racer George Walker in the 1957 Catalina GP. Signed– “Hey George!!! Honest– I didn’t mean to cut you’se off!!! Best Always, Keenan”

 

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7 thoughts on “THE CATALINA GRAND PRIX 1950S HEYDAY | AMERICA’S VERSION OF THE ISLE OF MAN

  1. No…not like the Isle of Man at all. It was just like the Elsinore Grand Prix. The first few years of that event were exactly like Catalina, and it was finally abandoned for very similar reasons, i.e. idiots behaving badly. Now Elsinore (if they are still doing it..) is greatly sanitized.

  2. Great article, videos and photos. The best one I’ve seen here. That’s when men were still way tough and not fem like many are today. California was still a great place to live too. Times surely have changed.

  3. Thanks for this great Catalina presentation. The next
    Year my husband wanted to go but we were expecting the birth of our baby girl!! Ann Robison (wife of Gary Robison of Can Am fame) thanks again for this. I loved it!

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