Monday, January 31, 2011

Who is Vinnie Mandzak, and how did he resurrect the Catalina Grand Prix?

The first time I ever went to Catalina Island, I boarded the ferry at Dana Point, in a cold drizzle uncharacteristic of balmy Southern California. The journey took about and hour and a half in rolling groundswell, before we arrived at the harbor and the island's one real town, Avalon.

From the ferry terminal, a curving and palm-lined promenade along the harbor ended at the 'Casino.' (It was never a gambling hall; rather a huge, beautiful art deco film house and, above that, a famous ballroom.) Narrow streets fanning out from the harbor were lined with quaint hotels.

It's not the Isle of Man but it's the closest thing we've got to it. There's a Who's Who of '50s AMA stars in these photos. And why don't our current stars have cool nicknames like Chuck 'Feets' Minert?
The weather had something to do with it, but I had the profound feeling that I was back on the Isle of Man. The only obvious difference was that I couldn't find a decent pub. I did find a sports bar called The Locker Room. If anything, it smelled worse than its namesake. It was a dark dive with big-screen TVs in the front room and pool tables in the back. On the walls, there was a better than average display of sports memorabilia. The frames held mix of local history and signed posters of athletes from 'mainstream' sports.

And, there in the corner, were eight or ten great old black & white photos of motorcycle racers. Considering the company they're in – O.J. Simpson (murderer); Tiger Woods (philanderer); Mark McGwire (steroid user); Pete Rose (gambling addict); and Mike Tyson (rapist, ear-biter) – you'd almost wonder why motorcyclists ever got a such a bad rap...

The reason those old photos were on the wall was that for eight years in the 1950s, Catalina was a sort of baby Isle of Man. The Catalina Grand Prix was inspired by the TT, though since there was hardly any paved roads on the island, it was a race for scramblers. It attracted the best riders on the West Coast, and the course – which was part asphalt, part gravel road, part trail – put a premium on versatility.

Although there were faster desert races – Catalina race average speeds topped out around 35mph – this was one of the highest profile races in the western U.S. It was the first American race for the Yamaha factory. Proximity to Hollywood meant that a few stars came over to ride, lending the event even more glamor. Film star Lee Marvin and prolific character actor Keenan Wynn both rode the Catalina GP, and stunt man Bud Ekins won the Open class in '55.

There were two different courses used during the races. Lightweight bikes raced 10 laps of a 6-mile course. The premier class bikes raced on a 10-mile course that started right in town at the harbor, and climbed to about 1,500 feet in the first three or four miles on a gravel road that was just a series of linked hairpins with a wall of dirt and rocks on one side and steep drops on the other. It would have been dangerous but an absolute blast. At the high point, the course took a much more technical turn, descending a ridgeline back towards town.

Avalon is laid out at the mouth of a narrow canyon, where the canyon opens out onto the harbor. So it's roughly triangular. At the 'back' of the town, there's a huge monument to William Wrigley Jr., the founder of the Wrigley chewing gum business. Wrigley was from Chicago, about 3,000 miles to the east. But in the early part of the 20th century he acquired all the stock of the Catalina Island Company, which effectively made him the owner of the island, and he spent quite a bit of time there. More to the point, so did his son P.K. Wrigley, who was an avid motorcyclist – which is how the race got approved in the first place.

Sorry, these guys are just way cooler than Travis Pastrana. Is it that pudding bowls are inherently cooler than trucker hats? They are, but it's also that modern racers have failed to learn this essential lesson: being cool is like being fast; it never really works out if you're trying too hard. (Photo: Catalina Island Museum, thanks)
Back in the day, race bikes roared past the Wrigley monument, raising clouds of dust. At that time, to be called a 'Grand Prix' (according to the AMA) a race had to have a percentage of asphalt. So the racers raced right through the center of Avalon, along the harbor front, each lap. From '51-'58, the list of Catalina winners included many riders who'd wind up in the American Motorcycle Association's Hall of Fame: Walt Fulton, Nick Nicholson, Aub LeBard, John McLaughlin, Marty Dickerson, Walt Axthelm, Ed Kretz, Bud Ekins, Chuck Minert... the grids were stacked with America's best racers.

Unfortunately, the Catalina Grand Prix was the victim of its own success – by 1958, it was attracting 300 competitors (the motorcycles were brought over by barge) and 7,000 fans. That was more than twice the island's population. So although the organizers of the event were inspired by the Isle of Man TT races, they never figured out how to make the locals enjoy – or at least tolerate – being overrun by motorcyclists. Eventually, even P.K. Wrigley couldn't convince the locals it was worth the trouble.

That was then. This is now...

Over the years, lots of people (including veteran flat track promoter Eddie Mulder) have claimed they were going to resurrect the Catalina Grand Prix, but no one's succeeded. In fact, about 363 days a year, you can't even bring a motorcycle (or any other vehicle) to the island unless you're a resident. It's a funny little place, with only a few roads. The most common vehicle, by far, is a golf cart. There's a sprinkling of mopeds and scooters, and the occasional motorcycle. You'd think it would be a great place for a dirt bike, but almost 90% of Catalina's land area is a nature preserve that's closed to vehicles. I had to get a special permit from the island conservancy just to walk the old 10-mile course.

So when I heard that a Beverly Hills car salesman (OK, he's the sales manager at Mercedes-Benz of Beverly Hills) named Vinnie Mandzak, was going to stage it again, I was skeptical. But Vinnie did manage to pull it off, attracting nearly 800 riders to an AMA-sanctioned weekend event last December.

What's even more surprising is that Catalina was an exceptionally difficult event to coordinate, what with the transportation issues, dealing with the Island Conservancy... Even California state wildlife officials had to get involved, to ensure the races didn't harm a rare species of fox. And it was the first race of any kind that Vinnie had ever promoted!

So, who is this Vinnie Mandzak guy, and how did he succeed where others had failed?

A promoter has to wear many hats. Not necessarily any quite like this though. His sartorial taste notwithstanding, I do not recommend entering the Beverly Hills Mercedes franchise unless you are actually ready to buy a new Benz, because this guy is one hell of a salesman. Vinnie Mandzak portrait by the incomparable Joe Bonello.
I guess I'm just a better salesman,” he told me with a laugh.

Mandzak is 57. He told me that he was a guy who came to motorcycles relatively late in life, and now races the Big 6 series in some veteran classes. He's got the gift of the gab, and apparently he does some announcing at those races, when he's not on course himself. He hadn't really even been aware of Catalina's racing history until a few years ago, when he was in the Hilltoppers club house looking at old photos.

Like a lot of 'born agains' his enthusiasm is fresh. “I said, 'We have to do this again,'” Vinnie told me. “They said, 'Forget it, people have tried.' I said, 'I'm going to do it.' They said, 'You'll never get it approved.' I said, 'Watch me.'”

He started working on the event nearly full-time, coordinating with AMA District 37, The Catalina Island Company (which owns virtually all of the island), the Catalina Conservancy, and the city of Avalon.

With the race's near-mythical status in the U.S. there was no question the stars would come out again; Travis Pastrana raced, Ricky Johnson – a 7-time AMA MX/SX champ came out. Even the ageless On Any Sunday star Malcolm Smith entered. “I limited the entries (to the number we could handle transportation-wise) and you should have heard the stories people told me, trying to get in after I'd closed registrations,” he laughed. “Now I know how cops feel listening to people's excuses for speeding.”

As in the 1950s, several hundred race bikes were brought over by barge. Since container space was at a premium, even pro riders made do with minimal pits and spares. The nature preserve that covers most of the island was off limits, and while the bikes paraded through town, they didn't race through the main streets they way they once did. Still, Mandzak and his crew managed to lay out a six-mile course that combined several miles of fast fire roads clinging to steep hillsides with a modern motocross section, and there was even a bit of asphalt. About 2½ miles of the course had been part of the old 'Saturday course.'

There were no practice sessions, so the only way for the pro racers in the premier classes to reconnoiter the circuit was by entering in one of the (many!) support classes. There were six races per day broken into over 30 classes from little kids on minibikes to guys like Homer Knapp, 70, who raced the same '29 Harley-Davidson this year that he did in '54 and '57!

Although Vinnie was unable to arrange for the race to pass right through 'downtown' Avalon, as it did in the '50s, the bikes paraded through town on the way to the start area. (The reason cited for keeping the race out of the town proper is that the course would have cut off emergency access to a new condo complex; it was a problem they didn't have to solve in the old days, when there was nothing much past the Casino.) Joe Bonello photo, thanks.
Malcolm Smith's son Alexander, who's making a name for himself in extreme enduro events like Red Bull Romaniacs, and Last Man Standing, told me, “My dad and I were just walking around in shock, amazed that they were even letting us race on the island again.”

Once the races got going, riders found that the fire roads were fast and smooth, although they developed some ruts and big holes as the races wore on. “It was like a flat track race, but there was a 1,000 foot cliff at the edge of the track,” said Alexander. “And when it rained partway through the Pro race, it was as slick as ice!”

The motocross section included a few doubles and step-ups that rewarded commitment, but overall that part of the course was more like a scrambles, or vintage motocross track. Kurt Caselli, an ISDE star, led the premier-class “Pro 18+” race early but a bad air filter let his engine ingest a bunch of dirt, bringing him to a stop.

The course was well suited to riders used to fast southwestern desert races, and indeed Kendall Norman – a four-time winner of the Baja 1000 – edged out motocrosser Sean Collier and Edurocross ace Colton Haacker for the premier-class win. The race was a full two hours long, so everyone had to refuel, but no one was pacing themselves. “It was flat out, balls-to-the-wall the whole time,” Alexander told me, when it was over.

Vinnie, pictured here, raced his own '81 Maico 490 - not a bike for the faint-hearted! He lost the rear brake partway through, so it wasn't exactly a moment of glory for him. But he was definitely the hero of the day, anyway. And, he says he's on the verge of resurrecting another historic event, too. I wonder which one?..
As in the old days, the races were free for the fans, and they were were hugely popular with fans and racers both. Vinnie also raced in one of the vintage classes. “For me, the best part of the whole thing was bringing the young guys and the old guys together,” Mandzak told me. “I mean, at one point I had Travis Pastrana on one side of me and Malcolm Smith on the other side of me, and they were telling me how great this event was. During the parade through town, my goggles fogged up because I started crying!”

The event pulled in nearly $200 grand in entry fees alone. I asked Vinnie if he'd turned a profit. “Let's just say that when I was working all year to put this event on, I told people that if when it was over I had enough money left over to buy a BSA Catalina Scrambler I'd be happy. Have you seen what those things go for? There was no way!” He told me that the event would have cost at least $250 grand to put on if he'd paid cash for everything, but that a number of key suppliers volunteered their time and effort because they felt they were about to make history.

Red Bull came late to the party, but Vinnie's grateful for their promotional assistance. “They put the icing on the cake, they put the cake in a nice box, and then they advertised the cake,” was how he put it. “They told me they'd had something like 16 million hits on their web site in the two months after the race, so they're happy.”

He's not one to take all the credit. While we talked, Vinnie was careful to list many people who'd helped him put on the event.

Mandzak's agreement to promote the race was a one-year deal, but Catalina Island's local economy relies entirely on tourism. Estimates of the number of fans ranged from 5,000 to 20,000 – although that's a wild exaggeration. Still, all the ferries were full and they had to put on extra boats; bars and restaurants were packed, and every hotel room and holiday rental was booked – a time of year that would normally be slow on the island. Mandzak says he's already negotiating to put the race on again in 2011.

America's coolest race is back.

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