We're introducing a new name, who I hope is going to become a regular Sideburn blogger. Todd Marella is a firm friend we met through DirtQuake USA. He's lived a life, a continues to do so. The latest chapter is buying his first ever race bike, at the age of 53, and going flat track racing for the very first time. Here's the story...
Last night was my first official flat track race. It was at Salem speedway, which is a large concrete floor, with a shed roof over it, and open sides nestled between the Poultry Pavilion, and the rodeo arena at the Oregon State Fairgrounds. They bring in about a million yards of soil, enclose it with concrete Jersey barriers and fencing, suspend a starting light from the rafters and they grade a little race track... Sammy Halbert was at the same rider’s meeting I was, getting pre-race instruction. Oddly, I’m not nervous, at all. I’m surrounded by friends and a very welcoming community. I’m confident my little bike will propel me around the arena fast enough to broaden my smile and love of flat track racing.
It was 1971 and I was an eight-year-old kid living in Long Beach, CA. My mom was dating a man who was also called Todd. My friends and I all called him Big Todd. He was big. Bigger than life. He played inside linebacker at Long Beach State, and was an industrial design major. He also loved motorcycles. He had an old Greeves and Honda 305 scrambler that he painted bright orange. He took me everywhere. One day, he and my mom said they had a surprise and dropped me and three of my friends off at the art movie theatre on 4th street. We had no idea that we would be transformed by watching On Any Sunday.
The next Friday night, I was in J. C. Agajanian’s famed Ascot Park in Gardena. The sound was my first sensory trigger, followed by that smell...that sweet smell of castor oil, “bean oil,” as Big Todd called it. 'That’s the smell of a two-stroke,' he informed me. Getting closer, the smell became richer, and the noise, more thunderous.
We created the steps and I caught my first view of the track. I’ve never done it, but they say heroin is addictive the first time. Flat track was that for me. 'Is Dave Aldana here?' It turns out he was. And so were Jim Rice, Gene Romero, and probably a young Kenny Roberts.
I already had my first bike, a Honda Z50 with fold down bars. Big Todd fashioned real handlebars for it after I broke one of them. He also put a little Dell'orto carb on it. My next bike was a Honda XR75. I was smitten. After that, it was ‘78 CR 125 Elsinore. When I was 14 my mom and I were back on our own. My friend across the street had a really hot XR75 that his dad bought him. It belonged to Jeff Ward before he moved up to 125’s... Charlie’s Dad had a really trick TT500 and he would take Charlie and I riding at Saddleback Park. It was heaven on earth, miles and miles of back country, motocross tracks, a flat track, hill climb... I invariably ended up on the flat track. Every time. I was obsessed.
The author with So Cal racer Sonny Nutter at Perris earlier this year.
Guys would be practicing on their big four-strokes, and the occasional framer Bultaco filling the air with that bean oil scent. I struggled to get the knobbied Elsie sideways, but I persisted... American football, skateboarding, and all things surf were becoming priorities over motorcycling, as my mom couldn’t support the expensive habit of top-end rebuilds, and such. I quit riding bikes...
Flash forward 30 years... I’m now in Portland, OR. I’d had conversations with old timers I’d worked with as a brakeman for Union Pacific Railroad. They told me about sidewinders and Castle Rock. I thought flat track was dead. Work, marriage, children had all occupied my time enough to miss the cues... flat track was alive and breathing.. .then, I get a tip from a friend I ran into seeing another friend’s band. They’d moved to Seattle and said they were down for the “One” Show. They told me about it, and I found it. It was in a warehouse off the Interstate. My romance with flat track and motorcycles was reborn. There were young guys building flat track bikes...and everything else with two wheels, an engine, and handlebars... I starting asking around 'Who organized this?' There was a backroom to the place, and I walked right through the door. Among a group of other long-haired modern skater looking kids, was Thor Drake. See See wasn’t around yet, but as is the case today, the idea of it was happily jousting with a million other ideas of how to mix motorcycles, people, music, art, and fun.
By the time the coffee shop opened, the guy welcomed me to the fold, based upon my appreciation for his spirit, and our common love of flat track. Naturally, through him, I’ve met the whole See See crew, and many of the good folk who get their daily cuppa at the shop. I’d been to see a couple of races at Castle Rock, where I felt many of the same emotions I did as a kid at Ascot. Organized rides, art shows, 70s biker movies projected outside behind the shop, a slide show of his recent trip to Europe (which included the Isle of Man TT), riding all over on a loaned Triumph... The company party/ride/camping trip to an oyster farm on the Olympic peninsula, more One shows, and then Dirt Quake USA!
Thor first mentioned it during the slide show... and this cool flat track magazine published in England, Sideburn. 'Yeah, Gary, the guy who started it, is really into flat track, and he puts on this amazing event called Dirt Quake!...I wanna do it here!' Thor can’t help but smile. He smiles when he’s excited about something that could lead to fun. Thor smiles a lot. It’s infectious.
I’d purchased an XS650 from a guy here I Portland off of Craigslist. It had 1500 original miles on the odometer. His cousin was the original owner... It was stolen from him. 14 years later, the sheriff knocks on his door and tells him, 'We found your bike.' The guy got the bike, but never rode it. His cousin bought it from him, put a new tank and tyres on it, and about 1000 miles on it. He sold it to me with the promise that I wouldn’t build a chopper from it. Little did he know, I pictured myself in black and yellow leathers posing for a picture with one of the trophy girls at Ascot sitting on this bike.
Todd getting a stern talking to from Dave Skooter Farm after crashing at DQUSA (Enginethusiast)
After attending DQUSA as a spectator (and as part of the group playing to the crowd one year), I decided to race the trusty 650 (at DQUSA 2017). I highsided and came off the bike in pretty grand fashion entering turn one on the second lap of practice...the bike did a complete flip, so did I, and I was pretty dejected. I’d not even made a complete lap! My fiends straightened the bars, I collected my thoughts, and I raced...not so well in my heat, as I was a little gun shy from practice earlier in the day. In the main, I told myself to just relax and go for it. I did. Finished 4th or 5th depending upon who you ask. It didn’t matter...alas, I was hooked.
Grainy shot of Todd, on his XS650 street bike, at DQUSA
I’d been down to Salem to watch the races a couple of winters previous to this. Dirt Quake, my age, my doctors, my family...they were all hoping they’d never hear me say what I said a few months ago... 'I’m getting a bike, and I’m going to race in Salem.' I found a bike, and after a hurried test ride on a rainy day, behind the Cleveland High School stadium, I fell in love with the most improbable little flat track Frankenstein. It’s a ‘76 RD200 engine, yes a twin air-cooled two-stroke, shoehorned into an old Suzuki TS125 frame, with 19" wheels, a bunch of custom fabbed parts by the builder, and an Original Ray Carrol tank... think: Sidewinders legend. I met Korry Fitzpatrick at Dirt Quake this year and we’ve hit it off. Korry is an obsessive tuner, and won’t relent until it’s right. He bought an old MX250 to race.
Between him, Sean and Jimmy at MC Custom Fabricators in Estacada the bike was raceworthy. Then Casey Him, at Cycle Heap in Portland, tirelessly got to the bottom of every little thing wrong with the bike, getting it to run like “a raped ape,” as he describes it, was tuned until it finally unleashed its screaming two-stroke pep to him. I can’t thank him or anybody along the way enough.
MC Custom Fabricators raised the seat, lowered the left peg, and re-welded my muffler back onto the pipe. What a difference to the ride I experienced in the season’s first practice. I could actually ride it without fatigue!
In what some say is becoming too much of a pattern, I laid it down in practice...busting off the toe piece of my shifter in the process. Great... I decided to race the two classes I signed up for anyway: 250 Vintage, and 40+ Vintage.
After a disastrous initial start, in which I nearly looped the bike, I managed to get a better shot in the restart, and work my way to the front, coming out of turn 4 on the last lap, my chain flies off...I coasted across the line first (according to the results sheet) but was unable to race any more that night, due to a busted chain..
I’ve got the stoke, 46 years after my first whiff of bean oil, and my first taste of flat track.
BUY a Sideburn x 250London race shirt like Todd's while stocks last. Limited sizes available.