The Big Names of 1972 AMA Race at Salem 1/2 Mile Flat Track
Have you ever wondered if you’re looking at the next big star? Before they make the big times? For a moment in 1972, some of the biggest names of all time in worldwide motorcycle racing were right here in the backyards of the future World of Speed, racing wheel-to-wheel!
The following photos were taken at the 1972 American Motorcycle Association ½ mile flat track race in Salem, Oregon, near the fairgrounds.
Here are just a few of the ones we can identify from the collection of 35mm film slides donated to World of Speed. If you have corrections or more information about any others (an e-flipbook available below includes all images from the collection along with a catalog link), please share in the comments!
Kenny Roberts on the grid for the AMA National race at Salem, OR in 1972 with man wearing local Sidewinders club jacket in the background; Salem AMA Motorcycle Slides Collection, WOS#5452.25.
In 1972, Kenny Roberts was a youthful 21 years old AMA Rookie of the Year. An immensely talented and thoroughly analytical rider, Roberts was already three years into his professional racing career, and two years into a factory Yamaha contract. However, he was still not much known outside of the USA. Roberts went on to finish 2nd in the AMA Grand National Championship that year, his first season as an expert class rider.
In 1973, he won the AMA Grand National Championship and again in 1974. That year also saw Roberts winning his first road race (Road Atlanta), presaging his worldwide success in later years.
In those years, the AMA Grand National Championship consisted of 5 different racing disciplines: mile ovals, half miles, short tracks, TTs and road races. The first four were on dirt tracks, while the last was on pavement.
Dirt trackers can top 100 mph on oval tracks. They have no front brake, relying instead on engine braking, a rear brake and sliding sideways to scrub off speed. Indeed, sliding the rear tire is key to steering around corners. Riders battle handlebar to handlebar while sideways at high speed. The drafting battles are epic. Races are won or lost by fractions of a second.
Kenny Roberts (#80) in action at the 1972 AMA National race in Salem; Salem AMA Motorcycle Slides Collection, WOS#5452.25.
But in order to win the Grand National Championship, a rider must also be well rounded and competitive on pavement as well. Road racers don’t just turn left. They must do everything well: go, stop and turn right as well as turn left. At big road courses like Daytona, the top speeds are much higher than dirt tracks.
Riders who have wins in all five Grand National disciplines achieve the AMA Grand Slam. There have been only four in AMA history. Roberts is one of them, the second one to do so when he achieved the mark in 1974. The other Grand Slam winners are Dick Mann (1972), Bubba Shobert (1986), and Doug Chandler (1989). In fact, Roberts is still the only rider who has won a Grand Slam twice, and the only rider who won all 5 types of races in a single season, in 1975!
Thus, from this crucible of American racing, the riders who are fast and versatile enough to succeed are well prepared to dominate the world stage. Roberts was about to do just that.
World championship motorcycle road racing in the 1970s was dominated by European riders. MV Agusta of Italy was the dominant constructor, with Yamaha and Suzuki just coming on the scene. Motorcycles had more motor than tires, brakes or handling. European style road racing consisted of super late braking, and smooth arcs around the turns in order to avoid upsetting the slippery tires and flexible chassis.
Kenny Roberts in the Salem paddocks, 1972; Salem AMA Motorcycle Slides Collection, WOS#5452.25.
Roberts brought a completely different riding style, one that evolved from his years in American dirt tracking. His technique of early braking, and hard on the gas to break rear tire traction and help steer the motorcycle, was a revelation to Europeans. He also developed a knee-dragging style at maximum lean that is reminiscent of dirt trackers dragging their left boot through the turns.
In 1978, his first year racing full time in Europe, on racetracks that he mostly had never seen before, Roberts won the World Championship for Yamaha in the premier 500 cc class. He won 3 championships in a row, against increasingly fierce competition. His technique of steering the motorcycle with the rear wheel would define the pinnacle of GP racing through the two-stroke era, all the way through to the advent of four-stroke engines and sophisticated engine management electronics.
Roberts blazed the trail for many more future American World Champions: Freddie Spencer, Eddie Lawson, Kevin Schwantz and Wayne Rainey, all former dirt trackers. Even now, with MotoGP motorcycles utilizing computerized traction control, many top riders such as Valentino Rossi of Italy and Marc Marquez of Spain recognize the benefits of training on dirt tracks with their right wrists as the only traction control.
In 1972, at Salem, OR, how many racing fans looked at the diminutive rider in the yellow and black leathers on a factory Yamaha bike and wondered whether they were looking at a future giant of the sport?
CAL RAYBORN II
Even though he started his racing career on the dirt tracks of Southern California, by 1972 Cal Rayborn II had become the road racing specialist of the AMA Grand National Championship series. His success on road courses landed him a ride on the Harley-Davidson (H-D) factory team. He won the Daytona 200 for H-D back-to-back in 1968 and 1969. In 1972, Rayborn won 3 of the 6 Trans-Atlantic Match Races, riding an outclassed push-rod Harley on British race tracks he had never seen before, against opponents riding nimble British motorcycles on their home turf.
Harley-Davidson factory racer Cal Rayborn II in the Salem paddocks, 1972; Salem AMA Motorcycle Slides Collection, WOS#5452.30.
One of the most versatile American racers ever, Dick Mann was the first rider to score a Grand Slam, winning all five Grand National disciplines in 1971. He also competed at a national level in motocross dirt track, and road races. Just a couple of years before these photos, in 1970, Mann won the Daytona 200 for the first time, after 15 tries, riding a Honda CB750. That was the beginning of the total domination of the 200 by Japanese manufacturers.
1971 Grand Slam winner Dick Mann in the Salem paddocks, 1972; Salem AMA Motorcycle Slides Collection, WOS#5452.40.
Dick Mann in leaning into the turn in the 1972 AMA National in Salem; Salem AMA Motorcycle Slides Collection, WOS#5452.39.
Mark Brelsford was one of the four Harley-Davidson factory team riders at the 1972 race along with Cal Rayborn II, Mert Lawwill, and Dave Sehl. Brelsford won 3 races, scored 8 podiums and won the Grand National Championship in 1972. After two major accidents in 1973 and 1974, both times breaking both his legs, and numerous hand surgeries, the future AMA Hall of Fame inductee decided to leave it all behind and moved to Alaska.
Mark Brelsford (#87) riding a XR750 Harley at the 1972 Salem AMA Nationals race; Salem AMA Motorcycle Slides Collection, WOS#5452.28.
Mark Brelsford (#87) upfront in a factory Harley-Davidson XR750 at Salem, OR; Salem AMA Motorcycle Slides Collection, WOS#5452.39.
Harley-Davidson factory racer Mert Lawwill (left) and Dick Mann (right) in the paddocks; Salem AMA Motorcycle Slides Collection, WOS#5452.31.
MORE GREAT PHOTOS
The paddock fills of racers and bikes while the parking lot fills with vans used to haul in the bikes during the 1972 AMA National in Salem, OR; Salem AMA Motorcycle Slides Collection, WOS#5452.23.
Bikes are prepped and checked again to be race-ready for the 1972 AMA National; Salem AMA Motorcycle Slides Collection, WOS#5452.01.
All are getting ready in preparation for AMA National race in Salem, OR, 1972; Salem AMA Motorcycle Slides Collection, WOS#5452.06.
Unnamed racer waits among other racers at the 1972 AMA National; Salem AMA Motorcycle Slides Collection, WOS#5452.17.
Riders take off at the 1972 AMA National in Salem, OR; Salem AMA Motorcycle Slides Collection, WOS#5452.12.
Teammates #76 and #12 come out of the turn at top speed during the 1972 AMA National; Salem AMA Motorcycle Slides Collection, WOS#5452.36.
Mid-race wipeout during a 1971 AMA National race at Salem, OR; Salem AMA Motorcycle Slides Collection, WOS#5452.33.
While Salem’s outdoor half mile flat track is no more, the indoor Salem Speedway short track is still open for business; Salem AMA Motorcycle Slides Collection, WOS#5452.71.
Check out the full collection of photos here: