by Gary Martini
It was the fall of 1968. Like any other 14 year old coming of age in the late 1960's, I had many interests (most of which revolved around becoming a rock star). My biggest passion of late was dirt bikes and moto cross racing. In the world of today, developing an interest in racing at that age is considered late. One must consider the atmosphere of the day, most of the general populace had no knowledge of motorcycles, racing or any other aspect of the sport so common today. Indeed, for the average person, any reference to motorcycles was generally negative. Remember the time frame, this was a full four years before the first "Superbowl Of Moto Cross" and the fledgling sport was in it's infancy in Southern California and soon to follow, the country.
Having recently acquired a Hodaka Ace 100, I was anxious to compete in my first race and was excited at the prospect of seeing the "Europeans" moto cross stars who were touring the country in a series of races that was the predecessor to the Inter-Am, and later Trans-Am series. So, on that warm fall day , I was happy to have talked my dad into taking me and my friend Kevin to this new place we had heard about by the name of Saddleback Park to see our first professional Moto Cross race featuring the stars of the sport. I remember that day like it was yesterday, we spent the entire day standing on the terraces overlooking the entire track watching names like Roger DeCoster, Joel Robert, Bengt Aberg and others embarrass any American rider silly enough to line up next to these titans.
For me, that magic day all those years ago clinched my love affair with Moto Cross and, little did I know it at the time, cemented a career path so that over thirty years later I make my living in the industry today. Aside from fueling my passion for dirt bikes, what my self and the countless others who came through the gates in the years the park was open could not have known was that the creation of Saddleback Park also had a profound impact on the sport of Moto Cross and later Supercross in this country. Indeed, when Joe Parkhurst leased the land and opened his innovative concept in the then abandoned, sun scorched hills of Irvine California, neither he, nor anyone realized the role it would play in the growth of the industry.
So thirty five years after it opened, and almost eighteen years after it closed it's gates forever, it's time to examine the phenomenon that was Saddleback Park. A place that still lives in the annals of Southern California legends.
I - History
Before one can understand the impact saddleback Park had upon the motorcycle industry or the importance of it's pioneering operations, consider the atmosphere in southern California in the later half of the 1960's.
Kids born in the tail end of the baby boom were of early to mid tee age years. While their older brothers and sisters were at college taking full advantage of the "sexual revolution", their younger siblings looking for less headier pursuits. A growing number of these kids were discovering motorcycle recreation. Specifically, they were attracted to off road riding or "scrambling" as it was then known. This activity was made possible by the emergence of light weight, powerful, under 250cc bikes from the Japanese manufactures. Honda Motor Co., Ltd led the way importing the "step through" 50 in the early 1960's. Until then, motorcycles were big, oil dripping, loud, dangerous machines ridden by greasy hoodlums typified by groups like the Hells Angels. The new machines from Japan revolutionized the industry, radically altering the public's image of motorcycles, and for the first time allowing young people access to motorized recreation.
Off road riding in southern California at this period ranged from loading up the pick up truck and driving to the deserts that surround he L.A basin, to kids riding mini bikes (usually home-built frames using 8 inch wheels and Briggs And Straten lawn mower engines) in the vacant lot down the street after school. Almost every kid knew someone who had a "scrambler". One reason for this is that these were easy to create. Just take your favorite 90 to 150cc street bike, remove the fenders, headlight, and tail light, add some handle bars with a cross bar, install some "class C" tires, chop off the muffler, and presto, instant off-road machine.
Hand in hand with emergence of Japanese imports, and kids with free time to ride them was a growth in motorcycle racing, m ore specifically, off-road racing. Traditional competitions consisted of big Triumphs, BSA's and Harley on quarter mile ovals. Now younger people were racing Honda's Headache's Yamaha's etc. in the desert or at "TT Scrambles". A new sport was sweeping the industry, this form of racing recently introduced from Europe, Moto Cross. This new sport was rapidly taking hold and would soon surpass most other forms of competition in popularity.
By the later 1960's the growth in popularity of these new motor sports was causing some difficulties. With all of the new converts to off road riding the traditional riding areas in the deserts were becoming crowded and over used, riders were pushing further into wilderness areas in search of choice riding areas. Additionally, all the impromptu inner-urban riding areas were drawing complaints from neighbors in the ever expanding suburbs. In some of these areas, the sound of unsilenced two-stroke engines could be heard for miles. As environmental concerns increased (the environmental movement was just becoming a force to be reconded with), the writing was on the wall. Some sort of compromise had to be found on the issue of land use
Into the frey enter Joe Parkhurst, who at the time was the publisher of Cycle World Magazine. Together with partner Meyers Manx (founder of the Manx Dune buggy company) they leased approx. 700 acres of parched land bordering Irvine Lake in the hills of Orange County, CA that was once part of the Irvine family Ranch.
The Irvine Company in the late 1960's was a giant land holding and developing company owned, for the most part by the Irvine family. The Irvine Company controlled vast tracts of undeveloped land south of Los Angeles County. Most of this land having been in the family since the days of the Spanish explorers.
Mr. Parkhurst was able to procure this land due to his contacts in the Irvine family. Being a Newport Beach, CA business person, he socialized regularly with members of the family and executives of the corporation. Parkhurst was able to sell the Irvine Company on the idea of leasing him this land for several reasons.; first, he convinced them that this particular parcel, even though near Irvine Lake, was valueless because it bordered a county land fill. The most significant argument he used is that he never mentioned motorcycles (at least not initially). Parkhurst and partner Meyers Manx told the Irvine Company their park was to be a dune buggy off road park. Manx envisioned the park as a was to increase sagging sales of his dune buggy conversion kits. Parkhurst saw it as a way to help increase sales of motorcycle magazines. There were also some within the
Irvine Company who thought this park could add some value to the many new housing developments they were building through the county by offering alternative recreation opportunities to the newly affluent middle classes who were buying houses in these areas.
After a short time, it became apparent that the dune buggy crowd was not flocking to the new park in numbers imagined by the partners. They needed to add to their customer base. Parkhurst, who had watching the increase in popularity of off road motorcycles, went to the Irvine Company and convinced them to allow motorcycles in to his park by telling them that, in admitting motorcycles, they would eliminate all of the illegal riding on the vacant lots in Irvine, Tustin, Santa Ana, etc.
At this time they hired an operations person. Vick Wilson was convinced to sell his interest in a Dana Point gas station and join the partners as the day to day manager. His experience as a farmer gave him the ability to operate the machinery, he also helped them buy WWII water trucks and other grading equipment.
Mr. Parkhurst could not have known the significance of his endeavor. Indeed, rather than being some grand visionary, history will show he was a good businessman who saw a potential market and tried to serve it
II - OPERATIONS
Saddleback Park got its name due to the fact that it was laid out in the foot hills of Saddleback peak.. This mountain was part of a range that separated the costal hills of Orange County from Lake Elsinore and the lower deserts. The mountain could always be seen from any point in the park. Indeed, the mountain was used as the park's logo.
One of the first items to lay out was a moto cross track. In the fall of 1967, Joe Parkhurst solicited the help of the visiting Europeans MX stars to lay out a moto cross track on his property. The location chosen was the front side of the ridge line that separated Peter's Canyon from Irvine. Remember, originally the front gate of the park was in Peter's Canyon, not it's current location. On a fall day in 1967 Roger DeCoster, Dave Bickers, and Joel Robert showed up to help the partners lay out their MX track. After several hours of walking and surveying an excellent, natural terrain track was created (the area had, the week before, suffered a brush fire and those involved in laying out the track ruined their shoes from the ashes). That next weekend the fledgling CMC held the first moto cross race at Saddleback Park (the CMC would have the distinction of also holding the last Race ever held at Saddleback Park in 1984). As it turned out, that event was the last held on that first track. The neighbors in the exclusive homes in the valley below complained bitterly about the noise. Both the track and park entrance were soon moved to the location known by most people.
A fleet of motorcycles was procured for the rental business. A store and shop were constructed adjacent to the main ticket booth.
Saddleback Park was open seven days a week (weather permitting) dawn to dusk. For a small entrance fee you could ride your motorcycle on the front half of the acreage (remember, in the beginning, the park was fenced in to two parts. Motorcycles in the front, dune buggies on the back trails).
The park had Moto Cross tracks (later a second track was added),, TT Scrambles, Trials, A hill climb area known as the Matterhorn, and later a BMX track. A wide graded (sometimes) fire road ran along the ridge line and connected all the areas park with the front side and main entrance. There was a great deal of elevation change through out which made for many challenging trails for all skill levels.. At it's western edge, the property bordered a "soap box derby" track (this area and any trace of the soap box derby track were wiped out by the construction of the I-241 freeway in the mid 1990''s, it also removed the last trace of the original Moto Cross track, remnants of which could be seen after thirty years. As the popularity of the park grew, on busy weekends there could be as many as three different racing events occurring at the same time. For some major events the park was closed to open riding due to the crowds
Over the years Saddleback Park played host to many championship events. In addition to events like the CMC Golden State series, many other events such as , Trans -AMA, Out Door MX Nationals, World Mini GP, National Championship Trials, A BMX National, Enduros, and TT and Flat Tracks were all hosted by the park. Some events were even invented by park management. Most notably , the "Baja De Saddleback" and "Motorcycle Olympiad" were created due to the fact that Saddleback had the land and terrain available to pull these events off. The "Baja De Saddleback" was a four wheeler, buggy, and motorcycle off road race designed to mimic it's name sake (the Baja 1000). It used the entire lay out of the park to create a rough, fast off road course. The "Motorcycle Olympiad" was a decathlon type event using the same bike in many different styles of races. The results were combined into a overall score. This event even featured drag racing which was held at near by Orange County International Raceway. This event later became the "Superbikers" held at Carlsbad and televised by ABC.
Through the 1970's many other parks founded on the same operations as Saddleback Park were up and running. Places like Indian Dunes, Escape Country (right down the road in Oneal Ranch), Rawhide, and Rialto (later known as Glen Helen). In 1980 the principals sold the business to Marv Hendricks an Orange County, CA truck dealer. As the prevailing attitude in America changed, so to did the fortunes of Saddleback Park. After paying out some large liability law suits (some rumored to be as large as 20 million), the Irvine Company locked the front gate for good. In July of 1984, despite the combined efforts of many individuals, and some corporations. The park never re-opened.
III - CONCLUSION
Its been 18 years since the park closed. It is very unlikely that Saddleback Park will ever re open. All the other similar parks have long since closed. While there remain a good many race tracks open, there are currently no privately owned "open riding" parks in operation.
The area has changed a great deal in the years since Saddleback Park was opened. The land fill that bordered the eastern edge has taken over much of the back portion of the park and buried land marks such as the Matterhorn and Hill Climb Valley under hundreds of feet of dirt and refuse. The dump has since reached capacity and been closed by the county. The property now sits at the intersection of two new freeways. In construction the I-241 freeway a giant culvert was created on what was once Santiago Canyon Road. This required the excavation of what was the pits for the motocross track. It also destroyed the start line up hill once called "the world's best national dyno".
The new interstates have opened a corridor between south Orange County and the inland empire. They have also opened this area to development. The 2002 editions of maps for this area show streets and housing tracks covering what was once Saddleback.
Over the years, various promoters have approached the Irvine Company with plans to re-open the park for a one day outdoor national motocross. After several attempts, it is evident that there is no possibility of even a one day reprieve.. Legend has it the Irvine Company is still litigating law suits filed in the 1980's. In the late 1980's the Irvine family lost control of the company that bore their name in a "hostile take over" only later to regain some financial remuneration in court. The Irvine Company is these days a Michigan Corporation.
IV - LEGENDS
Everyone who was regular at Saddleback Park has a favorite story. Some of my best times were spent on Sunday afternoons joining Dave Miller (DMC) and many others riding XR75's on "Dangerous Trail". I think my favorite story was on Saturday December 4, 1973. It was the day before the final round of the Trans-AMA series. All the factory teams had arrived and were attempting to park their trucks. It had rained most of the day and the adobe had turned to slime. Eric Crippa (who works in the press department at American Honda) was a factory mechanic for Gary Semics at Husqvarna had arrived driving that teams's transporter (a converted mail carrier the size of a large bus nicknamed the cycle liner). Back then factory teams were very large and this day Eric's rig was loaded with over twenty bikes, thousands of pounds of parts and equipment, and very bad brakes. As he entered te top of the pits it quickly became apparent that the bus would not stop due to the mud. Eric slid down the hill towards Santiago Canyon Road at an alarming rate. The cycle liner slid right through the Suzuki pits scattering mechanics in it's path. It came to a rest just inches from going over the ledge on to the road. Eric jumped out as if nothing had happened stating "looks like we're pittin here"
In my position at American Honda I travel a great deal. I fly quite often. I've been fortunate enough to have been to almost all fifty states and seven different countries for my job. As I sit in my window seat at 35,000 feet, I survey the great expanse of land that makes up most of this country. While there are many great places that are tied to the history of Moto Cross in the United States, places like Unadilla, Honda Hills, Ohio, and Mt Morris, PA , only southern California could have given rise to a place like Saddleback Park. After all these years, I feel lucky to have ridden there. I Often wonder if all those people going up Santiago Canyon Road on their way to the new Saddleback MX track know what they missed as they pass the closed entrance road and dried out pasture that once was Saddleback. When ever I am in the neighborhood, I take a drive up Santiago Canyon road, past "Bob And Jeans", past Gilman's Barn to the front entrance of the old park. Some day even that will disappear.