Suicide Mountain, the Matterhorn, the Magoo Double Jump, Banzai Hill, the Wedge – mention these to any motocross fan of the 1970s and early ‘80s and they’ll instantly know you’re talking about the iconic motocross track Saddleback Park. For the decades of the 1970s and ‘80s Saddleback was the center of the American motocross racing universe. The track had a major impact on the sport of motocross. It hosted great races and racers throughout it’s time of operation and is still considered one of the all-time historic venues of the sport even though it’s been over 30 years since races were held at the facility.
Cycle World magazine’s Joe Parkhurst, along with partner, dune buggy maker Bruce Meyers, leased land from the Irvine Company in 1967. One of the biggest reasons the pair were able to lease the land for off-road use, was the fact that Parkhurst was a businessman who knew and socialized with members of the Irvine family. He convinced them that since the land bordered a landfill, it was basically useless for development.
The prototype for open riding parks, at first Saddleback was to be primarily for dune buggies, but business was slow Parkhurst convinced the Irvine’s to allow motorcycles, reasoning that it would help eliminate the riding on vacant lots near large tracts of housing developments.
Saddleback was named for the ridge that runs between the two highest peaks in the Santa Ana Mountains that resembles a saddle when viewed from most of Orange County. Vic Wilson, who grew up on a ranch and would have the experience needed to run the equipment to keep the track in shape, was hired as manager. Parkhurst even brought in a fleet of motorcycles so riders could just show up with a helmet and rent a machine to ride on the Saddleback hills.
In the fall of 1967 many top European motocross riders were on the west coast racing in the seminal exhibition motocross events promoted by Edison Dye. Parkhurst invited Roger DeCoster, Dave Bickers and Joel Robert out one day to help him and Wilson layout a track. As it turns out the track laid out by the racing legends was only used once for an event put on by the newly formed California Moto-Cross Association (CMA). The first track directly faced a neighborhood of exclusive homes and the residents complained of noise and dust and the track was moved to a more remote location within the 700-acre complex.
When races weren’t being held Saddleback was open dawn to dusk, seven days a week and riders could pay a two-dollar fee to ride as long as they liked. In addition to the MX track, the park also featured areas for Flat Tract Short Track and TT, trials, hillclimb and a BMX section.
The first CMA race at Saddleback was held on March 24, 1968 and it was Gunnar Lindstrom winning the 500cc class and Bill Silverthorn scoring the victory in the 250cc class. That summer the first big pro race was held there. On July 4, 1968 an event called the Firecracker International Motocross was won by Torsten Hallman over Gary Conrad and Russ Darnell. In the fall of ’68 came the one of Dye’s International Motocross races and 22,000 fans showed up to watch East German Adolf Weil race his Maico to victory ahead of British racer Bryan Wade on a Greeves and Czech Vlastimil Valek on a C-Z. Many notable riders of that era were in the race including Roger DeCoster and even AMA Grand National racers Dick Mann and David Aldana.
In 1969 Saddleback played host to a milestone race, again the Firecracker MX. It was important since Gary Bailey, riding a 250cc Greeves, defeated Swede Arne Kring to become the first American to win over the Europeans. Even though Bailey was paid less for the win than Kring earned for appearance money, he secured his place in history for being the first to demonstrate the rapid improvement of American motocross.
Trans-Am, Inter-Am, CMC Golden State Series, AMA Motocross Nationals, Saddleback hosted them all. About the only thing the track never held at the track was a World championship round, those instead going to Carlsbad, 50 miles to the south.
In 1970 Joel Robert, who helped layout the original Saddleback track, returned to win the very first Saddleback Trans-Am riding a Suzuki. Another original co-builder Roger DeCoster won the next year in the Trans-Am finale.
The track had the biggest obstacles in motocross, including the infamous tri-level massive uphill stair steps called Suicide Mountain. Built in the early 1980s, it became the place to watch the nationals from. Being the first rider on a race weekend to clear the massive uphill jumps was a source of pride. Legend has it the first rider to jump from one terrace to the next was Lance Moorewood, during a parade lap before the1983 AMA National. The catch is Moorewood actually came up three-feet short of making the jump and got absolutely crushed on landing, but somehow managed to ride it out.
Jeff Ward was looking on and thought Moorewood was dead, but since he almost made itWard knew clearing the enormous jump was possible. In practice no one could muster the courage, but finally Phil Larson, who came up short on his first attempt on his 500cc machine, became the first to clear Suicide Mountain cleanly and the crowd went nuts. Later Wardy became the only rider on a 125 to make the jump.
Winners of outdoor nationals at Saddleback were a veritable Who’s Who of motocross. Brad Lackey, Jim Pomeroy, Marty Tripes, Pierre Karsmakers, Broc Glover, Brian Myerscough, Mark Barnett, Johnny O’Mara, David Bailey, Ron Lechien, Bob Hannah, Magoo Chandler, Broc Glover and Kent Howerton were among the winners at the legendary circuit.
In the early 1980s liability lawsuits became a big issue for the Irvine Company and by most accounts the cost of those lawsuits and liability insurance were what put an end to Saddleback Park in 1984. Numerous efforts were made to hold races at the track, but none ever came to fruition.
Interestingly Gatorback MX Park in Florida was named in honor of Saddleback.
In just 17 years of operation, Saddleback Park became and remains the symbolic home of American motocross. Even though it’s been over 30 years since a wheel has turned there in anger, Saddleback remains a Mecca of the sport of motocross. Today the remnants of Saddleback, once ridden by the elites of motocross sit quietly, the windswept hills holding the memories of a thousand races.
Archives would like to acknowledge Gary Martini’s and Jody Weisel’s excellent online articles about Saddleback for being used as source material for this article.