Anyone who was around in the early days of motocross knows who Jim West was—he was known as one of the top up-and-coming racers of the mid-1970s. Unfortunately, he’s also known as being the first major player in the sport of motocross to lose his life in an AMA Pro MX race. We look back at the short but full life of Jim West.
By Kent Taylor
PHOTOGRAPHY: CYCLE NEWS ARCHIVES, DICK MILLER ARCHIVES, SCOTT HEIDRINK AND STEVE FRENCH
Jim West and his girlfriend Susan Ard had miles and miles to drive, so they had hours and hours to talk about almost everything as they traveled across the AMA’s motocross map in 1975. They could’ve shared stories about photography (an interest they both shared), South Pasadena High School (where they met) or maybe laughed one more time about the alligator that had wandered into the pits at a race a few months earlier in New Orleans (“every race had a story” Susan remembers). They might also have talked about their other shared interests, like cave exploration, Civil War battlefields, ghost towns and a crazy new arcade game called “Pacman” (“we were obsessed with that game!”).
So many conversations taking place so many years ago…so how is it that in 2018, 43 years later, she remembers this particular one? She wondered, then and now…why did Jim want to talk about this?
She remembers, Susan says today “because it was something that we had never talked about before. Not ever.”
By November 30, 1975, the day Jim West died, fans of motorcycle racing were becoming well aware of the harsh reality that a rider could be killed while racing a motorcycle. Over the previous 18 months, three of the world’s finest had lost their lives while competing. Daytona 200 winner Jarno Saarinen was killed in a road racing crash in Monza, Italy in May of 1973, the same multi-cycle accident that claimed the life of Italian veteran Renzo Pasolini, who had also raced in America for Harley-Davidson. Just a few months later, U.S. road racing star Cal Rayborn, another Daytona 200 winner, would be killed in a freak crash in New Zealand.
But that was road racing, at 1970’s speeds of 160 mph. Jim West raced motocross, a sport that in 1975 was just a few years removed from something groovy known as dirt bike riding. A dirt bike had a high front fender, an expansion chamber and knobby tires and every teenaged boy who had seen On Any Sunday and who hadn’t been drafted into the U.S. Army wanted one. West was one of a handful of Southern California kids who were helping move the sport from trails to tracks, from stripped-down street bikes to purpose-built motocross machines, like Jim’s German-made Maico, along with CZ, AJS and an odd-looking British motorcycle called a Greeves. Once a powerhouse in the industry, Greeves was one of the first companies to sign up American talent. One of these young factory riders was a Californian named Jim Wilson.
“I was staying in England for a while,” Wilson says today. “The Greeves factory had brought me over to compete in some races on their new bikes. And I saw a copy of Cycle News! So, I’m reading and I turned to see who was winning the local races back in California, which at that time was usually Gary Bailey. He would ride and usually win every class he entered…sometimes as many as five on a race day!”
“He was the guy to beat” Wilson continues “and someone did it! It was a new kid and he wasn’t even riding a real motocross bike. He was on a Yamaha DT-1, which was really just a trail bike. And his name was Jim West.”
James Marshall West was born on October 9, 1952. The son of a police officer, Jim displayed a talent for all things two wheeled early in life. “He could wheelie his stingray bicycle the length of the city block,” remembers Jody Smith, a childhood friend who would also attend South Pasadena High School with Jim and Susan. “Then, when we started riding motorcycles, we would go to an area near his house called Elephant Hills. We rode almost every day and he became a great rider.”
It wasn’t long before Jim took his talents to the racetracks, which were popping up like dandelions throughout Southern California; Osteens, Baymare, Carlsbad and the granddaddy of them all, a 500-acre off-road mecca called Saddleback Park, home to miles of trails, a TT track, a mini-bike track and other riding opportunities. Saddleback would soon be hosting international races, though it built its reputation as a weekly destination for local racers.
“We could race at Ascot Park, Carlsbad, Indian Dunes, Baymare and Saddleback Park, all in one week,” says Jim Wilson. “Sometimes, you could make $60 for a Pro class win, which was pretty good for that time.”
Wilson would soon switch from Greeves (“the company was struggling and I couldn’t get the parts to keep it running”) to CZ. West moved from his Yamaha DT-1 to an AJS and the two Jims began a fierce, but friendly rivalry that would make them somewhat famous in the local race scene. Their sponsors would even run ads in Cycle News, boasting when Jim West beat Jim Wilson and vice versa. An AJS ad made it clear to wannabe stars (in the feel-good vernacular of the ‘70s) that they needed an AJS: “Make your own groove,” the ad read. “Jim West does!”
Rivals on the racetrack, friendly off of it, Wilson says apart from racing, they never really hung out together. Jim’s racing circle was small, consisting of himself and his mechanic Kevin and Susan. Mostly Susan.
“Those two” recalls Jody Smith “were inseparable.”
“We met in a photography class at South Pasadena High School,” Susan says today from her home in Idaho. “He was one year ahead of me in school. I wasn’t ready for a relationship, so we were just friends at first, but I could tell that he had feelings for me. He was just the nicest, sweetest person I had ever met. And he was really tall—six foot five!”
Ready or not, the relationship moved forward. Two Southern California teenagers, hanging out, drinking beer, smoking pot and before long, Susan was with Jim at the racetrack. “I was hooked on motocross from the first race. Jim was so talented. He really was a natural rider. After the motos, I would ride on the back of his race bike, putting my feet under his feet on the pegs and putting my thumbs inside of his leathers.”
“I started traveling with him in 1973,” she continues, “and that was something my parents didn’t really support. They weren’t into motorcycling and thought anybody who rode one was a Hell’s Angel!”
She would often “daydream about jumping a train” and seeing America, so traveling the country with Jim was both a legal and likely safer alternative. It would be just Jim, Susan and Kevin, along with a stove, a sink, a pullout bed and Shamra, the Samoyed dog, all shoehorned into Jim’s Ford van. Shamra was a pet-store find from somewhere back east. “I just had to have her. And Jim was so sweet…he could never say no to me, so we got her. She was so big and fluffy. I remember at one race, Joel Robert came over and thought she was a polar bear!”
Somehow, they found space for the motorcycles. By this time, AJS, like Greeves before it, was nearing its end times, so after a short stint riding a CZ, Jim’s friend Billy Clements helped him land a semi-sponsored ride with Husqvarna. Along with the two race machines, there was also room for two pit bikes, one for Jim and another for Susan. Her bike was a Honda XR75, modified by Jim to look like his Husqvarna. He even painted the fuel tank red and she recalls with pride, “it looked just like his race bike!”
It is almost always the journey and rarely the arrival that provides the stuff of which memories are made, so Susan’s remembrances from her time with Jim are mostly about stories from the road. There are very few about the actual races, though she remembers watching many motos, cleaning many pairs of goggles and checking spokes. “And I would pray for the bikes not to break!” she adds. The riders traveled together in a caravan and she laughs as she remembers that she “did all of the driving! We would study the road maps, going from here to there and we would always try to find what’s cool in between.” Sometimes, it was cliff jumping into rivers or pulling off to the side of the road to play ride on the mini bikes. Jody Smith remembers bottle-rocket battles with brothers Bobby and Billy Grossi in the streets of Santa Cruz. “We would always stop at amusement parks, too. I remember riding the wrong way down one-way streets with Jim Weinert in Boise, Idaho…it was one big party,” Smith recalls.
The sport was also growing at a rapid pace. Early on, the AMA struggled to find a way to crown national champions; by 1975, there were champs on 125s, 250s and 500s. Even the indoor version, which was still called stadium motocross, had a champion. Although the original Inter AM series was on its way out, the Trans AMA series was still bringing in top European riders, like World Champion Roger DeCoster and frequent USGP winner Gerrit Wolsink. Jim Pomeroy and Brad Lackey, American stars chasing the World Championships, would also come home to ride in this fall series.
A new contingent of stars had also converged on the scene. And they were young; teenagers like Tony DiStefano and Marty Smith. West, at 23, may have seemed like a veteran to the new stars, but age wasn’t slowing him down. Another teen star, Billy Grossi, remembers West, as “a fluid, really smooth rider. The kind of a rider who didn’t look like he was going fast, but he was! And when the Trans came around, he looked like he was riding better than he ever had!”
His results would back that up. When the Trans AMA series began at Road Atlanta, West finished the day in 11th overall. In Lexington, Ohio, he ran near the front early and hung on to finish seventh, ahead of riders like Lackey and Pierre Karsmakers. He was ninth at Unadilla and continued his streak of strong finishes with an eighth overall a few weeks later in Texas.
It would be at the penultimate round in Livermore, California, November 23, where Jim would have the ride of his life. In the second moto that day, Honda’s Marty Smith grabbed the holeshot, but crashed almost immediately. There was a new leader now and for the next five laps, past, current and future mx champions—all of them factory-backed stars of the sport—found themselves chasing AMA number 28x, the lanky, mostly self-sponsored Maico rider from Pasadena. In an era when the top riders were drawing big salaries and flying from race to race, a guy with just a bike and a van had no business even being in the top 10—and Jim West was in first place!
Eventually, Steve Stackable, a Maico factory rider, overtook Jim for the lead. West held on to second place for another five laps, and although he faded to fifth by the end of the race, his impressive seventh place in the first moto netted him a sixth overall for the day. He had a good chance of finishing the series in the top 10 in points. Stackable, who was moving on to Suzuki for 1976, believes today that West might’ve been the next man up for the official U.S. Maico team. Jim West—Team Maico!
But there was still one more race in this season and the Trans AMA the series moved on to Saddleback Park.
Carved out in the valleys of eastern Orange County, California, Saddleback demanded a fistful of horsepower to climb its steep hills and an equal amount of courage to jump back down them. They had earned their own identities: Suicide Mountain, Banzai Hill, the Tower of Power and others that were so very hard to go up and down that only a few could master them. Those who did became known as “Saddleback Specialists.“
When the gate dropped for the first moto, it was Kawasaki rider Gary Semics in the lead followed by Stackable, with eventual winner Tony DiStefano close behind. Stackable soon took over and would lead for a while. He remembers seeing Jim off to the side of the track.
“I came around,” he said, “and saw that Jim had crashed.” A high-speed jump sent riders flying as they approached Banzai Hill and West had gone down hard after landing. No one seems to remember exactly how it happened. The old motocross bikes were prone to rear end swaps over bumpy terrain. Was the bike angled wrong when he hit the jump? Photos of the hill as it led into the jump also show deep ruts, likely caused by rain or water run-off. Was it a dangerous section?
“No” says Jim Wilson. “Not at all. Saddleback was a safe track, especially for a rider like Jim, who may have had more laps around that track than anyone else.”
“We were all standing there,” says Susan. “His parents, my little brother and so we all saw it. I didn’t know what to think, because Jim rarely crashed. I just remember screaming. My little brother pulled the bike off of him and the paramedics began cutting his gloves off. I remember he didn’t want them to do that. The next thing I remember is being in the ambulance and Jim was just looking at me. He was not asleep, but not really awake and he was groaning. I knew it was bad.”
“And then I heard the paramedic tell the driver ‘let’s make this a quick ride.’”
He was taken to a small hospital located nearby Saddleback Park, a facility which one pro rider states was “notorious for its poor care of dirt bike riders and racers.” Once there, the staff tended to Jim’s broken arm—and allegedly did little else. West had suffered both a ruptured spleen and damage to his liver.
“He cried out for me—he would call my name,” Susan says, “but they wouldn’t let me in to see him. No one could go in. They would only say they were waiting for a surgeon. A couple of hours passed and I didn’t know what to do, so I went outside and sat in the van.”
“And then his Mom came out and told me that Jim was gone. He died of things that no one would die from today; I think he bled to death.”
“There was no way that should’ve been a fatal crash,” says Stackable. “No way.”
On November 29, 1975, the night before he became the first rider to be killed in AMA professional motocross competition, Jim West looked at his girlfriend of nearly five years and for the first time ever, he told her that this motocross life was something that wasn’t going to last forever. She needed to have a plan for a future that didn’t include tightening spokes, cleaning goggles and driving a Ford van across the country.
“The night before Saddleback,” Susan recalls, “Jim looked at me and he said, ‘we have to start thinking about life after motocross.’ He told me, ‘you will have to find another passion in your life.’ I remember that so well, because we never talked about life after racing.”
“That morning before the race, he took my hand and he held it. He was squeezing it…so tightly. I will never forget that.”
On January 4, 1976, a Jim West Memorial Race was held at Valley Cycle Park. “I’m going to win the 500 Pro class for Jim West!” said friend and fellow Maico rider Gaylon Mosier. And he did, with another Maico rider, Rich Thorwaldson, finishing second. Warren Reid won the 125 class, and in the 250 class, Danny LaPorte battled Kenny Zahrt, on an Ossa, before taking the win over Bob Elliot, another Saddleback regular. Most all of the riders donated their winnings back into a Memorial fund. The track promoter gave the gate fees to Susan. She was at the track, but simply wasn’t ready to watch another motocross race and had spent the day sitting by herself in a friend’s van.
Mosier, Zahrt, Thorwaldson and Elliot are all gone now too, as are Ossas and Maicos. Idle for the past 25 years, Saddleback Park is an old adobe ghost, coughing up nuts, bolts and an empty, plastic bottle of pre-mix every now and then. Motocross’ old-timers sneak on to the weedy property to shoot photos and then post them on the web, defiantly stating they can still make out the uphill start, Suicide Mountain and Banzai Hill.
“I had a box of photographs and magazine articles,” Susan says, “but I just could never bring myself to open it. It even hurt to just look at his face. As I relocated over the years, it just moved from one storage unit to another. Then, about 30 years ago, one of the units caught fire and I lost everything forever. Now, with the Internet, I am seeing so many great old photos of Jim. It’s wonderful that so many people remember him.”
The Internet was also helpful in reuniting Susan with another important part of her past. Through a random eBay search, she discovered her old pit bike, the same little Honda that he had redone to look like his Husqvarna. After hearing the story, the seller was thrilled to be able to get the little bike to Susan. “I hadn’t sat on it in 45 years!” she says. “It has needed a lot of work, but we even managed to find the old shocks that Jim had put on it! I’m going to a legends motocross race in Boise, which will be the first race I’ve attended since Jim’s Memorial race. We’re going to take the little Honda with us!
“It’s all I have from those years,” she says. “After Jim died, it took me many years to start living again. I tried to block it all out. Now, I guess I was just supposed to find it…it’s like it came back to me at a time when I could have it.” CN