Archives: Through the Fire
The town of Paradise, California, happened the be the home to a number of vintage motorcycle enthusiasts. The Antique Motorcycle Club of America (AMCA) recently reported that seven of its members had their houses destroyed in last month’s Camp Fire. “Never before in the AMCA’s history have we had so many members involved in a single tragedy,” the AMCA said in a news release announcing a GoFundMe account for those members.
In addition to the AMCA members, perhaps the most well-known motorcyclist to lose everything in Paradise was former ISDT competitor Paul Hunt. Hunt has long been a builder of vintage racing machines. His motorcycles have even won AHRMA championships. Paul lost two dozen historic machines in the fire.
Paul, who’s 81, tells a harrowing story of escaping the fire.
Archives: Through the Fire
“I woke up in the morning, about six-o-clock and turned on my TV,” Hunt explained. “There’s the place called Pulga, which is about 20 miles from me and they said there’s a fire. I didn’t pay much attention. About a half-an-hour later I went and looked at the television and the hospital, which is two miles away from me, was on fire. It moved fast. It was so fast.
“So, I thought I’d better get out of here. So I took my hard drive off my computer and grabbed little bag of clothes and my dog. I went down half a block to a street that leads down to the main street and the traffic was dead stopped. Some nice gentleman let me in and I waited and waited and traffic wasn’t moving. So I went around the left and figured that I’d go back to my house. Everything seemed OK at the time.
“I have to feed myself through a tube in my stomach and I thought, ‘Oh, I forgot my food.’ So I went out to my garage and there’s a backdoor and open window, I went to reach for my food and the flames were like 40-feet in the air in my backyard. So I thought, ‘Wow! I’ve got to get out of here now!’ So I drove out and about a half block from the main road there was a car parked right out in the middle of the road. I thought the guy was going to move, so I waited and waited. I looked in the rearview mirror and the flames were coming up. So I went around them. There were four cars stopped in the middle of the road with nobody in them. I finally got to the main road and there was a highway patrol guy who yelled, ‘Get to the left!’ The right lanes were filled. So I got into the left-hand lane. And going through the town, it’s not very big, probably a half-a-mile or three-quarters of a mile long and there were flames on both sides of me all the way down. What normally takes me 20 minutes to get down to the bottom of the hill to my buddy Ray’s – it took me four hours. It was bad.”
Paul hasn’t even been able to go back to his home since the fire. He knows everything is destroyed since a kid he helped raise now works for the water district and was able to go by Paul’s house and take pictures. Paul’s place looks like so many we’ve seen on the news. Just a pile of ashes with maybe a toolbox, or some other fireproof item the only thing recognizable in the rubble. In Paul’s case you could see the remnants of a number of motorcycles – frames and wheel mostly – that were in his workshop.
It was a devastation loss of not only his home and all his possessions, including his racing memorabilia and trophies, but also a collection of rare vintage motorcycles that he’d poured hundreds of hours in restoring.
In spite of all this, Paul is thankful. He escaped the flames. Many in his community weren’t so lucky.
Paul grew up in Woodland Hills. He graduated from Canoga Park High School in 1956 and then attended Pierce Junior College. While still in high school he went to work for Bud Ekins. “I was a parts cleaner,” Paul said before adding with a grin. “I was Bud’s first employee.”
One of Paul’s buddies during this time was Preston Petty. Paul would later work for Petty’s off-road accessories business.
“Paul and I hung around Bud’s Triumph shop doing miscellaneous assembly and repairs,” Petty recalls. “Bud called us his house apes.”
Paul began racing as a teen on a Triumph Tiger Cub. “It was the old-time scrambles and hare and hounds,” Paul said of his early racing.
Paul came close to racing fame while still in high school. “I was the first 200cc motorcycle in the Big Bear in ’56,” he says. “The only problem was I missed a check.” Missing one checkpoint cost a young Paul his chance of a prestigious victory, but he would eventually earn a few.
Before long Paul advanced from his Tiger Cub to racing under contract for Jawa. Jawa had him racing its Model 557, a 250cc, two-stroke all over the west coast and even into Arizona, promoting the brand.
After serving in the Army in Germany, Paul said Hoppy Hopkins and Stu Peters picked him up and he went to England and began racing scrambles events there. “I ended up staying over there for three-and-a-half years.”
While there Paul was one of the few Americans (along with Hopkins and Peters) racing motocross in England and the Continent. He scored several wins in British and Irish Meets and even scored a podium (third overall) at an International Motocross event in Cingoli, Italy. Paul even got to race in a Grand Prix Motocross in England, though he says he didn’t do well. Paul also twice competed in the ISDT in 1964 and 1970. He was knocked out early in both events with injury.
During the mid-‘60s Paul toured New Zealand and Australia as part of the Rothmans International Goldleaf Motocross Series. Three international riders were invited each year, and Paul placed third overall.
Upon returning to the states Paul was one of the early pioneers of American motocross. He was one of the original organizers of the Continental Motocross Club (CMC). Maybe his biggest claim to fame once back in the states was finishing second to Torsten Hallman at the prestigious Hopetown GP. Paul was just back from Europe and was at the peak of his riding abilities. “It rained that day and I raced a lot in the rain in England,” Paul remembers of Hopetown. When asked what it was like to race against Hallman, Paul quipped, “I don’t know, I never saw him.” All kidding aside, late in the race Paul was actually catching glimpses of Hallman up front every once in a while. He knew Torsten a bit from racing in Europe and went up to him after the race and said, “There at the end I could see you, but I couldn’t catch you. Torsten looked at me and said, ‘Well you know Paul, I lost third gear on the first lap.’”
In 1969 Paul Hunt scored the biggest victory of his career when he won the Greenhorn Enduro on a 350cc Harley-Davidson.
Throughout the 1960s and into the ‘70s Paul worked a variety of motorcycle industry jobs. Perhaps his proudest accomplishment was running Can-Am’s motocross team in the mid-1970s with riders Jimmy Ellis and Mike Runyard. Ellis won the 1975 AMA Supercross Championship under Paul’s leadership.
Paul later became a commercial fisherman and later a heavy machine operator before retiring. Retirement saw Hunt become one of the premier classic motorcycle restorers in the country. He also sponsored riders in vintage motocross. Ray Atkinson won a vintage national title on one of Paul’s Cheney-BSAs.
Paul lost 24 vintage motorcycles in the fire. “I had a ’56 Velocette Scrambler all restored, a ’56 AJS Scrambler, a ’54 Matchless 350 Trials, a ’66 Matchless G85 that they only made a hundred of, a ’54 BSA Goldstar completely restored.”
Paul was insured, but he says he’ll never get enough to replace the motorcycles he lost.
Paul hopes to rebuild, but he thinks as bad as the devastation is in Paradise, it will be at least two to three years. “I just hope I live that long,” he adds with a wry snicker.