Archives: The Sunset Pub Gang
A group of Southern California club racers came together in 1986 and made an assault on the AMA U.S. National Endurance Championship. They called themselves Team Sunset, named after a SoCal oceanside community were a cadre of racers often gathered at a pub for after-work brews. This ambitious young group of racers instantly became a leading contender in the series. Along the way the friends from the pub, turned teammates, made some memories that would last a lifetime and help make a couple of local club riders into nationally known racers.
Archives: The Sunset Pub Gang
Team Sunset all began with a young road racer named Marcus Falley, one of those midwestern refugees who seem to be prevalent among the Southern California populace. Falley and some friends competed in Southern California endurance road races riding a Kawasaki GPz550 in the mid-‘80s, “And we loved it,” Falley says. So much so that Falley gathered even more of his racing buddies to take on a 24-Hour endurance race at Willow Springs at the end of ’85. Now to be sure, it takes riders with a certain personality to enjoy 24 hours racing and Falley and his merry band of fellow racers apparently matched the profile.
“After the 24 hour, that was the first time we began talking over doing the AMA Endurance,” Falley remembers. “We started putting together a couple of 600 Ninjas for that.”
Marcus’ dad Frank was enthusiastic supporter his son’s racing efforts. He was at the track with his son when he suffered a stroke.
“I was out on the track at the time and when I came in, he said, ‘I think I’ve had a stroke,’” Marcus recalls. “I said, ‘Why aren’t you at the ambulance?’ He said one ambulance had already rolled and he didn’t want to take away the other one. It was a rough day. He passed a week later.
“During that same period, I also bought Champion Moriwaki, so I was trying to run the business and form a national endurance team at the same time. My dad was helping me, but after he passed away, I was dealing with all this and decided I couldn’t ride, but we went ahead with the team.”
Even though they were a brand-new squad, Team Sunset had a very professional look. Shoei Helmets was their primary sponsor with Frank Thomas Boots a secondary.
“We knew what we needed and had done some good marketing,” Falley said. “Ironically, my dad worked for Bell Helmets and they turned us down for sponsorship, Shoei jumped on board and helped us tremendously. We were trying to show our sponsors that we could give them value and we tried to step up do a better job promoting our sponsors than what was normal in motorcycle racing at the time.”
Another plus for the new team was the vast experience veteran racer Whitney Blakeslee brought to the table in helping with bike prep and setup. Whitney, Peter Carroll and I would work late into the night getting the bikes ready for the season and we enjoyed it.
Australian journalist Bruce Newton was living in California at the time, met the guys by sheer chance at the pub and became part of the squad, helping with the marketing material, as well as becoming the team’s truck driver. Matt McNiel, Daren Fields and Jeff Hoeppner. also pitched in at the races.
The team looked top-notch, but the old Jartran Rental box van they bought always made for an adventure. Newton recalled a time when the fuel pump conked out and they were feeding gas directly into the carburetor from a lemonade bottle.
“It backfired,” Newton said. “and I was holding the bottle and the next thing you know the rim of the bottle is on fire. Then I accidently spilled down my front, so now I was on fire. I literally jumped out of the window and when I landed chest first it put the fire out on the front of my t-shirt.”
Once, driving through Georgia, they had to fire up the generator in the back of the truck and run cables to the battery to keep it running. Another time the van got stuck in the mud on an unimproved backroad near Roebling Road and a farm tractor couldn’t even pull it out. The Sunset boys got lucky when a road grader came through and was able to pull them out. For good measure, an axle broke on the van while they were driving home from the final race.
Riding for Sunset were SoCal road racing aces Walt Nitto, Peter Carroll and Terry Statum. Todd Brubaker later joined the team as did a young Don Canet.
The AMA U.S. Endurance Championship was coming into its own. USA Network’s MotoWorld was title sponsor and highlights of the races were covered on the program. Nearly half of the rounds were held in conjunction with AMA Pro Road Races, giving the teams and riders even greater exposure.
The opening round was at Firebird Raceway near Phoenix. A tough break hit the time right at the start. Carroll crashed on the opening lap of the four-hour race. The team spent most of the rest of the race trying to repair the badly damaged Kawasaki. Towards the end they got back on track, hoping to pick up a few points and in the process, Nitto shattered the old track record by nearly two seconds.
The team was more than ready to make up for the accident at Firebird when they rolled into St. Louis International Raceway for round two. They picked up Brubaker for this race and Sunset not only won the GTU class, they finished third overall. That very same thing happened again at Sears Point (with Statum and Carroll riding), showing the sheer speed Team Sunset and their well-prepped Ninja 600 were capable of.
The team took another victory at Loudon, and in spite of some mechanicals and a missed race or two, Sunset ran second to New Haven Kawasaki after six rounds. That would be as close as they got. Sunset earned a fourth victory at Road Atlanta, but it was mostly hard luck the rest of the year and they were out of title contention.
“We were usually the fastest GTU team on the track, but freak problems constantly kept creeping in,” Falley said. The last event of year was a prime example.
In the season finale at Daytona, Sunset was easily winning the GTU class when a chain snapped off another bike and hit their Kawasaki, splitting a water hose ultimately damaging the engine and causing a DNF.
At the awards banquet that weekend, fellow competitor Kevin Rentzell felt bad for the Sunset gang. He knew they were the fastest guys in the class all year, but came up empty in the end.
“Kevin came up and present me with a t-shirt that said, ‘Shit Happens’” Falley said. “It was perfect. We all had a good laugh over that.”
The next season the team was hoping to take another shot at the endurance series, this time in GTO, but Kawasaki sponsorship fell through last minute. The squad eventually morphed into Team Del Amo Suzuki, which backed a number of riders in sprint racing including Cal Rayborn III and David Aldana, with Tom Houseworth as crew chief.
Several of the team alums used Sunset as a springboard. Carroll went on to race for Team Hammer and Canet had a memorable Formula USA career aboard a nitrous-boosted Suzuki, which he wrote about and put him on the path to become longtime road test editor for Cycle World.
Nitto and Statum have both since passed away. Canet, as mentioned, is at Cycle World. Carroll is still involved in the industry with a motorcycle shop in Lebec, CA. The last Falley heard, Brubaker was in the jewelry business. Falley met an Aussie girl and eventually moved down under, where Newton moved back to as well.
What started as a conversation between a couple of racers over beers at a pub in Sunset Beach, turned into a summer racing adventure. “There were laughs and tears and always great fun. It was a wonderful group of guys and we had the time of our lives,” Falley said.