December 29, marks the thirtieth (36th in 2009) anniversary of American racer Cal Rayborn's tragic death at an obscure racetrack and in a more obscure race. Even after three decades, to those that remember Rayborn, both the almost senseless heartbreak of his death and his accomplishments in life remain undiminished.
Will there ever be a more American racer than Cal Rayborn? Square-jawed and tall, Rayborn rode his way into the Harley-Davidson factory team in the 1960s and finished the decade with two Daytona 200 wins and a land speed record for the black and orange. Has there ever been a racer who filled the '70s Harley-Davidson number one t-shirt better than Rayborn?
The name Cal Rayborn brings with it suitcases of legendary racer tales. Rayborn was actually a motorcycle messenger in his native San Diego before he started racing, and quickly elevated beyond the club scene once he started racing bikes on track; most thought he'd already logged thousand of miles at the limit trying to be the fastest motorcycle courier in Southern California.
Later, when he raced for the Harley-Davidson factory team, Rayborn won the Daytona 200 in 1968lapping the fieldand again in 1969, when he and the weakening Harley were up against the hardest competition they would see at the Speedway. Rayborn and the Harley beat the English and Japanese machines for his second Daytona 200 win.
Rayborn was one of the first pure roadracers in America. He raced on the period dirt tracks and was successful there, but his forte was roadracing. For several seasons in the late 1960s a Rayborn win any time the series traveled to a asphalt course was almost a foregone conclusion. With the AMA championship consisting of both dirt track and roadrace events in that era, though, Rayborn never had the numbers to win the title.
His two Daytona 200 wins and the day he won the first-ever roadrace at Laguna Seca not withstanding, Cal Rayborn's greatest triumph never even happened on US soil. In 1972 Rayborn was invited to do the Match Races in England (American riders racing against the Brits on English circuits). Rayborn had never seen the British circuits like Brands Hatch and Mallory Park, and in fact his friend, fellow racer and Daytona 200 winner Don Emde, had to draw track maps on airline cocktail napkins on the flight over to London to illustrate to Rayborn what the tracks were like. What's more, Rayborn did not have the blessing of the Harley factory to race the event, and was not allowed to bring a new factory Harley for the series. With help from the magazine "Motor Cycle Weekly" he brought along an old iron-barrel Harley, and his tuner, Walt Faulk. Incredibly, Rayborn was the top-scoring American of the series and split the wins with the best the British could offer, all on tracks he had never seen before in his life. The fact that the cool British weather didn't exacerbate the quick to burn down Harley was certainly a factor, but because of Rayborn's performance, he came back to America a racing hero.
Then Harley-Davidson race boss Dick O'Brien was a second father to Rayborn and the Californian stuck with the Milwaukee Mafia probably longer than he should have, as the XRs were slowly losing touch in the early 1970s. Rayborn almost left Harley in 1972, but stayed through 1973, signing a contract with Suzuki in late 1973. He would be Suzuki mounted in 1974 and was said to be looking forward to racing Giacamo Agostini at Daytona the next March.
The final Rayborn chapter is gut-wrenching. Rayborn (and racer Mert Lawwill) had a part-time car racing career in 1973; and for reasons that are unclear today, Rayborn left the US in late 1973 to race both a car and a Suzuki in New Zealand on the last weekend of that year. That event would be Cal Rayborn's first race on a Suzuki; (he had raced a 250 Yamaha in the AMA's lightweight class in the early 1970s) he had little big cc two-stroke experience.
The very bike Rayborn was to ride in New Zealand was owned by a dead manit was racer Geoff Perry's Suzuki, Perry killed en route to Laguna Seca when the Boeing 707 he was riding in crashed soon after take-off from Tahiti in July, 1973.
Rayborn was to race the ex-Perry machine at Pukekohe, a facility which housed both a horse track and a car track in New Zealand, at a glorified club race. What was one of America's greats doing racing a sportsman race on the other side of the world? Theories abound, but start-money, some seat time on a two-stroke and the aforementioned car event certainly were factors.
Rayborn crashed the bike after it seized, and his body slammed into a wall close to the track, with the machine then slamming on top of him. Rayborn was dead at the scene. The name of the turn where he crashed? Champion's Corner.
Rayborn's death sent shock-waves through the American racing scene because he was such a competent racer and well-liked by fans and his fellow racers. King Kenny Roberts was mentored by Rayborn, saying today Rayborn was one of the few veteran riders who would give him straight answers as he was coming through the ranks, and not be concerned with what the young and fast up-start would do with the information. Mentioning Cal Rayborn's name at this time of year will still make the King grow silent, even thirty years after "Calvin's" death.
In the film On Any Sunday Rayborn is shown strolling through a race paddock in the early 1970s, lovingly walking hand in hand with his wife and his eldest son, Jack. They are carrying their then infant son, Calvin Rayborn III, while his contemporaries recall what a wonderful man he was.
Like the death of any father while his children and family are young, Rayborn's untimely and unfortunate death had awful after-effects for the immediate survivors. When one transposes that idyllic Rayborn family scene from On Any Sunday with the reality of what came after Cal Rayborn's death, the words of one sage ring loud and true, "Guys who have families should not race".