12.29. … Death Of A Journeyman: Cal Rayborn In New Zealand

“He asked, ‘Hey, can I ride your bike in the race, when it gets here?’ And I said, ‘Gee, Cal, you know, they probably won’t pay my expenses if I don’t ride it. I don’t know how I am going to get back home if they don’t.’


A clipping from the Auckland Star reporting American Cal Rayborn's grisly and tragic death 39 years ago today. The final paragraph of the story states another rider was killed in the exact spot that Rayborn was, two years earlier.
A clipping from the Auckland Star reporting American Cal Rayborn’s grisly and tragic death 46 years ago today. The final paragraph of the story states another rider was killed in the exact spot that Rayborn was, two years earlier. Thom Tyre

 

“I don’t think he wants to talk to anybody about that.”

“I really doubt he will talk about New Zealand.”

“I’ll give him the message, but don’t expect him to call you back.”

“I wish I had that back now. I wish I’d said yeah, use my bike,” -Scott Brelsford.

It’s just ex-racer Scott Brelsford’s luck that decades after he stopped racing and joined the real world that a media person finally tracks him down and the media guy has friends that can convince Brelsford to call the media guy back for an interview but the media guy doesn’t want to talk about Brelsford’s impressive racing career, that he beat Kenny Roberts at a Yamaha Gold Cup Event, or that he rode and raced a two-stroke 750cc dirt tracker before Roberts did, or that Scott Brelsford was an important part of the 1970s racing scene in America.

No, instead, the media guy wants to ask him about, basically, the absolute worst day of Scott Brelsford’s life.

Ah, who? Scott Brelsford. Remember him? Sure, Mark Brelsford right? Factory Harley racer and AMA champion when Roberts and Gary Scott were just coming on the scene. He had that huge crash at Daytona when he tagged a slower rider and the bike exploded in a house-sized fireball. The poster made from that photo was in nearly every motorcycle shop in the mid-1970s. That guy, right?

No, Mark Brelsford is the elder brother of the Brelsford brothers. Mark won the championship, was an almost favored son of Harley-Davidson racing manager Dick O’Brien, was fast enough to contain a just coming into his own Kenny Roberts for a season, the guy who invested all his race win money in real estate in Northern Californa and later Alaska.

Scott Brelsford—Scott—is Mark’s younger brother. He also grew up racing motorcycles and was good enough to win several important pro races. For example, Scott Brelsford beat Roberts at a Yamaha Cup event, not at an AMA national race, and won an AMA mile race, and raced Erv Kanemoto’s Kawasaki-powered 750cc two stroke dirt tracker.

He was also in New Zealand when Cal Rayborn was killed. And after gentle prodding Scott Brelsford agrees to tell that story. Once.

He begins: “Ron Grant organized a series of races over there at the end of 1973. They invited four or five American riders to take part in this series of races in New Zealand. I was one of the riders invited and so was Rayborn. They gave us start money to do the races, so it was a nice offer coming at the end of the year. I arrived at least a week before the races were to start. I’d never been anywhere outside of the US at that point. I did some laps on Ron Grant’s Suzuki on a street course at Wanaque. I cranked it up for a few bends and come around a corner and saw a herd of sheep were on the track or road! That was my introduction to racing in New Zealand.”

“Another thing about that race at Wanague is that I saw the Suzuki that Rayborn would ride at Pukekohe. This was at least a week before he’d ride it, and it blew up that day. Some guy was riding it and I saw it just stop in the middle of the race.”

 

AMA racer and factory Harley support rider Scott Brelsford. He was with the late Cal Rayborn 46 years ago today.
AMA racer and factory Harley support rider Scott Brelsford. He was with the late Cal Rayborn 46 years ago today. STU!

“We had been there for days, maybe a week or more before Rayborn even arrived,” Brelsford says, struggling to remember the details and painful images. “See, that’s the thing. Rayborn was late getting there because he had left the US late and had shipped his car over. He was going to race both cars and bikes there, but the bikes were kind of a last minute addition to his program. This Suzuki thing came up and he had just signed with Suzuki, so why not, you know?”

Brelsford’s Harley-Davidson racer sat on a boat between California and Auckland, due to be shipped to the track on the day of the race, or so they hoped. So he had time on his hands and remembers looking over the Rayborn operation before the race.

“Cal got into New Zealand really late, like the night before the race. We were having a party at Len Perry’s place. He was Geoff Perry’s father – mother and father lived in Auckland, and we stayed there for a night, and we had a party there. Rayborn arrived way late.”

“And the bike that he rode, it was a mess. They were running it on some different fuel to try and make it more competitive but you could look at it and see that it was not a bike that someone like Cal Rayborn should be racing.”

Rayborn was one of the most successful American riders of the time. He had won the first AMA national race at Laguna Seca, impressed a partisan UK crowd at the English Match Races, and won Daytona.

“I talked to Rayborn that day,” Brelsford remembers. “We were looking his bike over from a ways away and he asked ‘Well, Scott, what do you think?’. I said I don’t know Cal but I don’t even think that you should ride that thing. Don’t ride it, man. He said, ‘Yeah, I think you’re right, I’m not going to ride it.’

“They were going to pay him $1000 to race the bike, I think that was the big motivation.”

Brelsford’s race bike had not yet arrived and it had an engine in it that Rayborn had borrowed Brelsford before they left the US.

“He asked, ‘Hey, can I ride your bike in the race, when it gets here?’ And I said, ‘Gee, Cal, you know, they probably won’t pay my expenses if I don’t ride it. I don’t know how I am going to get back home if they don’t.’

Today, the enormity of that conversation is not lost on Brelsford, who fights down a sob while telling it. In the end, his bike did not make it to the track in time for either official practice or the race, but that short conversation is something that Scott Brelsford thinks about very often.

“I went back to walking around and the pits. The whole scene was really relaxed. People were crossing the track between practice sessions and if you’ve been to New Zealand you know it’s a beautiful country. I was just sort of trying to enjoy the day, wondering when my bike and stuff would arrive.”

An action image taken moments before Rayborn was killed at Pukekohe in New Zealand.
An action image taken moments before Rayborn was killed at Pukekohe in New Zealand. Thom Tyre

“The race started and I wasn’t by the starting grid so I didn’t know who was in the race, really. I wasn’t really paying attention. I wasn’t watching the race, but I remember hearing Rayborn’s name on the PA and I thought, ‘No, that’s wrong, he told me that he wasn’t going to race’. I went and looked and saw a guy that kind of looked like Cal in all black leathers on that bike going for the lead group. I’d only seen him in orange and black leathers, Harley leathers, before. Then, there was a big crash on the end of the front section and I could not see it very well from where I was. As I was walking, someone said, ‘It’s Rayborn’. And I again said, ‘No, he told me he wasn’t going to race that bike. Must be a mistake’ It was all happening so fast and so bad. I walked to the place where the crash happened and the race had finally been stopped and the ambulance was on the track. They had just loaded the rider up and the ambulance took off. I was still just trying to understand what was going on.”

Many years later, Fausto Vitello would become a pioneer of skateboarding, a kingpin of skateboard culture. But, in 1973, he was just Brelsford’s mechanic. He was also in New Zealand that day, and without a bike to work on, he was standing where the Rayborn incident happened. Vitello died in 2006.

“Fausto was right there when it happened,” Brelsford says. “He and Ron Grant walked up to me, after the ambulance had left, and Ron said, ‘Hey, man, Rayborn is dead. Cal died.’

I said ‘No way, almost said, you know, he told me that he wasn’t going to race. But Fausto said that he had gotten there, and was with Cal when he died. Rayborn died in Fausto’s arms. ‘Yeah, it’s true man, he said. ‘His chest was crushed’ Brelsford recalls.

“I just fell on the ground and started crying,” Brelsford says. “I went into shock, and I just laid there. It could not be happening.”

“Madness” followed the news that Rayborn was dead. Being five thousand miles from California complicated things. Brelsford: “From where we were in New Zealand you could barely find a phone to use locally, let alone call back to the States. We had to get Cal back home, and to do so Mick Grant had to hold an auction for all of his stuff. They sold his car, his helmet and his leathers. It was gruesome.”

“Later, we went down and stayed with a Suzuki importer for a day. I was sitting outside with this guy at his house and he said to me ‘It’s fate, it was your friend’s fate that he die in New Zealand.’

“I was just a little Catholic school kid from San Francisco,” Brelsford says. “I didn’t know anything about fate. I just wanted to turn back the clock.”

2019 notes, back story:

My friend, racer Dennis Kanegae was able to contact Brelsford and finally convince him to talk to me about Rayborn’s last day.

A popular story is that the bike Rayborn was riding when he was killed disappeared after it was returned by the police. In reality it sat in an NZ Suzuki dealership for most of the 1970s and 1980s. It’s still in NZ. As a kid two-stroke tuner/maestro Brian Turfrey worked in the dealership and worked on the bike. He later went to Team Roberts, tuned for Wayne Rainey, Eddie Lawson and his friend John Kocinski.

It’s not something Mert Lawwill will talk openly about, but the story goes that he somehow heard very early in the day that Rayborn had been killed. He called Rayborn’s wife asking her if it was true. This was the first she had heard about it.

Rayborn’s widow later died in what were described by a police officer as “very suspicious circumstances”. She was pregnant with her second husband’s child at the time.

Bill Werner’s first job at Harley-Davidson was assembling one of Rayborn’s bikes as a corporate gift for longtime HD racing chief Dick O’Brien. Rayborn was Dick O’Brien’s favorite rider.

On 12-29 or 30 while in NZ Brelsford was finally able to find a phone and call back to the USA. He called Milwaukee and spoke with his boss O’Brien. While the phone lines of the time made voices sound tinny and distant, when Dick O’Brien shouted GET MY MOTORCYCLE BACK IN THIS COUNTRY! NOW! Brelsford said it sounded like he was in the same room.

Cal Rayborn III, late Rayborn’s son, “Buddy” later rode for Team Roberts on a 250 and also raced the Suzuka 8 Hours for Yamaha. 

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