A Face In The Crowd: Win It Or Bin It

” Racing at Ascot was war ..”


Dennis Kanegae—a racer turned marketing exec—has worked all over the industry in the last 25 years, including at Honda and Yamaha.
Dennis Kanegae—a racer turned marketing exec—has worked all over the industry in the last 25 years, including at Honda and Yamaha. ASCOT

 

I had just won my heat race at Ascot and was sitting on the grid with Gene Romero, Mert Lawwill and Gary Scott. I looked up into the stands and saw thousands of people looking back at me. ‘How did I get here? How did this happen?’ I asked myself.

Like They Say On The History Channel: “The Early Years”

My first bike was a Yamaha 80 trail bike (YG-1TK). It had 2.25×16 semi-knobby tires that were neither good on the street nor in the dirt. It also had rigid foot pegs, so that every time I would try to go into a corner hard, the pegs would dig in. Needless to say, I then became very familiar with the dreaded “highside,” often followed by the equally dreaded “endo.” I’d always snap off the clutch and brake levers, thus the local Yamaha shop really got to know me well because of all the levers, peg rubbers and various accoutrements I would have to purchase from them on an almost weekly basis. Crashing got me into this, frankly.

No one really taught me how to ride, I just kept blazing trails near my house in Newport Beach until I morphed that poor little Yamaha 80 into junk. I replaced it with a YL-1, 100cc (two-stroke twin), and I rode it to school and on the freeways around Orange County. It was fun for a while but I ultimately messed that up, too, when I tried to wheelie it. After numerous crashes on city streets and many cases of road rash (no leathers), I gave that bike up and moved on to a real manly machine—a Honda CL72 otherwise known as a Honda 250 Scrambler, with slippery Dunlop K70 tires, high pipes and “Snuff-or-Nots.”

It weighed a ton and must have had all of 15 HP.

I stripped it down and it certainly looked cool. While at my local dealership, I saw a race poster hanging on the wall. It was a TT Scrambles race at a place called Prado Park. My friend from the shop said he was racing in it and thought I should come out to watch him. I did and saw him fall three times in one lap of practice (it was muddy). I thought, “Hell, I can do that!” So, the next week, I entered my Honda Scrambler in a 250 Novice race.

Because mechanical aptitude has never been one of my strengths, my bike would only run on both cylinders when I had the throttle pegged.

So, at the start I bogged the engine but, because I had it wide open, it suddenly hit on both cylinders, and I went from last to about 4th in a lap. Unfortunately, I was going way too fast and highsided. The racetrack was laid out around a pond (not sure why) and, of course, I went into the water. When I woke up, I was floating on my back and facing the sky. It was a beautiful sunny day with blue skies and white puffy clouds. I thought I had died and was in heaven; it was real quiet and peaceful. I thought death wasn’t so bad after all.

Then, all of a sudden, I heard roars of laughter and people were all around me helping me up. I looked up and hundreds of people were laughing, applauding, and cheering.

I later got a Bultaco Pursang five-speed “Pelican” that became my first real racebike. I destroyed that, too, and was offered a ride on a 200 Sherpa S on which I won four mains in a row at the local Saturday night outlaw scrambles track.

Later, I went to the famous Ascot Park, where I watched the legendary Sammy Tanner blast around the track on his BSA Gold Star. It was, to use a cliche, poetry in motion. That night pretty much changed my life forever. I vowed to become a racer like Sammy.

Kamikaze Kanegae haulin' the mail while wearing a set of Red Wings. Also—safety glasses: no longer just for the shop.
Kamikaze Kanegae haulin’ the mail while wearing a set of Red Wings. Also—safety glasses: no longer just for the shop. image from the all-powerful adams archives

The Ascot Years

Fast-forward five years, and I found myself on the front row of the Expert main event of the season opener at Ascot Park. I was riding a borrowed Norton 750 Trackmaster owned by a well-known Ascot tuner named Al Harmon who was so gracious to let me ride it. Due to lack of money, I couldn’t afford to properly set up and run my own Triumph 750, so I showed up with my “mooch kit” (riding gear, number plates and some duct tape).

After winning my heat race, I sat on the front row with my idols: Gene Romero and Mert Lawwill, plus Gary Scott and other top national numbers, including two of the very best first-year Experts: Tom White and Tom Horton. When we rolled to the line for the main, I looked up and saw thousands of fans.

The flag dropped, and I got a good start but knifed my way to the back by the end, finishing 7th or 8th. Yes, racing with Experts is a whole new game. They play for keeps, as it were. However, I was ecstatic to end up in the main event on a bike I had never ridden before.

Racing at Ascot was war. No one realized, unless you did it, what it took to ride and win at Ascot, especially against the weekly regulars who were tough competitors and as skilled as some traveling national number riders. Okay, racing is hard anywhere on a pro level, but people died at Ascot on a regular basis. In no other form of racing were there so many horrific crashes as there were at Ascot. These crashes work on your head after a while—I suppose today they’d term it Post-traumatic stress syndrome.

When Ascot crashes would happen, they’d nearly always be serious, due to the close racing, high speeds, and unforgiving dirt-backed wall. Making Ascot racing really interesting when I first raced there, we ran with no brakes and no hay bales.

I always wondered (so did my competitors) why running with no brakes never really bothered me, but the sad truth is I never really learned how to use brakes that well. It seemed natural for me to run the bike in a corner and scrub off speed the old-fashioned way. The surface and configuration at Ascot allowed for some serious hairball riding, and it was incredible how hard you could throw a bike into a corner there.

Years later, the AMA would pass a brakes “optional” rule and everyone immediately ran them, myself included. Later I took mine off one week at Ascot just to freak everyone out. When people in the pits saw I had no brakes on my 750 while in the Expert practice and qualifying line, they cried “foul”. I said “read the rulebook, brakes are optional” and “just stay out of my way”. I was just trying to be funny but, understandably, they took it the wrong way.

My novice bike was a Kawasaki A1R Road Racer two-stroke twin—with no kill button, no compression release, no brakes, stock frame, struts and two inches welded onto the swing arm. It looked cool but was crude, heavy and wicked fast. I was able to get it almost for free because the guy who rode it the previous year got killed at Ascot while racing it.

One night while I was in the lead, the A1R seized in the corner and I took five guys down with me. The crash site looked like a plane had crashed, with people and bikes everywhere. For that I got a free night’s stay in Gardena Memorial Hospital. The next year, I loaned the bike to a good friend and aspiring Ascot racer. He later died at Ascot.

I had six good seasons on the 750s as a Junior and later as an Expert. I made a few bucks and was glad to both get out alive and still able to walk because many of my Ascot friends didn’t make it out alive or able to walk. I am thankful that I had the opportunity to line up and race there against the very best during that era. I believe only I woke up once in Gardena Memorial so, in spite of having a reputation as a crasher, it was not well-founded. Everyone, and I mean, everyone has crashed at Ascot at one time or another—even Kenny Roberts.

Mentioning Roberts brings so many memories. The best memory, that I have, other than winning some races, comes from when Kenny passed me in practice for the National on his factory Yamaha 750 twin. His throttle was so wide open that I thought the engine would blow. His left engine case was dragging and throwing a roost so intense that it almost knocked me off my bike. The kicker was, the whole time his front wheel was about two inches off the ground. He was literally steering his bike on one wheel, with the throttle pinned.

I knew right then that I was not worthy.

Many people helped me along the way so my belated thanks go to Elden Kanegae, Ken Maely, Bill Cross, Don Dobbins, “Chick” Chicalaro, Russ Collins, Eddie Hammond, Mike Mumford, Bob Soppland, Dallas Baker, George Murray, Jeff Gardner, Bill Clevenger, John Reed, Shell Thuet, Fuji “Weldmaster” Yonehara and family, Bell Helmets (Ed Rothrock and JJ), The Mahoneys, Ben Foote, The Agajanian family, Elmer Reed’s Orange County Honda, ARD Magnetos, Monty Darling, Molly, S&S Headers, Clarice at ABC, Bob Rudolph at Bates, and all the old-school guys at Norton/Triumph Corp.

Special thanks go to Larry Wilburn and Tom Horton who motivated me to ride faster and harder than I liked to, every Friday night.

 


Return to News