(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED Jan 2016)
If you’re a walker and do your daily strides in a section of Santa Ana, it’s difficult not to think frequently about David Aldana. The former Grand National dirt tracker turned roadracer, renown for his riding prowess, his skeleton leathers and his role in the film On Any Sunday, is a once a lap reminder to those who walk in residential Santa Ana.
In 1968, while he was living nearby and just starting a career in motorcycle racing, Aldana noticed some fresh cement in front of a neighborhood burger joint. The then 18-year old took a stick and scribed his name and competition number—115R—in the cement. Thanks to the mild southern California climate and pure luck that the city had not ripped up the concrete for any dozen legitimate reasons, as of a few years ago, Aldana’s cement racing autograph still existed. A little faded but still very legible.
In the 1970s Aldana was one-third of what could be categorized as racing’s three princes. One third of a colorful trio made up of Gary Nixon, Barry Sheene and Aldana. Were they friends? Sure, as much as riders can be friends in the conventional sense. Sheene was regarded as the nucleus of the trio, and Nixon and Aldana were friends with Sheene. Were you ever going to see Nixon and David Aldana hanging out together without Sheene? Probably not. But with Sheene as the buffer the three had miles of good fun. Sheene was Aldana’s best man at his wedding.
But then Aldana always seemed to find fun. When we last saw him, racing endurance somewhere in the Midwest, he wore a team uniform shirt with his name embroidered on it. And under his name, there was a strip of duct tape which read in sharpie “under probation”. There are scenes in the film “On Any Sunday”– or in its original sequel–of Aldana driving his van, with a police car behind him, or of him wheelying a pit bike to death. Viewing such scenes prompts any person who knows Aldana to say, “Yep. That’s David.”
Sheene, a lifelong and seemingly proud smoker, died early at just age 50 in 2003. Nixon–did anyone get more out of one life than Nixon?–passed away in 2011 after a heart attack. Aldana took relatively good care of himself and was still racing competitively well north of his 60th birthday. He’s still married to the same woman and lives a very comfortable life. He was one of the riders who, after he cashed in his winnings, bought apartment houses and So-Cal real estate. And, probably of more importance to him, he’s still very fast as we speak.
David is a gentleman racer today. In his younger years, while loose and wild on the track and just plain wild off it, Aldana was actually a pretty good saver and investor. In the 1970s when he rode for BSA and Triumph, then Suzuki, and later Kawasaki and Honda, David saved some money and also played real estate speculator in southern California, something he still does today. Every year he raced Aldana would buy a lot or two and build a house “on spec”. To save money and not complicate things, Aldana and friends built the same house over and over and over again. If you’ve seen one “Aldana house” you’ve seen them all.
Lucky in life and lucky in racing, Aldana now says the years that he rode the World Endurance championship–he won the Suzuka 8 Hours in 1981 with co-rider Mike Baldwin–were the best financially, thanks to Honda. “Racing has been very good to me,” he says.
If you’re fortunate enough to spend a day with Aldana, you come away from it wondering how it is that there isn’t a Dave Aldana book, or a Dave Aldana movie. Aldana is a treasure trove of colorful stories.
Didya hear about the time he showed his then Kawasaki teammate Eddie Lawson how to order food in a restaurant when you’re a factory rider? (Order from the right hand side of the menu where the price is listed, Aldana told Lawson, corporations have a lot of money.)
Or about rakish Aldana taking Freddie Spencer for a walk down to the beach while the two were testing in France in the early 1980s? (Spencer, a devout Christian who famously never drank alcohol and had his then girlfriend sleep in a separate hotel room, had never experienced a European topless beach before that walk with Aldana.) “Gee, Freddie, try not to stare.”
How about Aldana almost winning the Daytona 200 on a Yamaha that had been cut up and thrown in a dumpster on orders of Yamaha the previous Fall? Cue Kel Carruthers standing by the bike after the race and asking “How, exactly, did you get this bike?”. (The bike is now on display at Red Rock Harley-Davidson in Las Vegas)
Or when Aldana settled a dispute of riding styles and set up by unexpectedly punching his teammate in the stomach and threatening his well-being if he didn’t “stop whinging and start riding”?
The ‘behind closed garage door payment of $5000 to trade bikes with Lawson’ incident?
Aldana lives outside of Atlanta now. He was back in Santa Ana a few years ago and shot the above photo of his contribution to our sport’s racing archaeology.
If you walk by that chunk of cement with Aldana and ask him about it, it’s clear he becomes a little overwhelmed with memories. He grew up there, a few blocks away at 501 Beverly Street, and learned to ride two-wheel vehicles on those sidewalks. Not long after, he locked himself in a nearby garage and went to school on how to build his own race engines, tutored by his uncle Dan Mancias. He’ll tell stories about taking his gigantic Mile dirt track bike to the local Saddleback (MX) track to do laps in his leathers for an afternoon to try and stay in shape.
It’s been one long adventure in racing for David Aldana. And most importantly his memory remains clear.
After John Lennon was murdered, one Beatles biographer underlined George Harrison’s existence as a pivotal voice in the history of the band. McCartney, he said, remembered a heavily edited and polished history of the band, and poor Ringo Starr didn’t remember much at all. Harrison, though, remembered the majority of the band’s history and without much of a filter.
In much the same way, in later years the three members of the Nixon, Sheene & Aladana trio would each bring a different spin to the table. Nixon tended to focus–curmudgeonly–on why things went wrong, while Sheene, some would say, tended to over-glamorize. Aldana, the last prince, like the scratches he put in that cement in 1968, remains strong and clear as his era of racing’s pivotal voice.