Soup Classic: High Desert Encounter

“Don’t ever hesitate to approach your heroes …”

Written by Rick Oestricher

Originally published on Friday, October 03, 2003

      As a Texas teenager suddenly dropped into the middle of the high desert of California, life could be kind of dull. You see, I had been forcibly uprooted from my comfortable North Central Texas existence by my father’s talent for flying experimental aircraft. He went willingly to Edwards Air Force Base and the rest of us were dragged along.

Anyone who experienced the Antelope Valley in the mid-70’s knows you had to search far and wide for fun. Seen one tumbleweed, seen them all. Luckily, I had a couple of things in my favor. One, California girls loved Texas accents and two, there was a racetrack just up the road. So it was in the early summer of 1974 that I ended up at the gates of Bill Huth’s Willow Springs International Raceway.

Hardly the plush facility it is today, (ah, well, forget it.—editor) Willow Springs was nevertheless the fastest road in the West.

In those days, the track ran what was called “Open Practice”. In other words there could be anything from a racing go-cart to a Porsche 917 on the track, all at the same time. You paid your money and you took your chances. A 5-foot deep ditch that caught and mangled all the pieces before they could safely scatter into the desert lined the outside of the 1974 version of the track. In one of those ditches, I recall, was almost the complete front-clip of a sixties Corvette. Willow wasn’t exactly the safest place in those days.

Every Sunday morning, I would ride over on my dad’s 1970 CB-350—because my Kawasaki Bighorn had blown up again—to Willow in search of the thrill of the racetrack. Week after week the usual variety of F1 cars, Trans-Am racers, and the unending stream of go-carts generally disappointed me. I was there to see roadracing motorcycles and one in particular, a Yamaha TZ-700. I had seen pictures, I heard the rumors, and I’d even talked to someone who’d seen one. But this was something I had to experience for myself.

One Sunday, sometime late in the summer, I paid my usual couple of bucks for another day of dodging rattlesnakes and watching the go-fast guys go fast, when I heard a noise like I’d never heard before. Something really fast, big and two-stroke was heading down the back straight into turn eight. Could it be, was it the beast coming around turn nine to reveal itself at last? Yes! Coming into view around turn nine was a white and red TZ-700 with yellow junior plates (remember the AMA’s Junior class?) Ridden by a familiar yet not quite recognizable rider. As he whipped up the front straight and into turn one I was spellbound. I had to get closer to this.

Luckily, in those days there was no such thing as security or for that matter, even a fence near the track. I rode over to the pits just as the big Yamaha rolled silently after a plug chop into the pitlane. The rider wearing orange and black Motorcycle Weekly leathers hopped off and there came the moment of recognition. When he turned around the back of his leathers read “McLaughlin”.

Could it be? Was this the famed Steve McLaughlin, hero of many a road test in Cycle Guide, The guy with the “Oh, My, My” on the back of his helmet? Yeah it was.

I stayed near the group, hoping to get just a smattering of the words of wisdom he was sure to utter. What I heard ruined me on hero worship for the rest of my life. He said ” If another one of those damn go-cart driver’s tries to pass me on the inside again, I’m going to kick him in the head” or words to that effect.

What, I thought, was this big time national rider doing on a mere junior’s bike, even if it was a 700?

Always the entrepreneur, Steve had decided to start what else, but SME: Steve McLaughlin Enterprises. Part of this business would involve the mentoring of new riders. The deal was that Steve would help set up the bike, and get the rider’s up to speed at Willow. The claim was and has always been ” If you can go fast at Willow, you can go fast anywhere.” Steve intended to prove it. The junior rider, Walt Foster, was his first victim.

While Walt Foster’s name may not be familiar to those who didn’t follow Ascot in the 70’s, those who did will remember him. Always a fierce competitor, Walt rode for Neil Winston’s Wacky Racers Racing Team out of Minneapolis. One of the leading Junior class dirt trackers vying to get his transfer points to make Expert that season, Walt knew that by roadracing, he could gain that many more and be ahead of the game.

Junior class roadracing that 1974 season wasn’t exactly a cakewalk. The main competitors were Pat Henon, Wes Cooley and Jay “Pee Wee’ Gleason. All armed with TZ-700s, they were a force to be reckoned with.

Walt knew this more than anyone. He had gone to Laguna Seca a month earlier armed with a pea shooter compared to these guys, a Yamaha TR-3. The TR-3 was the last air-cooled 350-production roadracer Yamaha built. It was obsolete even in its own class by the new TZ-350. In other words, no one in their right mind would try competing against the big TZ’s with one of them.

No one but Walt Foster. At Laguna, he led the junior race for 3 or 4 laps before tossing it away in the corkscrew. He even got mentioned in the magazines. It was a Big Deal at the time. Walt knew that weekend that no matter how hard he tried on the 350, the result was going to be the same, especially with the high-speed tracks at Talladega and Ontario looming on the horizon. He had been trying to buy a 700 all season. Yamaha was claiming that all the 1974 TZ-700s had been sold and the warehouse was empty. Walt knew better. He had a buddy who worked at Yamaha’s Buena Park warehouse and had seen several TZ-700s in crates.

Walt had a plan as all desperate racers’ do. He was going to get one of the big TZ’s one way or the other. Realizing that the Laguna Seca National would be a busy weekend for Pete Schick, head of the Yamaha Race team at the time, Walt came up with a ruse that eventually brought us together us in the pitlane at Willow.

Kenny Roberts’ mount that weekend was one of the first TZ-750s. He had been setting the world and especially America on fire defending his National Championship with it. He won Laguna going away the day after Walt’s short, valiant ride in the Junior class. That is when the devious mind of Walt Foster went to work. He approached Pete Schick right after the race and told him that he was going to claim Robert’s winning bike. Now Schick obviously overjoyed and preoccupied with Kenny’s win, was taken aback by this and it didn’t register who Foster was or wasn’t. He didn’t realize Walt couldn’t claim the winning bike due to the fact he hadn’t raced in the national that day nor was he even an expert.

Foster pressed his point and must have gotten Schick all worried because when Walt dropped his counteroffer on him, Pete agreed immediately. The thought of losing a factory bike had clouded even the great Pete Schick’s mind. Walt offered not to claim Robert’s winning bike in exchange for being able to buy one of the bikes in the warehouse. Schick agreed and signed off.

On Monday morning, among great amounts of grumbling, Walt Foster became the owner of a shiny new TZ-700. One Yamaha said didn’t exist. Score one for the little people. I heard this story straight from Walt and I hope it’s true, it’s too good to be otherwise.

Back to Willow Springs in late summer 1974. One of the people who noticed Foster on his ride at Laguna Seca was McLaughlin. When I rode up on this the first time. Steve had been in the process of sorting it out. The standard set-up for the TZ at that time was a set of S&W shocks and a couple of spacers in the forks. Real high tech! Walt had ridden his TZ twice. Once at Riverside where he seized it and almost threw it away, and once earlier that morning.

Melissa Malocco
The late, great Melissa Malocco. RIP. Thom Tyre

One of the side benefits of meeting this bunch was the stunning Melissa McLaughlin. The granddaughter of dirt track racing wizard, Shell Thuett, Melissa was not only very beautiful, but also extremely savvy about racing and machinery. Once the wind whipped up a miniature sandstorm across the Willow pitlane and the only person with their hands covering the open bores of a TZ motor was Melissa.

(After she and Steve split-up. she went on to work with Penny Nicholi and Pace Productions in Supercross before her untimely death from cancer.)

Steve and Walt continued their teacher/student thing for the next several weeks. Each week Walt got faster and more confident. One time they brought another TZ-700 belonging to a racer whose name has escaped me over the years. He was a junior also and his number is 219 according to the picture I have. In the end while not as fast as McLaughlin, Walt was competent and quick on the big TZ. It was time to be off for Talladega. Amazingly to me, they asked me to come along.

Imagine today you letting your 16-year-old son run off to Alabama with a bunch of people that you’ve never met. That is after you signed a note to school getting him excused for a week. They would probably lock my parents away in this day, but in 1974 I guess it was okay.

So, off I went, riding the Greyhound from Lancaster to San Bernardino where Walt lived via downtown LA. During the week he worked for Yamaha of Redlands and more specifically for the future pro motocrosser Brian Myerscough’s dad. It was Tuesday and we had to be at Talladega by Friday morning. So, after some quick stops we were off to the east. One of those stops was to pick up the pipes for the TZ from the welders. If ever saw a 700, you’ll remember it had flat-sided expansion chambers for better ground clearance. Only problem was that the resonance from running caused the pipes to crack and blow out large chunks. Not exactly the hot set-up for going fast. Short of building a complete new set, annealing was the answer. So after picking up the pipes and Walt’s brother-in-law, we were off. Other than my trying to drive the van off of a wet Alabama highway in the middle of the night, it was a boring and uneventful 37 hours straight to Talladega. Racers don’t make very good sightseers.

Once there, my hero worship meter pegged out. Now not only was McLaughlin there, but so was Roberts, Yvon DuHamel, Art Baumann, Gary Nixon and the rest. Too cool for words. I managed to actually talk to Gary Nixon. I figured our common Fort Worth, Texas background would spark some kinship, but alas there was none.

It was time to get down to the business of racing. Here’s how desperate Walt was: he let me change the TZ’s plugs and mix up the Castrol R for the bike. This guy must have had the angels riding with him that weekend to let a really wet behind the ears kid mess around with his pre-mix.

On top of my duties as plug and gas guy (I got to meet Bobby Strahlmann, Champion’s legendary plug-reader) I was handling the scoring. In those days you were in a room up above the stands. There was a stripe across the track and a clock reading from 0 up in seconds, no minutes, just thousands of seconds. Each time your rider passed the stripe, you looked at the clock and wrote down the number. At the end of each 5 laps, you would raise you rider’s number so the guy running the scoring tower could change the numbers on it. This was kind of cool and sort of scary. If you missed a lap there was no backup scoring for this tiny team.

Despite Walt’s handicap (us), he managed to qualify on the front row for his race. Hennon and Cooley along with Gleason were there with him. Before the race, my job as the gas guy hit a serious snag. Walt had asked me to put x amount of gas in the tank, I filled it, to the brim. He was not real happy and I proceeded to get a quick lesson in weight versus acceleration. After some careful draining and wild guesses at the amount of fuel needed to run 100 miles at Talladega, we buttoned it up and headed for scoring and the grid. I wish I could remember more about the race, but I was so focused on trying not miss Walt every time he came around that it wasn’t until the end I realized he had finished third behind Henon and Gleason. Pretty good for his first shot at racing a big TZ. We loaded the bike for the return trip and went to watch the National.

The National grid was alive with noise and vibration; a moment forever etched in my mind. Standing on the pit wall, three feet away from the first row of the grid, there were 50 big TZ’s along with the factory Suzukis and Kawasakis warming up. You couldn’t hear it; you felt it through your soul. The next time I felt that much power running through me was during the static ground engine runs for the Lockheed F-22 twenty-three years later.

I don’t recall who won that afternoon, although I’m sure it was probably Roberts. DuHamel crashed on the first lap in the chicane and McLaughlin came home on Mel Dineson’s bike in the top ten with blown out pipes.

Heading back home, all I could hear was the sound of all those big bore TZ’s heading into the banking at Talladega. We got stopped in West Texas for speeding and there was some discussion about locking me up as a runaway, my having a Texas license and being 16 years old in the company of all these motorcycle riding Californians. But the ex-Marine brother-in-law kept me from juvenile hall with some good BS. Only time he talked to me nicely on the whole trip.

I got home and it took me 24 hours to get from San Bernardino back to Lancaster. Buses don’t go to the Antelope Valley at night for some reason. Try spending the night in the Downtown LA bus station some day. Monsters do exist.

My experience in Talladega was one of those things you can’t believe you actually got to do. Never gonna happen again.

Wrong, In October, there I was sneaking into Ontario Motor Speedway in the back of Walt’s van. At Talladega they had never asked how old I was. They did at Ontario. There was some rule about no one under 18 years old in the pits. We ignored it and I snuck in every day of the event.

Ontario was incredible. For anyone whose has ever been to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, think of Indy being a shack and Ontario as the Playboy Mansion. I once read that Ontario was built on too big a scale to promote anything except train races. Probably true. 70’s West Coast opulence at its finest. We got there and the magic returned. I remember riding around on one of Brian Myerscough’s YZ-80’s watching the racing, soaking it all in. The stage from a huge rock concert called the “California Jam” was still set up in the infield and it made a great vantage point. The place was huge.

Walt managed another great result in the Junior race. He finished third behind who else but Pat Hennen and this time Wes Cooley. McLaughlin ran second to Reg Pridmore in the open class of Superbike Production (anyone remember when there was a small bore Superbike class? It was dominated by Scott Clough and Bob Tigert on Yamaha RD-350s). On top of the regular heroes there was a contingent of euros including Giacomo Agostini, Teppi Lansivouri and Barry Sheene.

In the national, Roberts ran away and hid while Steve had an incident involving none other than Giacomo Agostini. I guess if you are going to run off the track with someone, they might as well be famous.

The weekend saw the end of several promising racing careers. Pee Wee Gleason crashed on the fastest part of the east banking during the Junior race and although he recovered, he never seriously roadraced again. He did however become the dragstrip testing rider of choice for the major manufacturers. Phil McDonald riding for K&N Yamaha out of Oklahoma had what had to have been the longest crash ever, it started on the front straight and ended two turns later. Phil recovered to run some successful racing programs for his brother Sam among others.

It was the end of the fairy tale for me. I moved back to Texas a month later and although I kept in touch with Steve, I never saw him ride again. His exploits over the next 25 years are well documented. Walt Foster, on the other hand, I saw more of him. At Houston for the opening races of his rookie expert year, at Ascot several times and at his home in Hesperia. The last time I spoke to him was 12 years ago, I haven’t seen or heard from him since. I sure would like to hear from him again.

Steve McLaughlin and I kept in touch with for about five years and just lost touch. I just missed seeing him at Daytona in 1996 at the vintage races. He was there for the 20th anniversary of his BMW win. I was elbow deep in Micah Stevenson’s T-M Motosport Harley Davidson XRTT when they were interviewing him and when I got over to the area he had been in, he was gone.

All these cool people, big time machinery and this teenager from Texas. Probably not a good mix. Wrong. Steve McLaughlin’s story has been told on many levels and in many ways. He has been villianized, made larger than life, and been generally distorted in more ways than you can count. His efforts in the creation of Superbike racing are legendary. Walt Foster was one of those guys you could re-start a conversation ten years after the last words and not miss a beat. Never since the time I met these guys, have they ever been anything but pleasant to me. It made an indelible mark on me and is one of my favorite memories.

Don’t ever hesitate to approach your heroes, they could actually be nice.

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