Sunday Salon: Cal Rayborn: The Life And Death Of An Icon

Some would make the case that Cal Rayborn was as much a natural as Mike Hailwood, even though you won’t find his name on a list of most Grand National wins. Only those riders good on both pavement and dirt make such lists, and Cal’s ability and drive belonged with road racing. He stayed with Harley well past the period in which they were competitive, thus proving the point that it’s difficult for loyalty and blind ambition to coexist.

If you lived outside the United States, you might not have heard of him but for one remarkable week in 1972, when he competed against some of the world’s best. While comparing riders is not the intent of this article, a discussion of road races often includes comparison among Rayborn, Hailwood and Kenny Roberts (who, in my opinion, probably was the most complete racer of that group). That said, I shall proceed  to relate the story of the life and death of the remarkable Cal Rayborn.

Might there be something special about the water in San Diego? It’s just possible, given that the city produced Cal and many other truly successful racers of the era. He began riding bikes at age eight, and later honed his skills as a motorcycle courier. The picture above was taken at Laguna Seca, where Cal won his first motorcycle race.

Cal’s career very nearly ended before it began. In 1958, at 18 years of age, he broke his back at the Riverside track in Southern California. Having broken my own back, I can only imagine how greatly his injuries diminished his flat-track skills.

photo by John Nowell

Despite the damage, Cal was by the early sixties a regular winner in local scrambles and TT races. He became a lifelong friend of another outstanding racer named Don Vesco. He and Vesco broke into the club races together and, throughout their careers, would compete to establish an enduring motorcycle land speed record (which may or may not have existed, but they definitely made a race of it). That was their best known rivalry, but it seemed that their competition extended to whatever else they did.

In 1966 Rayborn won his first AMA Grand National at Carlsbad, California. Two years later, he won the first of back-to-back victories in the Daytona 200, the most prestigious motorcycle race in America.

Rayborn on a flathead Harley in 1968

If Cal had been working in Europe, he’d have made the leap from club racing to Grand Prix events. In the United States, however, the main venue was dirt track racing, and that was not his strong point. Of his 11 Grand National wins, 10 were road races–eight of them won on iron-engined Harleys. He never won the AMA championship. In 1968, Rayborn won the Daytona 200 with a record average speed of 100 mph–a first–while lapping the field in the process. Harley-Davidson riders won a total of 18 out of 23 US championship races during that season.

While Japanese bikes were starting to appear at the dirt tracks, the AMA rules still favored the Harley flatheads. Perhaps the combination of  new Japanese brands and impending rule changes prompted Dick O’Brien to develop a new overhead valve, iron head-and-barrels successor to the flathead, although he most likely was motivated by the appearance of Dick Mann and Gary Nixon carrying the number one plate. His rather unsuccessful project was the first to bear the name XR750. Its severe overheating issues eventually led Harley to develop an alloy engine that would dominate the dirt track for decades. See the XR750 article for more detail.

Rayborn liked winning the Daytona in 1968 so much that he did it again in 1969. It would be the last time a Harley won that race. The bikes were so overweight and under-braked that Rayborn would scrub off speed by sliding the front wheel in the corners. The forks were under full load and the tires were so distorted they left tire marks on the fairing , something that should have been impossible to do. It’s not that big a deal today, but in ’68 and ’69 it elicited wonder and amazement. Well, someone had to be first.

In 1970, Rayborn won no races. AMAracing.com will inform you that Harleys won only a few flat-track victories. Dick O’Brien, the man in charge of  Harley’s racing program, prepared this streamliner to compete for the land speed record. He simply modified a Sportster engine, fitted this streamlined body and went off to race at Bonneville.

Rayborn set two records that year, just to stay ahead of Vesco. Vesco was the first to break 250 mph, and Rayborn just had to beat him. In a Sportster-based streamliner, 19 ft. long  and powered by a 1480cc engine, he set a new record of 254.84 mph. Apparently that wasn’t  enough, since he took a second pass and reached 265.49 mph. Because he could hardly see out of the window, Rayborn steered the bike via the line on the road. (As a side note, one can say that Chris Carr is today’s Rayborn: He has ridden (and won) at dirt track, competed in road racing and held the land speed record for two wheels.)

Rayborn won two more Grand National races during 1972. By then, Harley had developed their alloy engine, but as far as pavement racing was concerned it was simply too little, too late. As demonstrated at Daytona, nobody could compete against the two strokes. I refer you to the CC article “Giant Killer” for more details. To the best of my knowledge, the XR750 has won nothing significant on pavement since.

The Trans Atlantic Match Races™ were established in 1971 in order to develop a common set of rules for Formula 750 racing in both the UK and USA. A challenge series was run between the two countries, with the UK as the host.

Traditionally the races took place over the Easter holidays. Although the series began in 1971, Rayborn’s first participation was in 1972 . The British tracks were smaller and tighter tracks, and usually the British won on them The tracks were so different that Don Emde had to educate Rayborn about them, writing his notes on a napkin during their flight. When the 1972 match of six races was over, Rayborn had won three and placed a close second in the others, despite allegedly having the weakest mount in the field. Ray Pickrell of the British team had an identical record, and Phil Read (The Prince of Speed, and considered nearly equivalent to Hailwood), won none.

The best of the side-valve engines and the early “iron” XR push-rod motors produced roughly 64 horsepower. To wreak havoc on a group of of BSA/Triumph triples while riding an outdated Harley is truly revealing. Dick O’Brien would not let Rayborn take an alloy-engine bike to England, apparently because he didn’t consider them competitive. Thus, Rayborn’s bike was a privately owned, cast iron-engined model–in fact, the same model notorious for overheating. Rayborn is said to have thought that the cooler climate would compensate for the bikes overheating, and evidently he was right.

A while back, my wife told me she became interested in basketball after watching Jordan and Pippin play for the Bulls, and countless other fans have a similar story about their own sport. As for me, my first bike was a Harley Sprint. Rayborn rode one in his short races, and his fortunes comprised much of my interest in motorcycle road racing. Indeed, I was a fan.

It’s likely that most of the world knew very little about Cal Rayborn until that match in 1972. Frank Melling is a known author and motorcycle journalist, and no particular practitioner of hero worship. His description of one of those races is better than my own:

Frank Melling (from www.motorcycle-usa.com):

The reason for my life-long love affair with the XRTT is the Anglo-American Match Races. Conceived as a publicity vehicle for BSA Group Triples, the races were dominated by British riders and British bikes. Nearly, if not for a kind and achingly modest Californian called Cal Rayborn who rode an XR Harley.

I remember being on the inside of the Esso hairpin at Oulton Park one filthy wet spring day. Sleet was falling miserably and patchy fog finished off the picture. Out of the mist came a gaggle of Triples led by Ray Pickrell who was always hard on the brakes. Rayborn was about seventh. The surface was atrocious – beyond impossible for hard braking. Rayborn eased up the inside of the pack with the delicacy of a ballet dancer, squeezed the Harley through on the inside of Pickrell and the booming Twin accelerated away into first place to the screams of the crowd. If I had just witnessed Moses parting the Red Sea I couldn’t have been more impressed.

The truth was that a lot of the XR’s performance in the Match Races was due to Rayborn himself, who was later tragically killed in New Zealand preparing the for 1974 GP season on an RG500 Suzuki.

Thank you Mr. Melling. By the way, Rayborn is #3 and Pickrell is #8 in the photo above. When the races were over that year there was a serious segment of the European population that had regarded the World Championship as a European Championship, a conceit similar to that of Americans about baseball’s World Series. Roberts and those that followed took up the new competitive challenge.

If you consider Kenny Roberts to be the best American road racer, you should know how much he respected and admired Cal Rayborn. In fact, Roberts himself said that Rayborn, as the one road racer willing to mentor a young rider, had considerable impact on his development as a rider.

I sincerely believe that Rayborn could have been a world champion had he taken his show to Europe along with Roberts, Rainey, Hayden and some others. He would never be number one in the AMA, whose championship was held jointly with dirt track’s. Also, I know of no evidence that Hailwood, like Roberts, would have fared better on a flat-track. Rayborn, however, could have been “Cal the Bike” just as easily as Hailwood was “Mike the Bike.” I would have loved to watch him race the Isle of Man atop some competitive machinery; it was not to be.In 1973, a club race in New Zealand took Rayborn’s life, forever denying him the chance to realize his full potential. He was 33 years of age.

It’s hard to believe that nearly 40 years have passed since then.  There remains speculation, mostly unfounded, about the cause of Rayborn’s death. The Web site http://www.kiwibiker.co.nz features one of several eyewitness accounts that claim Rayborn was trying to get more speed from his RG500 Suzuki by jetting it to burn alcohol (he’d left Harley for Suzuki after the 1973 season). Rayborn, who had minimal experience riding two-strokes, was trying to gain some seat time before the 1974 season. Alcohol lacks the lubricating properties of gasoline, which may or may not have caused his engine to freeze at speed; at any rate, he managed to ride a few more  meters before being flung into a barricade.

As a side note, it’s been reported that Rayborn died while riding the bike of Geoff Perry, a well-known and successful racer from New Zealand, who went missing after his plane crashed at sea.  The Kiwibiker interview disputes that claim.

One thing is not myth: Ray Pickrell, who tied Rayborn in the 1972 match races, also had a bike seize at speed; the resulting injuries ended his racing career the same year. A curious parallel?

I remember reading about Rayborn’s death in Cycle World or Cycle, and that I couldn’t follow racing for a long time after he died.  I knew a lot more about him than about Roberts or Hailwood, but not enough to write accurately about any of them without performing research. For modern riders, it’s all new knowledge.

Thanks for the forum, Paul–and thanks for the memories, Cal.