Cal Rayborn: The Life and Death of an Icon

Note: Another one from Lee Wilcox! Enjoy. -TK

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. 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.

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 50 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.

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23 Replies to “Cal Rayborn: The Life and Death of an Icon”

  1. John C.

    This was a good story. There must have been a lot of pressure on the established riders both in the USA and the UK to abandon Harley and Triumph for those new products from the country of lots of products but no riders. Probably easy for the newcomers, just looking for their place. For the old timers, one can understand why their heart was no longer in it.

    Reply
    • Panzer

      Do you even ride motorcycles? Do you know what Oulton Park is? Do you think a street glide would get around the latter faster than a Japanese 600cc?

      Reply
      • John C.

        No of course not. As such, I have no knowledge of the multitude of talented Japanese racers that made their mark on the world scene concurrent with the appearance of Japanese 600ccs in all their glory.. That glory I associate instead with a new generation of riders whose politics was at odds with supporting a domestic or in your case Empire industry. Given this predilection, one can imagine the rule changes demanded to advantage the new smarm from Nippon. That smarm was of course too lazy to set up their own leagues where stats could speak for themselves. Like say the Negro Baseball League.

        Reply
        • CJinSD

          It was wrong of them to prove the superiority of their bikes by taking on the established brands on their own turf. They should have only won races that would have been easy for the producers of inferior bikes to dismiss. Are you sincere?

          Reply
          • John C.

            They would have been run on the same tracks, so the stats would have been comparable, or not. It is not so vital to destroy what as served in the cause of… God knows,,, supporting Mr. Suzuki’s coke and hooker habit…sticking it to the Man…having more riding opportunities for kids of the nouveau rich that have been so deprived of access to barbers.

            I understand this discussion will be new to you and perhaps hard to hear. The context, present in Mr. Wilcox’s article, is completely lacking in the motorcycle press article linked by Manbridge. There even all these years later, the good Mr. Stein wants you to understand that the Suzuki engine seizing should no how, no way be blamed on Suzuki, completely missing the more interesting story of a sport being coopted.

          • Dirty Dingus McGee

            @CJinSD

            I have given up trying to make sense of anything JohnC post’s, as it’s often time nigh on impossible. In this case, he is talking shit about something he has zero knowledge of (again), and just beating his “Japan bad” drum (again).

            (I’m sure he will respond with a “ok boomer” or some other such smarmy drivel)

          • gtem

            I have zero idea what John is on about here. What I posted was an example of what it took a tinker to get Harley guts (seriously modified engine and transmission with custom cast pistons and barrels/cylinder heads, stuffed into a different brand’s dirt bike frame) to run with contemporary Japanese 4cyl bikes from the era (Suzuki GS1000, Kawasaki KZ1000, etc). I don’t know enough about the history of Harley’s factory racing efforts but as far as street bikes are concerned they got blown into the weeds and never really made a genuine effort to keep up again. Completely ignored the performance street bike market while it was still twin spar steel frame/dual rear shocks in the early 80s, and by the time things transitioned to monoshocks and faired in aluminum frames, Harley was solidly entrenched in the “cruisers only” mentality. Buells are awesome bikes but they were never really respected or given their due by the mothership IMO. It was a successful path as long as there were enough Boomers that wanted to ride in the “birthing” position (legs sticking forward), and in fact the Japanese went HARD for factory “customs” with buckhorn handlebars and stepped seats starting in 1980ish trying to ape the successful Harley formula. But the Japanese were fully diversified across all segments of motorcycling, Harley stuck to their one niche.

        • Panzer

          If there was an American manufacturer that made a cool v4 600 or v6 liter bike that could carve up road courses, i’d love that.
          But no one makes such a thing, HD is focused on the motorcycling equivalent of grand touring.
          That’s not the sort of riding -I- want to do (at least right now) so therefore I have to buy Japanese or European.
          I know, I guess this makes me a traitor who wants there to be no American manufacturing anymore. 🙄

          Reply
          • John C.

            You guys seem to be purposly missing the point the Mr. Wilcox and Mr Stein’s articles told a story that ended in 1976. Gtem also posted below a story from 1979 that enlightened on the aftermath. If you guys want to argue that what went down in the period was good, and by extention what happened to Cal Rayborn and Harley was for the best. do so.

            You might start with an anecdote about the first crates filled with riderless Suzukis ariving at the hippy commune and the smiles elicited being almost as enthusiastic as a dope delivery.

            This CRT stuff you all want to put forth about how it is the white man’s job to tell an Oriental how wonderful they are is just silly. To illustrate this, below is a black group on Soul Train doing a Japanese song and the confusion as to why on the part of Don Cornelious. That is also where I am coming from.

          • CJinSD

            You sound like you think the Japanese invented people dying on motorcycles, or you sound like you think you can fool your readers into thinking that the Japanese invented people dying on motorcycles. Either way, I’m no Biden voter. You’ll have to try harder to fool me.

          • John C.

            CJ, I think you know I don’t care at all why the Suzuki’s engine seized. It is the job or a racer to ask more of the machinery at hand than it can deliver. In my opinion, Cal died of a broken heart, a similar form of death to several of his rivals according to the article. The times also extracted a fair bit of blood from the established industries in the USA and UK. Germany sensibly protected theirs. You could have been voting Republican all along, I know I did,. they did nothing.

          • Panzer

            Ah I get it now, so you’re trying to suggest that Japanese bikes are shit because one of their riders died as a result of mechanical failure.
            Mechanical failure on motorcycles transcended nation of origin back then. Motorcycles of all nations failed. Pointing this out doesn’t make us CRT proponents.
            CRT is just racialized Marxism and it victimizes Asians probably even more than white people because their success is undeniable despite their not being white.
            You’re also right about the story of the Harley roadracer, I would love -nothing- more than to ride a modern version of that same Harley roadracer..

            But guess what?

            Harley simply does not make anything like that because their management refused to support the genius of guys like Spuhr(?) and instead decided to chase the fake outlaw/fat boomer money with cruisers. So that means I have no choice but to look elsewhere.
            At some point, logic dictates you lay -some- of the blame at the feet of Detroit and Milwaukee management, and their failure to maintain possibly the most dominant position anyone has ever enjoyed in any market, through sloth, arrogance and incompetence.

          • John C.

            I am not saying at all that Japanese bikes are shit. Not even that they were in 1965. I am instead saying that they were produced by a country that had no use for them themselves to simply bring money back to Japan. As such there was no reason to allow for there importation especially to countys with established industries. Established industries are after all the result of large domestic investment.

            You guys are going to say but what is wrong with a little competition. Well think back to that time and the rebellious half of the boomer generation. In products there was demand, they took to Japanese products as a virtue because it annoyed the right people. You of course also see this in cars, radios, TVs and guitars. In each case, established people at the top of relevent fields looked warily on the Japanese and tried to stay with the tried and true.

            With a little time shifting you guys now complain that Harley doesn’t offer the kind of bike you want. As if it was a crime to stick with the class of buyer that stuck with you as you were being bled dry. Gtem above answers his own question. When they did offer a line that grudgingly earned respect, it was ignored out of hatred of the mothership. You can’t say or nod along to that obvious truth and then argue it wasn’t politics.

            It is near two generations later, Harley is now a fake Wall street shell that puts old names on things from Ethiopia or wherever. So instead enjoy that song I linked to above and than laugh with nostalgia as Don Cornelious get flustered as the soul train went of the tracks thanks to weird Japan affiliations among younger folks. It was happening all over.

          • gtem

            “When they did offer a line that grudgingly earned respect, it was ignored out of hatred of the mothership.”

            No you’re twisting my words. I said Buell was bought by Harley then allowed to die, as Buell got no love from the mothership. The bikes had world class chassis engineering and that lovely walloping V-twin torque, IMO just needed some more investment and fine tuning to smooth out some rough edges. I keep an eye out for S2 Thunderbolts myself.

  2. JMcG

    I got my first motorcycle in ‘83, just in time to follow the battle between Kenny Roberts and Freddie Spencer in the World Championship. The only way to find out who had won a race was in the international edition of the Times of London that could sometimes be found in the bookstore in town.
    I started on a 500cc Triumph Daytona, but soon moved to a Yamaha RD 400 that was ported and fitted with expansion chambers, clubman bars, and rearsets. That motorcycle was the most fun I ever had on wheels.
    By then, Cal Rayborn and Gary Nixon seemed long in the past.
    Thanks for bringing him to my attention, he seems like he was a hell of a guy.
    There’s a documentary floating around online called The Unridables. It’s about the three and four cylinder 500 GP Bikes of the early ‘80s. It’s worth checking out.

    Reply
    • stingray65

      Yea the good ole days when you found out who won F1 races several months later when Road & Track would provide a summary by Rob Walker, but when you had to avoid listening to the radio or watching the evening news on Memorial Day weekend if you didn’t want a spoiler on who won the Indy 500 before watching the tape delay race broadcast on ABC.

      Reply
  3. gtem

    I always wondered why Harley gave up trying to keep on the performance front in the 60s, the Sportster used to run basically neck and neck with the 650 Brit bikes, per my understanding. The tidal wave of 4cyl UJMs completely crushed them by the mid-late 70s. There was an interesting privateer that was featured in a 1980 CycleWorld:
    http://www.counterman.net/v-articles/aluminumsteamroller.pdf

    It’s a really cool piece, written by Peter Egan no less.
    A street legal custom road racing monster that was dusting off the Jap bikes (when it ran right). IIRC they even tried to run it at the Isle of Mann but ran into mechanical problems. I absolutely love this bike.

    Reply

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