Earl Roloff’s Facebook fables are too good not to share with a wider audience. In this episode, we learn the value of perseverance and hard work, race with famous children of the swingin’ Southern California ‘60s, and continue growing onward and upward. Part 1, in which we explored the origins and earliest career of our young protagonist, is here. – John Burns
Take it away, Earl:
With less respect than Rodney Dangerfield, the Yamaha SC500 2-stroke Single was one of the worst motorcycles ever manufactured. Rated one of the worst motorcycles of the 70s by many, including a couple of major publications, its list of flaws was longer than War & Peace, a failure at almost every level: A 4-speed gearbox so spaced out that Jeff Spicoli would be jealous. Engine detonation so bad, you thought water was being mixed with the gas rather than oil. The direction-changing ability of a Peter Fonda chopper from Easy Rider. More seizures than our Border Patrol/DEA at the southern border on a busy night, the list goes on.
The real question: who would want one of these things? Unfortunately, one such buyer lived in my house, my dad. Of course, when we bought it new, we were unaware of what we’d gotten into. However, we quickly found out! When you show up at a race, and you’re the ONLY guy riding a particular bike it says something. (That happened to me on more than one occasion along the way. See also
First, the 4-speed gearbox ratios were so wide you couldn’t get the gearing right; a slipper clutch would have been great, but that was many years away. We figured out a way to get a 5-speed gearbox in it, problem solved. Next we had to fix the understeer problem; the rake was like 31 degrees, the front had no feel and wouldn’t hold a line. We decided to pull the rake into about 27 degrees, and it worked.
The biggest issue with this bike was the fueling, it pinged like a New York cell tower and seized multiple times along the way. We even mixed the oil (Kling 2-stroke oil for those who remember) at 16-to-1 to help the seizing, but to no avail. Multiple DNFs, constant tinkering to make it work, and patience that had come to an end was making the decision to put the SC into the race bike scrap pile easy. But dad, God Bless Him, had the tenacity of a pit bull (those of you who knew him would agree) and wanted to try to fix the carburetion one last time. He went in a different direction, changing the jet nozzle, pilot jet, slide, just about everything.
You know what, he nailed it. After that the pinging, seizing, 2-stroke disaster became one of the best bikes we ever had. We won multiple races on it, TT/Half Mile at the old Southbay Speedway, 395 Cycle Park in Adelanto, and a couple of very special AMA Pro TT races at Ascot Park in early 1975.
At the season opener Ascot TT Race trophy presentation, one I’ll never forget, they had all three winners. I was in the center, winner of the Junior Main on the SC500, to my right the Expert winner Terry Dorsch, a top Ascot Regular/Great Guy, and to my left the Novice Winner, a name I think you’ll recognize, Eddie Lawson, who won the Novice Race on a Cooper of all things. I guess both our dads had something in common, they figured out how to win on anything!
A few weeks later, the West Coast Regional TT Championship was one of the most memorable races of my life; 90-plus Junior riders qualified (most on 750 Yamaha, Triumph, and BSA motors in Champion, Trackmaster, and Redline Frames), but only 48 made it to the heat races. I won my heat race and got to the Main. In the Main, I got the holeshot, but Steve Eklund on a 4-stroke single passed me and started to pull away (I had nothing for him).
I fought hard and held onto second, which frankly, I was pumped with. On the last lap, as I swung out of the infield onto the half-mile portion of the track (turns 3 & 4), I noticed a guy down and in the infield as I exited turn 4 to the finish line to take the checkered flag, happy with my second place finish. When I rolled into the pits, everyone was high-fiving, shaking hands, etc… when my dad informed me that the guy in turn 4 was Steve Eklund, and I’d won the race! Hail the SC500, the Rocky Balboa of motorcycling!
We’ve all done it, gone to a new track or event with high expectations and excitement. Learning the track, new competition and a new venue will always come with unseen challenges/surprises – which is what lured us there to begin with. Which brings us to El Mirage Dry Lake in the late 1960’s.
My dad saw an ad for a 50-Mile TT 100cc Race at El Mirage Dry Lake, a few miles west of Highway 395 near Adelanto. Sounds fun, a great idea, let’s do it! When we arrive there on race day and begin to drive out onto the dry lake bed it looks pretty good. It’s pretty flat and much larger than we expected, so the track could be large and fast which would be fun.
Then it occurred to us, where is everybody? We drove a little further, finally saw some trucks and vans off in the distance or was it a mirage, like a scene from High Plains Drifter with Clint Eastwood? We drove over and realized this was the location for the event. The track had been advertised to be about a mile long. We figured it would be a fast layout because of the size and openness of the lake bed. About a quarter mile from “the pits” (and I use the term loosely), we notice a bunch of pucker bushes by the edge of the lake bed. To our amazement, we discovered, THAT was where the track was!
Oh, it was a mile alright, but there wasn’t a straightaway longer than 100 feet. It looked like an MSF Safety Course or possibly a DMV motorcycle testing site. Seriously, 30 or more turns and no real straightaways, a real rider’s track. After that shock, there was a riders meeting and brief practice session. The 40 or so faithful lined up for the start and the race, which was more like an episode of “Survivor,” was on.
The temperature was in the 100 to 110 range, and as you can see from the pictures riding apparel was optional. I was riding with no gloves, jeans, and t-shirt with my sponsorship jersey for maximum protection. After what seemed like an eternity, the race mercifully ended. My stepbrother, Jim Harmon, won the race, #125 on his YL1 100cc Yamaha, and I made it home in sixth on my trusty YG1 GYT-Kitted 80cc Yamaha, not bad for a 10-year old. I’ve attached a few pictures of the before, during and after.
Sorry for the poor quality, but the camera lens was covered with dust as were our bikes.
The King runs out of gas…
September 22, 1968, a day I’ll always remember. The 100cc Grand Prix TT at Southbay Speedway in Chula Vista, a beautiful 8/10-mile course with a real jump and multiple left/right turns. I would be racing in the Novice class with about 50 other hopeful riders going 45 laps for the gold! Some interesting notes about this event. You may notice the distinctive differences in riding gear, helmets full coverage or open face, gloves, optional – and many chose bare knuckles. Why? I don’t know.
Surprisingly, at 11 years old, I was one of them, steel shoes/no steel shoes and of course the ever-popular T-shirt with sponsorship jersey over it for maximum protection! The brand choices were just as diverse and impressive: Yamaha, Kawasaki, Bultaco, Bridgestone, Kawasaki, Hodaka, and for God’s sake there was even a Girelli in the field. Rotary valves, reed valves, and just valves. Riders from as far away as district 35 in Northern California, Nevada, and Arizona made the trek to the race.
When all the dust had settled, and frankly there was not a lot of dust due to the track having a super-wide blue groove, I was fortunate enough to win it on my Van Tech YL1 GYT Kitted 100cc rotary valve Yamaha. At 11 years old, it was by far my biggest win, and I was pumped. Enough of that, the day continued, and Dale Hopkins from LA won the Amateur race.
In the Expert Race, two guys battled most of the way and you might know both of them: Wayne Hosaka was one of the most talented riders I ever saw, out of San Diego, and this 16 year-old, 4’8-inch kid from NorCal named Kenny Roberts. They battled most of the way, until the future “King” ran out of gas, literally. Obviously, knowing his demeanor, he was quite unhappy. Guess Kenny could have used one of those ECO lights on his Suzuki, but when you’re WFO most of the time, anyway… Wayne went on to the win in the 70-lap race. It was a great day of racing, hope you enjoyed the pics and commentary.
The Dad who made it all possible
I found this picture the other day, the 1972 HRA 395 Cycle Park “Man of the Year.” For those of you who met him, you certainly would never forget him. For those who didn’t have the opportunity, I wish you could have. This man is my late father, Earl Roloff, Sr. For 85 years, he lived, loved and supported motorcycling at all levels. He lost his left arm upon returning from WWII at the age of 19 (in a motorcycle accident of all things) after lying about his age to join at 15, which I wasn’t aware of until he passed a few years ago.
After spending over a year in a military hospital he rebuilt his life and pursued his true passion, motorcycles. Over the next few decades, he would cover the full gambit of our sport. He would ride again, and he could RIDE, actually raced flat track and road raced, built race engines, sponsored riders (myself included), and was a motorcycle shop owner. While all this was going on, he got married and raised a family. In his mind, and frankly in mine, he never had a handicap. He was a hard working, tireless, determined, dedicated, and Patriotic American, loving the fact he lived in a country where those attributes would allow you to succeed.
He also had a sense of humor about his missing arm, telling me when I was quite young he tried swimming, but kept going in circles. He had a couple of nicknames, the One Armed Bandit and Lefty, which were always in good humor. He was instrumental in any and all of my success in life and racing. Could not have asked for a better role model. While growing up, sometimes he would appear a bit harsh. I realize as I’ve gotten older his world view was quite accurate. By the way, they constructed the trophy as the night wore on. It’s a good thing they passed it out, before he did. He was also quite capable of “having a good time.”
(more TK about Earl, Sr. in a future installment)
END PART II