Motorcycle madness: Tales from the dirt

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To all appearances, someone like Chris Rudy — a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge — wasn’t born to be wild. Yet appearances are deceiving: The son of a motorcycle racing champion, the proud owner of 14 bikes is an enthusiastic member of a fraternity which is carrying on a century-old Peninsula sports tradition.

That still has miles to go.

From its rough beginnings with bikers challenging mountain trails on the Skyline and dirt speedways, this thrilling sport has produced its fair share of champions from San Mateo County.

The motorcycle itself evolved over time, first appearing in 1867 when American Sylvester Howard Roper cobbled together a two-cylinder, steam-power “velocipede.” The coal-fired cycle couldn’t have been easy to ride, but the idea was born and took off from there.

By the time William Harley, with partners Arthur, Walter and William Davidson arrived on the scene in 1903, racing was a marketing tool to promote motorcycle sales. As early as 1910 oval wood “motordromes” were constructed to pit riders on machines against each other. Demonstration of raw speed was the goal with banked turns making it possible to push full throttle until motorcycles either won or destroyed themselves in the attempt.

Speedway racing was dangerous for competitors and spectators: Riders and even fence-gripping fans seeking to be close to the action alike got killed. The wood tracks didn’t do much better. The Greater San Francisco Speedway, located in San Carlos, opened in May of 1922 and burned down the next month after only a handful of races. An oil-soaked surface was the likely culprit.

Dirt Tracks

With the onset of the Great Depression, dirt replaced wood tracks, and that required a whole new approach to racing. Gone were the banked turns. To keep speed at a maximum while sliding around the large turns at either end of a dirt track, riders borrowed a racecar technique, turning the front wheel the opposite direction.

This story was originally published in the February edition of Climate Magainze.

This was done while the rider tilted the bike like a sailboat under full wind, extending his all-important left leg as an outrigger. A steel plate on his boot functioned like a ski and was the only protection for the racer’s foot. Round and round the pack rode, always counter-clockwise, jockeying for position, passing each other on turns, missing by inches — and sometimes not.

All of this at 80 to 100 miles per hour. To further lighten the bike in order to coax more speed, brakes were removed. That left two ways to stop: downshifting (preferably) or crashing.

In the 1940s and ‘50s, cycling’s daredevils could compete at several Peninsula raceways, chief among them Bay Meadows and Belmont Speedway. Moto fans and “gearheads” were entertained and followed their favorite competitors, many of whom would become local and national champions.

Local Legends

Judge Rudy’s father, Al, was among them. A San Jose product, he grew up riding motorcycles and by age 16 had managed to buy an ancient Indian. In Al Rudy’s day, riders associated with others who owned the same make of motorcycle: Indian, Harley-Davidson, Triumph, BSN — brand loyalty was tribal.

But during World War II, Sam Arena, a legendary racer known in his day as “King of the Flat Tracks,” formed the Victory Club, inviting all motorcycle enthusiasts to ride together, organizing races and fun rides throughout San Jose and the Santa Cruz Mountains. Impressed by how Al Rudy handled the old Indian, competing and beating older experienced riders on newer, more powerful bikes, Arena took him under his wing.

“Sam became something of a second father to my dad,” says Chris Rudy. After his wartime service, Al Rudy got a job at a local motorcycle shop owned by another champion, Tom Sifton.

“To the shock and dismay of his Indian buddies, Dad bought a Harley,” Chris Rudy recalls, “and Sam got him to try racing.” Al Rudy did so well that Sifton started sponsoring him. Racing for Al Rudy in 1948 and 1949 were big years but his career ended when he was just 22. He got hit by a car while riding on the street and lost his left leg at the knee. Losing one’s leg is bad enough, but in track racing the left was essential.

Not one to give up easily, Al Rudy famously took a final shot at competing, at Bay Meadows in 1950, using a prosthetic leg that a friend had designed. It couldn’t take the punishment, and to no one’s surprise, Al Rudy didn’t place.

A Redwood City Champion

Redwood City native George “Bobo” Sepulveda (a nickname bestowed by his older brother who couldn’t pronounce “brother”) loved watching the races at Belmont. Al Rudy was his favorite rider.

Sepulveda started competing at age 19 in 1949 in the “novice” ranking and discovered he was a natural. Riding a two-stroke, single-cylinder Matchless motorcycle, he often beat the likes of champion Joe Leonard, who rode a far more powerful Triumph. Sepulveda was so good that, as an amateur, he was made to race against riders at the “expert” level — and still won. At the end of his second year Sepulveda competed against Larry Hedrick at Belmont Speedway, leading the national champion the entire race until the stretch where Hedrick’s Harley-Davidson passed him to take the checkered flag.

By his third year, prize money had become Sepulveda’s main source of income. “I got a Harley (that year) and started to clean up everything in my class,” Sepulveda says. Belmont, Tulare, Hollister, Stockton Mile, Bay Meadows and many others became lucrative California venues for him.

Success didn’t come without bruises. “I was in a trophy dash on the tail of the guy leading in the first turn when he started to slide out,” Sepulveda recalls. “So I turned in to go underneath him, but he came right back in front of me. I turned to miss him but hit his rear wheel. It slammed me right down on my face and the rider behind me ran right over my back — I didn’t get a scratch on me.”

A Family Man

Sepulveda won the national championship in the amateur pro category at Sturgis, South Dakota, before being drafted into the Army in 1952. After his discharge, he picked up where he left off, competing as a “pro expert” until 1958, when he got married. Family responsibilities convinced him to park the Harley and get a job. Sepulveda, who recently turned 90, raised two children and had a 40-year, post-racing career with Piombo Construction.

Howard “Pappy” Sutton is another Redwood City competitor who shook up the local racing scene but he didn’t enter it until he was in his forties. His adolescent competitors took to calling him “Pappy,” a nickname that stuck for the rest of his life.

A former Marine who was part of the landing force on Guadalcanal, Sutton was a gifted mechanical innovator and modified motorcycles in his garage, improving suspension parts and reducing weight. However, he was better known as an aggressive “throttle twister,” willing to elbow a competitor off the track to gain advantage or pass.

“He was ornery,” says son Rick Sutton. “As a throttle twister he wasn’t graceful and would refuse to take no for an answer in a race. And often times he would do whatever it took to win or secure a top three placing.”

At 6’2” and 230 pounds, Pappy Sutton was larger than most riders. Though he was aggressive and could look big and angry on a bike, he was also known for his charm and wacky humor. “People could be mad at Pappy but not help but like him,” his son adds.

A New Generation

The 1960’s saw the surge of a different style of riding: Motocross. Lighter, higher-geared “dirt bikes” with a long suspension and designed to climb and take a beating were the vehicles ridden to challenge the rough, muddy, craggy, sometimes billy-goat-worthy landscape this sport loves.

The miles of steep trails made the Santa Cruz Mountains the true testing ground. Many a future pro and champion would cut his teeth on rugged open spaces there —Purissima, Skeggs and Corte Madera. Chris Carter was one of them.

“I bought my first motorcycle in 1965 with paper route money,” the Menlo Park native says. He also liked to ride trails along the Skyline and at the end of Redwood Shores and adds that development has taken away a lot of the open land once available for racing.

The 1971 Bruce Brown film “On Any Sunday” inspired many people to jump on a dirt bike, among them former pro rider Scott Davis of San Carlos. “As kids we didn’t have video games or organized sports. We would go into the garage and make stuff. Like small motor bikes made from snatched lawnmower engines. It kind of started there until I bought a small motorcycle as a teenager.”

Both Rick Sutton and his older brother, Ron, took after their racing father. The Suttons grew up in the Marsh Manor area of Redwood City, and at age 12, when other kids cruised the streets on their Huffy bicycles, Rick Sutton was tackling local hills on a Hodaka 100 motorcycle.

The Racing Spirit

As they got older, Carter, Davis and Sutton began to challenge themselves by entering races. All three moved up through the ranks, from amateur to pro. Rick Sutton attained pro status at 17.

Though the venues varied, most races were very organized. The Bay City Motorcycle Club Annual New Year’s Day Race, by contrast, was an outlier. Begun in 1936 and continuing to 1968, “It was totally illegal but no one ever got arrested as many of the riders were cops,” Carter says. The race, which started in Golden Gate Park and finished in Half Moon Bay, had an unmarked course that meandered through trails and back roads over the Skyline. Dick Mann, a grand national champion says, “This is the only race where you couldn’t cheat — because there were no rules.”

Europeans traditionally have dominated motocross. A particularly versatile racer, Carter competed on the U.S. team three years running at the grueling International Six Day Enduro, which is considered the Olympics of motocross. Riders race 200 miles a day for six days on a time-trial basis in all kinds of adverse terrain and weather conditions. In 1975 at the Isle of Man, Carter won bronze in his category and took home a gold in Austria the next year.

“I was never a national champion, but more often than not, considered the guy to beat in a race,” Carter says.

Physically and Mentally Fit

Motocross is a physically demanding sport. Both man and machine take a beating and intense focus is required. “I would visualize a race weeks before. But you can’t have much going through your head during the race other than the terrain 200 feet ahead of you,” says Davis.

Carter agrees. “Every move has a consequence. You could fall off or encounter any number of catastrophes. At the speeds we did over some pretty extreme terrain, you had to be in the zone when on the bike. It was mentally very challenging.” In other words, crashes happen.

Sutton’s “ugliest injury” occurred on the first lap when he was racing once at Carnegie Park in Livermore.

“I was leading up a very rough fast uphill,” he recalls. “My toes were pointed downward on my foot pegs to maintain proper weight distribution and keep the front wheel down. The suspension bottoms out. My right forefoot sticks in a hole with the arch of my foot still on the foot peg. Inside the boot, my foot snaps — compound fracture.”

Like any professional athlete, motorcyclists train to stay in top shape, and that regimen didn’t end for Davis and Sutton when they left racing behind. Both became elite road and mountain bikers.

Carter owns Motion Pro, a business manufacturing innovative specialty tools and motorcycle products. Davis started German Auto Repair. Sutton became an organizer of local, national and international cycling races, including the Union Cycliste Internationale — more commonly known as UCI — Mountain Bike World Cup and the Sea Otter Classic in Monterey.

A Ride for Life

The sport’s camaraderie has proven long-lasting. Carter, Davis and Sutton have remained friends even though racing has been in their rear-view mirrors for over 35 years. Likewise, in their day, Al Rudy regularly lunched with his old friends Joe Leonard, Tom Sifton and Al Scaffoni at Val’s restaurant in Alviso.

Over the years other veteran throttle twisters would join them, including Sepulveda, eventually turning a small get-together into a major event dubbed The Annual Racers Lunch. Typically, 25 to 30 loyalists would show up. Nowadays (pre-Covid) the lunch head count approaches 60, some coming from as far away as Oregon. The overseeing of the cycling reunion has been handed down to brothers Chris and Gordon Rudy and Carter.

When he’s not on the bench, Judge Rudy still finds time in his busy schedule to compete in vintage races around California. He likes to quote his father: “You don’t get old and quit riding motorcycles, you quit riding motorcycles and get old.”