larry laurent | May 15, 2022
Cycle News Archives
Brelsford’s big domestic debut
Mark Brelsford looked up and stared at the vastness of the Houston Astrodome, wide-eyed and frankly amazed at his luck. He was 19, a rookie expert about to race his first AMA Grand National weekend and, oh yes, he was a factory Harley-Davidson rider.
It was 1969 and the California teenager was about to venture into uncharted territory. Not only would he now be racing against the top pros in the country, it was also the first year that an AMA TT National was held in the Astrodome, so it was new for everyone, and finally Brelsford would be racing a new bike production built by Harley, totally unproven in Grand National racing. Brelsford had around half an hour of informal testing on the bike before the national weekend. Such was the scene facing the rookie pro. Maybe it was better that he was only 19, children tend not to grasp the gravity of the moment.
The very fact that Brelsford was riding a factory Harley-Davidson was in itself a stroke of luck. The previous year he was traveling with Jimmy Odom, racing as a hobbyist on a BSA Gold Star at Sonny Kenyon’s motorcycle shop in Mountain View, California. Brelsford was doing well on the BSA, especially on the TT tracks, but then came Brelsford’s first Mile. It was at the Portland Meadows Horse Track and the BSA just didn’t have the power to race competitively on the big, horse-intensive track. When Brelsford first took to the track, he thought everything was fine.
“It was great to get out on this big track and race the Gold Star wide open,” recalled Brelsford. “It was great at first, but then I noticed I was getting passed a lot on the straights. Jimmy [Odom] watched and knew I was in trouble. So, unbeknownst to me, Jimmy went to talk to Dudley Perkins and said, “Mark can’t do some bullshit over there, because that BSA is too slow.” Dudley told Jimmy he’d let me ride Mert’s [Lawwill] spare KR.
Jimmy informed Brelsford sponsor Sonny Kenyon about the opportunity for Brelsford to ride one of Lawwill’s aftermarket factory bikes.
“Now Sonny was such a good guy, and he knew how to handle it,” Brelsford explained. “Sonny knew I was loyal and wouldn’t want to jump ship and abandon his team, even with Harley’s offer from Dudley. So, to make it an easy decision for me, he came up to me and said, “Bad news, kid, we found metal in your bike oil.” Now I found out later that there were never chips in the oil, but Sonny wanted me to have the opportunity to ride the factory Harley, and he knew that way I wouldn’t wouldn’t feel bad doing it.
Brelsford had never ridden a Harley before, let alone on a Mile. Perkins was the AMA’s Northern California District Chief and, as Brelsford puts it, “he had attraction, to put it lightly.” So, after all the practice sessions were over, Perkins arranged for Brelsford to do three practice laps, all alone on a freshly groomed track.
“I’ll never forget it, I rode that Harley, and it felt like it was running at zero RPM. I thought it was a dog,” Brelsford said. “I couldn’t believe that it was a factory bike. But then I crossed the finish line at the end of that practice and before I stopped I realized ‘Oh shit, I’m flying around here!’
Luckily, before Brelsford came out for his special training session, Lawwill had given him an important pointer. “He told me that if I got a little sideways in the corner, just open the throttle wide,” Brelsford said. “I came into that corner and thought I was going to put it in the fence. Then I remembered what Mert told me, so I turned it around, turned the throttle all the way, and the thing did the trick.
Brelsford continued to dominate the National Amateur Championship that day, kicking off a great new relationship with Harley-Davidson. Brelsford rode the Harley the rest of the year and became AMA National Amateur Champion. After the final race at Ascot that season, Harley racing boss Dick O’Brien asked if Brelsford could meet him before he flew out the following day. After the meeting, Brelsford was a freshly signed factory rider.
“Then I remembered what Mert told me, so I turned it around, turned the throttle all the way and the thing did the trick.”
Thus, everything was ready for the Brelsford rookies professional campaign. He would travel and team up with Lawwill. Mert was working on his bikes at Dudley Perkins’ Harley shop in San Francisco. They were closing in on Houston’s season opener when a surprise showed up at the store. New Harley-Davidson/Aermacchi 350cc ERS Sprint scramblers. But these were not the factory specials Brelsford was hoping for.
“They were just showroom stock bikes, just like the old Sprints but with a bit bigger engine,” Brelsford recalled. “Mert was busy, so he was like, ‘That’s it, I guess. Just take the bike apart and put a big sprocket on it.
With the bikes ready, Lawwill and Brelsford loaded up the Sprints and headed to a spot in Daly City where Brelsford had been riding for years.
“It was an area that they had graded for development, and I had a flat track set up there, and we did a few laps on the bikes. We stopped and Mert said, ‘Not a lot of horsepower, huh?” recalled Brelsford. “And he was right, I think they only had 29 horsepower, but the bike felt good, and I thought maybe I could do well at TTs on it.
O’Brien thought the TT course in the Astrodome would be so tight that 350s would be the way to go instead of 750s. They arrived to find the track was actually better suited for big twins. Qualifying was mostly dominated by 650cc BSAs and Triumphs. For the first time, it was British motorcycles that held a displacement advantage over Harleys. In fact, of all the Harley riders, only Brelsford and Lawwill qualified for nationals. Fellow factory Harley riders Bart Markel, Fred Nix, Dan Haaby and Walt Fulton all watched from the sidelines.
Overall TT master Skip Van Leeuwen took the lead at the start but got out of shape over the jump and gave in to another big triumph from Dusty Coppage. A few laps later, 20,000 fans collectively cheered with delight as rookie Brelsford, on underdog Harley, took the lead.
Did Brelsford get nervous when he realized he was leading his first National in front of a screaming crowd?
“I wasn’t focused on that,” Brelsford explained. “I was just riding like a wild man going as fast as I can. Soon I see a tire sneaking up on me.
It was Van Leeuwen, who had recovered, passed Coppage and was now laying black rubber on the leg of the Brelsford leathers.
“Skip and I were really good friends because he let me run his stash [Triumph] 650 the year before at the weekly Ascot races,” said Brelsford. “He was going a little faster than me, and he was rubbing my leg, honking his horn, leaving more or less, I know, ‘Hey let me through, or I’m gonna have to run you over.’ He was kind enough to give me a warning, so I let him through and followed him to the checkered flag and was as happy as I could be to be second.
As well he should have been. A rookie in his first AMA Grand National main event, on a new track, a new, untested, underpowered bike, and he lands a second-place finish? This is one of the all-time great debuts in the show’s history.
Brelsford would later win the AMA Grand National Championship in 1972, and he tells me there’s another great Houston Astrodome story to go with it, “That’ll be one for another day,” he says.NC