The Elsinore Grand Prix, a famous affair held annually in the small town of Elsinore, California, which lies 70 miles southeast of LA, is one of the first events Brown filmed for On Any Sunday.
Words by Mitch Boehm
Photos courtesy of the Bruce Brown and Malcolm Smith archives
Grand Prix races in So Cal are longer affairs, typically 30 to 60 minutes in length, and Elsinore back then was no different, ranging out over a 10-mile course that included asphalt sections (some smack dab downtown), sand washes and fire roads in the hills above town. Elsinore was hugely popular at the time, attracting approximately 1500 riders from near and far along with many thousands of fans, and as Brown voices in On Any Sunday, “If there’s one event you ride each year, it’s the Elsinore Grand Prix. People of all ages…Girls, the pig farmer from Murietta…” A big deal, Elsinore was. Heck, Honda even named its early motocross bikes after it.
Malcolm and Steve rode the event, of course, with McQueen entered as Harvey Mushman so as to not attract too much attention from the fans on hand to watch the proceedings. As we all know, Malcolm won going away, with ‘Harvey’ grabbing 10th overall, a superb result given the number of local fast guys entered. Brown mentions McQueen breaking his foot and still finishing 8th in ‘a subsequent race’ the following day, which had him catching hell from his Hollywood handlers. Of course, broken foot an all (broken in six places, actually), McQueen would team with Peter Revson two weeks later to finish second in the 12 Hours of Sebring endurance race in a Porsche 902 Spyder.
About his racing career, McQueen once said this: “I’m not sure whether I’m an actor who races or a racer who acts.” It’s hard to know given his natural abilities and substantial accomplishments.
What the film doesn’t cover is the controversy that swirled around Malcolm’s 250-class win in the weeks after the event – or the ugly crash he was involved in the following day on a 360cc Husky in the Open Class race.
First, the controversy. You remember the famous mudhole, right? Well, that mud obscured a lot of number plates, and the video the sanctioning body shot on Saturday (for the 250 race) was mistakenly overwritten with Sunday’s Open-Class event – which meant there was no visual backup to the scoring sheets, which had a lot of holes thanks to the obscured number plates.
Everyone there knew Malcolm had won, and even the sanctioning body had him listed as finishing six minutes ahead of second-place finisher Gary Bailey (father of David Bailey and well-known as the ‘Professor of Motocross’). But they had Malcolm a lap down, which officially gave the overall win to Bailey. There was a large outcry, and a group of Malcolm’s friends even ran a full-page ad in Cycle News, which read thusly: “Hey World! Malcolm Smith won Elsinore! Riders know it! What’s your problem, Gripsters? -Signed, a rider and truth lover!”
That didn’t bother Malcolm a bit, as he knew, as everyone else did, that he’d won – though what happened the following day shook him up pretty badly. Malcolm’s 360 Husky was 10-20 mph faster on top than most of the other bikes, and by lap two he’d already begun to lap other riders. As is evident from the movie footage, spectators would randomly run (or walk) across the track, this being the early ’70s, before lawyers took over the world and made everything totally safe for all mankind. When Malcolm flew into town on the second lap and was about to overtake a group of lappers at a high rate of speed, a woman holding hands with two small kids stepped off the curb, thinking the lappers that had just gone by were the only bikes in the area, and had no idea Malcolm was bearing down on her and her kids at 80 mph.
“I found myself headed straight for the smallest child,” Malcolm told me. “I swerved, and the handlebar went over the child’s head, but it struck the mother in the chest, tossing her violently into the crowd and fracturing several ribs. The maneuver flipped me over the high side and I tumbled down the pavement. I was skinned and bruised, and thoroughly upset. I kept flashing back to how close I had come to hitting and maybe killing a child. I was so shaken; all I could think of afterward was going home.”
Fortunately, the woman recovered, though she later tried to sue the race promoter, the city of Elsinore and Malcolm. She failed, but according to Malcolm, it wasn’t much fun.