Catalina Grand Prix 1951-1958
The Catalina Grand Prix was inspired by a race that began in 1907 on the Isle of Man, 70 miles off the coast of England. It was a very elite and prestigious event.
With the sport becoming very popular in the United States, a group of California sportsmen approached Philip Wrigley to ascertain his interest in having a similar race on Santa Catalina Island. Mr. Wrigley was very interested in hosting the race and, in addition, saw it as a way to draw more attention to the island.
The first race was held May 6, 1951 and was a two day event. The smaller bikes raced a 60 mile course on the first day, with larger bikes racing 100 miles on the second day. Approximately 200 riders were entered in the race. Only a third of the race was paved with the rest being rocky dirt trails. No test runs were allowed prior to the race.
The course began in town going up Marilla. It eventually included the Summit as well as the Renton Mine trail. It dropped back into town on the Pacific Divide trail (behind the Wrigley Memorial) and ended at the foot of Sumner Avenue. The race was strictly for sport and the fame and glory of participating in such a unique event, and, of course, a trophy for the lucky winners.
The last race was held on May 3, 1958 with Yamaha participating for the first time. Four of their motorcycles were shipped from Japan and the company president, Mr. Kawakami, attended the race. They placed sixth. Most of the motorcycles were foreign-made at that time. Harley Davidson and Indian were the only two from the Unied States. BSA (a British company) produced a model inspired by the Catalina Grand Prix, called the “Catalina Scrambler."
The End of a Tradition
The reasons for the discontinuation of the race are many and varied, a “mutiny” aboard the Steamer by drunk, out of control fans, drunken brawls in the streets and damage to property and in some cases, actual attacks on island residents (one being the mayor at the time). However, what seems to have happened are some motorcycle racers and their fans, began to take on a tough, hard playing, hard drinking, rebellious image in the last half of the 1950’s. This type of individual could really take advantage of a small town like Avalon and its citizens. Avalon was much less restricted in the 1950’s than it is today and had somewhat of a “wild west” image where rowdy, drunken behavior was tolerated by the town. People were not stopped from drinking in the street or from congregating into huge unmanageable crowds.
The police force was small and local and had a very liberal interpretation of the law. To help with the large crowds coming for the event, volunteer law enforcers were recruited from the town. However, with their inexperience, they were helpless and outnumbered by the large number of rowdy visitors that this event was beginning to attract. Because of the above, the decision was made to discontinue the race and initial steps were also taken to change over from the local police to an agreement with Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Avalon’s “wild” image was about to change.
The event was revived, briefly, in 2010. One of the original four Yamaha bikes from 1958 raced in 2010, returning to the island after 52 years. A Catalina Scrambler also participated in the 2010 Grand Prix and did very well.