Heaven on Two Wheels

“God wired us a little bit differently than everybody else.”

—Invocation by race chaplain Fred Sumrall at the Shasta Dam Grand Prix, Sunday, April 13

Seconds after being informed that there were perhaps more than a few loose screws among them, more than a 100 motorcyclists roared off the line at the 30th annual Shasta Dam Grand Prix, jockeying for position and kicking up clouds of dust before disappearing into the hills high above the Chappie Shasta Off Highway Vehicle area.

It was the the final race of a weekend that yielded two broken arms, one broken leg, a dislocated shoulder and the total immolation of a $13,000 dirt bike. Which is to say it was a relatively successful event, considering that dirt bike racing can and often does result in far more serious and even fatal injuries. The chaplain is correct when he says motorcyclists are wired differently than other people. “Normal” folks simply don’t court this sort of danger.

The Vintage Blue Plate Specials were first off the line for the Shasta Dam Grand Prix’s final race of the day. More than 130 out-of-town and local racers competed in the event.

The pros had raced earlier in the morning; the grand prix serves as round 5 of the American Motorcycling Association’s Western Hare Scrambles National Championship Series, and a handful of some of the country’s top off road racers were on hand, including Alex Dorsey and Justin Bonita, currently running first and second in this year’s championship. The pros perform stunts that defy both the laws of physics and common sense, scrabbling up near vertical walls, ricocheting through boulder fields, holding throttles wide open in the blinding dust.

Jump!

They represent the pinnacle of the sport, but the amateur riders lined up for the final race of the weekend are its heart and soul. They were an eclectic lot: silver-haired men riding vintage dirt bikes just as old as them, teenagers on state-of-the art machinery hoping someday to race in the pro ranks, guys who’ve been riding all their lives who just love to ride and could care less about winning or losing, a dozen women indicating that some members of both genders have been wired a bit differently than the rest of us.

Motorcycling Mecca

Having ridden motorcycles most of my life, I know a thing or two about loose screws. The first machine I rode was a minibike with a 5 horsepower Briggs & Stratton lawnmower engine and lousy brakes. I got on it, gave it some gas, crashed into a bunch of garbage cans and cut my ankle so badly I needed stitches. I was 9 years old and I’ve been hooked ever since. See what I mean about having a screw loose?

I raced dirt bikes when I was a teenager and graduated to street bikes as an adult, but I’ve never really gotten the dirt out of my blood. My current ride is a BMW GS 1150, a giant enduro bike that can be ridden on the street and supposedly in the dirt. They call this type of motorcycle an “adventure” bike, in part because throwing a 500-pound-plus motorcycle around in the dirt with any sort of enthusiasm is an adventure, if not downright insane. About three-quarters of the field at the Shasta Dam Grand Prix were riding ultralight Austrian-made KTM motorcycles that weigh less than half my big Beemer.

Nevertheless, my bike is powerful enough to easily carry a passenger, and my girlfriend and I have found ourselves in motorcycling heaven since moving to the Redding area late last year. We live east in the foothills, and the instant we leave the driveway it’s like we’re on our own personal road racing track. The serpentine roads twisting and winding through shadows of oak and pine offer some of the finest riding in the United States, especially during our moderate springtime weather.

You don’t have to break the speed limit to enjoy roads such as these, executing the turns with precision, getting into the flow, is its own reward. And sometimes there’s an extra special bonus, because things happen differently on a motorcycle. For instance, maybe you’ve driven in your car east on Highway 299 and marveled from a distance at the 44 white spires that mark the Hatchet Ridge Wind Farm. Maybe you’ve wondered what those 93-meter tall wind turbines look like up close. Maybe you’ve driven right past the sign for Bunch Grass Lookout Road, a steep dirt and gravel incline that’ll take you right up to the top of the ridge.

Hatchet Ridge Wind Farm with Mt. Shasta in the background. Green energy never looked so beautiful.

On a motorcycle, you don’t miss that sign. You hang a louie and climb up a mile or two of road that alternates from wash-panned gravel to deep rutted mud (the snow had just melted) right to the top, where the 44 turbines stretch for miles across the ridge tops, blades spinning silently in the wind, the only sound the buzzing of high tension wires. They remind me of egrets for some reason.

Granted, there were a few moments during out climb to the top that we worried about falling and getting stuck in the mud, a rush of fear and adrenalin that feels not so bad later—as long as you didn’t fall and get stuck in the mud.

We caught the same vibe one day when we wound out Bear Mountain Road to Shasta Lake, weaving down to the first Jones Valley boat ramp and spilling out onto the utterly flat and dry lakebed, red clay looking more like Mars than northern California, creviced by streams that once flowed freely but now just trickling ditches, muddy and treacherous to cross on two wheels, but still traversable, inspiring that same rush of the fear that you just might not make it, and a sense of invincibility when you do. We drove out on the lakebed for a mile-and-a-half, crossing seven such mud holes, twice each, never falling once.

Lake Shasta 34 percent full, or if you’re a pessimist, 64 percent empty. Some rain came later, but the drought is still on.

It was hard to believe that during times of plentiful rain, we would have been 50 feet underwater. You can’t get more up close and personal with the drought than that.

Even the I-5 freeway, perhaps the straightest, most boring slice of super slab in the United States, takes on an entirely different character in Shasta County. Once you cross the Shasta Lake bridge, the roadway morphs into an endless series of wide, sweeping high-speed turns that corscrew up the hill toward Mt. Shasta, sapping the power of the ubiquitous big rigs headed north toward Portland and Seattle, turning them into slow-moving obstacles to be caught and passed as you motor up the mountain, stopping in Dunsmuir for a cup of coffee or a cool one before arriving at the foot of Mt. Shasta itself, one of the most magnificent sights in all of California.

There is a temptation to keep all of this secret, to not mention the motorcycling heaven we’ve discovered, but of course the secret is already out. There appears to be more motorcycles on the road in Redding than any place I’ve lived in California, especially considering Redding isn’t all that large of a city. Every weekend, I hear the Harleys and the sport bikes and the street-legal dirt bikes roar past my house, drawn by mountain roads and forest trails unmatched by any other location in the state. On the way into town, I usually pass two or three bikers every trip. I always wave and they always wave back. We’re all in on the same secret.

A Day at the Races

In a certain sense, dirt bikers and street bikers belong to two entirely different tribes; even though both ride on two wheels, for many never the twain shall meet. So I wasn’t too surprised or disappointed (well maybe a little disappointed) when we arrived at Chappie Shasta Off Highway Vehicle park early on Sunday morning and found exactly one street bike besides our own in the parking area. I’ve seen the same thing in reverse at road races such as Laguna Seca in Monterey. Can’t we all just get along?

Me personally, if they’re racing on two wheels, whether it’s MotoGP, World Superbike, Monster Energy Supercross or the 30th annual Shasta Dam Grand Prix, I’m either there in person or watching on TV—motorcycle racing of all types has been gaining in popularity during the last ten years, and there’s far more television coverage than back in the day. TV is all well and good, but nothing beats attending races live in person.

It must be said that the Redding Dirt Riders, the nonprofit organization that promotes the Shasta Dam Grand Prix, and AMA District 36, the professional riders’ association which sanctions the event, did a bang-up job this year, organizing scores of different classes (youngsters on minibikes comprised Saturday’s program) and somehow managing to get most of the races started on time. Race chaplain Fred Sumrall and his organization, the northern chapter of Racers Under The Son (RUTS, get it?), also played a significant role, comforting injured rides and presenting the invocation before the start of each race. Whether the racers on hand were devout Christians or not, most bowed their heads in supplication before the starting light went out and they roared off into the hills like bats out of hell.

For the pro riders, prayer of some sort would seem to have been in order, considering the first obstacle they faced on the course was a near vertical 30-foot wall composed of hard-packed clay that riders blast up and catapult over the top. Unfortunately, just beyond the top of the cliff, invisible to the riders approaching from below, was a large rocky mound that more than one rider “cased” during the race, which means landing on the skid plate on the bottom of the engine instead of the wheels. “Whoo-hoo-hoo!” was a frequent exhortation from racers cresting the top and encountering the rocky mound. The obstacle forced riders off their racing line, resulting in faces being whipped by large pine limbs, near misses with tree trunks and in two cases riders hitting the dirt. Both got up unharmed and rejoined the race. Wired differently, indeed.

At the end of the pro race, Western Hare Scrambles points leader Alex Dorsey, a heavily sponsored KTM rider, took the overall win, with privateer Vaughn Wilk finishing second on a rather ratty looking Yamaha WR450. Justin Bonita, second in series points and another heavily sponsored KTM rider, rounded off the podium in third place. Redding rider Robert Pickens finished sixth overall on his KTM, an extraordinary feat considering the level of professional competition on hand. Other highlights included Redding rider Ronnie Lancaster’s 12th place overall finish and Bianca Oliveira’s 98th place finish, first woman, and 32 places ahead of the mostly male competitors who finished behind her.

This was the first time I’ve attended the Shasta Dam Grand Prix—I just moved here, after all–but I’ve known about it for years from reading various dirt bike magazines. It’s an AMA national championship race. It’s a big deal, and I have to say I was completely taken off guard after discovering that many people who’ve lived in Redding for years, including motorcyclists, are completely unaware of the event. I have no idea why. Perhaps it’s lack of local media promotion. Maybe I was one of only two street bikers there because of the aforementioned split between street and dirt riders. Perhaps the non-motorcycling public is apprehensive about being around hundreds of folks who are wired a little bit differently than everybody else.

I’m here to tell you all there’s really no excuse not to attend next year’s Shasta Dam Grand Prix. That goes double for street bikers and members of the public who always whine about there being nothing to do in Redding. Surely if you have no qualms about shelling out $9 to view relatively slow-moving turtles, you can cough up $5 to watch some of the best dirt riders on the planet.

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R.V. Scheide has been a northern California journalist for more than 20 years. He appreciates your comments and story ideas.

R.V. Scheide
R.V. Scheide has been a northern California journalist for more than 20 years. He appreciates your comments and story ideas.
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5 Responses

  1. Avatar `AJacoby says:

    Wonderful and interesting writing . . especially for those of us who have been firmly affixed to four wheels and blacktop all of our lives. And thank you for the picture of the wind farm. I can see them from my back deck and have frequently wondered what the farm looked like up close and personal.

  2. Avatar name says:

    Great story! Have you ridden the track in Milford? (east of Susanville)

  3. Matt Morgan Matt Morgan says:

    Thanks for coming out and supporting the Redding Dirt Riders R.V. and thank you for the great write-up.