The last time the Sonoma County Fairgrounds hosted the Santa Rosa Mile flat-track motorcycle race, the year was 1970. Jim Rice, then 23, won the main event on a three-cylinder BSA cycle. Bob Bellino, then 28, raced a 750 Triumph as an entry-level amateur.
Forty-two years later, the boys are back in town. Rice, now 65, is one of three grand marshals of the 2012 Santa Rosa Mile, part of the AMA Pro tour. Bellino, 70, is organizing the reincarnation of the event as the president of Circle Bell Motorsports. They're hoping the race stays in Santa Rosa for more than three years this time.
"We're glad to be back," Bellino said as he coordinated the hive of activity at the fairgrounds Thursday. "It should be an exciting weekend of motorsports in Santa Rosa."
The festivities include short-track races Friday and Saturday in the Chris Beck Arena, an art-and-wine festival Saturday afternoon and the Grand Marshals Dinner that evening, and Grand National heat races and main events Sunday afternoon.
Those main events would do well to emulate the thrills of the early installments of the Santa Rosa Mile, from 1968 to 1970. This was what many refer to as the golden age of motorcycle racing, when you could watch three or four short-track or flat-track events per week in the Bay Area, each with upward of 100 entrants. The classic motorcycle racing movie "On Any Sunday," released in 1971, focused on the 1970 flat-track season.
But for reasons that remain obscure, the event left Sonoma County after that 1970 race. A couple of spectacular crashes may have spurred the decision.
In 1969, Gary Nixon, one of the top riders on the tour, crashed into the fence at Turn3. There were no hay bales to cushion the turn, and he spent two weeks at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital after suffering a compound fracture of his left femur. The next year, David Aldana, another elite racer, wiped out on Turn1 during a practice session. His bike flew at least 30 feet in the air, landed and bounced another 20 feet skyward.
"When they collected the motorcycle, the first time I saw it, I was in the pits," said Rice, who lives on five acres in Portola Valley. "And someone wheeled his motorcycle in on a hand truck, and it had compressed in length to where it fit vertically on a hand truck. And that was a $100,000 road-race bike. It looked like it had been in a car crusher."
Miraculously, Aldana walked into the pit area a few minutes later, dazed but upright.
These days, AMA races have air-cushion barriers around the perimeter of the track, and hay bales to soften the corners. Oh, one other small detail: The riders now have brakes. Back then, they were on no-brake motorcycles.
"We're out here all week preparing the track," Bellino said. "Safety is very important to us."
Not that everyone is convinced the violent wrecks were what drove AMA out of Santa Rosa. There were complaints about the dust, and the horse-racing promoters at the fairgrounds reportedly chafed over their track getting torn up by motorcycles.
Whatever the reason, top-tier flat-track racing eventually abandoned not just Santa Rosa, but California. When the Sacramento Mile disappeared after the 1999 season, the circuit went 11 years without a Golden State race. Then Circle Bell brought flat-track to Calistoga in 2010, and added Sacramento and Pomona in 2011.