Racing The Lake Elsinore Grand Prix On A Honda CRF450L

It wasn’t until i was standing in the registration line for the 2018 Lake Elsinore Grand Prix (LEGP) that what I was doing fully hit home. Decked out in color-coordinated kit and sporting fast-guy eyewear, I looked the full vet track hero, but the truth was my back was already sore from a 60-mile morning ride from San Diego. The chatter in the line was that the track was already pretty roughed up, and the Mushman 100, the reason I was there with a brand-new Honda CRF450L, was the last race of the day. If my desk-jockey back was already feeling it after a mild off-road ride and some pavement cruising, how was 100 miles of whooped-out racecourse going to work out?

This is where the weird wiring inside the brain of a motorcyclist comes into play. “Ah, we’ll be fine. It’ll sort itself out.” If Steve McQueen and Malcolm Smith managed to survive astride the bone-jarring machines of yore, we certainly could earn that finisher’s pin on a state-of-the-badass-art thoroughbred like the 450L. So, whistling the theme song to On Any Sunday, we gassed up at the nearby service station and made our way over to the staging corral for the Mushman.

A week ago, I had no intention of going handlebar to handlebar in the LEGP. I’ve watched On Any Sunday more times than I care to admit, and the segments that follow McQueen and Smith as they battle the crowd at the grand prix has always been a favorite, but I’d never given thought to actually competing. At least, not until I got a phone call the Monday before the race, asking if I’d like to give it a shot. The 2018 running marked the race’s 50th anniversary, a perfect historical milestone. I couldn’t resist.

A quick 15-mile shakedown run Thursday night was all I got to familiarize myself with the bike, but the CRF450L didn’t need many modifications to become race-ready. There’s a lot of CRF450R woven into the 450L: strong handling, well-sorted suspension, and a feel at the pegs that belied its 290-pound curb weight. We race-prepped Friday night with fresh oil, a chain adjustment, a clean air filter, a fastener check, and a full tank of fuel. We slapped on some full-coverage hand guards we had in the shop, tossed the OEM mirrors as far as we could, and replaced them with a single left-side-only Doubletake unit. That was it.

In 1968, Lake Elsinore was a wisp of a town just off of I-15. Despite being home to fewer than 3,500 people, it played host to a grand prix dirt-bike race that would stamp its name all over motorcycle history, drawing legends and locals alike for an open-entry competition that started on Main Street and ripped around the eponymous lake, lap after lap, for 100 miles. It must have been some kind of hell back then, an open brawl between physics and primitive suspension played out in the sand and the grit. Naturally, it drew the likes of McQueen and his Husqvarna, and wherever he went, cameras were sure to follow.

On Any Sunday brought McQueen’s exploits at the Lake Elsinore Grand Prix to the world, and the race returned the favor by renaming the main event the Mushman 100, a hat tip to McQueen’s nom de guerre, Harvey Mushman.

The CRF450L is a starship compared to McQueen’s old Husky, effortlessly able to transition from trail to highway with a level of performance that makes you question how this is all legal. In a perfect world, we’d uncork the motor and shed a bit of weight with an aftermarket exhaust system and retuned fuel injection. The DOT-regulation equipment is noticeable at the right wrist, but that’s the price you have to pay to get this marvel of modern four-stroke engineering on the city streets. The big thumper still had plenty of oomph to do what we needed, and we’ll take a well-behaved steed over an unruly ride any day.

But no amount of modern suspension, fuel injection, or power can outrun the old man’s ghost at Lake Elsinore. As I dropped down into the historic downtown section of the city at noon, kids on minibikes patrolled the streets, and UTVs straight out of the sand dunes of Glamis growled at each stoplight.

I lofted a wheelie past the Wreck, McQueen’s old watering hole, in salute to the crusty old Harley guys out front smoking cigarettes beneath the bar’s glorious, faded grand prix mural.

Dirt Series took over race-promoter duties for the grand prix a few years back and has been working diligently with the town council to help restore the annual event to its former glory. With a background in running desert races all over Southern California, Dirt Series has turned the LEGP into a three-day race event with competitors aged from kids to seniors, and classes for everything from modern-day race weapons to vintage trikes. Still, the Mushman is the main event.

As the start time drew near, I lined up in the back of the corral. It’s first come, first served, and I had to laugh at the absurdity of it all. I was riding a dual-sport bike, flanked by an old CR250 smoker on one side and massive KTM adventure bike on the other. All the serious guys were clustered up at the front, having gotten in line early. The way I figured it, 100 miles is a long way, and there was no reason to get too hasty.

In true Elsinore GP fashion, any semblance of waves went out the window the second the green flag flew. It was a mass start, a rumbling horde making its way down Main Street. I lofted another long wheelie to the crowd, and then it was time to get serious. The race was underway.

A grand prix is unlike any other race. While the courses aren’t typically difficult, there’s no pre-running, which means the first few laps are all about trying to loosen up, find a line, and pretend like you know what you’re doing. Ripping through Lake Elsinore’s city streets bar to bar with other riders is a wild rush, the realization of every high-school daydream. It feels like it should be illegal, wrong in the best way possible. The 450L shot us around 26 riders in the first lap while not getting passed by anyone. I was feeling pretty good about myself as I tucked into lap two when disaster struck: I caught a rear flat in the 1.25-mile-long sand-track section that made up the beginning of the course.

It is tough to put into words the feeling that hits when you realize your race is over, 6.8 miles into the 100-mile ordeal. Well, McQueen certainly wouldn’t quit, and neither would I, even if it meant limping the big 450 into the pits to see if I could beg, borrow, cheat, or steal a tube and at least nab a finisher’s pin. I found my saviors surrounding a barbecue pit, and before I could tell them the full tale, the great guys at Orange County Dualies dual-sport club leapt into action, threw the Honda up on a stand, and pulled off a tube swap that would earn them a gold medal at the ISDE. I tossed them some beverage money, fired the Honda back up, and re-entered the race.

For the next hour, I settled into a sustainably quick pace, waved to fans in town, uncorked wheelies at every paved section, honked the horn over the water jump, and did multiple laps utilizing proper left- and right-turn signals for every turn on the track. If you didn’t show up to race with a costume or cape, you made do with what you had.

But the fun came to another sudden, deflated halt when I suffered the second rear flat of our Mushman, just as the sun was beginning to set below the horizon. There would be no pit angels to come to the rescue. I was simply out of time. As I sat trackside commiserating with the well-lubricated hill people, I made the only logical conclusion: Ride that sucker around to the finish line and take the checkers.

The official results show me as the very last finisher of the Mushman 100, many, many laps behind the race winner. I was skunked by a lack of rim locks, a $10 part that would have stopped the rear tire from spinning on the rim and ripping my tubes. I was left to perform the Loading of Shame and retreat home with the help of the missus and our old pickup. But none of that diluted the day, an unforgettable riding experience defined more by laughter, esprit de corps, and throttle twisting than any miserable race result. It was a glimpse at something, a peek past the grainy film to an era when it seemed like all of Southern California was in love with the lowly dirt bike, when you never knew who you’d find next to you on the grid of the Lake Elsinore Grand Prix.


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