Throwing 300 San Francisco Examiner newspapers each morning in the 1960s, while zipping through the hills of Palo Alto on a motorcycle, was great training for any aspiring motorcycle racer. But the part-time job didn’t quite prepare Jim Rice for what happened during the 1970 Sacramento Mile flat-track motorcycle race at the old California State Fairgrounds on Stockton Boulevard.
Rice won 12 American Motorcyclist Association Grand Nationals in a six-year career, including six during the 1970 season. He was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2001 and will be the grand marshal of the 50th Sacramento Mile on Saturday at the Cal Expo Fairgrounds.
It’s been almost 45 years, but people still talk to Rice about his spectacular crash after a heat race in 1970 that was captured in the seminal racing documentary “On Any Sunday.” It’s a major part of the storied history of the Sacramento Mile.
“I was drafting (Chuck Palmgren) and was about an inch off his back tire when we crossed the start/finish line,” said Rice, 67, who now lives in Portola Valley near Palo Alto. “He shut off early, and to avoid him I veered to the right and clipped my gearshift, which put the bike in neutral and made it harder to stop. I intentionally laid the bike down and started sliding, but when I got close to the fence I let go, and the bike went airborne and I hit the haybales.”
Bruised and bloodied by a broken nose, Rice emerged from the trackside ambulance, after being knocked out for eight minutes, and tried to race in the main event. But his BSA three-stroke suffered serious mechanical damage during the crash and Rice had to settle for 15th. Rice was battling San Luis Obispo rider Gene Romero for the title and the crash at the Sacramento Mile probably cost Rice the championship and the coveted No. 1 handlebar plate.
“The Sacramento Mile is the most prestigious mile race for flat-track riders,” said Rice, who owns a business that makes aircraft safety instrumentation. “It’s the best track I’ve ever ridden.”
Rice was at the 2014 Sacramento Mile when Bryan Smith of Flint, Mich., became the first rider to win the event four consecutive times.
The Sacramento Mile was first sanctioned as an AMA Grand National race in 1959 and Carroll Resweber of Cedarburg, Wis., won riding a Harley-Davidson. The Sac Mile ran at the old State Fairgrounds until 1970, then took seven years off until the mile track at Cal Expo started hosting the event in 1978. From 1984-94, there were two Sacramento Mile events on the AMA Grand Nationals schedule each year – a spring and a fall race.
Sacramento has a rich history of motorcycle racing, with the first-ever professional race in 1914. In the 1930s and ’40s flat-track racing drew capacity crowds to Hughes Stadium. After Chris Carr won the 1999 Sacramento Mile at Cal Expo, the race was dropped from the AMA schedule and until returning in 2011. From then until 2014, the race was held during the California State Fair and a race ticket doubled as admission to the State Fair.
But the move to late May made sense to SMI president and AMA Motorcyle Hall of Famer Steve McLaughlin, whose group took over Sacramento Mile operations last year.
“Historically, you take a dip in attendance when you move an event date, but ticket sales have been very strong,” McLaughlin said. “The weather is going to be much better (Saturday) than it was last year when it was 106 degrees. Plus we have Hall of Famer Jim Rice as the Grand Marshal, so it’s going to be a great day of racing.”
Mark Billingsley covers local motor sports for The Bee. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @editorwriter001.