Del Kuhn was one of the nation’s leading off-road motorcycle racers in the 1940s and 1950s. Kuhn won the prestigious Greenhorn Enduro three times—1948, 1950 and 1951. His 1950 victory at Greenhorn earned him the title of AMA National Enduro Champion that season. He also won the highly popular Big Bear Run in 1952. Not as well known is the fact that Kuhn was one of the riders who laid out the Catalina Island Grand Prix course in the early 1950s. The Catalina GP was one of the most popular motorcycle races of the 1950s. Kuhn’s best result at Catalina was third in 1951.
Kuhn was born in Camp Douglas, Wisconsin, in September of 1925. He began riding motorcycles during his high school years and briefly owned a 1936 Harley-Davidson before enlisting in the Navy during World War II.
After the war, Kuhn settled in the Los Angeles area and took up motorcycling in earnest. He bought a 1940 Harley-Davidson 61" and began working as a blueprint delivery rider. He joined the Compton Roughriders Motorcycle Club and started riding in off-road rides with the club. After Friday club meetings, the group would ride down the Los Angeles River in the days before it was a made into a giant concrete culvert.
"I can’t tell you how many times I got that big old Harley bogged down in the river," Kuhn recalls. Before long he sold the big street machine and bought an Army surplus 45-inch (750cc) Harley and stripped it down for off-road use. Kuhn caught the competition bug and started racing in a variety of off-road events around Southern California. While a lot of riders of the era rode stripped-down Harley-Davidsons and Indians, Kuhn noted that the trend was heading toward the lightweight, 500cc single-cylinder British off-road bikes.
His first ride on British metal forever changed Kuhn’s fortunes in racing. He borrowed a rigid-frame Matchless to compete in the 1948 Greenhorn Enduro and ended up winning the important two-day event. That victory made Kuhn an instant celebrity in the world of off-road racing and he picked up sponsorship from British motorcycle importer Frank Cooper.
The Greenhorn was considered one of the toughest, if not the supreme challenge in off-road racing during its era. The 600-mile race ran over two days from Pasadena, California, to the Greenhorn Mountain range near Bakersfield and back. The course ran through steep, narrow and winding canyon trails, through rock-strewn desert trails and wide-open expanses of dry lakes. The temperature varied wildly between the desert floor and the high mountain passes.
More than 300 riders would regularly race in the event in the late 1940s and it was rare for even 100 competitors to complete the grueling run. Kuhn said he remembered being impressed with how light and agile his borrowed Matchless was and he had a trouble-free race.
In those days it would take a few days for the official results of the Greenhorn to be released. Kuhn didn’t know about his victory until the Tuesday after the race weekend.
"A couple of riders I knew were riding down the street and saw me coming," Kuhn said. "They turned around and flagged me down and congratulated me on winning the race. That’s how I found out."
Kuhn would continue winning throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, riding a sponsored AJS against talented off-road riders such as Aub LeBard, Max Bubeck, John McLaughlin and Ernie May. He won the Greenhorn again in 1950 and 1951. He was runner-up in 1953.
The 1950 Greenhorn was awarded the AMA sanction for that year’s national enduro championship, moving briefly from the traditional Jack Pine Enduro in Michigan. Kuhn won the race that year and was crowned the 1950 AMA National Enduro champion. He nearly didn’t finish the race after he blew out a rear tire.
"I pulled out a knife and was trying to cut the bunched up tire away from the rim," Kuhn remembers. "I couldn’t get through the steel bead, but just then a buddy of mine came up the trail. I asked him if he had a pair of snips and wouldn’t you know he did. I clipped through the steel just like that and rode the next four or five miles on the rim. I was able to put on a new wheel and tire at the next stop and went on to win the race."
Frequent mechanical problems like the one Kuhn suffered in the Greenhorn were not uncommon in that era of off-road racing. Kuhn smiles when he remembers the ribbing he took after one race in which his bike lost a front tire, forcing him to ride for miles on the rim. He had to stop frequently to adjust the rim, which was constantly being knocked out of true.
"Bubeck laughed at me and said, 'Del you started the race on a 21-inch wheel and by the time you finished tightening on those spokes you finished the race on an 18-incher.' "
Kuhn marvels at how simple the technology was on the long off-road endurance events of that era.
"I had a watch, speedometer and a trail route, and that was about it," he said. It was a far cry from the computerized assistance enduro riders would enjoy a few decades later.
While Kuhn was a sponsored rider and got his bikes for free, he remembers the bill of sale on one of the racing AJS bikes, which Kuhn said were a lot better than the street versions, with modifications such as aluminum fenders, and a lightweight, full-alloy engine, all for $695.
"These were essentially the same state-of-the-art off-road bikes that the Europeans were racing in world championship motocross at the time."
Kuhn put together his own bikes then and said the only major modification he did was to strengthen the flywheel.
In 1950, Frank Cooper asked LeBard and Kuhn to help scout a possible course on Santa Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles. With the help of some other riders, LeBard and Kuhn laid out the famous 10-mile Catalina Grand Prix course. It featured everything from city streets, to rural gravel, dirt and paved roads, to narrow mountain trails and even part of a golf course.
The Catalina Grand Prix became one of the most popular races of the 1950s. In the inaugural race in 1951, Kuhn charged through the field to finish third—just 43 seconds behind winner Walt Fulton and second-place Chuck Minert.
”That year, the race started late and they cut it down to nine laps," Kuhn recalls. "I often wondered if it had been the full 100-mile distance if I might have won Catalina."
That third-place finish was as close as Kuhn would ever come to winning the important race.
Perhaps Kuhn’s most emotional victory came at the classic Big Bear Endurance Run in 1952. Kuhn lost a good friend in the mid-1940s in the race. He later married his friend’s widow and for years hoped to win the Big Bear as a tribute to his fallen buddy.
He finally broke through to win the race in perhaps the most demanding conditions ever at the Big Bear. It was cold and wet that year and the resulting mud in one of the dry lakebeds sidelined many of the riders, with mud clogging their wheels and burning out clutches.
Once they reached the mountains, the riders had to overcome icy trails and, eventually, deep snow. Kuhn persevered to take the victory. All of this after working a full shift at his new job as a police officer.
"I got off work at 3 a.m. and my wife picked me up and we got to the race just in time to sign up and get ready to go for the morning start," Kuhn said. "I finished the race at around 2 p.m. and stayed briefly for the post-race celebrations and then sped back to go back to work at 7 p.m. that night."
He worked for the Long Beach Police Department for a few years and they tried to convince him to be a motor officer, but Kuhn wasn’t eager to face the heavy city traffic every day on a police motorcycle. Later, he was hired by the California State Highway Patrol and did ride a motorcycle on his job for several years.
"I enjoyed that because with the Highway Patrol we rode out in a little more open territory," he explained.
By 1955, the demands of work caused Kuhn to give up racing. He later took up flying as a hobby. In his brief nine-year racing career, Kuhn became one of the best-known off-road racers in the country.
His wife died in 1973 from cancer. He later remarried, to another police officer, and eventually retired from the Highway Patrol in 1979. Kuhn raised three children.
When inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2003, Kuhn was keeping busy restoring antique automobiles. He and fellow Motorcycle Hall of Famer John McLaughlin contested the Great American Race vintage auto rally a couple of years in a 1935 Chevrolet and actually won a stage of the race.