Mark Brelsford was the 1972 AMA Grand National Champion, riding for Harley-Davidson. During his short six-year racing career, the Californian won seven AMA nationals.
Brelsford will forever be remembered for the fiery crash he suffered at Daytona in 1973. Riding at a high rate of speed through the speedway infield, Brelsford hit a rider whose machine had broken and was going slowly and his Harley road racer burst into a ball of flames with Brelsford still aboard. The impact and huge fireball was captured on film by a photographer for the Daytona News-Journal. The infamous photo ran all over the country and became perhaps the best-selling motorcycle racing poster of all time.
Brelsford was born on April 14, 1949 in Yosemite National Park in California. His mother and father both worked at the park at the time. His dad was a ski instructor there. Mark was the oldest of seven children. He lived in the park until he was 6 and his family moved to San Francisco.
Brelsford, like his hero, Dick Mann, began riding motorcycles on his morning paper route when he was 14. As teenage boys are prone to do, the adventurous Brelsford began riding on the street without a license. That lasted only until the local police caught him. As it turned out, being caught was the best thing that could have happened. From that point on, he found places to ride his bike off road. There, he began perfecting the riding skills that would ultimately make him one of the top riders in the country.
To keep up with his burgeoning love of motorcycles, Brelsford took a job at a local dealership. He learned to work on bikes and also hooked up with another employee of the shop and began racing. As a sportsman racer, Brelsford advanced quickly, but found it tough going when he moved up to the professional ranks. He began thinking of doing something else with his life.
"About that time I was real skinny kid -- about 100 pounds -- and I thought I would join the Army and get in shape hauling a pack around," Brelsford remembers. "I was all ready to enlist, had the papers and everything, when I watched a buddy of mine darn near win his first professional race at Ascot. I used to beat him all the time, so I figured if he could do it maybe there's a chance for me."
While riding the pro circuit as a junior in 1968, Brelsford became friends with three-time national champion Bart Markel.
"I spent three weeks at Bart's home during the racing season," Brelsford remembers fondly. "That's where I met Cal (Rayborn), Mert (Lawwill) and Chris Draayer because the whole Harley crew was staying there. I would sit on their bikes every night and watch them work and ask questions. I kind of followed them around that year."
At the conclusion of the '68 season Brelsford was the nation's top-ranked junior rider. Harley-Davidson's racing manager, Dick O'Brien, approached Brelsford and asked him if he was interested in riding for the Harley team. Brelsford jumped at the chance.
Brelsford made an impressive Grand National debut by finishing second at the Houston TT Steeplechase inside the Astrodome. Despite suffering a couple of injuries that caused him to miss a few races, he went on to turn in a great rookie season, earning four podium finishes, including a TT win at Ascot Park in Gardena, California. He finished the year ranked a very credible eighth in the point standings.
"I'd say my first pro race at Houston in '69 still stands out as one of the highlights of my career," Brelsford says. "I actually led that race for a while and I looked back and there was Skip Van Leeuwen. I was Skip's teammate the year before. He was a lot better than me and I must admit I was intimidated. He kept bumping my rear tire and I finally moved over and let him by. Just being in front of that crowd and riding on a factory Harley, wearing those leathers. That's a moment I'll never forget."
For all his talent on the dirt, Brelsford, now a full-fledged factory rider, had not once competed in a road race. Suddenly Brelsford found himself on a factory Harley-Davidson road racer on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway.
"They told me just to go out and follow Cal (Rayborn)," recalls Brelsford. Of course he was the top gun at the time and I had no idea what I was doing. It was a pretty humbling experience. I raced at the short-track the night before the 200 and ended up crashing and breaking my wrist and ankle. I was actually lying in the hospital that night thinking how happy I was that didn't have to race in the 200 the next day."
Brelsford proved to be a quick learner however. With a lot of instruction from Rayborn, Brelsford went out and finished on the podium (third) at Loudon, New Hampshire, in the rain in his very first road race.
In 1970, Brelsford came back and finished seventh in the series, notching three podium finishes. In '71 he won his first road race at Loudon in a classic last-lap duel with Kel Carruthers. Brelsford remembers the climatic final lap vividly.
"We came up on a lapped rider through the final turn and Kel took the classic wide line to go around. Kel was a gentleman racer. He didn't take any chances, he never spun a wheel and I went into that last corner and took the chance. I dove low into the turn and came out like a dirt tracker, burning the tire and throwing the bike sideways. Apparently I just nipped him at the checkered flag.
"That was a really special moment. A lot of the Harley and Davidson families used to come up to Loudon every year to watch the races. That evening at the restaurant the whole family was coming up and hugging me and practically kissing me. It was really a thrill."
In 1972, Brelsford broke through to win the championship. He won three races and scored a total of eight podium finishes.
"My younger brother Scott and I sat down before the season and actually tabulated various points scenarios based on how we thought everyone would finish. We flat forgot about the two new rookies named Gary Scott and Kenny Roberts. It was very special to win in a year with Roberts and Scott and the established stars like Mann, Markel, Reiman, Rice and all those great riders.
"The funny thing about winning the title was I clinched the championship at Atlanta with two races to go and no one knew it. Someone broke an oil tank and I got sprayed with oil and wiped my face shield and couldn't see. I pulled into the pits for a new shield and I think I ended up dead last, but I still got a point or two. Someone had protested or something and in the confusion of that I don't think the officials had the time to tabulate the points. I came back to the pits and tabulated the points. I told my brother that I just won the championship. He didn't believe me. We went back to hotel and sat at the bar and had a beer and a good friend of mine came up to me and said, 'The way I figure it, you just won the championship.' What a let down," Brelsford said with a laugh. Shortly afterwards Harley did throw him a big party to celebrate his accomplishment.
Coming back to defend his title, Brelsford had the terrible crash at Daytona. Larry Darr's bike had blown a motor and was barely moving around the track with Darr trying to nurse the bike back to the pits. Brelsford was tucked in close behind two other riders as they came around to the high-speed infield kink. The two riders veered around Darr at the last moment and Brelsford didn't have time to do evade the slow-moving bike. The impact broke both of Brelsford's legs, shattered his hand and wrist and left him with numerous other injuries. Brelsford was forced to sit out the rest of the season.
The lasting effect of that crash was the damage it did to Brelsford's hand. He had three surgeries on the hand during 1973 trying to make it right for the '74 season. When he came back, his hand still was not right. In all he would eventually have a total of seven operations on the hand.
The Brelsford name was carried on that year by younger brother Scott, who won the AMA Rookie of the Year Award in 1973. Another brother, Kirk, who Mark said was even faster than Scott, also raced for a time.
In June, 1974, Mark was involved in another bad crash at the national in Columbus, Ohio. Once again both legs were badly broken. While in the hospital he suffered a blood clot and nearly died. Harley-Davidson kept his ride open for him and Brelsford fully intended to come back. But one day, after yet another surgery on his hand, Brelsford, sitting in the hospital, just decided to call it quits. Brelsford remembers his feelings at the time.
"I was getting a little tired of hospitals by that time. I woke up in the recovery room and it just dawned on me, 'I'm not going to race anymore.' I really loved the wilderness and had discovered Alaska six months earlier. I called Dick O'Brien at about two in the morning and said, 'Dick, I'm quitting and moving to Alaska.' "
So Brelsford virtually disappeared from the racing scene overnight. His mother had invested most of his race earnings in San Francisco-area real estate. It proved to be an excellent investment, so Mark had enough money to take some time off and move to Alaska. He got involved in real estate there and was still in that business during the time of his induction in 1998.
Brelsford occasionally makes appearances at vintage events to catch up with his old friends.