Photos by Evan Klanfer | Words by Mark Blackwell
On a hot, dry, and sunny Southern California day, I first encountered Torsten Hallman at Saddleback Park. It was July 4, 1968, and after reading about European motocross and the top riders for months, I was finally there to see Hallman and my first motocross race in person. I am guessing that for the vast majority of the crowd that day, it was their first encounter with him too.
Motorcycling was exploding at that time in America, especially in Southern California, and a new form of motorcycle culture was taking hold. After years of stereotypes—including big, heavy motorcycles ridden by “outlaws” played by the likes of Marlon Brando—etched in our heads, Honda was introducing the notion that “The Nicest People” rode small, lightweight, easy-to-ride, safe motorcycles, and The Beach Boys (who also went to Hawthorne High School, albeit a few years before me) were singing about riding their “Little Hondas”: “First gear, it’s alright, second gear…”
For baby boomers, our imaginations were electrified; at the same time, the softened, more positive image of motorcycling made discussions with our parents about riding and even getting a motorcycle less out of bounds. Heck, after I bought my first used Honda 50 “step-through” with my paper-route earnings, my dad bought one too—and even bought one for my mom a few months later. The Japanese motorcycle (and car—think Datsun) manufacturers were invading the U.S. from the west and the Europeans were coming from the east. Both “assaults” seemed exotic and energizing. What a time to be an American teenager!
Back at Saddleback, the event I attended was called the Firecracker Grand Prix. It was on a Wednesday, between two international races Hallman participated in in Europe on the preceding and following weekends. Strange day for a race, midweek, but with the holiday and incredible weather, the turnout was excellent. As I arrived at Saddleback, I saw an oddly dressed man collecting the gate and parking fees by hand and stuffing it all into a money pouch attached to his belt. I later understood that this man was Edison Dye, the owner of Med International and the Western U.S. distributor for Husqvarna Motorcycles. A visionary, he was the promoter of the event together with Hallman, who had personally laid out the course and hammered the steel stakes into the ground that the snow fence lining the track was attached to. I later understood that these two men were responsible for bringing the sport of motocross to America.
On that day, I had just turned 15, and to actually see Torsten Hallman was spellbinding for me. He was like a man from Mars to a kid like me from SoCal, and I am sure I was not alone in the crowd. I watched his every move. The Swedish motorcycle he rode seemed magical to me. I had ridden my bicycle to the nearest Husqvarna dealer a few days prior and peered through the window at a Husqvarna Cross 250. The price tag on the bike was a little over $1,000; it might as well have been a million. “I’ll never have a thousand dollars,” I remember thinking.
As long as I live, I will never forget what I saw that day. With the sun baking on the back of my neck, the riders crested what would become the famous starting hill of Saddleback Park and disappeared into the backside of the track. What seemed like an eternity was probably only about a minute. Hallman came back into view, alone on his Husqvarna, and it looked like he was floating in slow motion. Many seconds later, the next group of riders appeared, led by one of the top Americans at the time, Preston Petty. Petty was riding his heart out and on the ragged edge of disaster; he looked like he would crash at any moment. While Petty looked like he was going very fast, Hallman was long gone, continuing his poetry in motion, floating over the hills of Saddleback effortlessly.
The idea that a motorcycle could be ridden so fast, but so smoothly and almost effortlessly, had a profound impact on me.
At that moment, in the dust that blew over us as the riders raced past, I decided I wanted to become a top motocross rider. Torsten Hallman would become my example.
During the fall of the next few years, Edison Dye brought Hallman back to the U.S., along with other top European riders whom Hallman personally contracted, to race a series of exhibitions, which would become the Inter-AM Series. I attended every event that I could get to and tried to emulate those riders when I got back home. I read every magazine I could get my hands on. Joel Robert, Roger DeCoster, they seemed mystical to me, but Hallman seemed extra special. He had an elegance and poise of professionalism in how he dressed, rode, and presented himself, in everything he did. This, too, I later realized, would become an inspirational model of behavior for me...