Walt Axthelm was an influential off-road rider of the 1950s and ‘60s. He was one of the first Americans to compete in the prestigious International Six Day Trials (now called the International Six Day Enduro). Axthelm won numerous off-road events in Southern California during his racing career, including a class in the popular Catalina Grand Prix. He rode with backing from several factories during his career and was one of the first riders in the America to race factory-backed Suzukis in off-road races.
Axthelm was born in Upland, Pennsylvania, in 1933. His family moved to Southern California when he was 14 years old and shortly afterwards Walt got a junior motor license and his first motorbike, a Schwinn-bicycle-framed Whizzer. He later got a more advanced Whizzer with springer suspension, a two-speed gearbox with chain drive. He raced against his buddies who had Cushman, Powell and other brands of scooters. He lived in Compton and in the afternoons he would go down to the Los Angeles riverbed and practice riding until dark. By the time Walt was 17 he began racing his first true motorcycle, a rigid-framed Royal Enfield, which had no rear suspension and all of two inches of front fork travel.
"One of the first races I entered was the Big Bear Run in 1951, a big race they held annually in Southern California," Axthelm said. "It was one of the two big events we looked forward to every year, the other one being Catalina Island. The Big Bear Run started in the desert and made a big loop from the Lucerne Valley out to Barstow and then up a canyon to Fawnskin up at Big Bear. It was about a 180-mile-long Hare and Hound.
"The race went across some dry lake beds, but that first year I rode it they weren’t dry. It was so gooey that the muck built up in my back wheel and it locked up solid. I had to take my back fender off just so I could get out of there."
Axthelm wasn’t discouraged by his difficult debut in racing. He began racing in Scrambles events on an AJS in Palos Verdes. Gradually, he worked his way up to become one of the leading off-road racers in Southern California. His first sponsored ride came in 1954 when he was backed by Louie Thomas’ BSA shop in East Los Angeles.
Riding a BSA Gold Star scrambler in 1955, Axthelm earned the District 37 (Southern California) No. 1 plate.
"They threw everything in together," Axthelm said of the points chase for No. 1. "Desert races, scrambles and everything to get your points."
Axthelm was sponsored indirectly by BSA, through Thomas’ shop. "Hap Alzina (BSA’s western states distributor) was supplying the bikes to Louie and they built them there," Walt explained. "Off-road riding didn’t pay anything back then so I never got any money from BSA. No one was making money from that type of racing back then."
Axthelm gave pro flat track racing a brief try, but never warmed up to it. Southern California flat track star George Everett was in the military reserves and and he offered to let Walt race his flat track bike while he was away on duty.
"I went to Gardena with one of George’s bikes," Axthelm recalls. "At that time they weren’t using brakes on the bikes and I think I scared myself silly. I remember one of the fellas told me when I drive into the corner and feel the front end push, just turn the throttle on and bring the back end around. On those clay tracks that were so tacky I just couldn’t bring myself to do that."
Walt did go on to do fairly well in local TTs, but he said flat tracking never was his cup of tea.
The Catalina Grand Prix was the high point of the racing season on the West Coast. In 1956, Axthelm won Saturday’s featured 50-mile race and then scored second to Chuck Minert in Sunday’s 100-mile final. Both riders were on BSAs.
Walt said Catalina was a great racing circuit.
"It was unique in that we started in town (Avalon) and started on the road that went up to the airport," he said. "It didn’t go far before it ran out of pavement and went to dirt. It went up on fire roads and then came back down to the golf course on what they call the hour trail. It then crossed the golf course and picked up pavement again coming back into town. They had a nice high-speed jump coming down on the pavement.
"We had to find a nice combination tire that worked well on the fire roads as well as on the pavement in town. It was an interesting course. It was kind of a Grand Prix course that they later picked up doing again over at Elsinore."
Walt went on to explain that the race bikes would be loaded en masse on a barge on Thursday to go to the island. Riders were not able to practice the course, but Walt and some of his buddies figured out a way around that.
"We would always try to get on the haybale crew so we could at least drive around the course setting haybales so we could see what the course was like," Axthelm explained.
Looking back on his victory in Catalina’s 50-Miler, Walt most remembers a run-in with Triumph flat track rider Don Hawley.
"I knew how aggressive Don was from track racing," Walt said. "He had a reputation for running into people. We came out of a corner heading up to the golf course and Don got inside of me and coming out he reached over with one arm and gave me a big thump on the chest. I thought 'Whoa, what’s with this guy?'"
Off the track, Axthelm became a draftsman. He was involved early in computerized drafting and he put his skills to work in the aviation industry. He worked on solid modeling and became a contract engineer for Boeing. He also had a Suzuki shop in Pomona that he ran with partners in the 1970s.
By the early 1960s, Walt had moved from riding the big four-strokes to the lighter, more nimble two-stroke off-road machines. He began riding Jawas and CZs and that led to an opportunity to compete in the ISDT. The U.S. Jawa importer helped set up the trip to Austria for Axthelm.
"They supplied me with a motorcycle, put me up in a hotel and took care of my expenses," Axthelm said. "At the time, it was thought that I was the first American to compete in the ISDT and that’s the way they advertised it.
"They transported my bike and me with the Czech team and at that time it was the true Iron Curtain, with all the guards and nonsense that was going on. I knew I needed a lot of miles on the bike because they used to set up the bikes tight on the big ends. That particular year they had a nasty mud climb and I was trying to make up time on the pavement early in the event and it seized and wasn’t going to run any more."
Walt went back to the ISDT with the American team at the Isle of Man in 1965. It was held in horrible conditions that year and all the Americans were out of the competition by the third day.
Walt was one of the pioneering motocross riders in Southern California in the 1960s. He’d had direct exposure to European motocross, having ridden on some of the tracks as a guest of Jawa when he went over to Europe in 1960. As a result he became one of the early proponents of motocross racing in America and participated in many of the earliest motocross events in America, including the early Inter-Am races put on by Edison Dye.
As his career progressed, Axthelm specialized in the burgeoning long-distance off-road races of the late 1960s and 1970s, such as the Baja 1000, the Parker 400, the Tecate GP and other events of that type. Walt raced and tested some of Suzuki’s early TM250 off-road prototype bikes. He later worked with R&D for Kawasaki, racing for the factory in these desert races.
By 1980, Axthelm was in his late 40s and he decided to retire after getting hit by a big rock thrown up by a racing pick-up truck in one of the long-distance desert races.
"I decided that it wasn’t fun anymore," he said. "I had a small sailboat at Dana Point and just packed it up and went sailing and that was it."
Walt said after growing old and fat drafting on a computer all day he decided to take up mountain biking. He found his competitive spirit was still very much alive and he became one of the nation’s top senior mountain bike racers. In 2007, he won the overall cycling jersey in the National Senior Games. He’s now retired and lives in Durango, Colorado and trains almost daily for his bicycling competitions.
Axthelm’s racing career spanned two distinct eras, from the big four-stroke desert sleds to the introduction and dominance of lightweight two-strokes. He also was one of the leading racers when American scrambles racing transitioned to motocross.