While many know Wally Dallenbach, Sr., as a race car driver, it was his passion for motorcycling and helping others that resulted in the Colorado 500 Charity Dirt Bike Ride. These by-invitation-only gatherings of dedicated motorcycle enthusiasts not only advance the cause of environmentally sound land use, but continue to raise significant funds for communities and charitable institutions in the Colorado Rockies.
Born in 1936 in East Brunswick, New Jersey, Wally Dallenbach began his racing career at age 15. Too young to race as a driver, he modified a 1938 Ford Coupe into a stock car and campaigned the car for two seasons as owner and mechanic.
At the age of 17, he began drag racing. In 1959. he built a successful rear-engine drag racer that earned 80 wins over the next five years. At 21, he began oval racing at various stock car tracks along the East Coast, earning several wins over the next four years.
In 1965, Dallenbach received an opportunity to drive an open-cockpit racer in the Championship Car Racing event at Langhorn, Pennsylvania, where he finished ninth. This start led to a career in Champ car racing that continued until 1979. Dallenbach earned five career wins, including three in a row during the 1973 season, and 13 starts at the Indianapolis 500, where he finished fourth in 1976.
In 1980, Championship Auto Racing teams (CART) hired Dallenbach as chief steward, a position he held until 2005. During his tenure, he advanced track safety and established nondenominational church services for drivers and their families.
While his racing career is full of accolades, perhaps Dallenbach’s greatest contributions have been to the charities that benefit from the Colorado 500 dirtbike ride that he started with friend Sherm Cooper in 1976. By 1981, the invitation-only event had grown to the point that a Colorado 500 Charity Fund was established. The Colorado 500 also grew to include a road ride in 1987. Since 1981, more than $1.2 million has been distributed to scholarship funds, medical centers, teen services, scouting, and the U.S. Forest Service, among others.
The Colorado 500 has also had a great impact on preserving trail riding areas. In 1995, the Colorado 500 applied for Great Outdoors Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) grants. These grants were used to enhance trails and roads used by the event. More than $400,000 has been applied to the U.S.F.S trails used by the ride. In 1996, the Colorado 500 established a legal defense fund to preserve trail riding in Colorado. In 2001, noise limits were adopted for the ride, which now holds tech inspections for noise-level compliance.
Riders participating in both Colorado 500 rides have described a unique sense of camaraderie, and the rides continue to grow, with many father-and-son teams, and even some three-generation teams. Colorado communities have embraced the event and are thankful for the tourism revenue and philanthropic support generated by the ride.
Dallenbach resides on his ranch in Basalt, Colorado, with Peppy, his wife of 40 years. Their children, Wally, Jr., Colleen, Paul, and their families, have all made successful careers in motorsports.