Whenever there’s a discussion about who is America’s best road racer of all time, Cal Rayborn’s name inevitably is mentioned. Rayborn won 11 AMA nationals during his relatively short seven-year professional racing career. Ten of those victories came on road racing courses, making him easily the top American road racer of his era. Rayborn’s fame spread to Europe in 1972 when he rode a Harley-Davidson XR750 in the popular Transatlantic Match Races and won three of the six races to tie as top scorer in the series. Rayborn’s performance proved once and for all that Americans could road race. His performance was a precursor of the era of America’s dominance in world championship road racing of the late-1970s and 1980s. Rayborn raced with Harley-Davidson his entire career.
Calvin Rayborn II was born on February 20, 1940, and raised in San Diego. He began riding motorcycles when he was just 8 years old. One of Rayborn’s first jobs was working as a motorcycle delivery rider after school and during the summer. The teenaged Rayborn built up thousands of miles of riding, as he put it, "as fast as I could, because that’s how you made money in that business."
Rayborn met another future Hall of Famer, Don Vesco, at a local drag race in the late 1950s and the two became good friends. They would travel to the races together and Vesco tuned some of the bikes Rayborn raced. Rayborn picked up sponsorship from Lou Kaiser, who had also helped the early racing careers of Joe Leonard and Jimmy Phillips.
Vesco recalls that Rayborn would always cause him to be late to the races.
"Calvin was shagging blueprints and would be out there trying to make that last dime," Vesco recalls. "We’d leave my place at 5 p.m. and have to climb the fence at Gardena Speedway to get someone to open the gates to let us in so we could race."
By the early 1960s, Rayborn was a regular winner in local club scrambles and TT meets popular at the time in California. He also started club road racing with Vesco during this time and from his hours of motorcycle delivery had a great feel for the road courses.
"He’d go out on his street bike and just thrash all these top AFM road racers," Vesco said. "I remember Ron Grant came up to me asked me who that kid was and I told him it was ‘Slugger.’ That was what he went by to all his friends at the time. He’d leave those guys scratching their heads, that’s for sure."
Rayborn’s progress was slowed after he broke his back at a road race in Riverside, California. When he returned, Rayborn steadily moved up through the ranks and turned pro on the AMA Grand National Championship circuit in 1965. He was being backed by Leonard Andres, whose son Brad had been an AMA champion of the mid-1950s. He showed his potential in his rookie pro season by earning two podium finishes – a second at the Des Moines, Iowa, road race and a third at the famous Ascot Park half-mile.
In 1966, Rayborn broke through to win his first AMA national, the road race at Carlsbad, California, not far from his home. Already people were recognizing Rayborn’s special talent as a road racer. Former Harley-Davidson racing boss Dick O’Brien said that Rayborn, along with the legendary British rider Mike Hailwood, were the best road racers he’d ever seen.
"The thing that was so special about Rayborn is how fast he was in tighter turns," O’Brien said of Rayborn. "He seemed to have a special feel for pushing a bike through a tight section of a track much faster than anyone else."
Vesco said that Rayborn rode in a style that was ahead of his time.
"Those Harleys were heavy and didn’t have the greatest brakes," Vesco remembers. "Calvin would run the thing in the turns faster than anyone else and then he’d turn in the front tire to scrub off speed. That’s not all that uncommon now, but in those days no one rode that way."
Rayborn’s prime years came in 1968 and 1969. By then he was on the factory Harley-Davidson team and his most famous victories came in back-to-back Daytona wins in 1968 and ’69.
In 1968, the field for the March Classic was perhaps the strongest ever, with top British riders including former World Champion Phil Read, plus a strong contingent of riders on factory Japanese bikes from Yamaha and Suzuki. This was the year the 200 truly became an international event. Harley-Davidson came to Daytona with a team of seven factory riders, including Rayborn.
In the race, Rayborn led most of the way. At one point he lost the front end of the factory Harley and slid so far that it ripped a hole in the knee of his leathers. Rayborn recovered and lapped the entire field en route to victory. He became the first rider to average over 100 mph during the 200-miler. That win established Rayborn as America’s premier road racer, a title he would hold until his tragic death in 1973.
Even though Rayborn’s Daytona performance in 1968 was dominating, his win the following year might have been even more impressive. By 1969, the Japanese manufacturers had found amazing speed in the light and agile two-strokes. Beginning with pole winner Yvon DuHamel on a Yamaha, nine of the top-10 qualifiers were on two-stroke machines. Rayborn, who qualified eighth on the factory Harley-Davidson, was the only four-stroke rider among the top qualifiers. During the race only Rayborn’s sheer riding talent kept him in touch with the faster two-stroke leaders. One by one, the two-stroke riders experienced mechanical problems or falls, while Rayborn, fast and steady, took the lead and pulled away to his second straight Daytona 200 win.
The years of 1968 and ’69 were also Rayborn’s highest finishes in the AMA Grand National standings. Each year, he won three races and finished the season ranked third. While he was good on the flat tracks, he couldn’t manage consistent enough finishes on the dirt to be a serious contender for the AMA title.
By 1970, the two-strokes were just too fast and reliable. On top of that, Harley-Davidson was going through a low point in trying to develop the new XR racing machine. The first two years the XRs used cast iron cylinders and were notoriously unreliable. For the first time in five years Rayborn went without a national win. The season wasn’t a total write-off, though. That year at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, Rayborn piloted a Harley-Davidson Sportster-based streamliner to a new American and International record of 265.492 mph. The H-D streamliner weighed more than 700 pounds and was almost 10 feet long. Rayborn showed his bravery by stuffing himself back into the machine after suffering several high-speed crashes in the streamliner before he finally set the record.
In 1971, Rayborn took his one and only national win on a flat track. It was on the mile at Livonia, Michigan.
It was in the spring of 1972 when Rayborn turned in perhaps his most famous performance. Against the wishes of the factory, Rayborn accepted an invitation to the Transatlantic Match Races in England. With the factory refusing to back him, Rayborn rode an old iron-cylinder XR racer owned by Harley-Davidson employee Walt Faulk. It was Rayborn’s first appearance in England. Teammate and friend Don Emde drew maps of the tracks they would race on a cocktail napkin. On the outdated bike and with no experience on the tracks, Rayborn went out and won three of the six rounds and tied Brit Ray Pickrell as the top scorer. Rayborn became an instant hero in Britain, and even more importantly it marked the beginning of a recognition by the rest of the world that American riders, long thought only able to master oval dirt tracks, could be top contenders in international road racing.
Later in 1972, Rayborn won two nationals and had the distinction of giving Harley-Davidson its final AMA Grand National road race victory. It came on July 23, 1972 at Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, California. It also proved to be Rayborn’s final national win.
By 1973, it became clear to Rayborn that his future was in the burgeoning sport of road racing. It was also clear that Harley-Davidson would be less and less competitive on the road courses against the rapidly improving Japanese machines. At the end of the year, he made the gut-wrenching decision to leave Harley-Davidson and accept an offer to race for Suzuki.
Unfortunately, Rayborn would never race in America again. In December of 1973 he died in a club event in New Zealand when the bike he was riding seized and threw him into a guardrail at well over 100 mph. At just 33 years of age, one of America’s brightest racing talents was no more. His death sent shock waves throughout the sport.
Years later, Rayborn’s son, Cal III, became a well-known racer in his own right and was a leading AMA 250 Grand Prix and Supersport rider of the mid-to-late-1980s.
Calvin Rayborn II will long be remembered as the rider who gave Harley-Davidson some of its greatest wins in the waning days of the company’s AMA Grand National road racing competition.
He was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999.