John McLaughlin was a leading desert and road racer of the late 1940s and early 1950s. During the 1950s, McLaughlin helped advance the growing road-racing trend in Southern California. His biggest race win came at the popular Catalina Island Grand Prix in 1953 and he also won the rugged Greenhorn Enduro in 1952. He later became one of the founders of the American Federation of Motorcyclists (AFM) racing organization. McLaughlin’s son, Steve, became a leading AMA Superbike racer and later helped form the World Superbike Series.
McLaughlin was born in Pasadena, California, on June 24, 1924. His father had been a motorcycle dispatch rider during World War I. McLaughlin’s first motorcycle was an old Indian he bought in 1938 for $25 by saving money from his paper route. During World War II, McLaughlin served as a fighter pilot in the Air Force. It was after the war that he began racing.
McLaughlin loved riding in the mountains that border Pasadena to the north. He began racing off-road and desert races in the late 1940s. Back then, a desert-racing machine was nothing more than a heavy street Harley-Davidson or Indian stripped down to the bare essentials.
McLaughlin described his Harley racing rig, which was typical of the late-1940s: “Rear suspension was nothing more than how much air you decided to run in your rear tire. The front fork might have three inches of travel. I had mine lightened down to 625 pounds,” he said with a smile.
By the early 1950s, many of Southern California’s off-road riders were turning to lighter, British-made, single-cylinder machines. McLaughlin followed that trend, but he always seemed to ride a slightly odd brand of British metal. He won the Greenhorn in 1952 on an Ariel.
The Greenhorn Enduro was one of the most grueling off-road races of its day. The race started in Pasadena, went north up and over the San Gabriel Mountains, out onto the high desert of the Mojave and then up to the southern edge of the Sierra Nevada, ending the first day at a camp atop Greenhorn Mountain — a full 250 miles from the start. Then the racers back-tracked the next day. Hundreds of riders competed and had to master a wide variety of terrain from mountain fire roads and single track to desert sand washes. McLaughlin’s victory in 1952 (on a year the event was held over three days), made him one of the most well-known riders in Southern California.
In 1951, the Catalina Grand Prix began. McLaughlin loved to compete in the race on Santa Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles. In 1953, west coast Velocette distributor Lou Branch asked McLaughlin to race a pair of Velocettes at Catalina. McLaughlin was somewhat reluctant, since the biggest bike the company made was a 350cc single. But he agreed when he found out ace mechanic Jim Crandall would be preparing the bikes.
Velocette gave McLaughlin two bikes to race. Both were based on the company's 350cc single, with one de-stroked down to make it a 250cc for the lightweight race on Saturday. Even though the bike was down on displacement to most of the competition, McLaughlin said the big advantage was that the bike only weighed 272 pounds and was highly maneuverable.
McLaughlin trained intensely for the race by riding fire trails in the San Gabriel Mountains.
“The mountains basically started just beyond my back yard. I had a Forest Service key so I could open the gates and the rangers pretty much let us go in those days. It was very similar riding to most of Catalina. Crandall got the Velocettes ready about two weeks before the race and I was more than ready by the time we went over to Catalina.”
Before the start of the national on Sunday, McLaughlin saw that Ray Tanner was starting in the row in front of him.
“Tanner was a great racer and especially fast on fire roads. I told Lou Branch that if I could stay with him to the top of the mountain that I would win the race. I chased him up the mountain and finally passed him on the last turn before the top of the hill. I knew then that it was going to be a good day.”
McLaughlin ended up winning both the lightweight race on Saturday and the national on Sunday. He was never passed during the national. The victory vaulted McLaughlin’s reputation nationwide.
Just as McLaughlin was starting to break through in motorcycle racing, he began to focus on sports car racing. He got to know all the sports car folks and saw an opportunity to give motorcycle racing a boost. He asked the car racers if the bikes could come along and race at the same road courses. They told him they could run during intermission, so McLaughlin and six other riders founded the Grand Prix Riders Association, which would later become the American Federation of Motorcyclists (AFM), a popular California club racing organization that still thrives today.
At first, motorcycle road racing was limited to intermission at the sports car races, but within a few years the two-wheelers were running their own races on courses like the newly built Willow Springs Raceway.
By the early 1960s, McLaughlin was slowing down his racing schedule just as his son Steve began in the sport.
“By the time Steve was 16 or so, he wouldn’t wait around for me anymore.” Steve would go on to become one of the leading AMA Superbike racers of the 1970s and was the driving force behind the formation of the World Superbike Championship.
The senior McLaughlin ran a Harley-Davidson dealership in the 1950s and then picked up Triumph and other British lines. He became one of the country’s first Honda dealers and stayed in the motorcycle business through the mid-1970s. He then worked for Motorcycle Dealer News until he retired in the mid-1980s.
McLaughlin lost his left arm as a result of a street accident after being hit by a truck nearly head-on in 1986 while riding back from a race at Sears Point with his son and other friends. McLaughlin took the injury in stride.
“It hurt my golf handicap just a bit,” McLaughlin joked.
In retirement, McLaughlin and his wife lived in Claremont, California, not far from his childhood home of Glendale. In addition to Steve, the couple also had a daughter.
McLaughlin died in 2006. He will be remembered as a racer and a visionary who was played an important role in helping to foster the modern era of road racing in America.