Don Castro is an extraordinary dirt-tracker and roadracer who battled handlebar-to-handlebar with some of the greatest motorcycle racers of all time during the 1970s.
Many consider the early 1970s as one of the greatest periods for dirt-track racing in the history of the sport. Castro competed against famed racers and Hall of Famers Gary Scott, Kenny Roberts, Mert Lawwill, Chuck Palmgren, Gene Romero, Dave Aldana, and others. His win at the 1973 San Jose, Calif., half-mile is considered to be his greatest victory .
Born on Dec. 28, 1949, Castro grew up in Hollister, Calif. When he was almost 16, he got a Honda 90 so that he would have a means to get to-and-from work. But Castro didn't just use the small bike for transportation—he began racing around town on it, drawing the attention of the police, who reported his shenanigans to his father.
"He made a deal with me to buy me a 500 Triumph if I would stop running around town on the Honda," Castro says.
So at the age of 16, Castro began racing in Sportsman TT races as well as competing in hillclimb. At the age of 18, he transferred to the Expert Sportsman class. He turned pro novice in 1968, and then junior in 1969.
"I did well until I broke my leg at the Triumph factory," Castro recalls. "I signed with Triumph to get free parts and a motorcycle, and then [Hall of Famers] Gary Nixon and Dick Mann invited me to play soccer. We both kicked the ball at the same time and Dick broke my ankle. I couldn't race four nationals, and then I won six in a row. That was 1969. I was in the running for the title of Junior of the Year but Dave Aldana beat me out on points."
In 1970, Castro became a pro expert and got a Triumph factory ride. His first roadrace was at the famed Daytona track in Florida, where he finished third on a three-cylinder Triumph.
"I didn't want to get beat. I just loved to go fast," Castro says. "I'm kind of dyslexic and don't know if that helped, but when you go 120, 130, 140 mph, everything slows down.
In 1971, Castro raced short track, TT, half-mile, mile and road races. He finished ninth that year aboard a Triumph.
In 1972, Castro was a privateer aboard Triumphs and had his van and equipment stolen.
"I tried to regroup but I didn't regroup very well," Castro remembers. "I asked K & N if they had an extra bike I could ride, and they did. So I flew to Tulsa [Okla.] and got the Yamaha running. I rode for them for the rest of the year."
1973 proved to be a good year for Castro. He got a factory contract with Yamaha, teaming with Roberts. At the San Jose, Calif., half-mile during the time trials, five riders broke the old lap record. Roberts beat the record by a full half-second by turning a lap of 4:26:08. Hall of Famer Mark Brelsford turned a 4:26:43. Also coming in under the old record were Hall of Famers Cal Rayborn, Mert Lawwill and Gene Romero. Castro was the sixth fastest qualifier.
All but one of the 12 competitors in the 20-mile National final would be be future Hall of Famers: Kenny Roberts, Castro and Chuck Palmgren on Yamahas, Rex Beauchamp, Lawwill, Jim Rice and Brelsford on Harley-Davidsons, and Gary Scott, Mike Kidd, Eddie Mulder and Romero on Triumphs. Randy Scott was also on a Triumph.
Castro and Roberts took the lead at the start but Roberts was quickly sidelined on the first lap with ignition problems. Castro then held the lead from start to finish, unchallenged by any of the other racers. Gary Scott finished second, followed by Beauchamp, Rice, Brelsford and Lawwill.
"I finished the season fifth overall and Roberts finished No. 1," Castro says. "It was a good year for the team."
In 1974, Castro earned another National win for Yamaha: the 250cc roadrace at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., in a back-and-forth battle with teammate Roberts and Hall of Famer Gary Nixon. Castro finished fourth in the Daytona 200.
"Right after Daytona I went to a Cal Rayborn benefit [half-mile] race," Castro says. [In December of 1973 Rayborn 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.]
"I was fast qualifier," Castro says. "I pitched it sideways and the shocks went down too much so I high-sided and got tied up with the bike. I almost tore my left leg off. The adrenaline was pumping so high I didn't want to go to the hospital. We were going to London [England] later for the Trans-Atlantic races that pitted America's roadracers against Great Britain's best.”
Castro spent the night at Roberts' home. The following day he was in excruciating pain so he went to the San Mateo, Calif., hospital, where doctors had to reattach his kneecap and ligaments.
After several months of rehabilitation, Castro was back on the track.
"I was on the mile track at San Jose and hit a hole in the main. It hurt like heck," Castro recalls. "I needed surgery but stayed racing."
Castro finished out of the top 10 that season.
In 1975, Yamaha pulled out of racing and Castro teamed up with Hall of Fame tuner Erv Kanemoto to race Kawasakis.
"I got a hold of Kanemoto because I wanted to do the mile on a two-stroke," Castro says. "We got that working well, we would pull way ahead on a 750 Kawasaki. But we kept breaking stators. We would do well in the heats but the mains had just too many laps for the stator."
In 1976 Castro had surgery on his leg and retired from racing.
Castro recalls his racing days fondly.
"The people were just so great, and the friendships you had," he says. "Winning was nice, but just to be there to compete was great. I loved to race. I loved to see kids and sign autographs. That was very special. I'm from a small town and things like that never happened. And I got to travel with guys like Gene Romero."
Castro, who operates a shop called Racer's Edge in Tres Pinos, Calif., was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2010.