By Carlos Olvera
By 1915, motorcycle hill climbing was a popular sport in Southern Orange County.
With a crowd of about 2,500 people, the inaugural hill-climb competition began Sunday, April 16, 1916 as a contest sponsored by the Orange County motorcycle dealers of San Juan Capistrano.
The steep Capistrano Hill was considered insurmountable.
The foot of the hill was located roughly at the junction of Camino Capistrano and Doheny Park Road. Cleared of weeds and obstructions, the 500-foot hill had a 40 to 50 percent grade incline with a maximum of 72 percent near the top.
There were 26 motorcycles competing in this first up-the-hill event. Myron Warner, of the Herald motorcycle shop in Santa Ana was the winner. He went an average of 327 feet on his new “Power Plus” Indian motorcycle earning a first prize of $50.
It was Cal Lambert on his Excelsior who first laid a tire track over the top of old Capistrano.
Lambert would comment that his old Excelsior would say: “Yes, and you should have been at the famous Capistrano Hill climb in Southern California in 1917—the hill that had never been topped by any motorcycle—even though the boys on the most powerful factory-tuned motors had been trying for years to hit the top of Capistrano.”
The event was now graded as the number of feet up the hill the rider could climb, or the number of seconds to go over the top.
By 1918, the event grew to more than 10,000 spectators from Riverside to San Diego and became a “race over-the-top.”
The constant use of the hill produced a trench adding to the difficulty of the ride.
It became known as “The Hill of Thrill” in 1919, as riders tried various traction devices to go up the near-perpendicular course. In this year, the heroes were Dudley Perkins of San Francisco and “Butch” Lambert of Santa Ana. With a crowd estimated at 13,000 looking on, Perkins was over the top of Capistrano Hill in 34.8 seconds.
It developed into a national event in 1920 with competition sites in California and Colorado.
That year, Perkins shocked the thousands of fans by going over the top of the 500-foot ascent in 26.2 seconds. That feat alone made him one of the most popular motorcyclists in the country.
Organized by the Orange County Motorcycle Club in 1921, Perkins topped the hill again—breaking his own record—leaving the 30,000 spectators on hand in awe.
In a 1957 interview Perkins called the 1921 victory at Capistrano Hill, his finest hour in racing. Dudley “Dud” Perkins won several events on the Capistrano Hill climb, with his best time for the course being 16.8 seconds. The racer and dealer from San Francisco opened a Harley-Davidson dealership in 1914 and was inducted into the American Motorcyclists Association Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998. Perkins died in 1978 at 84.
By 1923, the annual event had 50,000 spectators in attendance and it seemed there were more accidents going to and from the hill climb than during the climb itself.
Thomas Devo of Los Angeles was injured—with lacerations on the face and knees, and blood loss—when his motorcycle went into a ditch and struck a fence on the state highway on his way to the race. He watched the race and then went to the hospital.
Another spectator was injured when a machine ridden by Frank Oscarbar ran wild and dashed through the crowd near the foot of the climb.
During the race, a new world’s record was set by Ed Ryan of Colorado Springs climbing the hill in 15.2 seconds riding an Excelsior. Ryan’s ride broke the record previously held by Perkins.
The races continued through 1927.
The hill slowly was cut away with the arrival of Interstate 5 in the late 50s, and again today with new development of homes.
Carlos N. Olvera is past president of the Dana Point Historical Society, current Vice Chair of the OC Historical Commission and a Dana Point Councilman.
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