Gavin Trippe was one of the most important race promoters and publishers in motorcycling during the 1970s and '80s. His company, Trippe/Cox Productions, produced the first United States Motocross Grand Prix in Carlsbad, California, in 1973. He also promoted the first AMA national road races at Ontario (California) Motor Speedway, the Champion Spark Plug 200. After the demise of the Speedway, he took that event to Laguna Seca Raceway to start the current history of motorcycle racing in Monterey.
Trippe was a key cog in the formation of the AMA Superbike Championship. He was the first promoter to see the value of Superbike racing and gave the fledging class national exposure by making it part of the AMA national road races at Laguna Seca.
Perhaps Trippe’s most lasting contribution was inventing and promoting the "Superbikers" in conjunction with ABC Sports and its popular Wide World of Sports television program in the 1970s. Superbikers was the first motorcycle competition to bring together the stars of various specialties of racing to compete head to head. The concept of Superbikers later spawned Supermoto racing, which became a popular national and world championship division by the early 2000s.
Trippe was born in England in 1940. He grew up in a single parent-home overcoming a cheerful, but impoverished upbringing. His mother encouraged young Gavin to follow his instincts. At 16, he moved away from home and entered a vocational engineering program that saw him split time between working in a factory and taking classes.
It was after engineering school that Trippe first became interested in motorcycling. He gradually moved into various forms of competition and became a national-caliber motocross racer in England. He also was part of a three-man team that won the British Army Trails Championship and the Walker Cup.
Trippe was set to attend a 500cc Grand Prix in Denmark, traveling with a friend while on injury time out and asked Motor Cycle News, the English weekly motorcycle newspaper, if they needed anything from the race. They asked him if he could file a race report and photos. Having no experience in writing or photography, he borrowed a friend’s camera and had him preset it. He filed the report and photos and began a career as a journalist documenting Jeff Smith’s BSA World Championship season in 1965. Freelance reporting eventually led to a staff position with Motor Cycle News.
In the late 1960s, a fellow staffer at Motor Cycle News named Bruce Cox came to California on vacation. He came back raving about his visit and told Trippe that he needed to see America for himself. Trippe visited in 1968 and he and Cox hatched an idea to start an American equivalent to Motor Cycle News in America. In 1969, the partners began publishing Motor Cycle Weekly.
"We hired away some of the best talent from our competitors," Trippe said. "It was a hectic life covering events, editing stories, putting together the paper and rushing it to the printer. Our office was at the end of the John Wayne Airport, which was not much more than a small airstrip at the time. I became a pilot so I could fly the boards to the printer."
With his contacts in European motocross, Trippe pitched the AMA on applying for a Grand Prix motocross race in America, featuring the best from Europe and America as part of the World Championship.
"At the time, the AMA’s leadership knew very little about motocross," Trippe explained. "Bruce and I had a meeting with them and went to a chalk board to explain the motocross scoring system, as they didn’t actually sanction motocross back then or have a rule book."
As a result of the meeting, Trippe promoted one of the first Trans AMA Motocross race series in 1969, which eventually led to the first United States Motocross Grand Prix, sponsored by Hang Ten – a first - being held at Carlsbad Raceway in June of 1973. The USGP was a watershed event in motorcycle racing in America. Not only did it bring the World Motocross Championships to the United States, but also ABC’s Wide World of Sports televised the race live, Bruce Brown being the producer. It was a huge ratings success and was instrumental in transforming motocross racing from a hard-core enthusiast niche sport to the most popular form of motorcycle racing in America in a relatively short period of time during the 1970s.
Trippe’s big promotions weren’t limited to his first love of motocross. He copied the motocross model of bringing international stars to America in road racing and promoted a major AMA road race national at Ontario Motor Speedway in 1972. The race, sponsored by Champion Spark Plugs, paid an unheard-of purse of $50,000, with $20,000 going to the winner. He attracted many of the top world championship racers to compete against the top AMA riders in the hugely popular event, including Giacomo Agostini and John Cooper of England, who pipped Kel Caruthers at the line for the big money.
Trippe also found time to promote the long-running Friday night races at Ascot Park in Gardena, California. The races were waning in popularity, but with the press generated in Motor Cycle Weekly, sponsorship from Yamaha, and Trippe’s guidance, the Friday night Ascot races were revived and became more popular than ever in the early 1970s, which led to J.C. Agajanian reclaiming the track in 1973.
Trippe was one of the first to bring professional marketing to motorcycle racing. He brought in major corporate sponsors, such as John Player, Champion, Nissan and Hang Ten, to support his races, which bolstered the purses to the highest levels of their day. Trippe also dealt with the racers like the professional athletes they were, often hosting lavish parties for them on the night after an event.
"Gavin’s events were legendary," said motocross great Marty Moates. "You were treated like you were special and that made everyone want to be involved in the races he promoted."
Trippe also gave some insight into the mentality it took to be a race promoter.
"You had to have a great deal of intestinal fortitude," he said. "At times, every nickel I had was wrapped up in an event. You might be sitting in a room coordinating everything and suddenly the pitter-patter sound of raindrops start falling and the sinking feeling hits you that you could lose everything. On the other hand, there was the euphoria you felt when you had a successful event. There was really nothing to compare it to."
Trippe also proved to be instrumental in helping launch AMA Superbike racing. He was the first promoter to agree to run Superbikes in conjunction with an AMA national road race in 1973.
"I was around during the birth of Superbike racing in Southern California club racing, running local AFM events," Trippe recalls. "Here were these guys racing big powerful street bikes with high bars such as the Norton Wrecking Crew of Pridmore, Kerker, Simmons and Manley, and the Triple Triumphs of Pagan and McLaughlin. They were doing wheelies out of the turns and smoking the tires. It was great stuff!"
Other promoters eventually followed Trippe’s lead, and by 1976 AMA Superbike ran at all the national road races and became a full-fledged national championship.
Trippe was also a visionary when it came to dreaming up a new form of motorcycle racing. An ABC Sports producer named Bob Iger, who later became chairman of Disney and ABC, asked Trippe why riders like road racer Kenny Roberts, motocrosser Roger DeCoster and dirt track rider Jay Springsteen didn’t race against one another. Instead of going into a long explanation on the different forms of motorcycle racing the question sparked an idea in Trippe.
"I thought, 'Why not bring together all of the best motocross, road racers, flat track and speedway riders?' " Trippe recalled. And with that he went to work bringing all the riders together on one track at one time and the Superbikers concept was born. Trippe built a track at Carlsbad Speedway with a 17-year-old Eddie Lawson as the guinea pig, utilizing the elements of road racing, motocross and flat track. He then worked out a set of rules that could maximize the number of manufacturers that could participate. He offered excellent start money for the riders and mechanics, in addition to national network television exposure that attracted the attention of the manufacturers. Thirty of the world’s biggest riders, on 750cc V-twin Harleys versus 500cc motocrossers lined up. The green flag dropped on an unknown quantity, the ultimate leap of faith for all concerned.
"I remember calling Dick O’Brien (Harley-Davidson’s racing manager) and he said 'You want me to bring my team to California to race what?'" Trippe said. "As much as I would like to take credit for bringing together all the manufacturers and top riders, I think the driving force was that all these guys really wanted to find out who was the best overall rider."
The ABC Wide World of Sports Superbikers proved to be a resounding success. The Superbikers eventually lost steam in the mid-1980s when new management took over at ABC and the show was dropped, but the concept lived on and was re-ignited in Europe by the European racers who participated at Carlsbad, which developed into Super Motard or Supermoto racing, eventually attaining World Championship status. The series came home to America in 2003 when the AMA began sanctioning the AMA Supermoto Championship.
Trippe was also instrumental in promoting the annual Easter John Player Anglo-American Match Races in the 1970s and '80s, which gave many American riders their first taste of international racing and started the American revolution in Grand Prix racing with Roberts, Rayborn, Nixon, Baker, Lawson and Spencer.
"I bumped into Freddie Spencer (years after Spencer retired from racing)," Trippe said. "He told me that when I brought him over to race the Match Races at 18 or 19 years old, and he walked through the tunnel at Brands Hatch and saw 50,000 spectators there, that it was a turning point in his life. He knew then what direction he wanted to go in his racing career. That meant a lot to me."
Motor Cycle Weekly ceased publication in 1975 and Trippe’s long-time partner Bruce Cox moved back to England. Trippe continued promoting through most of the 1980s. Then he started a family and felt that continuing in the race promotion business was a bit too risky. He went on to work in the auto industry and later in computer software. But he never lost his love of motorcycling, and in 2005 he reemerged in the industry, founding a prestigious motorcycle auction that ran in conjunction with the U.S. Red Bull MotoGP in Monterey, California, and working in an advisory capacity in the U.S. NASMOTO Supermoto racing series.
Trippe will always be remembered as one of the premier promoters in the history of American motorcycle racing and an innovator who helped create an entirely new genre in the sport.
Inducted in 2005