Racer, Shop Owner, Innovator
Long before Mike Chamberlain discovered motorcycles, it was clear that that he had a flair for athletics, competing in gymnastics, football, swimming and diving. He was even named “Athlete of the Year” while still in middle school. While Mike enjoyed those sports, the lure of motorcycles soon took over. Growing up in the San Fernando Valley in the ‘60s, there was still a lot of open space, and where there was dirt… there were dirt bike riders – and that got Mike hooked.
He started riding a Honda 305 Scrambler – a bike that was state-of-the- art for the day.
But then the racing bug hit and the Honda had to go – it was replaced with a Bultaco Lobito. Mike started racing TT and scrambles events, and became a member of the Scramblers M/C.
Mike raced alongside the other members, which included Preston Petty, Jim O’Neal (owner of O’Neal
Distributing), Paul Hunt, plus Mike and Steve Bast. Then Mike tried his hand racing an Ossa.
In 1967, something happened that would change the course of Mike’s future – Edison Dye brought over a handful of top European racers to introduce America to motocross. Mike watched Torsten Hallman, Joel Robert and Roger DeCoster race at Hopetown and realized this new form of racing was more fun than TT racing.
About that same time, Mike went to work at Valerian’s Two-Cycle City in Westwood, California as a mechanic. One perk of the job, he was able to buy a Husqvarna “at dealer cost” – the bike Hallman was racing – and Mike’s racing career took off.
As Mike became a force to be reckoned with – RD Cycles in Canoga Park offered Mike a sponsored ride on a Maico after he beat their two fastest racers. After switching to the Maico, Mike went on to be ranked #9 in AMA District 37 racing at the
end of 1969, and finished 1970 in 9th place. Then finished 1971
ranked #5, which was quite an accomplishment in one of the toughest district in the U.S. This also put Mike on the starting line along with his heroes – Hallman, DeCoster and Robert – and the RD Team was just as popular in the pits at the Europeans were (thanks to their gold jerseys and black Champion full-face helmets).
At that same time, Mike met and befriended some of the European riders.
In fact, back in the day, Mike teamed up with Joe Veillon to race a team race, which had the richest purse for any motocross race of its day – their winnings: $500 (which was a lot of money then, considering $1,000 bought a new motorcycle).
Then at the ripe old age of 19, Mike decided that one way to get faster would be to open his own shop (a decision he later discovered was counter- intuitive to his racing success).
So in 1970, Mike’s Racing Center opened in Northridge, California. Mike only carried one make – the Maico. And in no time, Mike’s Racing Center was the #1 selling Maico dealership in the United States.
One reason the dealership succeeded was because Mike sponsored some of the fastest racers on the west coast, including Tim Hart (who left MRC for a Yamaha factory ride, and who is a Trailblazer Hall of Fame member), Billy Payne, Jim West, Mike Todd, Rick Salmon and Jon Miller.
One side benefit – Mike’s Racing Center was only minutes away from Cooper Motors, the Maico distributor. This was a mutually beneficial relationship, as Mike has quick access to parts… and Frank Cooper (Trailblazer Hall of Fame member) kept hiring mechanics away from Mike.
Over the years, MRC and Mike’s house became the home away from home for the Maico-sponsored European racers while they were in the States racing the Trans-Am and Inter-Am series, including Werner Schütz and Willie Bauer.
Mike’s biggest contribution to the sport of motocross was in the area of long-travel suspension, but it took a little bit of a twist to make the jump.
Over the years, Mike crossed paths with an aerospace engineer who offered to build him a titanium Maico frame. Mike took him up on the offer – but that wasn’t enough. Anything made of steel was replaced with aluminum or titanium. Axles were drilled hollow. Steel nuts and bolts were replaced with titanium.
And if it couldn’t be replaced – holes were drilled to lighted it up. The end result – a 400cc Maico that weighed in
at 195 lbs. -- wet!
When Werner and the other Europeans saw the bike, they were impressed with the light weight, but were concerned the suspension could not handle the loads, as the bike would soar higher than a heavier bike. Mike asked, “What if we move the shocks up and angle them forward to increase travel?”
Jim O’Neal (founder of O’Neal Distributing and Trailblazer Hall of Fame member) offered his Maico for the experimental surgery – Mike cut the frame and moved the shocks up on the swingarm.
The results were nothing short of amazing – for three laps. Then the increased load overheated the shock oil and the rear shocks failed. Back to the drawing board. Mike tried all sorts of variations: dual shock bodies, aluminum bodies, then he came up with the solution – aluminum shock bodies with ribs at the bottom to dissipate heat.
Success – the shock could last an entire moto and the Soon, Mike was making the frame modifications to Maicos and the other factory teams were also coming to his shop to have Mike modify their frames.
The design was so successful, many of the manufacturers used a similar layout on their production motorcycles (as Mike says, “Wish I would have patented that idea.”).
Mike also understood the power of promotion – so when Popular Cycling magazine asked him to be a test rider, Mike gladly accepted the challenge – and his Mike’s Racing Center chest protector was seen on the cover of millions of magazines over the years.
Between the pressures of running a shop, and test riding for a magazine, Mike discovered he didn’t have time to work on his own bikes, let alone have time to race. So his racing career was put on a shelf, except for a few “fun races” on a sidehack (sometimes he was the pilot, other times he was the monkey).
Over the years, Mike discovered that he enjoyed the “back shop” more than running the shop, so he sold his dealership to his rider, Billy Payne (who re-named the shop California Motorsports Center) and Mike opened a machine shop.
Before long, in addition to motorcycle work, Mike’s shop became popular with the aerospace industry thanks to their state-of-the-art CNC machining abilities. An interesting side story, at the machine shop, Mike employed a teenager to sweep the floors who also had a passion for racing – his name was Donnie Hansen.
Mike even tried his hand a producing a rock band! Mike then left the San Fernando Valley and settled into the high desert. Again, his focus was on high- tech CNC machine work when he opened MRC Precision. He ended up working as a government subcontractor, producing a diverse range of products that supported the stealth fighter program.
In his free time, Mike’s turned to drag boat racing. Just as he had with motorcycles, Mike went “all in” and before long, became the world champion in the Top Fuel Hydro class.
In fact, at the time, his boat broke the world record for highest top speed and quickest time in the quarter mile – 236 mph in 4.96 seconds – in fact, it still holds a variety of records for a single-prop boat.
Finally, it was a time for a total change of professions and 14 years ago, Mike started selling real estate. Soon after, he married his wife, Joyce, and together, are one of the highest producing teams in the Victorville area.
In 2015, Mike was honored by the Legends and Heroes Tour when they honored him at the Anaheim Supercross race for his pioneering work in the area of long-travel suspension.
Mike and family on the field at A3.
Mike Chamberlain and Trailblazer Hall of Fame Terry Bilton, Doug Grant, Gary Bailey and Jim Wilson member, Mike Bell join Mike in celebrating his induction Mike Chamberlain – one of the pioneers of motocross who helped shape the future of racing by exploring the limits of suspension travel.
Mike Chamberlain and his heroes at the Hopetown Reunion:Roger DeCoster,Joel Robert,Torsten Hallman, Brad Lackey,Gary Bailey and fellow Scrambler M/C member and Trailblazer Hall of Fame member,Preston Petty