Russ Darnell was one of the early stars of American motocross racing. His most famous win came in the prestigious Grand Prix at Corriganville (later known as the Hopetown GP) in 1964. Darnell was one of the star riders who bridged the gap between the "rough scrambles" days of the 1950s and ‘60s to the time when motocross became firmly established in the United States by the early 1970s. The bespectacled racer was also one of the first Americans to compete in Motocross Grand Prix and International competition in 1969 and 1970.
Darnell was born in Santa Cruz, California, in 1947. He likes to say he was riding motorcycles before he was born since his dad would take his mom on rides on his Triumph while she was pregnant with Russ. Russ’ father, George, was a leading desert racer of the 1940s and ‘50s. Russ got his first motorcycle, a pre-war Royal Enfield 175cc two-stroke, and later a BSA Bantam, when he was 6 years old.
Darnell began going on desert rides with his father when he was 7 and began to hone his skills as an off-road rider from an early age. At 9, he entered his first race, a 100-mile hare scrambles. Darnell loved the camaraderie and competitive nature of desert racing. By the time he hit his teen years, Darnell was already a formidable veteran among the desert rats, as the desert off-road racers like to call themselves, and had already earned dozens of victories. He earned his AMA expert license while still in high school. He also branched out and competed in nearly all forms of motorcycle racing, from TT to observed trials, scrambles, drag racing, hillclimbs, enduro, flat track, speedway and road racing.
Darnell’s first job was working as a gofer/parts washer and later mechanic at Nick Nicholson’s motorcycle shop in North Hollywood.
Darnell’s biggest victory came relatively early in his racing career. The Grand Prix at Corriganville was one of the biggest off-road races of the 1960s. The track setting was idyllic. A challenging seven-mile circuit set in the scenic hills of a 1,600-acre movie ranch in Simi Valley, California, owned by movie actor Ray "Crash" Corrigan. The ranch was later bought by Bob Hope and renamed Hopetown and the race renamed the Hopetown GP.
Corriganville brought out all the best off-road riders from across the country. Even some of the top AMA Grand National riders were regular participants. That race was a predecessor of what would later become motocross.
In 1964, Darnell was one of the top riders in the 250cc expert class entered in Corriganville. The race featured a huge field with 25 to 30 rows and 20 riders across, all starting en masse.
“Everyone was cheating, trying to move forward for a better starting position,” Darnell recalls. “Steve McQueen was the starter the year I won and he walked out in front of all those guys and picked up the flag. He was going to do something fancy with the flag but as soon as he touched it we were gone. He had to run for his life.”
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