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Trailblazers Awards Banquet

Gene Romero and Howie Zechner with Trailblazers President Don Emde

Words and photos: Howie Zechner

A huge success by any standard, once again, the 73rd annual Trailblazers banquet did not disappoint. Of course, what’s not to like? Well-organized and open to all in every two-wheel discipline, it marks the beginning of spring and the unofficial start of the race season. It’s where yesteryear and today collide. It’s a twilight zone of our own making.

As in previous years, the Carson Center in Carson, Calif. strained to hold almost eight hundred attendees, who travel from all over the globe for this lifestyle celebration. Old and young regulars include the famous, almost famous and I-gave-up-on-being-famous-years-ago. The crowds are made up of racers, promoters, advertisers, sponsors and enthusiasts, along with newbies getting their first induction into what could arguably be called one of the best motorcycle shows and banquets in the country.

Preston Petty

Officially, the event begins at 3 p.m., but in reality the huge Carson Center parking lot is full by late morning. Known as tailgate parties in other sports, in our world they call it bench racing. Greeting and making new friends, the time goes quickly. It is the party before the party for sure.

Bob Basile

Once the venue opens, attendees pick up credentials. Well laid out under several massive white tents, it's a simple and quick process - almost too fast, as the volunteers who staff these are well known and interesting folk. It's not the place for an extended conversation, but I just couldn’t help myself and had to say hello to Don Emde, Ernie Aragon, Judy Whitson, Sidecar Susie Ellsworth and a bunch of others. Damn, got to move on; time's a-ticking.

Ernie Aragon

Sidecar Susie Ellsworth

Now I have my credentials, so all that’s left is to walk 50 feet into the courtyard. Simple, right? Well, hold on, pilgrim: there are tables and benches filled with names like Petty, Romero, Schwartz, Faria, Starr, Mann, Smith, Carruthers and more. Well, it would just be rude not to say hello and start up a conversation from where we left off last time. Double damn; there goes another couple of hours.

Left to Right: Dick Mann, Kel Carruthers, Howie Zechner, Malcolm Smith

Okay; I reluctantly move on and enter the open courtyard. Filled to the brim with motorcycles, it houses the Tom Cates Memorial Bike Show. Organized by The Early Years of Motocross Museum owner Tom White, the machines on display are rich in history and rarity, as are the owners. Each with a story more fascinating then the next, it is almost impossible to vote for a best of show. Fortunately there are three full bars to help narrow down one's choices. Read more and see the 200 plus pictures about the Tom Cates Memorial Bike Show at my Facebook page.

The courtyard is also the last opportunity for one-on-one jaw jacking before entering the banquet room. Filled with names like Agajanian, Tanner, Hicks, Farrell, Autrey, Brant, York, Nicole, Hamill, Nutter, McConnell, Ferrel and so many more, one wants to stay and delay the formal end of the evening's presentation.

Mike Faria, Chris Agajanin, Doug Nicol, Jeffrey Immediato, Bobby Schwartz

The giant banquet room opened at 7 p.m. and the masses filled one hundred large round tables laden with coffee, nut appetizers and two bottles of wine. The mood was festive times ten.

Master of Ceremonies Don Emde and Keith Mashburn welcomed guests and made several announcements. Well versed at their craft, they are a joy to watch. They more than get the job done.

Don Emde and Keith Mashburn 

The Trailblazers Annual Toast followed an opening prayer and pledge of allegiance. This year it was for the late JC Agajanian. His sons Jay and Chris Agajanian joined Don and Keith on the stage, and stories about the great man were shared. Larry Huffman joined the foursome and relayed his own tales about the famous promoter. "Come to Ascot, where the 110, the 405 and the 91 collide," Larry and Jay yelled, and the crowd went wild. Truly special, their tribute to JC was honorable, memorable and deserved.

Don Emde, Chris Agajanian, Kieth Mashburn, Jay Chris Agajanian

Don Emde, Chris Agajanian, Kieth Mashburn, Jay Chris Agajanian, Larry Huffman

A video tribute to those who have passed on since the last April 23, 2016 Trailblazer gathering followed. As always, it was tastefully produced and brought a tear to more than one as each of the fallen was honored.

Next, the dynamic duo announced the three motorcycles for which this year's attendees had voted in the bike show earlier. The owners were called on stage to receive their awards and give a brief outline of their bikes and the work they had done on them. Like most of the machines on display that day, they were rich on history and had fascinating stories.

Dinner was next on the agenda, and there was a mad dash to the food tables. Chicken, beef, pasta, green beans, salad and rolls, along with a desert table filled to the brim with different cakes and brownies drew the crowds in. The lines moved quickly and everyone filled their plates to the top. The downside? Well, just like before, you ran into people you had missed earlier in the day. Then you spent so much time talking with them your food was cold by the time you got seated again. Oh, the trials and tribulations of being a Trailblazer.

The Lucille Flanders Award was next, named after the late Lucille Flanders, who with her husband Earl was very involved in the motorcycle industry. They were both passionate Trailblazers supporters.

It's a very prestigious award. This year's recipient was Judy "Maely" Whitson. Congratulations, Judy, on your well-deserved recognition! Your tireless dedication to the Trailblazers and the sport of motorcycle racing make you the perfect choice for the 2017 Lucille Flanders Award.

Judy "Maely" Whitson receives the Lucille Flanders Award 

Hall of Fame acknowledgements followed. A well-produced video outlining the history of each nominee was played before they were brought on stage. A lengthy verbal exchange followed as Emde and Mashburn brought to light facts that made that person so special.

Keith Mashburn

The 2017 Trailblazers Hall of Fame inductees were:

Jim Buchanan: Motorcycle racer, tuner, frame - wheel innovator

Billy Hamill: World and National Speedway Champion

Norm McDonald: Racer, sponsor, dealer, co-founder of K&N Engineering

Tony Murphy: World-class roadracer, journalist

Bill Vantichelt: Product innovator/creator Van Tech frames

Gary Preston: Desert and Baja Champion (Posthumous Inductee)

Jim Buchanan: Motorcycle racer, tuner, frame - Wheel innovator

World and National Speedway Champion – 2016 AHRMA Road Race Series #1 - Billy Hamill

Malcolm Smith joined K&N Engineering Norm McDonald on stage

Roadracer, Journalist Tony Murphy

Product Innovator and Creator of Van Tech frames Bill Vantichelt

The most prestigious was the evening’s final award. It is named after its first recipient, the late Dick Hammer. Its roll include America's best: 2001 Gene Romero, 2002 Joe Leonard, 2003 Everett Brashear, 2004 Tom Cates, 2005 Dick Mann, 2006 Bud Ekins, 2007 Skip Van Leeuwen, 2008 Dennis Mahan, 2009 Malcolm Smith, 2010 Dan Gurney, 2011 Ralph White, 2012 Sammy Tanner, 2013 Ed Kretz Jr., 2014 Kenny Roberts, 2015 CH Wheat and 2016 Keith Mashburn.

Dave Ekins was the 2017 Dick Hammer Award recipient. Racer, gold medal winner, motorcycle magazine editor, inventor, business owner and sponsor, Dave Ekins has done it all. Congratulations to Dave Ekins on an award you richly deserve!

Dave Ekins receives the 2017 Dick Hammer Award

Say it isn't so, I thought, as the evenings ceremonies closed. What happened; how had the day slipped away so quickly? The company was excellent, the celebration memorable. It could never get better than this, I thought. Then I remembered, that’s what I said last year. Thank you, Trailblazers. Tonight was one for the record books.

Trailblazers Award Winners past and present take the stage

I want to give a special shout out to friend Billy Hamill. We go to the wayback days together and I was proud to be at his table with Geoff Arnold, Dave Brant and Malcolm Smith. Special people, special time. Life is good.

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Thanks for listening,

Howie Zechner