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The Old Man and the Clay

By Brett Smith

At seven o’clock on a late September morning, the sun still hasn’t emerged above the ridgeline east of Corona, California but the old man is ready to go. He’s patiently sitting in his office, a 1993 Ford F250 diesel pickup with 269,000 miles on it. The truck is filled with miscellaneous parts and pieces, cups and bottles, articles of clothing and items I can’t identify. The dashboard is cluttered; it holds three pairs of dusty eyeglasses, a flip phone and dozens of keys on different keychains. The man swears he knows what they all go to. I test him.   

“Yeah? What’s this one for?” 

“A 1928 Ford Model A. I just picked it up last week.” I set it back down as if worried about scratching it. The truck has no A/C or clock. Even the wristwatch hanging in the middle of the console is eternally stuck on 6:20. I never bothered to test the radio. 

The old man wears a baggy green polo with gray sweatpants. He’s 85 years old, has watery eyes, a wide, open-mouthed smile and a full head of hair in different shades of gray. As we bump along he habitually reaches over and whacks me on the arm to get my attention. Unassuming, he’s a local celebrity. A regional park bears his family’s name and people routinely call on him for advice, a loan, or to sell him a collectible. At a local grill, the hostess comes outside to personally greet him and holds the door as he gingerly uses a walker to amble across the parking lot. Inside, every server and manager makes it a point to come by and say hello. Friends sit down and continue conversations from the previous day. 

In the supercross world, anybody that is somebody knows him, yet the octogenarian hasn’t been to a race since Jeff Ward retired in 1992. If supercross ever had an unheralded benefactor, it’s this old man. Jerry Deleo holds the curious distinction of owning the land where the factory supercross test tracks have been since the mid-80s and early 90s. There are nine supercross tracks on the approximately 400 acres of land he owns in Corona. Eight of them are within sight of each other.

Jerry Deleo in his mobile office – Spenser Robert Photo

Testing… 1, 2

Some history on test tracks: at the end of 1983, American Honda leased a chunk of property from Union Oil in Simi Valley, California that became the legendary Hondaland. John Savitski, who was also a builder on the AMA Supercross series, built the team a supercross course there. He also carved out a natural motocross track and riders played in the canyons and used the cliffs for free riding sessions (see the Gary Bailey movie “Pros at Practice and Play”). At the time, a dedicated team supercross test track was unheard of.

“Until Hondaland, we didn’t even ride supercross, said 1983 SX Champion, David Bailey. “We just rode around. Jeff Ward would make a rough track up in the hills in Mission Viejo. Other riders just made stuff wherever.” 

When Roy Turner, Kawasaki’s team manager from 1983-1997, learned about Honda’s new strategy, he knew he had to act or his team was going to be in competitive trouble. “We couldn’t do testing,” he said. “We faked it the best we could.” At the time, upper management and the factory in Japan didn’t understand the need for a private facility but Turner figured out a way to make it happen. He remembers his race budget being $1.5 million in the mid-1980s and he was confident that Honda’s was more than double, approximately $3.5 million. “That’s a shoestring budget compared to what Honda had. It wasn’t easy to get an additional $20,000–40,000.”

Turner had to keep it cheap. He first approached Ken Maely who owned a small ranch south of Corona, uphill from I-15. The “Shoe Man”, Maely invented the steel shoe that every single flat track rider since the early 1950s straps to the bottom of their left boots. He had a dirt track on his property but didn’t have room for Kawasaki. He suggested talking to Deleo whose business was just down the hill from Maely’s home. That tip eventually benefitted every single OEM in the sport. 

Jerry’s World

Gerald “Jerry” Deleo grew up in the open pit mining business, which he learned from his father, Joe. In the 1950s he went to dentistry school but dropped out. He didn’t like it and he joined the family business, Corona Clay, which started in 1948 and incorporated in 1958. The Deleos have offered various services over the decades but the core has always been dirt, specifically, clay. Jerry also learned the value of real estate from his father and by the 1980s he owned 600 acres and held leases on property where he mined his clay. “I spent all my money on land,” he says. “I always bought land. It’s the only way to do it.”  

In 1973, Deleo bought a 42-acre turkey ranch, which became the new site of Corona Clay’s headquarters. When Turner approached Deleo in the mid-1980s, the two made a deal and Savitski constructed a track just a stone’s throw from Corona Clay’s front door. It was a 2.5-acre plot only 34 miles from Kawasaki’s Irvine race shop and right next to the I-15. 

Near the end of 1988, Jeff Emig put in his first ever supercross laps there and remembers always seeing the old man. “Jerry would always be chewing on a cigar, wearing a hard hat, work clothes and always helping his workers,” said Emig, who won the 1997 supercross title. “He’d come by for some laughs and wish us good luck.” One day in 1989, Jerry’s youngest child, Candice, wandered over to the Kawasaki track. In October 1991, she and Jeff Ward were married. Ward’s Kawasaki teammate Jeff Matiasevich was the best man. 

In the 30 years since Turner built that track the surroundings have changed. There is now an access road between the track and I-15, housing developments continue to spring up nearby and it’s sandwiched between businesses that also lease from Deleo. But green bikes still turn laps there many weekdays between October and early May. “You think about the first Super Bowl of Motocross (1972), it’s funny that it took that long,” Turner said of getting the first test tracks built. “And we kind of winged it, building that first track.” Soon, word spread to the other OEMs about additional Deleo land holdings that might benefit them. Yamaha was the next brand to snap up a track plot. Honda came next. 

According to Dave Arnold, Honda’s team manager for much of the 80s and 90s, they couldn’t fence in their portion of the property at Hondaland because Union Oil had cattle grazing there. In the mid-90s, when an intruder had to be airlifted from one of the tracks, Honda’s legal department shut down the facility and the team called up the Deleo family to join Yamaha, who, by the 1992 racing season, had moved from their first test facility at a public track in Moreno Valley, to a bluff overlooking Corona. On Jerry’s property, Yamaha and Honda had private and fenced-in facilities, separated by an operation yard where Deleo’s employees grind away. Turner views Deleo as a true unsung hero of the sport. 

“He could have done something way more lucrative with that land,” Turner said. “It was leased to us at a really low cost, maybe $5000 a year. He just loved off road racing. He thought it would be fun and cool. Having tracks helped elevate the sport. We could test, riders got better, equipment got better. You can’t test boundaries without having that tool.” 

Today, nearly every major team on the Monster Energy Supercross series maintains at least one track on property owned by Deleo. Recently, a game of musical tracks broke out. In December 2017 Red Bull KTM and Rockstar Husqvarna announced “RD Field” in Murrieta, Calif., a test track right next to the race shop. They kept their Corona lease for a spell but now test in Murrieta full-time. Troy Lee Designs KTM took over the old Red Bull KTM track. The old TLD track is being converted into a training ground for amateur supercross riders and Jeff Ward will be training riders there. Suzuki, which doesn’t have a factory-backed race team in the west, turned the lease on their plot over to Honda. GEICO Honda currently occupies it.

The Deleo family also confirmed that the property where Kawasaki’s test track currently sits will have a building on it in the near future. The Volvo heavy equipment operator next door is expanding. Kawasaki, the very first of Deleo’s tenants, will move to the other side of I-15 in the hills, among the other teams. They’re expected to take over Husqvarna’s former plot. Thirty-five years of gawking from I-15 while Jeff Ward, Jeff Emig, Ricky Carmichael, James Stewart, Ryan Villopoto and Eli Tomac burned supercross laps on their test track will soon end. Team Green will be hidden from public view.

A Honda rider floats through the air at the test track. Spenser Robert Photo

Professional Playgrounds

Before turning off the main road to head up into the canyons, Jerry taps me and points to a driving range he owns. I learn later that it has become a favorite hangout for riders after a day of testing. The range manager, Roger Forney, said Eli Tomac used to come in four times a week when he was riding for Honda. Forney also said he lost count of the number of times he stopped play on the range so James Stewart could land an incoming or outgoing helicopter. 

The paved road leading up the canyon is wide enough to fit an aircraft carrier but rougher than the Oregon Trail. Jerry swats me on the shoulder and implores that I join him in eating the chocolate covered almonds that are melting together on the bench seat of his truck. It’s not even 10 a.m. and it’s nearly 90 degrees. The road narrows and is flanked by two supercross tracks on the left and an air strip for radio controlled airplanes on the right. The Circle City Flyers of Corona are yet another user group that benefits from Jerry Deleo’s magnanimity.

While model airplanes buzz overhead, Jason Anderson and Jordon Smith burn laps on the KTM test track, which lies alongside a public road; a father and son watch from the fence. As we head toward the yard where the core of Deleo’s business happens, a Yamaha floats in and out of view from atop a ridgeline, like a fish jumping out of water. We drive up above the yard close to where Yamaha keeps their two tracks. Craig, Jerry’s son, is helping a crew fix the water line that feeds Yamaha’s sprinkler system. Behind us is a ledge that overlooks the 35-acre crushing yard where Corona Clay produces its Angel Mix, the material that gets shipped in truckloads to baseball fields all over the west coast. The red colored and curated dirt is $40 a ton (plus freight costs) and most fields require 125 tons of it. The yard is expansive and filled with dozens of pieces of heavy equipment, a few palm trees and a perfect cone-shaped pile of dirt about six stories tall. 

From this cliff I can see Honda’s track tucked into a corner and TLD KTM’s off to the far right. Above Honda’s lot, a sprinkler throws an arc of water. Someone is preparing to ride at Suzuki. It’s here that I realize Jerry has literally moved mountains to create perfectly flat spaces for the tracks that lie within a naturally wavy topography. But moving earth is Jerry’s business. When I ask him about it he tells the story of the thousands of tons of rock he blasted to carve out of the hillside for Honda. 

Jerry Deleo greets Erik Kehoe – Spenser Robert Photo

It might seem odd that these competitive companies and teams operate on the same property, all within sight of each other (GEICO Honda has a direct view of five different tracks). Logistically, it makes perfect sense. The teams lease the land. Craig Deleo wouldn’t disclose the current lease prices but said they were very reasonable amounts. Teams also pay for water, carry liability insurance and, of course, track building and maintenance costs. “We did look around before the Corona track was built and it was difficult to have a place where the city wasn’t going to eventually move in on us,” said Yamaha Motor Corporation’s Motorsports Racing Division Manager, Keith McCarty. “It needed to be in the middle of nowhere.”

Another upshot for the teams is that the Deleos have shouldered the immense cost of permitting and legal fees over the decades. Originally, they were simply listed as “testing laboratories”. Because of a new piece of legislation in 2002, Deleo was forced to get a new permit. Riverside County has never understood how to classify the tracks and keeping them has made for a bumpy permitting process, especially because city positions turn over routinely. Given the costs of obtaining the permits and working with lawyers, Craig Deleo says it doesn’t really make financial sense to keep the tracks on their property. They do it because they love the sport and its people. 

“Of all the industries we deal with, they are the best,” Craig says. “We never have fights, they’re easy to negotiate with and there isn’t a bad guy in the industry. Well, [Erik] Kehoe is pretty tough,” he said, laughing. “Put that in your article!” 

In Corona, the teams and riders also have a central location that’s a reasonable drive from their shops and homes. Honda’s commute from Torrance is a little more than an hour but Kawasaki is close to 30 minutes. And when riders or team personnel drift to another brand, this part of the routine stays consistent. 

Chunks of clay like this are gold to Jerry Deleo – Spenser Robert Photo

The Track Man

Chugging up a dirt road, I notice k-rail cement barriers that protect vehicles from going over the ledge onto Honda’s track where Vince Friese is riding. At the top of the hill, Jerry drives through the open fence of Suzuki’s track* [see Ed. note] where a thin dark-haired man leans on a shovel. A broad smile forms on the man’s face. Jerry’s truck is instantly recognizable. It never changes and anyone who has ever spent any time around these parts knows both it and the driver. The man with the shovel is Larry Brooks, whose various roles over the past three decades have given him access to all of these tracks. He gives Jerry a warm reception. It’s immediately apparent that they have a history. Josh Hansen emerges from behind the door of a Sprinter van. 

“Jerry!” he says excitedly. We watch from the fence while Brooks mentors an amateur prospect who is preparing for the Monster Energy Cup. Hansen, on a blank RM-Z450, rides with mystifying grace. After the tour, I turn to Jerry and ask him how, at 85 years old, he still finds the motivation to drive around keeping up with his businesses and clients. While he putts around in his pickup, dozens of antique and collectible automobiles yearn for his attention. A stroke in March 2017 slowed (but didn’t stall) him and two of this three children (who have reached middle age) work in the business and seem capable of handling the operations. 

He looks directly at me. “I’m the track man!” he says with enthusiasm.

*This article appeared in a 2017 issue of Dirt Rider magazine.

Corona Clay’s property overview – Spenser Robert Photo

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