To Kamikaze or not to Kamikaze – THAT Is The Question

The Kamikaze Downhill with levitating spectator. All photos are credit Peter Morning, MMSA.

The Kamikaze. Until I went to Mammoth Lakes this fall to see the scene, ride the trails, and report back, I hadn’t actually seen pictures or video of the legendary downhill race. But as a result of images imported into my brain viewer by a nut-hatch friend of mine who won the race a few times in the nineties, it was exactly as I’d envisioned. A moon-side ski slope with the other kind of powder—several inches of gray puff and rubble.

The Kamikaze is the brainchild of Bill Cockroft, director of events at Mammoth Mountain Resort, where he has worked since 1969. And if that name sounds familiar, it should. Cockroft was inducted into the Mountain Biking Hall of Fame in 1994 for his promotion of and contribution to the growth of the sport. Though not called that at the time, the first Kamikaze race was held in 1985 as part of the NORBA Nationals series. And this sprung from jealousy. A local restaurant owner and friend of Cockroft’s was inspired by the cycling events at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and wanted to know what it would take to host a marquee mountain bike race at Mammoth.

“So I worked it out on the back of a napkin, it was, I dunno, $10,000?” So they got some folks to write some checks, lots of others to volunteer, and the thing was born. In those early days, registration often hit 3,000, and with those people’s significant others, families, friends, cousins, and pets, the overall number of folks coming to Mammoth for those events was surely at least double that number.

Among the other things that Cockroft can be credited for is the creation of dual slalom downhill. Mountain biking had always been difficult to spectate. See your friend/husband/wife at the start line then *poof* they’re gone, and you don’t see them for four hours. Pretty boring. But Cockroft had seen a thing or two slopeside, and decided that skiers shouldn’t get to have all the fun. The first dual slalom mountain biking event was at Mammoth Mountain in 1986 and has endured since, both at Mammoth and at events around the world.

Dual slalom DH, born at Mammoth.

Every year from 1985 until 2001, Mammoth Mountain hosted a major race of one sort or another—NORBA Nationals, UCI World Cup—but in 2001, the event was put on ice due to construction around the Canyon Lodge. The combination of construction and 3,000 racers would simply result in too much chaos. And then, as often happens with events of this kind that are largely labors of love, it resisted attempts at resuscitation in the years that followed. A race sprang up here and there, but never really stuck. Meantime, ever the visionary, Cockroft had visited a moto-bike park in Hollister and came away inspired to create the first mountain bike park in the nation.

In 2013, the Mayor of Mammoth Lakes wanted to increase off-season tourism. He’d heard of this thing they used to do, heard who used to do it, and how many people it would bring.  Thus the Kamikaze Bike Games—or KBG—was born. Again.  Enduro is now an important part of the lineup, and with lots of lifts, trails, and thousands of acres to play with, Mammoth is very well-suited for it. Cockroft is confident that the KBG will continue to pick up steam, and he notes that its place on the calendar late in the season is deliberate.

Banner, Ritter and the Minarets. But for God’s sake don’t look at the view! Eyes on the prize!

“We like to be set apart—it doesn’t compete with Interbike, the Mammoth Gran Fondo (road ride) the week before, and it works for the Mammoth Lakes community as it comes during an otherwise off-peak time.”

While the Kamikaze Downhill may have been eclipsed in the DH world by more technical, gnarly, hair-raising descents, this race retains its mystique due to the sheer speeds on display, as well as the funky machines it inspires. With Cockroft at the helm, Mammoth Mountain continues to innovate, to look for new ways to promote the sport. An invite-only ebike race at this year’s games is just one more way in which this mountain bike hall of famer proves he remains unafraid to try new things.

DH tri-bike. Still not enough wheels as far as I’m concerned…

“The ebike race was great! But we were just testing.  Ebikes are not allowed in the park and this was a one off within the event type of thing.  I think they will gain a great nitch and sales will skyrocket.”

So don’t bring your ebike to Mammoth for now, unless you get a special invitation for next year’s Kamikaze Bike Games, but do think about saving the third weekend in September for XC, Enduro, Downhill, Dual Slalom, or the Kamikaze Downhill.  And if you’re not a racer, it’s still a fine weekend to come to Mammoth. The size of the resort and the surrounding area’s excellent trail options means you can easily find yourself alone on a remote stretch of trail in the morning and soaking up some Kamikaze action in the afternoon. With this guy in charge, you can be sure it won’t be dull.