Motorcycle track racing is not for the faint of heart. On a mile track the big bikes hit close to triple digit speed on the straightaways. The rear ends will swing out to almost 45 degrees when it’s time to make the turn. The left foot is encased in an iron shoe and that foot is planted when necessary to provide a momentary stability. In the mile races the bike is virtually always a big twin. Having just one power pulse per rpm allows that moment to gain traction that simply isn’t available on a multi-cylinder engine. It has been years since the AMA has allowed anyone to try it with a two stroke multi.
If you would like a thumbnail of the riders who thrived in this environment, make the jump. I hope this article generates enough interest that some of you will google them. It is obvious to me that they were both athletes and gearheads. That’s what keeps me reading (and writing).
Up to 1953, the dirt track champion was decided with one race, the Springfield Mile. In 1954, however, Grand National Champions began to be decided by points awarded for placement in both dirt track and road racing. The first Grand National Champion under this system was Joe Leonard. Joe hailed from San Diego and rode a Harley Davidson KR750. For the next several years so did almost everyone who won.
From 1954 until 1969, when the Harley KR propelled the AMA champion for the last time, Joe Leonard, Carroll Resweber, and Bart Markel accounted for ten championships. With a win each by Brad Andres and Roger Reiman that doesn’t leave much. All of these riders were riding Harley KR750s.
Joe Leonard won the first Grand National Championship in 1954. Then he was beaten by Brad Andres in 1955. He came storming back in 1956 and 1957 for back to back wins. He was not the last back to back champion, however, he may be the only one to do something special. He was the AMA Grand National Champion back to back. Then he went to cars and in 1971 and 1972 he won back to back auto racing championships with USAC. Nobody else to my knowledge has accomplished both, and probably never will.
Along the way, Joe won two Daytona 200s (bike) and came within a gasp of winning the Indianapolis 500. A fuel injector on his turbine powered car malfunctioned while he was leading and the race almost over. Joe Leonard is worth a Google search.
After winning back to back AMA Grand National Championships Joe would probably have continued on, but something happened. That something was Carroll Resweber. Carroll came from the Beaumont/Port Arthur Texas area and was somewhat of a dirt track specialist. Joe finished second to Carroll by one point in 1958. Then he placed sixth in 1959 and second again in 1960. Resweber, in the meantime, won those three years and then a fourth consecutive year. I believe a prudent person might think Resweber had some impact on Joe Leonard’s decision to go with four wheels.
Another AMA champion of the time (Dick Mann, BSA, 1963) considered Resweber to be the best dirt track rider of his time. Mann feels that nobody could touch Resweber and that he would have continued to win for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately something happened here as well. Someone crashed in front of him and left Resweber with nowhere to go. With a broken back and several other bones, he wound up working for Harley Davidson as a machinist. Nobody displayed dominance like Resweber. Not until after Harley had developed the XR750, at least.
Bart Markel also won the championship 3 times. The first was in 1962 and it’s probably fair to say that he was the beneficiary of Resweber’s wreck that same year. In 1963, Dick Mann won for BSA. The following year Roger Reiman won for Harley. In 1965-66 Markel went back to back. Markel was not known for his smooth riding capability. He came to the track after a tour in the Marines and his reputation was built on being tough. With three national championships under his belt, he obviously could ride, but his toughness was what the other riders talked about. With one more championship (Mert Lawwill in 1969), Harley’s dominance was over – until the aluminum XR750 was developed.
I can’t help but comment on the rider that was non-Harley and pretty much greased the skids to slide the flathead out of competition. He took a 500cc Triumph to the ’67 and ’68 championship, and who knows what ’69 would have brought had he stayed healthy. I have no record of where he stood in the points at the time of his injury; however, he became sidelined with a broken femur in 1969. Mert Lawwill won that year on a HarleyKR750 flathead.
Nixon eventually injured himself to the degree that he could no longer ride dirt track. As usual, when he went primarily to road racing he became one of the best. He teamed with a tuner named Erv Kenemoto for several years. They were always in contention till the race was over. He died last August 5th at home. He was 70 years old.
These guys were dominant and rode dominant bikes. In 1970, Harley went to overhead valves on their 750. They were not competitive. After two years they developed aluminum heads and modified the engine in other ways. They haven’t ever had to look back. The XR750 is still winning and now it is against bikes much larger than 500cc. It’s also the next story, coming soon to CC.