Daytona became the core of the three essential and legendary motorcycle event locations. (The other two locations are Laconia, NH and the Bonneville Salt Flats.) For years, from its inception in 1937 until the early ’60s, the prestigious Daytona 200 motorcycle race was run at Daytona Beach. The 1948 event, which attracted “375 helmeted daredevils and plenty of non-racing hell-raisers,” ultimately, as LIFE magazine tersely reported, “155 motorcycles started, only 45 finished."
Winning rider, Floyd Emde, averaged 84 mph, got $2,000.” What LIFE failed to mention is that Emde (who was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998) won by the sliver-thin margin of 12 seconds; 1948 was the first time a rider led the race from flag to flag; and it was the last time an Indian Motorcycle won the 200.
The main event moved from a 3.2-mile beach racing venue in 1937 to the 2-mile Daytona International Speedway course in 1961. During the 1960’s my personal heroes were regular winners: Gary Nixon, 1967 (Triumph); Cal Rayborn, 1968, 69 (Harley-Davidson); Dick Mann, 1970 (Honda) and 1971 (BSA); and Floyd’s son, Don Emde, who started a stretch for Yamaha that lasted until 1985 when Honda broke the string. Since then its been all Yamaha, Suzuki, Honda, and Kawasaki until Ducati got the big win in 2011. Triumph returned to the winners circle for the first time in over 40 years with the win this year.
Indian, Harley Davidson, and Norton fought it out from 1937 until the 50’s which saw Harley pretty much dominate the winners circle with a couple of wins by Triumph and one by BSA in that decade. In the sixties, the last of the British corporate attempts succumb to the onslaught of Japanese factory contenders while Harley just "ran out of gas" as new tire technology turned it into a race for the most horsepower.
This was a much storied race and it capped off a week of celebrations and motorcycles. The annual trek by bikers to Florida were rewarded with flat track racing featuring many of the 200 participants riding “just for fun.” You would want to keep your eyes open for Steve McQueen or some other celebrity competing under a stage name. Later a large motocross event became part of the festivities.
The American Motorcycle Association contest for Grand National Champion, NUMBER ONE, was based on points earned in many kinds of races. The Grand National Series raised the form of competition to its highest level. This championship series was founded and sanctioned by the AMA in 1954. Racers would earn points at various sanctioned events and, at the end of the season, the rider with the most points won the number ONE.
The series combined four dirt-track variations: mile, half-mile, short-track, and TT steeplechase racing — with road racing to crown the best all-round rider. There were short, middle, and long flat-tracks: the constant left turning, dirt covered, quarter-mile to mile long courses that were the original core of the sport. There were also TT “Steeplechase” races which were also on dirt but had left and right turns with one jump. Motocross, which was much more twisty-turny-jumpy didn’t count back then. The final points were earned on paved tracks by “road racers.” This sport had evolved from Daytona’s hard packed beach to the windy tracks at locations like Laguna Seca in California, Laconia, and the Daytona Speedway. The championship was the premier motorcycle racing series in the United States from the 1950s up until the late 1970s when, supercross (motocross) events held in easily accessible major league stadiums became more popular.
Laconia Motorcycle Week is a motorcycle rally held annually in June in Laconia, New Hampshire. The rally has its origin in the Loudon Classic motorcycle race started in 1923 and the Gypsy Tour, where many motorcyclists passed through Laconia. Events were scheduled, including races, shows, and a motorcycle hill climb competition. A few dirt track heroes earned their paved skills at this and other Northeastern tracks.
The top 100 racers in the AMA competition had regular individual numbers so you could recognize them at any race. The previous year’s NUMBER ONE winner got the single digit “1” for the following year. The other single digit numbers were given to previous Grand National Champions as long as they remained in competition.
My buddy, David (Woody) Woodman, and I were both motorcycle and running buffs back in the 60’s and 70’s. We ran five miles almost every day. To maintain our pace and breathing, we would recite all 99 AMA national numbers and racers in order. Woody did much better than me … both at the names and at the five mile pace. Those were the days … eh Woody? When was the last time you ran five miles? We were before our time. Long before our time!
Bart Markel, was a three-time Grand Champion winner and rode under #4 when he didn’t have the #1. Known early on in his racing as “Black Bart,” he ended his career with a reputation for good riding and sportsmanship. The Daytona 200 was one race Markel never mastered. His best finish there was fifth in 1961. He rode Harley-Davidson bikes.
Gary Nixon, #9, won the Grand National twice racing for Triumph. He was the winner of the 1967 Daytona 200 motorcycle race on a 500cc Triumph Daytona. Nixon was also known for his partnership with legendary tuner, Erv Kanemoto, when they won the 1973 U.S. National Road Racing Championship for Kawasaki. He competed at the international level in the 1976 Formula 750 championship, laying claim to the Formula 750 world championship on a modified Kawasaki KR750 until international politics denied him that prize.
Mert Lawwill won the 1969 AMA Grand National Championship and was voted AMA's Most Popular Rider of the Year the same year. His popularity earned him a co-starring role in Bruce Brown's classic 1971 motorcycle epic, On Any Sunday with actor Steve McQueen and off-road legend Malcolm Smith. Mert rode under number 7 on Harleys for his professional career.
Gene Romero, #3, was one of the best-known motorcycle racers in the U.S. during late 1960s and early '70s. Romero won the AMA Grand National Championship in 1970 riding for Triumph. Known as a TT specialist early in his career, Romero became a top contender in all forms of Grand National racing and won nationals on miles, half-miles, road-racing circuits and TT tracks.
Dick "Bugsy" Mann, #4 after Markel retired, will go down in history as one of the most versatile racers ever to throw a leg over a motorcycle. A two-time AMA Grand National Champion, Mann was one of the very few riders to compete on the national level in dirt track, road racing, and motocross. He won the #1 in 1963 and again in 1971. An “old man” in a young man’s sport, he demonstrated the skill to remain on top for over a decade. Mann turned expert in 1955 and finished a very respectable seventh in his first Grand National race, the Daytona 200.
Of all of his national wins, perhaps the most fulfilling for Mann was his 1970 Daytona 200 win riding the new Honda CB750. After all, Mann had been racing in the 200 for 15 years and was runner-up three times, but could not quite find a way to finish atop the podium. To say he was long overdue for a win at Daytona was an understatement. Finally his time came in the 1970 race. He ran strong all day and held off early challenges by former world champion Mike Hailwood and, later in the race, rising stars Gene Romero and Gary Nixon. The win not only gave Mann his first victory at the Daytona classic, it also marked Honda's first win in an AMA national. Returning to BSA in 1971, Mann made a brilliant comeback at age 37 and won his second AMA Grand National Championship, becoming the oldest rider in the history of the series to win the title.
Mark Brelsford was the 1972 AMA Grand National Champion, riding for Harley-Davidson. During his short six-year racing career, the Californian won seven AMA nationals.
Mark Brelsford will forever be remembered for the fiery crash he suffered at Daytona in 1973. Riding at a high rate of speed through the speedway infield, Brelsford hit a rider whose machine had broken and was going slowly and his Harley road racer burst into a ball of flames with Brelsford still aboard. The impact and huge fireball was captured on film by a photographer for the Daytona News-Journal. The infamous photo ran all over the country and became perhaps the best-selling motorcycle racing poster of all time.
Kenny Roberts was racing at Daytona in 1973 under #80. Although he didn’t win the Daytona 200, he did capture the AMA Grand Championship that year and the next with total points. He then settled in under #2.
In the late 1970s, road racing was given separate championship status by the AMA, and production-based Superbike racing evolved into the premier class. The AMA U.S. Superbike Championship is the proving ground for machines and riders on factory teams representing six motorcycle manufacturers and dozens of privateer efforts.
Roberts became the top road racer in the country. In 1977 he won six of the seven AMA Formula One races, which at the time were also part of the Grand National Series. Roberts won the 1977 AMA Formula One road racing championship before storming into the European Federation Internationale Motocycliste (FIM) World 500cc Grand Prix Championship Series. In 1978 he garnered world-wide respect — and stirred the pride of U.S. riders and fans — by becoming the first American to win a World 500 Grand Prix title. In the following years Roberts dominated the World Grand Prix circuit, and by 1980, he had captured three consecutive World 500 Grand Prix titles. Since October 1970, the AMA was the sole U.S. representative to the FIM.
In 2008, the AMA announced the sale of certain of its AMA Pro Racing properties to the Daytona Motorsports Group (DMG) based in Daytona Beach, Florida. The move was brought about by the need for the association to place the management of pro racing in the hands of a well resourced motorsports entertainment company. Under the terms of the sale, DMG purchased the sanctioning, promotional and management rights to AMA Pro Racing. Without the burden of pro racing, the AMA was free to refocus its resources on strengthening its amateur racing programs, as well as other member programs, and especially its advocacy for America's motorcyclists.
I’ve left out a few other heroes including Joe Leonard, Gary Scott, Kel Carruthers, Don Castro, Dave and Don Emde and father Floyd, Steve McLaughlin, Fred Merkel, Jim Rice, and Mr. Daytona: Scott Russel. He is a former World Superbike and AMA Superbike Champion, has won the Daytona 200 a record five times, and won the Suzuka 8 Hours in 1993. Russell is the all-time leader in 750cc AMA Supersport wins.
The Daytona 200, held at the Daytona International Raceway, was essential source of points required to win the national championship. In the past, great riders could gain enough points only racing on dirt, but in the 70’s some road course finishes, if not wins were required most years to gain the AMA title. The Europeans were dominate in these kinds of races, but American filled the tracks here in America.
In 1973, I headed down to Florida with several Navy buddies to participate and spectate the spectacle. After meeting up with my close friend and former roommate and motorcycle aficionado, Woody, who lived at the time in Orlando, we drove the short distance to Daytona Beach and spent the week in revelry and the fumes of competition motorcycles. We even made it to the NHRA Winternationals. I’ve got a ton of pictures from the 200, but — unfortunately — my little camera lacked any zoom or telephoto lens, and everyone appears as small dots. Some examples are spread throughout this text.
(Here's a hint to make the tiny dots larger. If you click on any of the pictures in this text, you will get larger versions and a screen that you can click through all the pictures. That helps make out the bikes and their numbers.)
I’m not sure who all was along. I know Mike Bott was there and I think Joe and Pat Eden. We had other trips down to Orlando to visit Disney World. So if you were on this trip with me, let me know. My memory is lacking here.
But I’ll never forget the week of fun and races and the event that ended up being the turning point for motorcycle racing. Prior to 1969 in AMA competition, side-valve or “flat head” engines (like the Harley-Davidson KR) were allowed 750cc, and overhead-valve engines got just 500cc.
When new rules for 1970 made it 750cc for everybody (to make a place in racing for the cool new Triumph Trident, BSA Rocket 3, and Honda CB750), few people realized what a can of worms had just been opened.
BSA and Triumph had special race versions of their new Triples for Daytona 1970, with BSA pulling Mike Hailwood out of retirement to ride one of them (along with David Aldana and Jim Rice). Triumph had Gary Nixon, Gene Romero and Paul Smart. Honda threw four of its new CB750s into the 1970 Daytona 200, and Dick Mann was there at the end of an atrocious battle to take the win on one of them (after 13 years of trying). To celebrate, Honda promptly dropped right back out of road racing. Mann won again in 1971 anyway, this time on a BSA. The British were still hanging in there.
But when 1972 came around, hard times for the British industry had caused it to greatly curtail its lavish racing investment and lay off much of its talent; the young Don Emde was forced to trade in his BSA for a new Yamaha 350 Twin and promptly won the 200 on it — the smallest engine ever to do so, and the first two-stroke.
My RD350, which also saw some road racing in its day, was a descendant of that hot Yamaha factory racer. I, on the other hand, never finished first in any of my races. On the other hand, I didn’t finish last. That’s a victory. Oh, and I never crashed in a ball of flames. That’s a REAL victory.
Suzuki and Kawasaki had also picked up the plot by 1972 and showed up with seriously racerized versions of their GT750 and H2 street bikes: identified as TR750 and H2R respectively. These 100-horsepower Triples were able to motor right on through 170 mph; unfortunately, lagging tire technology meant all that power didn’t really help them escape the much slower British machines, and other key components were also longevity-impaired. DNF (did not finish) was a common acronym.
Art Baumann’s Suzuki’s magneto gave up the ghost nine laps in while leading. Yvon DuHamel’s Kawasaki packed it in not much later. Gary Nixon’s Kawi broke its gearbox. New Zealander Geoff Perry’s Suzuki broke its chain one lap from the end while leading the 200, handing the race to Don Emde’s little Yamaha. In 1973, Perry would again be leading the 200 only to have an ignition failure. Later that year, he was aboard an airliner that crashed into the Pacific. It seems that if it weren’t for bad luck, he’d have no luck at all.
That brings our story to 1973. That year, in an effort to slow the fastest bikes down and give their tires a break, the chicane was added at the end of the Daytona back straight.
A chicane is an artificial feature creating extra turns in a road, used in motor racing and on streets to slow traffic for safety. For example, one form of chicane is a short, shallow S-shaped turn, requiring the rider to turn slightly left and then right again to stay on the road, which slows them down. Chicane comes from the French verb chicaner, which means "to quibble" or "to prevent justice.”
— but the Kanji (Japanese letters) was already written on the wall. This one would be the last Daytona before Yamaha grafted two 350s together to produce the TZ700, before Goodyear and Dunlop filled in all the tread with rubber and produced the first racing slicks, and before death came for a couple of road racing’s rising stars; both 200-winner Jarno Saarinen and Cal Rayborn were killed in racing accidents that same year.
At Daytona 1973, though, with a grid full of British Triples, Harley-Davidsons, a couple of Nortons, and all the Japanese, it still looked like motorcycle racing might keep on being a wide-open game almost anybody could win. A sport only slightly removed from the beach where it had all begun just a generation or two before.
High-tech trickery and advanced aerodynamics without big horsepower aren’t worth much at Daytona. It’s a fast track. Norton’s Peter Williams cruises to 24th place. Dick Mann finished fourth on his three-year-old BSA painted Triumph colors after which the sun set on the British Empire at Daytona. Who knew? English bikes lost factory sponsorship and the venerable Harley 750's just couldn't keep up with the reliable and powerful engines from that other small island country.
After 1973, tires with tread and motorcycles other than the Yamaha TZ700 become quite passé. Kel Carruthers had to fix Kenny Roberts’ Yamaha and ride his own. In ’73, he finished second and then called it quits. Ironically, Gene Romero’s blazingly slow Triumph was one of just a few bikes to use Goodyear’s new racing slick tires in 73. Gary Nixon’s Kawasaki H2R led for 10 laps before crapping out at the 80 mile mark. Kenny Roberts, my personal “greatest road racer of all time,” didn’t finish Daytona ’73 for the second year in a row. It wasn’t until ’78 that he finally finished the race … and in first place. He popularized that leg out, better get a metal plate on the knee cap, form of racing that I adopted, but with less success.
Mert Lawill placed 17th on his Harley. Gene Romero’s Triumph Trident ends up losing in ’73, but he wins it in ’75 … although on a Yamaha. The new H-D XR750 was ready to roll in 1973, but Cal Rayborn didn’t finish the race. Finnish phenom Jarno Sarrinen’s new water-cooled, six-speed 350 Yamaha twin had the right combination of power and reliability to win the 200. After this win, saddly, Jarno died a short time later after running into Renzo Pasolini at Monza.
Fast motorcycles are just like fast women. It can be fun while it lasts, but it is very dangerous.