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Remembering Gary Nixon

Motorcycling lost one of its brightest stars on August 5th, 2011 when legendary AMA Hall-of Fame racer and two-time National champion Gary Nixon died after suffering a heart attack July 29th. He was 70 years old.

Nixon represented an era of motorcycle racing dominated by enthusiasts, not corporations or highly paid professional athletes. Nixon and his racing buddies—other legends like Malcolm Smith, Dave Aldana, Mert Lawill, Mark Brelsford and Jay Springsteen—were hard-working, blue-collar guys. No air-conditioned trailers, nutritionists or hours of training on mountain bikes and in gyms for these guys. Often, they would drive hundreds—thousands—of miles in their Econolines, and tune their own bikes. Riding with injuries was the norm, not the exception. There was no harder competitor than Gary Nixon.

An Oklahoma native, Nixon got his start racing in the late 1950s at the age of 17, winning both hare scrambles and drag races thanks to his diminutive stature. He began racing AMA nationals in 1958 and by the early ’60s was a force to be reckoned with, winning his first national in 1963. By ’66 he was the runner up to Fred Merkel—and in 1967 he was Daytona winner and AMA Grand National champion, something he repeated in 1968.

His later years were less spectacular, but no less colorful. Injuries steered him to roadracing (he rode for three years with an 18-inch steel rod in his leg), and he became known as a very competitive roadracer. In 1976 he represented the USA in the World Formula 750 series, but was robbed of a championship by a controversial ruling by the organization’s governing body.

He officially retired after 22 years of professional racing, but that didn’t mean he ever really hung up his racing leathers. That giant number 9 was trotted out for vintage races, track days, celebrity events and many other appearances, and nobody who rode with him can say he ever really slowed down much. Those who knew him personally would tell you he always found a way to have a good time.

My memory of Nixon is from a Kawasaki press day at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California in 2007. Nixon and Pair O’ Nines racing teammate Jimmy Filice were there with their Kawasaki Moto-ST racebikes. Gary was still a youthful personality, fast on the track and absolutely fascinating to talk to, even if the profanity burned my delicate ears.

I first heard of Nixon when I watched Bruce Brown’s moto-classic On Any Sunday. I’m going to pay tribute to him—and Lawill, Brelsford, Aldana and all the rest—by cuing up my copy of the film, opening a beer (or maybe a bottle of scotch) and thinking about why we ride. Not for money, fame or glory, but for the sheer joy of it. I may even cry a little.

That is Gary Nixon to the left of Suzuki teammate Barry Sheene in 1974.

22 Comments

  1. Kent says:

    Three of the five racers in that photo are no longer with us. Cliff Carr, Barry Sheene and now Gary Nixon.

    The starting line in Heaven is starting to fill up!

  2. Greg Mullendore says:

    Gary Nixon was my inspiration. I remember him going on the inside at the Tobacco Trail Classic in Maryland, passing Mert Lawill, who was on a bigger cu. in. Harley. When I returned from ‘Nam, I began racing open class motocross, and used the number “9.0”, which is as close as I could come to Gary’s National #9 before he got the #1 plate. I rode on the Highway Patrol for 20 years, and always looked up to him. My brightest memory, was as a kid in high school, dreaming about TT Triumphs and at Freestate Cycle in Wheaton, Maryland. Someone said, “Gary Nixon’s in the alley doing wheelies!” All we could see in the dark was a taillight dipping low as the engine roared, and the headlight reaching for the Heavens….. precisely where he is right now. God bless Gary Nixon.

  3. Dale says:

    Gary Nixon was one of the “Hero’s” of my youth.

    Memory one, Gary on the “Green Meanie” Kawasaki Triple at Laguna Seca (74/75?). Turn 9 was the tight left coming onto the front straight back then and lap after lap Gary carrying the rear tire a couple of hundred feet on braking… running in the “lead pack”, I was spellbound. I remember him saying that “knee-in, knee-out didn’t matter to him whatever was faster for a certain corner” Gary was mostly the knees on tank style Road Racer but whatever it took! First time I saw Anyone doing a “stoppie” was Gary Nixon, live. Lap after lap after lap…

    Memory two, Gary Nixon, post 170 MPH Daytona crash, changing his shirt… A sobering experience for a future World Champion wannabe at the time.

    Motorcycle Road Racing at the time was even more dangerous than today, most of the tracks and the protective equipment have greatly improved safety. I remember watching Stevie Baker hit the boiler plate outside turn nine at Riverside, the infamous armco barriers… So Many of the Greats had short careers and/or lives…

    I have other memories of Gary but those two stand out.

    I say “Well done Mr Nixon for living an apparently Full and Rich life, as a MAN”.

    R.I.P. and my condolences to his Family and Friends.

  4. Duncan says:

    I saw Gary with Cal Rayborn, Aldna and the rest of the US team a Bunch of times in the early 70’s at the Easter US-GB races at tracks such as Oulton Park and Mallory Park. Every one of them could really road race. That was pure racing at its best.
    RIP Gary…. but as usual Barry Sheen beat you to the big race in the sky.

  5. bipedal says:

    I think you were thinking of Bart Merkel instead of Fred, Fred was about 5 years old in the middle sixties. RIP Gary :(

  6. Patrick A. Murphy Jr says:

    Gary Nixon
    I am very saddened to learn of the passing of one of the truly great flat track and road racing legends of our time. I have fond memories of seeing Mr. Nixon race at the Orange County Fair Ground in upstate New york back in the Sixties.My Dad who road a triumph Bonnieville use to take us kids to the fair ground to watch the flat track races. On a sunny Saturday afternoon,I watched Mr. Nixon dominate the field and win the half mile expert class beating Danny and Larry Palmgren and “The Flying Farmer” George Roader. Mr. Nixon won by the length of the front straight that afternoon. When Al Knapp ( the starter) handed Mr.Nixon the checkered flag, he tucked under his right arm and proceeded to ride a wheelie around the entire length of the track. The crowd went wild.I was in awe. That day has been forever etched into my mind..His white and blue Triumph and matching helmet reflected in the sunlight,I can still see him sliding sideways through the corners, the dirt flying as his steal shoe plate slid along the the track, tucked in across the tank his left hand holding the front fork tube, his right hand holding the throttle wide open, running flat out ! He was the greatest rider I ever saw ! He was the best !
    Thank you Mr Nixon.It was a honor to have watched you race. Rest in peace. #9. #1

  7. Rich Santry says:

    I recall seeing him at Road Atlanta in ’71 (KR was a “Junior”!!).
    After dropping out of college at the end of the 72-73 term, I got a job at Kawasaki of America’s SE Region warehouse as a parts picker. Got to meet Gary during the short time he road for the Green Team. Nice guy, great cut up and what a hoot to see ride at the track. He will be missed.

  8. Dean says:

    Great idea, let’s all watch On Any Sunday again and remember the “good old days”.

    Funny how the Good old days were when you really had to work at something, and these daysseem so much more complicated because we have so many more “advances” to make life easier. Maybe we need to have a National “Throw-back” day when we turn off our laptops, gps, etc., head out with some maps and just have a campfire with friends?

    Rest in peace, Gary.

    • Goose says:

      Good idea but if you really want to honor Nixon and his generation you should bring lots of booze and party like wild men, maybe find a blue collar dive bar, crash some rental cars and/ or find some “broads” to chase instead of camping.

      Nixon, Black Bart Markel, even that young punk Kenny Roberts were hard living, hard racing real deal tough guys. Most of us (me as an example) can’t hold a candle to their toughness on and off the track.

      I think take my mountain bike for a ride and watch On Any Sunday tonight.

      Mr. Nixon, I will miss you.

      Goose

  9. Freddie says:

    I remember going to Daytona Bike Week we always went to the auction at Stetson University in Deland. Gary was always there selling t-shirts and pictures,he always had time to talk to you and share a great story.He’s the MAN..going to miss you Gary.
    Freddie

  10. Mike says:

    Way back in the early 1960s and still in high school I bought an old BSA Goldstar X Daytona racer….my plan was to be one of the few in the coal mining area of SE Ohio to not ride a Harley. A steady stream of Brit Bike magazines was my main source of encouragement then…..though successes in the tight/technical twisites on the Goldstar against the Harleys was fun and satisfying.

    Gary Nixon came into my life at that point with me being race fan…….a road race fan and admirer because of his skill, determination and results in winning races on a 500cc twin against the larger capacity Harleys. Count me in on that in a big way…….along with tens of thousands of others.

    After college I lived in New England and seldom missed the Loudon AMA National road races. Due to a fake press ploy hatched by a friend and me, we were able to attend all press sessions and go anywhere at the track.

    At one of the press sessions someone ask Gary Nixon what his recommendation was for those that wanted to pursue motorcycle road racing. His reply, “everyone that wants to road race motorcycles is here this week doing it!” Room goes quiet …as we all realized his short reply simply said it all. That quote has helped with me for the past 50 years in my life and often repeated a rephrased version to others for their situation.

    At Loudon Gary Nixon was amazing …….and every race when he was close to the front we all waited for “his” move on the final lap to simply out brake the rider in first in the last turn and win by a few bike lengths……”out brake” being the understatement for basically doing the impossible.

    Mid-life I moved to SE Pennsylvania…….maybe an hour from Gary Nixon’s shop and would stop and see him every so often. I have to say it took some courage to do this as I was just a fan…….but I always rehearsed the questions I wanted to know about……mostly his views of other riders when he raced….and this provided time with him that I will never forget. He never once showed any indication that all these visits from fans just like me each year were an inconvenience.

    I can still see him on the AMA National Dirt Tracks and of course the Loudon Road Races……but I will also remember him forever for that quote and taking the time …each time….I would stop by and talk to him at his shop.

    Gary Nixon……..yes……your place in motorcycle racing is secure for all time….you will live on with me and many others forever and I thank you for this.

    Mike Barone

  11. achesley says:

    My favorite picture of Gary ever was the shot with him at full lock on a track sticking his tongue at the photographer. I was a 500 Triumph owner in ’60/’61 so just had to pull for him every race. RIP Gary.

  12. Trpldog says:

    I remember one year in the mid 70’s when the Moto GP bikes were allowed to race on the streets of Long Beach California on the same weekend of the annual Formula 1 car races. I think they only featured the GP bikes that one time. I really enjoyed seeing the Formula 1 car spectators with their mouths hanging wide open in disbelief as the GP bikes screamed down the street with their front wheels in the air the whole way. As Gary Nixon flew down the straight once, I saw him rip off his tear-off shield. I begged the track worker for it, but the turkey wouldn’t give it to me. That was a special weekend etched in my memory, hearing the sound of those two-stroke monster GP bikes echoing through the streets of Long Beach as they went up and down through their gearboxes. Outstanding!

  13. Kenny Hartog says:

    Gary Nixon is one of my childhood heroes. His antics and extraordinary skill captured my teenage enthusiasm. He and tuner Erv. K. could make those Suzuki and Kawasaki triples go way faster than they had an right to. It seemed like he always was competitive even on uncompetitive machinery. During the 70’s I remember there was a track on the east coast where he was unbeatable. He won every year there against anybody and everybody. I remember well how he was robbed of his world championship. Remember the ’72 Olympic basketball game where they kept putting time on the clock until the Russians won. Well the 750 championship was kinda like that in ’76. Thanks for the memories, RIP Gary.

  14. Kagato says:

    Are those Suzuki’s triples? I know there were some weird ones, square fours and some v’s I think

    • Goose says:

      Based on the steel tube frame and shape of the bodywork I think those would be TR750s, inline 3 cylinders based (very loosely) on the GT750 street bike.

      Goose

  15. xootrx says:

    Gary Nixon was one of those individuals that made the whole motorcycling scene such a fun experience for a young man. The production bikes, the motorcyling press, and the racing world all seemed to be more “organic,” if you will, meaning it was as much soulful as it was technological. His contribution, as was his peers, was more than winning races. It helped making those confusing teen years a little less complex, and a little more imaginative.

  16. Denny says:

    Sad event, to say at least. He was well respected in Europe too. Lasting memory belongs to him!