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.