A larger-than-life figure, a racer’s racer, a gritty, courageous yet humorous and, above all, genuine man departed the motorcycle racing landscape forever on August 5th. The living, breathing, racing Gary Nixon is no more. He survived horrific accidents, but in the end his heart failed him. Perhaps there’s an irony there; perhaps not.
No matter what, it’s hard to believe he’s gone. Sure, Nixon was 70 years old when he breathed his last—not young. But he still rode faster than most. Even late in life he projected an image of toughness and determination. If he complained occasionally of the physical indignities that accompany aging, he still looked remarkably trim and fit. And to see Nixon poised on a starting grid, shield down, one could not have guessed his age—especially when he came around at full tilt in that tidy, inimitable style, leaned over at prodigious angles.
Gary Nixon (9) wheelies the fire-breathing Kawasaki KR750 two-stroke off the old Turn 9 at
Of course, much will be made of Nixon’s off-track and often off-color antics. They range from downright comical to borderline sordid—many, the so-called back-stories unfit for publication. Like many in the 1960s and ’70s Nixon partied at an epic level, and never lost his appreciation of the feminine form. These things certainly contributed to him coming across as a bona fide character, because the antics provided a surprising contrast to the seriousness of his endeavors as a professional racer, to the commitment to and affection for his fraternity of racing men, and to the legacy he built over a lifetime that caused so many to admire him. Nixon accomplished things other guys could only dream of.
History tells the story; however, it only tells part of the story. It’s good to remember that Nixon was AMA Grand National Champion in 1967 and ’68, riding both years for Triumph. The ’67 championship was especially brilliant as he won the Daytona 200 on a Triumph 500 and the Daytona 100 on a Yamaha 250—an unprecedented feat at the time, to say nothing of riding for two factories on the same weekend. To win national championships in that bygone era meant doing it all. A racer had to win on TT courses, mile and half-mile dirt-tracks and on roadracing circuits.
As AMA racing evolved into more of a specialist endeavor, Nixon went on to distinguish himself as a world-class roadracer, riding for Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki. World-class, but never world champion—though he should rightfully have been America’s first in ’76 on a Kawasaki KR750 were it not for some dubious FIM politics robbing him of a win in Venezuela. Racers aren’t given to “if only’s,” but Nixon felt he had something wrongfully taken from him. He was probably right.
There were other races and other wins. Gary Nixon had a remarkable professional racing career that lasted 13 years—a long time in that business. He never retired from racing; he just wasn’t paid anymore, but continued to race well into his 60s. We should all fare so well. Somewhere there’s a cloud bearing his famous number 9.