Gary Nixon, the Forever Racer | The Number 9

By Norm DeWitt, Photography by Motorcyclist Archives

On rare occasions, a racer becomes synonymous with his number. Valentino Rossi is number 46, Barry Sheene was number 7, and for a generation of race fans, Gary Nixon will always be number 9.

After hoarding enough paper-route proceeds to buy his first motorcycle at age 14, the red-headed kid from Lawton, Oklahoma, wanted to race right from the beginning. Starting out in local scrambles meets at 16, he lied about his age and turned Pro in 1958 at 17, sharpening his craft on county-fair dirt-tracks across the Midwest.

After an 11th-place finish at the Heidelberg, Pennsylvania, half-mile and ninth on the pavement at Laconia, New Hampshire, Nixon scored a strong sixth in his debut at the Springfield Mile on a 500cc Triumph in ’62. After signing with Triumph for ’63, he ended the season ranked sixth in the country with 73 national points. Things were looking up.

The following year was Nixon’s first on the Daytona high-banks, and the first time bikes ran the full 3.8-mile layout for 200 miles. He led much of that distance by as much as 27 seconds until an oil tank overfilled in a botched pit stop cost him the victory; he finished second behind Roger Reiman. Nixon led the 200 again in ’66 until Buddy Elmore got past him to take the win; a flat rear tire dropped Nixon to ninth at the end.

Nixon had his greatest season in ’67, winning five AMA Nationals, including his only Daytona 200 victory. He had a furious race-long battle with teammate Dick Hammer until Hammer crashed in Turn 1. Nixon also won the 100-mile Lightweight race at Daytona that year, giving him both major wins at the biggest week of motorcycle racing on the calendar. Nixon’s 250cc Yamaha blew up in his heat race, and was fixed just in time for the final. “They forgot to mix oil with my gas,” he said. “That sumbitch was so fast. I was passing everybody until it seized up!” The ensuing crash snapped his right thumb.

Since Nixon had to race the following weekend, his mechanic, Dick Bender, came up with a solution: He wound a door spring backwards and put it on the handlebar to hold the throttle wide-open. “I could shut it off, but I couldn’t turn it on, so that was a great idea,” Nixon said. Bender’s strategy won the race, but nearly lost the war. Wheelying a rigid-frame Triumph with 2-3 inches of fork travel, Nixon dropped the front wheel hard. “My hand came off the handlebar, and there’s the Turn 3 fence right in front of me!”

The overhead-valve Triumph 500s were outgunned against Harley’s 750cc flatheads, but that didn’t stop Nixon from taking back-to-back AMA Grand National Championships in ’67 and ’68 with savvy, skill and sheer determination. But an accident at Santa Rosa, California, in ’69 put a crimp in his plans—and his left leg. “When I shifted down, it caught in neutral,” Nixon said. “I laid it down and hit that 4x4 fence post.” A catastrophic compound fracture pushed his left femur through his leathers, ending his dirt-track career.

Going from the factory Triumph team to Team Hansen in ’72—Kawasaki’s junior-varsity crew at the time—was a difficult transition for Nixon. Chronic mechanical problems meant frequent breakdowns and few finishes. Nixon then teamed up with legendary tuner Erv Kanemoto on a 100-horsepower Kawasaki 750cc H2R triple for ’73. Kawasaki paid Kanemoto $1000 per race, from which he had to cover all his expenses. “You couldn’t make it work,” Kanemoto said. The two split prize money, but the season was a financial disaster despite their best efforts. Kanemoto machined available rims into three sections, welding up wider rims to put more tire on the track. That helped them take three National wins and the AMA Roadracing Championship. Kawasaki offered Nixon $5000 to re-sign for ’74, but he and Kanemoto had had enough, and moved to Suzuki.

By Norm DeWitt
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