Gary Nixon, the Forever Racer | The Number 9

By Norm DeWitt, Photography by Motorcyclist Archives

Vicious, temperamental, mid-’70s two-strokes were not for the meek. Switching to Suzuki after cutbacks in Kawasaki’s racing effort, the liquid-cooled TR750 triple was somewhere between a handful and a nightmare. Paul Smart pulled in after one lap of testing and said he couldn’t ride it. Again, Kanemoto came to the rescue, coming up with new frame geometry that made the 175-mph missile rideable.

Merv Wright, then Suzuki’s team manager, recalls those modifications: “We weren’t allowed to modify the bikes, so we disguised it as best we could, fitting the standard fairings so that the press wouldn’t have any clue. Nixon rode the bike at Loudon, and ran away from the field. I got myself in the wringer for that one, but on the other hand, the bloody thing won! Needless to say, the Japanese management figured out what we’d done. It was awkward, to say the least…”

Nixon was then off to Japan to test Suzuki’s latest Grand Prix weapon, the RG500. Factory test rider Ken Aroka had just set the lap record at the factory’s Hamamatsu test track when Nixon, forever the racer, passed him. Nixon was flying into a corner when the bike seized, breaking both of his arms, a leg, his back and smashing his teeth.

After a full year of recovery, Nixon was ready to make his comeback on a Kanemoto Suzuki with shorter 250cc motocross rods turning almost 11,000 rpm. He ran second to Kenny Roberts on the bike until flywheel rivets loosened. But at the end of ’75, American Suzuki closed its roadracing operations, so Kanemoto and Nixon had to find yet another team. The frustration was high: “I won the AMA Roadracing Championship and Kawasaki quits. Then I come back with a killer bike and Suzuki quits. We built a bike that would run with Roberts. Suzuki didn’t know what they had…”

Kawasaki, Kanemoto and a still-healing Nixon again teamed up for an assault on the 1976 FIM Formula 750 Championship with a new large-diameter frame cradling the liquid-cooled two-stroke triple. Nixon started with a solid second behind Johnny Cecotto at Daytona; his last 200 podium. He followed that with what should have been a win in obscene heat at the Yamaha-sponsored Venezuelan 200; however, officials later gave the win to Yamaha-mounted Steve Baker—a controversial decision that scuttled Nixon’s championship hopes and reverberates through the racing community to this day.

Nixon remembered that race: “On the second or third lap of a 2-minute-long course, Baker is second, I’m sixth, and then Baker pulls off into the pits. He supposedly pulls back out right behind me in seventh and ends up ‘winning’ the race.” Nixon appealed, but the FIM threw out the results, giving Yamaha’s Victor Palomo the world title. To Nixon’s utter disbelief, Kawasaki quit racing at the end of the season. Despite those setbacks, however, Nixon won the AMA’s inaugural Athlete of the Year Award in recognition of his accomplishments.

Nixon’s association with Kanemoto continued on the dominant Yamaha TZ750, but the long adventure was nearing its end. Late in ’79, Gary approached Jay Springsteen about running his number 9. The ’78 season had been a difficult one for Nixon, with tires coming apart, handlebars breaking and ignition failures, and it was starting to take a toll. “Springer’s a hell of a nice guy and I thought, ‘What better dude could you have running your old number than him?’” Nixon never retired from racing; he just didn't show up for the next race.

Kanemoto continued to have his own share of success with Honda GP teams from 1982-1988, fielding his own effort from 1989-2002 before becoming Technical Director for the Repsol Honda MotoGP program in ’05. Kanemoto-built machines won a total of 64 GPs and seven world titles.

Nixon was an incurable racer. Moving from factory bikes to older machines, he got involved in the vintage racing scene, winning the 2005 AHRMA Formula Vintage Championship at age 65. And in ’06 he got to sample a state-of-the-art MotoGP bike. At the behest of Motorcyclist Editor-in-Chief Brian Catterson, Nixon flew to Spain to test Randy DePuniet’s Kawasaki. “That thing is so fast,” Nixon said. “I never saw any signs. I never saw the shut-off markers. And I never saw the checkered flag. Unbelievable! Them guys aren’t just from different countries; they’re from different worlds!” From dirt-trackers to a MotoGP bike, Nixon rode or raced everything he could until he just couldn’t anymore.

Gary Nixon was 70 years old when he left us, passing away on August 5, 2011 from complications of a heart attack. He was a friend to everyone who is anyone in American motorcycle racing. He always said what he meant, meant what he said and did what he wanted to do. For most of those years, that meant racing motorcycles. But Nixon’s particular brand of determination, courage, savvy and consummate skill made him more than a motorcycle racer. For anyone lucky enough to have seen him at his best, Number 9 was the motorcycle racer. MC

By Norm DeWitt
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