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.

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

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By Norm DeWitt
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