Jet Propelled No. 79 Sam Arena

By Al Fergoda, Photography by Unknown

From the February 1946 issue of Motorcyclist Magazine

In six of the West Coast’s postwar events-in the half-milers at Dixon and Tulare, the Modesto class “C” hillclimb, the Stockton and Clovis half-milers and the San Rafael T.T.-one rider has won every event he entered except one, and in the lone exception he rode neck and neck with the leader until he spilled, a hundred yards from the finish line.

Weak competition has not been the reason for his record. At Clovis and Stockton he was pitted against the Coast’s top-rank riders. At Dixon, where he won the Time Trials, his heat, the trophy dash, and the Main Event, his fellow-contestants were skilled and able, as they were at Modesto and San Rafael and Tulare.

Sam Arena, No. 79, top man for his district, winner of every start from 1941 to 1945, has what it takes. In the opinion of the writer, he is the outstanding motorcyclist of all time, judged on the basis of versatility, honesty, and extraordinary ability.

San Jose’s favorite son got his start early. At fourteen, he acquired his first motor vehicle-a Smith Motor Wheel attached to his bicycle. Shortly after, he purchased his first real motorcycle, an old job which was followed by several others until 1933, when he went to work in Tom Sifton’s Harley-Davidson shop in San Jose.

Sam’s first entry into com petition took place shortly after this time, when short track racing was just beginning on the West Coast. Winning his first event, a class “B” four-lap six-man heat in a meet at Emeryville Speedway, a fifth-mile flat oval in the Bay District, he was transferred to Class “A” and given the now-famous number “79”. His first major race, on a rugged course which was a keen test for recognized veterans, came early in 1934, when, on a stock motorcycle, he won at the Northern California Gypsy Tour at Lake Yosemite.

Win followed win throughout 1935-in his own district, in Florida, back again at Hollister, California, where heavy sand and a rough course which drew blisters on the hands of every competitor brought out his stamina. Then, in the fall of ‘35, Sam signed up with “Putt” Mossman for a tour of New Zealand and Australia and a season of short-track racing. At the season’s end he came back to marry his one and only, Myrtle Scott, and together they toured across the United States and thence to join Mossman and his troupe in England. There Sam represented his country well against the finest competition in the world, making the official team of Hackney Wick.

Short track racing was at its height when he returned to the Bay District the next year, and four northern California tracks were operating every night. He won every start at the San Francisco Motordrome, which was considered the roughest night speedway course in the district, and distinguished himself in the same way at Emeryville and the other speedways.

However, when he returned to class “C” racing, he found his pull to the top a long and tough one. His competitors had gained far more experience on heavier machines than he, and throughout 1936 and 1937 he had to go to work all over again, and content himself with 2nd and 3rd places in an effort to regain his top position.

In 1938, however, he struck his stride in class “C” competition, four straight wins in the weekly races on Neptune Beach’s quarter-mile T.T. course. He continued to be one of the top men throughout the season, and in the fall won the Pittsburg, Calif., T.T. race. At the final Pacific Coast event for that year, the 2nd Oakland 200-miler, Sammy truly showed his mettle. Against a field of the best men in the country, he won the event and broke all records from 10 to 200 miles on a class “C” motorcycle. Sam’s average for the 200 miles was the spectacular time of 83 m.p.h., as against the former record of 74 m.p.h.

1939 found Sam at Daytona Beach for the 200-miler, and there he carried his San Jose colors to glory until a spill filled his carburetor with sand and he was forced to retire. Returning to San Jose, he continued with his racing in the night T.T. events at the San Francisco Motordrome and became top man on the then letter “B” courses at Neptune Beach. In the 50-miler at the Oakland Speedway, he took second place. During this period-from 1939 to 1941-Sammy became top man in professional class “B” hill-climbs, winning twenty-six events on his 45 and 74cu. in. side valve machines.

It was in 1940 that class “C” hill-climbs rose to popularity. In this class Sam also shone, taking top honors at Berkeley, Watsonville, Fresno, San Jose and Skyline, against extremely keen competition, as in those days class “C” climbs limited traction to standard rubber only.

Sammy swept the field in the quarter-mile class “C” meet at the Sacramento stadium, and went on to Riverside, where he led all classes in the half-miter until, in the final event, he fell while leading. The only injury of his career occurred at Lakeport, when, in practice, one of his keenest competitors spilled in front of him, and in his effort to miss the upset rider Sam took off through a rough field, to spill and break his arm.

A flat tire lost him the Oakland 1940 200-miler, and another flat tire the event at the Hollister Gypsy Tour and Rally which would have given him permanent possession of the trophy. At the half-miters at Galt, Dixon and again at Galt, Sammy won every start. In the tragic accident in the 1941 Oakland 200-mile, Arena laid his machine down to miss the fatal tangle of men and machines, and came in seventh on the re-start, after caving in his rear wheel. In the Stockton half-miler which followed, Sammy took all first places, and wound up the 1941 season as top man, after adding firsts in several class “B” and “C” hill-climbs to his record. The final event before the war was the annual T.T. race at Lodi, and here again Sam came through with a decisive win over keen competition.

Sam Arena, now at the peak of a distinguished career, thirty-three. He and his wife, the former Myrtle Scott, have two children, eight-year-old Sam Jr. and a daughter, aged five. Throughout the war, he managed Tom Sifton’s business, since Tom was drafted into essential war industry. Although others rode in unsanctioned meets during the war years, Sam dropped out of competition until events once more were sanctioned. During one meet-the recent event at Tulare-his remarkable performance and sustained horsepower aroused the suspicion of a small minority of riders, and the referee called for a measurement of his engine. To all who know him, it is characteristic of San Jose’s noted son that on this, as on all other occasions, his equipment was found true and honest in every particular.

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By Al Fergoda
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