Backmarker: K&N’s Norm McDonald

Mark Gardiner | September 3, 2015

The Other K&N is Actually the Same K&N

Say “K&N” these days, and most motorcyclists will think of K&N Engineering, the gigantic air filter business. But there’s another K&N – a Yamaha dealership in Tulsa. It’s not a big place, but it’s made an outsized impression in the world of American motorcycle racing.

The thing is, both businesses are named after the same ‘K’ and ‘N’. The ‘K’ stands for Ken Johnson, and the ‘N’ is Norm McDonald’s initial. Norm, at 82, still runs the dealership and comes into work every day.

K&N Yamaha

If you see this sign on the way through Tulsa, stop in. The old guy in the office is a member of the AMA Hall of Fame, and the place is plastered with photographs of the riders he’s sponsored. Many of them are Hall of Famers, too. There’s history here. They’re also just good people, and still do high-quality work, including race prep.

 Ken and Norm were inseparable in the 1950s and ‘60s. Norm was a surveyor on weekdays, and a motorcycle racer on the weekends. Ken was the parts manager at Harrison Reno, a big BSA dealer near Los Angeles.

 

In 1957, they opened their own shop in Loma Linda (another L.A. suburb). Frank Cooper, the region’s Matchless and Royal Enfield distributor, noticed them at races, and gave them an Enfield franchise.

A year or so later, Cooper’s sales rep dropped off two Yamahas, making them the first Yamaha dealer in the ‘States. Before long, K&N Yamaha moved to a larger shop in Riverside; they were still in their twenties when they became the first Yamaha dealers in the U.S. to sell $1 million worth of bikes.

They were also the first Husqvarna dealers. “Edison Dye came into our shop, wearing his squirrely little European hat,” Norm told me, “and said, ‘I’ve got the best motocross machine in the world.’ We didn’t even know what motocross was.”

They had a fast young kid who worked in the back. “I said ‘Malcolm, grab your helmet and try this thing’.” There was an abandoned orange grove near the shop. There was some mud and sand and a terraced hillside; Dye couldn’t believe how fast the kid was. Young Malcolm Smith couldn’t believe how much better the Husky was than his Greeves. Dye agreed to let Smith ride the Husky in the Check Chase, a big desert race coming up the next weekend.

“At the time, Eddie Mulder was the King of the Desert,” Norm recalled. “When Malcolm arrived first to refuel, everyone in the pits thought that kid on the two-stroke must have cut the course. Then Eddie pulled in and asked, ‘Who the heck is that in front of me? I can’t catch him!”

Norm McDonald Perris
Norm at Perris, California TT race, in 1959. Bike is 1957 BSA.

Malcolm would’ve won the race except that he crashed hard in a bomb crater. Still, he put Husqvarna on the U.S. map in a hurry.

In those years, Norm was still racing, but if he thought some young kid would go faster, he sponsored him. When Yamaha brought out its first scrambler, Norm tried to race it without success. So he gave it to a teenager named Swede Savage, who smoked everyone on it.

Savage was a gifted athlete, but he was denied the chance to play high school football when it emerged that he’d made money racing motorcycles, and was thus disqualified as a ‘professional athlete’. He ended up dying in an Indycar crash.

By the late ‘60s, Norm and Ken were partners in six motorcycle dealerships, a tavern, an insurance agency and had a sideline making handlebars. Yamaha invited them to Japan, but Norm couldn’t go because the trip conflicted with a big race, and he was chasing season points.

On the flight to Japan, Ken sat next to another Yamaha dealer, from Albuquerque, who had sunk a bunch of money into an eccentric inventor’s air filter machine. Ken made a deal to buy the air filter machinery, then crashed on a test ride, and spent months in a Japanese hospital.

Norm was surprised when a truckload of primitive air filter-making machinery arrived at the shop. Nonetheless, he found a building for it. The equipment actually came with its inventor – an eccentric cat named Mike who, for a while, lived in a warren of wooden BSA motorcycle crates.

Ken recovered and returned ‘Stateside, and Ken, Norm, and Mike spent a few years tinkering and improving the filters before Mike finally decamped to a beach in Mexico.

Picture California in the late ‘60s: hippies, Vietnam war protests. Norm was sure of one thing: he had to get his kids out of there. By then, Ken was focusing on the air cleaner business, so they sold all the other ventures and split the dough. Malcolm Smith bought the biggest dealership, in Riverside.

“Yamaha gave me a list of about ten places they wanted dealerships,” Norm told me. “We checked out Pocatello, Idaho, but we arrived on a day that it was about ten degrees and my wife said, ‘No way’. We checked out Boulder, Colorado, but it was all college kids smoking dope and flashing peace signs; that was what I was trying to get away from.”

Tulsa suited his conservative temperament, and was right in the middle of the country, halfway between the AMA races on the coasts. Because they’d built quite a few race motors for customers in the Midwest, Norm thought it best to keep the same name, so the new dealership was ‘K&N’ too, even though Ken stayed in California to tend to the air filter business.

K&N Yamaha became one of the most active sponsors of AMA racers, including future GNC champ Mike Kidd. Both of Norm’s sons became factory-level pros, too. His oldest son, Phil, once held all the CMRA track records. After he retired from high-level racing, Phil wrenched for Mike Baldwin at a time when he was a dominant AMA F1 rider. After that Phil went to Europe and wrenched for Team Roberts.

Norm’s younger son, Sam, was also seriously quick. In 1985, when Yamaha introduced the FZ750, they asked Norm and Sam to come to Daytona and help race prep them. Yamaha sent over four mechanics, but none of them had Speedway experience. Norm took one look at the stock bike, and saw that the rubber radiator outlet hose was only an inch from the exhaust header. He told the Japanese guys that at 170 miles an hour, wind-blast would push that hose against the header and melt it.

Norm McDonald Triumph

Norm as a high-school senior, on a sprung-hub Triumph that he had to hide from his parents.

“Oh no,” said the Japanese.

“Well, Sam’s not riding it until I can install a braided steel hose,” Norm said.

Just as Norm headed into town to find the hose parts, he heard another young kid say, “I’ll ride it.”

As Norm was returning with the reinforced hose, he passed an ambulance leaving the track. As he’d predicted, the hose pushed back against the header, melted, and high-sided the kid, who broke his collarbone. (By the way, the kid was Wayne Rainey.)

The FZs were blowing head gaskets, too, which was another consequence of spending minutes at a time, wide open on the banking. Again, Norm decamped to Smokey Yunick’s race shop. He got the hot rod legend to make him some copper head gaskets, which solved the problem, but the Japanese guys kept rebuilding top ends with stock ones.

“They kept saying, ‘Must use stock’,” he recalled with a shrug. Thirty years later, he was still bemused by their naïveté regarding Daytona.

During all that time as a sponsor, Norm was known as the kind of guy who’d lend a rival team his spare bike, even if the rider was going to compete against one of Norm’s own kids. “We figured it out, and we’ve helped over 300 riders,” he told me.

For all the businesses they’d started and bought and sold, Norm and Ken had never put a contract in writing. They did it all on a handshake. Norm, by the early ‘80s, was an absentee partner in the air filter business. His only involvement came when, every now and then, he needed to send money out Ken’s way to keep it going.

Flat-Track-Astrodome

 

K&N-sponsored rider Mike Kidd tries the high line on Kenny Roberts at the ’72 Houston Astrodome short track. K&N built and sold about 200 short track frames, set up for 250 and 360 motors for pros, or 125 cc motors for sportsmen.

One day, Ken called from California and told him that a tool and die maker named Jerry Moss wanted to buy the air filter business. Getting out seemed like a good idea to Norm. He told Ken, “Just figure out what your half is worth, and tell me; I’ll sell my half for that amount.” As he remembers it, that was about $40,000.

Thirty years later, the new owner sold a 1/3 interest in K&N Engineering for a reported $250 million.

What I loved about hearing that story was, Norm has no hard feelings. “I loved the motorcycles,” he told me. “It [the air filter business] wasn’t my thing. And if I had stayed in California and tried to develop it, we would’ve had to take on investors anyway.”

Norm’s take on K&N’s success is that Moss was brilliant; a genius, really. He’s the one who built up K&N Engineering. Norm appreciates the way the company still gives him and his best friend, Ken, plenty of credit for starting the company.

As it is, Norm’s still surrounded by his beloved Yamahas. He looks out his office door into the showroom; his wife Lucy still works the reception. They’ve aged some since they married in ’55. (They headed straight to the Catalina Grand Prix for their honeymoon!) Norm walks with a little difficulty, and Lucy speaks with a quaver; most questions and answers have to be repeated these days, but as I watched them work together, I never got the sense it had gotten old for them. Sam works at the shop, which still has a good reputation for race tuning, and so do a couple of Sam’s kids.

Norm McDonald
Norm in his shop. Three generations of McDonalds work there.

So, no regrets. Well, maybe a few.

Of course, you don’t spend a lifetime in racing without having one degree of separation from a few tragedies. Norm’s daughter married Ted Boody, who was killed in crash at Ascot in 1988. That was a track that had always scared Norm a little.

Norm told me that his eldest, Phil, after his racing and wrenching career had wound down, taught the local Tulsa motorcycle safety course for years. Then – cruelly, ironically – after a day’s teaching, he was hit by a car that unexpectedly crossed a median. They thought he was dead, but the ambulance had to return to the hospital anyway. When they got there, they realized Phil was still alive, but nerve damage meant that he lost the use of an arm.

Norm struggled a little, finding the words to describe the stupid accident that caught his son out, and I thought about how motorcycles had meant everything to him, that he’d introduced his son to them and that his son had gone on to have so many great experiences, racing, working in GPs in Europe, only to pay such a price. That made me sad.

But as good as he was, Phil can still ride his FJR one-handed. In fact, Norm told me he was about to embark on a ride to the West Coast. A McDonald can easily ride across the U.S. staying only with racers the family has sponsored or assisted over the years, and Phil had plotted just such a route.

And one last little regret; after Norm moved to Tulsa, Ken divorced and remarried. That was a bit of a habit with Ken. Norm had gotten along with Ken’s first three wives, but the fourth time was definitely not the charm.

Ken held on to his half of the air filter business a few years longer than Norm, but eventually sold out to Jerry Moss, too. He used his share of the air filter money to buy an avocado farm near Escondido. Norm would probably like to drop in on his old friend, but he never does.

“Ken’s new wife doesn’t like me,” Norm said with a little shake of his head. “So, he’s not allowed to talk to me.”

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Mark Gardiner

Contributing Editor| Articles | In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

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