Backmarker: Gary Nixon and What Could Have Been

Mark Gardiner | November 26, 2015

“And the Horse I Rode in on”: Vegas, Valencia, Venezuela…

Fans of both MotoGP and the Grand National Championship will put an asterisk on the 2015 season results. There are plenty of flat track fans who feel that Jared Mees was caught cheating at DuQuoin, but was never punished for it. Had he been stripped of those 19 points for second place, he would have been behind Bryan Smith most of the season, instead of riding with a cushion.

I suppose AMA Pro Racing might argue that Smith failed to make the main last weekend in ‘Vegas, while Mees finished third. So even without his DuQuoin points, Jared would’ve finished ahead of Bryan unless Bryan had finished first or second in the Vegas finale. That would’ve been unlikely; Smith is not that hot on short tracks. Realistically, #42’s championship hopes were dashed when the Calistoga race was canceled.

Superprestigio of the Americas 2015

After winning his third #1 plate in four years, Jared Mees went on to win the inaugural Superprestigio of the Americas last weekend, proving that he’s a force to be reckoned with on short tracks. If you’re among those who are disappointed by AMA Pro Racing’s handling of Mees’ controversial second-place finish at DuQuoin earlier this year, you may take some consolation from the fact that even without his DuQuoin points, Mees would’ve won the Championship.

Unless a team of Navy SEALs just broke you out of a secret ISIS prison, you have already read an endless amount of bickering over the penalty that MotoGP imposed on Valentino Rossi for “kicking” Marc Marquez’ brake lever at the second-to-last event in Sepang.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and speculate that even if Rossi had started from the grid position he earned in qualifying, he would not have scored enough points to hang on to the title. But of course, we’ll never know. (All I’m sure of is that the controversy probably ensured that Valencia was the most-watched MotoGP race of all time. I’d love to see the streaming figures for MotoGP.com. I bet their servers were smokin’.)

Backmarker Gary Nixon
Rossi and Marquez both engaged in some hard riding in Sepang. If I’d been the referee, I would probably not have imposed the three penalty points that, in turn, meant the championship leader would have to start from the back of the grid. That said, my take on the finale in Valencia is, Rossi was never destined for the podium. My verdict: The penalty did not ultimately affect the outcome of the championship.

That faint sound you heard shortly after the checkered flag flew on the 2015 MotoGP season may have been Gary Nixon muttering, “Spanish sumbitches” from his grave in Maryland. By rights Nixon should’ve won the 1976 FIM F750 series, but he was screwed out of the championship, which went to a Spaniard instead.

Nixon was born in Anadarko, Oklahoma. His dad was a farmer. As a kid, he was active in all the usual stick-and-ball sports. The trouble was, as he got older, all the other kids got bigger, but Gary didn’t. By the time he was 15 Nixon settled on motorcycle racing as one sport where size didn’t matter.

Nixon made his Grand National Championship bones at 19. His first GNC win came in a 50-mile road race in Windber, Pennsylvania. He was a Triumph man in 1967, when he opened the season by winning the ‘200’. He won four more times that year, to earn the #1 plate. He retained the title in ’68 (though he only won two races).

He was a famously tough little guy – and plainspoken if not downright profane. He’d challenge anyone to beat him at one-armed push-ups. As for the rules of those competitions, he’d say, “It’s not a real push-up unless your nose and your dick touch the ground at the same time.” Not surprisingly, he epitomized that kind of racer who’s going to finish on the podium or in an ambulance.

He smashed his left leg, and when the steel pin gave him trouble, he eventually gave up the flat tracks to concentrate on road racing. He very nearly could’ve been the first American to successfully race in the 500 Grand Prix class; in 1974 (after impressing GP teams with his performances in the Trans-Atlantic Match Races) Suzuki planned to slot him into Jack Findlay’s spot, as Barry Sheene’s teammate.

Suzuki brought him to Hamamatsu to test the RG500, and it seized, spitting him off at high speed. That track was not even safe by ‘70s standards. He and the two-stroke Square Four flew into trackside trees.

Usually if you say, “He broke every bone in his body” it’s just a figure of speech, but in Nixon’s case it was nearly true. That crash happened in late spring. The better part of a year later, he tried to come back for the 1975 Daytona 200, but it was still far too early. At least one of his arms was still held together with surgical steel only, which worked loose. He spent all that season waiting for his bones to finally knit.

As a road racer, his fate was tied to Erv Kanemoto. In 1976, Gary campaigned a Kanemoto-built Kawasaki KR750 in the F750 series. The (now water-cooled) Triple made 125 horsepower, which Kanemoto tamed with the stiffest chassis ever built at the time. The frame was made by C&J, with tubes that were thin-walled but of substantially larger diameter than normal.

Backmarker Gary Nixon Venezuela
Even people who attended the Venezuelan round really couldn’t make sense of the results in either leg of that controversial event. One of Randy Cleek’s sponsors attended, and summed it up by saying, “Venezuela is full of el toro poo poo.”

The first race of the season was the Daytona 200; Nixon finished second, behind Johnny Cecotto The rest were 200 mile events, too, but they were run as a pair of separately-scored 100-mile heats. The next event was in Venezuela, and sponsored by Yamaha.

Early in the first heat, Baker pulled into the pits and parked his Yamaha while mechanics quickly sorted a stuck float. Merv Wright (an ex-pat Englishman based in California who worked for Suzuki at races around the world) watched as the field streamed past. Baker returned to the track ahead of the pack on the track, but a lap down. Officially, the first heat was scored as popular win by Venezuelan Johnny Cecotto with Baker in second, and Nixon third, although most of the people keeping lap charts had Baker much further back.

The second heat was also a controversial. When the flag flew, the fans (and, for a time, the officials) reacted as if Gary Nixon had won the race. But soon afterward, the Venezuelan officials declared Baker the winner. Nixon furiously argued, presenting his team’s own careful lap charts as evidence. He came to regret ever handing over his lap charts.

Nixon appealed, but the FIM didn’t hear his case for months.

Backmarker Cycle News Nixon 2

By rights, at the end of the season Nixon had a one-point lead. He traveled to Bruges, in Belgium, to present his own case to the FIM, but the appeal blew up in his face. The Venezuelans claimed they’d lost all the lap charts – both theirs and Nixon’s – at which point the FIM ruled that the Venezuelan round could not qualify for world point status. Without those points, the F750 championship went to Victor Palomo, a Yamaha-riding Spaniard who had not won a single race.

“They f*#^ed me and the horse I rode in on,” said Nixon.

Technically, in 1976, F750 was an FIM ‘prize’ series – not a ‘World Championship’. But there are many old-guard American fans who feel Nixon was screwed out of being the first American World Champion. The series was an official World Championship the next year, when Steve Baker won it.

Backmarker Gary Nixon
Gary Nixon was a factory rider for Triumph, Kawasaki, Yamaha, and Suzuki. He was one of the first riders to adopt a personal logo, which you can see here across the chest of his leathers. Notice also the BS7 on his leathers. Nixon was always good buddies with Barry Sheene, who carried the #7 in 500 Grands Prix. “He lets me ride in his Rolls-Royce,” Nixon once said. But the real favor Sheene did was pressure European promoters to pay Gary “start money”. This was taken at a promotional event just a few years before he died.

Nixon was still doing a little road racing in the late ‘70s, but he was no longer competing in the GNC. When Jay Springsteen earned the right to carry a single-digit plate, he called Gary and asked if he’d mind it if he took over national number 9. In later years, Nixon came to see handing off his number as a message from the universe that it was time to retire. He was always proud of the honor Springer brought to that digit.

Nixon died of a heart attack a few years ago. A friend of mine drove down to Timonium, Maryland, where Nixon had been living, to attend the funeral. He told me that Erv Kanemoto was so distraught he could hardly speak. People loved Nixon, in part because he was both plainspoken and funny as hell.

One person got up at the funeral and told a story about how, long after he’d retired from serious racing, Nixon took a crab shell and fitted it onto the chassis of a radio-controlled car. He used the device to shock and terrify Maryland beachgoers.

If you want to read an account of his funeral on my blog, go here: http://backmarker-bikewriter.blogspot.com/2011/08/notes-from-gary-nixons-funeral.html

That’s really all I’ve got for this column. But I’d like to close by saying, writers write for all kinds of reasons. Some do it for fame (which usually doesn’t work out) and others do it for money (which is delusional). Mainly, we do it because we love it when people read our stuff.

So, thanks for reading, eh?

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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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