Gary Nixon, the last of the hell-raisers

Motorcycles

Next Sunday, March 17, marks the 71st running of the Daytona 200, once the traditional curtain raiser for the international bike racing season.

Nowadays the event is a shadow of its former self, restricted to 600cc street bikes and contested mostly by natives. The tyre-shredding 750 two-strokes that once ruled the banking are long gone and even the latest 1000cc superbikes are considered too fast – no one wants to find out what the sustained high speeds will do to their rear tyres.

This year’s 200 miler will be special in that it’s the first time in decades that one of Daytona’s greatest competitors won’t be there. The great Gary Nixon – who won the 200 in 1967 – died last year.

Nixon was one of bike racing’s last hell-raisers – one of those racers for whom the adrenaline highs of visceral high-speed motor sport were never enough. His great partner in crime was Barry Sheene, who used to call his Yankee mate ‘Nickers’. For much of his career Sheene wore a Gary Nixon T-shirt beneath his leathers, because he had been wearing one when he survived his horrific 175mph crash during testing at Daytona in 1975.

Nixon never quite understood Sheene’s attachment to the shirt. “S**t, if I’d crashed wearing that, I wouldn’t have worn it anymore!” he told me a few years ago. “But Barry did so much for me, some stuff I can’t even tell people. We just hit off, we had some good times.”

The last time I saw Nixon was a couple of years ago at the Indianapolis Mile dirt track event. He was standing at Turn One, smoking a joint, trying to hide the fact from fellow spectator ‘King’ Kenny Roberts. As was his way, Nixon immediately launched into several tall tales of high jinks. He was a hugely entertaining storyteller, regaling you with hilarious (and mostly unprintable) stories that made you realise that the modern racing world is a very tame and sensible place.

Of course, Nixon raced as hard as he partied. That was the way back then. His career spanned several eras and various disciplines. He made his name on Triumph twins in the 1960s, twice winning the US Grand National Championship that took in dirt track and road racing, and finished his career in the late 1970s riding those frightening 750 two-strokes.

In his early years he lived a Kerouac-style life on the road, travelling from town to town to earn a few bucks in country fair events, sleeping in the back of his trailer or in the workshop of a friendly bike dealer. Some months he would compete in 30 events and during a season he would clock up 50,000 miles as he crisscrossed the US – racing, driving, racing, driving…

The dirt track events – run at fairgrounds and horse tracks – were dangerous. “This Triumph I was riding didn’t have any midrange, so I punched it down a gear and ran it wide open, missed a gear and hit a four-by-four post. They didn’t have any hay bales. I remember my femur bone sticking out of my leather pants, blood squirting everywhere.”

Mostly he was winning on Triumphs and not usually to the delight of the dirt track scene’s Harley-loving fans. “They’d all boo and everything, but at least they were thinking about me.”

In the 1970s Nixon shifted up a gear, earning serious money and enjoying some high-octane glamour as he started hanging out with Sheene and other stars of the international circuit.

He also gave up racing Triumph’s three-cylinder racer and threw in his lot with Japanese two-strokes. “It was just something you had to do. You’re a racer, you’re out there trying to go faster, and the Triumphs were running 150mph when the two-strokes were running 180. That’s a big difference.”

During these years Nixon made big money racing for the Kawasaki and Suzuki factories. Their 750s were wickedly fast and genuinely terrifying, prone to destroying tyres, seizing pistons and much more. “The Kawasaki mechanic I had was a nice guy but he had arthritis and couldn’t tighten the nuts and bolts. S**t, the exhaust fell off a couple of times, the gear shift lever too, the handlebar came loose, the engine sprocket… F**k, you were shell shocked riding around on that thing!”

Nixon came to Europe on numerous occasions to contest F750 races and the Trans Atlantic Match Races that pitted America’s best against Britain’s best. Part of his Transatlantic contract was a cylinder of nitrous-oxide, even though he wasn’t famous for his welding skills.

In 1974 Nixon came within a few broken bones of becoming a Grand Prix star. Sheene had convinced Suzuki to put him on a Grand Prix bike, but Nixon suffered another horror smash – two broken arms, three ribs and an ankle – during testing in Japan.

Two years later he should have been F750 World Champion but was robbed of the title by crooked promoters of the Venezuelan round who overturned his victory to suit local sponsors. “I found out later that the race was run by the mafia, so I was just f**kin’ lucky I was still alive.”

Nixon was a very tough racer and a very funny man. We are unlikely to see his like again.

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