Gene Romero, who has died at the age of 71, was a member of America’s first generation of fast road racers – and had the tales to tell
Romero in Victory Lane, Daytona, 1975 Photo copyright: Don Emde
Gene Romero won the United States’ two greatest motorcycle-racing prizes: the Grand National championship and the Daytona 200 race.
Born of Mexican-American descent, Romero started racing in the mid-1960s, always on the dirt. “In 1966 I raced 85 times and I don’t recall road racing once all year,” he said recently.
The USA came late to hurtling motorcycles around asphalt circuits. Americans started racing around wooden ovals in the early days of the 20th century, then graduated to dirt ovals when the death toll from the so-called “murderdromes” reached horrific proportions. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that road racing became a big deal across the country. And Romero was right there.
“In ’67 I was a rookie on the Triumph factory Grand National team,” he remembered. “They said you’ve got no experience in road racing, but you’re gonna do Daytona in March, so they put some clip-on handlebars on a Bonneville street bike. This was January. They said, ‘Put 2000 miles on this, then we’ll take it to Stardust Raceway in Vegas’. I rode back and forth up the canyons outside my hometown of San Luis, California.
“Then we went to Vegas. I’d never been to a road-race course, so I rode it like a dirt track. Steve McLaughlin [whose father John started the USA’s first road racing club] was there, doing the European deal where you swing way out and then come across. Well, I said, hey, I’ll just go down this way and beat him into the corner. I knocked him down!”
Romero and his factory T100 twin finished the 1967 Daytona 200 in eighth place. He soon learned the secrets of asphalt racing and just three years later established the world’s fastest road-racing lap, during qualifying for the 1970 Daytona 200, the last time the event used the full oval course. His mind-boggling lap of 157.3mph, aboard a Triumph 750 triple, was the product of a little trickery and a lot of bravery.
Romero gets set for his 157.3mph Daytona lap Photo: Romero archive
“You were doing 160mph-plus going into the banking. It was very intimidating – at that speed it was like you were riding straight at a wall, so it was a mind-over-matter thing.
“The thing that got your attention was going down the straightaways. The bike was weaving this way and that way at top speed… it had a mind of its own.”
“I was good friends with a guy called Bill Robertson, who supplied Goodyear tyres at the races. He was a neat guy. He liked us because we were kinda frisky characters, not like normal people, so we ended up hitting it off. We’d go into his shop and bullshit with him. He was always in there gambling, playing gin [rummy] or whatever.
“One day he goes, ‘Hey, Gene, you wanna set pole?’ I go, ‘yeah!’ He says, ‘This is what you do: you bring me a rear wheel, then after I’ve put this tyre on the rim we’ll put it in the trunk of your rentacar so nobody sees it’. So I go, ‘Okay, where’s the tyre?’ He says, ‘It’s right here; it’s a front tyre and we’re going to put it on the back rim’. I went, ‘What?’ He says, ‘Yeah, then we’re going to put 75 pounds of air in there’. And I go, ‘Ooh kaay, what’s the guarantee on it?’ He says, ‘About three laps’. I say, ‘That’s how far I’m going to go!’ No one else had tried it, but Bill had been around racing a long time and he wouldn’t send you down the wrong street.
“So I took off onto the oval, got her in top gear and everything was noticeably different because the rear tyre was so skinny and we had so much pressure in there, so we had hardly any contact with the asphalt, which was the whole idea, to reduce rolling resistance.
“The thing that got your attention was going down the straightaways. The bike was weaving this way and that way at top speed before the banking; it would walk to the left and walk to the right; it had a mind of its own.
“What you did was you didn’t correct it, you just aimed the bike where you wanted it to go and if it veered a little this way or that, you let it have its head, because if you tried to restrain it, you’d slow yourself down. Anyhow, I got a feel for it, so I said to myself, hey, here we go: I was wide open all the way.”
By the time Romero came in after those three laps his ‘rear’ tyre was already falling apart, but he was on pole and he went on to win the 1970 Grand National title.
Romero passes Giacomo Agostini to win Daytona in 1975 Photo copyright: Don Emde
Romero used visiting European riders to further hone his asphalt skills.
“British guys like Paul Smart and Rod Gould came to race in the States, so I’d always get up behind those guys and tag onto them. I’d watch them and go, oh, OK, that’s how you do it. I learned a lot from Smart and Gould and later from Barry Sheene. Pretty soon US road racing got to be extremely competitive, so you figured that stuff out real quick or you went broke!”
Romero believed it was this fierce competitive spirit that quickly made American riders a huge force on asphalt.
“We were getting smoked by these guys from Europe and we didn’t like it. We were willing to push the envelope and see what happened, that’s how we learned. How did we find out we were going as fast as we could? We ran and ran until we crashed and then we just backed it off a little bit.”
At the end of 1973 the burgeoning Yamaha US team signed Romero to partner ‘King’ Kenny Roberts and Don Castro aboard the factory’s new TZ750 two-stroke, the bike that came to dominate big-bike racing.
More on the “Murderdromes”: ‘Speed fans felt the blood creeping up to the roots of their hair’
Romero on his way to winning the 1975 Daytona 200 Photo: American Motorcyclist Federation
“Jumping off the three-cylinder Trident onto one of those was night and day. Man, I’ll never forget the first time I rode a TZ. I came out of a corner, got the bike all aimed straight and nailed it and it just took my face-shield and planted it against my face. I went, oh my goodness, this thing has got some power.
“The TZ750 was like putting a V8 in a bicycle. At Daytona ’74 we put good shocks on them and changed steering dampers, but at 155 miles an hour those things would wobble like hell on the front straightaway, so you had a choice of leaving the throttle on or backing off. It would scare you. The second day of practice I was sitting in the garage, about to go out and I was scared to death. I said, this is it for me, I’m done with this, it doesn’t make sense. Then I realised if I quit, I’d have to get a proper job, so I put on my leathers.
“In the end we realised it was like an engine that vibrates in a particular rpm range, so you go a little more rpm and it smooths out. It was a similar deal with the handling: if you could just have the courage to hold the throttle on, then it would smooth out and be fine.”
The following year, when Sheene had his infamous accident, Romero dominated the Daytona 200 on a TZ750. Steve Baker, finished second, with Johnny Cecotto third.
More: Sheene’s horrific Daytona fling
Romero’s career coincided with the later stages of the Vietnam War, when millions of young Americans were drafted into the US military and sent into the conflict.
This was one of the few times when getting hurt on a motorcycle wasn’t such a bad thing. Romero, like most of his peers, wanted to keep racing and not go to war. One rival dodged the draft by filling one shoe with stones and learning to limp.
Romero only half faked it and with good reason.
“One of my high-school buddies, a good, good friend called Dean Martin got drafted. He told me, whatever you do, don’t go there, keep racing. Dean was in Vietnam two months and he got killed. I’ll never forget it, I put a little DM on my gas tank.
“I’d be on the road, going racing, and I’d call my mum, who’d say, there’s a letter here for you, you’ve got to go to the draft board in LA. I went eight or nine times and finally they didn’t take me. I wound up getting a 4F card [for medically unqualified]. I got badly busted up in a crash in 1967, so that got me a deferment.
“Another time I went down after I’d been racing at Ascot, which was a really fast clay track. Down the back straightaway you got hit by these mud clods, which gave you these big red bruises that turned green and yellow. The guy at the draft board said, what’s that? I said, I don’t know, I woke up one morning and it just happened. So I got another deferment.”
Romero starred several times in the USA versus Britain Transatlantic Match Races, which took place in the UK every Easter. He retired from motorcycle racing at the end of 1981, briefly raced cars, then managed Honda’s Grand National team for several seasons.
Motor Sport extends its condolences to the family, friends and fans of Gene Romero