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Gary Nixon: 1941-2011

by Richard Backus

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 Gary Nixon at Barber 2005 
Gary Nixon riding the Steel Breeze Trident to an AHRMA championship at the Barber Motorsports Park in 2005. 

Gary Nixon, 1967 and 1968 AMA Grand National Champion, passed away on Friday, August 5, after suffering a heart attack. He was 70 years old. Over a decades-long career that started with his first professional race in 1958 at the age of 17, the seemingly indefatigable Nixon rode his way to the top. From flat track to road racing, Nixon did it all, and always excelled.

Nixon really vaulted to fame in 1967, when he started his championship-winning season riding a Triumph to first place at the Daytona 200. A fierce competitor, Nixon built a reputation for toughness, riding, for instance, for three seasons with a stainless steel rod holding his left leg together after stuffing a Triumph dirt tracker into a post in 1969.

Gary Nixon, date and place unknown 
Nixon in his earlier days. Nice tongue! 

During his career, Nixon won 19 AMA National wins and more than 150 Grand National finishes. Although he officially retired in 1979, in the mid-1990s, Nixon, then in his mid-50s, raced in the Legend series, which he won twice. A long hiatus from the track ended in 2005, when he got into AHRMA vintage racing. Riding for Jerry Liggett of Steel Breeze Racing, Nixon took the Formula Vintage National Championship aboard Liggett’s 1972 Triumph Trident that year; he was 65, and clearly hadn’t lost his competitive edge.

Motorcycle Classics regular contributor Neale Bayly remembers racing with Nixon, and shares this story about a pre-race practice session with Nixon:
“So I’m practicing for my first race at Mid Ohio in the Thruxton Cup a couple of years ago. It’s not long since a badly broken collar bone from tucking the front end at a racetrack so the slightly damp conditions and concrete patches are making it interesting. It’s taken some time, but I’m picking up speed and am working my way back to the front straight into the last right hand corner. Tipping in on my knee, two Thruxtons go by me like I’m tied to a stump – and in an instant start to crash. In perfect harmony, inches apart, they are completely sideways and heading for the outside of the turn and certain disaster. Leaving small plumes of smoke, all my racetrack training says look where you are going, but I can’t. It’s going to be ugly as I marvel at the angle the bikes are at. I’ve never seen a motorcycle in this position on a racetrack before and flinch waiting for the carnage to begin. Then, they stop sliding, and start driving forward, ripping into the last left hander, repeating the sliding process before motoring off down the front straight while I cough and wheeze to get off the corner, quickly losing touch with them as they leave me in their dust. I’ve just been passed by Gary Nixon and another racer and am just gob smacked by the man’s abilities on a motorcycle.”

I’ll never forget Nixon letting me take his Steel Breeze Trident for a few laps at Barber in 2005, sending me off down the track with the warning, “You wreck that bike, and I’ll fuckin’ kill you.” Godspeed, Gary, you’ll be missed. – Richard Backus