The race was billed as the $100,000 Champion Spark Plug 250, and it was the longest road race with the largest purse in AMA history. The year was 1971, and the twin-bill 250 (it was run in 125-mile segments) was held at the brand new Ontario Motor Speedway. Daytona Beach, Florida, had its 200; Ontario, California, now had its 250. It was the final race on the AMA’s 1971 schedule, and the Number One Plate had yet to be decided.
Former Grand National champ Dick “Bugsy” Mann was in the catbird seat, needing a top-14-place finish. Sole competition came from defending champion Gene Romero, who needed an outright win to retain his title. Both riders were semi-teammates; Mann rode for BSA, Romero for Triumph.
But there was another Triumph team rider that day who was considered one of the favorites to win the race, former two-time champ Gary Nixon. Lap times indicated he and Canadian Yvon Duhamel were the riders to beat. Duhamel rode Team Kawasaki’s lightning-fast H1R, a 500cc 2-stroke triple that didn’t understand the meaning of slow — or good handling.
Mixed in with the rest of the media corps covering the 250 was me, a fledging moto journalist fresh out of college. This was my first assignment to cover a professional road race, and when I stepped into OMS’ massive confines, I was overwhelmed by its vastness. Cook Neilson, reporting for Cycle Magazine, said it best when he wrote: “The enormity of the track is beyond imagining … Ontario’s scale was wrong for motorcycle racing.”
Among the photos I snapped that week was one taken overhead during the riders’ meeting (above). No doubt, Nixon had endured similar pre-race rituals, so while the race director droned on about safety, etc., Nixon casually thumbed through the race program. Obviously the Triumph ad, touting Gene Romero’s choice of motorcycle, caught Ol’ Number Nine’s attention. That’s when I snapped the picture.
Curiously, Nixon’s number during the Ontario 250-miler was 10 (left), and he wore it well because he won the first leg by going non-stop, while Duhamel’s thirsty 2-stroke required a pit stop for petrol. That all was moot: On the 10th lap of the second segment, an oil slick in Turn 9 took out Nixon, Duhamel and a handful of others. Englishman John Cooper on a BSA triple won the race, and Mann waltzed home with The Plate for 1972. — Dain Gingerelli