Racing Classic Norton Motorcycles
By Richard Backus
The Norton Champagne Racing Team's 1937 Norton and 1961 Norton Manx.
Photo by Stephen Clark
Bob McKeever first raced at Daytona in 1948, riding a new Norton Manx motorcycle. Sixty-two years later, he’s still active in classic motorcycle racing, still going to Daytona — and still racing classic Norton motorcycles.
OK, so maybe that’s a bit misleading. Bob, now 90, keeps to the pits these days and no longer pilots either of his two classic Norton motorcycles: He gave that up five years ago when he was only 85. “I was riding the ’37 at Albuquerque, and I ran wide the first time around,” Bob recalls. “Then the second time I went off the track, and when I was done I thought, ‘You know, if you’re dumb enough to be a motorcycle racer, you gotta hope you’re smart enough to know when to quit.’” Bob bowed out as the then oldest active classic motorcycle racer in the world.
The motorcycle racing bug first bit Bob in the late 1930s, when he started dirt track racing in his native Maryland, running against the local competition aboard a 1936 Ariel Red Hunter, a 500cc British single. His racing was strictly at the amateur level, but he kept at it, taking lessons from Norton rider Clark Trumball Jr., who took second place at the first-ever Daytona Beach race in 1937. Eventually, Bob moved up the charts enough to get an offer from George Taylor, a Norton dealer in Ambler, Pa., to ride a new Norton Manx at Daytona in 1948.
For a budding young racer, that was an amazing achievement, almost like getting factory support, Bob recalls, although he did have to go fetch the bike himself and get it to Daytona. “I put the thing in the back of a DeSoto Club Coupe, then went to Daytona. He [Taylor] took the magneto points out so we wouldn’t run it till he got there, but we used some points from my Velo.”
Bob’s Daytona experience wasn’t exactly a fairy tale, although he did come in 14th — not bad considering he was racing in a field of 155 starters. “I rode as part of a team of three,” he says, adding, “and I was the only one who finished.” He probably would have done better if he hadn’t fouled a spark plug and then fallen off his Norton while going full bore down the beach portion of the 4.1-mile circuit. “I had one spare plug in my pocket and the wrench, and my crew heard it quit and they ran down and changed the plug, and away I went.”
That was Bob’s one and only professional race at Daytona. At the end of the race Taylor took the Norton back to his shop and never asked Bob to ride for him again.
Although Bob stayed active in the local racing scene, building his sewer and water construction business and raising a family became priorities that kept him closer to home and farther from the track. Yet he still managed to go to Daytona every year. “I had a KSS Velo and went to lots of little races, but I’d fly our Beach Queen Air to Daytona every year. We’d leave at 6 a.m. and be back by 10 p.m.,” he says.
As the vintage race scene started building in the early Eighties, Bob decided it was time to race at Daytona again. His choice? A Norton, naturally. “I bought a bitsa ‘Garden Gate’ from a guy in England and then rode it in 1988 at Daytona in a vintage race,” Bob says. “I finished seventh, and a guy said, ‘See what 40 years of practice will do for you?’” That was the start of Norton Champagne Racing Team, a name picked to reflect Bob’s love of the bubbly.
As Bob settled into his second career on the track he became acquainted with a new generation of riders, including Alex McLean. The pair first met in the mid-1990s when Alex, then a commercial photographer in New York City, was at Daytona with Team Obsolete. Alex, who had raced Nortons for a few years in Europe in the mid-1970s, was trying to engineer a return to racing, and he’d talked a French magazine into running an article on Team Obsolete. That bit of enterprising then created an opportunity to get in a little riding with the team at Daytona.
By this time Bob was racing a 1937 Norton he’d bought from British Norton guru Stu Rogers, into which he’d slotted the Manx-spec engine from his bitsa racer. “One day he called me and asked, ‘Alex, do you want to ride the Norton?’ Who would refuse that?” Alex recalls. Alex, who was riding 2-strokes at that time, says the Norton taught him a lot. “I’d go into a corner and this thing would start shaking around and I couldn’t ride it properly. Then I realized if I started working my body it changed things drastically.” Bob agrees: “He’d never ridden a bike like that, but he jumped on and he’s done very well with it.”
Indeed, since the pair started racing they’ve racked up over 120 wins on the ’37, aided in no small part for the past 10 years by the wrenching skills of Nobby Clark. Nobby, former mechanic to racing greats like Jim Redman, Mike “The Bike” Hailwood and Giacomo Agostini, was one of Honda’s top Grand Prix mechanics during the 1960s. “Nobby knows what goes and what doesn’t,” Bob says, adding, “when Nobby’s there, everybody respects him.” Clearly Nobby knows how to keep a bike running; the ’37 currently has over 1,000 race miles on it and according to Alex, it’s never been apart.
Last year the team added a Norton Manx to the mix. A 500cc short stroke, it’s one of the very last of the model built in 1961. Although Manxes were still available in 1962, they were almost all built from parts manufactured the prior year.
Purchased as mostly a box of bits, the “new” Norton hadn’t been on the road since 1971, but it was a numbers-matching Manx. Bob’s son, Robert, has played a major role in getting the ’61 on the track. “Robert’s doing all the mechanical work on the 1961,” Bob says. “He knows more about that one then I do now. I was a rider, not a mechanic; I disqualify myself from wrenching.”
The 2009 Bonneville Vintage GP was the 1961’s first outing, and it performed well. Alex and the ’61 took first place in every heat the team raced in, a performance they matched with the ’37, as well. Winning races is in fact something of a habit for the crew. They won three championships with the Nortons in 2009 (Class C Foot, pre-1940 GP and Classic Sixties), and they look set to repeat their performance this year, winning nine of nine Class C races in their first outing at Daytona in March.
Alex, who’s called France home for the past 10 years, appreciates his good fortune. “I’m the only guy I know who gets hired to come from Europe to go vintage racing [in the U.S.]. I’m the luckiest man on the earth getting to ride these bikes,” he says.
For Bob, the payoff is simple: He gets to continue doing what he loves, go racing. And while his diminishing eyesight keeps him from being able to track Alex’s progress around the track, he doesn’t care about that. “I go there for the people, and that’s the only reason I go.” MC