Pick up a September 1963 issue of Cycle World magazine, flip to Page 18 and you’ll read these words by contributor Boyd Reynolds: “The 1963 Laconia Silver Anniversary Road Race will be recorded in history as one for the high-tension events of the calendar year.
“It was a race started with a shock, spiced with surprise and topped off with a climactic punch bettering even an Alfred Hitchcock (cinema) creation.” Similar hyperbole about that race is found in Cycle and Motorcyclist magazines of that same year.
The Laconia National’s two primary players were veteran racer George Roeder and second-year AMA Expert, 19-year-old Jody Nicholas. Roeder rode a Harley-Davidson KRTT, among the top road race bikes within the AMA ranks at the time; young Jody masterfully maneuvered a BSA Gold Star only yards, sometimes feet, ahead of the veteran racer throughout their cat-and-mouse duel. But as the pair completed the penultimate lap, Nicholas made a mistake that led to a low-side crash as they headed towards the flagman near start/finish, allowing Roeder to gingerly motor around the fallen bike to begin the race’s final lap.
Undeterred, Nicholas, who managed to keep his single-cylinder engine running during the crash, promptly remounted to give chase during that closing lap.
“All (spectator) eyes were strained watching the downhill section,” continued Reynolds. “Then down the hill they came, Jody Nicholas had passed Roeder and was in the lead, the crowd cheered and screamed so loud that motorcycle exhausts were drowned out, girls were jumping up and down, (and) BSA pit men were hugging each other as their rider took the checkered flag to win.” After circulating the one-mile course 100 times, Nicholas won the race in record time, with an average speed slightly more than 62mph.
Years later, when asked about his low-speed crash that led to the high-drama finish, Nicholas casually replied, “I lost my concentration for a second or two.” End of statement, and if you know Jody Nicholas you’d know that, even at the ripe age of 78, nothing rattles this man’s disposition.
And to that, here’s a little background on Nicholas: He was raised in Nashville, Tennessee, where his father taught music at George Peabody College. As you might suspect, throughout his childhood Jody studied music, becoming a violin virtuoso who also happened to have a fetish for racing motorcycles — fast motorcycles, we might add. Shortly after graduating from the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, and in the midst of establishing himself as a top AMA racer at a time when the Vietnam War was in full stride, he joined the U.S. Navy, earning his wings to pilot multi-prop reconnaissance airplanes from aircraft carriers at sea. No surprise, whenever his ship returned to its Southern California home port, Nicholas found time to go motorcycle racing. Following his military discharge he joined U.S. Suzuki’s road race program full time, riding their tire-shredding GT-750 2-stroke triples in AMA road races. Typically those vicious 2-stroke-powered bikes encountered mechanical problems during long races, but Jody still enjoyed success (read: winning) during those days, racing flat track Nortons at nearby Ascot Raceway. He also served, at different times, on the editorial staffs for Cycle World and Motorcyclist magazines, eventually moving on to various other jobs within the motorcycle industry. Without doubt, Jody Nicholas has led a varied and interesting life.
Historical Gold Star
BSA Gold Star
- Engine: 499cc, air-cooled OHV single, 85mm x 88mm, 11:1 compression ratio
- Top speed: 115-120mph
- Transmission: 4-speed, close ratio (Daytona), chain final drive
- Carburetor: Amal GP 1
- Electrics: Lucas 2M TT racing magneto with rotating magnets
- Frame/wheelbase: Steel, duplex/56in (1,422mm)
- Suspension: Telescopic fork front, modified swing arm with dual Girling shocks rear
- Brakes: 7.48in (190mm) drum front; Alfin 7.48in (190mm) drum rear
- Tires: Dunlop Racing KR76 3 x 19in front, Dunlop Racing KR73 3.5 x 19in rear
- Weight: 350lb (159kg)
- Seat height: 30.5in (775mm)
- Fuel capacity: 6gal (22.7ltr)
But it was the Laconia race of 1963 in New Hampshire that launched Nicholas to prominence among AMA race fans, and he followed that win with another first-place finish a couple months later on the Goldie, this one at the Meadowdale National road race, in Carpentersville, Illinois. That race holds equal sway for Nicholas — and for all Gold Star race fans — because, as he proudly points out today, “That was the last time a Gold Star won an AMA National road race.”
So what became of the famous BSA Gold Star that was so skillfully maintained by BSA specialist Herb Neas, and powered by a race-proven single-cylinder engine that had remained competitive well beyond its expiration date? Well, like most obsolete race bikes, it melded into obscurity, later emerging on the racing scene when sportsman racer Ken Grzesiak purchased it at a J. Wood & Co. auction before reviving it for its second life as an AHRMA (American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association) contender. Grzesiak raced his updated Gold Star for a number of years, enjoying enviable success until eventually selling the Beezer to its current owner, his friend Mike Iannucilli. That’s where we pick up the story, which focuses on our featured bike that was recently restored to its 1963 Laconia incarnation.
Understand, too, that Mike is an experienced motorcycle collector, specializing in race bikes, each boasting its own historical pedigree or provenance. Among his stable of bikes you’ll find Gary Nixon’s 1967 Daytona-winning Triumph, Cal Rayborn’s two-time Daytona-winning (1968-’69) Harley-Davidson KRTT, plus several 1980s-generation 500cc World Championship Grand Prix road racers, all reveling in their original livery and race-ready appearance. Moreover, all his bikes are operable. The collection includes many more bikes, but you get the picture, and if that’s not enough, several of his bikes are always on display at Red Rock Harley-Davidson near Las Vegas, Nevada.
But for now let’s focus on this beautiful gleaming red Gold Star, and to bring it back to its former glory Mike called on some influential go-to enthusiasts who also had been key players in some of his previous restoration projects. The crew includes AMA and Trailblazers Hall of Fame member Dennis Mahan; another Trailblazers stalwart, Terry Morairty; exhaust specialist, the late Dave Miller; Gold Star collector and parts specialist, Bill Brown; and Class C racing historian Bill Milburn. They all worked together under one stipulation: Nobody was to let Nicholas know about the restoration; it was to be a surprise, with a special presentation scheduled for the 2020 Trailblazers’ annual banquet where it would receive the organization’s new honor — the President’s Award, presented by Motorcycle Classics magazine. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 the 2020 banquet was cancelled, returning to its Southern California roots in late August, 2021, where the bike finally was presented with its much-deserved trophy by Trailblazers’ president Don Emde and this publication.
In Search of Gold — Parts
Each restoration team member had respective tasks that led to the bike’s recreation. For instance, Mahan rebuilt the engine and transmission, Brown led the chase for many of the various hard-to-find parts, Miller skillfully fashioned a new exhaust system that mimicked the 1963 pipe (“I have the original exhaust,” says Mike, “but it was pretty bent up …”), Morairty painstakingly assembled the bike, and Mike’s own auto-body shop in Las Vegas painted the frame, Lipp Plastics racing seat and the curvaceous British-built Lyta alloy gas tank. Finally, Milburn helped identify or confirm identification of various parts, along with verifying other key historical background relevant to the bike.
The engine itself is a work of art, inside and out. BSA Eastern’s Herb Neas originally built the race engine for Jody’s 1963 season, and Dennis Mahan was enlisted to replicate the rebuild for this project. Indeed, if anyone knows how to restore a Gold Star single to 1960s race specs, it would be him. Mahan himself had served as chief engine and transmission builder for BSA’s west coast racing program during the 1960s, building engines for the likes of Neil Keen and others. Mahan’s credentials are backed by a past that includes working with the likes of Gary Nixon, Eddie Lawson and Wayne Rainey, to name just a few, so you know that his engines have always been race worthy and reliable.
The first thing Mahan confirmed was that this was the same engine that Neas originally built for Jody’s bike in 1963. Confirmation was found in its serial number (DBD34GS 5003), which, said Mahan, “matches what Jody rode in ’63.” Ditto for the transmission, which has “DAY” stamped into its case, indicating it was what the BSA team termed their Daytona transmission, a design that offered plenty of internal gear ratio choices for the track and rider. The transmission also has provision for a reverse shifter, allowing the shift lever to be installed backward so that, if the rider prefers, it still offers the standard shift pattern of one up, three down.
It’s especially interesting, though, that great pains were taken to keep the engine as authentic inside its cases as it is with its external components. Among those external parts you’ll see a Lucas 2M TT Racing Magneto, a sought-after item among Gold Star tuners back in the ’60s, and used by Jody at the Laconia and Meadowdale races. So the team chased one down for the project. As Mahan explains, the Lucas 2M TT magneto’s magnets rotating feature helps deliver a stronger, more controlled spark as opposed to the standard Lucas magneto’s stationary magnets.
And feeding the engine its fuel/air mixture sits a single — and very classic — Amal 1 1/2-inch GP carburetor at the intake port. About the Amal, Mahan succinctly states: “Great carb, and (it) really flows a lot of air.”
However, things become a little more subjective within the internal confines of that big-finned engine. As Mahan explains, “In those days there wasn’t a lot you could do to (modify) them (engines). But there were a few trick things you did to add another horsepower or two.”
For instance, to help reduce drag on the oil pump’s gears, Mahan concocted a process that essentially reduced friction among the rotating gear teeth. This 1960s process included rinsing the gear teeth and partially assembled pump body with a mixture of oil and slightly abrasive Timesaver lapping compound. Mahan said that, after mixing this special cocktail, he’d put it into the pump, in the process slowly rotating the gears enough to let the Timesaver scrub away a minimal amount of surface metal from the gear teeth. Doing so reduced drag between them, yet oil volume passing through the pump remained adequate for engine lubrication at race speeds. Clever.
“Back in the day when you couldn’t buy everything (specialty race parts), you did your own tricks to the engine,” Mahan reminds us. And if you ever have the pleasure to meet or talk with Dennis Mahan, ask him about those 1/2-inch-diameter push rods (as opposed to the stock 3/8-inch) that he fashioned for this and all the other Gold Star race engines that he’s built. It’s an interesting story, one that makes you appreciate the ingenuity that crafty engine builders possessed before CNC machines and such became an integral part of motorcycle racing technology.
So how close is the race-prep rebuild for this engine compared to what Jody originally had at Laconia? Even though this bike will probably never compete on a racetrack again, Mahan confidently states, “I know it’s as close to when Jody raced it as can be.” And that, race fans, explains why the AMA has a Hall of Fame for people like Dennis Mahan.
The same, only different
Fittingly, that pursuit for authenticity continued throughout the bike’s restoration. Much of the process began with bike owner Mike who, Terry Morairty is quick to point out, “is very thorough in his research.” As confirmation, Morairty explains that Mike aided team members with photos of Jody’s bike from when it raced at the Laconia and Meadowdale races. “Mike handed me a stack of photos. He’s really thorough in his research, so that helped us a lot,” Morairty adds.
Those photos fell into the right hands, too, because Morairty cut his teeth in motorcycle racing at about the same time that Jody was establishing his reputation, so he’s familiar with much of the hardware. His personal apprenticeship included a lengthy tutelage with Triumph legend Danny Macias, and today Morairty proudly shares, “I learned a lot from him.” Like many of the successful engine and race bike builders of that era, Macias was innovative and thorough in his approach to prepping bikes to win, not just place. That work ethic rubbed off on Morairty, too.
Once all the Gold Star’s parts were gathered, Morairty’s job included refurbishing and fitting all the pieces to the puzzle. For instance, the aged Gold Star showed up with the wrong rear hub as opposed to what Jody used to win Laconia. Jody won the 1963 race using what essentially was a standard BSA rear brake and hub assembly that included the Alfin aluminum-finned rear drum modification. Jody himself once described the Alfin as “a beautiful piece of work with the cooling fins and several large cooling air holes on the back, inside of the brake unit itself.” So the restoration team, with Brown’s guidance in tracking down a suitable Clubman swing arm, also scratched up a surviving Alfin unit that Morairty refurbished and adapted it to the replacement swingarm.
The bike’s existing double-leading-shoe front brake is similar to what was on the Laconia bike with the actuating arm reversed, but missing was the one-of-a-kind air scoop that appeared in the photos that Mike had provided. So Morairty oversaw the completion of a new scoop that replicated the original, and along with the lightweight Italian-made Borrani aluminum rims wrapped with KR-series Dunlop “triangular” race tires, the bike was beginning to look fit to race, circa 1963.
Other interesting, and rather rare, features include the Herb Neas/BSA Nutley-built center-mount oil tank tucked neatly behind the engine. And, Morairty points out, the steering head’s Neas/BSA Mutely-built steering stem and crown are works of art in themselves.
Number plates and their No. 58 numerals are exactly the same size as what Jody’s Laconia bike sported, too. The restoration team scaled the dimensions using photographs for reference, then replicated the new number plates and numerals to their proper size for the bike.
Nobody was able to verify exactly which brand handlebar was on the original bike, but thanks to that stack of photos Mike & Co. were able to determine a replacement that shares practically the same bend as what Jody gripped during his Laconia win. Even Milburn, who’s the first to say that he’s probably among the most critical people when a component isn’t correct, feels that the handlebar on the bike has the proper bend, in the process acknowledging that “there were a lot of companies making handlebars back in those days.” Translation: good luck determining exactly which of those companies was responsible for the race bike’s original handlebar. Finally, Jody himself later confirmed that the bike wore a similar handlebar as shown here during his Laconia win, but at Meadowdale the Gold Star was fitted with clip-ons to better bore a hole in the wind for the jockey-size racer on his way to winning that race.
As noted, the bike publicly debuted at the Trailblazers Banquet in Anaheim, California, August 28, 2021, where Jody and his wife Bev, saw the bike for the first time. Later in the evening, Don Emde presented the famous Gold Star with the heralded organization’s first-ever President’s Award trophy. The special award won’t necessarily be presented every year, but the Trailblazers intend to instill it when unique or landmark bikes, such as this BSA Gold Star, happen to surface. In the meantime, Motorcycle Classics magazine is proud to have sponsored the inaugural presentation, and hopes to remain a part of this worthy award for years to come. MC
The Big Air-Cooled Machines
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