Gary Nixon at Ontario Motor Speedway

Follow Gary Nixon’s journey during the Ontario Motor Speedway’s 250-mile race in 1972.

| March/April 2015

  • Gary Nixon Ontario
    Gary Nixon at Ontario Motor Speedway
    Photo courtesy Dain Gingerelli
  • Gary Nixon
    Gary Nixon aboard his No. 10 Triumph at Ontario Motor Speedway, 1971. He normally wore No. 9.
    Photo courtesy Dain Gingerelli

  • Gary Nixon Ontario
  • Gary Nixon

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

12/21/2018 10:19:40 AM

Something else happened at this race that was a pivotal event in motorcycle history. After the race, the winning John Cooper BSA Triple was claimed by another rider in the race for a pittance, around $1,200 if I recall correctly. The AMA Class C claiming rule had not been updated for years, so a bike that BSA/Triumph said was worth over $20k in 1970 dollars had to be turned-over to its new owner for a fraction of that. While some may say the rider who claimed the bike was being a jerk, his defense was that he and other Class C pros were being outclassed by what were essentially one-off factory team race bikes in a class where everyone was supposed to be able to buy all the tricky bits off the shelf. By comparison, the bits and pieces of Harley's factory race bikes were available to all H-D racers. Allegedly. The "pivotal event" I mentioned was the fact that the BSA/Triumph Triple factory team effort was essentially a "last gasp" scheme by management in England to save the company. They were heart-broken about losing Cooper's bike since while it may not have been the final nail in their coffin, it was one of the last ones to be hammered-in. By the way, I was right there for the whole melodrama, literally rubbing elbows with Nixon and the others during the heated claiming negotiations right after the race, while covering the race for a radio network. I was also there to race in the Junior Class C event, but got DSQed for having a gas tank that was 1/4 liter too small. Oh, well.

4/14/2015 11:53:52 AM

Correction! I think it was indy cars, not stock cars. It was for the Ontario 500 and I had a pennant on my bedroom wall for years after. My memories are apparently fading.

4/14/2015 11:51:12 AM

I was there! I was 8 years old and my dad took me to OMS for it's opening stock car race. It was a big deal with hot air balloons, cart racing, motorcycle racing, and of course the stock cars. I was too young to really know what was going on, but I distinctly remember the motorcycles racing on the infield, and the carts racing on the oval before the stock car race. The carts really stuck in my mind because that was the first time I'd seen a go-cart with fuel tanks on the side, and the driver in the laid-down position. It seems like the track was gone only a few years later and I've always regretted not going to the track again before it closed. Mountains of concrete were all that was left there for a while before it was built over. Always seemed such a waste of effort to build something so big for it's short life.

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