First and Last: Jody Nicholas

The only person on the planet who can lay claim to being the first to win an AMA National road race aboard a bike bearing the fabled tuning fork logo.

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by Dain Gingerelli
Jody Nicholas aboard the winning TD1-A celebrates with college classmate Pat Gardiner, Yamaha employee John DiSimone and BSA field rep Tom Clark.

Ricky Bobby, the hapless yet charismatic character of the stock car racing movie Talladega Nights is probably best known for his line, “If you’re not first, you’re last!”

But back in 1963, motorcycle racer Jody Nicholas could have twisted Rickie Bobby’s words into, “If you’re first, you’re last,” and for very good reason. During the AMA National road race meet of August 20-21,1963, at Meadowdale Raceway (located near Carpentersville, Illinois), Jody scored two race wins, one proving to be a “first” for the history books, and the other a “last” for the record books.

First, the first: On Saturday Jody won the 100-mile Lightweight (250cc) event riding Yamaha’s all-new TD1-A Class C production-model road racer, marking the first-ever AMA National road race win by the fledging Japanese marque. The next day Nicholas followed script again, winning the National Championship race aboard the same BSA Gold Star that powered him to victory at the Laconia National a few weeks before. The Meadowdale National proved to be the last-ever AMA National road race win by a Gold Star, although that fabled single-cylinder model could still prevail on half-mile ovals (like Ascot Park).

Jody’s win aboard the Yamaha was most impressive for several reasons, though. Foremost he had never raced the TD1-A before the Meadowdale weekend, so there was no telling how the little Yamaha might perform, especially on the track’s popular, and steeply banked, turn that led to Start/Finish. As he recently explained, “A friend, Jim Munz who worked for Yamaha’s east coast distributor, had a brother, Frank, who owned a TD1-A. Jim arranged for me to race it at Meadowdale.”

black and white photo of a person riding a white motorcycle with the number 58 on the side

In addition, those early Yamaha 2-stroke twins suffered from a few shortcomings, chief among them a crank-mounted clutch assembly that was weak, and finicky carburetors that proved a challenge for the bike’s tuner. It was those stubborn carburetors that sidelined Jody during qualifying for the 100-mile race, forcing him to start on the ninth and final row of the 44-bike Lightweight field.

But by the end of the first lap, Jody had dispatched a large number of his competitors, presenting him with a clear view of the race leaders. By lap six he passed second-place Gary Nixon and his Harley-Davidson Sprint, before shadowing Tony Woodman’s Parilla for the lead. But as Woodman and Nicholas completed the sixth go-round, the Italian bike’s engine expired, leaving young Jody — described in the Cycle World race report as “‘The Music Man’ from Nashville, Tenn.” — out front and eventually to the checkered flag for Yamaha’s first of what was to be many AMA Lightweight National wins to come.

In the end, the two Gold Star race victories marked the only AMA National wins for Nicholas. A few years later he won the road race at Road Atlanta, but he was disqualified on a technicality concerning his Suzuki’s water-cooled 3-cylinder engine.

But Jody’s first/last adventure at Meadowdale can never be taken away from him. In addition, he’s the only person on the planet who can lay claim to being the first to win an AMA National road race aboard a bike bearing the fabled tuning fork logo. As Ricky Bobby might say, “Shake and bake!”

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