The beginning of a new year often finds us looking back in the rearview mirror of life, pondering what’s been and is now gone as we move forward. I’m not usually one to dwell on loss, but it feels somehow wrong — improper even — not to note the passing of some major figures from our universe, faces that won’t be shining their light on our little corner of the world anymore.
Although best known in automotive racing circles, Dan Gurney, who passed away Jan. 14, 2018, at the ripe old age of 86, was well known to our group. An avid motorcyclist himself, in his later life he focused his passion on the Alligator, a semi-recumbent- style motorcycle he developed to make riding more fun for tall riders like himself.
A month before, on Dec. 10, 2017, we lost Bruce Brown. Known to every motorcyclist of a certain age, Brown’s critically acclaimed 1971 film, On Any Sunday, helped launch motorcycling into the American mainstream, thanks in no small part to the involvement of superstar actor Steve McQueen, with supporting roles by major racers including Mert Lawwill and Malcolm Smith.
Closer to home for me was the passing on Dec. 16, 2017, of Derek “Nobby” Clark, 81. A mechanic to the stars, the list of racers whose bikes he fettled reads like a Who’s Who of Sixties and Seventies motorcycle racing greats, including Mike “The Bike” Hailwood, Jim Redman, Giacomo Agostini, Gary Hocking, Kenny Roberts, Barry Sheene, Jarno Saarinen and more.
Born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Nobby’s career was aided by fellow Rhodesian and high school friend Hocking, who hired him as his tuner when he started riding for MV Agusta in 1960. After Hocking’s death in 1962, Nobby tuned for Redman, which led to his hiring by the Honda factory, a relationship that cemented his career as a foremost GP tuner. During his time with Honda he tuned the brand’s epic 4-, 5- and 6-cylinder GP machines, remarking about the multi-cylinder Hondas in one interview that “you had to use tweezers on a lot of parts, like valve collets, because the parts kept getting smaller, but your fingers stayed the same size.”
I first met Nobby in 2006 at AMA Vintage Motorcycle Days at the Mid-Ohio race track. I had tagged along with a group gathering to meet some of the great Daytona Beach racers of the Fifties, and was standing off to the side when I looked over and saw Nobby, also standing off to the side. Although I knew I’d seen his face, I couldn’t quite place it, so finally I walked over and said something to the effect of, “You look really familiar. Have we ever met?” To which Nobby, in what I would learn over subsequent years was typical classic understatement, simply replied, “Maybe, I’ve been to a lot of races in my life.”
Nobby, as I came to appreciate over the time I was fortunate to know him, was one of the most grounded, down-to-earth people one might ever hope to meet, and honest almost to a fault — unique qualities in a sport peppered with larger-than-life personalities. For years I’d hoped that someone would sit down with Nobby, put a tape recorder on the table and get him to share all of the stories of his incredible 50-year racing career, start to finish. That never happened, although in his later years his unique role in motorcycle racing’s history was finally being fully appreciated, particularly after his 2012 induction into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame. Nobby’s passing won’t go unnoticed, with a special ceremony planned at Daytona in March and, I’ve heard suggested, at the Barber Vintage Festival in October. Rest in Peace, Nobby you’ll be missed.