With the recent controversies over the Motorcycle Hall of Fame naming less-than-qualified candidates, I thought I’d give a shot at naming who I thought was the top racer of each decade. This survey of racing history focuses solely on the American side of racing, but will include Americans racing in Grand Prix.
I’m not aware of anyone attempting to name the top rider of each decade before. I would enjoy reading the opinions of other racing historians and enthusiasts. Comments are welcome. I realize that there are maybe a dozen people in the country who know enough about the first couple of decades of racing to make a knowledgeable conclusion. There just hasn’t been much written about the riders of the 1900 to 1920s and one would have to be a research enthusiast like me willing to seek out rare and fragile pages of old magazines and roll after roll of microfilm to read old newspaper reports to have a good background on the early American motorcycle racing scene.
Fortunately that could be changing. With Google Books working aggressively to digitize the back catalog of books, magazines and newspapers research could be infinitely easier in years to come.
This “Best of the Decades” is one man’s opinion and I’m sure you will have your own thoughts, especially in the more recent decades. I’ve studied the sport quiet extensively over the last dozen years or so and I hope my study has given me a good handle on the Who’s Who of a century of American motorcycle racing.
So here we go, let the discussions begin.
This choice was a no-brainer. Motorcycle racing was in its infancy in the first decade of the 20th century, and was still more or less motorized bicycle racing. Bicycle racing was the world Jake DeRosier came out of and he was arguably the very first full-fledged factory motorcycle racer. He was signed to a full-time racing contract by Indian in 1908. The Canadian-born DeRosier, who became an American citizen and settled and in Springfield, Mass., home of Indian motorcycles, was the most accomplished racer of the 1900s and by 1909 magazines hailed him “King of the Racers”. DeRosier went on to race at the Isle of Man, the first American to do so. After the TT DeRosier beat England’s champion Charles Collier in two out of three match races and became the first international motorcycle racing hero. There really is no else who compares with DeRosier in this era. He is the clear winner as the best racer in the 1900 to 1910 era.
Gene Walker’s billing was always “Champion of the South”, but for my money Walker was the champion of the 1910s. This native of Birmingham, Alabama, was the first great champion to emerge from south of the Mason–Dixon Line. He really didn’t start winning major national championship races until 1915, but once he did Walker was a major force racing primarily for the Indian factory. I’m going to tell you that this was a tough choice. Motorcycle racing reached a Golden Era in the 1910s with so many different manufacturers and fan interest at an all-time high. There were so many candidates from this period who could be considered. Bob Perry, Otto Walker, Ray Creviston, Jim Davis, Red Parkhurst, Ray Weishaar, Don Johns, Shrimp Burns, the list really goes on and on. What tipped it in Walker’s favor for me was that he was strong on everything – speed trials, dirt ovals (for which he was best known) and road races – that and the fact that in 1919 he won six of the 13 national championship races and was declared Champion of Champions” for the decade by Motorcycle and Bicycle Illustrated. Walker dominated the early 1920s as well.
Columbus, Ohio, racer Jim Davis wins the top rider of the Roaring ‘20s by virtue of being strong throughout the entire decade. Davis won national championship races (often multiple ones) every season but one during the 1920s. Another tough era to call because the talent in the 1920s was pretty evenly spread. There was a lot of parity in racing during this period with the “Big Three” of Harley-Davidson, Indian and Excelsior battling it out on the tracks with factory teams, although racing was not nearly as lavishly supported in the ‘20s at it was in the decade before. Like Gene Walker, Davis excelled at every form of racing of the day, although most of his titles were won on the dirt. He was one of the few riders of the era that raced for both the Harley and Indian factory squads. The best part about Davis was that he lived to see the new millennium, reaching the ripe old age of 103 before passing away in 2000.
San Francisco born, but raised in Sacramento, Joe Petrali is a clear winner for the decade of the ‘30s. Motorcycle racing as we know it today really came to be in the 1930s with the formation of Class C rules. Even though the ‘30s was the decade of the Great Depression, motorcycle racing saw incredible diversity and participation with riders taking to the track on bikes right off the showroom floor. There were more winners in the decade of the 1930s than in the previous three decades combined, but Petrali, who raced as a factory rider for Excelsior and Harley-Davidson, stood head and shoulders above the other riders of the era by the sheer number of national championships he won. He won at least 49 national championships races and perhaps even more. He won on the road, dirt tracks, board tracks, land speed records and even in hillclimbs, which reached their zenith of popularity in the 1930s. There is no close second to Petrali in the 1930s.
The 1940s was a topsy-turvy decade in terms of motorcycle racing. Racing stopped for nearly half the decade because of World War II and many of the top racers of the early 1940s weren’t able to comeback or race competitively after four years away. One rider clearly took off and went right back to winning late in the 1940s just has he had early in the decade and that was Ed Kretz. The stocky racer from Pomona, Calif., was called the Iron Man for his longevity in the sport and for his grit and determination. Kretz is best known for winning the first Daytona 200 in 1937, but he kept right on winning throughout the 1940s and won on all forms of racetracks. Kretz is most closely associated with Indian, but he raced and won with Triumph as well. There were many great racers in the 1940s, but Kretz was an easy pick for the best of the decade.
A San Diego boy, who moved to the San Francisco Bay area when he started racing professionally (eventually settling in San Jose), Joe Leonard was motorcycle racing in the 1950s. A Harley-Davidson rider nearly his entire career (he won all his nationals on Milwaukee iron), Leonard was winning before the AMA launched the Grand National Championship and in 1954 he became the first champ of the series. Leonard would go on to win total of three AMA Grand National Championships and won more nationals in the 1950s than any other rider. “Smokey Joe” won TTs, Miles, Half-Miles, road races. He would have probably won the short tracks as well, but they weren’t part of the AMA Grand Nationals until Leonard’s final year on motorcycles. There were many greats in the 1950s, but none were as consistently great from 1950 to 1959 as Joe Leonard.
A Special Note: The Carroll Resweber Era
I’m going to acknowledge that naming the best rider by decade absolutely does a disservice to Carroll Resweber. The first four-time AMA Grand National Champion, Resweber deserves special mention because his stellar career perfectly straddled the 1950s and ‘60s. The Texan (who lived in Milwaukee most of his life) was simply the best rider in the late 1950s and early 1960s and had it not been for a horrible crash on a dusty half-mile oval in Lincoln, Illinois, in 1962, Resweber may very well have gone on to become the top rider of the 1960s. As it stands the circumstances of his career keep him from earning a Rider of the Decade accolade.
Gary Nixon may not have won the most nationals or championships in the 1960s – that honor goes to Bart Markel – and while Markel had a slight edge on the dirt ovals, I feel Nixon was the best all-around rider of the 1960s. A solid case could be made for Dick Mann as well, the first rider to earn the Grand Slam (winning all forms of national racing – TT, Short Track, Half-Mile, Mile and Road Race). However to my mind (and many of the riders I’ve interviewed from the era) Gary Nixon was certainly the best in terms of outright speed. Mann was conservative and would at times settle for mid-pack or lower finishes, not Nixon. If he was running the Cockeysville, Maryland, rider was almost always at the front. Now Markel was an awesome racer as well and his record speaks for itself, but his Achilles’ heel was road racing. To me that was what tipped the scale in Nixon’s favor. Very, very close between Nixon, Markel and Mann (and some will mention Cal Rayborn in the same breath, but like Resweber, his career spanned decades and he was primarily known for his amazing road racing skills). Put Markel, Mann and Nixon on five different race courses (TT, Short Track, Half-Mile, Mile and Road Race) on the same day, score them and I say Nixon comes out the best of the decade. Interestingly Nixon, who is most closely associated with Triumph, is the first rider to race a non-American motorcycle and win Rider of the Decade.
Kenny Roberts was hands down the best rider of the 1970s, of that there is no question. When you have a rider who many consider the best American motorcycle racer of all time, it’s hard to argue anyone else. Flat track aficionados will mention Jay Springsteen and motocross, which emerged in America during this decade, may point to Bob Hannah, but it’s hard to argue with two AMA National Championships and three consecutive 500cc World Championships all in a single decade for the man from Modesto, California. Roberts was a trailblazer for the American domination of GP racing of the 1980s. Had it not been for KR, it’s unlikely that Freddie Spencer, Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey and Kevin Schwantz would have been given the chance to show what they could do on the world stage. The explanation for Roberts being the rider of the decade for the 1970s is the shortest of any and there’s good reason for that. The first rider of the decade racing a Japanese motorcycle (Yamaha) – this was the easiest pick of the bunch. All Hail the King.
Not quite as easy as the Roberts pick, but Eddie Lawson has just about as strong a claim on the ‘80s as Roberts did to the ‘70s. He won four American road racing titles (two in Superbike and two in 250 Grand Prix) before moving on and winning four 500cc World Championships during the 1980s. When your nickname among road racing enthusiasts is “God” (not Steady Eddie) than you can pretty much be assured that you’re talking about the best rider of the decade. Lawson is helped by the fact that both motocross and flat track had a great number of stars during the 1980s. In the Grand Nationals Bubba Shobert, Ricky Graham and Scotty Parker almost equally divided the spoils and in motocross you had almost too many stars to mention with the likes of Kent Howerton, Jeff Ward, David Bailey, Rick Johnson, Mark Barnett – you get the picture. To be fair road racing was loaded in the ‘80s as well with Freddie Spencer, Fred Merkel, Wayne Rainey, Kevin Schwantz, but in the 1980s no one had the accomplishments of Upland, California’s Eddie Lawson. Also Lawson is the first rider of the decade who was not particularly associated with any one brand of bike. He also probably earned more than any other rider on this list and maybe that’s appropriate since the 1980s was the decade of “Greed is Good.” Remember Gordon Gekko?
To me the best American rider of the ‘90s boiled down to three riders – Scotty Parker, Wayne Rainey and Jeremy McGrath. I give the edge to McGrath simply because of the domination of Supercross and for a short period even motocross during the decade, and for the crossover popularity McGrath enjoyed. McGrath was the first motorcycle racer in American history to become a household name even among those who didn’t follow the sport. McGrath came as close to the mythical “mainstream” as any racer before him. He and he alone packed stadiums week after week. His influence also opened the door for a generation of Extreme Sports athletes – Travis Pastrana among them. His domination on the Supercross tracks of America will likely never be equaled. Rainey, with his three consecutive 500cc World Championships, is certainly up there, but unfortunately his racing career ended with injury in 1993. Parker was nearly dominant as McGrath, but at a time when flat track was on a downward spiral. McGrath was great throughout the decade and my pick for the Rider of the Decade of the 1990s.
Road racing and flat track aficionados aren’t going to want to hear this, but Ricky Carmichael just may be the best American motorcycle racer ever. His records are simply stunning. Nearly total domination from beginning to end in motocross, and let’s not forget he was the best Supercross rider of the 2000s as well. Not to mention his accomplishments in the Motocross des Nations. Ricky Carmichael brought a new level of training and dedication to his craft that changed the way today’s riders approached motorcycle racing, not just in motocross, but in every other form of the sport. Racers truly had to become elite athletes after the Carmichael era. The only reason I won’t say definitively that the Havana, Florida racer – simply known as RC or GOAT for the Greatest of All Time – is the number one American motorcycle racer of all time is that from a historical perspective we are perhaps still too close to his career to fairly judge. Certainly Carmichael has to be in the conversation when you discuss the best motorcycle racer of all time. As for the decade of the 2000s, no one is even on the same planet as RC.
It will be interesting to see who emerges as the premier American racer of the 2010s. There really is no clear early front runner in the first year of the decade. Perhaps Ben Spies has the inside line being a young rider racing at the highest level of motorcycle racing. Should James Stewart decide to get serious about racing again he could rack up serious numbers, or maybe Ryan Dungey will have staying power. Perhaps a Sammy Halbert or Henry Wiles will go on a Parker-like run or maybe it could be one of the current young guns like PJ Jacobsen or JD Beach who will emerge as the next great champion. It’s going to be fun to watch.