Larry Lawrence | January 14, 2020
Archives: Japan’s First AMA National Win
It’s been a long-held notion by motorcycle-racing pundits that Suzuki was the first of the Japanese motorcycle manufacturers to win an AMA Grand National, with Art Baumann’s road race national victory at Sears Point in 1969 aboard a Suzuki TR500. But is that really true? Well, as they say on Facebook, it’s complicated.
Archives: Japan’s First AMA National Win
While it’s true that Baumann’s 1969 Suzuki win at Sears was the first “big -bike” win for a Japanese motorcycle, technically speaking, the credit for the first Japanese maker to win an AMA National goes to Yamaha and this goes back to Dick Mann’s win at the 1965 Nelson Ledges Road Race National.
It was a rarity, but for a few years in the early-to-mid 1960s, the AMA held full points-paying Nationals for the Lightweight (250cc) motorcycles. This only happened during a three-year period from 1963 to 1965 and it all began with a rule change in 1963.
So called “Lightweight” Nationals were not a completely new thing. For years the Peoria TT featured a 45 cu in (750cc) and an 80 cu in (1300cc) national. In ’63 the AMA changed the definition of Lightweights to mean 250cc motorcycles and that’s where the story begins in this country for Japanese-made machines being raced in national competition.
Japanese-made motorcycles changed the landscape of motorcycling in America starting in the 1950s. With low cost and reliability, the new little machines made in Japan opened up the sport to the Baby Boomers in a way previous generations of motorcycle enthusiasts could only dream. Gradually some racers began to see potential for Hondas, Yamahas, Kawasakis, Suzuki’s (and even Bridgestones) on the track and by the early 1960s some Japanese-made motorcycles were being contested at the highest level of American motorcycle racing – AMA Grand Nationals.
Looking back in the AMA record books you can see the influence of Japanese makers becoming ever greater with their record sales in this country. Entry of Japanese-made motorcycles into AMA national-level competition began as a trickle in the early 1960s turning into a flood by the end of the decade.
Going back to the 1963 AMA racing rulebook change, the Lightweight class (a full points-paying national) at the 1963 Peoria TT National featured, for the first time, the 250cc racing bikes. Bart Markel won the ’63 Peoria Lightweight National on a Harley-Davidson Sprint (ironically the Heavyweight class that year was won by a Triumph with Sid Payne).
Significant in that ’63 Peoria Lightweight race was the little-known fact that it marked the first entry by Japanese machines into AMA Grand National Championship racing. Three riders – Larry Williamson, Tom Clark and Jack Simmons – entered Peoria that year on Yamahas and it was Peoria’s own Williamson who took the top honors of that trio finishing fifth. That gave Williamson the distinction of being the first rider to race, finish and score national points at an AMA Grand National aboard a Japanese-made motorcycle.
Then in 1964 the AMA took the Peoria Lightweight class concept a step further and announced a stand-alone AMA Grand National Road Race featuring the Lightweight class bike. It was a 100-mile national held at the Nelson Ledges road course in Garrettsville, Ohio, on July 5. Washington, DC’s Larry Schafer scored his one and only AMA National win that day, riding a Harley-Davidson Sprint. Buddy Elmore was runner up on a Yamaha and Ducati mounted Donald Twigg took third.
Surprisingly, the 1965 AMA Grand National Championship season was one stacked with a record number of seven road races in the 18-race series. Road race circuits in Wentzville, MO, Greenwood, IA, Meadowdale, IL and Upper Marlboro, MD, joined the traditional road races of Daytona Beach, FL and Laconia, NH (moving for the first time to the newly-completed Bryar Motorsports Park in nearby Loudon, NH).
Nelson Ledges Lightweight National was also back on the 1965 calendar wedged between the Wentzville Road Race and the Castle Rock (WA) TT.
In the Nelson Ledges race Roger Reiman led the early going on a Harley Sprint, but his bike expired after just a few laps putting Mann and his Yamaha in the lead. After a brief challenge by Gary Nixon, before Nixon’s Yamaha expired, it was Bultaco rider Jody Nicholas moving up to battle Mann and then take the over the top spot. Nicholas pulled away to a commanding lead before his machine quit about halfway through the 80-mile race. That put Mann and his Yamaha back in the lead for good. 1964 winner Larry Schafer nailed down the runner-up spot on a Harley and George Montgomery was third on a Bultaco.
Mann took a large mid-season lead in the standings due to his strong road race performances, but he would eventually be caught and ultimately finish second to Harley-Davidson’s Bart Markel in the that year’s championship.
Yamaha, Kawasaki and Suzuki all continued to improve their larger displacement two-stroke racing machines and four years after Mann’s lightweight win at Nelson, Suzuki and Baumann finally broke through to beat the more established makes in an AMA National with the big bikes, but the little remembered national at Nelson Ledges in ’65, gives us a more to consider when discussion turns to the first Japanese maker to win a national in America.