Lightweight motorcycles that were a fixture at early road-race nationals are featured alongside MotoAmerica Series
The United States Classic Racing Association (USCRA) 2017 North American Vintage Invitational, presented by Vanson Leathers, is running alongside the MotoAmerica Series this weekend at New Jersey Motorsports Park in Millville, New Jersey.
A walk through the USCRA paddock revealed a number of machines that helped push American professional motorcycle competition down the path to road racing. You’ll see bikes like a Harley-Davidson Sprint, a Bultaco 250, a Ducati Diana, and a Yamaha TD1 that were all part of early AMA 250 Grand Prix racing.
It was 1963 when the AMA first began what was then called the Lightweight class running as part of the pro road-racing nationals. The advent of the AMA Lightweight Nationals was the AMA’s first step in acknowledging the growing popularity of road racing in America.
Before 1963, if you were a road racer, there really wasn’t much of a place for you in the AMA Grand National Championships. Sure, there were a few road-race nationals on the schedule, but for the most part the same bikes that were raced on the flat tracks were set up for pavement racing. It was pretty much the same riders on the same machines from week to week at the nationals.
Starting in the 1950s and really exploding in the ’60s, road racing was emerging, however, at the club level. Following Grand Prix racing’s lead, Americans began racing comparatively diminutive machines, with 250cc actually being one of the bigger classes.
Finally, in 1963, the AMA recognized the growing stature of road racing and the Lightweight class was introduced to run alongside the road-race nationals.
“In the old days, you might be able to run at a few road races in what the AMA called the Sportsman classes,” explained veteran racer Frank Camillieri, one of the riders in the USCRA races this weekend. “Then, with the Lightweight class, it was the first time pros were racing 250s.”
In the early-to-mid 1960s, a variety of motorcycles were competitive in AMA Lightweight racing. Yamaha and Bultaco two-strokes ran head-to-head with four-stroke Harleys, Hondas, Parillas, and Ducatis.
In those early years, the four strokes were competitive. “The guys on the four strokes just waited for the guys on the two-strokes to blow up,” Camillieri explained. “The two-strokes were always faster, but in those early years, they usually didn’t last.”
Dick Hammer, riding a Harley Sprint, won the inaugural AMA Lightweight National held at Daytona International Speedway during Bike Week in 1963. It was the start of a class that would eventually become the AMA 250 Grand Prix Championship, which continued through 2003.
By 1967, Yamaha had the reliability of its TD1 (which eventually would morph into the legendary TZ250) dialed in to the point that it Yamaha riders won every round that year. The 250cc four-strokes were no longer competitive, so the AMA allowed the displacement of the four-strokes to be bumped up to 350cc, but it wasn’t much use. Two-strokes became and remained king of the Lightweight/250 class for the rest of its existence.
Eventually, Suzuki and Kawasaki joined the fray, but Yamaha clearly dominated 250cc road racing for much of the 40-year history of the class.
Interestingly, a few of the competitors racing this weekend at NJMP raced at the nearby old Vineland Speedway road course, which has been defunct for over 50 years now. As a side trip to NJMP this weekend, you can still walk the remnants of the old Vineland course, in Vineland, New Jersey, just a few miles north of NJMP.
So, if you’d like to catch a glimpse of the beginnings of the road-racing surge in America, the USCRA races at the MotoAmerica event this weekend are a good place to start.