Keystone State has a long, important legacy in motorcycle road racing
The MotoAmerica Series event this weekend at Pittsburgh International Race Complex on the outskirts of Pittsburgh in Wampum marks the first return of America’s premier motorcycle road-racing series to Pennsylvania in 31 years. But even though top-flight national road racing has been absent from the Keystone State since the Reagan administration, motorcycle road racing has a rich history in the state.
Pennsylvania’s first national road race was the AMA National held at the Windber Recreation Area in July of 1953. The track was situated in a tree-lined park on the hills overlooking Windber and is still in operation today. The twisty circuit was less than a mile long. There was a fairly substantial rise and sudden dip on the front straight and many of the fastest competitors actually got slightly airborne at close to triple-digit speeds.
Gary Nixon, who raced Windber in the 1960s, called it one of most challenging ever. “You’d be flying through there with all these trees, and one second you’d be in bright sunshine and the next you couldn’t see because of the deep shade of all those trees,” he said. “Hell, you were practically running blind there half the time. It was the only place you hoped for a cloudy day, but we never got one. It was always sunny there.”
Interestingly, the race was promoted by the Windber Fire Department, which used the funds raised from the event to buy additional firefighting equipment. The ’53 race was an all Harley-Davidson affair with a rookie expert named Joe Leonard taking the victory in front of a large crowd over Roger Soderstrom and Leon Applegate. The victory earned $750 first-place money for Leonard. He, of course, went on to become one of the all-time leading racing legends in both motorcycles and cars.
Harry Fearey, Jr. won the ’54 event, followed by Leonard, scoring his second victory at the track in 1955 to give Harley-Davidson riders three consecutive victories at the scenic and challenging park course.
After an eight-year absence, the race returned to Windber in ’63. Nixon earned his first national win at the track in ’63 on a Triumph. For years afterward, Nixon, who won nationals on road race, mile, half-mile, and short-track circuits but never a TT, claimed he should have been awarded the AMA Grand Slam “because they advertised Windber as a Road Race TT.”
Dick Mann won Windber in ’64 on a Matchless, but if the track was ridiculously tight and dangerous in the mid-’50s, it was absolutely insane on the even faster machines of the ’60s.
When vague threats of motorcycle gangs coming circulated in 1965, Windber canceled the race. By now the point was nearly mute. Besides the fact that the track was woefully small for a road-race circuit, the big crowds of the ’50s never materialized in the revival of the race. And with that, Windber drifted into nothing more than a curiosity in the record books. Today, the only action the old circuit sees are the occasional joggers who run the course, likely oblivious to its racing past.
It seems the lessons of Windber were quickly forgotten, however, since the next track to Pennsylvania track to host a road-race national was in June, 1968, on a tiny circuit at the Heidelberg Raceway.
Heidelberg was even shorter in length than Windber, with the track measuring in at just 3,500 feet! The circuit was pieced together by using parts of a half-mile and quarter-mile paved ovals. Harley-mounted Walt Fulton III scored his one and only AMA Grand National victory at the Heidelberg Mini-Road Race over Gary Nixon and Cal Rayborn.
Pennsylvania broke the small-track mold in August, 1971, when the series first visited Pocono International Raceway. The ’71 race at Pocono was won by Dick Mann on a BSA in an epic battle over Yamaha’s Kel Carruthers. Yvon Duhamel was third.
Pocono would continue to host AMA road-race nationals on and off through 1986. Winners included such iconic riders as Gary Nixon, Kenny Roberts, Mike Baldwin, and Freddie Spencer. Baldwin was especially strong on the banks of Pocono, winning the national there four times.
AMA national road racing came to a conclusion in 1986 when Wayne Rainey, now one of the principals of MotoAmerica, racing a Honda Superbike, won over Honda teammate Fred Merkel and Yoshimura Suzuki’s Kevin Schwantz.
Now, with this weekend’s race here at PIRC, the rich tradition of road racing in Pennsylvania is back on track. Hopefully, this circuit will have a long and fruitful relationship with the championship and a new generation of riders will make their own history in the Keystone State.