Saturday, August 18, 2012

Getting yer' Nickel's worth

When I first moved to Kansas City, I spent one Saturday afternoon exploring a warehouse district known as the West Bottoms. It's a triangle of a few square miles, defined on two sides by the Kansas and Missouri rivers. It's aptly named, since every decade or so floods put it on the bottom of the Missouri River. Nowadays, it's mostly abandoned but one of the few viable businesses down there's a shop called Cafe Racer. 

I wandered in with no expectations, wary of a tough-looking dog. Half the bikes had racing number plates, not license plates. A Commando awaited customer pickup, and a tasty Ducati bevel-drive had taken it's place on the stand; it emerged that the mechanic working on it had once been a modern dancer in Martha Graham's company. Suffice to say I was not in your ordinary tires-chain-battery joint. The dog turned out to be friendly.

The owner, Greg, took me back to show me his dyno, and when he turned on the computer, the curve on the screen belonged to a 1939 BMW R51 owned by Norbert Nickel. That name rang a bell. Nickel, one of the oldest active racers in the U.S., has won many AHRMA championships on that beemer. That I knew. But when I found he'd been a factory-supported flat tracker in the late '50s and early '60s, I decided to look him up.
Norbert, in his home shop, with one of his BMW road-racers
Nickel doesn't live too far from the West Bottoms; just a few miles upstream on the Kansas River (and on higher ground.) There was nothing about his suburban home that suggested it belonged to a motorcycle racer, at least from the outside. He led me into a room that I assumed was the trophy room. We talked there for a while; his scrapbook was in another trophy room. And passed by more trophies on the way to his garage.

Norbert told me that he'd raced grasstrack, mostly on a 250cc NSU, in Germany in the early '50s. He was also a sidecar passenger, and raced a borrowed KTT Velo at the Nurburgring. Then in '56,  Volkswagen opened up scores of new car dealerships across the U.S., and it was the company policy to ensure that each one had a genuine German mechanic. “I thought it would be a good way for me to see the U.S., and make some money,” he told me. “I was going to return in a year or two but then I realized I could race motorcycles here, too.”

He swapped the German grasstracks for American dirt, replacing his NSU with a BSA Gold Star motor in a rigid frame. “They told me that swingarms didn't work on the clay tracks,” he shrugged. “Now everyone uses them.”

In the late '50s, the Midwest was a dirt track hotbed, and Norbert could race almost every weekend through the long, hot summers and still make it back to the Kansas City Volkswagen dealership to report for work on Monday. 
This is a photo of the section of fence Norbert knocked down, in the appropriately-named town of Norton, Kansas
Not that he just had 'local' speed; when future Hall of Famers like Sammy Tanner, and Dick Mann passed through KC on the way to races, they'd pick Norbert and his bike up. In 1960, he made the main event at the legendary Springfield Mile and finished seventh. That was no easy task when the field was stacked with established pros like Joe Leonard and Everett Brashear, Carroll Resweber and Mann at the height of their powers, and up-and-comers like Gary Nixon and Tanner – and that was under Class C rules when Norbert raced his 500cc BSA against 750cc Harleys. “Harley-Davidson offered to sell me one of their bikes for a dollar,” he recalled. “They'd sell the title for a dollar, and deliver the bike to a dealer sponsor, who'd maintain it – but I didn't want one of those cast-iron monstrosities. Of course, I regret not having it now!”

“I would have liked to race for a living,” he told me. “When I raced in Europe, the promoters paid start money. But here, it was all prize-money, and there wasn't much of it! You had to ride like the devil just to earn money for gas; you couldn't accumulate anything that way.” In '61, he crashed right through a fence at a dirt track race in Norton, Kansas and spent nine months with a cast on his arm. He raced a few more times, but knew it was no way to raise a family.

That was probably the right decision. “I had friends like Gary Nixon who raced very successfully,” Norbert said, “and after their careers they had not much left over.” When he left Germany it was still rebuilding; he moved to the U.S. at the beginning of a remarkable run of prosperity. He owned his own repair shop, and raised his kids in a suburb that could have served as the model for the American dream. 

He never forgot his own racing dreams. In the early '90s, pushing sixty years of age, he started road racing in AHRMA. He bought an early '50s BMW R51/2 and back-dated it to make it eligible as a 1939 BMW R51. In the last 20 years, he's won scores of races and 11 national championships in AHRMA's pre-40 and Class C divisions. 

In 2002, he had another encounter with a wall, at Sears Point, that nearly cost him his left foot. He modified the BMW's shift lever, so he could shift up and down in spite of the fact that his ankle is fused. His wife died; the kids long ago moved out, it's just Norbert and a few motorcycles filling the big house these days. I asked him if he was the oldest guy racing motorcycles in U.S. and he said, “Well, Al Knapp used to be the oldest, but he doesn't race any more. He broke his hip shoveling snow.”

I could still hear the accent of the German kid who, he recalled, “was a little too wild, I either won or fell down.” As I left, he told me that he'd keep racing until he got in people's way. That will be a while yet, since even now there's only one guy faster than him in his classes. I guess Norbert's more proof of my theory that if motorcycles don't kill us, they keep us alive.

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