Al Wilcox, longtime race starter who flagged the very first AMA Superbike Championship race in 1976, and former factory Harley-Davidson support racer, died Thursday at Capital Health Center in his hometown of Trenton, New Jersey. He was 92.
Wilcox, became known as “Airborne Al” after he developed the technique of taking a big leap in the air when waving the checkered flag for the winner. “Somebody labeled me ‘Airborne Al’ and the name just stuck. That’s what everybody knows me by now,” Wilcox said in a 2009 interview with Cycle News.
A New Jersey native who lived in the same Trenton home for 82 years, Wilcox was involved with motorcycling since the mid-1930s. He started riding when he was 18 and quickly became known as one of the Trenton area’s most skilled riders.
Wilcox was about to kick off his racing career when World War II called him to service. By the time the war was over and racing resumed Al was 27. It was a later start than most, but the short, but solidly built Jersey boy proved not to be intimidated by the racing game. His very first race was at Daytona on the old beach course in 1947. Out of 150 starters in the novice event Wilcox finished third. He followed that up with a solid performance at Laconia where he led the race early before gearbox and carburetor problems dropped him back to third.
“At that Laconia race I had a float stick on my carburetor and I had a spectator bring me a stone and I hit the carburetor with it and it started working again,” Wilcox remembered. “I led the race twice and twice I had problems with the bike and dropped way back. I was still able to come back and finish third.”
One spectator who took note of Wilcox’s excellent debut rides at Daytona and Laconia was Walter Davidson of Harley-Davidson Motor Company. “That winter I got a letter from Mr. Davidson asking if I would be interested in racing for Harley-Davidson,” Wilcox said. For the next four seasons Harley-Davidson gave Wilcox racing support. “I had to be one of the few riders in the country who had a Harley-Davidson ride before I had a national number.”
Wilcox kept racing well into well his 40s. He said in his final couple of years he could still do well in time trials, but during the races he started thinking about too much.
“In my younger days when I came up on two riders riding side by side and there was a little gap I would bust right up in between them,” he said. “In my last couple of years I started thinking ‘suppose they close the gap’ and I’d shut off and they’d get 50 feet on me. I knew it was time to quit.”
Fortunately for Wilcox he found a way to stay involved in the sport. In the late 1950s District 6 Starter Red Mosser had Wilcox assist him in a few of the road races in Windber, Pennsylvania. One weekend the regular starter at Middletown was unable to show and the AMA asked if Wilcox might perform the starter’s duties. “I was still racing locally at the time,” Wilcox explained. “I asked them how much it paid. When they told me I said I would make more racing so I turned it down. They called the promoter and asked if he would pay a little more and they met my price so I became the regular starter at Middletown.”
Wilcox was flagger for the first AMA Superbike Championship race at Daytona International Speedway in March of 1976. The race was a photo finish between Steve McLaughlin and Reg Pridmore. At first it was thought that Pridmore won until a photo was produced showing McLaughlin just edging out his fellow BMW rider.
“I called McLaughlin on the radio,” Wilcox remembers proudly. “But Roxy [Rockwood] was up there telling everyone that Pridmore won.”
Wilcox is probably best known for his association with WERA. He began working races for the sanctioning body from its very start in 1973. He was the official starter for the WERA Grand National Finals for 15 years. Wilcox took to wearing brightly colored matching shirts and pants with the WERA logo on the back. “I figured the riders started wearing bright racing leathers so I might as well match them with what I was wearing,” he said.
Over the years road racers across the East came to revere Al and his distinctive Riders’ Meeting instructions. Mention Al’s name to just about any road racer on the East Coast and they’ll immediately break into an imitation of Wilcox’s high pitched spiel about his starting techniques where he always finishes with the line “I’ve given you 99 percent of my starting procedure. I reserve one percent for myself.” No one really knew exactly what it meant, but it was a great line.