It’s very rare in motorcycle racing where a tuner is so good that he gains a reputation as building racing machines better than the factories. The legendary tuner Tom Sifton was one such tuner.
Sifton was one of the most remarkable engine builders in the history of motorcycle racing in the U.S. Sifton-tuned engines powered numerous riders to victory in AMA nationals from the mid-1930s t
the early 1970s. His deigns were so innovative that they were copied by factory teams and later issued as standard racing modification parts by those factories. Some of the top riders who rode for Sifton included fellow Motorcycle Hall of Fame members Sam Arena, Kenny Eggers, Larry Headrick and Joe Leonard. Sifton also owned a motorcycle dealership in San Jose, California, and later ran a successful finance business and a performance parts business.
Born John Thomas Clifford Sifton on September 11, 1903 in Ebenezer, New York, Sifton grew up on a farm and rode a pony to school every day as a youngster. He and his sister moved from New York to San Francisco with their father after their mother tragically died.
At the age of 16, Sifton entered a night trade school and learned to be a tool maker. His first job was repairing typewriters and he later took a job at Dud Perkins Harley-Davidson in San Francisco. Sifton began racing in the mid-1920s and became one of the top hillclimb racers on the West Coast. By 1929, the hard-working Sifton was given the chance to run a subsidiary dealership for Perkins and in 1933 he opened his own Sifton’s Harley-Davidson in San Jose. The country was in the middle of the Depression when Sifton opened his dealership. Sales to the San Jose Police Department kept the dealership afloat during those lean years.
Sifton married his wife, Stella, in 1930 and the couple had a daughter, Jean. The family often worked together putting on field runs and other motorcycling events, doing everything from registering the riders to making sandwiches for the participants.
By the late 1920s, Sifton began building race bikes for Bay-area racers. Sifton’s machines quickly became known for speed and reliability. Sifton went from a highly respected Northern California tuner to national prominence on November 27, 1938, when his rider, Sam Arena, beat a star-studded field at the Oakland 200 and shattered the existing race record by an astounding 17 minutes. Sifton had figured out an ingenious way to keep a layer of oil on the cylinder walls during full speed, enabling Arena to ride without letting off the throttle.
“A lot of people came running over to me and said that I’d better get Sam to slow off or he’d blow up for sure, but I didn’t,” said Sifton in a 1968 Cycle magazine interview with Cook Neilson. “If Sam had slowed down he would probably have fouled the plugs, that engine was running so wet.”
With Arena’s Oakland victory, Sifton’s name became synonymous with the fastest racing motorcycles in the country.
In 1950, Sifton’s rider Larry Headrick came out of nowhere to win three of the four AMA nationals held on the big mile tracks, including the national championship event at Springfield, Illinois. Sifton’s Harleys were beating the factory rigs and Milwaukee wanted Sifton to turn over his engine-building secrets. A staunchly independent man, Sifton relished the fact that his bikes were often faster than the Harley-Davidson factory bikes and at first politely declined Harley-Davidson’s inquiries. Eventually, the factory and Sifton reached an agreement and he was commissioned to build racing cams for the factory.
A young rider from San Diego named Joe Leonard was tearing up the tracks of Northern California in the early 1950s. Sifton recognized Leonard’s raw talent and hired him to ride for his team. Leonard would later say that the day Sifton hired him was one of the most exciting days in his racing career.
“He was more than just an engine builder,” said Leonard, a three-time AMA Grand National champion. “He was a coach, a scout of your competition and a father-like figure. He could read a track and tell you the best way to ride it and he was almost always right.”
Besides his involvement in racing, Sifton will also be remembered for forming a motorcycle club in San Jose and sponsoring many motorcycle-related events. Sifton continued to build engines until the late 1950s when he sold his dealership to Sam Arena and scaled back his racing schedule. Sifton was awarded the prestigious Dudley Perkins Award from the AMA in 1973 for his life-long contributions to the sport.
Sifton suffered severe arthritis in his later years, which forced him to use canes to walk. Despite his painful condition, Sifton showed terrific endurance when it came to building racing engines. He would stand at a lathe machine for hours grinding out custom racing parts. His work ethic and energy were second to none. He often started his day at five in the morning and worked until late in the evening. Sifton rarely took vacations.
Sifton suffered a diabetes attack when his wife Stella passed away in February of 1989. Tom lasted only a year longer. He died on February 24, 1990.
He was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in the inaugural class of 1998.
Tom Sifton was a man who dedicated his life to motorcycle racing and engineering and will be forever known as one of the greats in his field.