Last week, the motorcycle industry lost a legend with the passing of Gene Romero. He was 71.
Romero had a long list of racing accomplishments. Some of the standouts were winning the AMA Grand National Championship in 1970, winning the Daytona 200 in 1975, winning 12 AMA Nationals during his 16-year racing career, being named AMA Most Popular Rider of the Year Award in 1970, and, in that same year, being immortalized in the famous racing documentary movie On Any Sunday. Romero was also inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998.
“He’s going to be missed,” said lifelong friend and fellow racer David Aldana. “I saw him just a month ago at the Trailblazers banquet. He was putting on a good face, but I could tell he wasn’t feeling well. Cheri [Gene’s wife] asked me to talk to him about going to see a doctor, but Gene was pretty stubborn, and maybe he didn’t want to hear what they were going to tell him.
“I talked to him on the phone just a week ago and he’d finally gone in. He told me he had had COPD and that maybe they were going to have to take out one of his lungs. But then his condition got worse, and he went downhill fast. It’s sad we lost him, but I’m glad he didn’t linger in pain for a long time.”
Gene Romero might have passed away, but his memory will long live on. We talked to a number of his fellow competitors and those in the industry who knew him best, and they shared some of their fondest memories of the man they called “Burritto.”
We were in Italy to race in the Imola 200, and Gene and Barry Sheene introduced me to wine. I think they were both familiar with it more than I was, and we were all feeling good.
We got in the rental car, and Sheene keeps pulling on the parking brake. Gene was in the back, and this was one of the few times he was completely innocent. We were just leaving the hotel, and I was in third gear and had the thing wound out, and Sheene hits the parking brake again, and we flipped over upside-down into a canal.
The car was filling up fast with water. I was trying to get the driver-side door open but didn’t realize it was up against the bank of the canal. So, I swim back the backseat and try the backdoor – same thing, wouldn’t open. Now the thing is almost full of water. I was just sitting there thinking: “I always wondered how I was gonna go, and I guess this is it.”
All of a sudden, I hear a pounding on the top of the car, which was actually the bottom, and it was Gene yelling, “Kenny, Kenny!” I start swimming around, and I feel his arm, and he pulls me out of the car. We all three just stood there in the canal, waist deep in water hugging each other because we made it out.
And, of course, it made the front page of the paper, but we ended up looking like heroes because Gene made up some story that we had to swerve to keep from hitting a nun who was pulling a wagon behind her.
Racer and promoter Steve McLaughlin:
Gene Romero was a landmark in our generation…not just icon because icons come and go, but Romero is something permanent in the zeitgeist of our sport. Truly a self-made man who did it his way always in a business where few made money, Gene did.
Our relationship was always tumultuous, very much so in the beginning, but like almost everyone who had contact with Gene, he left his mark on me.
Racer David Aldana:
We were out in the West in the middle of nowhere at night, maybe on Highway 66, or route 40 on one of these straight roads that just go on forever. Me, Gene and Chuck Palmgren were all driving our vans drafting each other probably going 70-80 miles per hour, and we were running alongside this long train. Those guys got their guns out and were shooting at the train cars, watching the bullets spark and ricochet.
Even though it was a long train, the engineer must have seen what they were doing. So pretty soon we see these lights behind us way off in the distance. As they got closer, we could see it was cops. We thought maybe there was a big accident or something down the road, but no, they pulled us over and see we all have guns.
I was mad because I thought, here I wasn’t doing anything and I was going to get in big trouble and end up in jail. I don’t know how he did it, but Gene somehow convinced the cops it wasn’t us who was shooting at the train cars and they couldn’t really prove anything, so they let us off with speeding tickets.
If that had happened today with social media and all that stuff, we all would have been fired and been out of racing. It was just a different time.
Racer Mark Homchick:
I had the honor of being called a “p–sy” by Gene when I wouldn’t start the second heat of the ’82 Laguna national, because of gearbox problems. Laguna, with its lack of run-off, was one place I was not going to risk a gearbox failure.
Romero thought otherwise.
I’d never been so honored to be called that.
Racer and promoter Mike Kidd:
Gene and I had a lot in common. Our dads got us racing quarter-midgets at an early age, we each became AMA Grand National Champions, we were at Honda at the same time, and both became promoters after our racing careers. We always had great stories to share.
Filmmaker Peter Starr:
Gene Romero was the only racer to win two 200-mile races back to back—Ontario 1974 and Daytona 1975—and both were hard-fought races that had attracted the toughest of his competitors. I watched him claw tooth and nail with the likes of Agostini and Roberts with the same commitment I had seen him at all of his races. He was committed and very fast. This Grand National Champion was equally competent whether on asphalt or the sometimes more demanding mile dirt tracks.
But for all his success, and there was a lot of it, what endeared him to the fans both sides of the Atlantic when he represented America against the best England, and sometimes the world had to offer, was his open, warm and smiling personality. He loved his fans and took time to acknowledge them, as much as they loved him.
I filmed Gene at the Ontario race, and when we were putting together the edited version, Gene recorded a phrase for me that stuck with that audience for a long time. He described: “Racing a motorcycle at 180 miles an hour is like driving down a freeway at 90 miles an hour and suddenly turning into your driveway. Things tend to happen in slow motion until you miss your braking market, and then all hell breaks loose out there.”
“I Love Carnations”
The motorcycle industry couldn’t be sadder. Another Champion is gone. Gene Romero, husband, father, best friend, legend, and Champion.
Born, Gene Ronald Romero, May 22, 1947, in Martinez California, Gene called San Louis Obispo home. He cut lawns and cleaned pools to get his first motorcycle. His father, Gene senior, was a tough and proud man who imparted the traits of hard work and honest living to Gene and his two younger brothers, Carlos and Terry. Their mother, Emma, was a saint. She had the intolerable job of raising these three, rough and tumble boys while keeping up with the demands from the patriarch of this respectable Romero family. Her German lineage added a meticulous, sensible and loving aspect to their upbringing. But just don’t get between any of the Romero brothers (or senior) because chances are you may find yourself on the losing end of the stick.
Always the cool one, Gene had those Elvis Presley good looks. He had class, talent, determination, and the best sponsors you could find. He was one of America’s greatest motorcycle racers. He changed the course of professional motorcycle racing when he brought non-motorcycle-oriented sponsors into the sport from outside the industry. When local sponsors like Bill’s muffler shop or Joe’s Garage seemed to be the only available course, Gene pursued and landed national sponsors like Busch Beer, Ocean Pacific, and Evel Knievel…plus factory Triumph and Yamaha, of course.
Romero honed his racing skills on dirt and scrambles tracks in the Central Valley of California. As an amateur, Romero used his scramble skills to become a top TT Steeplechase Rider. Not surprisingly Romero’s first pro finish came at the age of 19 at the Castle Rock TT in July 1966. He adopted the nickname “Burritto” with two Ts instead of the conventional spelling with one T. His first national win was two years later in Lincoln, Nebraska riding a Triumph.
His greatest moments may have come in 1970 when he became National Champion, of the AMA Grand National Championship Series and in 1975 when on a completely different style of motorcycle, he became the winner of American road racing’s most coveted prize, the king of them all, the Daytona 200. That would be the equivalent of winning the IndyCar Championship and the Indianapolis 500, an analogy unintended as patronizing; in fact, it is flattery. More than once you’d hear his Indy 500 racing car cronies say, “Gene, you motorcycle racers are crazy!”
Chris Agajanian recalls Gene always having a unique way of expressing himself and not soliciting sympathy from others, like when he had a six-month stint in a full body cast.
“He was a huge personality,” Agajanian said. “An old-school spirit and akin to his pal ‘The Intimidator,’ the other number-3 [Dale Earnhardt]. Don’t cross him or you’d wish you hadn’t. He did it his way ’til the very end. He had those Elvis Presley good looks and some of the best witticisms around.
“Lying there in a full body cast and asked how he was doing, he quipped, ‘It’s no problem, I’ve had worse things in my eye.’”
Still, his best quote was memorialized in the greatest motorcycle movie of all time, the Academy Awards nominated documentary On Any Sunday. At the time, Gene needed a third place or better finish at the Sacramento Mile to be crowned the 1970 AMA Grand National Champion. He remarked when interviewed; “I don’t want to hurt anybody, but I’ve got to get third no matter what. I’m going to get third or come see me in the hospital. I dig carnations.”
“The Agajanian Family is shaken and saddened at the loss of our dear friend ‘Burritto.’ You are forever in our hearts. Elvis has left the building, and Gene has left the racetrack—with the checkered flag,” added Agajanian.
Just seven years after his amateur race at Ascot Park in Southern California, he became the youngest AMA Grand National Championship titleholder in the sport’s history at age 22. Gene was so dominant that year that he sealed the championship by winning the Sacramento Mile with two races remaining on the schedule.
After 16 years of racing, Romero retired. Following his retirement, American Honda Motor Co. decided to take on Harley-Davidson at their own game. Harley had that scene pretty well sewed up with its aluminum XR-750, a bike that every year became more and more intimately adapted to dirt. Honda’s philosophy was; it takes people who understand racing, backed by R&D. For Honda, one such person was Gene Romero. He was hired to manage Honda’s dirt track program. From 1984 to 1987, Honda took home the number-one plate and became the series king, winning four championships in a row.
Gene raced cars briefly before becoming a promoter and creating the West Coast Flat Track Series, which over the years, has given novice and semi-pro riders a place to race at more than 30 venues stretching from Southern California to the Pacific Northwest. He was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998 and, in 2001, received the Trailblazers top honors, their Dick Hammer Award.
Gene died just 10 days short of his 72nd birthday and leaves behind his loving wife, Cheri, and 23-year-old son, Geno.
The family is besieged with prayers and good wishes. Cheri and Geno would like to thank you all for your wonderful thoughts and care.
In lieu of a memorial service, many racetracks across the nation will be having a “Moment of Silence” in our hero’s name. There will be a celebration of life announced soon. R.I.P. Gene Romero #3, Burritto.