Archives: The Nelson Ledges Reunion

Larry Lawrence | September 10, 2019

Archives: The Nelson Ledges Reunion

By all rights Nelson Ledges Road Course, in Garrettsville, Ohio, should have really never been much more that a club race track that garnered little attention outside of relatively small world of club-racing participants and enthusiasts. But in motorcycle racing circles at least, the two-mile long Northern Ohio circuit became famous over the years because of one thing – the 24 Hours of Nelson Ledges endurance race.

Archives: The Nelson Ledges Reunion

Some of the over 100 attendees at the recent Nelson Ledges Reunion. (Larry Smith photo)

What started as a fun gathering of friends for a low-key 24-hour event morphed into a big-time road race that attracted some of the biggest names in American racing. It also attracted thousands of fans, who, to be perfectly honest, were only marginally there for the race. Instead they were there for the crazy 24-hour blowout party fueled by alcohol, weed and other sundry mind-altering substances. At night venturing into the infield was like walking into a surreal netherworld full of smoke, fire and fog, complete with hundreds of zombie-like figures wandering the shadowy recesses in a daze.

Last month there was a reunion of racers who raced the track put together by longtime motorcycle enthusiast and ex-racer Larry Smith. It was a smashing success, so much so that what was initially planned as a one-time gathering of the Nelson Ledges tribe, possibly could become a repeat affair.

24 Hours of Nelson Ledges program from 1980.

First a bit about the track. According to its website, Nelson Ledges Road Course (named after unique rock formations in the area) was constructed in 1958 on a small rural potato farm outside of Warren, Ohio. There was no design plan, no million-dollar study, and no mega contracts with architects, engineers or planners. It was two men (Marvin Drucker and John McGill) with a bulldozer and an idea to build a race track. The original track was dirt and only one-mile in length. Paving came next and then the addition of “The Carousel” in 1962. Later the bridge was added, the pit lane was extended and paved, and tires were added for barriers around the track. Those discarded tires from nearby plants in Akron, initially won the track safety awards, being the airfencing of that era, but with age the tires became rock hard and a perfect breeding ground for mosquitos. While better than hitting Armco, as a rider you did not want to end up in the tires.

A 24 Hours of Nelson Ledges poster from 1978.

According to Smith the idea of a Nelson Ledges Reunion was first dreamed up at the 82nd reunion of Youngstown, Ohio’s Pirate Motorcycle Club. Lean TrackDays was hosting an event at the track during the weekend of Aug., 17-18 and Smith talked to the organizer about simultaneously hosting the Nelson Ledges Reunion and they agreed. Smith immediately put together a poster and began putting the word out. This was in May, meaning Smith had a relatively short time to get info out on the reunion. Thanks to Smith’s efforts word spread quickly, especially when his poster hit social media.

Teams gather for the start of the 24 Hours of Nelson in 1987. At the time this was one of the most important club races in the country. (Larry Lawrence photo)

Amazingly motorcycle racing at Nelson Ledges goes all the way back to the track’s founding. Northern Ohio had a group of racers, that included Ronnie Rall, John Penton, George Roeder, formed an organization called the Competition Riders Association. It was that organization that first organized motorcycle races at Nelson Ledges in 1959.

Nelson actually hosted an AMA National Road Race in 1964 and ‘65. It was an odd event that counted for AMA Grand National points, but featured Lightweight class (250cc) bikes. The 24-hour started in 1968 and early on it was just a small club affair, more akin to an endurance run than an actual race. In the early years the 24-hour was lucky to draw a dozen entries, but then Cycle magazine coordinated a Triumph mounted team that won the event in 1969 and the race’s popularity exploded.

Some of the old race bikes brought back for display at the Nelson Ledges Reunion. (Larry Smith photo)

Things started really getting serious in the late 1970s. Teams got more prepared and the competition ratcheted up. Known as a true test of man and machine, the manufacturers and aftermarket race suppliers began advertising accomplishments in the 24-Hour. It was so popular that organizers began limiting the number of entries to 50 teams. Cost was more than reasonable. In 1978 the race entry fee was $75 per team and that included admission for four riders and up to nine crew members! That included scorers who manually kept track of the race on long sheets of paper.

Teams like Lester Wheels, Road and Trail, GT Racing/Group Four, Northridge Yamaha, Heschimura Racing and others made the race a much than it had been in its early years. Then the race became part of the WERA National Endurance Championship, which gave it added importance. Team Hammer, with its roster loaded with big-name road racers, The Human Race Team, Cycle Tech Racing (that featured John Kocinski and David Aldana), Team Pearls, Virginia Breeze Racing, Force Racing and more poured tons of resources in the race.

Former AMA Superbike rider Eric Moe racing at the 24 Hours of Nelson Ledges in 1987. Powerful lighting for night riding was a major challenge for the teams in the race. (Larry Lawrence photo)

Then there were the legends of the race. Motorcycle gang members chased out of the pits by non-other than Bart Markel, frogs coming onto the track in the middle of the night from the nearby swamp. Motorcycles ending up in said swamp. Racers facing rain, fog, smoke from campfires, sometimes all at once. Fans building multi-level platforms to watch the race, that often leaned under the strain of too many people.

While big-teams brought big names and bigger budgets, the bulk of Nelson 24 Hour field was always groups of buddies who got together and pitched in to race. Bikes rarely came out unscathed and often were write-offs afterwards. One team entered and won the Lightweight class on a Yamaha FZR400. The bike refused to start after the race was over, so the dealer warrantied the engine and sold the FZR on the showroom as a new bike!

John Kocinski raced in the 24 Hours of Nelson Ledges when he was just 16. (Larry Lawrence photo)

At the reunion, Smith said the reunion attendees brought out 16 old race bikes featured in the reunion tent – everything from old air-cooled two-strokes on up to Superbikes of the 1980s. Well over a 100 attended the event. Among the number were many who raced Nelson in the early days, like John Samways, who was once referred to as Mr. Nelson Ledges for his success at the track, including being the longtime lap record holder.

“Everyone just loved getting back together after all this time. For many people it had been 40 years since they’d had contact,” Smith said. “After the racing everybody just went their own way.”

Former racer Larry Smith put together the first ever Nelson Ledges Reunion. It was such a success he says people have asked him to do it again. (Larry Lawrence photo)

Smith said the hardest part of putting things together was finding out about the ex-Nelson racers who had passed away. Smith himself was facing health issues and was released from the hospital with just days to spare in the preparation of the reunion.

At one point the old race bikes and a few of the old racers took to the track for what was supposed to be display laps. “But racers being racers, before you knew it, they were going at it like the old days,” Smith laughed. “They were only supposed to go around for a couple of laps. Finally, the flagman had to wave them after eight laps!”

Larry Lawrence | Archives Editor In addition to writing our Archives section on a weekly basis, Lawrence is another who is capable of covering any event we throw his way.