Archives: Williamson’s Belated Claim to Fame
(UPDATE: After this story was published, it was pointed out by veteran race followers that a Honda ridden by Darrel Dovel at the Santa Fe Short Track in 1962 was actually the first known Japanese motorcycle to make an AMA Grand National. This story originally credited Larry Williamson and his Yamaha for being the first, but it has been updated to reflect that newfound information.)
Peoria TT 1963, hometown hero Larry Williamson went into the record books with an accomplishment that will last forever, but neither he, nor anyone else at the time, understood exactly how momentous that day would ultimately become in annals of AMA racing history.
Archives: Williamson’s Belated Claim to Fame
On August 25, 1963, Williamson finished with a solid result of fifth in the Peoria TT Lightweight National. How does a fifth-place result get a rider into the record books? With that finish Williamson became the first rider to finish an AMA Grand National on a Yamaha. What he raced that day was a Yamaha flat tracker, powered by a TD1 250cc road race engine. Williamson figures he could have won the race, but for one little issue with the Yamaha that forced him to slow on a crucial part of the track. Another rider – Tom Clark – was Yamaha-mounted as well and finished 11th that day.
The first Yamaha motorcycles sold in the USA were imported in the late 1950s by Cooper Motors, an independent distributor. The models were the YD1 (250cc, 2-stroke, twin cylinder, streetbike) and MF-1 (50cc, 2-stroke, single cylinder, streetbike, step-through). By the early 1960s, a few enterprising racers in Southern California recognized the good power available from the two-cylinder, two-stroke 250 and began putting them in racing frames and TT and short track raced them with good success. Yamaha took note and built a limited-production version of its popular YD-1 called the Ascot Scrambler.
In the early 1960s the AMA changed the rules introducing 250cc machines into national competition. Knowing the success riders were having in regional events in Southern California, Yamaha saw an opportunity with the new AMA rules to possibly compete in an AMA Grand National for the first time by way of the Lightweight class of the Peoria TT. Many of the leading national riders were racing with either Harley-Davidson support or Harley dealer support.
That’s where Williamson came in. He was known as an excellent rider overall, but was especially good on TTs – he finished on the podium at the Peoria TT National in 1962 and was coming off a runner-up finish in the Daytona 200 to start his’63 racing campaign. Even though he had a deal with Triumph for the big bikes, he was opened to ride whatever he wanted in the Lightweight portion of Peoria’s double national weekend. Yamaha reached out to Williamson via Peoria’s local Yamaha dealer, Pierce’s Cycle.
“I’d known the folks at Pierce’s since I was a kid,” Williamson said. “At first they were talking to me about racing a scrambles-type Yamaha and I told them that probably wouldn’t work that well at Peoria. So, Yamaha called me and told me they had a TT bike that was being raced by a novice out in Southern California and they wondered if I would give that a try.”
Williamson agreed, but he wanted the bike a couple of weeks before Peoria so he could practice and race the bike at an upcoming TT in St. Louis.
“I took it down to St. Louis and broke the crankshaft off of it on the jump,” Williamson remembers. “Those bikes were notorious for breaking crankshafts because the clutch was out on the end of them.
“I called them and told them what happened and a guy showed up at the house and he had a TD-1B with him, the road racer. They thought maybe I could use the road race engine in the flat track frame. So, we put that engine in it and went to Peoria.”
The minute Williamson got on the track he knew the combination of the flat track frame and the road race engine had real potential.
“It was a strong motor,” he recalls. “The Harleys [Sprint] were a little faster, but I could out accelerate them. To keep it in the power I was clicking four gears going down the straightaway.”
But according to Williamson, there was a problem, and it was no small issue. While the TD-1B engine was faster than the production Yamaha motor, it suffered the same Achilles heel with a fragile crank. A hard landing off the jump under power would almost certainly snap it. The solution Williamson came up with was pulling in the clutch just as he was about to land off Peoria’s famous jump.
“It was a hard bike to ride. The shift was on the left side and the Triumph I was riding in the big bike national was on the right, so that kept me thinking. And I’d have to make sure I was completed landed off the jump before I could engage the clutch,” he said. “So that cost me some time, but I still thought I had a shot at winning.”
With no time on that engine before the national, Williamson said he snuck out the little Yamaha into practice with the big bikes for a break-in. He was stunned by the little Yamaha’s power.
“I was out there with the Sportsters and 650 Triumphs and BSAs and I could outrun some of them down the straightaway. I thought, ‘holy cow, this thing is a jet!’”
The field for the Lightweight race was packed with talent, including riders like Bart Markel, Dick Mann and Mert Lawwill. It was mostly a Harley field with a smattering of other brands, such as the Yamahas, a Bultaco, a Parilla and a Ducati rounding out the entries.
Williamson had to be cautious over the jump because of the fragile crank and he ran 10th on the first lap, but then he perfected his landing technique, then used the power of his screaming little Yamaha road race engine to work his way up to a very respectable fifth by the finish.
At the time no one seemed to appreciate the fact that this was the first Japanese motorcycle to race in an AMA Grand National. Williamson said there were only a few curious onlookers that really took much notice of the bike. Williamson never saw the bike again after Peoria.
“It was only years later that I was told the importance of that race,” Williamson said. “I have no idea whatever happened to the bike. I heard it went back to the kid who was racing it in the novice class at Ascot. I think the bike probably went back to Yamaha. Who knows where it is today.”
These days Williamson is the Vice President of the Peoria Motorcycle Club and he still works the national every year. If you go to the TT this year you might run into Williamson, and now you’ll know that he’s someone who was a big part of a cool little piece of Yamaha racing history.