Archives | Skip Van Leeuwen
By Scott Rousseau
This Archives edition is reprinted from issue #45, November 16, 2005. CN has hundreds of past Archives editions in our files, too many destined to be archives themselves. To prevent that from happening, we will be revisiting past Archives articles while still planning to keep fresh ones coming down the road -Editor.
When you hear motorcycle people talk about getting older but refusing to grow up, well, they’re probably talking about Triumph-riding TT legend Skip Van Leeuwen.
Prior to turning professional in 1960, Van Leeuwen was the archetypal Southern California motorcycle rowdie. So long as nobody got hurt, Van Leeuwen liked to have a good time. It was all in good fun.
“Guys like Dick Hammer and me, we grew up in Bellflower, and we used to drag race all over the streets of Bellflower,” Van Leeuwen says. “Dick Hammer and I went to Catalina to watch the Catalina Grand Prix in 1957,” Van Leeuwen added. “Before that, we would go to Gardena Speedway and watch Jimmy Phillips and Tex Luce and guys like that, and we thought they were some sort of gods. Then we went to Catalina and watched all these other guys race, and we thought, ‘Hell, we can do that,’ so we both bought Triumph Tiger Cubs and started racing. We did good right away, [and] won a lot of races.”
But even that early success wasn’t enough to convince Van Leeuwen into thinking that he could race full time and make a living at it. He was having too much fun doing things his way. Pro racing was too serious.
“Dick Hammer and I decided that when we turned Expert on the little bikes, we could buy big bikes and go back to Amateur on the big bikes, but then we won everything right away again,” Van Leeuwen recalls. “We didn’t get to stay amateur very long, just a few months.”
Van Leeuwen still figured on quitting once he became Expert in the heavyweight ranks.
“I didn’t want to be a racer, and my family thought I should be in church on Sunday anyway,” Van Leeuwen recounts. “But then Dick Hammer talked me into going out to the District 37 Championship race at Acton [California]. I loaded my bike up, and we went out there, and all those Expert guys were just rubbing their hands, waiting for me, because I was such a cocky guy. They thought they were going to trim me real good, but then they threw flag, I got a good start, passed a couple guys and won the championship in my first race. That hooked me. I had to go home and explain to my parents that church was at Ascot.”
Obtaining his pro license in 1960, Van Leeuwen went on to win 24 straight races his novice year, and he only got quicker as he progressed through the ranks. Why then, wonder of all wonders, did it take him seven long years to finally earn a Grand National victory? Van Leeuwen says he knows the answer: He just didn’t care about winning Nationals all that much.
“The only thing that mattered to me was that everybody knew I was the fastest guy there, so consequently I would hit the wall or break down, tear stuff up or torch it,” Van Leeuwen says. “I was the fastest guy there, but I didn’t finish too much. They used to say, ‘Van Leeuwen, you’re going to go, blow or put a hole in the wall!'”
But then, in 1963, Van Leeuwen won the 100-lap TT Championship at Ascot. He would go on to remain undefeated in the event for the next five years.
“Those [100-lappers] were the biggest races at Ascot, just like a National,” Van Leeuwen says.
During that time, Van Leeuwen says, he changed tuners and backed his hell-for-leather riding style down about four or five degrees,” and he started to win even more. By 1967, it was dumb luck, not his own, that kept Van Leeuwen off the AMA Grand National winner’s list.
“In 1963, I led it all the way until about 10 laps from the end, and then the engine blew,” Van Leeuwen recalls. “That’s the year Dick Mann won it [the race and the Grand National Championship], and Dick Mann will tell you that he thanks me to this day for blowing up, because that’s what got him number one. But way back then, I was leading them.”
But finally, on July 22, 1967, on a summer night at Ascot, it all came together. Van Leeuwen took it seriously and played it cagey. Rather than rush to lead the 50-lap National, Van Leeuwen followed Norton-mounted Jack Simmons for much of the race before making his move for the lead on lap 37. The two then diced for three laps before Simmons retook the lead. It appeared to be Simmons’ night until the last lap, when he crashed away his chance at victory. Even then, Van Leeuwen’s win was not a certainty, as his Triumph popped a fuel line and slowed considerably. “Go-, blow-, or put-a-hole-in-the-fence-Van” Leeuwen earned his first National win. He would earn a total of four before retiring from racing in 1973. By then, racing had gotten serious.
“I’ll tell you how stiff the competition was when I retired,” Van Leeuwen says. “When I quit in 1973, I was 31 or 32 years old, and they were calling me George Blanda. I was the old man of the racetrack. Gary Scott and Kenny Roberts and all these young guys were coming in. I’d come in and I’d have marks all over my legs and elbows from where those guys were running into me. I could still go fast but got a job and went on the road. I never told anybody I was going to retire, didn’t say a word, because you hear about the guy who says that he’s going to retire and then gets killed in his last race. That wasn’t going to be me. I just waited until the end of the season, pulled into the pits, and said, ‘I quit.’ Nobody believed me.”
But Van Leeuwen did walk away, pursuing a career in the motorcycle industry that was only briefly interrupted by a career in the music recording business. As the head of his own motorcycle parts distributorship, Skip Van Leeuwen Enterprises, Van Leeuwen has been a mainstay in the industry ever since. As far as the racing-legend stuff, it’s icing on the cake, but for Van Leeuwen the cake was the camaraderie and the enjoyment that he got out of racing with his pals, not so much the winning.
“It [winning a lot of Nationals] never really entered my mind,” Van Leeuwen says. “It wasn’t really part of my consciousness. What made me such a big name was my craziness off the racetrack. Like, every year, I used to go down to the St. Johns River in Florida, and off that river is a tributary called the Wekiva. The trick was that I’d take everybody up this little Wekiva, which was a wildlife preserve, and we’d just start shooting everything in sight. If they would’ve caught us, we never would’ve gotten out of jail. We’d have 15 shotguns and boxes of shells, and I’d say, ‘Okay guys, don’t shoot until we get down the river a little ways.’ We’d get 10 yards from the dock, and the guns would just start roaring. Then I’d play like I was lost and scare the shit out of everybody. There’d be water moccasins in the trees and stuff like that.
“Well, this one year I took all the factory racers, like Mark Brelsford, Dick Hammer, Art Baumann, Gene Romero, I forget who was all there,” Van Leeuwen says. “Pretty soon it’s getting dark, and I start taking wrong turns, and we run out of gas. We were screwed. I was sure we were going to spend the night out there, and here I had all these factory racers who had to be to the track the next morning. So, I’m tearing off bits of cloth and hanging it from the trees to mark my way so that I didn’t go the same way twice, and Bill Manley says to me, ‘What’s the matter, Skip, you lost?’ Wink, wink. He thought I was kidding, and he was the only guy who wasn’t scared to death, but everybody else was freaked.”
For Skip Van Leeuwen, it was all in good fun. CN