The Norton That Turned Wood Into Gold
By Scott Rousseau
This Archives edition is reprinted from issue #32, August 9, 2005. CN has hundreds of past Archives editions in our files, too many destined to be archives themselves. So, to prevent that from happening, in the future, we will be revisiting past Archives articles while still planning to keep fresh ones coming down the road -Editor.
Ron Wood may not have been the engineer that the great Shell Thuett was and is, but just like Thuett did with Elliott Schultz and the Royal Enfield, Wood took a hot young rider and an obscure brand and made history at a venue renowned for history—Ascot Park in Gardena, California.
About a dozen years after Schultz’s reign of terror, Wood, his trick Norton twins, and a Northern California rider named Alex Jorgensen were the scourge of Ascot’s weekly flat track races. Only, Wood and Jorgensen went one better, actually scoring an AMA Grand National victory on the half mile while racing against the all-conquering Harley-Davidson XR750s in 1978. Not bad for Wood, a guy who was kind of late bloomer on the flat track scene.
“I just got interested in it in the early ’70s,” Wood says. “I had gone to Ascot, and I was sitting with a bunch of my motorcycle buddies, and we were watching the races. This one guy sitting next to me, Jeff Jahns, says, ‘I could go faster than those guys.’ So, I said, ‘Okay, I’ll build you a bike.’ My first flat tracker was a Ducati 250. That’s how I got started.”
It was only natural that Wood would eventually build a big twin, but his choice of engines defied conventional wisdom. Rather than choose a Harley or one of the more commonly used vertical twins from Yamaha, Triumph or BSA, he would end up with a Norton, for no particular reason other than because one was easily available.
“A friend of mine used to own Champion Motors in Costa Mesa [California], and I was over there fooling around one day, and they had this Norton Commando, and somebody had run into a truck with it,” Wood recalls. “The whole front end was gone. I looked at it and said, ‘You know, I think I’ll try and make a flat tracker out of this thing.’ I bought the engine for $200. There were a few Nortons already running around on flat tracks, so I wasn’t the first.”
But if Wood’s Norton wasn’t the first one, it was definitely original, featuring a unique chassis that would incorporate all sorts of features stemming from whatever ideas popped out of Wood’s fertile mind.
“I designed the frame and had Steve Jentges, who still works for me now but was partners in C&J racing frames, weld it together,” Wood says. “The first one was really ahead of the troops. The seat, tank and number plates were all one piece. It was a tubular frame, and I’m pretty sure I was the first one to build a steering head where you could rotate the [bearing] cups and change the fork angle. I painted the frame white and the gas tank baby blue, [Laughs.] The guys thought that one was a little too wide where your legs go around the seat, but they obviously hadn’t ridden Harleys. Anyway, that was the first one, but then for the second one, I decided to make a large, three-inch-diameter tube frame that circled the whole engine—from the steering head, underneath the engine and then back to the steering head.”
Exemplifying Wood’s innovative spirit, the big-tube frame was created with more than just extra rigidity in mind.
“The Nortons were notorious for having a lot of back-pressure in the engine, and they would puke quite bit of oil,” Wood says. “So, I used the bottom of the frame as the oil tank, and the upper part of the frame I used like a giant catch can. And after every race, I could drain out all that blow-by oil, and it was also vented to atmosphere. It made it unique because I didn’t have any oil spillage.”
Whatever it lacked in power production—and that was negligible—the Wood Norton more than made up for with its razor-sharp handling. It also didn’t hurt that Jorgensen rode like the wind at Ascot, racking up several weekly main-event victories at the sticky, fast half-mile track.
“I think we won the Ascot track points championship something like four years in a row,” Wood says.
What is certain is that from 1976 through 1978, Wood’s Nortons finished on the box at either the spring or autumn AMA Grand National half miles held at Ascot.
“In 1976, we were leading the National on the big tube, and then Jay Springsteen did a kamikaze and got under Alex, and we got beat by about a wheel length,” Wood recalls. “That was a great race.”
In 1977, Wood built a second big-tube chassis Norton, fielding Dave Aldana as well as Jorgensen for the Ascot finale that year. Clad in his skeleton leathers, Aldana finished third, behind first-time AMA Grand National winner Garth Brow and Springsteen, who put the finishing touches on a second consecutive championship season.
Wood wasn’t through yet. For 1978, he built a third Norton.
“I called that the lightweight frame,” Wood says. “On the lightweight frame, I started by having a monoshock under the engine. I went to the war surplus store and bought a hydraulic ram with 5/8-inch shaft on it—no spring or anything. Then I made an accumulator with a bladder in it that had hydraulic oil on one side, and the other side I could put nitrogen in. It worked pretty good, but my problem was trying to educate a rider who believed that if it didn’t have two shocks on the back then it wouldn’t work.”
Ultimately Wood settled for a more conventional twin-shock setup controlling the rear, but the lightweight bike still bristled with other trickery.
“I think I was the first person to ever use rectangular tubing for a swingarm,” Wood says. “I can remember people standing behind me and talking while I was working on the bike, and they would say, ‘This Wood is really nuts. You got to have round tubing for a swingarm.’ Today, nobody uses a round tube for a swingarm.”
Whatever Wood’s lightweight Norton had or didn’t have, during the May 13, 1978, AMA Grand National half mile at Ascot, it was enough. Jorgensen remembers that everything just clicked that night.
“I remember that it was a really fast track that night,” Jorgensen recalls. “I remember being down in the pits and watching the first few qualifiers go out and thinking, ‘Jesus Christ, am I going to be going that fast?’ It was hairball. Guys were going into the corners so hard. Watching from the infield, you didn’t think they were going to get stopped.”
Jorgensen did go out, however, and was fourth fastest in time trials and won the fastest heat race to land the pole position for the 20-lap main event. He then got the holeshot and checked out on the field, leaving Skip Aksland and Garth Brow to battle for second place.
“After the race, Sammy Tanner came up to me and said, ‘That’s just the way I did it.’ I was kind of running up high and squaring it off.
“It was a good period in my career,” Jorgensen said. “Ron [Wood] was the nicest guy, and he always put 100 percent into his equipment. We always had the nicest stuff at the track, the best-prepped and tricked-out bikes. It was a good time.”
The win marked the second and final time that a Norton would ever win an AMA Grand National dirt track. Ironically, Aldana, who was the first rider ever to win a GNC dirt track on a Norton, finished 11th again, on one of Wood’s Nortons. For Jorgensen, the win marked neither his last win at Ascot nor the last time that he retired a brand there. Jorgensen would go on to give BSA fans their last taste of National glory by winning the Ascot TT on September 15, 1978.
All things come to pass, and Wood eventually retired the Nortons, but their success bred more success, as a Canadian outfit that had heard of his exploits and wanted to get involved in dirt track approached him to hammer out a deal.
“The Bombardier company had heard about some of the stuff I had done, and they wanted me to campaign their 500cc four-stroke engine when it first came out,” Wood says. “So, they sent me a couple sand-cast engines, and we made some chassis for them. That was when I had Ricky Graham riding for me, and we went out and blitzed the field. Then everybody wanted to buy one.”
Wood Racing, also known as Wood-Rotax, was born. And the rest, as they say, is history. CN