The rider who Barry Sheene honoured by wearing his t-shirt under his leathers died last week from complications of heart surgery.
Gary Nixon, the gritty former dirt tracker who came out of the American Midwest to become one of the first great American road racers on the world stage, and who formed a lifelong bond with Sheene, was 70 years old.
"That guy loved motorcycle racing; dirt track, road racing, amateur racing, vintage racing,” Ducati Marlboro’s Nicky Hayden said of the two-time AMA Grand National Champion. “The sport will definitely miss him."
Hayden was one of many young riders Nixon helped in the decades after he retired. But the relationship with Sheene is the one that endures. They seemed like an odd couple, though they both rose from humble beginnings. Sheene rose from a modest upbringing to embody the quintessential sportsman/playboy, the first British rider to flourish in the nexus of sport and celebrity. The ginger-haired Nixon grew up in Oklahoma, an oil-rich state in the middle of America where he plied his trade on dirt tracks.
Nixon spoke in a manic mumble, about as far in the English language as you could get from Sheene’s Cockney. Somehow they struck up a friendship in 1970 that would endure to the end of Sheene’s life and beyond. If you were Nixon’s friend, you were his friend for life.
Erv Kanemoto, the legendary tuner whose roster of world champions includes Freddie Spencer, Eddie Lawson, Wayne Gardner, and Max Biaggi, was lucky to witness the relationship close up.
"(Sheene) really liked Gary," Kanemoto said. "Every time you see the leathers open he’d have the Nixon t-shirt."
"The thing with Gary, he wasn’t a real politician," Kanemoto says laughing. "And he kinda said what he felt and believed what he felt, really believed it. If you were his friend, he’d do anything for you and Barry sensed that. It seemed like they really were good friends. And I don’t really know how that was initiated, to tell you the truth. And they’d talk during the winter through the different winters and so there was no question about their friendship."
Kanemoto also formed a lifelong bond with Nixon, who he first worked with in the early 70’s on Kawasaki’s nascent road race program. The pair would win plenty of races, but the one they didn’t win, or rather, weren’t credited with winning, is the one that would haunt them the rest of their lives.
Kanemoto spoke to Nixon on the morning he had two surgical stents inserted. "He actually sounded like he did ten years ago," Kanemoto said. Nixon was on his way to recovery when he suffered a heart attack.
"Everything seemed to be good, the doctors felt," Kanemoto said. "They were surprised and shocked."