the fastest man on wheels
Classed a real ‘speed demon’ across four decades. Yep, 40 flippin’ fast years. Here’s his story.
Don Vesco was America’s great speed demon of the 1950s-1990s. His wins were across disciplines and included drag racing, road racing (including victory in the US GP) and he shattered numerous land speed records at Bonneville. As is often the case, the apple did not fall far from the tree. John Vesco was a fixture in prewar racing on dry lakes with his modified Ford Model ‘T’ and ‘A’ racers. After the war, Vesco’s streamliners were among the most innovative machines at Bonneville, sponsored by his bodyshop in the San Diego area. Gordon Menzie is a lifelong friend of Don Vesco and their connection went back to childhood. He said: “We went to junior high school together. We raced soapbox derby cars together and I still have his trophies. We also knocked around on bicycles, Cushman scooters, and crap like that. I had a friend in the neighbourhood who drove an ambulance on weekends for extra money and one of his assignments was out at Paradise Mesa dragstrip, so I got a ride out there. “I had seen this kid from school and I said: “Hey Don, you don’t even have a driver’s licence, how are you drag racing a motorcycle here? Vesco said: ‘Oh, my dad signed for me.’ He was racing a borrowed motorcycle. I was about 13, he was 15, and I ended up with his hand-me-downs. Don and I were both in the Hi Boots Motorcycle Club because there were only dirt scrambles back in those days. “It all started when Don started drag racing with his rigid Triumph on the Paradise Mesa dragstrip, where we started putting on road races. There was a bunch of really good guys in San Diego. Don, Cal Rayborn, Jim Mcmurren and myself were inseparable as kids, all racing together. “Don was 16 when he bought his first Triumph, a T100R dirt-tracker from Guy Urquhart’s Triumph shop downtown. He didn’t race flat track very much at all, but that rigid flat tracker was the fastest bike that you could buy at the time, so he was taking it to the drag strip. “For 1957 he bought a swingarm Triumph T100RS from Larry Lilley Triumph up in Lancaster. Don took that to Willow Springs, and then in 1959 he sold me his T100RS to get money for a Norton Manx from Mclaughlin Motors. Don would tell you that John Mclaughlin tested the new Nortons and would keep the fastest one for himself… but he was the dealer. In 1961 Don got a G50 Matchless and they weren’t cheap – about twice the price of a Triumph.” Don started to have great success between the Manx and the G50, having some epic races, one memorable one being a side-byside, race-long battle at Vacaville with Buddy Parriott’s Manx, which was equipped with a rare hydraulic front disc brake set-up by Al Gunter. Needless to say, having such taste in machinery took pretty much all of the financial resources from a young guy working in a local machine shop. Menzie: “There was a time when we had two G50s at the house on 35th Street, because Cal (Rayborn) was racing a G50CSR for Sun Fun Sports and we tuned both of the bikes at Don’s house. He rode that G50 for a long time.” The factories were taking notice of the young Californian. Menzie: “We were at Santa Barbara and Don was doing so well on the G50 that Honda asked him to ride the new prototype 250-4 (the RC161). They told Don and their other rider not to race each other, but they got to dicing around and Don crashed this prototype, which was probably about a quarter of a million dollar motorcycle then. He slid out right in front of me, right into a fire hydrant that was haybaled along the side of the course next to the pits of the old airport course. The nozzle on the hydrant went right straight through the underside of the cases and broke the crankcase. They were so pissed off, saying: ‘You will never ride for us again’.”
Fortunately for Vesco, there were other foreign manufacturers that wanted a presence in the US and, specifically, in the California market. Menzie: “For 1963 Yamaha stepped in and asked Don if he would ride a bike for them at Daytona. They also sent Fumio Ito, their factory rider.” Yamaha swept both classes, Ito winning the 250 class and Vesco winning the 500 class on his RD56 250cc Yamaha at the non-championship US GP. Menzie said: “They were so happy to have that win at Daytona that they gave Don his dealership without a bond, and that’s how he got started in motorcycle dealerships. It was something like an $80,000 bond that you’d have to put up for parts and bikes, and there is no way that Don could have come up with that.” For Vesco and the other racers, the pressure was building from the time away from work and the meagre winnings from the races. Gordon: “He was gone a lot for the racing and was missing a lot of work at the machine shop. One year in the early 1960s at Riverside I won the Open Class and Don won the 500 class on the G50 at the Times Grand Prix. We were coming home and I think we both got trophies and each got a case of oil. I said: ‘Don, there is something wrong here. We paid something like $25 to enter each day, and we end up with this chicken-s**t oil. Les Richter (Riverside Raceway) got 100,000 people, a million dollars this weekend and we got s**t.” For Vesco, winning proved to be an investment in his future. The Emde family also owned a motorcycle shop in the San Diego area. Don Emde: “I raced against Don Vesco a little bit, first in some of the AFM and ATA club races such as Carlsbad, Orange County and Riverside. It took a couple of years before I was racing in his league, when I started riding for Mel Dinesen. I think it was like a big AFM race, around 1966 or so when BSA had those A50s like they had run at Daytona. That was also about the time when Vesco was also a development rider helping Bridgestone with the 250.” The BSA 500 twins weren’t the sharpest tool in the world. Menzie: “The BSAS used in 1966 were because he was a dealer then, and he was getting factory bikes. They were too heavy and you just couldn’t get out of the corners with them.” There is little doubt that Doug Hele’s Triumph Daytonas were vastly superior, winning the ‘200’ in 1966 and 67, along with Gary Nixon winning the Grand National championship in 1967 and 68. Regardless of the potential in the BSAS, Don was focusing much of his energy upon his business as the years progressed. Menzie: “This is getting to the stage where he’s really making more of a transition to sponsorship rather than racing himself. He was always a racer, always will be, but he had a dual purpose then and was trying to sell Yamahas and attracting world champions from all over.” For the 1970 season, Kel Carruthers was at a crossroads in his Grand Prix career and a connection with Don Vesco’s Yamaha shop was to change everything. Kel: “I rode the Benelli in 1969 and they changed the rules for 1970 and banned the four-cylinder 250, so I was going to ride for Benelli in the 350 class. When I was in Australia I got a message from them that they weren’t going to be able to provide rides to more than one rider, who was Pasolini. I had to get a pair of Yamahas, so I got on to Rodney Gould, who was in America. He found me a new 250 up in the San Francisco area, but there were no 350s left. I was getting desperate, but he told me that Don Vesco had a year-old 350 that was in new condition. So I was going to America to pick up the 250 and get Don’s 350. I spoke to Don and arranged to buy it off him, and he asked: ‘Do you want to ride myyamahas at Daytona?’ So, I said ‘Okay, I’m coming to America anyway’. I had my new 250 delivered to San Diego and Don took that 250 and my 350, along with his two bikes, to Daytona. “I rode Don’s bikes at Daytona and then had my two bikes shipped to Europe from
there. Don said that if I wanted to come and race in America that I could run out of his shop. I did that year in Europe but then decided we would come back to do that one year in America. I had a really good year running out of Don’s shop and then Yamaha offered me a new contract. They kept giving me more and more contracts until I eventually ended up with Kenny. Don had a dyno so I was able to work with Yamaha in Japan to do the development work on the 250, 350 and 750 bikes, which changed a lot of stuff. It did Don a lot of good, as he got a lot of magazine articles and all that.” It is safe to say that this was synergy for all concerned. Vesco had certainly gotten the publicity from having a current 250cc world champion drop into his lap. Don Emde: “It was actually a blessing for both of those guys, and even for Yamaha with Vesco turning over his dyno to Kel. There were pipes and cylinders everywhere, there was always something happening there. They were trying every little combination with Yamaha sending stuff for them to carve up. They had a little 175cc single that they were using as their development mule. Yamaha in the US didn’t really have much to offer at that point, it was the dealers that got things started. When it came to horsepower and speed, Don Vesco was the king at that point.” There is little doubt as to Don Vesco’s ability to find power in any engine. Vesco’s Yamaha streamliner Big Red punched through the 250mph barrier in 1970, making him the fastest motorcycle rider on the planet. Rob North: “There was one with two four-stroke twin Yamahas linked together and when they ran it on the dyno one day the primary chain was glowing. They couldn’t cool the chain down, so they put that one to the side and that was when they went to the two strokes with a belt drive to join them together.” It was the genesis of the great TZ750 Streamliner to come, called Silver Bird. For Carruthers, the connection to Vesco’s shop had changed his entire career and life path to where he was now living in El Cajon, California, five miles east of San Diego. Kel: “I guess I got stuck here, with Yamaha giving me contracts and then the kids grow up and the next thing you know, you’re not going home to Australia and leaving your kids and grandkids.” Its a rough life, getting ‘stuck’ in Southern California… Dduringi theseh early ld days of fh the TZ TZ750 the h Yamaha Silver Bird broke all the land speed records previously set by another local legend, San Diego’s Cal Rayborn. Don Emde: “At one time we actually had a conversation about my driving the Streamliner just after Calvin had set the record with the Harley (265mph) and Don asked if I wanted to give it a try. I told him ‘I’ll think about it’ so I called Cal and told him that Don Vesco had offered me a ride in his Liner. He said: ’You’re crazy. If I never go back to that place ever again, I’ll be happy. Don’t do it, bad idea.’ I told Vesco and he said: ‘Well, that’s (Denis) Manning’s Liner. Mine doesn’t work that way, you could drive mine with one arm out the window’.” Emde decided to take Rayborn’s advice and decline the offer. Undeterred, Vesco’s new twin TZ750 streamliner shattered the records and became the first motorcycle to push the LSR through 275mph and then, in 1975, to 302mph. For 1974-75, Yamaha had the American three-bike team of Kenny Roberts, 1975 Daytona 200 winner Gene Romero and Don Castro. Gene: “In 1974 Shell Thuet was doing the dirt trackers and Kel was doing the road racers, so we just showed up and participated. For 1975 it was the same thing with the road
racers, but Castro and I took care of our own dirt trackers. For 1976, motorcycle sales were going downhill big time and Yamaha went to a one man team for Kenny.” Gene found some sponsorship and teamed up with Don Vesco on a TZ750 racer for the AMA road racing. Gene: “I phoned up Evel Knievel and said: ‘Hey, I need some help, how’s about some sponsoring me, can you help me out?’ It wasn’t a giant amount of money but it helped me to do what I needed to do. Vesco had some other support at the time and there was no conflict. I rode for Evel in 1976 and then I had Ocean Pacific sunwear, and then Anheuser-busch St. Louis… and I always brought some of that over to Don Vesco. I was doing the dirt trackers and Don would build, maintain and provide the road racing bike at the races. Rob North was over at Vesco’s shop too and he was making really nice exhaust systems and clip-ons and little things for those TZ750S.” Rob North: “I started working with Don in the early 1970s – he wanted some pipes made for the TZ750. I had just finished a contract job with Rohr industries and so I went over there through the 1980s. Mostly we were modifying the stock pipes with three underneath and the one that came over the top of the engine was all flattened out and oval-shaped. I changed all that and I reckoned it worked better, so I was doing the pipes for Gene, who I’d worked with back in the early 1970s. I started building the 250 frames for Kel that Kenny Roberts used on a flat iron table at Don’s shop. Eddie Lawson always tells me that it was the best 250 he ever rode. I wasn’t working for Don, I was working for myself, but for every dollar I made he got 50 cents.” There was another Tz750-powered racer that Rob North had also been fabricating. Rob: “This I built over at Don’s place, this sidecar. Reg Pridmore rode this at the Isle of Man TT three times. I raced sidecars for 10 years and I thought they were the best things ever. We rode on the street in sidecars, as that was our transport.” The Pridmore sidecar rig with the Don Vesco chassis tag was the last sidecar designed and built by Rob North, and it currently sits in his San Diego area workshop. Reg: “I was racing sidecars at the Isle of Man TT in 1976, 1977 and 1978. In 1976 Rob North and Donny Vesco built me a TZ750. I had Vesco all over my bike because he was one of my best friends. The engine that I had was one of the two he had used to set the land speed record with different heads and valves on it. We didn’t have much luck with it, as it kept breaking the driveshaft until we finally made one out of some enormously strong material. In 1978, Mike Hailwood was garaged a couple of doors down in the same old hotel on the Promenade. That was the year he came back and won.” Don Vesco closed his Yamaha shop in El Cajon during the 1980s, but his Bonneville streamliners remained a constant focus. Rob: “When he would go to Bonneville, I would go and help out. I did a set of pipes for the Silver Bird. They had a drawing of one with twin six-cylinder Kawasaki engines in it. Don asked me if I could make the tub, as it was all monocoque. I was working at home and built it on my patio, as he’d closed his shop by then. We had to rent a crane to pick it up over the house and put it into the truck, it was so big. It wasn’t successful, as with its overhead belt drive system he couldn’t get it to balance very well, so they added an axle to the back and ran it as a three wheeler. Now it’s back in England with a turbine engine and with two wheels.” The Vesco Tz750-powered Silver Bird was certainly a machine to be reckoned with and there is little doubt that their innovations were transferred to the road racing motorcycles, as it had been with Pridmore’s sidecar. Romero: “Don was magic on the engines. We were fast and he did some stuff that nobody was aware of. Kenny Roberts and I were going onto the banking at Daytona and Kenny goes by me and looks back and I’m glued to him. He was ‘whoa, what’s the deal?’, as usually he had more power than anybody, riding some OW factory bike. He came up to me saying: ‘Man you’ve got a fast one.’ I said ‘wait until it breaks in, and it will be even faster!’ When it came to two-strokes, Don did some porting on those things and I put him up there at a similar level with Erv Kanemoto. “With such genius there is normally something that requires an equivalent dose of patience. Gene: “Don would leave everything until the last minute. Let’s say Daytona was four months out… he’d just fiddle around, fiddle around, and then knock everything out almost doing a whole bunch of all-nighters. “If it took 50 hours to drive his bus down to Daytona, he’d leave with 51 hours to go. One time I flew from San Diego to El Paso to help with the driving, as he was junk before he left. I told him to meet me at El Paso Airport and then I’d take it to New Orleans and then we’d switch off.” The partnership didn’t find the kind of success one normally associates with Romero, and the finishes in the Daytona 200 were fourth, fifth & eighth from 1976 to 1978. By 1978 Don had raised the motorcycle land speed record to 318mph. Setting records at Bonneville had become his all-encompassing passion, and 40 years later the record has only been raised by 58mph. Don raised the motorcycle record by 67mph in eight years. Vesco had a number of motorcycle accessories he was involved with, including working with Matt Guzzetta on fairings, which culminated in the 1983 fully-faired, high-mileage, street-legal streamliner than made the coast-to-coast run from San Diego
to Daytona Beach without refuelling. But the final chapter was the Turbinator, which was essentially a ‘car’ streamliner with the wheels close together, not unlike his father’s innovative narrow streamliners of the 1950s. Rob North: “His brother Rick built the car and it had two Chevy engines in it originally. He was taking the Kawasaki streamliner and put two wheels on the side and these outriggers were stabilising it. The rear wheels were only about 12in apart and we were worried that the torque of the Allison T55 helicopter motor would tip it over, but it never did. I made some of the fuel tanks, the water tanks and some of the fenders over the wheels. I worked for myself at home because t the Vesco shop was closed. Don was the one g guy who could call me up and say how he w wanted to make this, and we’d talk backwards a and forwards on the phone and when I made t the part it was correct. When I questioned a anything, he understood. We were going up t to Bonneville three or four times a year. He w was a clever machinist with good ideas and h he could work around the clock like nobody I ’ve ever known and exist without sleep. His b brother Rick is really a clever innovator at m making stuff – all these mechanical gizmos t to make the chutes come out, the design of t the doors and the split and curved stainless exhaust system. Gene Romero: “I’d get on the phone with Don and two hours later we’d still be talking, he was such a great guy. If he cut his arm open there wouldn’t be any blood coming out, it would be white salt from Bonneville. He was focused upon Bonneville all the time. Don was an innovator and came up with a lot of stuff people aren’t aware of. He put a wing over Kel Carruthers when he came into the country, and he’s helped out a lot of people, including me. We stayed together right up until the end, and then he was back to building streamliners and breaking records. The Turbinator was the last one and he’d send me stuff to promote it and I get some money for him. I was glad to do that for him, due to the fact of what he’d done for me.” Rob North: “It was hard work because of the e time you spent traveling without sleep sleep, but we had so much fun. Don was a prankster and he loved pulling pranks on people, especially at Bonneville, he’d do all kinds of stuff. One day the guy that put the cameras in the streamliner was working positioning them. Don went over and turned the monitor upside down. So the guy looks, goes back and turns the cameras over and it took him a while before he realised what had happened.” The Turbinator was Vesco’s attempt at pushing a wheel-driven vehicle through 500mph, which was his last great quest. In 1999, Don drove the car up to 427mph, and then in 2001, he upped that speed to 458mph. Turbinator was now the fastest wheel-driven vehicle ever built, surpassing Sir Donald Campbell’s Bluebird in the record books. Even more impressive is that Don Vesco achieved this feat despite the loss of an eye due to a rock thrown from the tire of a passing sprint car, another of his passions. 500mph seemed well within the realm of possibility, but then it all went wrong. Don Emde: “Don passed away of cancer in 2002. He still holds the world land speed record for a wheel-driven vehicle. All these years later, the only thing that faster is a jet car. He told me that he thought 500mph was possible and that was next on the list.” When Don Vesco signed my helmet in 2001, he wrote ‘Don Vesco 458mph’. There is zero doubt as to which of his many achievements that he considered most impressive, and the only part of this saga that could be considered unfinished business, is that nobody has ‘Don Vesco 500mph’ written on their helmet. Don Vesco was, and is, the fastest man on wheels.
Don Vesco at Carlsbad on a BSA. 303mph in 1975 – Don Vesco and the Silver Bird.
Above: Don Vesco Turbinator. Vesco wins the 100-miler at Willow Springs 1959 on the Manx. GORDON MENZIE Left: Don Vesco G50 vs Buddy Parriott Manx at Vacaville. GORDON MENZIE Right: Don Vesco with his new G50 at Vacaville 1961. GORDON MENZIE Above: David Aldana with Don and the Vesco TZ750. GORDON MENZIERight: Don Vesco Turbinator.
Rob North and Reg Pridmore with Don Vesco on the right.
Above: Don Vesco wins 1966 Carlsbad BSA poster. GORDON MENZIERight: Gene Romero on the Vesco TZ750. GORDON MENZIE
Don Vesco and Dave Aldana.
Left middle: Rob North and Reg Pridmore, Vesco sidecar.
Left top: Early Vesco sidecar rig.
Left bottom: Late version Vesco sidecar rig.