Don Vesco

the fastest man on wheels

Classic Racer - - WHAT’SINSIDE -

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.

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