JAY SPRINGSTEEN FOREVER FAST
There have been many popular riders in American dirt-track racing across the decades but none have exemplified timeless competitiveness in the Grand National championships across three full decades of continuous racing in the Expert class. None except for
Jay Springsteen was born in the right place at the right time when it came to being connected with motorcycle racing. “My dad raced motorcycles and went to school with and worked with Bart Markel (three-time AMA Grand National champion).they were both tool and die-makers at Chevrolet. My dad raced a little bit of scrambles racing and then my brother and I started racing on a little Harley-davidson M50. I was nine and the first time I raced it I got a third place, racing against Bridgestones, Hodakas and all these other different older bikes you haven’t heard of in years. I rode the Harley for just one year, sharing it with my brother Kenny when we were just coming up. “Then we went to Honda S90s (the pressed steel frame version), I had a red one and my brother had a black one. We rode those for a couple of years. After that we rode the 100cc Kawasaki Green Streaks. In their day those were rockets. When I was 12 or 13 years old I could split the cases and put a new rod in it, true the crank up and put it back together. My dad showed me how to do it a couple of times and then I took off with it and started doing it myself. He helped me with ported cylinders and polished cranks, trying to go faster than anybody else.” Having dad working for Chevrolet was an advantage regarding access to tools and machining. “I’d say that a lot of guys from Michigan went fast because we had ‘Generous Motors’ behind us. We rode 250s for a year or two in 1972-73, racing Amateur for a year on the 250Yamaha MX, still with dual shocks then. We took the engine out of the motocross bike and put it into thetrackmaster chassis. My brother had a Champion chassis and we were building our bikes in the basement. We tuned them ourselves, ported and polished them.” The Flint, Michigan area was a hotbed for flat track racing talent, not unlike how the southern California scene at Ascot Park had been. Bart Markel had retired at the end of the 1972 season. In that upcoming generation, there were Randy Goss, Scott Parker and Jay, all from that same part of Michigan.these three riders were to win 14 Grand National championships between them. Jay: “For 1974 I was a Junior and 1975 was my first year as an Expert on the big bikes. We had Jimmy Clark as a mechanic, who worked at a Harley-davidson shop, and started doing it straight out of his garage. It was an XR, with at-shirt printing company… Vista Sheen out of Detroit, sponsoring me for my first years on the big bikes. We went to Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin. I raced at Ascot against Skip Aksland, a good guy… I got along good with him and his brothers.” Skip Aksland remembers it well: “What sticks out in my mind is when we were Juniors for the end of the season races at Ascot Park in 1974. It was on the Friday night, called theyamaha Gold Cup, running with the last National on the west coast the next day. I remember reading about Springsteen in Cycle News and how he was winning everything on the east coast, the Midwest, and the Michigan area and that he was the guy to beat. I was on a Shellthuetyamaha 750 that Kenny (Roberts) had built as he was sponsoring me. We were running Pirelli tires at the time and after practice Jay came up and asked me about the tyres.there were hard tyres and soft tyres. “People were throwing the hard tyres on their roofs in the sun to make them even harder, so they’d flex less and grab more dirt.the problem was that they would chunk. I told Jay that I run a soft tyre.then Terry Dorsch told him that you’ve got to run a hard tyre and that it was the only way to get around this place. So I won my heat race and Jay won his heat race. We lined up for the main event and he just disappeared. After about five laps in a 12-lap main event he’s got a straightaway lead but then I started catching him. He was sliding around because he’d run a hard tyre and it was chunked. Gradually I caught him and passed him in turn four on the last lap going for the chequered flag. He had no tread left on the rear tyre, so I got
good drive off the corner and won the race in dramatic fashion. It was big time for me.” Now Springer was racing against the guys he had always read about: “There was Corky Keener, Rex Beauchamp, Chuck Palmgren, Romero, David Aldana.” During his rookie Expert year, it wasn’t long before the Vista Sheen bike was in Victory Lane. It was absolutely the most memorable race from that era for Springer. “As a first year Expert, winning and beating all those guys at Louisville for my first Grand National win… the year before I was a Junior and couldn’t ride so I watched Corky Keener just smoke everyone running way up by the hay bales, going high-low in the corners. So, the next year I did that and here I go right past Corky Keener and Rex Beauchamp, both Harley factory riders. Romero was on the Yamaha, there were Shell Thuet Yamahas… and here I was, just a young wild kid, coming up with long hippie hair. It didn’t really register for quite a while that I had ripped all these factory guys, you know?” Aksland again: “That night after he won that first National at Louisville Downs, we were all out in the parking lot of the Holiday Inn. Harley-davidson knew what they had in Jay, so they were giving him some factory support on that Vista Sheen bike. There was another race the next day and the mechanics were working on the bikes. We were hanging out and Jay was sitting in the back of his van drinking a beer. Dick O’brien (who ran the Harley factory team) walked up and said, ‘Jay, you can’t be drinking a beer, you’ve got a race tomorrow and there is a $100 fine.’ Jay told him: ‘Well, you’d better make it $200 because I’m going to have another one!’” The following week Jay won the next race at Harrington, Delaware. “I had two in a row right there… I was kind of a natural talent on the bikes, and everything seemed to come easy for me. When I started beating my older brother, he got frustrated and went to work for AC Spark Plugs, put his 30 years in, retired, and bought a big farm 27 miles from here. He hardly ever raced much after that, kind of frustrated that his younger brother was beating him.” By the end of his rookie season on a privateer bike, Jay had finished third in the Grand National points. One of the more bizarre races in the history of flat track racing had to be the 1975 Indy Mile, which Kenny Roberts won with the TZ750 four-cylinder two-stroke road racer. KR was struggling to catch up to Corky Keener and Springsteen that day. Jay: “Me and Corky Keener were kind of going at it racing for first and second. Coming out of 2 one lap I looked back and saw we had a pretty good gap on him, but I was trying to tell Corky that number one was coming.” Roberts: “I was going down the back straight one lap and Springer turned around and saw me. He only saw me about probably two laps from the end and they were screwing around. I saw Jay hold up his finger with his thumb pointing back trying to tell Corky that number one was behind them. Corky’s not reading this hand signal and knowing that his bike was stronger than Springer’s at that race, he was thinking, ‘Yeah, I’m going to be number one’. But it wasn’t that… it was me behind him. All of a sudden it was ‘Hey let’s go!’ and Corky didn’t get the memo. It was pretty funny.” Jay: “We went back and forth and never saw Roberts again the whole race until we went across the start-finish line when Roberts went across the line 30mph faster than we were going. He was just far enough back that we could never hear him. Corky says to this day that he never even knew he was there. I told him (Kenny) that I was the one that made Kenny Roberts famous for riding that bike because he won the race that day. “Corky and I were trying to exchange hand signals but Corky probably thought we were just flipping each other off going down the straightaway. We used to do that a lot in those days, he was my number one fan you know.” The year 1976 brought Springer to the Harley-davidson factory ride: “It was my first year with Dick O’brien the race team manager. Gary Scott was number one in 1975 and I took over his position in the Harley race department. My mechanic was Bill Werner.” Jay had a couple of wins early in the year at Columbus and Albuquerque but set the world on fire at the end of the season, winning four of the last five races and five of the last seven. “Back then I was young and racing was just fun. It didn’t become a job until later on when I figured out that ‘s**t, I’m doing this for a living’. It was starting to take off
when I was still in high school; sometimes I’d race on Wednesday nights in Chicago. I’d leave at 11am… I was on co-op at school and I’d go to Chicago, make $600, take a shower and then go back to school. I didn’t graduate. I never did go back. I had missed half a credit in English and half a credit in history. I said I was good in math because I was always counting money.” It must have been a real mindblower for Springer, as he was now the Grand National champion at 19. “It was for everybody else, I was just floating on cloud nine. I bought my house when I was 18 years old and I’m still living in the same home on a lake here in Michigan.” Now carrying the #1 plate, 1977 brought his second GN Championship. It started with winning the Houston Texas Short Track race at the Astrodome. “It was a Harley-davidson 250 with a two-cycle engine… when they first came out with the Harley motocross bike by Aermacchi. We took the engine out of those chassis and put them in Trackmaster chassis, but I think the following year we had a Champion one.” This was one of the few success stories for the Harley 250 MX programme, as they struggled with oddities like running forks for suspension front and rear. Springer had won a Short Track, Half-mile, TT, and at two Miles that year… winning at every discipline. Was there a preferred discipline? “Riding the big bike at Peoria (The Peoria TT) was a special thing, riding the 750s. It was one of the toughest races back then in the series to win, and it was one of my favourite tracks. “I should have won the dang thing one time when I shut the petcock off with my knee. It started running on one cylinder and I thinkhink I finished second.second There was one petcock feeding one carburettor and one petcock feeding the other one. After that I think I was the one that invented putting in a “T” so that one petcock would feed both carburettors.” Springer won the Indy Mile, which was a career highlight. “It is one of my favourite races to go to. My dad took me there to watch the Indy cars when I was younger. The atmosphere… you’d be going 130mph going down the back straightaway and I’d be looking at the Ferris wheel, not even paying attention to where I was going.” Given that connection to the Indy cars, did you ever consider switching from bikes to cars, such as Leonard, Goldsmith, or Surtees? “At one time I thought about going car racing, as I remembered Joe Leonard. I always said that when I was done racing bikes that I would go to cars. My brother Kenny raced a car on dirt tracks up here and I took it out a couple of times. It just didn’t thrill me the same. Every time I go out to California, I still go to Gurney’s shop to go see Dan at his shop (All American Racers). My buddy Chuck Palmgren still works for them.” For 1978, Springer was the Grand National champ again, winning three Half-miles in a row and then again surged to win two of the last four races. Jay is one of those racers that just keep getting stronger as the season
progresses. “As the season went on, I was in better shape. I was kind of in a league of my own with Parker, Bubba Shobert, Ricky Graham… when they got their number one plates, they just kind of dominated. Ricky Graham was just a natural talent.” The year 1979 left Springer second in the points after missing the first five races due to a mystery ailment. Upon his return he won race six at Ascot Park, race seven at Laurel, Maryland, race eight at Louisville, and later he won at the Peoria TT. At the season’s end, he lost the GN title by two points. Jay: “I kind of got my head back together, or so I thought anyhow… but I still had the sickness. It was a problem where I had some kind of intestinal problem to where my intestines would twist. It was not racing stress, it was more stress related from home. The best way to describe it was that when I got a divorce it went away. I was good at times and then I would just get sick. They could never figure it out and it went on through the early Eighties. I was still riding for the Harley team, they hung with me.” Springer was to struggle with this for five or six seasons. There were no wins in 1980, but in 1981-82 Springer took back-to-back wins at the Houston short track races again on a development of his 1977 title-winning bike. “It was on the Harley 250, I still have that. I rode that (for short track) and then later I started riding the Ron Wood Rotex.” The next day, Ricky Graham won the Houston TT, and it was obvious that 1982 was to be a titanic struggle between Springer and Ricky Graham. Springsteen won the Sacramento Mile, the Indy Mile, and the San Jose Mile. The early season win at Sacramento was a special moment, as it was his 30th win and moved him past Kenny Roberts as the rider with the most wins in the GN Championship. However, Jay eventually lost the championship in a squeaker at the season finale. “When Ricky Graham won the GN Championship, I beat him at Ascot, but it came down to the points thing and he ended up beating me by two points.” That year, Dick O’brien had also brought Jay and Ricky Graham to ride the factory Harley-davidson for the 1982 Superbikers race at Carlsbad. Jay: “It was a lot of fun, part dirt-part pavement. Those guys were on two strokes like Honda CR500S and I was on the 750 V-twin Harley. They had 15in of travel and I was still at 6in of travel. “It wore me out those days that I did that stuff. It was hard to ride – it was just strenuous riding that big bike. Jumping it, then wide open on it for the pavement stuff and then hard on the brakes. It helped me for when I started running road racing. The 500s were fast down them straightaways, they would hang right with us.” Springer finished on the box in third, shocking many of those in attendance. 1982 500cc World Champion (MX) Brad Lackey was awestruck, saying, “Springer was riding that thing… man he was all over the place. I couldn’t believe how fast he could go. He’d catch us on the top-end stuff. That Harley hauled ass!” In 1983 Springer showed up at Daytona to run in the Battle of the Twins, putting his Superbikers experience to good use on the pavement. “I rode 250s in road racing when Roberts was number one in the US riding the Yamahas and then I rode the XRS a couple of different times. I was racing against Jimmy Adamo on the Ducati, and he had won the Twins forever down there on that thing. I came down there on the Harley XR-1000 and put a whippin’ on him. I loved riding the road racing stuff but Harley never really had a good road racer, so I stayed in the US and did the dirt-track stuff.” The bike had been born from the burnt wreckage of the exploding Mark Brelsford XR, seen in the famous photograph from the 1973 Daytona 200. Small wonder the bike was named ‘Lucifer’s Hammer’. There were some later successes for that XR-1000 as well, when Gene Church, riding that same bike, was to win the Battle of the Twins title in 1984, 1985, and 1986. Adamo was one of the true Ducati legends in the US riding Reno Leoni’s bikes. He was killed when his 888 had a front brake failure in 1993 Daytona 200. For 1983 the top five riders in the GN Championship were Goss, Graham, Springer, Shobert and Parker. The strength and depth of the field was as strong as in any era, and the three quick riders from Michigan had reached the top.
Jay: “It was tough back then, anybody who made the main event had a chance to win it. Things have changed over the years.” Jay won four Half-miles and the Peoria TT, but Ricky Graham swept the last three races to win the title. The 1983 Superbikers were not to see Harley repeat the success of 1982. Jay: “We got more power out of them and had some sort of trick transmission that Bill Werner had come up with and that was the one we started to have trouble with.” 1986 was Jay’s first year racing in the Daytona 200, riding a Yamaha to finish fifth. “I rode for Dave Knapp on a FZ Yamaha. The next time (1989) I rode on the Superteam that Jim France had put together, all dirt-trackers. It was Lance Jones, me, Ricky Graham… it was so cool, everything was so nice. We had good mechanics, they made everything easy for the riders. We had anything we wanted, all we had to do was to tell them what the motorcycle was doing and they knew what to do for making it better. It had a rev limiter, and I thought it blew up on the banking. I’d hit the rev limiter so I clutched the thing and coasted in. I think Kenny Clark was the Yamaha factory guy then and he came over to tell me ‘Aw, you just bumped the rev limiter on it.’ “I thought, what is a rev limiter? The Harleys never had no rev limiters in them… they shifted hard, the clutches were stiff. These things were so smooth, everything was so nice.” One thinks back to the British describing Cal Rayborn’s iron barrel Harley-davidson at the Trans-atlantic match races in 1972 as being 'agricultural'. Jay was to finish tenth in the 1989 Daytona 200. 1984 saw no wins. For 1985, Jay was to win the San Jose short track and the Syracuse Mile. Those were to be his last wins for a decade. 1990 was the one highlight, that although winless, Springer was to finish fourth in the Grand National points. But the damage had already been done and Jay lost the factory ride. Jay: “Scotty Parker ended up taking over my position up at the race department. I was missing so many races, they had to do something. The bikes were there but the rider wasn’t. I rode for a Harley-davidson dealership out of Racine, Wisconsin for a year. But then I went with Bill Bartels, at Bartels’ Harley-davidson (Los Angeles, California).” In 1995 it all came right again for Jay at Pomona, not far from his sponsor’s shop in LA: “It put me back on top. I had Jim Kelly build the engine for the Bartels’ bike. He had gone overseas for something and couldn’t be there that day. But everything just kind of fell together and first I went out and smoked them on the 883s and then me and Will Davis went at it for a while on the big bikes, but then I got by him and just kind of cruised away.”
Jay was to win the Hagerstown, Maryland Half-mile in 1999, but a career highlight was his final National win, in 2000 at the historic Springfield Mile. Jay: “I’d been second and third a lot of times racing with Parker and Carr… to come through and end up winning the thing at the end really was good. I’d always been there, always so close to winning and never did.
“That was also when me and my wife Judy were getting together and kind of changed my whole life around.” Jay retired from the GN Championships, closing out his career in 2003 with a pair of podium finishes. There were some further adventures for the Pair-a-nines – Gary Nixon and Springer. “Me and Nixon had the Pair-a-nines with the Kawasaki in 2007 or 2008 and that was a lot of fun. Before that Nixon would stay at my home and would work at the race shop. He did this for like three or four summers in a row but then in 2006 I broke my back. “We were friends with Jim France through the Speedway and after the Daytona 200 we went to see Jim and he asked if we wanted to get a team together. I wasn’t expecting anything like that. “He came up with the bikes, and had a series for us to run the bikes in (Moto ST). They were trying to keep our names out there, so that we still were involved. I was riding the bike and Nixon was the team manager. “There were seven races or so during the year, but I had as much fun as when I was racing with the Harley factory. There was friction at times, but we had a lot of fun. I thought when I stop having fun at this then it’s time to do something else.” That said, all those seasons of racing have taken their toll on Jay. “I broke a bunch of different bones over the years. I never thought about it as I thought I was a rubber ball… now it hurts every day.” In 2014 Springer rode some exhibition laps at the Sacramento Mile. “I went faster than Jared Mees (2012-14-15 GN1 champ) and Bryan Smith. I was riding Jared Mees’ back-up bike and went faster than he did on his main bike… heh, heh, heh. I could still race right now. Everybody was asking ‘Springer how in the hell did you do that?’ I told ‘em the throttle stuck… (laughs).” Jay was the Grand Marshal at the 2017 Daytona TT races, a first time event that will likely gain traction for future years. His 29-year professional career in the GN Championships will likely never be exceeded. Kenny Roberts: “He’s a great racer, you can’t take that away from him… always high, wide, and handsome as the dirt-trackers say. 29-years is just incredible, just crazy, but the longer you go, the more fans you have. He won a lot in his waning years and that makes a difference.” At the end of his career Jay had won 43 Nationals, and was a three-time Grand National champion. He is third on the all-time win list behind Scott Parker (raced Nationals from 1979-2000) and Chris Carr (raced Nationals from 1985-2011). However, when it comes to dirt-track racing, Springer’s popularity is unmatched and he is the most prominent ambassador the sport has ever had.
Left: Jay and wife Judy back in 2011.
Above: From left, Springsteen, Warner and Parker.
Above: At Pomona in 2007 and Springer’s words are still sought out.
Left: Jay at Louisville, Kentucky where he won his first GN in 1975
A Pair of Nines at Daytona 2011, Gary Nixon and Jay Springsteen.
Above: 1974 and the hair is perfect as Jay (65) celebrates another win and the biggest smile.
Below left: On track and off Springsteen was always backed up by mechanic Joe Bisha through the Bartels years.
Below middle and right: Exacting eyes on visors and the racing line.
Above: Daytona and the BMW racesraces. Pridmore leads Springer leads Nixon leads Duhamel. Right: Winning the Pomona 883 race in 19941994.
Aboabove:e Team Michimichigan.an Scott Paparker,ke Jajay Springsteen and Randy Goss.the H-D team. Below: Pouring and scoring – it’s 1976 and Jay Springsteen is the new GN Champion.
Main image: Full bore and finding grip. Skip vs Jay in the 1974 Ascot final junior race. Above: And 10 years later Jay is a headline name for the crowds at Ascot still.
Right: Jay back in the day complete with long-time sponsor Bartels’ Harley-davidson on the leathers.