Published March 16, 2015.
Updated and expanded March 18, 2015.
Updated with more info 3/29/2015
In 1976 I volunteered to be the editor of the Lap Times, the AFM’s official newsletter. Soon after I got a call from the noted motorcycle historian Richard C. Renstrom. He had a bunch of old AFM stuff and wanted to give it to someone, so on a trip to Spokane WA for some other business I made a detour to Caldwell ID to visit Mr. Renstrom. The collection included the corporate seal, articles, old programs, letters, and photographs. I used the materials to write the history of the AFM from its origins to the present date, which was 1977 by the time I finished it. I published it as a 5-part series in the Lap Times. When I resigned as editor I gave the materials to the AFM Chairman. I have no idea where the materials are now but I hope somebody is taking care of them.
A special thanks to Steve McLaughlin who pointed out some errors in the original story.
In mid-February I published a page about Wes Cooley’s role in the American Federation of Motorcyclists (AFM), which basically covered the years 1960 – 1964 (Wes Shadric Cooley was the father of the 1979 and 1980 AMA Superbike Champion Wes Steven Cooley). After posting the page a few people wanted to know more about the history of the AFM. So I dug out my old Lap Times and transcribed the first two articles. I apologize for the poor quality of the images, but all I have are scans of half-tones in a nearly 40-year old newspaper.
Part One: The Early Years, 1954 – 1959
The American Federation of Motorcyclists was incorporated in California as a not-for-profit organization in November 1956. It’s origins actually go back two years earlier, to 1954, when a club with the unwieldy name of American Association of Grand Prix Riders was formed in Southern California.
The AAGPR was organized to bring European-style motorcycle road racing to the west coast of the U.S. The AMA had a few road races in those days, such as Daytona (on the beach), Laconia (through the streets) and Dodge City (at an airport), but their rules did not allow fairings or clip-on handlebars or over-head cam motors, and there was no interest in the small displacement classes such as 125cc. The AAGPR provided owners of such machines as Manx Nortons, Matchless G45s, AJS 7Rs, or small displacement bikes like 125cc Ducatis, Gileras, MV Agustas, DKW and others, a place to compete.
There were nine men who founded the AAGPR including Alan Tompkins, Gene Wise, Marty Dickerson, and John McLaughlin. Soon after the beginning of the club Thompkins, the club’s president, began talking to the FIM, motorcycling’s international organization. The AAGPR wanted to be the U.S. representative. The AMA, now the U.S. representative to the FIM, wasn’t interested back in the 50s.
An aside: Dickerson’s name sounded familiar so I looked him up. Think flat out on a Vincent at Bonneville wearing only a bathing suit. He’s in the AMA Hall of Fame, http://www.motorcyclemuseum.org/halloffame/detail.aspx?RacerID=159. John McLaughlin, besides being Superbike star Steve McLaughlin’s father, is also in the AMA HoF, http://www.motorcyclemuseum.org/halloffame/detail.aspx?RacerID=226.
The FIM required that any representative had to include all facets of motorcycle activity and not just one aspect such as road racing. So in 1956 the AAGPR was disbanded, reformed and incorporated as the American Federation of Motorcyclists, with Thompkins as the first Chairman of the Board.
Thompkins must have had big plans for the AFM. In a 1959 letter he talks about the renaming of the clubs and said, “The AFM title was chosen in preference to the U.S. Motorcycle Association, due to my feeling that the name could feasibly include all of the Americas and not just the United States alone.”
I couldn’t find out a lot of information about the club during the years 1957-1958, but they appear to have been years of rapid expansion. By May of 1959 the AFM included chapters in the Tampa Bay and Miami areas of Florida, New York City, Chicago and Biloxi, Mississippi, as well as four chapters in Southern California — The Bay City Motor Club of Manahatten Beach, San Fernando Valley, San Gabriel Valley and San Diego. Road races were being held at Willow Springs near L.A., Hourglass field in San Diego and at several Florida tracks including Gainsville and Sebring. The Chicago chapter was running flat track dirt races at O’Hare Speedway and road races at Meadow Raceway.
The Chicago Chapter of the AFM ran road races, flat track races, and according to this photo had outdoor bike shows. The bikes, from front to back, are a 650cc BSA twin, an NSU Max and a model described as a “BMW Road Racer.” The two gents in the background are examining a cutaway version of an NSU single motor.
The AFM was still talking to the FIM and in 1958 made a formal proposal to become the U.S. representative. A letter from Major Goode, then Secretary General of the FIM, said the application was “most sympathetically considered” but “there was still some doubt as to whether your club, active as it is, can at present be truly regarded as representative of your great country.” The letter continued by stating the qualification to be representative was “evidence that your club has an active membership amongst motorcycling clubs in at least 15 states in the U.S.A.”
The machines, as you would expect, were very different than what we [raced in 1976]. The Japanese brands were just starting to make an appearance with some Yamahas in the lightweight classes, but European brands dominated. The smaller classes were filled with Italian brands, Ducati, Parilla, and Aermacchi, with an occasional MV Agusta. Other small bikes included Rumi, Puch, NSU and Triumph Terrier.
The Yamaha racing team circa 1958 at Willow Springs These two were raced by Gene Wise, one of the co-founders of the AFM. In a 1959 club newsletter the Yamaha was described as The Loudest Machine in the World.
The 500cc class was the “glamor” class and was all English: Manx Nortons, Triumh twins, Matchless and BSA Gold Stars. The California races featured some close battles between Buddy Parriot and Don Vesco. A Jan. 1959 newsletter describes a race at Willow Springs on Dec. 7th, 1958: “Buddy Parriot, consistently one of our fastest riders, cut another notch for himself by winning the Senior Heat and Main, in each case fighting off a determined assault by Don Vesco. Both rode 500cc Triumphs. Buddy would go by with his nose buried in the gas tank, while Vesco would cruise past sitting up like he was out for a Sunday afternoon ride. Wonder how fast he’d go if he really tried?” Who would have guessed in 1959 that 17 years later the answer would be over 300 mph?
The end of the 1950s also marked the resignation of Alan Tompkins as Chairman of the Board. He left in October 1959 to take a job at Riverside Raceway, and his place as chairman was taken by Wes Cooley, who was elected by unanimous vote of the Board of Directors.
Part Two: The Wes Cooley Era, 1960 through 1964.
The early 1960s were turbulent times for the AFM. The club was changing as existing chapters left and new chapters joined. Also the political relationship with the European-based FIM and other U.S. motorcycle racing organizations was constantly changing. Through the flux and flow of this period the AFM was guided mainly through the efforts of one man, the late Wester “Wes” Shadric Cooley.
As a registered corporation under California law the AFM was required to have a board of directors and a chairman. The club organization included the “National Board” whose duties involved setting the rules, issuing licenses and coordinating the regional chapters. The chapters did the negotiation with race tracks and ran the races. Under the original charter the members of the Board of Directors were appointed by the chairman.
Wes Cooley became the Chairman of the Board in late 1959 and held that position until the end of the 1964 season. During this time the AFM became known as the “Wes Cooley Club,” as Cooley was not only the chairman but somehow became the secretary and treasurer as well. Since the chairman also appointed the members of the board of directors, Cooley exerted a LOT of control over the activities of the club. In Southern California the AFM was Wes Cooley. His style of rule made many people unhappy and eventually led to a show-down in 1964, but from the notes I was given it seems clear that the AFM may not have survived without him.
In the early 1960s the scope of the club narrowed. The Florida chapters left the AFM to join a new group called the United States Motorcycle Club. The USMC was based in Florida and was backed by some of the same people who had started NASCAR, including Bill France. Also the Chicago, New York City, and Biloxi MS chapters dropped out of the club. In their place came the San Francisco Chapter, chartered in 1960. The S.F. Chapter was informally known as the Mill Valley Chapter or the Point Reyes Café Racer’s Society – obvious references to the infamous Sunday Morning Ride. In 1961 a chapter in St. Louis, MO, was added and a charter was granted to a group in Portland OR. The Portland group never really got it together but the St. Louis chapter was very active and for a while was one of the more stable of the AFM Chapters. They were a bit of an oddity as they did not road race. They sanctioned road rallies and observed trials events. With the loss of the Florida, Chicago, New York and Mississippi chapters the club became very California centered. The St. Louis chapter was the only exception.
In early 1963 the Sacramento area members of the S.F. Chapter formed their own group and became the AFM’s 5th California chapter. The original four SoCal chapters had become two: Los Angeles and San Diego. Later that year the S.F. Chapter had its charter pulled, then re-issued after a special election. The reasons for this move aren’t clear from the old material, but they hint of a personality clash between Wes Cooley and S.F. Chapter President Pete Adams. Whatever it was, after the special election Adams was no longer S.F. Chapter President and the charter was renewed.
During this rather turbulent period the Club was very active in California, and racing events were held at an amazing number of locations. During the 1960-1962 time span Willow Springs was not on the California event lists, but races were held at Santa Maria Airport, Pomona, Santa Barbara Airport, Vacaville, Hanford, Riverside, Cotati, Oakland, Stockton, San Luis Obispo, and Stead Air Force Base in Reno, NV. All of these events were combined bike-car race weekends, a common practice at the time. The cycle racing was limited to a short practice and heat races on Saturday, then another short practice and a couple of Main events on Sunday. There were only Grand Prix style classes, usually 125cc, 250cc, 350cc, 500cc and Open. There were no Production classes as we know them today. It was a convenient partnership since the bike races gave the spectators something to watch while the car guys took a break and the bikers didn’t have to worry about organizing a track worker crew.
Frequent road race winners during this period included Buddy Parriott, Don Vesco and John McLaughlin (the father of the successful 1970s and 80s racer Steve McLaughlin), with names like Ron Grant and Tony Murphy appearing in 1962. The big classes were dominated by British bikes with G50 Matchless and Norton Manx fighting for the lead in the 500cc class and British twins from Triumph and BSA in the open class. In the smaller classes most race bikes were Italian origin with Ducati, Parilla and Aermacchi.
Norris Rancourt (36) earned the AFM #1 plate in 1962. Rancourt raced a 250cc Parilla to earn the most points that year.
The Honda CB72 (250cc) and CB77 (305cc) were introduced in the early 1960s and race bikes built using those engines started appearing more and more often in the finisher lists, especially in the 350cc class. Previously the class was the domain of the expensive and hard to find British AJS 7R. Bikes based on the 305cc Honda, usually with 350cc big-bore kits fitted, started filling the fields in that class.
In 1961 Don Vesco acquired a Honda RC161, a four cylinder, twin overhead cam, 16 valve 250cc bike that totally dominated the 250cc class and in the combined races gave the 500cc bikes a hard time as well.
Politically things were confusing and changing. The AMA wasn’t interested in European-style racing and there was hope that the AFM would develop into the FIM representative for the U.S. The FIM instead selected the USMC, and the AFM became a USMC affiliate (whatever that meant). The USMC put on some FIM-sanctioned races in Daytona which drew some top European riders, but they couldn’t draw enough spectators and the USMC folded in 1963. A new group called MICUS (Motorcycle International Committee of the U.S., I think) was formed to replace it.,
It isn’t clear exactly what happened with MICUS and the FIM but I remember Gordon Jennings writing about Mike Hailwood racing at Willow Springs. It must have been in the very early 1960s so it was probably an FIM-sanctioned race through AFM as a USMC adfilliate. Jennings wrote that he and the other local racers who were very familiar with the Willow Springs track felt they would have an advantage over the first-time-visiting European racers. But after about 5 laps of practice on his Norton Manx, Jennings wrote, Hailwood was cutting lap times that made him go weak in the knees. He and the other Willow Springs fast guys suddenly realized how much better they needed to be. Eventually the AMA became the U.S. representative of the FIM, but that was several years down the road.
Around 1963 the relationships with the sporty car guys began to sour. Both car and bike racing was growing and the car folks wanted the time the bikes were using, and the bikers wanted more track time for their growing entry fields. The new Sacramento chapter began running bike-only events at Vacaville while in SoCal Willow Springs started having bike-only racing. By 1964 the AFM had mostly bike-only events. Bikes would sometimes still appear at car events but as demonstration only. The 1964 AFM season schedule had eight points-paying events, four in Northern California at Vacaville and Cotati and four in SoCal at Willow Springs. The S.F. Chapter began a new trend by running the first AFM Production bike race, a 100 mile race at Cotati on the 4th of July in 1964. The rules were pretty box-stock and the event was quite a success. Production races have been part of the AFM ever since.
The pack runs up the hill on lap 1 at Willow Springs in a Dec. 1963 race. On the far left and leading is Marty Lunde, followed by Ivan Wagar (far right). John McLaughlin (2), Don Vesco (123) and Tony Murphy (6). The race turned into a close fight between Vesco on a G50 Matchless and Lance Weil’s Manx Norton, with Vesco winning by half a bike length.
From the outside things looked good for the AFM but the internal organization wasn’t running very smoothly. The National Board was running the races in Southern California and the L.A. and San Diego Chapters seemed to have been merely social groups. With Cooley acting as Chairman, Secretary and Treasurer as well as organizing races, things weren’t always done on time if they got done at all. During all of the early 1960s there were complaints about short notice of race dates, the lack of a published schedule, the difficulty in getting copies of the rules, mail not being answered, and so on. The Northern Chapters felt they weren’t represented on the National Board. Even some of the board members were displeased and at one point tried to get Cooley to hand the secretarial duties over to someone else, without success.
The simmering unrest broke into the open in 1964 when the S.F. Chapter proposed that the National Board be reorganized to be an elected body with representatives from all chapters. The plan was rejected by Cooley on the grounds that people who were willing to be elected were not necessarily willing to do the work, an argument that didn’t go over very well with the northern members.
Cooley quit the club at the end of the 1964 season and AFM National promptly vanished. It was very nearly the end of the club, but there were some people who stepped in to fill the void left by Cooley’s abrupt departure, and the AFM survived. Cooley started a rival club, the American Cycle Association (ACA) that lasted until at least 1968. The ACA put on races at Willow Springs and Riverside, and perhaps other venues. I can’t find out much about the ACA on the web.
The AFM history for years 1965-1977 will be published in future installments on this blogsite. Stay tuned.