Ronnie Rall was one the leading dirt track racers from the Midwest during the 1960s. In that decade, the Ohio native won five AMA nationals, including the famous Peoria TT. Rall’s highest ranking in the AMA Grand National Championship was third in 1964. He won nationals on half-mile, short-track and TT circuits. While Rall’s accomplishments on the national circuit were impressive, he also won dozens of local and regional races during that time and was regarded as one of the best “cushion” racers of his era – meaning he was great on the soft and fluffed-up dirt of Midwestern cushion tracks.
Rall was born in Upper Sandusky, Ohio, on December 29, 1938 and grew up on a farm. When he was about 10, the family bought a Cushman scooter and Rall learned to ride. Later, he picked up a road model Jawa 250 and by the time he was 17 he’d stripped the Jawa and began to compete in local scrambles races at the Mansfield Motorcycle Clubgrounds.
In 1957, Rall bought a new Triumph Tiger Cub and raced it in scrambles and endurance runs (now called enduros). By the late 1950s, Rall started getting his first taste of flat-track racing and did well from the start. Rall said it wasn’t surprising that his transition from off-road and scrambles racing to flat track went so smoothly.
“At that time scrambles wasn’t yet like motocross,” Rall explained. “The tracks were a lot like TT courses, so I got the bike sideways a lot before I ever turned a wheel on a dirt oval. But once I raced flat track, I found I really liked it.”
Rall rapidly honed his skills on the ovals. He even built a practice track on the farm. “It was a little track and my brother and I would time trial on it and I think we got down to six or seven seconds. That’s where I really learned to ride.”
Rall’s move into the pro ranks was delayed by an old AMA rule. “Back then you could turn pro at 18, but the AMA wouldn’t give you a pro license before you were 21 unless your parents signed. My mother wasn’t too enthused about me turning pro so I had to wait.”
In 1960, Rall seemed to be all set to make his professional debut. George Roeder had promised to set him up with a race bike, but those plans went awry when Roeder was drafted into the service. Rall went to a local dealer to see if he would sponsor him. The dealer already had a racer he sponsored, but had just taken on BSA and agreed to get Rall a BSA Gold Star at cost. Rall clearly remembers getting ready for his first pro race.
“It was in Lawrenceburg, Indiana,” Rall recalls. “My brother and I still had to work the farm so we milked the cows and took off around 5:30 in the morning. We stopped to go to church somewhere around Cincinnati and made it to the track around 9 a.m.”
Despite being scared to death in his first pro race, Rall did well enough, finished in the top five and won $29. It more than paid for his trip and his pro career was off and running. Rall was one of the country’s top novice racers in 1960 and the next year the same held true in his amateur year. In 1962, Rall turned expert. In his first season in the nationals, he showed great promise by taking three podium finishes as a rookie expert. He finished the season ranked fourth in the nation.
Rall remembers fondly his days on the circuit traveling with Edgar Fuhr – co-founder with Gary Stolzenburg of F&S Harley-Davidson in Dayton, Ohio – who was his tuner. Raised in a strict Catholic family, Rall proudly says he never missed church in all his years of racing.
“We’d often get to the churches really early in the morning,” Rall said. “We’d go to church and Fergie (Fuhr) would fall asleep in the front seat of the station wagon. The churchgoers came out and probably couldn’t figure out what was going on. Here’s this station wagon with a trailer of race bikes on the back and Fergie laying asleep in the front seat.”
Rall’s older brother, Norbert, who owned a BSA dealership, joined him on the circuit for a few years and had some success, but when he suffered his first racing injury he decided to leave the sport.
In 1963, Rall got his first national win on the half-mile in Heidelberg, Pennsylvania.
“I’d broken my hand a few weeks before Heidelberg,” Rall said. “I raced with a cast on my arm and I think that made me ride just a little more conservatively, and at some of the tracks you sort of have to ride that way, instead of riding too fast, to be able to win. I won that race and then a week later won the Charity Newsies in Columbus, still riding with a cast.”
In 1964, Rall chased the series in earnest and finished the year ranked third in the championship. That would prove to be his highest position in the AMA Grand National Series. It was also in 1964 that Rall won the Peoria TT national in the lightweight division.
Harley-Davidson recognized Rall’s talent and approached him about racing for the factory team. “I told them that I needed to farm so it would be tough to make all the nationals,” Rall remembers. “That didn’t sit with them too well. I got some support, but never raced for the factory.”
Throughout most of his career, farming came first and, with the exception of 1964, he never pursued the full schedule of AMA nationals. That didn’t mean he wasn’t racing a lot. In the 1960s and ‘70s, there were regional races every weekend all around Ohio, Michigan and Indiana that Rall competed in. He won countless races on county fair circuits in those states.
Despite a limited schedule of nationals, Rall still managed to put together strong showings. In 1968, he won the national on the half-mile in Livonia, Michigan, and in 1969 he earned his biggest paycheck from racing by winning that’s year’s season opener – the Houston Short Track.
The race was held before a big crowd in the Houston Astrodome and was televised on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. It was one of the biggest events on the pro calendar. Rall had a Bultaco racing bike, but in practice the crank seized. His mechanic took along a stock Bultaco Sherpa for a parts bike and instead of loading up and going home they decided to pull the cylinder off the race bike and put it on the stock Sherpa. Rall was surprised he even made it to the final on the stocker. In the final he was not doing well until a fortunate accident happened.
“I was running about sixth or so,” Rall remembers. “The track was just rougher than the devil and everyone was staying down in the holes bouncing around everywhere. One lap I accidentally shifted into a higher gear and the speed pushed me up to a higher line that went around the holes. I found that was a hot line and within three laps I got around everyone and just ran off and hid from the rest of them. I won $2,750 for that race, plus $500 from Bultaco.”
That proved to be Rall’s final AMA national win. By the early 1970s, Rall was getting deeper into his newfound hobby of flying.
“At one point I was just going to the races so I could fly to them,” Rall admitted. “I’d have the race bike in pieces and load it up on the plane and fly to the races. Then I’d rent the biggest car I could and load the bike up at the airport and head to the race.”
Rall’s final AMA national came in 1973, but he continued to race locally throughout most of the 1970s. An accident at a regional race in Greenville, Ohio, left his left arm partially paralyzed. Rall came back from that accident to race again, but said he was never quite the same on the bike after that.
Rall retired from racing and continued farming. In the late 1980s he moved to a new farm in Michigan. He and wife Allison have seven children. One son took up Speedway racing. Rall continues to race occasionally in vintage events and still enjoys flying his planes.