Ralph White was a leading AMA Grand National racer during the 1960s. White won four AMA nationals during his 12-year professional racing career, including a victory at the prestigious Daytona 200 in 1963. While he was known primarily as a road racer, he proved his versatility by winning the most coveted race in AMA Grand National dirt-track racing – the Springfield (Ill.) Mile in 1965. During his career White was a factory rider for Harley-Davidson, Matchless, Yamaha and Kawasaki.
White was born in San Diego on March 7, 1935. His father was a Naval reservist and was called to service during World War II. White was 6 years old and living on a Navy base in Hawaii during the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
“It was early in the morning and my parents were still in bed,” recalls White. “I went down stairs to get something for my sister and was halfway up the stairs on the way back when the first bombs hits. It knocked me off my feet. I ran into my parents’ bedroom, my dad, still in bed, said it was probably just some training exercises. I looked out the window and told him that the planes had red spots on them. He jumped out of bed and quickly reported for duty. We didn’t see him for two days.”
Back home in San Diego in the mid-1950s, White graduated from high school and split time between working, going to college and having fun with his new-found love – motorcycling. By the late 1950s he began racing a Harley-Davidson K-model at local field meets and later took up scrambles riding for A.J. Lewis’ Matchless dealership in El Cajon and winning a district scrambles championship. It was during this time that he and other San Diego notables Brad Andres and Cal Rayborn learned the art of road racing by practicing on an old local airstrip. All three would go on to be recognized as top road racers of their day.
Former Daytona 200 winner and Harley-Davidson dealer Floyd Emde helped White get a ride with Leonard Andres with support from Harley-Davidson. In 1961, his rookie expert season, White showed great promise. He took a surprising third at the Laconia (N.H.) Classic road race and finished the season tied for ninth with Al Gunter in the AMA Grand National standings.
The 1962 campaign was even more successful for White. He not only matched his previous year’s finish at Laconia, he also earned a third-place finish in the Daytona 200. White climbed to fifth in the standings that year.
White’s greatest accomplishment came in 1963 when he was victorious in the Daytona 200. White rode that week with a broken left wrist and had to wear a bulky leather brace. It was the first year bikes were allowed to run with fairings, and White won the pole for the 200 at a record 78.80 mph. (This was on the 2-mile infield road course that didn't include Daytona International Speedway’s high-bank turns).
In the race, White’s chances of victory seemed lost on lap 24 when he crashed. Fortunately White quickly got his bike back in the fray and stayed in the top five. As the 200 miler progressed, each leader--Roger Reiman, Tony Murguia and eventually Dick Hammer--all had problems and dropped out. In a race of attrition (only 18 of the 65 starters finished) White found himself with a comfortable lead, ultimately winning by a lap and a half over Triumph’s Larry Williamson.
“I was the last man standing,” White said of his Daytona win.
White led the 1963 championship point standings through mid-season and might well have won the title, but for crashing on a wet road course in practice for a national at Windber, Pa., and suffering a badly injured left knee. White was forced to miss the Windber race and then raced injured for a month afterwards, resulting in poor finishes. Despite all of this, White still earned third in the final championship standings, only 10 points behind Dick Mann. That would prove to be White’s highest finish in the championships.
1964 was the last year for White on the Harley-Davidson racing team. It was a solid year – four podium finishes fifth in the championships - but he earned no victories.
By this time, White had started a business, and work was taking more of his time. He asked Harley-Davidson to fly him to the races, and they declined. That opened the way for White to work out a unique deal for the 1965 season in which he became a factory rider for Yamaha in the then non-national Lightweight support class at the road races (later called 250 Grand Prix) and rode for Bob Hansen’s Matchless team in the nationals.
“Yamaha flew me to the races, paid all my expenses, plus gave me $500 salary per race to run in the 250 class,” White remembers. “I split the purse with Hansen in the nationals. I remember when I won the road race in Des Moines, Iowa, I split the $750 purse with Hansen, so not much was left.”
1965 turned out to be the most successful year for White in terms of wins. He was victorious at the new Loudon (N.H.) road course, which replaced the old Laconia circuit, the aforementioned Des Moines road race and earned his only dirt track national victory – a great one – the Springfield Mile.
The Loudon win was interesting in that White raced at the regular Friday night program at Ascot Park in Gardena, Calif., winning there and then hopping on a midnight flight to Boston. Fellow racer Dan Haaby picked him up from the airport, but the two didn’t make it to Loudon in time for Saturday’s practice. With just a single Sunday morning practice session, White won his heat race and the pole, and then went on to win the race on a Matchless.
Less than six months after being dumped by Harley, White remembers a satisfying exchange with his former boss on the podium at Loudon.
“Walter Davidson came up to me and said (jokingly), ‘You sonofabitch. We’ve (Harley’s racing team) been here since Wednesday and you come in here on Sunday and steal this race away from us.’ It was one of those times when it seemed I could do no wrong.”
His Springfield Mile win was equally impressive. It had rained hard the night before the race and helicopters had to be brought out to fly over the track to dry it enough so that cars could get on the mile oval and wheel pack the surface. Riding a Gary Bray-tuned BSA at Springfield, White remembers being pretty disappointed after qualifying. He had just barely made the race and would be forced to start near the back of the field.
As it turned out the ’65 race was one of the true great Springfield Miles. Most of the field raced in tight formation nearly the entire race. White remembered leading one lap and being tenth the next. The lead changed 31 times during the race. On the final lap Bart Markel was leading, but slipped off the racing line going around a lapped rider, and White took the lead on the back straight.
“I didn’t want to lead that early,” White recalls. “I figured Markel would be coming back real fast.”
Markel did gather his momentum with Gary Nixon right behind him-- and the two drafted White coming out of the last turn. But White held on to win over Markel by a half-wheel length. It was a Springfield classic.
After winning a career-best three Nationals, White was only able to finish sixth in the championships due to inconsistent finishes.
By 1966 White’s results began to fall off. That year he earned five top-10 finishes (a fourth at Daytona was his best) and was ninth in the final standings. It proved to be the final time he would finish ranked in the top 10 after six straight seasons of doing so.
During the late-1960s White raced primarily in West Coast Nationals. He experienced a brief resurgence in 1971 when his old friend Bob Hansen called him to race a factory Kawasaki triple in AMA national road races. White showed that he still had the skills to be competitive by earning a podium finish (third) at Road Atlanta and a fourth at Talladega.
White retired from pro racing after the 1972 season.
He was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2001. At the time he had homes in Southern California and Arizona and still ran his construction equipment business.