Sam Arena was a top motorcycle racer from the mid-1930s to the early 1950s. Arena excelled in multiple forms of motorcycle racing: dirt track, road racing, speedway and hillclimbing. Besides his storied racing career in the United States, Arena also raced in Australia and England. Arena won AMA national hillclimb titles each year from 1947 to 1950, but his best-known victory was his win in the AMA Pacific Coast Championship at Oakland, California, in 1938. Arena shocked the star-studded field in that race and not only won, but broke the old record by more than 17 minutes.
Arena was born on October 30, 1912 in San Jose, California. He began riding as a teenager by frequently stealing rides on his brother's motorcycle, even though he would have to endure a couple of knocks from big brother when he got caught taking the unauthorized rides.
Arena began working at a local motorcycle dealership and took up racing on the dirt ovals of Northern California. While racing an Excelsior at Emeryville, California, Arena caught the eye of a new San Jose-area motorcycle dealer named Tom Sifton. Arena tested one of Sifton's racing Harley-Davidsons and was thrilled at the speed of the machine.
"I'd ridden a fair amount of fast motorcycles," Arena said. "But this little Harley that Sifton built was unbelievably fast. I knew that I was onto something special. I went out and easily won my first race on that bike. And it only got better from there."
Making a name for himself in California competition, Arena was invited to come East and race the 1935 Jacksonville, Florida 200 Mile Road Race National for Pitts Harley-Davidson out of Miami. Arena made it to Miami, but almost didn't make the Jacksonville race. While testing his racing bike on a Miami street, Arena was stopped by the police and thrown in jail. Arena didn't answer all of the questions to the satisfaction of the police and was severely beaten. The dealershiop owner found an attorney and, under threat of legal action against the police, was able to get Arena out of jail just in time to head up to Jacksonville.
Despite being battered and bruised, Arena went to Jacksonville and took the lead of the 200-mile event late in the race. Arena looked as if he had the race in the bag when his crew called him in for gas with just eight laps to go.
"We had a big enough margin on the second place rider to take on gas to make sure we made the finish," Arena recalled. "They had a problem getting the tank open and I spent eight minutes in the pits and lost the race. I had that race won hands down."
Indian rider Rody Rodenberg went on to win the Jacksonville race while Arena finished a disappointing fifth. Nevertheless, everyone now knew that Arena was a serious contender anywhere in the country.
At the end of 1935, Arena was part of the famous Putt Mossman U.S. speedway team that competed in Australia, New Zealand and England.
In 1938, one of the most talented fields of riders ever assembled showed up for the season-ending Pacific Coast Championship at Oakland, California. Tom Sifton made special modifications to Arena's Harley-Davidson that enabled him to keep the bike at full throttle the entire 200 miles, something that was unheard-of in those days. Arena shocked everyone by taking the lead early and pulling away for a resounding win. The old Oakland 200 record was bettered by more than 17 minutes. Sifton displayed the engine that carried Arena to the Oakland victory in the front window of his dealership for years. The victory became legendary and made a name for both Arena and Sifton.
Arena continued as one of the nation's top riders until the beginning of World War II. After the war, Arena started running a dealership and had less time to devote to racing. But the urge to compete still burned, and he turned to hillclimbing. From 1946 to 1950, Arena won four AMA National Hillclimb Championships.
Arena was inducted in the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998. He died in 2002.