As the host of the popular NBC Tonight Show, Jay Leno is one of the highest profile motorcyclists in the country. Leno took up motorcycling as a teenager and went on to build one of the biggest private collections of rare and antique bikes in the country. He has used his popularity to help promote positive motorcycling activities, giving a great deal of time and money to help motorcycling-based charities such as the Love Ride, which raises money for muscular dystrophy research.
But perhaps Leno’s biggest contribution to motorcycling is his unabashed enthusiasm for the sport. The comedian, known as one of the nicest guys you’d ever meet, helped show America that it was OK and even cool to be a motorcyclist. He put a good face on the sport and had a major influence in helping along motorcycling’s baby-boomer growth spurt of the 1990s.
James Douglas Muir Leno was born in New York on April 28, 1950. He grew up in Andover, Massachusetts, and had a typical 1950s and 60s-era suburban upbringing. Like many kids of his time, Leno became a fan of motorcycles through the pages of motorcycle magazines, which he often read in school, tucked inside a textbook.
For much of the early-1970s, after Leno had moved to Los Angeles, he struggled to make it as a comedian and motorcycles took a back seat to his career aspirations. But by the late-1970s his career began to take off. Leno said he really got interested in motorcycling again when Honda introduced its six-cylinder CBX.
"The CBX inspired me," remembered Leno. "I had to have one."
He got the CBX and rode it everywhere.
While the CBX helped bring Leno back into motorcycling, he soon began to pay more attention to some of the classic bikes he remembered reading about in his youth. By the early-1980s, Leno began collecting.
In 1987, NBC made Leno the exclusive guest host of the Tonight Show and when the legendary Johnny Carson retired, it was Leno who was named host of the show in 1992. Leno was now a star, but modestly never saw himself as one. People who know him say that Leno seems a little surprised and somewhat embarrassed by his celebrity status.
Leno often did his own restoration work, but left the complicated parts to experts like his good friend, Mike Parti, a nationally known restorer and now fellow Motorcycle Hall of Famer.
"When I was a kid I used to restore stuff that wasn’t worth anything because that’s all I could afford," said Leno in an interview in American Motorcyclist. "Now, being in show business, I’m making pretty good money so I started buying all the bikes I wanted as a kid.
"I actually enjoy working on my bikes as much as I do riding them. For every hour I ride them I spend an hour and 10 minutes working on them, polishing them or whatever. I just like being around them. When I’m home I live in the garage."
Leno's collection grew to include an eclectic mix of machines. Some of his favorites include a Vincent Black Shadow (which he posed with when he was on the cover of Cycle World in May of 1989), a Brough Superior and a Ducati Hailwood replica. Leno also has a number of modern-day Harley-Davidsons he calls his "everyday bikes." He expanded his garage to hold his collection, which also includes a large array of motorcycling memorabilia.
Leno says he uses riding as a form of relaxation.
"I often leave home on one of my bikes at 11 a.m. and cruise around before going to work at the Tonight Show at 1 p.m.," Leno said. "I love to ride the canyon roads here in Southern California."
Leno makes frequent appearances at large motorcycle rallies and has used his popularity to help charity causes organized by motorcyclists. He has also helped by using his celebrity to gain access to key people who can lobby effectively for motorcyclists' rights. Leno has long been an AMA member and supporter.
"I’m not really a joiner," he says, "but I’m smart enough to know that if you let things go long enough, somebody’s going to take them away from you if you’re having too much fun."
In 2001, Leno auctioned off one of his Harley-Davidsons to help benefit the New York World Trade Center Relief Fund. The bike, autographed by Leno, raised $360,000 for the fund.