Jody Nicholas was one of America’s best road racers during the 1960s. He was a contender at nearly every road race national he entered from the early 1960s to the time he was drafted to serve in the Vietnam War in 1965. The years that Nicholas served his country came at the prime of his career. He returned to racing after the service and had some successes, but never regained the momentum he had before being drafted.
In 1963, Nicholas won his two career AMA nationals: at the famous Laconia Classic road race and later that year on the road course in Carpentersville, Illinois. He was known for his graceful riding style, which was in stark contrast to the brutish, square-off-the-turn style employed by most American dirt track riders on road courses in the early ‘60s.
Nicholas was born Joel Edward Nicholas on August 28, 1943 in Dallas. Hew was always know by his nickname, Jody. His parents were both educators in Nashville and Nicholas was trained to be a classical musician from the time he was 7 years old all the way through college. Nicholas was a violinist, though he was proficient on several other instruments as well.
Nicholas first got the feel of two wheels when he bought a Doodlebug minibike powered by a lawnmower engine when he was in seventh grade. He paid $25 for the little minibike, appropriately enough from money he’d saved cutting lawns. Nicholas entered his first race, a scrambles event, in 1957 on a borrowed bike and did well enough to earn a trophy and the attention of a local Nashville BSA motorcycle dealer, Lonnie Martin, who became Nicholas’ first sponsor.
A diminutive young rider, Nicholas stood 5’ 7” and weighed 125 pounds during his days of racing. He excelled at all types of motorcycle racing, from scrambles, to drag racing, from dirt tracking to road racing. Nicholas began to make a name outside of Tennessee when he won novice races at Daytona in 1960. The next year, he became one of the top-ranked amateur riders in the country, winning three AMA amateur road race nationals and the amateur program of the Springfield Mile.
Nicholas’ first race as an expert was in the Daytona 200 in 1962. He qualified a very respectable sixth out of over 100 entries. During the race, the throttle on his BSA stuck open and Nicholas was forced to ad-lib by using the kill switch to slow the bike down in the corners. Unfortunately for Nicholas, the kill switch began shorting out and several times the power would come on when he wasn’t expecting it. As a result of his bike’s condition Nicholas crashed several times that day, but still managed a sixth-place finish.
The best national finish for Nicholas during his rookie expert season was at Laconia, New Hampshire, where he took fourth. It was a precursor of things to come.
The 1963 season will go down as Nicholas’ breakthrough year. He followed up his excellent rookie performance and won at Laconia, despite crashing his factory BSA Gold Star with just a lap to go. He fell coming out of Laconia’s infamous hairpin turn, giving the lead to George Roeder. Nicholas quickly picked up his bike and got back into the race and took back the lead from Roeder near the end of that final lap to win his first AMA National. Later that same summer, Nicholas won again on the road circuit in Carpentersville after a race-long battle with Dick Hammer.
While Nicholas would come close many times over the next 10 years, Lady Luck did not smile on him and he never won another AMA national.
Nicholas mainly stayed away from the dirt track nationals, choosing to focus instead on road racing. He continued as the most consistent road racer during the middle 1960s and managed to finish in the top 10 of the AMA Grand National point standings in 1964 and 1965. Nicholas was even offered a chance to compete in the 500cc Grand Prix World Championship circuit before Uncle Sam came calling.
Nicholas joined the Navy and was an aviator, flying E-1B Tracer radar planes off the deck of an aircraft carrier. He even plucked an Apollo moon mission crew from the Pacific Ocean.
After his military service, Nicholas returned to racing and was hired as a factory rider for the fledgling Suzuki team. Nicholas showed that he hadn’t lost any of his skills when he finished second to young BSA rider David Aldana on the road course at Talladega Motor Speedway in 1970.
Injuries from crashes began to wear on Nicholas through the early 1970s. His final podium finish at an AMA national came at the Ascot Park Half Mile, in Gardena, California, on September 25, 1971. He won the 125 national at Road Atlanta in 1972, but was disqualified because the engine crankcases and cylinder assemblies on his machine did not have fins like the street model GT750s from which the racers were derived. He continued to race off and on over the next few years before retiring from professional competition in the mid-1970s.
After his racing career, Nicholas stayed involved in the motorcycling industry. He became an assistant editor for Cycle World and later wrote for several other industry publications.
In addition to his ample racing and tuning skills, Nicholas will also be remembered as one of the most likeable riders of his era. Being college educated, a classical musician, a patriot and Southern gentleman never diminished the fact that Nicholas was first and foremost a racer.
Nicholas was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999. He lives in Southern California, continues writing about motorcycles and still occasionally competes in races for past champions.
Inducted in 1999