Skip Van Leeuwen was one of the best Tourist Trophy Steeplechase riders in the history of AMA racing. Van Leeuwen dominated AMA TT competition in the mid-1960s, winning four nationals on the small dirt-track circuits that feature a jump and left- and right-hand turns. Van Leeuwen won AMA national TT races in Houston (in the Astrodome), Castle Rock, Washington, and at his home track of Ascot Park in Gardena, California. He also won numerous West Coast regional championships during his racing career. After retiring from racing in the early 1970s, Van Leeuwen went on to launch a successful motorcycle accessories business.
Van Leeuwen was born on December 20, 1938 in Orange City, Iowa. His family moved to Los Angeles when he was two – his father going to work in a shipyard after the outbreak of World War II.
After high school, childhood friend Dick Hammer and Van Leeuwen both bought Triumph 650s and began frequenting local speedways. Both Hammer and Van Leeuwen would go on to become nationally known racers, but early on Van Leeuwen was happy just watching the races.
"I thought those guys were all lunatics," Van Leeuwen said about the racers he watched as a teenager. "Dick and I watched those guys walking around with limps before the races and we thought everyone of them had busted-up legs. We didn’t know that was how you walked when wearing a steel shoe."
His racing heroes as a teenager included riders such as Joe Leonard, George Everett, Dick Dorresteyn and Dick Mann. He would later have a chance to race against them.
Van Leeuwen and Hammer went to watch the Catalina Island Grand Prix and a buddy did well in the race.
"We figured if he could do it, we could," remembers Van Leeuwen. "We both went out and bought Triumph Tiger Cubs. I bought mine from Ed Kretz’s dealership. My idea was to race that year just to earn enough points that I could race Catalina the next year, but the year we went to watch turned out to be the final race on Catalina. It was cancelled after that."
Van Leeuwen was raised in a church-going family and when he started missing Sunday services to go to races, his family wasn’t happy.
"I told them racing was just a temporary thing and that I was just doing it for fun,
recalls Van Leeuwen. "I promised my mom that when I made expert I would quit racing. Then I went out in my first expert race and there were all the guys I grew up watching and were my heroes. I just happened to get a great start and won the race and of course after that I was hooked."
Triumph sponsored Van Leeuwen and in 1962 he turned pro. He showed his potential in his rookie season by finishing second to Dick Dorresteyn in the 1962 Ascot Park TT AMA National.
Van Leeuwen continued to win on the regional level, but found less success at the nationals.
"In the early years, I was so cocky all I cared about was being fastest," admits Van Leeuwen. "A lot of times I was the fastest, but I crashed and blew up a lot of equipment in those days. I had a little bit of a reputation of being a wild rider."
Between 1967 and 1969, Van Leeuwen still had the speed, but had settled down just enough to become a serious contender and he began winning races. He never chased the entire AMA national series, instead choosing to race mainly in Southern California and almost exclusively in TT races. He always felt uneasy racing on half-mile and mile dirt tracks.
On July 22, 1967, Van Leeuwen won his first AMA national – the Ascot Park TT National in Gardena, California. After the race, it was discovered that a fuel line on his No. 59 Triumph had broken. He wouldn’t have been able to make another lap.
In 1968, Van Leeuwen won the Castle Rock (Washington) TT and defended his championship at Ascot Park. In February of 1969, he won the TT national in the Houston Astrodome in front of 47,000 fans in what he calls the biggest thrill of his racing career.
The one race that Van Leeuwen would have dearly loved to win was the Peoria (Illinois) TT, but after years of trying he was never able to finish better than sixth at the classic Midwestern event.
While TT racing was his specialty, Van Leeuwen was also a solid, but unlucky, road racer. He raced the Daytona 200 and Loudon Classic, and while he qualified well, he never earned a good result at those races. His best AMA national finish on a road course was fourth at Carlsbad, California, in 1967.
By the early 1970s, Van Leeuwen was concentrating more on his business interests and retired from racing in 1972, even though he was still very competitive on the track.
"When Kenny Roberts and Gary Scott came along, I knew that my racing days were about over," remembers Van Leeuwen. "Those kids were so fast and they were already calling me the George Blanda of motorcycle racing."
His business, Van Leeuwen Enterprises, evolved over the years to become one of the largest motorcycle accessory companies in the country.
"We started buying products from businesses that were in trouble and my garage was the warehouse and it grew from there," said Van Leeuwen.
Van Leeuwen stays involved in racing by sponsoring racers and races. He will always be remembered for his mastery of TT racing.
Inducted in 1999