Don Vesco does not fit neatly into a specific category of motorcycling, but the one thread that runs throughout his career is the quest for speed. Vesco was a dirt tracker, factory road racer, drag racer, motorcycle dealer, race-team owner and land-speed record-holder. Vesco first became known for his road racing skills from the late-1950s through the 1960s, and then later became famous for his land speed records in the 1970s through the 1990s.
Vesco was born on April 8, 1939 in Loma Linda, California. His father owned a body shop and, as a hobby, ran hot rods on California’s numerous dry lakebeds. Vesco was mechanically inclined from a young age, tearing apart model airplane engines and making them faster by the time he was in third grade. He says as a kid he was always racing his brothers and friends.
"You name it, we raced it," Vesco remembers. "From our toys as little kids, to skateboards to bicycles, racing was always a part of my life. From the time I was a few months old my dad took my brothers and me to all the races around San Diego."
Early heroes of Vesco’s included famous auto racer Billy Vukovich and motorcycle racers Joe Leonard and Brad Andres, all of whom grew up in the San Diego area.
As a teenager, Vesco parlayed his mechanical skills into cold hard cash.
"I used to buy old Cushman scooters for $20, fix them up and sell them for $25," Vesco remembers. "I felt like I was making a killing."
It didn’t take Vesco long to step up from scooters to motorcycles. Still in his teens, Vesco fixed up a Triumph twin and entered his first official race, a local drag racing event. Then he took that same Triumph and started racing scrambles, TTs, and eventually road races on an old military airport outside of town. One of Vesco’s riding buddies, and his archrival on the track, was Cal Rayborn.
Vesco and Rayborn had very little money and no cars in those days, so they would borrow a car from a friend’s dad, load their bikes into a trailer and head off to the races around Southern California with just enough money to pay for gas.
Vesco won a lot of local road races in the late 1950s and early '60s. He caught the attention of Honda, which was just coming into the U.S. market. Honda hired him to race its rare and very expensive RC161, a 250cc, four-cylinder racer, to promote the brand.
"Jack McCormick and Don Evans were with Honda when they first came to America and they were smart,” Vesco explains. "Back then, we raced our bikes on the same day as the SCCA sports car people. When I fired up that little Honda that would rev to 13,000 rpm, everyone would gather around. That bike was way ahead of its time.
"Many of the people that attended those races were wealthy car dealers and they would pick up Honda to sell in the corner of their dealerships. So Honda had dealerships in North Hollywood and Beverly Hills and other nice areas, unlike the Harley and British brand dealers who were set up in bad parts of town where the rent was cheap."
Vesco’s relationship with Honda lasted until 1963, when he took an offer from Yamaha, which was also just getting started in America, to race at the United States Grand Prix (a non-points-paying international race) at Daytona International Speedway. He rode a works Yamaha RD56 250cc GP bike and won the 500cc class.
Because of Vesco’s now nationwide popularity, Yamaha asked him to open a dealership under his name. At the time, he wasn’t interested, because he didn’t think he’d be able to continue to race and run a dealership at the same time. But after being given an ultimatum to either quit racing or lose his job as a machinist, Vesco quit the job. Unemployed, Vesco called Yamaha and asked if they were still interested in having him open a dealership. Yamaha was, and in 1966 he opened his dealership in El Cajon, California.
The shop became a true racer’s hangout and Vesco started sponsoring riders. At one point, more than 60 racers were competing out of the dealership.
"That was a lot of fun," Vesco recalls. "I probably didn’t make as much money with the dealership as I could have, but it was great to be able to help out all those racers. There was always so much going on out of the shop. We were shipping in parts from Japan, doing modifications and shipping stuff out all across the country."
By the late 1960s Vesco had already been a factory rider for Honda, Yamaha and BSA. He was even a factory rider for the little-known Japanese maker Bridgestone in the 250 GP class for a short time.
In the early 1970s, Vesco had two of the most talented road racers in the world, Kel Carruthers and Cal Rayborn, racing out of his shop. Throughout the '70s, top-notch riders such as Gene Romero, David Aldana, Ron Pierce, Yvon du Hamel, and others rode at one time or another under the Vesco Yamaha racing banner.
It was during this period that Vesco began his highly publicized land speed record runs. In September of 1970, he set the motorcycle land speed record of 251.66 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats in a streamliner powered by twin Yamaha engines. Less than a month later, the Harley-Davidson factory broke the record with Vesco’s longtime friend Cal Rayborn at the controls.
"Since Cal (Rayborn) and I were good friends, I knew Harley was going to set the record," remembers Vesco. "I made sure I got my contingency money from Yamaha and all my other sponsors real quick."
In 1975, Vesco broke the 300 mph barrier in the Silver Bird Yamaha (powered by twin Yamaha TZ750 motors). Then in 1978 he broke his own record, turning 318.598 mph in a twin Kawasaki turbo rig. That record held for 12 years.
In 1999, Vesco went after and earned the land speed record for a wheel-driven car with his "Turbinator" streamliner powered by a Lycoming gas turbine helicopter engine, which hit 427.832 mph. Vesco was 60 years old when he set that record. In October of 2001, Vesco went even faster and set an FIA World Land Speed Record of 458.440 mph in the "Turbinator" at Bonneville.
Vesco set those records despite having lost an eye after being hit by a rock while watching a sprint-car race in 1996. He also continued to race at vintage motorcycle events and has been known to give fits to young riders on their modern sport bikes while riding a vintage Norton Manx in local club races.
Vesco was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999. A year later, Cycle World got it right in its June, 2000, feature on Vesco, titled "The Forever Racer."
Vesco died December 16, 2002, after a long battle with cancer.