Jay Springsteen is considered one of the best AMA Grand National flat-track racers of all time. Bursting onto the scene and earning the AMA Rookie of the Year Award in 1975, Springsteen won three consecutive AMA Grand National Championships starting in 1976. In 1982 he became the first rider to reach 30 wins in AMA Grand National competition. "Springer," as his faithful fans call him, compiled the longest racing career in AMA Grand National history, spanning from his 1975 rookie season to 2003, when he announced his retirement from full-time competition. Springsteen was a factory rider with Harley-Davidson for much of his career and was perhaps the racer most closely associated with the American brand from the 1970s through the 2000s. In all he raced in a record 398 AMA nationals, winning a total of 43. Over the years Springsteen became the most beloved rider in the series and nearly always received standing ovations during introductions prior to races.
Springsteen was born in Flint, Michigan, on April 15, 1957. His parents both worked in the auto industry and Springsteen’s father was an amateur motorcycle racer. The middle of three brothers, Jay began riding motorcycles when he was nine and started racing soon after.
"I started out on a little Harley-Davidson minibike, riding around in circles in my front yard. I guess not a lot changed during my career,” Springsteen jokes.
Soon, the impromptu races between Jay and his older brother, Ken, moved to a large lot in a neighbor’s backyard, and young Jay quickly developed his riding skills. Early on, Springsteen competed in local scrambles races with good success. But soon he followed in the rich tradition of Michigan flat-trackers such as Corky Keener and Bart Markel, a friend of Springsteen’s father and one of Jay’s early heroes. Springsteen’s older brother had good success regionally before he retired from racing, and younger brother, Chuck, became a multi-time national ice racing champion.
By his mid-teens, Springsteen had already gained a reputation as one of the country’s best up-and-coming young riders. He was the AMA’s top amateur in 1974 and was making a living from racing by the time he was 17, riding with sponsorship from a T-shirt company called Vista Sheen. By 1975 Springsteen moved up to the premier AMA Grand National Championship. His rookie season was one of the most memorable in the history of the series. He earned six podium finishes, including victories on the half-miles in Louisville, Kentucky, and Harrington, Delaware. He finished a very strong third in the championship and was named AMA Rookie of the Year.
Springsteen vividly remembers his first AMA Grand National victory at Louisville Downs.
"Corky Keener had won it the year before riding up high in the cushion," Springer remembers. "I decided to ride the cushion that night and by the final there was just a small cushion way up by the hay bales. Everyone else rode low on the groove and somehow I found a way to make it work up high, clipping the bales in the corners and just sort of ran away with it."
Springsteen was so impressive in his first season that at just 18 years old he was signed by Harley-Davidson for the 1976 season. Future Hall of Famer Bill Werner was assigned to be his tuner. The relationship between the two proved to be a fruitful one. Springsteen would win three straight national championships during an era when AMA Grand National racing was at its peak, with competitors such as Kenny Roberts, Gary Scott, Gene Romero, Ted Boody and a number of other leading riders who would go on to become Motorcycle Hall of Fame members.
Springsteen's 1976 championship was one of the hardest-fought titles in the history of the series, and he battled with Roberts and Scott. In the end, Springsteen won five out of the last seven nationals to earn the title. In 1977 Springsteen became only the sixth rider in AMA Grand National history to win back-to-back titles. He backed that up by becoming only the fourth rider to win three AMA Grand National Championships in 1978.
Springsteen even showed promise in road racing. He often ran near the front in the 250 class, but the Harley-Davidson XR road racer was well beyond its competitive lifespan. By the time Springsteen raced the bike, he was simply doing so to score whatever points he could in the road races, which at the time counted towards the AMA Grand National Championship. Springsteen did win an AMA Battle of the Twins road race aboard a Harley-Davidson in 1983 and he finished fifth in the prestigious Daytona 200 in 1986 aboard a Super Team Yamaha sponsored by Jim France.
In 1979, Springsteen began experiencing the stomach problems that would plague him for years to come. He said doctors were baffled by his ailment, later deducing that nerves before the races brought it on. He missed four of the first five rounds with the stomach problem. He rallied later that summer and went on a winning streak that saw him charge back to an eventual second-place ranking in the series.
In 1982, Springsteen nearly won the title for a fourth time. He battled all season with young gun Ricky Graham. The championship was not decided until the final round, and Springer came up just two points shy of the title. That season was also notable for Springsteen becoming the all-time AMA Grand National win leader. He was the first rider to reach 30 national victories by winning the Sacramento Mile in April of 1982. But the '82 campaign would prove to be as close as Springsteen would come to a fourth championship. He had mixed results throughout the rest of the 1980s.
By the mid-1990s, Springsteen experienced resurgence. His mysterious stomach problem was not cropping up as much, and by his own admission, his lifestyle improved and he started winning again. Springsteen was an early star of the new Harley-Davidson 883 Sportster Performance Series. He won often on the Sportsters and was three-time runnerup in the class.
In 1995, he scored an emotional victory at the Pomona (California) Half Mile, his first AMA Grand National win in nearly 10 years. From 1995 to 2003, Springsteen never finished outside the top-10 in the AMA Grand National Championship standings. He won nationals again in 1999 and 2000, the latter his first victory at the prestigious Springfield (Illinois) Mile. Even in 2003, his final full season of racing, Springsteen scored two podium finishes.
Springsteen continued the tradition of top-level Grand National riders from Michigan. After Springsteen, it was Scott Parker who carried on the tradition. Springsteen cites several reasons he thinks the Flint-area riders have historically done so well in AMA nationals.
"We started ice racing earlier than a lot of other regions of the country," he says. "So we’re on bikes all year round. We also had a pretty big variety of tracks up there. Plus, because of the auto industry, there are a lot of good machinists and that’s made our bikes really good. General Motors doesn’t know it, but some of the best parts on AMA race bikes were made in GM plants."
When pundits sit down to discuss the greatest flat-track racers of all time, Springsteen’s name is always near the top of the list. His record is hard to argue with – four decades as a leading rider, three championships, 43 national wins (third on the all-time list at the time of his induction into the Hall of Fame in 2003), ranked in the top 10 an amazing 23 times and a span between victories that covers 25 years. He won nationals on all types of dirt tracks – miles, half-miles, short tracks and TTs. His racing style is considered one of most stylish in the history of the AMA Grand National Series and he was a fan favorite for nearly his entire career.
When inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2003, Springsteen said he was scaling back his racing schedule, but not retiring fully from competition. He looked forward to competing in more vintage road races. He also promised to take more time to enjoy his outdoorsman lifestyle of hunting, fishing, camping and snowmobile riding. Springsteen often hosts many of his fellow racers and other motorcycle industry people in hunting expeditions in northern Michigan.
Springsteen lives in Lapeer, Michigan, is married to Judy, and has a daughter, Amanda.