Nick Nicholson was one of the most versatile racers of the 1950s. From desert racing to trials, from road racing to dirt track, hillclimb to enduros, Nicholson was a leading contender in almost every category of two-wheel racing. He scored wins in the famous Catalina Grand Prix and the 100-miler at Daytona Beach as well as taking numerous victories in the leading West Coast off-road events of the 1950s.
In the early 1950s, Nicholson was also considered the leading road racer on the West Coast. Cycle Magazine organized a fundraiser to help send Nicholson to the Isle of Man in 1953 to compete in the famous Tourist Trophy race. Nicholson later became a motorcycle dealer and importer of the influential Greeves motorcycles. He sponsored many of the leading off-road and motocross riders in the 1960s through the Greeves brand.
Vernon Keith Nicholson was born in Iowa in 1924, and grew up in the Los Angeles area. Nicholson first became interested in motorcycling after his older brother brought home an old Indian motorcycle. Nick was soon competing in Southern California club field meets and hillclimbs. He went to work for Slim Karns Harley-Davidson and Karns put young Nicholson on a flat-track bike and he quickly became one of the few novices to frequently make the program against expert and pro riders. In 1949, Nicholson set the outright motorcycle track record at Carrell Speedway while still a novice rider.
Nicholson’s talent also translated to trials riding and off-road racing. In the late 1940s, he was the top Southern California trials rider and one of the leading desert racers. He won the Southern California Trials Championship in 1949 and 1950.
By the early 1950s, Nicholson seemed destined to move full-time to the AMA Grand National Championships. Fellow competitors who were already Grand National regulars knew Nicholson had the talent.
"He was one of the best overall riders out there," said none other than two-time AMA Grand National Champion Dick Mann. Yet as gifted as Nicholson was at dirt-track racing, he favored off-road and road racing.
In 1951, the Catalina Grand Prix was established. The race, which became one of the premier races of the 1950s, was held on Santa Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles. The track was a 10-mile mountain course that combined road sections, fire roads and single track trails. Nicholson’s diverse background proved perfect for Catalina. In the race’s first year, Nicholson won Saturday’s 250cc race. On Sunday, he led the premier 500cc event by a large margin before the gas tank on his motorcycle split with just three miles to go in the 100-mile race. A fan gave Nicholson some gas and he was able to make to the finish in fourth.
In 1952, Nicholson returned to Catalina and not only did he defend his 250cc victory, but he also scored the win in the 500cc class of the prestigious race. He beat 182 other racers to win the ’52 race. Both his 250 and 500cc wins came on BSA and the company heavily advertised Nicholson’s accomplishment. The wins helped solidify the reputation of the burgeoning British brand.
Catalina proved to be very good to Nicholson. Not only did his wins there make him one of the most popular riders in the country, it was also during one of his Catalina visits that he met his wife-to-be, Alice.
Hot off his victory at Catalina, Nicholson was invited by William Thompson, an American military officer stationed in Germany, to ride his Nortons in the famous Isle of Man TT. With bikes ready for him in Europe, Nicholson still needed to come up with the funding for the trip. Cycle Magazine pitched in by starting a fundraiser to help send Nicholson to the Isle of Man. In the end, nearly half of the money needed was raised by the magazine’s efforts, but Nicholson and Alice sold everything they had to fund the rest of the trip.
In preparation for racing the ’53 Isle of Man, Nicholson competed in continental circus road races in Belgium and Germany. He and Alice arrived at the Isle of Man a few weeks before the race so he could study the island road course, which covers everyday roads and is a little over 37 miles long. BSA supplied the couple with a road bike and Nicholson would ride the course while Alice, sitting behind him, wrote notes that her husband could later study. At other times, Alice would take the controls of the motorcycle so Nicholson could study the course more closely.
In the Senior TT, Nicholson was running securely in "silver medal" time when he came upon a multi-bike accident that claimed the life of former TT winner Les Graham. Nicholson unselfishly stopped to see if he could offer any assistance and then got back on the course and rode up the track to warn course marshals of the crash. The stop cost him positions in the race, but he still managed to finish 18th, earning a bronze medal. Graham’s home club later awarded Nicholson a special plaque for his sportsmanship.
After the TT, Nicholson stayed in England the rest of the summer. He worked in the BSA plant and rode a variety of scrambles (motocross) and trials competitions.
Upon returning from England, Nicholson opened a motorcycle shop in Long Beach. The first brand he carried was the little known British-made James. He later moved to North Hollywood and became a BSA dealer.
In 1953, he won the 100-mile support race to the Daytona 200 at Daytona Beach. Later that season, Nicholson was injured in practice for the AMA Grand National road race at Willow Springs and was forced to sit out of racing for a couple of seasons. Although he returned to competition, Nicholson began to shift his focus on his dealership and helping up-and-coming riders.
Nicholson was on the leading edge during the introduction of motocross to America in the mid-to-late 1960s. He housed and sponsored riders from Europe and as a Greeves Motorcycle dealer he backed many of the early stars of off-road and motocross racing, including riders such as Malcolm Smith, Gary Bailey, Preston Petty and Jim Rice, to name a few.
In 1965, Nicholson returned to the Isle of Man to race in the ISDE for the American team. He was 41 years old at the time.
Even after Nicholson retired and sold his dealership, he never slowed down with his involvement in motorcycling. He moved to Lake Isabella, about 200 miles north of Los Angeles. He explored all the local trails and formed a new motorcycle club. He continued to sponsor motorcycle events and also competed in American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association events.
Nick and Alice raised two children, Keith and Kathy.
Nicholson enjoyed trail riding until the day he died in 1994, just a few months after his family organized a surprise 70th birthday party that was attended by 100 or so of his old racing buddies. He will always be remembered for his excellence in nearly every form of racing and his selfless dedication in lending a hand to other riders.
Inducted in 2005