Norm McDonald is one of motorcycling’s Renaissance men, doing just about everything that’s possible with two wheels, from racing, to product development to tuning to running a successful a chain of dealerships.
McDonald has sponsored hundreds of racers from the late 1950s through today, but he’s perhaps best known for being the founding “N” in K&N engineering, a company he formed with AMA Motorcycle Hall of Famer Ken Johnson in 1957 that is now a well-known name in the motorsports world.
Growing up, McDonald’s parents wouldn’t allow him to have a motorcycle, so he satisfied his need for speed with hot rods and drag racing. He always wanted a bike, though, so when he was 17, he saved up his lawn-mowing money and bought a motorcycle that he kept at a friend’s house.
A stint in the Navy from 1952-55 slowed McDonald’s riding passion only slightly, and when he returned he married Louise (Lucy) West, bought another bike and started racing motorcycles and growing a family.
He worked days as a surveyor for the County of San Bernardino, but motorcycling was in his blood. When he met Ken Johnson in 1957, they opened K&N Motorcycles in Loma Linda, Calif., as a service shop, with Johnson working days and McDonald working nights.
“We opened with $200 and three used motorcycles,” McDonald remembers. “We took on Indian, which was Royal Enfield at the time, and in 1958, we took on Yamaha.”
As shop owners, Johnson and McDonald also happened to give an early job to a 17-year-old kid who would come to make quite a name for himself in motorcycling: Malcolm Smith.
“I knew him when I was about 12 years old,” McDonald says. “We watched him ride in the fields, and were impressed, and we when we opened up the shop, we got more acquainted with him, and I asked if he wanted to come work for me.”
Through the years, McDonald owned other motorcycle franchises as well, expanding to six locations and selling BSA, CZ, Jawa, Husky, Hodaka, Tahatsu, Marusho, Greeves and Harley-Davidsons at one time or another.
In 1965, Ken and Norm formed K&N engineering to expand even further, focusing on a line of handlebars, fenders and fork braces. The next year, the K&N Air Filter was introduced and within five years the revolutionary filters could be found in virtually every form of racing.
Beyond racing and running his businesses, McDonald sponsored a number of racers. Besides his sons—Phil McDonald (1973 Daytona 100-mile Junior Champion and national No. 58 and No. 25, and Top Junior in the nation); Sam McDonald (1982 250 National Champion and 1984 second-place Superbike Championship No. 29); son-in-law National No. 12 Ted Boody and grandson Tyler McDonald (No. 20)—Norm sponsored hundreds of others with more than 30 of them going on to compete on the national level.
By 1971, McDonald decided to relocate. “By that time, we had five shops, and a beer bar, and an insurance agency,” McDonald says. “We sold everything off, and we moved.”
Johnson opted to keep K&N Engineering, and McDonald kept the dealership side of things and moved to Tulsa, Okla., opening up dealerships in Tulsa and Wichita, Kansas.
“That was the best decision I ever made,” McDonald says. “I’ve always loved motorcycles and motorcycle people. I know the air cleaner thing is multi-multi-multi million today, but if you’re not happy with what you’re doing, why do it?
“Motorcycling is not a get-rich thing, but it’s made a living for all our families and kept us together.”
McDonald still goes to work every day at his dealerships, enjoying the company of sons and grandsons who also work in the business.
He says he was floored to learn that he was to be inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame.
“It’s amazing,” he says. “I’ve never put myself in that category. I’ve never really thought about being in there. It’s just overwhelming. There are so many riders who rode for me who are in the Hall of Fame, to be in there with them, I’m speechless.”