With his victory in the 1972 Daytona 200, Don Emde became the first son of a former Daytona 200 winner to win the Florida classic. Emde's father, Floyd, accomplished the feat in 1948 on an Indian. Don came back and won the race 24 years later. To date, the Emdes are the only father and son to have won the Daytona 200. After his racing career, Don Emde went on to become author of "Daytona 200," the authoritative book on the history of America's most famous motorcycle race.
Don Emde was born into a motorcycling family on Feb. 16, 1951, in San Diego, California, to Floyd and Florence Emde. Growing up, Emde hung around the family's motorcycle dealership in National City, California. Running the dealership was a family affair for the Emdes. As a youngster, Don would help pass out AMA membership forms before weekend road rides. As he got older, he would spend time on the weekends in the shop doing everything from waxing bikes to taking out the trash. On racing weekends, Emde would go off to help his older brother, Bob, during his short racing career. Later, youngest brother David would travel and help Don. David also went on to a notable motorcycle racing career.
Racing was very popular in Southern California and Emde got to know many legendary riders, such as Ed Kretz, Brad Andres and Cal Rayborn, as they passed through his family's shop.
During his high school years, Emde began racing scrambles (now called motocross) events on a little Suzuki 80cc motorcycle. He quickly advanced and was a regular winner in amateur TT and scrambles races. Shortly after establishing himself in scrambles and TT racing, Emde began dirt track racing on area short track and half-mile circuits. Still a teenager, Emde began participating in local club road racing events on a Suzuki X-6 with good success. Emde logged serious miles on the weekends, shuttling back and forth between scrambles, dirt track and road racing events.
Emde became one of the top racers in Southern California in the late 1960s. He won an amateur national on the dirt half-mile in Oklahoma City and a slew of Southern California races, establishing himself as one of the true up-and-coming riders on the national level.
In 1970 Emde had a unique situation of having a split AMA racing license. Due to his impressive road racing resume, Emde was given an expert road racing license, despite still being classified as an amateur in dirt-track events. In his rookie season, Emde had some impressive outings. Riding a Mel Dinesen-tuned Yamaha, Emde earned his very first AMA national podium finish when he took third at the road race in Loudon, New Hampshire. Emde was riding even stronger in the 250cc class. At Talladega, he won the 250 Grand Prix beating Gary Nixon and Cal Rayborn in one of the closest races of the season.
Impressed by his performances in 1970, BSA signed Emde for the 1971 season. He was part of the huge BSA/Triumph Daytona 200 effort which included Mike Hailwood, Dick Mann, David Aldana, Jim Rice and Emde for BSA; and Gene Romero, Don Castro, Tom Rockwood, Gary Nixon and Paul Smart for Triumph. In addition to the impressive teams fielded by the British maker, all of the Japanese manufacturers (except Honda) as well as Harley-Davidson fielded factory efforts in one of the most talent-ladened lineups in the history of the race. Emde emerged as a surprise podium finisher, taking third in the 200 behind Mann and Romero. He earned two other podium finishes that season in AMA nationals (Kent, Washington, and Talladega, Alabama), but finished just outside the top ten in the AMA Grand National championship due to poor showings in dirt track events.
Financially troubled BSA unexpectedly trimmed its racing program the following year and Emde was a victim of the cuts. Emde was sent scrambling for new sponsors and hurriedly put together a ride with Team Motorcycle Weekly, with backing from Yamaha for the 1972 Daytona 200. He teamed again with tuner Mel Dinesen, using a new Yamaha 350cc two-stroke specifically designed for the 200.
The new factory Suzukis and Kawasakis were incredibly fast in practice that year, but were suffering tire problems. Emde later said he had sort of a strange inner confidence that he was going to win the race that year. In the race, Emde rode a steady pace and gradually made his way to the front of the field as attrition took its toll on the early leaders. On lap 48 of 53, Emde took the lead for good and went on to win by 100 yards over Ray Hempstead. Emde's victory marked a number of Daytona firsts. It was the first 200 victory for Yamaha; the 350cc engine was the smallest ever to win; and it was the first time a two-stroke-powered machine had won the race.
The Daytona 200 victory was the pinnacle of Emde's racing career. It had been his dream since childhood and now he had won it. But after winning the 200, Emde seemed to suffer through a spate of bad luck. He traveled to England to participate in the Trans-Atlantic Match Races on a borrowed machine and had mixed results. He also raced at an international event in Italy, but had mechanical problems. He ran the rest of the '72 season without much success and, after finishing seventh on a Suzuki at Daytona in 1973, Emde retired from racing.
After his racing career, Emde continued to work in the family motorcycle business and eventually became marketing manager for Bell Helmets. In the mid-1980s, Emde became publisher of Motorcycle Dealer News. He also launched a magazine called Motorcycle Collector and immersed himself into the world of historic motorcycles. He acquired a large collection of memorabilia and historic racing photographs. In 1990, Emde became an author, writing a well-received book on the history of the Daytona 200. In the early 1990's, Emde joined the board of the American Motorcycle Heritage Foundation and became a leading voice in the preservation of motorcycling history, especially pertaining to racing.
When inducted in 1999, Emde and his wife, Tracy, lived in Southern California. The couple have two grown children, a son, Jeff, and daughter, Jennifer. Emde's business deals with diverse projects from historical preservation of motorcycling to publishing to racing sponsorship.