Person of the Week “Legends”: Tony Nicosia
Vol. 3, Issue 45
Person of the Week “Legends”: Tony Nicosia
By Keith S. Kizer
Photos by: Cycle Guide, Kawasaki and unknown
Born April 4, 1937 in Ybor City, Florida, Salvatore Anthony Nicosia grew up as a man of small stature or as it turned out, the perfect size for motorcycle racing. At 5’ 4” and 120 lbs at his heaviest Tony used his size to his advantage. Before the rest of the racing world had figured out the advantages of power-to-weight ratio Tony was making a career of using his size to beat the competition.
Tony’s first experience with racing was the local sand drags in 1952 on a Puch 175 Allstate sold through Sears and Roebuck. After joining the Air Force in 1955 Tony was deployed to Japan in December that same year. A week after he got there he snuck off base and put a down payment on a 175cc Abe Star motorcycle. Not having anywhere else to keep the bike, he parked it outside the gate at the base leaning it against a fence. Remember this was the 50’s and Japan. Theft wasn’t in their vocabulary. It’s okay if you don’t recognize the name Abe Star. Back in the 50’s there was probably 200 brands of motorcycles in Japan. Mostly imitations of British made motorcycles. The most sought after brand was the Hosk, an Oriental version of the German designed Horex 500cc SOHC vertical-twin that was THE bike to have in the mid 50’s. Horex was the big competition to BMW in Europe. Horex claimed 115mph top end speed in their advertising. If you purchased a Horex and it didn’t hold up to the company’s claims, they would buy it back. The only reason Horex is not a household name like Honda today is that the company eventually learned there was more profit in manufacturing motorcycle parts for other manufacturers than building their own motorcycles, so they got out of the business. Since the Horex was out of Tony’s limited budget he settled for the next best thing, the Hosk. The Hosk was the only Japanese bike that could challenge the English singles and twins in performance.
The photo above is from a race at Tomatech Raceway. From left to right is (31) Mr. Itoh of the Honda Race Team, (61) Mr. Suzuki, (56) Mr. Kobo, Suzuki Factory rider and Japanese National Champion 1960-1965, and finally (17) Tony with unknown riders to the right of him.
To get back and forth to the races in Japan Tony had a Nissan truck. He said you could get seven bikes in the bed if you put them in sideways. Racing eventually landed Tony a factory ride with the Hosk Motor Corporation. After purchasing a Hosk he went to the factory to see if they would hop the bike up so he could race at a big local event. He said he needed their help because he was going to win the race. After they stopped laughing at him they agreed to work on his bike. Tony won the sportsman class. Tony was quickly signed as a Hosk factory rider.
Although the majority of Tony’s racing for Hosk was limited to scrambles he did race and win a few drag races as well. As his first tour of duty was coming to an end Tony desperately wanted a Horex. The Air Force paid money for servicemen to re-enlist. A four year re-enlistment would have only netted him $400. He had to re-up for six years to get enough money to purchase the $750 Horex. This is the bike that really started Tony’s drag racing career. He also managed to pull off a couple of GI hill climbs on the same bike.
In order for the American’s who were racing to obtain FIM status for their events they had to start their own motorcycle club, which fell under the MFJ umbrella, which is the equivalent to AMA. Scramble events were the predecessor to outdoor motocross. Since there were no dirt bikes in those days guys had to take street bikes and remove the headlights, tail lights, mirrors, and install knobby tires. Knobby tires basically came from tractor tires made for farm bikes.
Racing in Japan for the Americans started in the late 50’s with a couple of military installations conducting scrambles and drag racing events. At the same time the Japanese where conducting their own events around the country. Eventually the Americans and Japanese started competing together.
From 1957 to 1964 Tony took 1st place or placed in the top five in road racing, flat track, and scrambles racing. To the Japanese racers and fans he was known as Tony-San, the little American motorcycle hero. The photo below is Tony with Mr. Itoh, Vice-President of the Hosk Motorcycle Company.
Near the end of Tony’s time in the Air Force he finished his last months stateside in Delaware. He then moved home to Florida and opened a motorcycle service shop but within months he moved to California to be closer to racing. Tony soon went to work as a service rep for Suzuki and took up road racing. For three years (’66-‘68) he carried the #1 plate in the 50cc class in both the ACA and AFM sanctioning bodies.
Shown above is Tony on one of the many factory Honda race bikes that he brought back with him from Japan. This was a non-fairing CR 125 which featured an 8-speed DOHC engine with gear driven cams and four sodium-filled valves per cylinder. Honda sold Tony a number of these bikes for a whopping $300 each. This photo is from a race in Punta Gorda, Florida. Note the inverted shifter and no gloves. Tony said he had goggles but they came off. You know what they say, safety first.
Another CR125 Honda as seen at Willow Springs in California.
Another CR125 at Riverside which was purchased from “Hall of Famer” Bob Braverman. Braverman built and raced a dual engine Yamaha using a pair of 250cc road racing engines and was Editor and Publisher for Cycle Guide magazine.
The 250 Suzuki above belonged to Steve Rolls who was killed by a landmine on his first tour in Vietnam. His dad said Steve always wanted Tony to ride the bike so Tony did and set records between 1966-1968 that stood for two decades.
In 1968 Tony moved over to the service department at Kawasaki after being made an offer he could not refuse. Kawasaki executive Darrel Krause was the National Sales Manager at that time and one of the founding fathers of the 500cc H1 Mach III, Kawasaki’s first triple cylinder motorcycle. Krause enlisted the services of Tony to help in the development of the H1, under the top-secret code name N100. The two of them did most of the secret road test on the prototype in Arizona and Nevada as seen below.
Prior to the release of the H1, plenty of publicity was being propagated which used Tony’s drag racing credentials to sell the new factory hot rod. Pictured below is a photo from an article in Cycle Guide with the 1969 pre-production pilot run H1 in the parking lot at Kawasaki’s old facility in Irvine, California.
As the first factory point man, Tony Nicosia was probably used in more Kawasaki ads than Terry Vance was used in Suzuki ads in later years. Tony’s claim to fame was undoubtedly the H1 500cc Mach III. The first round of ads taunted Tony’s accomplishments of setting drag racing records from California to Maine, and records at Bonneville. But they didn’t stop there. In 1972 when the 750cc Mach IV was introduced it was another Kawasaki ad that announced Tony’s breaking into the 11-second zone by setting a new AHRA record of 11.95 seconds at Fremont. The ad went on to give Tony’s schedule for the rest of the season, which included the Hang Ten Funny Car 500 at Orange County, AHRA’s Denver, Oklahoma City, LaRue, Ohio, St. Louis and Dallas events, AMDRA’s Marion County, Ohio, Montreal and Cleveland events, and NHRA’s Bowling Green and Indy events, plus Speed Week at Bonneville. That’s an historic calendar of motorcycle racing history if I ever saw one.
Shown here is Tony on the H1 Pilot bike at Orange County raceway. Note the signature bandana. Some thought he wore bandanas just to look cool but in reality it kept the air from getting underneath his leathers thus making him more aerodynamic. The weekend following this photo shoot, Tony raced the same bike at Willow Springs. It was the only show bike Kawasaki had so they threatened to hang him if he drug the footpegs while racing it.
By the time of its official debut the H1 was being touted as the quickest production motorcycle. To quiet the skepticism of journalists, Kawasaki shipped one of the first H1’s to California and trucked it over to Lyon’s Drag Strip in the crate. With media and local racers in attendance they uncrated the bike, assembled it, fired it up, and put Tony on it with zero miles on the odometer. On the first pass Tony ran a 13.10 at 99.66. After a few passes he then knocked off the industry’s first ever sub 13-second quarter mile on a production motorcycle at 100 mph+ (firstname.lastname@example.org). The critics were not silenced but instead converted to believers who pinned Kawasaki’s success in every motorcycle magazine in the world. Over the next several years Tony would amass world and national records all across the country on the H1.
The photo below from Bakersfield is of a 1970 H1 and Tony’s first effort of hopping up a stock bike with an adjustable front end off a 175cc F7 and the first M&R 4” rear tire.
Being the drag racer he was, racing street versions of the H1 would only last so long. Below is Tony making a pass on a Kawasaki H1R with a set of his custom expansion chambers set in a Boris Murray chassis. And yes, R stood for “Racer.” Also note the dry clutch.
The above photo is of Tony on the same H1R in his Hot Bike Engineering shop with Dennis Dean, owner of Denco. Tony started Hot Bike Engineering in 1973 after leaving Kawasaki due to budget constraints. There he started manufacturing expansion chambers for the 500 triples with pyramids inside the collector, which added 3-5mph and shaved a ½ second off the quarter mile times.
Here is the H1R in front of Kawasaki headquarters in Irvine, CA with (L to R) Alan Masek, VP Kawasaki Motor Corp., USA, Yoji Hamawaki, President, Tony, Al Goslee, National Service Mgr., and Don Graves, National District Mgr.
If a 500cc triple was good then a 750cc triple had to be better. In 1972 Kawasaki released the H2, which today has become the staple for three cylinder drag racers around the world. It was also the bike that got recognition in NHRA with some of the Pro Stock legends like Dave Schultz and Paul Gast racing them. As I remember the bike from its introduction when I was eleven years old, it was a wheelie monster. For the long list of riders who could not handle its power or the ill handling effects of rapid deceleration, it also earned the nickname “widowmaker” around the globe. For all of Tony’s hard work and dedication to the triple program, Kawasaki gave Tony H2 Serial #00012 after setting the new record of 11.95 at the AHRA Spring Nationals.
For a guy only measuring up to 5’4” a wheel stand was not the best position to be in coming off the line. Well as they say, “necessity is the mother of all inventions.” By Tony’s account he invented the wheelie bar in 1971 and yes I do mean singular wheelie bar.
Tony had no problem with the single wheel with adjustable spring loaded damper but it did not bode well with potential customers. He then came out with a dual wheel set of wheelie bars for clients. Pingel started building bars in subsequent years and completely dominated the market.
Tony remembers being in the winner’s circle most of his career. A career that also resulted in around 200 World and National records from road racing, drag racing and land speed records with over 3000 win lights. Tony drag raced in AHRA, NHRA, AMA, Dragbike, AMDRA, IDBA and AMA/Prostar. All landspeed records were set at Bonneville.
All great and historic racers have their most memorable of events and for Tony it was July 31, 1971. He set 5 AHRA world records using 5 brand new Kawasaki’s. An H1, A7-350cc, A1- 250cc, F7-175cc, and a G3-90cc that a St. Louis, Missouri Kawasaki dealer wanted him to race in order to promote their new store. He only got one pass per bike on Saturday and one on Sunday due to a 700-car count at the new track but that was enough to get all five records. The next race on Tony’s schedule was three weeks later at the Bonneville Salt Flats where Tony added 3 AMA world land speed records to his list. Tony was a regular at the American Hot Rod Association’s series. AHRA was the big competition to the NHRA. In 1973 Tony held 26 of AHRA’s 44 motorcycle records.
Paul Collins was the Advertising Manager at Kawasaki Motor Corp. and was Tony’s boss. Note the Mach III poster in the background. Collins’ stepson, Colin, accompanied Tony to several races. Here Tony is photographed with Paul’s son at Bonneville. You might not recognize the boy but Paul’s daughter is Cathleen Collins or as you may know her, Bo Derek.
Bonneville was as much of Tony’s career as drag racing. Back then it was important for the factories to have successful results in both the quarter-mile and top end speed. Today government mandates restrict top end speeds. (Boo Congress, you bunch of taxi riding whiney butt blowhards. Sorry for scaling my soapbox.) The KZ650 below claimed records at both Bonneville and the strip. Back then the same bike was a dual-purpose machine and not purpose built for one application.
In addition to all the drag racing and land speed racing Tony was involved in with Kawasaki, he still had time once in a while to get back to his road racing roots. In 1970 Tony worked with Team Kawasaki as a Crew Chief for Art Baumann #71 at Daytona. Cal Rayborn #26 was also on that team. The only reason Tony was at this race, it was the week before the first ever NHRA event at Gainesville. Back then NHRA ran around twenty individual classes grouped within two or three eliminators where 50-100 bikes would show up to run.
Tony got out of drag racing fulltime in the mid-70’s and raced off and on eventually moving back home to Florida in 1986. Tony said he received the first 1984 900 Ninja from Kawasaki. Kawasaki shipped it from Japan to Dallas where it was delivered to a dealer in El Paso. Tony flew to El Paso and rode the bike back to California. He went out and set the record at 12.61 @ 111.38 with stock exhaust and tires. Everything except removing the mirrors was left in showroom stock condition. The photo below is from the next year on a 600 Ninja at a Dragbike event.
When Prostar’s 600 SuperSport class was at its peak at the turn of the century, Tony decided, after a nearly thirty year absence from active national points competition, to start racing with Prostar at the age of 64. He had not been down a track in over ten years. He competed for a couple of years with his last race being the U.S. Motorcycle Nationals at Atco in the days leading up to the 9/11 attacks. 600SS National Champion Marty Ladwig said, “I was impressed with how well Tony did.” Marty went on to say that, “Nobody expected anything from him but he did qualify decently and go rounds. It wasn’t his riding skills that held him back it was the fact that he didn’t have the equipment the rest of us had. Tony was great for the sport.”
Today Tony is back in the limelight as scores of Kawasaki Triple fans are pushing to have Tony inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame. Here is to hoping that one of our true pioneers is recognized. Tony wanted me to leave you with one of his formulas. Give it a try and see if it works for you. He swears it will work in any application today.
Tony’s HP Formula:
Weight of bike + weight of rider x 110mph x 110 again (1102). Divided by ET, then divide by 8800 = Horsepower.
Other Areas of Interest
Current Residence: Tampa
Children: Paul Kelley, Shawn Kelly, Ana Kelley, Karen Kelly
Occupation (at time of competition years): Mechanic at Suzuki Dealer in FL, then moved to CA and started road racing and working for Suzuki, then Kawasaki.
Home track (at time of competition years): Irwindale, but then Freemont after leaving Kawasaki
Team Names (at time of competition years): Hot Bike Engineering, Kawasaki Factory Team
Crew Members (at time of competition years): Jack Murphy
Who was some of the best-known racers of your early days? Boris Murray, Joe Smith, Leo Payne (innovated nitro for bikes) Carl Morrow, Sonny Routt, Dwayne Taylor (dual engine triumph, unknown in history, stopped racing before Sonny started racing), Dave Campos, Dennis Manning, Mike Bruso, Russ Collins, Ray Price, Bill Hahn, Sr., TC Christianson.
What did you drive to the races in the early years? Ford Chateau van
First motorcycle: Puch 175 Allstate sold through Sears. Bought it at the age of 14.
If you are interested in being featured as person of the week, contact Keith Kizer
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