larry laurent | August 7, 2022
Cycle News Archives
Bobby Hill, the two-time AMA national champion of the early 1950s and winner of the Daytona 200 in 1954, died July 12. He had just turned 100 four days earlier.
It’s absolutely amazing that Hill has become a centenarian. After all, Hill ran in the 1940s and 50s when the sport was dangerous compared to today. He once told me that many races he ran didn’t even have hay bales covering the outside railings on the big flat tracks. And then also, consider that Hill served as a Marine in World War II and saw action in areas with some of the most intense battles, like the Philippines. He was a mechanic who worked on military aircraft, and the airports where he was stationed were often major targets for Japanese bombing. And to top it all off, Hill’s day job for years was driving a tank truck! I don’t know what kind of lucky charm Hill had with him, but he certainly lived a long and rich life.
Bobby was a runner everyone loved. He was sweet and had a subtle sense of humor. He also had great stories from his racing days and loved to share them.
His sympathy was evident in 1951 when Hill won the AMA’s prestigious and coveted Most Popular Rider award.
Hill was born in 1922 in the town of Triadelphia in northern West Virginia. The trunk road ran through Triadelphia and was a busy thoroughfare in the 1930s and 1940s, so a young Hill was exposed early on to various motorized modes of transportation, including motorcycles. When he was still a teenager, Hill’s older brother started working at a Harley-Davidson dealership, and when he was just 14, Hill started riding motorcycles for the first time. Hill has always been proud of his West Virginia roots, even though he moved to the Columbus, Ohio suburb of Grove City in his early 20s to be closer to much of the Midwestern race tracks. .
I last visited Hill and his wife Nancy at their immaculate home in a quiet, well-maintained area of Grove City in 2017. One of Hill’s neighbors, Clay Powell, noted on the wall from the funeral home’s memory: “A lot of people knew Mr. Hill as a motorcycle champion, but to us he was ‘Bobby’, the guy who was a wonderful person, a neighbor and was meticulous with his house, this who helped make the whole neighborhood beautiful.
Hill’s wife, Nancy, died last year. They were very close. Often you hear of one spouse dying shortly after the other; that was certainly the case with Bobby and Nancy.
Hill was basking in the glow of renewed attention late in life, brought on by a revival of Indian Motorcycles and the company’s entry into American Flat Track racing. Hill and Bill Tuman were surviving members of the last Indian’s Wrecking Crew from the mid-1950s before the original Indian went bankrupt. Tuman died at the end of 2020. He was 99 years old. Bill and Bobby were guests of honor when Indian unveiled their FTR750 race bike at Sturgis in 2016.
“I think it’s wonderful that the new Indian remembered us,” Hill said. “It was a great feeling for Bill and I to go to Sturgis and see the appreciation we received from the riders and all the fans. my age, so those kinds of moments – to see that we haven’t been forgotten – well, that’s really something special.
Bobby bought his first motorcycle at 16, a brand new 1938 Harley-Davidson WLD. It was a rare machine. Only about 300 were made. He joined the local Wheeling Roamers Motorcycle Club and soon got involved in club meets. Hill smiled when he told me about Sunday rides and going out with his buddies at the club.
“There were a lot of bold words but very little action,” he said. “All my mates were bragging about how fast they were and how they were going to race, but of all the guys at the club I was pretty much the only one who experienced it.
Hill was a racing fan before becoming a runner. He and his buddies would go to Ohio to watch the races, and Hill said he became a big fan of Ed Kretz Sr., Jimmy Chann, Billy Huber, Chet Dykgraaf and Leo Anthony. Some of those guys he had never seen running in person, but had only read about. Little did he know at the time that he would be racing against several of his heroes in a few years.
Hill started racing in 1940, shortly before World War II brought racing to a halt. After serving in the Marines, Hill, like many motorcyclists, was eager to get back to riding after the war. With his racing experience before the war, the AMA allowed him to become an expert. Hill came close to winning his first professional race, the 1947 Daytona 200. Riding an Indian, he gradually worked his way through the field. With about 50 miles to go, he was in second place.
Hill describes what happened from there: “I could see Johnny Spiegelhoff [the eventual winner] in front of me, and I won. I kept getting a pit signal from my crew that said “P2”. I thought they were telling me I was second. In the end, I was really ahead as we started in rows five seconds apart and were timed. Even though Spiegelhoff was ahead of me, I was actually about 15 seconds ahead. I didn’t know that, though, and was riding as hard as I could to catch Spiegelhoff. At about 180 miles, I came flying into the south turn and threw the bike hard. Two slower riders were coming through the turn, and I just pulled away and hit one of them, and lost my rear brake lever. I came into the north corner and thought I had slowed down enough, but apparently I didn’t and retired from the race.
He came so close to winning on his debut, but he ended up waiting until next season to get his first domestic win, and that was unique to say the least.
It was August 1948 and the site was the Lakewood Park Mile in Atlanta, Georgia. It was the AMA 10-Mile National, and the race was on Hill and one of his racing heroes, Billy Huber.
“Being a new expert pilot, I didn’t know much about drawing,” Hill said. “Billy did, of course, and he drafted right behind me and, at the last possible moment, slipped under me, and we crossed the finish line side by side.”
The massive sold-out crowd went wild as the two crossed the finish line. WADA officials quickly regrouped to compare notes to determine who came out on top. Heads shook, and finally, the judges declared the race tied. Mike Benson, chairman of the fair, announced that both riders would receive first place money. More cheers greeted the announcement.
“We both got the same money, but Billy took the trophy,” Hill recalled. “At the time, there was a bit of prejudice [favoring] Harley riders, and they gave it to him. Three or four months later, they made a duplicate trophy and gave it to me.
“This race pushed the AMA to get a better system for deciding finishes. Until then, they just had a referee standing at the line to call the finish. I think they ended up having high-speed cameras. After that race, I always looked a little under my arm coming out of the last corner.
After claiming the national title in 1951 and 1952 on the win-win Springfield Mile, Hill finally scored a victory in the Daytona 200 on his eighth attempt in 1954 on a BSA. Since the inauguration of the AMA Grand National Championship Series in 1954, his victory at Daytona earned Hill the honor of winning the first-ever AMA Grand National Series race.
In 1959, Hill decided to retire. He said he could still consistently finish in the top five at most Nationals, but a new generation of riders like Carroll Resweber, Brad Andres Dick Mann and Dick Klamfoth were taking over. Hill was 37 at the time and felt it was time to focus on his family and his career. He remained involved building engines for other racers well into the 1960s.
There was a period in the 1970s and 1980s when Hill said he and many of his fellow runners from the 1940s and 1950s seemed to be forgotten. It was an exciting time of racing new machines and races, TV coverage and bigger money. But then, in the 1990s, a period of looking back at the history of the sport began. Boosted by popular TV presenter Dave Despain, who often featured these former champions on TV and at events he helped promote, as well as the AMA forming the Motorcycle Hall of Fame, and generally just a newfound interest in vintage machines and the men who raced them brought Hill and other racers of his generation back into the spotlight.
At the AHRMA event at Daytona in 2004, Hill was part of a contingent of racers brought back to honor BSA’s racing heritage in America. With hundreds of fans looking for autographs and interview sessions where these guys were able to relive the racing stories of their youth, you could see the joy on their faces. As Bobby told me years later, “It was wonderful to find out that today’s generation of bikers hasn’t forgotten us after all. We were lucky to have the opportunity to come back and see the appreciation from the fans once again.
The family said donations could be made to the Daytona 200 monument to honor Bobby’s memories. For more information, visit www.daytona200monument.com. NC