Featured Rider: John Tibben

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The National Motorcycle Museum will be installing a new one year temporary exhibit, Allstate Motorcycle Dirt Track Heroes, to open May 18 with a dedication during Vintage Rally 2013, June 8 & 9, 2013. Among almost 30 great dirt track racers is a 1954 Harley-Davidson KR750 that stands out. Why? Two reasons: It’s one of a few old race bikes that still looks as it did when last raced, nothing is repainted or restored. And that original paint is very “period” for this KR being metal flake burnt orange!  Second, that bike has been a lot of places and won a lot of races, has stories to tell. Motorcycle racing journalist Larry Lawrence spoke with John Tibben, the KR’s builder, tuner and rider, to get his story. If you’d also like to listen to Larry Lawrence’s live, unedited 100 minute interview with John Tibben, go to: http://archive.org/details/JohnTibben

In addition to Tibben’s #60 Harley-Davidson KR750, on display at the Dirt Track Heroes exhibit are John’s racing leathers, his racing and shop tool boxes and even the same wood support block he used in the pits for many years. See it all in person while Dirt Track Heroes is at the National Motorcycle Museum, Anamosa, Iowa. 

Cycle News Archive
The Hawkeye Hauler
By Larry Lawrence

Wayne Rainey, Sammy Sweet, Chuck Joyner, Ed Varnes and Dan Stanley are just a few of the AMA Grand National riders to sport national number 60 throughout the years, but the original No. 60, the rider who wore the plate from the 1950s through to 1970 was Iowa’s own John Tibben. Tibben emerged from the earliest days of Iowa’s scrambles circuit to become one of the leading up-and-coming racers of the late 1950s. While he never won a national in his years of pro racing, he was a consistent top-10 finisher in the top echelon of racing in America. He earned the bulk of his victories and earnings in smaller regional races at state and county fairgrounds tracks across the Midwest. He was also a long-time regular in the heyday of Chicagoland’s famous Santa Fe Speedway and its Wednesday night racing program.

Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character once famously said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Tibben reflected that same attitude when it came to reminiscing about racing the nationals in the late 1950s and ‘60s.

“To line up with Dick Mann, Carroll Resweber, Joe Leonard and Dick Klamfoth… well you just about knew you were racing for fifth,” Tibben chuckles. “There was no sense in wrecking, or making a scene, because that’s just the way it’s going to be.”

Tibben grew up on a small farm near Victor, Iowa. His first motorbike was a Whizzer that he rode to school with his sister on the back in the late 1940s. As a boy he was a fan of sprint car racing that was so popular in that part of the country. Tibben was on the path to becoming a car racer, something he would do later in life, but as a young man he was already a motorcyclist, having graduated from the Whizzer to a Harley 45 by his late teens. A couple of local Harley-Davidson dealers were all too happy to help Tibben get into racing two wheels so that’s what he did.

He started out in scrambles, a sport that would eventually evolve into motocross, but was something quite different in mid-1950s Iowa. Tibben vividly remembers what scrambles events were like 60 years ago.

“Most of the scrambles tracks in Iowa where in front of a grandstands at a fairgrounds,” Tibben explains. “Vinton, Iowa, had a quarter-mile oval and you’d start out at the start-finish line, just like any race, and you’d go through the first turn and then make a sharp right and go off the racetrack and down through the tullies, out around behind the backstretch and then come back on the oval in turn three and that was it, you’d make another lap. It’s was very much like TT racing except that the track were not as well prepared and sometimes barely wide enough for two bikes.”

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Shortly after his scrambles debut Tibben began flat track racing. In 1957 Tibben moved to the big city – Chicago – to pursue his racing career. Tibbenpointed out the advantages of being based in Chicago. “It was centrally located for racing,” he said. “All around Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin you had your pick of events to run. And then you had Wednesday nights at Santa Fe Speedway.”

Santa Fe Speedway was the legendary track that had a 40-plus year run of hosting a weekly motorcycle program. With a regular paying race, Santa Fe attracted a lot of riders from across the country to base out of Chicago – riders like Darrel Dovel, Fred Nix and Gary Nixon. Tibben took a job in a motorcycle shop and his life was fully immersed in racing. By 1958 he earned his national number. His friendly personality earned him a lot of friends on and off the track. In 1960 he finished fifth in the annual AMA’s Most Popular Rider voting, behind only Carroll Resweber, Dick Klamfoth, Sammy Tanner and Dick Mann.

Like many riders of the era, running the nationals was not a priority. “I ran them if they were close and worked in my schedule,” Tibben said. Instead Tibbenfocused on the smaller regional races. “Winning a big race or a small race, it didn’t matter, it still felt good. The main thing in those days was finishing in the top four so you were in the money. It paid $110 to win at Santa Fe Park and that’s when most people were making about $75 per week. So it wasn’t too bad to be a racer in those days. You were making more than anybody working in a factory all week.”

Still Tibben had the talent to run up front in the nationals. Riding his beloved Harley KR, he scored top-10 finishes in the Daytona 200 three out of four years in the early 1960s, with a seventh on the beach course on 1960 his best result. “One time I came home from Daytona with $600 and I was really in business!” He also earned top tens in some of other big races of the era, including races like the Charity Newsies in Columbus, Ohio, and the Springfield Mile. And it wasn’t just on the dirt where Tibben proved his skills. In the road race national at Carpentersville, Illinois, in 1964, Tibben copped yet another top-10 finish.

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For the most part Tibben stuck around the Midwest, but in ’65 he went out west at the end of the season to do some West Coast nationals and all winter he ran races out there, including Ascot. “You didn’t realize it, but before you knew it at Ascot you were going so fast that if something happened it would be pretty bad,” Tibben said of the track that was legendary for making heroes as well as ending careers.

It was also in ’65 where Tibben scored his best national result. The AMA series came to his home track at Santa Fe Speedway in August of that year for a Short Track National. Tibben took fourth that night, just behind Nixon, Ronnie Rall and George Roeder. He was ahead of some of the stars of the sport like Bart Markel, Mert Lawwill and Eddie Mulder.

Just about every rider got hurt racing in those days Tibben says. During his career he had four big crashes that resulted in him missing two or three months of racing at a time. “Fortunately I was knocked unconscious every time,” he said. “That was the best painkiller in those days.”

By the early 1970s Tibben wound down his racing schedule and moved back to Iowa to start what would become a thriving aviation business. In 20 years of racing Tibben said he raced in over 1000 meets and won between 350 and 400 races. Over the years he collected a lot of old race bikes and one of his machines are on display at the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa. He also has a home workshop/garage with bikes and cars that’s nearly a museum in itself. He still attends races on occasion today and marvels at skills of the riders today.