by Robert Hanaford Smith, Sr. Weirs Times Contributing Writer
It was at the end of the 99th lap of the 100 Mile National Championship Motorcycle Race at the Belknap Recreation Area in Gilford, New Hampshire, and 19 year old Jody Nicholas, who started strong and had led all but two of the laps around the race track, and was still up front when suddenly “…his machine slid from under him and he was spread-eagled on the pavement…” and his veteran racing opponent George Roeder, who had been closely pursuing him throughout the race, sped by him to become the leader.
This event was the last national championship motorcycle race to be held at the Belknap Recreation Area and, in the opinion of my Dad, Ray Smith, who wrote about the 1963 race in a June, 1964 article, it was the greatest race ever run there.
The motorcyclists have come to the area as part of the organized Gypsy Tours in 1917 and the races began at the Belknap Area in 1938 and continued until that last one in 1963.
I wasn’t there for the first or the last of those championship races, but did attend a few in between. I remember being in the car with family members as my Dad drove up to the entrance to the recreation area on race day and we approached the ticket sellers, and the sense of satisfaction, and perhaps privilege by association, as my Dad revealed his “press card” as a reporter of the event and we were allowed to enter without paying.
I didn’t know the drivers or much about motorcycles in general or the rules of the race, but there was excitement in the air with the sound of roaring engines and the thrill of seeing the racers zoom around the track in their effort to travel faster than anyone else.
The 1938 race was 200 miles in length, while the 1963 one was 100 miles. That first national championship in 1938 was won by Ed Kretz. But what was it about the last race at the Belknap Area that made it so great? According to my Dad , “It had everything.” The weather was perfect with millions of acres of sunshine, the temperature was neither too hot nor too cold, and the wind blew briskly from the west. People came out in numbers large enough to make it the largest crowd ever with 20,000 viewing the 100 mile race and a total attendance at all events of 32,000. It was a safe race with no accidents requiring the use of ambulances on the race track or in the area as a whole. It was also the greatest of all the races because of who was in attendance, again, according to my Dad, “They were all there.”
Former Laconia Mayor and publisher of The Laconia Evening Citizen, E.J. Gallagher, who was involved in bringing the national championship motorcycle race to the area in 1938 was there, as was Fritzie Baer, manager of the Belknap Area, and easily recognized in his red hat. County Commissioner Joe Smith was there, of whom it was said that without him there would have been no Belknap Recreation area. Big names in motorcycle racing like Hank Miller and Floyd Cramer were there, along with many sportswriters and photographers.
I am going to give some special attention to a motorcycle man who was there in 1963 who obviously had gained great respect from those who knew him. His name is Bill Schietinger, the president of the New England Motorcycle Dealers Association, and described in the 1964 news article as “quiet, modest Bill Schietinger, bellweather of New England cycle fans under whose guidance a quarter-century of racing history was written at Belknap.” Bill was also present at the initial race at the invitation of the then Mayor of Laconia, E.J. Gallagher in 1938 and at each one through that 1963 competition.
His support of racing at the Belknap County establishment helped to earn him the position of general manager and many honors through the years. He was described as “…modest, quiet, unassuming, upright and honest in all his dealings.” He was the one to whom people went with problems associated with the yearly arrival of the motorcyclists. Schietinger insisted that 90 per cent of motorcycle riders and fans were “…decent, ordinary citizens who make it their hobby and vacation…”. Bill started riding in 1908 and his children and grandchildren were all motorcyclists.
But let’s get back to “the greatest race ever” at the Belknap Recreation Area. Jody Nicholas was a student at the University of Nashville who played the violin. George Roeder was an Ohio farmer. The two of them, along with the previous winner of the New Hampshire race, Dick Mann exhibited strong performances during the race and a new track record was set by the winner. Neither Roeder or Nicholas went into the pits during the race. When Nicholas fell his machine continued to run and he quickly scrambled to his feet, retrieved his machine, and continued on his way, but Roeder had built up a considerable lead as he and then his rival turned from the straightaway and out of the view of those in the area of the finish line. The crowd waited anxiously for the pair to reappear as they came down the hill to the hairpin turn and the finish line. When that happened Jody Nicholas was again in the lead. My Dad reported that “Somewhere, somehow on the long straightaway on the back side of the five-sided mountain track Jody had summoned the strength and determination to overtake Roeder and his machine had responded to his super-human effort.” Nicholas held onto the lead for the win and the championship.
The record for the most wins at Belknap is held by Brad Andres who had four victories, narrowly beating out the driver with the second most wins with three, Joe Leonard. There were three straight years in which track records were set, first by Dick Mann, then by Brad Andres, and Mann again before the best time ever achieved by Nicholas in that last great race. Other winners in other years included Dick Klamforth, Joe Weatherly, Babe Tancrede, Charley Danies, June McCall, Alli Quatrocchi, Bill Miller, and Eddie Fisher. So as you and I experience another Bike Week in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire, some of us will think back on those days of old and the men who raced for the world’s motorcycle championship at Gunstock, known to us then as the Belknap Recreation Area.