Gary Nixon, an Andarko, Okla., native, was on his way to becoming a respectable baseball player when he was conked in the head by a teammate's swinging bat and decided he'd better find a safer sport. He turned to drag racing and was a champion by age 15.
He had gotten his license a year earlier.
Nixon abandoned that sport and began racing motorcycles professionally. By 1958, at age 18, he was Oklahoma State Scrambles Champion.
Sharp-eyed readers like Jim Holechek, a retired Baltimore public relations executive and author who was a longtime friend and a motorcycle buddy of Nixon's, saw an item in last weekend's Baltimore Sun sports section reporting the Motorcycle Hall of Famer's death.
Nixon, 70, who lived in Phoenix, in Baltimore County, died Aug. 5 at St. Joseph Medical Center, from complications of a heart attack suffered that week.
"Gary was a fabulous guy who loved to take chances," Holechek said in a telephone interview.
He began taking them early in life, drag racing on the back roads of his Oklahoma town. By the time his motorcycle racing career peaked in the 1960s and '70s, he had broken numerous bones in 18 crashes.
"I guess it's like a woman having a baby," he told Sandy McKee, who covered auto racing for The Evening Sun, for a 1978 article. "I'm told that it is a horribly painful thing, yet women keep having babies. Your body forgets how the pain was."
As a result of his racing injuries, Nixon's left leg was about a half-inch shorter than his right.
"When Nixon rolls up his shirt sleeves, his arms look like road maps, scars tracing a history of his career in motorcycle racing," wrote McKee. "He is the oldest in the United States and, perhaps, Cockeysville's Gary Nixon is one of the most daring motorcycle racers in the world. He is certainly one of the most battered."
In 1963, Nixon captured his first national American Motorcycle Association championship at Recreation Park in Windber, Pa., and three weeks later, won at Santa Fe Park in Hinsdale, Ill.
Nixon ended the 1963 season ranked sixth in the Grand National Series, when he broke into the top 10 for the first time.
As the 1960s rolled on, so did Nixon's victories. In 1967, he won the 100-mile race aboard a Triumph at Daytona Beach, Fla., and the next day, took the 200-miler with an average speed of 98.227 mph.
He was the AMA's Grand National champion that year and again in 1968.
During a 1969 race in Santa Rosa, Calif., his motorcycle experienced a mechanical problem and hit the fence, leaving him with a broken left femur.
He won the 1973 U.S. Road Race Championship and the next year was severely injured in Japan during test laps when his engine suddenly seized at 120 mph and his bike was hit by another, throwing Nixon 12 feet into the air and into a tree.
He suffered broken bones in both arms, an ankle and several ribs. After being flown to Children's Hospital in Baltimore, he began a year's absence from competition while recuperating.
Nixon returned to racing and became the first American to win a Motorcycle Grand Prix world title. The Formula 750 title was later denied because of a scoring error and international politics.
"To those who follow the sport, Nixon is the American dream, the champion," said a 1968 profile in the old Sunday Sun Magazine. "And that's what earned him the right to blur around tracks this year with No. 1 displayed on anything he rides."
By 1979, Nixon had retired from professional racing, to focus on his motorcycle tool business and later Hunt Valley Hobbies.
During his more than two-decade career as a professional racer, Nixon earned 19 AMA National victories and completed 150 Grand National races, riding aboard Triumphs, Kawasakis, Suzukis and Yamahas.
It is a little-known fact that Nixon got a young Evel Knievel interested in motorcycles and helped him set up his first ramps and jumps during the 1960s.
"Gary had the ego of a racer, and you need an ego to be a racer," said Robert Glick, owner of the Village Cafe in Cross Keys. "He was known to go to the starting gate before the start of a race and say, 'Which one of you is coming in second?'"
Glick described his friend's racing style as unorthodox.
"He rode injured, and for his size was a strong man. He did one-arm push-ups for strength," he said. "He said, 'If you want to go faster, you have to brake harder than anyone else when going into curves.' And in order to keep the bike from wobbling, he had to have strong arms."
A friend for 50 years, Holechek used to enjoy motocrossing with Nixon and two others.
"Once when the four of us were riding in the woods near Cockeysville, Gary said he always wanted to ride his bike over a cliff. He picked out the cliff and asked the three of us to hold his motorcycle over the edge," Holechek recalled.
With the motor running, the three men struggled to hold the heavy bike, while Nixon clambered aboard its seat.
"He then yelled, 'Let go!' And down he went over the 30-foot cliff to the talus slope below and safely ran out to the flat," he said. "If he had charged the cliff, he would have been airborne, and no doubt would have killed himself. We loved the guy and his courage."
Having retired from racing, by the early 1990s, Nixon was racing 18-inch-by-9-inch, radio-controlled replicas of racing cars and trucks, one-tenth the size of the real things. The replicas attain speeds of 25 mph as they race four minutes over a 212-foot oval track.
Nixon converted a building behind his York Road hobby shop in Cockeysville into a home for the Cockeysville Astrodome Racers Club that met twice a week. There, racing enthusiasts pitted their abilities against one another.
"The adrenaline rush is really there, it's still pumping," Nixon told The Baltimore Sun in a 1992 interview, as his replica of Richard Petty's No. 43 Pontiac earned him a blue ribbon for winning the race. "It's the same competition, racing with the little cars."
Last week, in summing up Nixon's career in a tribute, Motorcycle News said he "represented an era of motorcycle racing dominated by enthusiasts, not corporations or highly paid professional athletes."
Nixon and other racers of those years were described by Motorcycle News as being "hard-working, blue-collar guys. No air-conditioned trailers, nutritionists or hours of training on mountain bikes in gyms for these guys. Often, they would drive hundreds — thousands — of miles in their Econolines, and tune their own bikes. Riding with injuries was the norm, not the exception."
And "there was no harder competitor than Gary Nixon."