May 19, 2021

Famous Motorcycle Riders: Recognizing The Greats

Jo Kelley

These five riders achieved fame for their deeds on and off the track, and I’d like to pay my respects.

Some of us riders grew up in homes that followed motorcycle racing religiously. We knew the names of famous motorcycle riders well before we even knew our own names! (Okay, that might be a bit of an exaggeration.) Needless to say, I’m one of these know-it-alls.

When I was young, I used to recite the names of celebrities who ride motorcycles over and over in the hopes that one day, I’d be able to add my own name to the list. For now, I’ll settle for the title of celebrity motorcycle snob and, instead, bring some well-deserved attention to some of the racing ‘greats’ I’ve come to know by heart, starting with the legendary...

Joey Dunlop

Possessing one of THE most recognizable names in motorcycle racing history, William Joseph ‘Joey’ Dunlop deserves more than a few pats on the back. Before his untimely death, he enjoyed possibly one of the most successful racing careers of his time.

Video Source: Isle of Man TT - iomtt YouTube

In 2016, the Northern Ireland native was posthumously voted the 5th greatest motorcycling icon ever by Motorcycle News, and for good reason. Among his plethora of accomplishments, Dunlop holds the all-time record of 26 total races won at the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy (TT), a historically dangerous motorcycle race held on a small piece of land between England and Ireland. He achieved his last first-place wins in the Ultra Lightweight, Lightweight 250 TT, and Formula One TT races back in 2000, which, sadly, is the year he died.

In addition to his Isle of Man victories, Dunlop also won the Ulster Grand Prix a whopping 24 times. During this time, he rode bikes by Suzuki, Yamaha, and Honda, each one sporting the #3.

A humble man, Dunlop stayed true to his roots and represented the working class. His humanitarian efforts in Romanian orphanages earned him the title of ‘Officer of the Most Excellent Order’ by the Order of the British Empire.

Currently, Dunlop’s legacy lives on through the lives of the surviving Dunlop family members who continue to race, as well as in the memorials erected by admirers in his hometown of Ballymoney and along the Isle of Man TT track.

‘Mike the Bike’ Hailwood

Stanley Michael Bailey Hailwood is considered one of the greatest road racers of all time. In fact, he’s one of only a handful of racers who competed at the Grand Prix level in both motorcycle and car racing.

Video Source: Isle of Man TT - iomtt YouTube

With the help of his father, a motorcycle dealer in Oxfordshire, England, Hailwood learned to ride at a young age. He attended his first motorcycle race at the age of 10 and his first Isle of Man TT race at sixteen. A year later, he competed in his first motorcycle race, finishing in 11th place, which spoke greatly to his natural riding abilities.

Four years into motorcycle racing, Hailwood became the first man in the history of the Isle of Man TT race to win three races in the 125cc, 250cc, and 500cc categories, in just one week. He also set a new one-hour speed record while preparing for the U.S. Grand Prix in 1964. In his early motorcycle racing years, Hailwood remained loyal to the Honda brand.

Famous for his motorcycle racing career—which included 12 Isle of Man TT victories and nine World Championship titles—Hailwood also raced cars. By 1974, he had competed in 50 Formula One Grand Prix races. One year, Hailwood bravely pulled a fellow driver from a burning car after the two collided during a race. He received the George Medal for this gallant act.

Later in his motorcycle racing career, he achieved further victory sporting brands such as Ducati and Suzuki, before retiring for good at the age of 39. Tragically, Hailwood and his two young children were involved in a fatal car collision two years later.

‘King Kenny’ Roberts

Kenneth Leroy Roberts occupies a special place on my list of famous motorcycle riders. Dubbed a Grand Prix ‘Legend’ by the International Motorcycling Federation (FIM), he is most famously known for being the first American to win a Grand Prix motorcycle racing world championship. He is also the second rider to accomplish a Grand Slam at the American Motorcycle Association (AMA) Grand National Championship.

Video Source: Duke Video YouTube

Roberts began riding motorcycles at the age of 12 after riding horseback no longer interested him. He even built his own motorcycle using a lawnmower engine and a bicycle frame. At 18 years old, he dropped out of high school in Modesto, California, to pursue a full-time career in motorcycle racing.

Displaying a natural talent for racing, Roberts won the AMA Rookie of the Year Award in 1971. Two years later, sporting a Yamaha XS 650, he succeeded in winning the national championship at the Grand National short-track race in the Houston Astrodome.

Later, responding to the limitations of motorcycle technology in the 1970s, Roberts achieved a new cornering style that redefined the way Grand Prix motorcycles were ridden. Determined to reach top speed before his competitors, Roberts took corners by braking early, extending his knee out until it skimmed the track surface, and then applying the throttle.

Roberts represented Yamaha for the duration of his 13-year-long professional racing career, and advocated heavily for stricter safety standards in racing while doing so. Today, he owns his own motorcycle company and racing team.  

Barry Sheene

For 18 years, London-born Barry Sheene graced the world of motorcycle racing with his lucky number seven and his quirky pre-race rituals (before many of his races, he used to smoke through a hole he drilled into his helmet).

Video Source: Theo den Hugt

Just two short years after beginning his competitive motorcycle racing career in 1968, Sheene went on to become the British 125cc champion; he was 20 years old at the time and raced a 1967 Suzuki RT67 (which helped him secure his first Grand Prix victory later on).  

During his career, Sheene sustained several potentially career-ending injuries, most notably the ones he suffered after crashing at the Daytona 200 in 1975. After a seven-week recovery period, though, Sheene was back it, scoring his first-ever 500cc victory at the Dutch TT, and, later, two World Championship titles. He even raced against Kenny Roberts in what was considered one of the greatest motorcycle Grand Prix races of the 1970s. His principal racing bikes were made by Suzuki and Yamaha at the time.

Interestingly enough, Sheene is credited with increasing the appeal of motorcycle racing, becoming one of the first riders to reap enormous financial benefits from endorsements. (Apparently, it still pays to be extremely good-looking and talk with an accent!) Unfortunately, he was forced to retire from racing in 1984 after injuries he sustained to both his legs.

Sheene was introduced to the world of television following his retirement. In July 2002, he was diagnosed with cancer and died eight months later.

Jenny Tinmouth

A native of Chester, England, Jennifer Roseanne Tinmouth is the current female record-holder in the Isle of Man TT motorcycle race. She’s achieved numerous firsts for women in motorcycle racing, which is why she made my list.

Video Source: Mike 'Spike" Edwards YouTube

Tinmouth is the first and only woman to compete in the British Superbike Championship (she raced an Aprilia and a Honda during this time). For this incredible feat, she was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records in 2011. Also, to continue on her path of firsts, Tinmouth became the first woman rider to race a superbike for the Rizla Suzuki MotoGP team in 2007. She won the first Electric Bike Racing Championship in the UK shortly after.

But her accomplishments don’t stop there. Remarkably enough, she broke two more lap records: the first in 2009 at the Isle of Man TT races, the second in 2010 also at the Isle of Man TT. This time, she broke her own record with an average lap speed of 119.945 mph!

If it wasn’t obvious, Jenny Tinmouth is a force to be reckoned with. Not only is she an inspiration to female riders, but her achievements speak to all women, which is why she was dubbed ‘IT Girl’ by the Women's International Film & Television Showcase foundation in 2012. Currently, she heads her own British Superbike Team – another first, I might add – called Two Wheel Racing.

Oh, and did I mention she was a stunt rider in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and M.I.: Fallout? Awesome.

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