C.R. Axtell, or "Axe," as his friends liked to call him, was a highly respected racing motorcycle engine builder from the 1960s through the 1970s. Axtell’s engine modifications helped many of the top racers of the era including Sammy Tanner, Mert Lawwill and Gene Romero, to name a few. Early in his career, Axtell was best known for finding hidden horsepower in the British brands — Triumph, BSA and Norton — but later did extensive work with the factory Harley-Davidson racing team and also worked on Italian and Japanese racing machines, as well.
Axtell was born on April 7, 1927 in Los Angeles. He remembers being one of those kids who constantly tore into things to find out what made them work. His youthful curiosity carried on to his teenage years when he began fiddling with hot rods. Like many young men his age, Axtell was caught up in the post-World War II hot rod frenzy that swept the country, especially in Southern California. In the late 1940s, Axtell started modifying and tuning engines for cars participating in top-speed runs on the dry lakes in Southern California and at the famous Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.
Axtell was drafted into the Army from 1951 to 1953, and when he got out of the service he found the car racing scene had cooled off while motorcycling was really taking off. While working as a mechanic in a Ford dealership, Axtell started riding motorcycles – first a Velocette 350cc single before moving up to an Ariel and eventually a Triumph twin. Axtell used many of the same principles he had learned in modifying autos and applied them to his motorcycles. He found that his bikes, as he put it, "responded well" to his modifications.
By the 1960s, word spread quickly in the Southern California motorcycling community about Axtell’s tuning skills, and a number of area racers turned to him to get a little extra out of their machines. Axtell was getting enough business by this time to open his own shop.
Sammy Tanner was a top rider in popular weekly Friday night races at Ascot in the 1960s, and he credited the power of his Axtell-tuned motorcycles for much of his success. Working with Myron Mills, Axtell gained a solid reputation for helping to build fast and reliable race motors. Due in large part to Tanner’s success on the Mills and Axtell-tuned machines, Axtell’s reputation was no longer confined to Southern California.
One of the proudest moments of Axtell’s career as a tuner came in 1964 when Tanner rode to victory at the Springfield (Illinois) Mile on an Axtell-prepared BSA. Tanner’s victory at Springfield broke Harley-Davidson's 10-year winning streak at Springfield. Another highlight for Axtell was in 1970 when Gene Romero led from flag to flag and won the 50-mile national on the Sacramento Mile, and went on to win the AMA Grand National No. 1 plate. Axtell, and his partner Mike Libby, worked with Nick Deligianis on Romero’s Triumph that year.
Axtell’s skills weren’t confined to working with individual riders. In the late-1960s, Harley-Davidson’s racing manager, Dick O’Brien, asked Axtell to take a look at the factory Harley racers to see if he could improve their performance. Axtell did extensive testing on the Harley-Davidson motors and helped design a new piston shape for the bike, which greatly improved the power output.
Ron Wood, using Axtell cams, was able to coax nearly 80 horsepower out of a Norton twin motor that normally produced around 37 horsepower. Axtell recalls that particular motor as one of the largest power gains on motorcycles he worked with.
"That motor didn’t live very long," Axtell was quick to point out. "And you wouldn’t believe how many parts in it were not Norton’s by the time we were done with it."
Much of Axtell’s success could be attributed to the attention he paid to air and gas flow through the cylinder heads of the racing engines. Axtell spent countless hours on the dynamometer and flow meter studying the effects of various head and piston and intake systems. He found great success by modifying combustion chamber shape and paying careful attention to camshaft design.
Many a tuner became successful by specializing in working with one brand of motorcycle. Axtell was unique in that he worked with almost every racing motorcycle of his era and turned out winners in nearly every case.
"Every engine I worked with over the years were all the same, I believe," Axtell explained. "They all had room for improvement. Sometimes, it takes a bit of work to find out just what it takes to get the most out of an engine."
A modest man, Axtell credits much of his success to the riders he worked with and the people who worked with him in his shop, especially long-time business partner and friend Mike Libby.
By the late 1970s, Axtell’s motorcycling work began to slow down and his company concentrated on auto racing. By the time he was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame, Axtell was semi-retired from the business. He will always be remembered for his innovative engine modifications and for the many races and championships won by riders on motorcycles he worked on.
He was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999.