Dick Hammer was a leading AMA Grand National racer during the 1960s who specialized in TT racing. His biggest victory came at the Peoria, Illinois, TT in 1962. Hammer also earned notable victories in the Daytona International Lightweight race (predecessor to the modern-day AMA 250 Grand Prix class) aboard Harley-Davidsons. Hammer won the first ever Lightweight event at Daytona in 1963. He came back to defend his win in 1964 and was runner-up to Gary Nixon in 1967.
Dick Hammer was born in Los Angeles on July 28, 1939. His father owned a gas station and Dick worked for him from the age of 12 for 50 cents an hour.
"That’s in the days when service stations did lube jobs and changed tires," Hammer recalled. "I did it all. I pumped gas, cleaned windshields, did oil changes and lube jobs, and changed tires and batteries. I learned a lot of mechanical skills working for my father."
Those skills came in handy with his early motorcycles. Hammer bought a Whizzer at age 14, then a three-speed Mustang, which he claims he had to rebuild almost weekly.
By the age of 15, Hammer had saved more than $600 from his service station job and used it to buy a 1953 Triumph Thunderbird. In those days, he spent time with Skip Van Leeuwen, now a fellow Hall of Famer.
"Van Leeuwen got a new C-110, and Skip and I would ride the boat over to Catalina Island to watch the races," Hammer said. "We had a great time raising hell and getting into trouble. Then we would come back all hopped up from watching the Grand Prix, and race around town on our motorcycles."
Both boys bought 200cc Triumph Cubs and begin riding local scrambles races. There were races every weekend in District 37, so Hammer and Van Leeuwen honed their skills by competing on a weekly basis.
In 1959, Hammer bought a Triumph T100R. "There was nobody who had the kind of determination and will to win that I had," he said. "In fact, I would have been a better racer if I had slowed down a bit and not tried so hard to win. I crashed a lot."
Nevertheless, despite the crashes, Hammer rode the T100 to 15 victories in succession.
That year he also took out an AMA professional license and tried his hand at flat track, entering Ascot on a BSA Gold Star sponsored by Fred Moxley (at that time, Novices rode big engines just like the Amateurs and Experts). "I think it was the third weekly race of the season, and I won my heat and the main event, and by the end of the year I was high-point flat-track Novice in the nation," he said. Meanwhile, he still rode enough local scrambles races to finish second to Jim Goldsmith in the District 37 standings.
Despite his successs, half-mile racing at Ascot was a frightening experience for Hammer.
"George Everett and several other guys got killed that year, and when I moved up to the Amateur class in 1960, I decided to ride only TT races," he recalled.
Hammer finished the year as high-point TT rider in District 37, then repeated the feat as an Expert in 1961. His performance did not go unnoticed by Harley-Davidson, and in 1962 Hammer earned a sponsored ride through Harley-Davidson of Long Beach with the highly skilled Jerry Branch as his mechanic. With that support, he won the Peoria TT, the only national victory of his career.
Harley-Davidson’s racing chief Dick O’Brien moved Hammer into road racing, where he won the lightweight class at Daytona aboard a Harley Sprint in both 1963 and 1964.
"I liked road racing, and I learned to do it by watching and following (Carroll) Resweber," he remembered. By the summer of 1963, Hammer was one of the top riders in the nation, but met misfortune at Peoria.
"By then, the AMA had gone to smaller engines at TT races, and I was riding the lightweight class on a Sprint," he recalled. While flying off the jump in practice, the front wheel came off the bike and he crashed heavily, suffering a concussion. "I think I was on my way to the Grand National Championship that year, but that crash ruined the rest of my season," Hammer lamented.
In his 12 years on the pro circuit, Hammer tallied one national victory, 12 national podium finishes and was ranked in the top 10 in the AMA Grand National Championship points three times, with a high ranking of fifth in 1963. He also was a leading rider in the early days of the Lightweight class before it became a national series as 250 Grand Prix in the mid 1970s.
Dick Hammer retired from professional racing in 1972 and became a building contractor in Southern California. He died January 16, 2003, after a battle with cancer.
In 2001, his life-long friend, Skip Van Leeuwen, created the "Dick Hammer Award" to honor great motorcycle racers. Gene Romero was named recipient of the award in 2001, and Joe Leonard the following year.
"I have never been so proud of anything as I am of that award," Hammer said. "I am honored that great men like Romero and Leonard have been chosen to receive an award in my name."