Whoever said old racers never die, they just slow down, never met Norbert Nickel. Now 79 years old, the former VW mechanic from Germany has racked up 11 National Championships aboard his 1951 BMW R51.
Norbert got his first taste of racing in 1948, a precocious 15-year-old riding a little 125cc DKW. That first introduction clearly whetted his appetite, because in 1949 he moved up to a much bigger 500cc Motosacoche, with less than desired results. “It was more bike than I could handle,” Norbert says of the Swiss machine. “I think in 11 races, I crashed eight times.”
Norbert kept on racing, however, and finished his first series race — a sidecar road race — in Battenberg, Germany, in 1953, riding monkey on a friend’s BMW R51. He couldn’t have known it then, but that race would introduce him to the motorcycle model — the R51 — that would come to define his now 23-year racing career with the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association (AHRMA).
Norbert Nickel continued racing through the 1950s, competing aboard what today sounds like a very exotic selection of bikes including an NSU 250, a Velocette 350KTT that he rode at the old Nürburgring (where he beat the 500s in practice but got shut out when his Velo’s engine failed), a Horex pushrod single converted to overhead cam, and sidecar racing with the BMW R51 and a WWII-era R75. Like any budding racer, Norbert was simply taking advantage of what was available as he learned to go faster, and he discovered he was pretty good at it, too.
In 1954 he won the German grass track championship, and that same year he and his sidecar partner won a prestigious 450 kilometer endurance race, with 150 of those kilometers run at night. The November race almost ended tragically when Norbert, riding sidecar and hanging his body out as far as he could through a tight turn at night, lost his grip on an ice-covered handle, and fell out. “The driver didn’t know,” Norbert remembers. “A passing guy on a BMW solo picked me up and we passed him [Norbert’s teammate] 3 or 4 kilometers later!”
It was during this time that Norbert’s affinity for engines and wrenching took root and grew to become his livelihood, leading to his becoming a journeyman mechanic for a Mercedes-Benz dealership. He kept racing, but a sister living in the States convinced him he needed to come over here to see what life in the U.S. was like. So in 1956 he did just that. “I was only going to come to the U.S. for one year so I wouldn’t miss racing,” Norbert recalls. “I couldn’t speak a word of English, but I discovered I could race here.”
Norbert’s move was aided by Volkswagen, which that same year implemented a policy in the U.S. of having a real German mechanic in every American dealership. Norbert was that real German mechanic at Lockwood Motors in Kansas City, Kan.
Settled in the U.S., Norbert picked up motorcycle racing again, running a BSA Gold Star on American dirt tracks. “When I first went racing here we went to Michigan for a dirt track race, and Dick Klamfoth said, ‘You sure ride different than we do, but it seems to work.” Norbert had his bike set up with the outside footpeg low and a brace attached to the frame that he could push his leg against for control; sliding around the track, he could almost stand up.
Norbert remembers racing against a then-very-young Gary Nixon at the old Strong City, Kan., dirt track in 1958 (they became lifelong friends), and that same year he came perilously close to killing himself when he crashed his BSA at the Norton, Kan., dirt track. “The bike hit the barrier and I went right through the fence,” Norbert remembers. A period photo shows Norbert, broken arm in a cast, pointing to the missing piece of fence he blew through. The BSA survived, albeit with a very dented gas tank.
The closest Norbert came to big-time fame was in 1961, when he raced at Springfield, Ill., coming in seventh behind Gary Nixon. Harley-Davidson offered to sell him a bike for $1, with the local dealer supplying backup, but Norbert declined. Work in the U.S. was good, and Norbert, now married and moving into parenthood, decided it was time to put motorcycle racing aside and focus on his family.
When Lockwood Motors sold out in 1974, Norbert opened his own shop, Nickel Automotive. He continued working in the automotive trade until 1991, when he sold his shop. Life had been good to Norbert, and he decided it was time to enjoy a bit more of it.
Not surprisingly to anyone who knows him, Norbert’s retirement was short. Nine months short. Norbert ended up joining forces with a fellow making row-crop seed planters, and that same year, his interest in racing resurgent, he decided to go vintage racing in AHRMA events. “I went to Steamboat Springs in 1990. The kids were out of the house and I decided it was time to do what I wanted again,” Norbert says.
For his re-entry into racing, Norbert bought a Yamaha XS650 twin bored to 750cc. Built by Kenny Roberts’ tuner, Shell Thuet, the bike served him well, and he raced it at Daytona, finishing exactly mid-pack out of a roster of 64 racers in the 750 Sportsman class. Looking to shake things up, he decided to move to a 2-stroke and raced a Yamaha RD350, but eventually Norbert decided he wanted something that harkened more to his early days. In 1998, Norbert bought a 1951 BMW R51 and prepped it to 1939 R51RS “Rennsport” specs to race in AHRMA’s pre-1940 class. In 1999 he won 27 out of 34 races entered on the BMW. Norbert had found his bike.
Norbert’s first few years back in the saddle passed fairly uneventfully, but in 2002 he had another serious accident, hitting a wall at Sears Point. It almost cost him his left foot. “It was the worst accident I’d had,” Norbert says. “I couldn’t remember anything for quite some time. I didn’t know what had happened or where it happened or how it happened. When the doctor brought me around I said, ‘why did you wake me up?’”
Norbert Nickel spent nine months in a wheelchair, but eventually, with his crushed ankle fused together (he carries an X-ray photocopy showing the two plates and five screws holding his ankle together so he can make it through airport security) and his beloved BMW’s shift linkage modified to suit, he went back out on the track. Accidents apparently don’t slow Norbert down, because he continued his winning ways. Between 1999 and 2009, Norbert won 11 National Championships in pre-1940 and Class C racing, and won the Oscar Liebmann/Hugo Wolters BMW Roadracer award so many times it was retired to his home, a place already packed with trophies.
Norbert’s friends and fellow racers assumed he would race the BMW R51 forever, but last year he surprised them all, and perhaps even himself, when he decided to sell the BMW.
Acknowledging his non-collector instincts, and perhaps secretly admitting that his best competitive days aboard the R51 might be over, Norbert decided it was time to part with the R51. But he knew the R51 should be out on the track, not sitting in someone’s garage. “I wanted to sell it to somebody who would race it, not put it in a glass cage,” Norbert says.
That somebody was rookie vintage racer Craig Schmidt, proprietor of BoxerCafe.com and a diehard BMW fan who wanted the real deal; a vintage BMW racer with provenance. They don’t come much more real than Norbert’s R51.
Norbert raced the BMW R51 one last time in 2011, in the Saturday races at the 6th Annual Bonneville Vintage GP at Miller Motorsports Park in Tooele, Utah, predictably winning his class. The next day, with the simple shake of a hand, he passed the BMW and its years of AHRMA race-winning history to Craig, who had taken the AHRMA racing school and secured his racing license just the day before.
That simple exchange marked the end of an era, 13 years of vintage racing punctuated by the sight of Norbert working his way around a track on his BMW R51.
Yet even though he won’t be racing the R51, Norbert Nickel hasn’t lost his racing fervor. He’s currently prepping a pair of BMW R50/5s, and while he might tone down his racing schedule just a bit, he’ll be back out on the track. “If I can stay competitive, there’s no sense for me to go out [of racing],” Norbert says. Although age might be slowing him down, he doesn’t see it as a reason to quit. Quite the opposite; he considers motorcycling central to life. “A motorcycle doesn’t kill you,” Norbert says, “it keeps you young.” MC
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