April 4, 1937 in Ybor City, Florida, Salvatore Anthony Nicosia grew
up as a man of small stature or as it turned out, the perfect size
for motorcycle racing. At 5’ 4” and 120 lbs at his heaviest Tony
used his size to his advantage. Before the rest of the racing world
had figured out the advantages of power-to-weight ratio Tony was
making a career of using his size to beat the competition.
Tony’s first experience with racing was the local sand drags in 1952
on a Puch 175 Allstate sold through Sears and Roebuck. After joining
the Air Force in 1955 Tony was deployed to Japan in December that
same year. A week after he got there he snuck off base and put a
down payment on a 175cc Abe Star motorcycle. Not having anywhere
else to keep the bike, he parked it outside the gate at the base
leaning it against a fence. Remember this was the 50’s and Japan.
Theft wasn’t in their vocabulary. It’s okay if you don’t recognize
the name Abe Star. Back in the 50’s there was probably 200 brands of
motorcycles in Japan. Mostly imitations of British made motorcycles.
The most sought after brand was the Hosk, an Oriental version of the
German designed Horex 500cc SOHC vertical-twin that was THE bike to
have in the mid 50’s. Horex was the big competition to BMW in
Europe. Horex claimed 115mph top end speed in their advertising. If
you purchased a Horex and it didn’t hold up to the company’s claims,
they would buy it back. The only reason Horex is not a household
name like Honda today is that the company eventually learned there
was more profit in manufacturing motorcycle parts for other
manufacturers than building their own motorcycles, so they got out
of the business. Since the Horex was out of Tony’s limited budget he
settled for the next best thing, the Hosk. The Hosk was the only
Japanese bike that could challenge the English singles and twins in
The photo above is from
a race at Tomatech Raceway. From left to right is (31) Mr. Itoh of
the Honda Race Team, (61) Mr. Suzuki, (56) Mr. Kobo, Suzuki Factory
rider and Japanese National Champion 1960-1965, and finally (17)
Tony with unknown riders to the right of him.
To get back and forth to
the races in Japan Tony had a Nissan truck. He said you could get
seven bikes in the bed if you put them in sideways. Racing
eventually landed Tony a factory ride with the Hosk Motor
Corporation. After purchasing a Hosk he went to the factory to see
if they would hop the bike up so he could race at a big local event.
He said he needed their help because he was going to win the race.
After they stopped laughing at him they agreed to work on his bike.
Tony won the sportsman class. Tony was quickly signed as a Hosk
Although the majority of Tony’s racing for Hosk was limited to
scrambles he did race and win a few drag races as well. As his first
tour of duty was coming to an end Tony desperately wanted a Horex.
The Air Force paid money for servicemen to re-enlist. A four year
re-enlistment would have only netted him $400. He had to re-up for
six years to get enough money to purchase the $750 Horex. This is
the bike that really started Tony’s drag racing career. He also
managed to pull off a couple of GI hill climbs on the same bike.
In order for the American’s who were racing to obtain FIM status for
their events they had to start their own motorcycle club, which fell
under the MFJ umbrella, which is the equivalent to AMA. Scramble
events were the predecessor to outdoor motocross. Since there were
no dirt bikes in those days guys had to take street bikes and remove
the headlights, tail lights, mirrors, and install knobby tires.
Knobby tires basically came from tractor tires made for farm bikes.
Racing in Japan for the Americans started in the late 50’s with a
couple of military installations conducting scrambles and drag
racing events. At the same time the Japanese where conducting their
own events around the country. Eventually the Americans and Japanese
started competing together.
From 1957 to 1964 Tony took 1st place or placed in the top five in
road racing, flat track, and scrambles racing. To the Japanese
racers and fans he was known as Tony-San, the little American
motorcycle hero. The photo below is Tony with Mr. Itoh,
Vice-President of the Hosk Motorcycle Company.
the end of Tony’s time in the Air Force he finished his last months
stateside in Delaware. He then moved home to Florida and opened a
motorcycle service shop but within months he moved to California to
be closer to racing. Tony soon went to work as a service rep for
Suzuki and took up road racing. For three years (’66-‘68) he carried
the #1 plate in the 50cc class in both the ACA and AFM sanctioning
Shown above is Tony on
one of the many factory Honda race bikes that he brought back with
him from Japan. This was a non-fairing CR 125 which featured an
8-speed DOHC engine with gear driven cams and four sodium-filled
valves per cylinder. Honda sold Tony a number of these bikes for a
whopping $300 each. This photo is from a race in Punta Gorda,
Florida. Note the inverted shifter and no gloves. Tony said he had
goggles but they came off. You know what they say, safety first.
Another CR125 Honda as
seen at Willow Springs in California.
Another CR125 at
Riverside which was purchased from “Hall of Famer” Bob Braverman.
Braverman built and raced a dual engine Yamaha using a pair of 250cc
road racing engines and was Editor and Publisher for Cycle Guide
The 250 Suzuki above
belonged to Steve Rolls who was killed by a landmine on his first
tour in Vietnam. His dad said Steve always wanted Tony to ride the
bike so Tony did and set records between 1966-1968 that stood for
In 1968 Tony moved over
to the service department at Kawasaki after being made an offer he
could not refuse. Kawasaki executive Darrel Krause was the National
Sales Manager at that time and one of the founding fathers of the
500cc H1 Mach III, Kawasaki’s first triple cylinder motorcycle.
Krause enlisted the services of Tony to help in the development of
the H1, under the top-secret code name N100. The two of them did
most of the secret road test on the prototype in Arizona and Nevada
as seen below.
Prior to the release of
the H1, plenty of publicity was being propagated which used Tony’s
drag racing credentials to sell the new factory hot rod. Pictured
below is a photo from an article in Cycle Guide with the 1969
pre-production pilot run H1 in the parking lot at Kawasaki’s old
facility in Irvine, California.
As the first factory point man, Tony Nicosia was
probably used in more Kawasaki ads than Terry Vance was used in
Suzuki ads in later years. Tony’s claim to fame was undoubtedly the
H1 500cc Mach III. The first round of ads taunted Tony’s
accomplishments of setting drag racing records from California to
Maine, and records at Bonneville. But they didn’t stop there. In
1972 when the 750cc Mach IV was introduced it was another Kawasaki
ad that announced Tony’s breaking into the 11-second zone by setting
a new AHRA record of 11.95 seconds at Fremont. The ad went on to
give Tony’s schedule for the rest of the season, which included the
Hang Ten Funny Car 500 at Orange County, AHRA’s Denver, Oklahoma
City, LaRue, Ohio, St. Louis and Dallas events, AMDRA’s Marion
County, Ohio, Montreal and Cleveland events, and NHRA’s Bowling
Green and Indy events, plus Speed Week at Bonneville. That’s an
historic calendar of motorcycle racing history if I ever saw one.
Shown here is Tony on
the H1 Pilot bike at Orange County raceway. Note the signature
bandana. Some thought he wore bandanas just to look cool but in
reality it kept the air from getting underneath his leathers thus
making him more aerodynamic. The weekend following this photo shoot,
Tony raced the same bike at Willow Springs. It was the only show
bike Kawasaki had so they threatened to hang him if he drug the
footpegs while racing it.
By the time of its official debut the H1 was being touted as the
quickest production motorcycle. To quiet the skepticism of
journalists, Kawasaki shipped one of the first H1’s to California
and trucked it over to Lyon’s Drag Strip in the crate. With media
and local racers in attendance they uncrated the bike, assembled it,
fired it up, and put Tony on it with zero miles on the odometer. On
the first pass Tony ran a 13.10 at 99.66. After a few passes he then
knocked off the industry’s first ever sub 13-second quarter mile on
a production motorcycle at 100 mph+ (email@example.com). The critics
were not silenced but instead converted to believers who pinned
Kawasaki’s success in every motorcycle magazine in the world. Over
the next several years Tony would amass world and national records
all across the country on the H1.
The photo below from Bakersfield is of a 1970 H1 and Tony’s first
effort of hopping up a stock bike with an adjustable front end off a
175cc F7 and the first M&R 4” rear tire.
Being the drag racer he
was, racing street versions of the H1 would only last so long. Below
is Tony making a pass on a Kawasaki H1R with a set of his custom
expansion chambers set in a Boris Murray chassis. And yes, R stood
for “Racer.” Also note the dry clutch.
The above photo is of
Tony on the same H1R in his Hot Bike Engineering shop with Dennis
Dean, owner of Denco. Tony started Hot Bike Engineering in 1973
after leaving Kawasaki due to budget constraints. There he started
manufacturing expansion chambers for the 500 triples with pyramids
inside the collector, which added 3-5mph and shaved a ½ second off
the quarter mile times.
Here is the H1R in front
of Kawasaki headquarters in Irvine, CA with (L to R) Alan Masek, VP
Kawasaki Motor Corp., USA, Yoji Hamawaki, President, Tony, Al Goslee,
National Service Mgr., and Don Graves, National District Mgr.
If a 500cc triple was good then a 750cc triple had to be better. In
1972 Kawasaki released the H2, which today has become the staple for
three cylinder drag racers around the world. It was also the bike
that got recognition in NHRA with some of the Pro Stock legends like
Dave Schultz and Paul Gast racing them. As I remember the bike from
its introduction when I was eleven years old, it was a wheelie
monster. For the long list of riders who could not handle its power
or the ill handling effects of rapid deceleration, it also earned
the nickname “widowmaker” around the globe. For all of Tony’s hard
work and dedication to the triple program, Kawasaki gave Tony H2
Serial #00012 after setting the new record of 11.95 at the AHRA
For a guy only measuring
up to 5’4” a wheel stand was not the best position to be in coming
off the line. Well as they say, “necessity is the mother of all
inventions.” By Tony’s account he invented the wheelie bar in 1971
and yes I do mean singular wheelie bar.
Tony had no problem with
the single wheel with adjustable spring loaded damper but it did not
bode well with potential customers. He then came out with a dual
wheel set of wheelie bars for clients. Pingel started building bars
in subsequent years and completely dominated the market.
Tony remembers being in
the winner’s circle most of his career. A career that also resulted
in around 200 World and National records from road racing, drag
racing and land speed records with over 3000 win lights. Tony drag
raced in AHRA, NHRA, AMA, Dragbike, AMDRA, IDBA and AMA/Prostar. All
landspeed records were set at Bonneville.
All great and historic racers have their most memorable of events
and for Tony it was July 31, 1971. He set 5 AHRA world records using
5 brand new Kawasaki’s. An H1, A7-350cc, A1- 250cc, F7-175cc, and a
G3-90cc that a St. Louis, Missouri Kawasaki dealer wanted him to
race in order to promote their new store. He only got one pass per
bike on Saturday and one on Sunday due to a 700-car count at the new
track but that was enough to get all five records. The next race on
Tony’s schedule was three weeks later at the Bonneville Salt Flats
where Tony added 3 AMA world land speed records to his list. Tony
was a regular at the American Hot Rod Association’s series. AHRA was
the big competition to the NHRA. In 1973 Tony held 26 of AHRA’s 44
Paul Collins was the
Advertising Manager at Kawasaki Motor Corp. and was Tony’s boss.
Note the Mach III poster in the background. Collins’ stepson, Colin,
accompanied Tony to several races. Here Tony is photographed with
Paul’s son at Bonneville. You might not recognize the boy but Paul’s
daughter is Cathleen Collins or as you may know her, Bo Derek.
Bonneville was as much
of Tony’s career as drag racing. Back then it was important for the
factories to have successful results in both the quarter-mile and
top end speed. Today government mandates restrict top end speeds.
(Boo Congress, you bunch of taxi riding whiney butt blowhards. Sorry
for scaling my soapbox.) The KZ650 below claimed records at both
Bonneville and the strip. Back then the same bike was a dual-purpose
machine and not purpose built for one application.
In addition to all the
drag racing and land speed racing Tony was involved in with
Kawasaki, he still had time once in a while to get back to his road
racing roots. In 1970 Tony worked with Team Kawasaki as a Crew Chief
for Art Baumann #71 at Daytona. Cal Rayborn #26 was also on that
team. The only reason Tony was at this race, it was the week before
the first ever NHRA event at Gainesville. Back then NHRA ran around
twenty individual classes grouped within two or three eliminators
where 50-100 bikes would show up to run.
Tony got out of drag racing fulltime in the mid-70’s and raced off
and on eventually moving back home to Florida in 1986. Tony said he
received the first 1984 900 Ninja from Kawasaki. Kawasaki shipped it
from Japan to Dallas where it was delivered to a dealer in El Paso.
Tony flew to El Paso and rode the bike back to California. He went
out and set the record at 12.61 @ 111.38 with stock exhaust and
tires. Everything except removing the mirrors was left in showroom
stock condition. The photo below is from the next year on a 600
Ninja at a Dragbike event.
When Prostar’s 600
SuperSport class was at its peak at the turn of the century, Tony
decided, after a nearly thirty year absence from active national
points competition, to start racing with Prostar at the age of 64.
He had not been down a track in over ten years. He competed for a
couple of years with his last race being the U.S. Motorcycle
Nationals at Atco in the days leading up to the 9/11 attacks. 600SS
National Champion Marty Ladwig said, “I was impressed with how well
Tony did.” Marty went on to say that, “Nobody expected anything from
him but he did qualify decently and go rounds. It wasn’t his riding
skills that held him back it was the fact that he didn’t have the
equipment the rest of us had. Tony was great for the sport.”
Today Tony is back in
the limelight as scores of Kawasaki Triple fans are pushing to have
Tony inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame. Here is to hoping
that one of our true pioneers is recognized. Tony wanted me to leave
you with one of his formulas. Give it a try and see if it works for
you. He swears it will work in any application today.
Tony’s HP Formula:
Weight of bike + weight of rider x 110mph x 110 again (1102).
Divided by ET, then divide by 8800 = Horsepower.
Other Areas of Interest
Current Residence: Tampa
Children: Paul Kelley, Shawn Kelly, Ana Kelley, Karen Kelly
Occupation (at time of competition years): Mechanic at Suzuki
Dealer in FL, then moved to CA and started road racing and working
for Suzuki, then Kawasaki.
Home track (at time of competition years): Irwindale, but
then Freemont after leaving Kawasaki
Team Names (at time of competition years): Hot Bike
Engineering, Kawasaki Factory Team
Crew Members (at time of competition years): Jack Murphy
Who was some of the best-known racers of your early days?
Boris Murray, Joe Smith, Leo Payne (innovated nitro for bikes) Carl
Morrow, Sonny Routt, Dwayne Taylor (dual engine triumph, unknown in
history, stopped racing before Sonny started racing), Dave Campos,
Dennis Manning, Mike Bruso, Russ Collins, Ray Price, Bill Hahn, Sr.,
What did you drive to the races in the early years? Ford
First motorcycle: Puch 175 Allstate sold through Sears.
Bought it at the age of 14.