Saturday, April 24, 2010

TFT EXCLUSIVE-THE SUMMER OF 1977

THE SUMMER OF 1977
by John Lambrick


This is a story about one of the great dirt track campaigns of the Triumph Motorcycle and the man who rode the bike.

In 1977, Lance Jones set the dirt track world on fire. Riding Triumphs and Bultacos across the eastern half of the United States, Lance raced 45 times and won 33 races. He rode 17 of those races on Bill Kennedy Triumph Motorcycles.

Lance Jones did not get an early start on his quest to be a racer; he didn’t start riding until he was 10. His mom bought him a minibike and he started hanging around the shop where it was purchased, which was owned by Floyd Tapp.

Floyd was an expert ranked dirt track racer as well as a Yamaha dealer. He let Lance hang-around, sweep the shop, and go to races with him and his family. Lance raced his minibike a few times in 1973; in any kind of local races he could manage to enter.

People noticed that he was riding well, but that was about as far as it went.

That is, until the summer of 1974, when the Tapp family headed to a dirt track race in Dalton, Georgia. Floyd had a stomach problem flare up and was unable to race.

Lance had been telling Floyd that he was sure he could race the 360. Floyd let 14-year-old Lance enter the open class with the stern warning to, “Just ride around behind everybody and stay out of their way.”

Lance didn’t follow orders. When the checkered flag fell, he had lapped every rider up to second place, including at least one top-grade professional expert. This was the beginning, of the end, of Floyd Tapp’s racing career and the start of Lance Jones career. By the next weekend Floyd had pulled a new 80, a new 100, a new 125, a new 175, and a new 250 off of his showroom floor to compliment the 360.

The Tapp’s and Jones’ barnstormed the south, for the next year-and-a-half, entering as many classes as possible at as many races as possible. Lance raced hundreds of times during this period. At least one time he raced in six classes in Valdosta, Ga. during the day, which was followed by a drive Holiday Downs near Atlanta for the night races where four more victories were gained. It seems that they missed the heat races in two classes and were not allowed to enter.

(Gettin' on the throttle)

It was this regiment that prepared Lance to start his professional career in 1976. As a novice, riding Floyd’s Yamahas with race tuning by Woody Kyle, Jones entered 52 races, won 34, and placed second 8 times.

This brings us to 1977. The season started in Daytona. Thursday night of Speedweek was the first opportunity for Lance. The event was the Junior/Novice combined short track at old Memorial Stadium. Lance was running away with the final when he tossed a rod in the Bultaco. This opened the door for a Novice named Wayne Rainey to win.

Friday was an even busier day. Lance was entered in the Novice road race at Daytona International Speedway. Floyd had bought a TZ250 road race bike from Eddie Lawson and Lance was going to ride it in his first road race. With plenty of teething problems and only five laps of practice, he rode from last to third in his heat.

In the final, he was fastest in the infield section and battled at the front of the pack. He was in the lead for a while, before Eddie Lawson pulled away for a 10-second margin of victory. Just after crossing the finish line, Lance’s motor seized and he skidded directly into victory circle with an amazing second place.

His day was not done because he still had to go back to the stadium for the Junior/Expert short track race. He was the only Junior-ranked rider to make the final. Steve Morehead, Ted Boody, Mike Kidd, Terry Poovey, and Corky Keener were a few of the other contestants. Lance ran away from the field.

He found the going a little tougher on Saturday. He finished fourth at the short track racing against the same group of riders.

After Daytona there was a short pause before the grind of the dirt track season kicked-in. Once spring arrived it was time to hit the half-mile Midwest dirt – county by county.

By summer, the weekly short track programs were in action at Sante Fe Speedway in Hinsdale, Ill. and Tri- City Speedway in Granite City, Ill. This made it possible to race almost every day if a rider was so possessed.

(A common site back in 1977)

At this juncture in time there were still a sizeable number of riders in all three professional classes, with a wide variety of manufacturers doing battle. Triumphs, BSAs, Yamahas, and Nortons were finishing-out runs as competitive mounts on the half-mile and mile tracks, although it must be noted that expert ranked riders won several TT Nationals that year on Triumphs.

It was becoming apparent to most people that the 5-year-old Harley Davidson alloy XR750 was becoming the machine to beat.

Bill Kennedy was not one of those people.

He was determined to keep the Triumph name alive in dirt track, even though over in England, the company was nearly out of business. Kennedy even went on to build, develop, and finance his own vision of the next generation of parallel twin racing engine: the “American”

The Triumph’s he provided Lance were the pinnacle of development for Edward Turner’s original design. The riding genius of Lance made up for any other deficiencies.

The first big half-mile of that year took place in Springfield, Ohio. Kennedy was a little discouraged when Lance did not look good early in practice. Lance explained that it was a little dusty and some of the boys didn’t look to comfortable on their new 750s.

Near the end of timed qualifying, Lance rolled out for his timed lap. He came back with the fastest time of the day by two-tenths-of-a-second. The time was the best of the Junior’s and the Expert’s, as well.

The day ended poorly with a broken chain in the heat race. A broken battery cable stopped them one other time.

The records show a total of 13 victories and two second-place finishes in the other 15 events. Combine these races with Lance’s success on the short tracks with his factory Bultaco and you have an incredible season.

A season that saw Lance score more points than any other Junior-ranked rider in the nation. He won the AMA Eastern Regional Dirt Track Junior Championship. Cycle News East named him “Rider of The Year” for 1977.

(Lance attempting to keep a straight face in the midst of the infamous Dave Despain hot pants)

Lance summed it all up in a May 11, 1977 Cycle News interview when he said, “When you win on a Harley you’re regarded as one of the boys, but if you win on a Triumph then you’ve done something.”

Today, Lance is still involved in dirt track racing as co-sponsor of AMA Pro Expert Singles Champion, Henry Wiles. He has also owned and managed Lance Jones Marketing for 13 years.

After reviewing this story, Lance had a couple of memories that he wanted included. Both are in regard to fellow Triumph stalwart Jay Ridgeway.

The Kennedy Triumph’s that Lance rode were formerly ridden by Ridgeway. Jay made at least 2 cameo appearances on the Triumphs in 1977. On one occasion, Jay entered the expert class on one Triumph and Lance entered the Junior class on another. Mr. Kennedy was very pleased because they both won that day.

The other memory is not so kind. Jay was riding a Kennedy Triumph the fateful day in July at Du Quoin when an accident in turn one took his life. Lance says, “He was a unique guy and a lot of fun. I still miss him.”

All photos by Bert Shepard/Silver Shutter. Photos provided by Lance Jones. Special thanks to Ralf Pansch for editing this article.

HAPPY 50th LANCE!!!

3 comments:

  1. I was there for it all. When Lance pulled in to a track, everybody else knew they were racing for second. His performance on the Bultaco at Daytona was incredible.
    Barry G.

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  2. I havent heard of the Lance Jones story before and I'm glad we have a site for it. What an outstanding story! Way to go Lance for putting the Triumph in front when few thought it was possible.

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  3. I was there as well and traveled some with Lance and Jay. It was just as the first poster said. If Lance showed up, everybody else was ready to race for second. In 1976 Lance showed up with Floyd at East Alabama Motorspeedway, late as usual. Floyd pulled the bikes out of his van and changed to dirt track tires on the spot. Lance got no practice on the high banked 3/8 mile, but won every race he was in. He was a true star of Dirt Track. I have seen him since when he was working for RK Stratman. Still looks great and seems like he could take up right where he left off.

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