Larry Headrick had a brief, but very spectacular racing career. In 1950, Headrick rode a Tom Sifton-prepared Harley-Davidson to three AMA national wins on mile dirt ovals, including earning the national championship at Springfield, Illinois. Headrick's upset victory at Springfield that year was one of the most surprising in the history of the race. In fact, Headrick's amazing 1950 season took almost everyone by surprise.
Headrick's career was cut short at the end of the 1950 season when he was hit by a car while riding his motorcycle on the street. The accident shattered Headrick's left leg, making it impossible for him to race again on the dirt ovals. The rider from San Jose, California, was tragically forced into retirement just has his career was taking off.
Born in Wichita, Kansas, on December 3, 1920, Headrick moved to California and was working for the government-backed Civilian Conservation Corps as the country was coming out of economic depression in the late 1930s. When he was 18, he bought his first motorcycle to ride on the street and became a big fan of Sam Arena, one of the biggest racing stars of the late 1930s. Just when Headrick was starting to get involved in racing, World War II brought a temporary end to the sport. Headrick went to work making radio tubes during the war and was forced to put racing on hold.
After the war, Headrick began racing, working his way through the novice and amateur ranks. In 1948, he moved to Tennessee briefly to race for a dealer there. He might have continued his racing back East, but for his wife's homesickness. Instead, the Headricks made their way back to San Jose, where Headrick got a big opportunity when Tom Sifton asked him to race for him for the 1950 season. Another one of Sifton's riders, Al Rudy, had been severely injured in a street accident. Ironically, a year later it would be Headrick himself who was forced to retire after a street accident.
One of the first big races was the AMA national on the Bay Meadows mile in San Mateo, California. Headrick found himself on a great bike, yet no one expected him to be a contender against the star-studded field that included riders such as Floyd Emde, Paul Goldsmith, three-time national champ Jimmy Chann and others.
"There hadn't been an AMA national in California for a couple of years before the race at Bay Meadows," Headrick recalls. "Everyone was really geared up for that race. A lot of the riders from back East showed up and of course all the best West Coast riders. It was the first mile track I had ever raced, but that wasn't unusual in California back then. We mainly raced on half-miles and short tracks."
Headrick started on the front row, but got off to a poor start. As the race progressed, Headrick began making his way through the field. On the final lap, the race came down to a two-way battle between Headrick and Paul Albrecht. Headrick caught a perfect drive out of the final turn and forged ahead to the checkered flag beating Albrecht by two bike lengths. Headricks victory was a surprise to say the least. It was Headricks' first national win, but the season was just beginning.
A few weeks after his Bay Meadows victory, Headricks won a Pacific Coast race in Portland. It was at that point that Sifton made the decision to have Headrick go East and race for the national title at Springfield. Headrick loaded up with Kenny Eggers and Bob Chaves and headed cross-country for Springfield.
Despite his Bay Meadows victory two months earlier, Headrick was still a long shot at winning the number one plate. Paul Goldsmith took the early lead in the 25-mile final on the factory Harley with Headrick closely following. At one point, Headrick said that Goldsmith tried to shake him off by intentionally running the high groove and pelting him with a thick roostertail of dirt. Then Goldsmith's bike broke an axle and Headrick found himself in the lead. Headrick faced one more challenge when Bobby Hill came past and put his Indian into the lead. Late in the race, Hill's bike began to slow and Headrick slipped by to earn the win and with it the 1950 AMA National Championship.
Headrick became the first West Coast rider to win the Springfield Mile.
A week later, Headrick proved his Springfield Mile win was no fluke when he came out on top again at the Milwaukee Mile. Headrick had practically come out of nowhere to win three of the biggest races of the year. It is one of the great stories of "overnight success" in AMA racing history.
Headrick's chance of winning the only other mile on the schedule late year in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, was foiled when his wife, Dorothy, had an illness back in San Jose, forcing him to return to California. Unfortunately, a few months later, Headrick was involved in the street accident and at 30 years old with a bad leg and four children to feed, Headrick decided to give up racing.
Headrick will always be remembered for that one shining season in 1950 when he was the best rider in the country.
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