Fred Nix was a leading AMA Grand National racer of the 1960s. During his professional career, which last only four and a half years, Nix became known as one of the best milers in the history of AMA Grand National racing. He rode for Harley-Davidson and during his short career compiled 11 AMA national wins with six of those coming on mile ovals. Those six victories placed him third on the all-time AMA Grand National Mile wins list in 1969. Nix’s racing career was cut short in its prime when he tragically died in an automobile accident on July 18, 1969.
Nix was born in Lawton, Oklahoma, on July 23, 1941. Motorcycling was a popular passtime for young men where Nix grew up. As a boy, he saved money from his paper route and bought a basket-case motorcycle. In his teens, Nix began racing with his buddies in local scrambles and dirt track races, trying to emulate his heroes, Carroll Resweber and Al Gunter.
The wiry Nix had the perfect build for a dirt track racer, packing a lot of muscle into his lean, five-foot-seven, 140-pound frame. At first, he raced simply for fun and never gave a thought to turning pro, but that all changed after a trip with racing pal Darrel Dovel to Santa Fe Speedway, the now legendary but defunct racing circuit in the Chicago suburb of Hinsdale, Illinois. In the 1960s, Santa Fe Speedway had a regular weekly motorcycle-racing program and a good rider could earn a living racing each week at the track. Nix did well on his first trip to Santa Fe Speedway and promptly called his wife, Carol, and told her they were moving to Chicago. With sponsorship from C.J. Harley-Davidson in Elgin, Illinois, Nix made the move and launched his pro career.
Nix won the Santa Fe Speedway Series several years in a row and then cracked the top 10 twice at AMA nationals in 1965, his rookie season. Those performances attracted the attention of Harley-Davidson racing boss Dick O’Brien. Nix got factory support from Harley for 1966. In May of that year he earned his first national podium finish on the half-mile at Elkhorn, Wisconsin. In September, he broke through to win his first AMA national at the Sacramento Mile. He finished 1966 ranked 10th in the series standings.
In 1967, Nix really began to come into his own. Now a full-fledged Harley-Davidson factory rider, he scored seven podium finishes, including wins on the half-miles in Columbus, Ohio, and one on his home circuit in Oklahoma City. He finished the 1967 season ranked third behind Gary Nixon and George Roeder.
The 1968 season proved to be Nix’s most successful, yet at the same time his most frustrating. That year Nix was magic on the miles. He won all four of the mile races that year, in addition to victories at his favorites, the Oklahoma City Half-Mile and Santa Fe Speedway Short Track. Being the leading race winner, Nix moved near the front of the series points standings by mid-season, but his main rival, Triumph rider Gary Nixon, had been more consistent. Though Nixon only had two victories, he led the points most of the year.
In a late-season flourish, Nix won at Sacramento and Oklahoma City to seize a narrow points lead over Nixon. The two Oklahoma natives were neck-and-neck for the 1968 title going into the final round of the series on the half-mile circuit at Ascot Park in Gardena, California.
According to insiders who were at the race, Harley-Davidson called a team meeting and ordered its riders to try to box out Nixon during the race, but Nix, being an old buddy of Nixon’s, told the team he didn’t want to win like that and the plan was scrapped. During the race Nix got a poor start and Nixon a good one. Nix worked hard to catch up to his rival, and by mid race the two ran wheel-to-wheel. But on that night, Nixon wasn’t to be denied. He rode a strong race to finish fourth, Nix suffered a difficult race and was seventh. Some claimed Nix was the victim of being blocked by some of Nixon’s Triumph teammates. Whatever the case, Nix was heartbroken.
Nix ducked away from the crowd flooding in from the stands to seek a quiet place. His wife saw her husband walking away, head down, fighting back tears. Carol knew even she couldn’t console him in a moment like this. The championship had been in his grasp and now it was gone.
A winter away from racing rejuvenated Nix and he came back ready to make another bid at the title in 1969. His tough luck at Daytona continued and, like the year before, he started with a big points deficit. But then he won on the mile in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, and finally earned his first road race victory in a pouring rain at Loudon, New Hampshire. Things were looking up.
"The Loudon win really lifted his spirits," says Carol. "He called me after winning there and said, 'I think I’ll be able to win Daytona next year. I’ve finally got this road racing thing figured out.'"
Unfortunately, Nix never had the chance to race at Daytona. On July 18, 1969, he died in a freak automobile accident in Bakersfield, California, just a few days shy of his 29th birthday. Nix left behind his wife, Carol, and a baby daughter, Cynthia. It was a devastating loss for the racing fraternity. Rival and friend Gary Nixon remembered Nix as being a quiet but confident racer.
"He never got the recognition he deserved," said Nixon. "I think it was because he kept to himself and was pretty shy until you got to know him. He was a helluva racer. One of the best ever on the miles, for sure."