Jim Rice was a leading AMA Grand National racer of the 1960s and early ‘70s. During his short six-year professional racing career, Rice scored 12 AMA national wins. He won on mile, half-mile and TT circuits. All but one of his victories came on BSA motorcycles.
Rice was a championship contender for most of his career. He scored a series-leading six national wins in 1970, but came up just short in the final standings, finishing second to Gene Romero in that year’s championship. That season was famously chronicled by the movie "On Any Sunday" and showed a brutal crash Rice suffered at the Sacramento Mile that may have cost him that year’s title.
Rice was born in Wooster, Ohio on July 10, 1947. As a teen, Rice got into working on and driving drag racing cars at Dragway 42 in West Salem, Ohio. At 16, he moved to California, but was unable to afford car insurance so he decided to buy a Honda 50 to get around.
"That’s when I got interested in motorcycles instead of cars," Rice said. "I went from the little 50 to a 250cc Scrambler and then started running local dirt scramble races on a Yamaha YDS2 that that a buddy of mine and I bought. It turned out to be just about the worst bike you could think of to start scrambles racing."
Rice’s racing got off to humble beginnings in the mid-1960s. In his first race, a scrambles event, he was pitched over the handlebars after landing from the jump, due to his rerouting of the rear brake cable.
Soon, Rice got a job at a motorcycle shop and bought a 1965 Spitfire Hornet 650cc BSA. He found honing his skills on the difficult-to-ride Yamaha YDS2 really helped him when he got a motorcycle that was actually raceworthy.
"I got on that BSA and it was so easy to ride," he recalls. "It was like a light switch flipped on. I started advancing through the ranks of novice, amateur and into expert."
By 1967, Rice was the top points-scoring rider in AMA District 36, Northern California racing. He was also the high-point racer at Hayward Speedway and was awarded a nine-foot-tall trophy.
"It had coffin handles, weighed a lot and was so large I had to take it apart to get it in my Ranchero," Rice said. "A friend of mine and I snuck it into my parents' house and set it up, all except the top part which wouldn’t fit because of the eight-foot ceiling. That’s when my parents knew I was taking racing seriously."
In 1966, he began racing some pro events to earn points toward a professional license. In 1967, he got his amateur racing license and by 1968 he became one of the leading amateur riders in the country, winning several amateur nationals that season. He won the amateur national at the San Jose Half-Mile after barely avoiding a heat race disqualification. During his heat race, his steel shoe had fallen off and was dangling by the strap late in the race, which at the time was considered grounds for automatic disqualification. He continued to ride in spite of missing his shoe and being black flagged. Fortunately, a group of expert riders pleaded Rice’s case to the referee and he decided not to take the win away from Rice.
Rice turned expert in 1969 and immediately made an impact at the nationals. Riding for BSA, Rice won three nationals in his rookie season. His first win came at his home track, the San Jose Half-Mile, riding his self-prepared and maintained BSA.
"Early in my expert rookie year I lacked a certain amount of confidence that I could ever win a national, because of the tremendous skill and determination of so many professional racers, many of which were legends," Rice said. "Chuck Palmgren and I were talking about it and he told me it would happen. When San Jose came, I figured that would be my very best chance to win that year. The night before the race, I went for a walk around the block and was thinking really intensely what it might be like to win.
"I was the last guy to qualify on the front row and that was really important," Rice said. "My outside starting position happened to be right on the middle of the groove, thanks to the fastest heat winner choosing the inside for pole position. I knew that was a gift. I got a perfect start and I was focused every second of that race on making sure I didn’t slip off the groove, as well as entering and exiting the turns as fast as I possibly could. I rode a flawless race and when I took the checkered flag I couldn’t believe I’d just won by half a straightaway over Gary Nixon. I actually did another full lap at speed just to make sure I didn’t see the flags wrong. That win really boosted my confidence and opened up the possibility that I might win more races the rest of that year. A month later, I won the Sedalia mile on a Tom Cates-prepared BSA triple. Later, I won the Oklahoma City half mile the day after almost breaking my neck and receiving 20 stitches in my scalp because of a freak swimming pool accident."
The 1970 season proved to be Rice’s best. He said that everything jelled for him that year. It was just before the Harley-Davidson XRs became so dominant and mentally Rice’s riding was at its peak.
Rice started the ’70 season by winning the Houston TT on his No. 24 BSA to take an early lead in the AMA Grand National Championship. He won at a cushion half-mile in Palmetto, Georgia, running a unique Avon tire with an aggressive tread pattern.
"Hap Jones starting selling those tires like hotcakes because everyone thought they were the hot setup," Rice says with a laugh. "They were the only thing I had with me that I thought would work on that loose track, but I don’t think anyone ever won a race on those tires after that."
Rice took six wins that year, including a victory at the prestigious Peoria TT. The points structure in those days awarded more points to better-paying races like road races and Gene Romero was close to Rice in the standings because of his success in higher points-paying road races.
One of the big races at the end of the year was the Sacramento Mile. Rice rode both the twin and the three-cylinder BSAs in practice. Rice knew something was amiss with the triple, since the lap times on his Twin were very close. He decided to go with the triple regardless because of its better speed on the straights and good long-distance reliability. As it turned out, the triple had a leaking head gasket, which slowed the bike in qualifying. Chuck Palmgren immediately shut off the throttle on his bike upon taking the checkered flag in his heat race. Rice, who was inches behind Palmgren, wasn’t expecting the abrupt slow down and had to veer to the right to avoid hitting Palmgren.
The brake and shift lever were on the same side. Rice clipped the gearshift and put it into a false neutral. He tried desperately to put it back into gear and slow it down with the rear brake at the same time. At the last second, Rice found he was approaching the turn way too fast and he slid down and crashed into the outside barrier with the motorcycle flying up into a photographer who was taking photos of the crash.
Rice, battered and bleeding from a broken nose, was taped up and ran in the Sacramento final, but was only able to finish 15th, while Romero won the race. It was a major turning point in the season and Romero went on to win the championship over Rice.
By 1971, Rice’s BSAs were becoming less competitive. He finished third in the 1971 championship despite winning no nationals. In 1972, Rice scored wins on the BSA at the Colorado Springs Mile, where he discovered he could plow through the rutted and soft first turn by keeping his throttle wide open. He lapped the entire field, with the exception of the second-place rider, whom he almost caught at the finish line. He also won his home race, the San Jose Mile with a broken left shoulder after clipping the first-turn inside guard rail with his shoulder on the eighth lap of the National final.
"The impact tore my left hand from the grip and I was amazed I did not crash," Rice recalled. "My adrenaline kicked in and because the track was smooth, I found I could hang on. The leader, Gary Scott, dropped out and I moved up to third. During the last five laps, Kenny Roberts and I swapped the lead each straightaway with me always leading at the finish line. The final turn was a test of courage for both of us and I squeaked out a win over Kenny with just inches to spare. When I stopped, I was taken by ambulance to Alexian Brothers Hospital. There wasn't a victory celebration, but I had a smile on my face just the same."
That remarkable victory marked the final win for the Rice/BSA combination. Rice finished tied for sixth in the final standings that year.
In 1973, Rice took an offer to ride with support from Harley-Davidson. He won the Charity Newsies National in Columbus, Ohio in front of a standing-room-only crowd that included many of his childhood friends from Ohio who had showed up for the race. It was an emotional victory for Rice.
Rice prided himself on building and maintaining his racing equipment. Nine of his 12 National Championship wins were on his self-built and self-maintained motorcycles.
Rice retired from racing after the 1974 season. He bought a house on five acres in the mountains above Stanford University near Palo Alto. He was married to his wife Lisa, had a son Kyle, and went into business doing electronic design and production for aviation and motorcycles.
"I always raced the track and tried to forget about the competition," Rice said. "I never looked back and I learned I could go the fastest if I raced the track and pushed myself to the limit of my ability.
"Motorcycle racing was the soul of my existence back then. I feel fortunate to have raced in what I consider the golden era of dirt track racing."