Never Slow Down: AHRMA Racer Norbert Nickel

AHRMA racer Norbert Nickel: 64 years in the saddle and still going strong

| July/August 2012

Whoever said old racers never die, they just slow down, never met Norbert Nickel. Now 79 years old, the former VW mechanic from Germany has racked up 11 National Championships aboard his 1951 BMW R51.

Norbert got his first taste of racing in 1948, a precocious 15-year-old riding a little 125cc DKW. That first introduction clearly whetted his appetite, because in 1949 he moved up to a much bigger 500cc Motosacoche, with less than desired results. “It was more bike than I could handle,” Norbert says of the Swiss machine. “I think in 11 races, I crashed eight times.”

Don’t stop now

Norbert kept on racing, however, and finished his first series race — a sidecar road race — in Battenberg, Germany, in 1953, riding monkey on a friend’s BMW R51. He couldn’t have known it then, but that race would introduce him to the motorcycle model — the R51 — that would come to define his now 23-year racing career with the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association (AHRMA).

Norbert Nickel continued racing through the 1950s, competing aboard what today sounds like a very exotic selection of bikes including an NSU 250, a Velocette 350KTT that he rode at the old Nürburgring (where he beat the 500s in practice but got shut out when his Velo’s engine failed), a Horex pushrod single converted to overhead cam, and sidecar racing with the BMW R51 and a WWII-era R75. Like any budding racer, Norbert was simply taking advantage of what was available as he learned to go faster, and he discovered he was pretty good at it, too.

In 1954 he won the German grass track championship, and that same year he and his sidecar partner won a prestigious 450 kilometer endurance race, with 150 of those kilometers run at night. The November race almost ended tragically when Norbert, riding sidecar and hanging his body out as far as he could through a tight turn at night, lost his grip on an ice-covered handle, and fell out. “The driver didn’t know,” Norbert remembers. “A passing guy on a BMW solo picked me up and we passed him [Norbert’s teammate] 3 or 4 kilometers later!”

It was during this time that Norbert’s affinity for engines and wrenching took root and grew to become his livelihood, leading to his becoming a journeyman mechanic for a Mercedes-Benz dealership. He kept racing, but a sister living in the States convinced him he needed to come over here to see what life in the U.S. was like. So in 1956 he did just that. “I was only going to come to the U.S. for one year so I wouldn’t miss racing,” Norbert recalls. “I couldn’t speak a word of English, but I discovered I could race here.”

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