Iconic dirt-track racer Bobby Hill passed away on July 12, 2022, just four days after his 100th birthday.
Hill was the winner of 12 AMA Nationals and was an original member of the Indian Wrecking Crew who was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998. He was also a co-winner of the only race in AMA history that was judged to be a tie.
“A motorsports legend of the highest order whose many sporting accomplishments retain both their relevance and significance in full so many decades after the fact,” said AMA Pro Racing in a statement.
Born on July 8, 1922, in Triadelphia, West Virginia, Hill’s first ride on a motorcycle – just in low gear – was when he was 14, a stark contrast to many of today’s racers who race almost as early as they walk. When he turned 16, he bought his first motorcycle: a 45ci Harley-Davidson WLD. Soon after, he got serious about riding and began a rapid climb up the amateur ranks.
That ascension was delayed just before he was about to turn pro when Hill enlisted in the Marine Corps, subsequently seeing action in WWII in both China and the Philippines.
Following the war, Hill quickly made up for lost time. In 1947, he moved to Grove City, Ohio, reportedly to be closer to the racing action. He nearly won his first pro race, the 1947 Daytona 200, on an Indian; however, Hill mistakenly thought he was in second place in the timed race when he was actually in the lead.
“I kept getting a pit signal from my crew that read P2,” Hill is quoted as saying on the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame website. “I thought they were telling me I was in second place. As it turns out I was really in the lead since we started by rows back then – five seconds apart – and were timed. Even though John Spiegelhoff was in front of me, I was actually about 15 seconds in the lead.”
As a result of the misunderstanding, Hill said he pushed too hard to catch who he thought was the leader and tangled with another rider on a turn near the 180-mile mark, losing his rear brake lever and ultimately crashing out of the race.
Undaunted, Hill would go on to win his first race in Atlanta in 1948, but even then he had to share the victory with Billy Huber. After the two racers crossed the line in a dead heat, both were declared the winner – the only time that has happened in AMA racing history.
In the early 1950s, with Indian Motorcycle sales flagging in the U.S., the company leaned on the growing popularity of dirt-tracking racing and recruited Hill and other pro racers Ernie Beckman and Bill Tuman. The trio would come to be known as the original Indian Wrecking Crew.
Tuman has been quoted as saying that factory racing was a different beast back then, with much more self-reliance. Hill agreed, saying that to be a successful racer, “you had to do everything yourself.”
As part of the Wrecking Crew, Hill was crowned the 1951 and 1952 AMA National Champion by virtue of his performances at the winner-take-all Springfield Mile. Tuman followed suit in 1953, making him the last single-day winner of the AMA Grand National Championship at the Springfield Mile before the AMA Grand National Championship series was created in 1954. Hill would go on to earn distinction as the first race winner of that series after winning at the 1954 Daytona 200 – his eighth attempt – on a BSA.
Hill’s professional career spanned from 1947 to 1959, having raced Harley-Davidsons, Indians, BSAs and Nortons. In 1951 Hill was awarded the AMA’s Most Popular Rider of the Year, a prestigious award that was also given to Tuman. Hill continued to contribute to the sport into the 1960s as an engine builder for prominent racers. He retired from his regular job as a truck driver in 1984.
Hill was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998, along with Beckman and Tuman. Beckman died a year later, but both Hill and Tuman continued to attend races and other events. In fact, both men were in attendance at the 2016 Sturgis rally as special guests of Indian Motorcycle when the company introduced its FTR750 flat-track racer.
“I think it’s wonderful that the new Indian remembered us,” Hill told Motorcyclist. “It was a great feeling for Bill and me to go to Sturgis last year and see the appreciation we got from the riders and from all the fans. I’ve got to tell you, it’s tough just living day to day at my age, so those kinds of moments—to see that we haven’t been forgotten—well, it’s really something special.”
Hill is survived by his wife, Nancy, and three children.