Author Topic: PNW USA Racing legend. (Some BSA content) Sonny Burres  (Read 200 times)

Offline Sluggo

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This is an older interview by local racer & journalist Shawn McDonald (*He published a great magazine for a while, I have many copies,)  But he did a great job documenting some amazing stories and racing.  Full credit to Shawn.
This is about Sonny Burres, a PNW Racing legend and A** Kicker supreme.  I know him, not well, but I know him and got a ton of stories about the guy from a ton of people many of which are not printable.
But if you want to get a great sense of what this guy is about, this article sums it all up.

Pictures are Sonny winning Peoria in 1975, Sonny leading the pack in Clackamas Oregon (AKA Clackistan) at Sidewinders, and L-R Sonny Burres, Chuck Joyner, Gary Scott, Steve Baker, and Randy Skiver

Sonny Burres
By Shawn McDonald


Born: Portland, Oregon
Height: 5’10"
Racing weight: 175 lbs
½ Sisters/Brothers: Judy, Verna, Dennis
Parents: Lewis
Children: Debbie
Business: Car/Motorcycle Mechanic, Burres Specialties/Retired
Championships: 1971 AMA Castle Rock TT National; 1975 AMA Peoria TT National     

Major sponsors in your career: Elmers Pancake House, Lou Kinnish Racing, Bob Lanphere Beaverton Honda-Yamaha, Roy Carroll, Western Triumph Dealers

Sonny Burres: I got out of the Navy in 1958 from the submarine service in San Diego and went out and bought a street bike. It was a Triumph and I rode it for a week until it blew up. I rebuilt the motor and started drag racing it. I met up with a military friend back in Oregon who raced Hare and Hound events every weekend. It would be what you call a desert race today going over the natural terrain in eastern Oregon. I had a rigid framed 40 cubic-inch Triumph and my butt was flying higher than my head for the entire race. I raced with those guys into early winter until the 1959 championship race in Newberg, Oregon. My buddies hauled down my bike down to the championship race for me and when we got there my bike wasn’t in the trailer. Bob Moore and Ron Klemp had already pre-planned that I would ride Ron’s 30 cubic-inch motorcycle in the 40 CI class. Well, that’s like driving a Volkswagen against a Corvette. I told Bob and Ron that these guys were going to beat me really bad and they said that they’re already beating you anyway. I wasn’t going to ride against 30 to 40 of those big bikes, and they kept on saying that I was. The 30 CI had full suspension and a thick seat where my 40 CI had a rigid frame with a rear spring hub on it. I was real depressed on the starting line. They dropped the flag and I was gone. That bike was so neat to ride. I had never ridden anything with full suspension before. I came down this big ridge about 60 M.P.H. just on the rear wheel. I ended up lapping the entire field twice. That was a lot of fun. That got me hooked on racing. In 1960 I got a 1959 BSA Spitfire to race at the Sidewinders racetrack.

Bench Racer: Do you feel you missed out on anything in life from being a racer?

Sonny Burres: As soon as I started racing I knew that I wanted to be a professional racer. I felt that I couldn’t do that 100% with a wife and kids. It takes a special woman to put up with the life of a racer. First they are going to worry about you getting hurt while your racing and secondly they’re not going to get any time with you because you will be working on the bike or traveling. If there was a close competitor and he got a new girlfriend I would keep an eye on him. Either she would speed him up or slow him down, but he was never the same after that. That was my decision not to have a family life. I’ve had a lot of people ask me the question "Don’t you think you missed out on a lot of life being a racer?" I always fired back with "Nope. I had too much fun racing. I would never change that for anything."

BR: What was it like racing at the Peoria TT National?

SB: Peoria is built into a natural amphitheatre where the fans can sit on the grass in a big bowl and watch the races. It was the biggest thing to happen to Peoria and they just packed them in every year. When you raced there it was a big deal like going to the Indianapolis 500. The first year I went there I stayed with the Underwood’s who owned the Honda-Norton motorcycle shop. I stayed with them every year after. They became my home base during the national season where I would drive to Peoria and unload everything and then operate from there for the rest of the summer. I became the adopted son of Peoria. Every year the TV, radio and newspapers would interview me as much or more as the other riders put together. I told the crowd when I won there that if I could load them up on an airplane and take them to all the races I would win them all. The people of Peoria were more behind me than my hometown of Portland. When Chuck Joyner won Peoria he embarrassed all of us. He rode a motorcycle that nobody should have won on. He had to borrow Randy Skiver’s back up bike for the race. Randy’s bikes were nice but they were never fast. I was in third place behind Rex Beauchamp and Jay Springsteen when Joyner comes flying over my head off the jump. He hit the ground with both feet flying and I went "Wow!" Chuck went on to win and beat us all real bad. I put on a good ride when I won but Chuck put in an even better ride when he won.

BR: What did your parents think of their son turning to racing when he should have been getting a real job?

SB: My parents were supportive of me racing. My mother didn’t go to many races. She wore glasses and I found out later that she took off her glasses when I rode so she couldn’t see me because it worried her about me crashing. My dad couldn’t make many races because I traveled so much, which was fine by me because he worried me to death. He would always be asking me did you tighten this bolt down or did you check on this or that before a race. My dad got remarried after my mother died to this really neat lady who loves racing. The only thing I tell her is to keep my dad out of the pits because he still worries about me racing. I guess that what dad’s always do. This past year I got back into racing as a tuner for Steve Dorn in the national All Harley Drag Racing Association championships. We won six out of eight races in the ultra competitive Pro Modified class to win the championship by 300 points and set three world records in the process. So far we are the only team in any class to win five straight races in a row. This next year with Hugh Doty building the engines again we are moving up to the 120 CI class with fuel injection. Steve will still be riding but All American Cycle in Portland will be our sponsor.

BR: What was your biggest disappointment?

SB: In 1966 or 1967 Jim Rice was the hot rider on the national circuit. At the Peoria TT that year I just went off and hid from him. I had him beat so bad and it was an easy ride up till the 20th lap when my crankshaft broke. I thought I was going to cry because it would have been my first national win, which is always your biggest win. I was so far ahead that when the crankshaft broke I was able to coast the bike and then push it back to the pits before he came around to pass me. Out of all the racetracks I’ve been on Peoria was my favorite. I felt that when I drove in there and I didn’t win it was that I beat myself, because there was no one who could beat me there.

BR: What was your biggest regret?

SB: That I didn’t handle my race career as a business, rather than a passion. After I retired from racing I shouldn’t have ever had to work again. I didn’t look at it as a business. I looked at it as a pure racer to make enough money to make it to the next event. Gene Romero was no better than I was but he was able to retire because he used his head to get the money that was out there. When I won my first national I got a check in the mail for $1,600 that I didn’t even know I was supposed to get. During my race career I had two different people who wanted to be my business manager telling me how much more money there was out there to get. They told me that they would just take a percentage of the extra money they made for me. It was pretty stupid, but I thought it was egotistical to have a business manager. Romero was able to get on the ABC Superstars competition and of all the racers he wasn’t the one who should have gone, because he was always overweight and out of shape. Gene was very smooth talking, had a business manager and used his head.

BR: Were you successful when you first started racing?

SB: Yeah, I was. I’m not sure why though. I think that I had some natural talent and I always considered myself a smart racer. I figured out early that consistency was better than winning one race and losing ten. I would grit my teeth sometimes and say this is all you can do today. If you go any faster or harder you’re going to get hurt. I watched and learned from everybody racing and picked the techniques I wanted to use. My friends would call me the snoopiest guy in the world because as soon as I was off the bike I would be looking at how somebody built their engine or checking out other racers on the track. I was always looking for new ideas to improve. I never sat still on race day.

BR: You and Chuck Joyner have a rivalry/friendship that’s a little weird?

SB: Chuck and I have always lived close to each other but we never saw each other or hung out together. I have the most respect for him but when we went to the racetrack I never wanted him to beat me. For four or six years we went back east to race and we would run into each other by accident somewhere in the Midwest, and then we would hang out and race each other for the rest of the trip. Then we would come home and never see the other one until we would bump into the other one the following year. Our mutual friends would hear about the races and the parties back east and they would say, "I didn’t think you and Chuck ran around together?" and I would say, "We don’t unless we run into each other back East." It was just weird. I think Chuck is a good racer I just wanted to beat him all the time.

BR: What attributes make a championship racer?

SB: I think that it’s dedication and capitalizing on what your good at. For some reason I have no patience off the track, but when I’m on the track I have all the patience in the world. My whole career I studied other racers to find out what makes them tick. During the race I would first work on you mentally by figuring out what it took to disturb you or change your normal routine. If I was competing against you that night the first thing I wanted you to do was to look at me. If you didn’t I would figure a way for you to look at me like pulling back from the starting line or putting my hand up in the air. There were other tricks like pulling up to the line last or sitting too far behind the start line. I thought that if I can break your concentration for a second I can beat you. If I got you on the start I was hard to beat with an open track in front of me. I couldn’t psych out Skiver on the start because he didn’t pay any attention to me, but I had more horsepower so it didn’t matter. There were certain guys that you tried to psych out and certain guys you got into a position where they couldn’t pass you. Keep your bike in tight and push them to the outside where you knew they didn’t ride well or couldn’t pass. When Chuck Joyner, Charley Brown and myself led an all NW sweep of the Castle Rock TT National I started from the back row in 16th position. The moment I passed someone I knew where, when and how I was going to pass the next rider in front of me. I came up to Lawwill in third place who came off his line to my racing line to block me from passing him. That’s what you do in racing, but it slowed us up both by taking each other’s lines on the track. I finally got by Lawwill by holding on to the throttle a little longer on the straight. Then I made my move on Brown. Joyner was a ½ a lap ahead and I was making up one second a lap on him. At the end I was a bike length behind Joyner. Lawwill apologized to me later for holding him up, but hell I would have done the same thing to him. Mert gave me one of the best compliments when an announcer asked him "Whom would you not want behind you the last five laps of a race?" Lawwill told him that he wouldn’t want Roberts or Dick Mann or "Sonny Burres because he will always try something." That gave me a reputation in some riders minds that in the last five laps you better be watching for Sonny if he’s behind you. Another way of tweaking your competitors mind during the race to your advantage.

BR: Throughout your racing career who was your greatest national rival?

SB: Probably Eddie Mulder and Skip Van Leeuwen. We battled for years on the TT courses in Chicago and Peoria. They were the guys to beat. Everybody labeled me a TT rider but I did better riding the ½ mile races back east than I ever did in the northwest. I remember riding against Mert Lawwill, who was from Boise, Idaho. It was before we both became professionals in a race in Bend, Oregon where I have a picture of Mert and I in a corner where he turned so hard that you could actually look up his exhaust. Mert got a ride with Dudley-Perkins and went down to race in Ascot. He would call me up and tell me, "Sonny you’ve got to come down here because you would really go fast, because these guys aren’t nearly as fast as everybody says." The first time I went down to California I went to watch Mert who just blew away everybody. Mert and I were about equal back then and it really ***** me off that I didn’t bring a bike down to race. Mert was the guy who convinced me to start racing nationally and go back east to race. That first year I won about 80-90% of the ½ mile races I entered back east.

BR: Who was your greatest NW racing rival?

SB: Johnny Farlow was to begin with then it became Glen Adams followed by Emil Ahola and then Randy Skiver.

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Offline Sluggo

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Re: PNW USA Racing legend. (Some BSA content) Sonny Burres
« Reply #1 on: 11.05. 2018 10:39 »
Part 2 as too long-
BR: Who was the best racer you saw or raced against?

SB: Kenny Roberts without a doubt. He was the best all around motorcycle racer I ever saw in my life. Up until Kenny came along Dick Mann was the best overall motorcycle racer around. Nobody likes someone who wins all the time, but with Kenny it was just no big deal. I speak for a lot of racers in saying that Kenny was the worlds best. If you got second behind Roberts in a race your friends wouldn’t say that you lost, they would say you just finished behind the worlds best. In his rookie year Kenny was a dick. He was brought up through the ranks real fast with big time financial support and I think that he read to many of his own press clippings. After that he mellowed out and was always super nice to everyone I saw and me. When I beat him in Peoria that was a big thing to me. Kenny set the fastest qualifying time but I knew that I was going to beat him. I just knew that it was going to be my day. Roberts was just amazing on a short track, ½ mile, and TT, mile or roadrace events.

BR: If you were to start motorcycle racing today, what type of racing would you do?

SB: Flat track racing of course. I just really enjoyed it. The racing I liked the most was a ½ mile race where it took a certain amount of finesse to win. You just couldn’t flick it sideways in the corner and hope for the best. I enjoyed making the tires work on a small groove and using the most out of your engine.

BR: You started racing locally first?

SB: I started racing at Sidewinders, Graham, Boise and I loved the old Castle Rock track. My role model at that time was a guy called Johnny Farlow who we called "Sliding John." He was the smoothest of riders. It’s like in any sport the good guys make it look easy because they find the easy way to do it. I would almost fist fight guys in practice so that I could follow him on the track and learn. The other rider I looked up to was Dick Hammer because he was so aggressive. You could run an inch away from Dick for 20 laps and he would never touch you. I liked being smooth and aggressive on the racetrack and those were things I learned from watching these guys. After a while there was nobody left to learn from up here so that’s when I started heading down south to race. Sliding John would always say, "I hate when you travel because when you get back it’s so hard to run with you and I have to learn all over again." That’s how you get better and faster is learning from other racers.

BR: Did being labeled a Northwest TT specialist *** you off?

SB: Not really. I would just grin and bear it. Chuck Joyner, Randy Skiver and myself the NW TT specialists went to this really fast-banked ½ mile track in Iowa against the premiere ½ mile specialists of the Palmgrens, Corky Keener and Steve Morehead. Skiver and I were riding Harleys while Joyner was riding a Triumph and we all just checked out on everybody. We were all in a pack together with Joyner leading the whole way with Randy and I trying to get by him the whole way. Joyner won with Randy and I following. We just didn’t beat them by a little we were a ½ lap in front of them. For a while after that race the announcers got after the ½ mile specialists for being beaten by the TT riders.

BR: Do you think it hurt your racing career being from the northwest instead of California?

SB: Like guys told me your 1,000 miles away from everything. Los Angeles was the hub of racing back then with Ascot Raceway, San Jose Racetrack and the motorcycle sponsors. Whether it was the ½ mile or mile race down at San Jose there was always a front-page story with pictures in the newspaper. I went down to San Jose and won the ½ mile race. They printed the story in a little tiny section buried in the back of the newspaper that said "Sonny Burres travels down from Oregon to win San Jose ½ mile." You just got no respect if you lived up north. It’s always been that the northwest riders were just lucky to win, or all we can do is win TT races.

BR: How long did you race the National circuit?

SB: I started out in 1966 sponsored by Triumph motorcycles. Eldon Wright from Triumph called me up after I finished 2nd to Dave Palmer at Castle Rock in 1965 and asked me if I wanted to ride the Springfield Mile race. They only allowed 30 CI bikes on the ½ and mile races and all I had was my 40 CI bike. I had never ridden a mile race before and there were only a few 30 CI bikes that were competitive on a mile course. Triumph got me hooked up with Don Dudak who built killer motors for Joe Leonard and Bonneville world record holders and off we went to Springfield in my El Camino. Dudak told me that the top racers would run right up against the wall flat on their gas tanks and I was going "Wow!" We weren’t allowed brakes back then either. I decided after the 1st practice that I would get behind the best mile experts of "Black" Bart Markel and Gary Nixon and learn from the masters. I told Dudak what I was going to do and he almost fell over backward at this rookie he had never met with such big ideas. You can learn more from following a good rider for two laps than you can by riding 200 laps on your own. The final practice I caught up with Nixon and I would pull him out of the corners and he would pass me back going into the corners. Everett Brashear our race manager said that Nixon was coming over and that I wasn’t to talk with him because he was going to try to screw with my head. I just sat in my chair as Nixon walked around carefully looking at the bike. Nixon looked at Dudak and said, "I don’t know how you guys are doing it, but that guy you’ve got riding for you weighs 20 pounds more than I do and he’s yanking me off the corners." Romero qualified 1st and I nabbed the 4th spot for our first national mile race. Dick Hammer came over and told me "You know Sonny that you can’t run into anybody here because you’ll both get hurt." I replied, "I didn’t run into anybody anyway." "Well" he said "You’re just going a little faster than other people think you should go for your first time on a mile. I just want make sure you don’t get yourself in trouble." The first Junior heat race they had three guys get tangled up on the front straight and flip over a ten foot fence and into the bars that killed them. Romero and I were walking down to look at the crash when Brashear stopped us and took us underneath the racetrack into the shower room to sit down with our leathers on. We could hear the motorcycles above us and wondered after a while if they had forgotten about us. Romero said, "How can Brashear forget about us we’re the only two riders he has." Romero took the lead in the main and I accidentally kicked the right footpeg up going into the first corner and couldn’t get it down. I was in 4th place and was not going to go in turn three without a footpeg so I took my hand off the throttle to put the peg back down. When I looked up again Romero just crashed straight into the hay bales while leading the race. I was now in last place and slowly was working my way back up when at the ½ way point Mert Lawwill comes blowing by me in the lead position. On the 49th out of 50 laps I see Lawwill sitting on the side of the track with a blown up bike. I had national number 69 from when I started till I stopped racing professionally in 1978 or 1979. In 1981 at age 46 I raced enough to get the points to reclaim my #69 again. Until Steve Morehead won a national at age 42 I was the oldest rider to win a national at age 39. I don’t live in the past but when I was riding almost anybody in the main could win that given day. Today you just don’t see that depth of talent anymore. When I was racing there were 80 expert riders at any event where today you may not have enough riders to qualify for a heat race.

BR: What is your best road story?

SB: I never did the Gas-n-dash or the Dine-n-dash like Marinacci and others did. I really liked Marinacci even though he was sarcastic some times because he didn’t like me beating him. I always got along with all the racers especially the ones from the northwest. I always told everybody that I was the most fortunate person in the world that got to do what I did for 20 years. The only guy I really had it in for was Skip Van Leeuwen. You probably won’t get this story from anybody else but I always thought Skip was a dirty rider. He would be so subtle in the way that he did it that nobody could tell except for you. I liked him as a person, but on the racetrack I hated him.

BR: What do you think was the premiere era for flat track racing? SB: In the 1970’s there were so many races and so many good riders that you were always guaranteed a great time racing. I’m not putting anybody down saying we were better, but the caliber of rider today wasn’t as good as they were then and there were a lot more of them.

BR: Can you tell us about the girl you dropped off on the side of the road?

SB: Even though someone pisses me off if I make a deal and say you can go on a road trip with me I will keep my mouth shut and bring you back home. There was this one good-looking girl who ***** us all off so bad. She made the trip miserable for everybody. After the race in San Jose I told my friend Jim to take me to the airport and he said "Oh no your not. You are not leaving that girl in the truck with us." So he took her suitcase over to Bill Jackson and he threw her out in Weed, California because he couldn’t put up with her any farther than that. Bill just stopped the car and told her she had to get out.

BR: Northwest roadracer Jimmy Dunn raced one of your bikes??

SB: I helped work on Jimmy Dunn’s racebike down at the Ontario National 250 roadrace. Jimmy rode a good race and finished a close second to Kenny Roberts who owned the class at the time. In the victory circle Roberts looked over at me and said, "I should have figured that would have been one of your bikes." I said, "I didn’t do anything to make this bike fast, it was all Jimmy." David Aldana had been riding the Yamaha TZ 750 I was tuning before Suzuki hired him to ride for their team. When he left the owner wanted this Ascot flat track racer named Dave Smith to ride it. We took them both out on a test and Jimmy just ran away from this Dave guy by a mile. Jimmy didn’t qualify well because he was riding this much larger bike than his 250 and didn’t trust the brakes. The Ontario race was split into two 100-mile heats because back then the tires would not last any longer than that. You could see Jimmy being real tentative in the corners compared to how he rode his 250. I went and got Aldana who had already crashed out of the race to talk to Jimmy about trusting the brakes. There was hardly anybody who was harder on brakes than Aldana and Jimmy would trust him because he had ridden the same bike before. Aldana told him that you could dive into the corner as deep as you want every lap with the brakes full on and they will not fade on you. I don’t know if it was Aldana’s advice or Jimmy getting used to his first big bike ride but he finished 6ththat day.

BR: Any good stories about Marinacci or Dick Wascher?

SB: Marinacci and Washer were sitting on top of a van at the San Jose mile after I qualified fourth and when I came in they said "Really good!" I said, "I know I turned that good of a time. I have this little time clock in my head and I can tell how fast I’m going around the racetrack." They looked at each other and thought about it for 30 seconds and everybody was watching them. Then they both said to me "You lying son of a bitch."

BR: Hey, whatever?

SB: I remember the last year that I won Boise and when I won at Denver I didn’t have enough money to get home if I didn’t win some money. I think that you forget about your lack of money when the green flag drops but it is certainly on your mind. I don’t think that there is any flat tracker out there who hasn’t gone to a race and not known how they would afford to get home or even pay for a phone call. I slept in my van a few times, but I was successful enough to sleep in a motel and have a good meal. It was a mental thing also because good racers got to be in a motel and I was a good racer. Sometimes when you were on the fair circuit you would roll into town and all the accommodations were taken by the fair goers so you had to camp in your van.

BR: Best Party?

SB: We had a big party after I won the Castle Rock TT national there in 1971. Also when I won the Peoria TT national in 1975. We had the Peoria party at my friends the Underwood’s and I had my motorhome parked there. I don’t ever drink but on that night I did and I was so bad that I was leaning against my motorhome and trying to figure out how to get to my side door. There must have been 200 people there with wheelbarrows of beer being rolled in. Castle Rock was always a party whether you won or not especially if it was the old two-day event. The parking lot there was as big an event as the race with all the barbecues and partying.

BR: Most memorable race?

SB: The best race of my career was when I finished second behind Joyner at the 1975 Castle Rock national. I thought it out well and I rode where I wanted to go. I though I did a really good job. Even though I won Peoria three weeks later I think I rode a better race at Castle Rock.

BR: Who do you think was the most talented Northwest racer?

SB: People would tell me that I was the best dirt track racer ever to come out of the northwest and I would tell them, "No. No. Randy Skiver was the best racer." Randy was a big guy physically and never had enough horsepower. He was a hell of a rider. They had this beautiful ½ mile track in Spokane called Holiday Hills that was 93 feet wide so you didn’t care if your throttle stuck because you could pitch it sideways. I had one race there where I blew the start and had to come up through the pack from dead last. Eddy Herman was leading with Pat Marinacci following and Randy Skiver trailing about a ½ straightaway behind. I remember catching Randy and passing him on the outside of turn three. I thought if I could pass Skiver then Hell I can pass anybody. I went on to pass Herman for the win. I had the most respect for Skiver. Between the extra horsepower I had and the 30 pounds less weight I carried I could always out muscle him when it came to pure horsepower. I told everybody if he ever figures out how to get horsepower were all in big trouble because he will beat us.

BR: In one word what would you say about your racing career?

SB: Awesome!
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