In 2000, Skip Van Leeuwen, Tom Cates and Jim Feuling came up with the idea of honoring motorcycle racing legend Dick Hammer at the Del Mar Show. Hammer, who at the time was still winning a ten-year battle with cancer, had throughout his life demonstrated a rare level of “Drive, Determination and Desire“ in everything he pursued, from racing motorcycles to his fight with cancer.
A special perpetual trophy was created and Dick Hammer was the first recipient. He was surprised with the presentation of the trophy and well pleased to have an ongoing award carrying his name as a part of the popular Del Mar motorcycle event. Motorcycle racing ended at Del Mar in 2002 however, so the idea was presented to the Trailblazers to make it a part of our annual banquet. Hammer passed away on January 16, 2003.
Through the years, the Dick Hammer Award has not only been a part of the Trailblazers annual banquet, it is the club’s highest award. The Trailblazers Board of Directors unanimously agreed that their lifelong friendship and mutually legendary racing careers made both Eddie Lawson and Wayne Rainey deserving this year to join an illustrious group of motorcycling legends who have received the Dick Hammer Award.
Previous winners of the Dick Hammer Award:
2000 Dick Hammer
2001 Gene Romero
2002 Joe Leonard
2003 Everett Brashear
2004 Tom Cates
2005 Dick Mann
2006 Bud Ekins
2007 Skip Van Leeuwen
2008 Dennis Mahan
2009 Malcolm Smith
2010 Dan Gurney
2011 Ralph White
2012 Sammy Tanner
2013 Ed Kretz, Jr.
2014 Kenny Roberts
2015 CH Wheat
2016 Keith Mashburn
2017 Dave Ekins
2018 Tom White
2019 Eddie Lawson / Wayne Rainey
By Don Emde
Photo by Walt Mahony
The following story originally ran in the June 4, 2002 issue of Cycle News.
Dick Hammer had his share of ups and downs on the racetrack, but now he’s riding a win streak in the race of his life.
What do you know about Dick Hammer? Ask anyone who has known him for very long and the descriptions are all pretty similar. They’ll tell you about a guy who takes everything he gets into very seriously and never gives up. You say you’ve already heard stories of guys who never give up? Well, read on, because Dick Hammer is a very different breed of cat.
He was born in Los Angeles in 1939 and grew up in Bellflower, a community on the southwest side of town. By the mid-1950s, Dick and his best buddy Skip Van Leeuwen were leading pretty typical lives for teenage boys growing up in Southern California. They played sports and chased girls. Then they got the idea to buy motorcycles. Van Leeuwen remembers his early relationship with Hammer quite well.
“Dick started riding on a three-speed Mustang, and then I went out and bought a Triumph Tiger 110, so then Hammer bought himself a ’53 Triumph Thunderbird,” Van Leeuwen recounted. “We used to go and drag race those things all over town. The cops would chase us and run us all over the place, but our bikes were so much faster than the cop’s ’56 Fords, we’d get away easy.”
Gardena Speedway (later renamed Ascot Park) was running half-mile races on Friday nights at the time. Hammer and Van Leeuwen heard about that and started riding their bikes over there to watch the races. “We’d get all jazzed up,” Van Leeuwen said, “and race all the way back to Bellflower and do the same thing over again on the track around the football field at the high school.”
Hammer himself recalls how he and Van Leeuwen got interested in racing. “One year, we went over to Catalina Island to watch the races, and Don Hawley won the 200cc class on a Triumph Cub,” Hammer said. “So we decided, ‘Okay, that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to get Cubs and we’re going to earn enough points to qualify to ride Catalina the next year.’ But that was 1958, the last year they had the Catalina Grand Prix.”
Van Leeuwen added: “The reason Hammer and I started racing was so we could ride Catalina, period. Once we rode Catalina we were going to quit. It never even entered our minds at the time to ride any pro stuff.”
By 1959, both men had gotten into scrambles racing and earned the 150 points they would have needed, but there was no longer a Catalina race. One thing led to another from there, and the next thing they knew Hammer and Van Leeuwen were back at Ascot Park. But instead of sitting in the grandstands, they were now the ones on the race bikes.
While Van Leeuwen would make his mark at TT events, Hammer liked to do it all. He was fast and was soon winning on Half-Miles and TTs. In 1961, Dick’s first year as a Pro Expert, he was ranked fifth in the nation in TT and road race events. The following season, he hit the National circuit and won the Peoria TT National on a Harley-Davidson. He finished seventh in the 1962 National point standings.
Hammer’s early success quickly got the attention of Harley-Davidson race boss Dick O’Brien, who made arrangements with some West Coast tuners to make sure Hammer had the best Harley-Davidson equipment and support. Hammer didn’t disappoint O’Brien. He always gave his all.
For example, after winning the 250cc Lightweight Grand Prix event for Harley-Davidson on the Saturday of the 1963 Daytona road races, Hammer was confident about his chances to win the 200-mile race the following day. While lady luck had different ideas about the outcome, the day was “classic Dick Hammer” in terms of the effort he gave.
With 30 seconds to go before the start, Hammer’s Harley KR fouled a spark plug. As the field sped by, he was along the pit wall changing the plug himself. He finally got into the race about a minute behind. With over 100 riders in front of him, Hammer began picking his way up through the pack, and eventually made it into the lead with just 50 miles to go.
“I was just saying to myself: “Holy mackerel, I’m going to win both races!” Hammer said. “And then it blew up.” Hammer’s good friend Ralph White went on to win the race on a nearly identical Harley-Davidson KR. Even with the DNF at Daytona, Hammer finished fifth in the 1963 National points.
The 1964 season started out the same way as the year before. Hammer repeated his win in the 250cc Lightweight Grand Prix event at Daytona, the led the 200-miler for a time before blowing an engine again. At Meadowdale, Illinois, 150-mile National road race later that season, he really put on a good show, leading eventual winner Dick Mann by over 25 seconds…until his shift lever fell off.
Two weeks later, Hammer suffered injuries at the Peoria TT that would have put many riders in retirement. He crashed heavily going over the jump in practice was knocked unconscious. A mechanic had improperly assembled the front forks on his race bike, and the first time Dick went over the jump the front wheel came off and he went head-first into the ground. He lay semi-conscious in an Illinois hospital for 27 days. Van Leeuwen remembers the incident well.
“He’s the toughest son of a bitch I’ve even seen,” Van Leeuwen said of Hammer. “A lot of people thought he’d never ride again, but after being out cold for a month he got out of the hospital and, the very next Saturday, there he is signing up at Ascot. His eyes were still all bloodshot, but he rode that night.”
Perhaps the best demonstration of Hammer’s grit and determination was shown in the 1967 Daytona 200. Hammer matched eventual winner Gary Nixon stride-for-stride for the first 100 miles of the race. The two battled on their identical Triumph 500s until the mid-race pit stop. In the pits, a mechanic handed Dick a rag to wipe some spilled gas from his face shield. To save time, Dick sat on the rag, figuring he would clean the shield after he got back on the track. Before he could do so, however, the rag was sucked into one of the bike’s Amal carburetor throats.
Hammer couldn’t get the rag all the way out of the carb, and with the reduced horsepower he now had to ride harder to catch Nixon. A few laps later, the hard charging Hammer got into turn one too fast and fell at over 100 miles per hour. The crash broke Hammer’s collarbone. While most riders would have waited for medical help to arrive, Hammer got up quickly and bump started his race bike. He then proceeded to ride the nearly 100 miles to the finish and ended up seventh. Then he got the medical attention for his broken collarbone.
Hammer quietly scaled back his racing activities in the late-1960s, but he had already made his mark on the sport by then. To this day, his name is synonymous with the number 16 and the famous “Never Say Die” photo of him sideways at Ascot.
With racing behind him, Hammer got into the construction business and eventually became a successful General Contractor in San Clemente, California. Business was good and Dick enjoyed life along the coast. In the years to come, however, he would again need to call upon his uncanny determination to see himself through some great challenges…this time to his health.
In 1998, a friend of Dick’s who was a nurse noticed a lump on his neck. She said it looked serious to her and that he should get it checked. He did, and it turned out to be a cancerous tumor.
Hammer was a smoker in his younger days and admits that when he first got the news that he had cancer he thought his days were numbered. “I thought I was going to die, so I figured I would sell my business and learn to play golf,” Hammer said. “I just played golf every day and that saved my life. I’d walk 18 holes every day, and I would read about what I could do about my health. That’s all I did.”
His doctors prescribed a treatment of surgery to remove the tumor and follow-up radiation. Hammer was told that if he could go five years cancer free, he was in the clear. He enjoyed six years of cancer-free living, but then it came back. This time, the cancer was near the trachea and lungs. The only option doctors could offer was a high-risk surgery that had only a one-in-five rate of success. Rather than accept the probable failure, Hammer gave his doctors the go-ahead. He survived the surgery and committed himself to a rigorous radiation treatment necessary to finish the job. This led to another six years of cancer-free living, just enough to begin to believe that it was gone for good.
He thought it was until he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2000. Now was he ready to call it quits? Heck no. Hammer bought a trailer and set it up in the parking lot of Loma Linda Hospital so he could be close by for what turned out to be a successful 38-day treatment program.
Hammer had not been out of the hospital for long when a dermatologist noticed something on the top of head. It was initially diagnosed as a non-malignant blemish, so Dick didn’t worry about it that much, But he later got a second opinion and it turned out it was skin cancer, He was treated for the skin cancer, but in the months to follow, a tumor developed behind his right ear. It was determined that the tumor was an effect of the earlier skin cancer that had spread down the right side of his head.
Hammer knew the drill for the treatments, but he soon became concerned that the doctors did not have a successful cure in progress. Hammer had read extensively about cancer and was as knowledgeable as many doctors on the subject. So he contacted a doctor in Texas who was experimenting with holistic medicine. This doctor brought him in and prescribed a regimen of 60 pills a day that Dick would take for three months. Dick says the brain tumors did, in fact, shrink significantly, but they were not going away completely, so he went to a surgeon in California who did surgery and radiation, and the problems behind the ear were cleared up.
It’s hard to imagine how much pain and trauma Hammer has gone through these past 14 years. He admits the days following a radiation or chemotherapy session are really tough to endure. But once he gets feeling better, he gets out on the golf course as soon as he can and he feels like a new man again. He says most doctors have given up on him, but he is working with the City of Hope now to battle his most recent flare-up. He is pretty matter-of-fact about getting into a treatment program with his current team of doctors.
“The last tumor that showed up is under my armpit. They cut the tumor up, made a culture to test it and came up with a chemotherapy that is just right for that type of cancer,” he said. Just another day in the life of Dick Hammer.
He has been playing golf and fighting cancer exclusively since 1988. Just as he did in his motorcycle racing days, he is determined to keep meeting the challenges that come at him, always looking ahead and working on a solution.
Give up? Dick Hammer wouldn’t know how.
Editor’s note: Dick Hammer passed away January 16, 2003