Phil Luciano: 50 years later, racer still cherishes Daytona win

Phil Luciano

Bill Scott told the naysayers to buzz off, one after another, all the while gunning the throttle of his racing motorcycle.

A coach said the slight young man would never be an athlete. Doctors said his brutally mangled shoulder might forever keep him on the sidelines. Opponents' stature and resources made him look puny and doomed.

Yet Scott was too young and brash to give a rip. All the 20-year-old had on his side was spunk and courage, along with a small handful of helpers equally unimpressed with others' opinions.

So the Kewanee native fired up his hand-customized Harley-Davidson racing bike, blew away his factory-sponsored competitors from around the world and somehow won the 1959 Daytona 100. A half-century later, the quiet, humble Scott does not know how he pulled it off, a feat so improbable as to spark racing headlines nationwide.

Yet shortly after his big win, Scott walked away from competitive racing. He had more important things - the military, his family, his job - to focus on. But this week, 50 years after his most glorious motorcycle moment, he will revisit Daytona for the first time in decades, to soak in the sounds, speed and memories of Bike Week.

"I'll be thinking that it's incredible I could win this, because we were just kids," says Scott, 70. "We didn't beat 'em - we stomped 'em."

All because doubters said he couldn't.

A motorcycle town

Kewanee has long been a motorcycle town. Its most famous son is likely the late Roger Reiman, a member of the American Motorcyclist Association Hall of Fame and three-time winner of the Daytona 200. His name remains alive on the Harley-Davidson dealership that still bears his name. There, way in the back, you can find a small museum dedicated to Kewanee's dirt- and street-bike heroes. One actually grew up on the site: Bill Scott's boyhood home, leveled long ago, stood at the spot now home to the business' repair shop.

As Scott tells it, he became a gearhead out of youthful sluggishness - yet an outsider might call him enterprising. As a young teen, Scott delivered four newspapers around town. The heavy workload meant he could not walk the routes and get done in time. He needed wheels.

"I was too damn lazy to ride a bicycle," he says with a laugh.

So he got a small motorbike, a 165cc Harley. When not puttering around town, he'd tinker with the bike, at first just to keep it humming but in the process learning how to boost performance.

Still, his main passion was athletics. Though just 5 feet 4 inches tall and 120 pounds, the 14-year-old Scott always had enjoyed competition. Wrestling was out, as Kewanee had no team. Football and basketball seemed impossible, given his under-size stature.

So he decided to go out for track. He could run pretty fast, better than many on the squad.

But a coach would have none of it. The coach viewed track as merely an off-season conditioning program for more popular spots. And he didn't want to bother with a little interloper like Bill Scott. He refused to let Scott on the team.

"You'll never be an athlete," the coach told him.

Fuming, Scott stomped off and buzzed from the school on his Harley. He zoomed over to the school's track, kicking up cinders under his spinning tires. The petulant protest cost him hours of detention, but Scott didn't care. The coach unwittingly had lit a fire inside Scott. I'll show him, the teen told himself.

Scott threw himself into motorcyling. Working part time as a mechanic, he poured every extra dime into his hobby. He began racing that bike and others in and around Kewanee.

After graduation, he assembled a ragtag racing team: brother Gene Scott, 21; cousin Bob Fisk, 18; and pal John Good, 17. They all worked a wrench well, and all saw an emerging raw talent in Bill Scott.

In 1958, a year out of school, Scott began competitive racing. As always, he opted for a Harley: a modified 1958 750 KR. On select weekends, he and his trio would chain the bike to a two-wheel trailer, tie it to the hitch of a junker car and rumble cross-country to racing rallies.

"Everything we had was in that 1950 Oldsmobile," Scott says with a chuckle.

The need for speed

He enjoyed success that first year, including a pair of first places in New Hampshire and Maryland. But a September rally in Fort Worth, Texas, nearly killed him. During a road race, a wreck tripped his bike and sent it reeling, with Scott sliding more than 400 feet across asphalt.

As ambulance attendants pulled him away, one muttered, "He looks like a corpse."

His vast injuries included numerous broken bones and contusions. Worst of all, his devastated right shoulder needed repeated surgeries in an attempt to make it work right again. Doctors cautioned him not to think about racing again.

Scott didn't listen. "I was determined I wouldn't be a cripple," he says.

Less than six months later, the ragged shoulder moved decently enough to allow him to jump back atop a bike. He and his trio decided to shoot for the big time - the Daytona 100.

"I wasn't racing for glory or anything like that," Scott says. "I raced because I enjoyed it."

Back then, like its more famous cousin, the Daytona 200, the Daytona 100 was known as a beach race. The Daytona 100 was run part on sand, part on asphalt.

Scott recalls the sand as particularly challenging. Very dry and very wet sand are both bad: Tires sink and slow down the run. The trick is to stay in the middle.

"You might have a 15-foot ribbon where it's just right," Scott says.

The pavement can also get precarious, where it meets the turf. Spinning tires kick sand onto the road, turning the path treacherous.

"It's like ice, because sand is like ice on blacktop," Scott says.

But the most daunting factor was the competition. Motorcycle factories from all corners of the globe sent teams equipped with the best machines, equipment and technicians.

"We ran against teams from all over the word," Scott says. "We were intimidated."

The Japanese teams, especially Yamaha, loomed imposing.

"They had a hand-held radar," Scott says with a grin. "That was cutting-edge technology."

Still, the handsome, slender Scott clambered atop his bike and hit the throttle along with 59 others in front of 4,000 screaming fans. He averaged 93.27 mph for his 25 laps around the 4.1-mile course. He eventually pushed in front, taking the checked flag and a $600 purse.

"That was good money, back when $80 a week was a week's pay," Scott says.

Though thrilled to win, he did not feel the weight of his accomplishment until many years later.

"It was exciting, but I never comprehended the scope of it, until the image of Daytona became what it is today," Scott says. "Dale Earnhardt Sr. said, 'If you've ever won at Daytona, it doesn't matter what else is on your resume. It doesn't matter if it's a go-kart or stock car or whatever. It's Daytona that counts.' "

Leaving racing behind

Yet for Scott, there would be no more Daytona, and few other competitive races. The next year, the Army drafted him, and he trained for what seemed like an imminent invasion of Cuba. Though that never happened, he spent two years in the service before heading home. There, he married his sweetheart, Ruth Anne. He took a job at the Caterpillar Tractor Co. but got transferred to Joliet, where the couple raised three kids.

Caterpillar couldn't give him enough time off to race or work on his bikes, so Scott - also busy with child-rearing - abandoned racing. Still, over time he crept back into the motorcycle world, opening Scotty's Harley-Davidson in Joliet. During that stint, he served on a team of dealers who helped Harley design and develop racing prototypes.

Years back, he sold the business and retired from Caterpillar, and the couple moved back to Kewanee three years ago. Here, though Scott sometimes tinkers with old racing motorcycles, he owns no street bike. Instead, he focuses on a vehicle of another type, one with four wheels: Model Ts. Though it's a business of sorts, he works on the antiques only as much he feels like it.

"It's more of a hobby," he says.

He helps run a Labor Day rally of Model Ts here and sometimes takes his own Model T to other rallies. But often he's not so much interested in cars as he is souls.

Scott, an adult Sunday School teacher at First Presbyterian Church in Kewanee, has written a short tract, "God & Me & My Model T." It compares old autos and car repair to the work of the Lord in reshaping people's lives. He keeps copies of the tract in the back seat of his Model T. When onlookers ask about it, he reaches in, whips it out and starts a low-key preaching.

This week, though, Scott is all about bikes. He, his wife and friends are visiting Daytona's famous Bike Week. Though the Daytona 100 and its track are no more, they'll visit the area and think back 50 years.

But to Scott, the biggest memory springs not from the bike track, but from his old high school track. He recalls the words of the coach who told him he'd never be an athlete. After winning the Daytona 100, Scott visited the coach and showed him the trophy.

"You said I'd never be an athlete?" Scott barked. "There are world-class athletes who would give their right arm for this."

The coach looked over Scott and the trophy. "Congratulations," the coach said.

With that, Scott felt peace. He had shown the coach and all the rest that a small kid from a small town can beat the world, if you have enough heart.

Phil Luciano can be reached or (309) 686-3155.