Dick Hammer, a nationally ranked motorcycle racer in the 1960s, has died. He was 63. Hammer, who later became a general contractor in Orange County, died Thursday at his home in San Clemente after a 15-year battle with cancer.
The Los Angeles native attended Bellflower High School, where a friendship with Skip Van Leeuwen led to both of them riding in amateur races at Ascot Park before becoming professional champions. In Hammer's second year as a pro, he earned expert status and was ranked fifth nationally in Tourist Trophy and road race events.
The next season he won the Peoria Tourist Trophy National event on a Harley-Davidson. In 1963 and 1964, he won the 250cc Lightweight Grand Prix races at Daytona International Speedway.
Both years, Hammer also rode the following day in the Daytona 200, America's most prestigious road race.
In 1963, a mechanical malfunction caused him to start last, but he picked his way through more than 100 riders to take the lead with 50 laps remaining.
"I was just saying to myself, 'Holy mackerel, I'm going to win both races.' And then I blew up," he told Don Emde, chairman of the board of directors for the Motorcycle Hall of Fame, of which Hammer was a member.
In 1964, Hammer thought he was going to win both again, but late in the 200 his engine died again.
Two weeks later, he suffered injuries while practicing for the Peoria Tourist Trophy that left him semiconscious in a hospital for 27 days. The front wheel had been installed improperly, and when Hammer went over his first jump, the wheel fell off and he hit the ground head-first.
"He's the toughest [guy] I ever saw," Van Leeuwen said of his friend. "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 was signing up [for a race] at Ascot.
"His eyes were still bloodshot, but he rode that night," Van Leeuwen said.
In the late 1960s, Hammer scaled back his riding and started a construction business in San Clemente. Among the buildings his company put up was the San Clemente Presbyterian Church, where memorial services will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday.
Survivors include his wife, Charlene; sister Marian Vanderham; sons Mike, Mark and Richard II; daughter Michelle; stepchildren Don, Julie and Karen; and 13 grandchildren.