He excelled in an era when everybody drove a van to the races with their bike inside and lived for the moment. No 401k’s, no insurance, no PR people and no worries. Gene Romero, the 1970 American Motorcycle Association champion who died on Sunday at the age of 72 after an illness, exemplified the free spirits that made up the AMA’s flat trackers in the ’60s and ’70s.
“We had a lot of fun running together,” said Chuck Palmgren, a flat track front runner whose career spanned 15 years and was one of Romero’s best friends. “Gene was good at a lot of places, TTs and road courses and he understood the Miles pretty well. Those were the best of times, because gas was 25 cents a gallon and hotel rooms were $20, and you could make a little money and have fun doing it.
“I talked to him a week ago when he was in the hospital and I knew he was done. Our conversations usually lasted two or three hours, with him doing most of the talking, but he was out of breath and coughing and it was a quick conversation, so I just said goodbye.”
Nicknamed “Burrito” by frame designer Ray Hensley, the Mexican-American rider began riding professionally in 1967 and captured the AMA title three years later. He was well versed on dirt and pavement, capturing 12 AMA nationals and also the Daytona 200 in 1975. He retired in 1981 and was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998.
After his motorcycle career, he tried Super Vees and USAC midgets but never quite got comfortable with four wheels.
But he was just as comfortable laying down his motorcycle at 130mph into a turn at the Indiana State Fairgrounds’ mile dirt track as he was holding court with the boys, and just as entertaining doing both. He made lots of friends in IndyCar racing like Jimmy Caruthers and Johnny Parsons, and his outgoing personality made him one of the first bikers to ever land sponsorships.
“We were all hoping he’d just fouled a plug and he would bounce back,” said Palmgren, who has worked at Dan Gurney’s All-American Racers the past four decades. “But he lived a helluva life, and nobody had any more fun.”