Cody's the name and Speedways the game – by Howie Zechner
They called him "Wild Bill" and he was one of the best to race the 2nd generation American resurgence of those wild 500cc, alcohol powered, brakeless beasts we call Speedway Motorcycles.
A California local Bill Cody was born in Orange County and grew up in Laguna Beach. A good student he attended Orange Coast College after graduating from Laguna Beach High School in 1965. "I wanted to become a teacher," Bill told me. I could have done it but Speedway racing paid really well. Over a thousand dollars a night at Costa Mesa.
So how did this polite, well-educated young man from middle class parents turn into "Wild Bill Cody?"
A product of a good childhood Bill's biggest teenage challenge was not being allowed to own a motorcycle. Mom and dad were dead set against it. So he did what many of us did. He bought a bike and kept it at a friend's house.
A 250cc Honda Scrambler and no drivers license Cody converted the bike into a Flat tracker. He took it out to his local track and felt the thrill that would become a lifetime obsession. From there on young Bill rode scrambles every weekend. El Toro became his home track. If not there it was Trojan or Prado, or Elsinore or Perris.
"I got good" Bill is proud to boast. Of course racing against other youngsters like the late Rick Woods have a way of sharpening up that learning curve. Racing, and winning the die was cast. Cody would pursue becoming a professional motorcycle racer.
Racing both the 250 and 650cc class Cody loved large tracks and going fast. The bigger the better he tried his hand Road Racing at Carlsbad and Orange County Raceway. But dirt was the thrill that made the grin. In 1967 Cody turned pro and raced the weekly half-mile and monthly TT races at Ascot Park in Gardena California.
"I sold Cody his first set of one piece leathers" fellow competitor Sonny Nutter told me. "We shared the same sponsor and sometimes the same bike. I an expert and Bill a novice meant I would get his machine to race in the 250cc short track program. He learned quickly. Cody was a dam good Ascot rider."
The following year Bill stepped up to a 750cc Harley Davidson and competed on the National Circuit. A 2nd place finish at the Houston Astrodome short track National, a 3rd on the Portland and Santa Rosa mile along with a 4th at the Sacramento mile earned Bill a National top 10 Class C amateur spot.
The off-season brought changes. Cody was introduced to Class A Speedway and liked it. The following 1968 season he gave up the National Circuit so he could split his time racing expert class C on the Ascot 1/2 mile and Speedway at the new Whiteman Stadium in Pacoima CA. Racing two totally different motorcycle styles and circuits and working full time as a motorcycle mechanic at years end Cody made the decision to give up Class C and only race Class A Speedway.
Speedway was hot and the 1969 season saw 5000+ fans every Friday night at the new Costa Mesa venue. The sport was growing at a rapid pace. More tracks, more prize money. In 1971 Cody quit his mechanics job and racing the five weekly tracks became his only source of income.
Those were the golden years for speedway in the Golden State. Tuesday in Ventura, Wednesday it was Bakersfield then Irwindale on Thursday, Costa Mesa on Friday and Indio on Saturday.
Costa Mesa announcer Larry 'Supermouth" Huffman gave Cody his nickname. "I just said it one night and the sellout crowd of over ten thousand spectators went wild" Larry relayed. "Even though Bill's one of the nicest down to earth people you would ever meet the name stuck and he has been "Wild Bill Cody" ever since."
The riders shared a percentage of the spectator gate so money flowed. "I remember the Reno promoter would give me a $250. guarantee and fly me to the track. I usually won or placed high so in one night you could easily earn enough to buy a new motorcycle."
Speedway was everywhere in the early 70s. The Houston Astrodome in Texas, Daytona Beach, Florida and Sacramento, California plus over 100 race meetings per season at five or six different local tracks. A member of every USA vs. The World team that raced against an International field led by World Champions Ivan Mauger and Barry Briggs, Bill Cody to this day jokes "Most people think of me as a Speedway racer but flat track is really where I started. I loved racing those mile tracks."
"I'll never forget that 1972 World Tour to Australia and New Zealand" Mike Konle told me. "I was there with Bill Cody, Mike and Steve Bast, Dewayne Keeter and Sonny Nutter. We were the first ever American Test Team and Cody was heat leader. Now Bill's a clean rider but things happen and in Christchurch he ran me into the crashwall. I had a concussion so they had to keep me awake for a couple of days. Bill stayed with me the entire time. We are close friends to this day."
That year on tour in Australia and New Zealand Cody was the high point scorer overall and beat out Ole Olsen on his home track in Liverpool, a suburb of Sydney. "I could have stayed in Australia and raced the big tracks but the promoters offered me less money than I was making at Costa Mesa. So I came back to America but to this day I regret not staying there with Scott Autry and Greg Haserot."
"I went around the world with Bill Cody stated seven time National Speedway Champion Mike Bast. Bill and I were very competitive but we never got along. It was ugly, even our wife's did not like each other. It took years after both of us stopped racing before we all became friends. Dee Anna and I were very honored with Bill's invitation to sit at his table for Cody's induction into the Trailblazers Hall of Fame. He is a much better friend than rival."
In his best years Cody won 30% of all his races. Bill was high point Champion and top money earner in 1970-71 and was in the top five every year till 1975.
"He was a clean rider who would never crash you on purpose. I highly respect Cody's race and work ethics" "Lightning" Larry Shaw chimed in.
A winner of the first Costa Mesa Fair Derby and undefeated for a entire season in the "King of the Hill" match races, during his racing career "Wild Bill Cody" earned a start position in every United States Speedway National. Time, age, and a promoters strike all took their toll and in 1978 Bill retired from competition and opened Cody Racing products.
"Cody knows these race bikes as well as any living person so opening a business that would cater exclusively to Speedway motorcycles was a smart move" "The voice of Speedway" Bruce Flanders told me. "Proper setup and making them go fast helped Bill win races for all those years. Plus he had a large following of fellow competitors and students from his Speedway schools that he maintained and built bikes for."
"Cody sponsored me with a bike for years stated fellow racer "Big" Mike Konle. His machines were always fast and very desirable on the racing circuit."
Specialized parts, engine rebuilding, bike setup and accessories, Bill was soon selling complete Speedway bikes. They had all the trick parts and were fast. Demand for the machines was high and business was good so in 1980 Bill bought out the U.S. distributor for Jawa. Fair prices, keeping your word and teaching the new bees has led to a business that flourishes to this day. An authorized Jawa dealer Cody Racing Products is world known and respected.
When asked what secret made this man so successful Bill is quick to credit his wife Fran. "My life's partner, Fran has been with me every step of the way. Fact be told, I would not be the person I am without the love and devotion we have for each other."
Like me you're getting a little long in the tooth. Is retirement in the future or do you plan to die behind the desk I mentioned. Bill gave me that classic Cody look as he debated the answer. "I do enjoy going out on my 30' sport fisher and getting away from the phone but come on. I love what I do. I love meeting people. I love Speedway."
So drop in and say hello to a living legend: Cody Racing Products is located at 13821 West Street in Garden Grove, California
email@example.com (all photos provided by Bill Cody)