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Catching Up with GNCC Legend Tommy Norton

Those of us that have been around for a while undoubtedly have a Tommy Norton memory. Mine is a fairly recent one; it was from the 2013 Somers Fun Turkey Run. My friend Dan and I took a break along a brutal “A only” section to make adjustments to our bikes after getting kicked around for several miles. I’ve ridden the local enduro that runs through the same area but had never ridden this trail before. It was gnarly – large, planted rocks, thick roots, and elevation changes. It was likely too technical for a typical enduro so it’s no wonder I had never ridden it. So there we are (bottom dwelling AA riders at the time), wondering how long this trail goes on for, when some guy with a dual sport kit mounted to his Husaberg 350 comes blowing by us, making us look and feel like a couple of squids. He barely notices us before jumping down a rocky slope and rocketing away, the Husaberg howling as it bounces up a hill and out of sight. Dan and I looked at one another, wondering if we should chase him down. We didn’t. He was gone.
Several miles later, we were at the gas stop when he comes rolling by and takes off his helmet. And then it all makes sense – it was Tommy Norton, winner of the 1990 Blackwater 100 (as a privateer and on 125cc!) and the most successful small bore rider in GNCC history that just blew by us. We felt better.
As a result of Tommy’s extensive riding and testing background, he has developed a good feel for bikes and has been helping us with our bike evaluations. We had a chance to chat with him recently about his career.
When did you begin riding? You seemed like a late entrant to the NETRA off road scene.
I started riding trials when I was 11. I rode trials from about 1974 – 1976, but we didn’t go very far with it. We would go down to Exeter, Rhode Island, and Connecticut to do events down there. My dad wouldn’t let us ride enduros back then, so I didn’t even begin riding Jr. enduros until 1977. My brother worked at Boston Cycles while going to school and he had his license, so eventually we started going to the Hare Scrambles at Fort Devens. Then PSTR (Pilgrim Sands Trail Riders) and the King Phillip Trail Riders began putting on Hare Scrambles. So we started riding some of the early Hare Scrambles and Junior enduros. I have a plaque hanging on the wall from 1978 when I finished 4th overall for the NETRA Junior enduro series. I won the PSTR Jr. enduro on a Hercules in 1978.
Eventually I got my license but couldn’t afford to race. I also bought a house early on, so racing was put on hold for a while. Around 1985 or so I started racing three wheelers. In 1986 I bought Pete Leonard’s (former NETRA enduro and hare scramble champion) Can-Am 250. I had no idea I was buying his bike. I saw an ad for a Can-Am in Foxboro (MA) so I went and bought it. I began that year in the C class and pointed up to the A class. My Next bike was an ‘88 KTM 350, but I broke my leg twice on that so I moved to a Honda CR 125. That’s when things started to click for me.
When did you first figure out that you had the speed to be exceptionally good?
It was at the King Phillip Enduro in 1986 or 87. I was working the event and I asked the Ron Ryan, the Trail Boss, if I could chase the fast guys. He said it was fine as long as I didn’t get in the way or do anything stupid. I dropped in behind the point’s leader that year and never went so fast in my life. I was riding the Can-Am then and was like “wow, that guy is fast”. I hung on to him for a while but crashed and broke my clutch mount. After that things kind of evolved; I got the KTM and began riding with Jerry Bernado, Lee Helliwell and Wes Clark, all fast guys back then. That’s when I found some real speed. Eventually I beat Bert Guerrette at a Hare Scramble – I think it was the Stateline. I was possessed that day – I was not going to lose. Afterwards he was like “who heck was that”? I rode with Kevin Hines as well and that really helped.
You made history by winning the Blackwater 100 in 1990 as a privateer on 125, did you have any inkling as to how that day would end?
I was placing well in the NETRA series but I wasn’t beating guys like Scott Phelps or Lee Helliwell yet. The year before the 1990 win I finished 11th from the 185th spot. I didn’t even know what was going on. I was riding behind Fred Hoess through the town. They had strict rules about going easy through the town so I didn’t pass him. If I did, I would have finished in the top 10. The following year I started up front and ended up winning it. Davey Coombs used to joke that I made history by coming out of nowhere and winning one of the biggest races in the country, only to disappear for a year. I rode the whole GNCC series in 1992 from the A 200 class. Back then they didn’t have the XC1 or XC2 classes, or even an AA class. So I was starting from way back and finishing inside the top 5 quite a bit. I remember getting a lot of 4th’s that year. Davey would pull me up on stage with the podium finishers and say “this guy finished 4th overall on a 125 from the A 200 line!” He always liked that I finished so well on 125 and was really nice to me. I’d ask him every race if I could ride in the front row and he’d say no. I told him I thought I could win if I didn’t have to go through traffic all day. Eventually they came up with a AA class that allowed you to ride whatever displacement you wanted from the front row.
When did the Ninja Turtles deal come along?
That came about in 1992. It started off with Hondas when KTM went bankrupt in 1992. I had a bunch of bikes in the garage from them and Jack Penton called me up one day and said they were filing for bankruptcy and that I had to return my stuff. I called up Kawasaki and they said I was the 4th KTM rider in the last hour that called looking for support. Then 3 days later I got a call from Jerry Randall saying that he had a private race team that was interested but couldn’t say much beyond “they were green”. It didn’t matter to me. It turned out to be Peter Laird from the Ninja Turtles. In 1993 we switched to Kawasaki and Moose racing came on board. I rode with them for a couple of years. At one point I did the entire GNCC series, the National Hare Scramble series and as many NETRA races as I could make. I rode a KX 125 from the AA line. It was crazy. There would be guys riding a Husaberg 600 lined up next me. For the western rounds I would ride the 250, the 125 was like a knife in a gun fight. I learned a lot about setup that year.
I went to Yamaha for 2 more years with Tim Sheppard ‘s SCR race team. By 1996 I was all done. I took a big crash in PA and landed on my butt and jammed up my back. On a 15 hour trip back home I looked over to the guy next to and was like “I’m done, the travel is killing me”. So I put the focus into my family and growing my business. I tried to win the NETRA enduro series in 1997 and 1998 but I would screw up the timekeeping or break something.
A few years back at a reunion ride I saw that you had your old KX 125 from the ninja turtle days, how did you get it back?
For a gift we gave Peter Laird a bike that I built largely out of parts and components we had. Several years later I got a call from Jerry Randall saying that Peter was cleaning out his barn and for me to come get my bike, so I did. The thing rips, too!
What do you do now?
I’ve always ridden. I’ll do a few rides or races during the year. I help with the Connecticut Rambler’s Snow Run. I’ll pre ride the course or work a check. I stay busy.