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Sammy Tanner’s 75th Birthday Bash

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Story and photos by Howie Zechner

Hosted by Southern California Motorcycles in Brea, CA., it was a birthday party not to be missed.  Seventy five years in the making, the motorcycle faithful gathered.  Competitors, fans, sponsors and promoters from every motorcycle discipline all wanting to pay their respects to a living legend.  Skip Van Leeuwen, Keith Mashburn, Robert Morrison, Peter Star, Rick Goudy, Chuck Palmgren, Wally Pankratz, Richard Cordsen and a host of others. Speedway was well represented.  Dangerous Dub Farrell, Shawn McConnell, Kenny Hansen, Stu Morley and Jack Crone just to name a few.  Jaw jacking and bench racing was the order of the night.  The way-back-days were visited at every corner.  Joy and tears would celebrate Sammy Tanner’s May 23, 1939 birth.

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The entire Triumph section was transformed into party central.  One room had tables and chairs from one end to the other.  In another room a large rollaway door was open and two barbeques were running at full speed.  Shredded pork and beef (tri tip) with coleslaw.  The food was outstanding and plentiful.  My compliments to the cook Jason.  

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Pictures, posters, even Sammy's old leathers were on display.  A huge card hung in the center and a sharpie encouraged all to sign and leave short comments.  The next room had a full bar.  Jammed wall to wall with people telling tales and living today and yesterday.

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“Look how many came tonight an excited Sammy said.  I can’t believe they have followed my career all these years.  And to think I was hesitant about coming out here from Texas.  What was I thinking?”.   The Birthday boy was of course referring to his younger days living, racing and winning in Texas.  Offers to compete on the west coast came but never worked out.  Then a 1959 call to JC Agajanian changed the whole deal.  Sammy was in Daytona and thought he could sell himself to the Ascot promoter for big bucks.  “I’ll come for $300.” Sammy offered.  Well how did you do at Daytona JC asked, I fell Sammy replied.  Long story short Sammy soon learned that JC was the master promoter.  Still, they reached a deal.  Sammy would be “The Flying Flea” and receive $200. for two weeks and $50 for week three. 

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“It was 1959 and I was a 14 years old Ascot spectator” Sonny Nutter chimed in  Sammy won the The 1st Ascot 20 lap 8th mile National title.   He was my hero.  Little did I know that we would become competitors and lifelong friends.  “Sammy was fast” Sonny continued.  “When I started racing he could always best me on the half-mile but  revenge was sweet when we both started racing speedway in 1968”.  “Then it was my turn to win”.  “One of my best recollections was when we raced the LA Coliseum in 1970.  Irwindale promoter Pete Palmer and his “Great Bear Racing Team” were doing a Speedway exhibition and I beat Sammy clean” Sonny boasted.  No way, it was only a exhibition race Sammy jokingly replied.

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Sammy where are you the band P51 was calling.  Come let your guests sing happy birthday to you.  So started a hour of thanks and stories.  Former racers and guest speakers were called to the microphone to talk of yesterdays glory or tomorrows deeds.  One was Speedway Star Courtney Crone.  Her talent is well know and Tanners been helping her lots.  Claiming a announcement will be released in a couple of weeks, I see big things for this lady.  When given the microphone to address the crowd the young racer was shy.  Giving advice Sonny Nutter gave the words of wisdom that can help any racer.  Run toward the cameras, not away and always smile.

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One of the nights highlights was Sammy Tanner lip singing the “Flying Flea” song with band members Mason Robinson and Ducati, Triumph, Victory, and Royal Enfield dealership owner Tom Hicks. The place went wild as the crowd joined in.  it was followed by a roaring version of Happy Birthday and the cutting of a huge delicious Birthday cake.

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A night with friends and family.  It was special.

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