R.I.P Racing Legend Jay “PeeWee” Gleason

Yamaha sent us the press release below today regarding the passing of Jay “PeeWee” Gleason, who those of us who avidly read and/or worked at Cycle magazine back in the day fondly remember as the magazine’s talented drag-strip fast guy. Be sure to read the personal remembrance from our contributor Ken Lee that follows the release:

Yamaha Motor Corporation, U.S.A., is sad to learn that Jay “PeeWee” Gleason, an iconic dragbike racer and member of its Yamaha family of racers, passed away over the weekend.

Bob Starr, General Manager of Communication at Yamaha Motor U.S., said, “PeeWee is a huge part of the Yamaha VMAX legend. His talent on a dragbike helped us sell a lot of VMAX motorcycles, and he will forever be associated with the fabled, V4-powered, Sport Heritage machine. Mention ‘PeeWee Gleason’ and a lot of people instantly think of the VMAX, and what he did on that bike. We will miss him, but we will never forget him.”

PeeWee on his Yamaha V-Max. Photo by Yamaha.
PeeWee on his Yamaha VMAX. Photo by Yamaha.

Back in 1986, for a feature story that was published in Cycle World magazine, Jay “PeeWee” Gleason, a well-known and highly talented dragbike racer, climbed aboard a Yamaha VMX12 VMAX at Baylands Raceway, did a rousing and smoky burnout to bring the rear tire up to temperature and maximum grip, and proceeded to post a quarter-mile time of under nine seconds.

That day, the world found out that the VMAX was the fastest, quickest, most powerful production bike ever. It also compelled many customers to visit their local Yamaha dealers and purchase VMAX motorcycles of their very own.

In 2009, more than two decades after his original VMAX quarter-mile run, PeeWee repeated history aboard a 2009 VMAX, on which he ran the quarter mile in 9.513 seconds and at a trap speed of 143.70 mph.

Jay “PeeWee” Gleason was one of a kind; a soft-spoken, yet highly talented dragbike racer. Godspeed, PeeWee.

 

Jay Gleason Memories

By Ken Lee

The recent passing of dragbike racing legend Jay “PeeWee” Gleason brings to mind some of the good times we shared together in the 1980s when I was a staff editor at Cycle magazine. Even though we had some Very Fast Guys on hand at Cycle to conduct monthly drag strip testing, we called upon Gleason regularly to help out with some special projects. As I recall, Gleason seemed to be good for about a 0.2-second edge consistently in quarter-mile times compared to our regulars—a world of difference. Though known far and wide as PeeWee, the small-in-stature Gleason told us he was not really thrilled with his nickname. So we called him Jay to his face and in print.

Gleason was a very accomplished racer in a number of different venues, but the drag strip was his forte. And his bread and butter. He knew the strip at Orange County International Raceway like the back of his hand, and like the accomplished racer he was, he had an uncanny, almost superhuman way of jumping on a strange bike and nailing the best time it would turn in the first two or three runs.

The one memory that rises above all others was the time we were at OCIR to test the brand-new 1983 Kawasaki GPz1100. Kawasaki had one of their engineers from Japan along to nursemaid the bike; his name escapes my memory, but this bike was his baby. The engineer and I were up in the OCIR drag-strip tower to record times and observe the proceedings. As usual, Jay chose the left lane and he got a tremendous launch on his first run. About 40 yards down the strip he suddenly veered left to hug the guardrail; although the left lane was the faster of the two, there was a slight dip right there so Jay always slewed the bike left at that exact spot in order to run the best time. I was used to his maneuver, but the poor engineer was caught unawares by this sudden swerve and audibly sucked in a big gasp of air through his teeth as he thought Jay was crashing. Eyes big, he continued to watch Jay rocket through the traps. With that, Jay turned the first-ever 10-second run by a production bike in the history of Cycle magazine.* And the Kawi engineer returned home with the magazine’s accolades plus a great story to share with his colleagues.

Cycle magazine cover, February 1983.
Cycle magazine cover, February 1983.

*Addendum: While Jay did make the first 10-second run on the GPz1100, it was Cycle staffer Mark Homchick who was the first magazine editor to do so, and in fact he was the first editor to run any production motorcycle in the 10s. Homchick ran the bike initially, but could only get low 11s out of it. Needless to say, the Kawasaki team was disappointed, since they knew what the bike could do in Jay’s hands. So Homchick agreed to meet them again at OCIR, and KMC brought Jay along to coach him. After watching Jay’s technique, Homchick got the bike into the 10s, which stood as the magazine’s official road test run.

Jay’s coaching was invaluable to Homchick that day. Jay spent countless days at OCIR testing American Turbo-Pak’s various turbo kits, and he was also a great AMA Junior dirt tracker and road racer—one of the fastest two or three in his era. He was one of the best at the strip, perhaps the VERY best when it came to getting a record time from a production motorcycle, which wasn’t easy as power often exceeded the traction afforded by the tires of the era.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Yes, Jay did do a ten-second run on that bike, but, after watching Jay’s technique, I also ran a ten on that bike, which stood as the magazine’s official road test run. It was very sensitive to RPM leaving the line. A few 100 rpm below four grand, it would bog. A few 100 rpm above and it would spin the tire.

    Jay’s coaching was invaluable. One thing that many people don’t remember is that Jay’s father (I believe it was) owned American TurboPak, and Jay spent countless days at OCIR testing their carious turbo kits. He had lots of opportunity to get as good as he was–which was one of the best.

  2. Thank you for calling him Jay! I’ve been a very close friend of his since 1984, right at the peak of his test riding career. He didn’t go on line, he stuck with the wrenches. He had no patience for computers. I was his “go between” if someone emailed him. It went to me, then I would call him and read it to him. He really could not believe so many people remember him even to this day. If he only learned how to use a computer, he would have been blown away. He was amazed when his Vmax video on YouTube got 10,000 hits!
    I know he’s happy you called him Jay. Thanks so much! That’s a really awesome article. He will be sorely missed. There is nobody else like him.

  3. What a talent! I really enjoy reading about his accomplishments at the drag strip. I love the vmax and have great respect for him and what he could do on two wheels. What a loss for Yamaha and motorcycle enthusiasts in general.

  4. My distant cousin…..I have his picture in my motorcycle garage on the Honda V-65 Sabre that seems to have been left out of this press coverage on Jay’s passing. I bought that bike because he made it legendary just like he did the V-Max Yamaha. Jay shined. And he could make any bike shine brighter with what he could make them do. He could show the world what a bike was capable of in capable hands. Talent with a Capital “T”.

  5. We met at OCIR when I was jumping and what great stories were told (mostly true) ! Later I bought a 1979 KAWASAKI Z1R-TURBO and we meet again at American Turbo Pack and more fun with stories. He was excited when I set a world record in the 1/4 mile on my Z1R-TC BACKWARDS.
    We were so much alike a d kids at heart playing with motorcycles! May he find that special race in heaven !

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