Frank was the Johnny Appleseed of Motorcycle Road Racing
By Larry Lawrence
One of the most important figures in the history of motorcycle road racing has died. Dr. Peter Frank, a co-founder and the driving force behind WERA (Western Eastern Roadracers Association) in the 1970s and ‘80s, whose efforts helped open up the sport to a legion of racers, several of whom went on to become world champions, died from head injuries in a Miami hospital on March 4, nearly a week after a motorcycle-powered trike accident in Key West. He was 76.
Not only did Doc, as many of his friends called him, help foster the career of aspiring road racers, he also opened several of the country’s premier road racing facilities to AMA Nationals, by proving motorcycle events were possible after WERA races were held as testbeds.
WERA, initially founded as ERA (Eastern Roadracers Association) in 1973, started as an outgrowth of Association of American Motorcycle Road Racers (AAMRR), which ran motorcycle races on the East Coast. Frank, a doctor practicing in Philadelphia at the time, was a racer in that organization, but there was a lot of dissatisfaction among the racers with how the events were being run.
“A lot of riders weren’t happy about the track time they were getting, and it seemed the leaders of AAMRR at the time, seemed to care more about how much money they could make and how quickly they could get the race weekends finished than what they could do to improve the experience for racers,” Frank recalled in a discussion on WERA’s founding he had in the mid-1980s. “A group of us offered to help, but they rejected our offer, so we decided to start our own racing organization that put riders first and that was ERA.”
Initially ERA ran races primarily on the East Coast, but Frank was always thinking big and began promoting races in the Midwest and the South and eventually across the country. Perhaps the biggest breakthrough for WERA, was when they decided to bring together top road racers from across the country together for a winner take all showdown at the end of the season. They dubbed it the WERA Grand National Final and that year-end championship quickly grew to became one of the biggest road racing events on the American racing calendar.
When WERA was founded there were road racing organizations on the East Coast and West Coast, but little activity in the middle of the country. Frank with WERA helped change that. He had to overcome the lack of venues willing to host motorcycles. Sometimes that led to holding races in some odd places, such as the boulevards of a city park in Terre Haute, Indiana, or on small private airstrip like outside Cincinnati, Ohio. The tracks were not always ideal, but WERA gave thousands of riders their first taste of road racing and they liked it.
Frank had a wonderfully friendly and enthusiastic personality and he gradually convinced owners of some of the premier road racing tracks in the country to open to motorcycles. Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and Road America were two of the tracks that hosted WERA races as a trial before later agreeing to host AMA Road Race Nationals. So not only did Frank expand road racing at the grassroots level, but he was also in large part responsible for allowing professional road racing to expand as well.
Always working alongside Peter was his wife Patty, the daughter of Harley-Davidson racing boss Dick O’Brien. Peter was the idea guy, the person who always thought it could be done. Patty was the person who was left to organize and implement Peter’s sometimes wild plans. They made the perfect team – Peter the happy-go-lucky we can do this kind of guy, Patty, the no-nonsense, leave to her to figure out how to make it work personality. It did not hurt that Patty had lifelong connections to just about everyone in the motorcycling industry. The pairing worked wonderfully.
It was Patty who launched the WERA newsletter American Roadracing, which later under the direction of John Ulrich, became the monthly newspaper of record for motorcycle road racing in this country.
Peter and Patty’s son AJ raced motorcycles from the time he was a little guy, so small he could barely touch the footpegs. He later switched to cars and became a successful stock car racer.
By the mid-1980s, Frank gradually began pulling back from direct involvement in running WERA, to focus on his rapidly expanding medical practice in coastal South Carolina. He also helped with AJ’s burgeoning auto racing career and Peter even raced cars himself, most famously winning the La Carrera Panamericana auto race in Mexico in 1992. By the early ‘90s the Franks sold WERA to a group of road racers and the new organization was overseen by Evelyne Clarke, current day CEO of WERA. Clarke continued to run WERA with the race weekend experience of the racers foremost in mind, just the way Peter and Patty had done from the beginning.
In recent years Peter retired from practicing medicine full-time, while still doing volunteer medical work, and he focused on his car and motorcycle collection and enjoying retirement to the fullest.
On a personal note, Peter and Patty were instrumental in helping me become a motorcycle racing journalist. After a very brief period of racing with WERA, I ran out of money after crashing my B Production class Suzuki GS750, but I still wanted to be involved in the sport. I began covering the races for Cycle News and American Roadracing. The Franks, seeing my enthusiasm for the sport, began paying me well above market rate for my stories in American Roadracing, which allowed me to travel across the country and cover more and more WERA races. I became the de facto WERA PR man, which eventually led to me being hired as communications manager for AMA Pro Racing.
One funny story I recall captures the essence of Doc’s personality.
I was staying with the Franks in South Carolina between races. One day Peter and I went for a ride, so he could show me the local sites. He was on a modern Honda VF750, and he put me on one of his vintage Triumphs. I discovered that the clutch was almost completely gone on the British machine as Peter sped off ahead of me. As I was riding, trying to keep up with Doc, who was moving at a good clip on roads he was familiar with, I was also frantically trying to adjust the clutch cable on the bars. As we came upon a stoplight to my horror it turned red. I was trying to haul down this big Triumph. The brakes were not great either, I might add, and that combined with the non-existent clutch made things a bit challenging.
I finally and mercifully found neutral and rolled up alongside Doc at the light. I yelled to him that the clutch was out on the bike and he shook his head in acknowledgment and yelled back with a big grin, “You just have to plan ahead!”
That was Doc. Just go out and do it and you will figure it out along the way.
Peter Frank never really got the credit he deserved for his role in the tremendous growth of motorcycle road racing in the 1970s and ‘80s and I’m happy to be able to tell at least a bit of his story here today. Rest in peace my friend.