The Flying Flea

Posted on July 06 2015

Born May 23, 1939 in Houston, Texas, Sammy Tanner as a young teenager was just 5 feet tall and barely weighed 100 pounds.

Nicknamed the "Flying Flea”, four of Tanner’s seven Grand National victories came at his "hometown" Ascot track.

One summer, an announcer jokingly said that Tanner was a rock 'n' roll star back home in Texas. Fans swamped him after the race asking for his autograph and copies of his record. Tanner quickly hit the local recording studio and cut a record based on his nickname. The song began: "When I was born in a Texas shack, Pop took one look and said send him back. No scrawnier runt ever lived than me, but now I’m known as the 'Flying Flea.'"

Now adorned in white racing leathers with a guitar emblazoned on the back, it was Tanner’s job to take on the likes of three-time Ascot National winner Al Gunter and 1961 Ascot National winner Neil Keen.

When Friday nights at Ascot Park had become dominated by Al Gunter, JC Agajanian placed a bounty on his head. Soon after, Aggie received a long-distance payphone call from a nervous sounding fella with a Texas drawl claiming that if he had enough money for gasoline to get to Ascot he’d win the bounty.

Tanner got his gas-money, the bounty and the first-ever AMA Grand National at Ascot with a new eight-mile race record, breaking the old record by six seconds. Sammy Tanner rapidly became one of the heroes of the famed half-mile clay oval.

Aggie picked up the “Flying Flea” and carried him to the Winners Circle that evening. From the opening Ascot National that Tanner won in 1959 through the 1966 National event, the winner was either Tanner, Gunter or Keen.


  • Mike Runyan: January 31, 2017

    Patrick Peal nailed it. Ascot was the only place to be on Fridays unless you were in the back seat at Vermont drive in with your girl. Living 3 miles from Ascot meant that I was afforded the opportunity to witness legends like Sammy Tanner, Bart Markel, Kenny Roberts and more. At 14 , my dream was to ide a Ascot. Well, I worked for a cycle shop in LA Mattix Motorcycle that sponsored Joe Salazar who was expert rated. Well, one Saturday afternoon in 65 , the boss was gone and I was the only person left in the shop. I saw Joe’s bike sitting in the shop and decided to take it for a spin on the San Diego Freeway. This is when I got my first of many tickets. Riding 65 on the rear wheel was impressive to others but not to the CHP. I lost my job but, it was worth it. There was another iconic racetrack that drew my attention. Lions Drag Strip was 15 miles from my home. I was lucky enough to have a brother that was a pioneer in funny car racing. Well, both tracks are gone, and although I enjoyed drag racing in the 60’s and 70’s, I would rather have a colonoscopy than attend one today. However, I would travel 100’s of miles to see a 1/2 mile flat track race.

  • David Kulaga: August 09, 2015

    Rex Beauchamp Raced with that group, a very close friend who raced with Twin “K” Sports Center & K&W cycles in Detroit Metro . He won the San Jose in 75 &76 .He will always be in the Hall of Fame, and in our hearts .

  • Dee: July 31, 2015

    My favorite was Ted Body..Norm McDonalds son-in-law..Great family but Ted was taken way too soon.

  • Patrick Peal: July 28, 2015

    It’s hard to explain Ascot to someone that never had the opportunity to experience a National Flat Track Race. Growing up in Gardena, Ascot was a part of your life, a part of who you were. If I sit back and close my eyes so many memories come back. I can hear Rocky Rockwood over the PA system, I can see the orange and white water truck, the palm trees, ducks, Electric St. and the cemetary filling up with cars, the TT jump, the Lucas and Ascot signs down the back straight, and then you start to hear them, one, two, three and pretty soon the air was filled with the greatest noise I can think of, Triumph, BSA, Norton, Harley, a couple Indians. Soon the air was filling with the exhaust from these big 4 strokers. Then the riders would start lining up and I would head for turn 1, and then you would hear Rocky again, “Ok folks, here we go!”, and Ascot Park would erupt, 8, 12, 16, riders, full throttle aiming to be the first into Turn 1, and more important the first outta Turn 2, throwing their bikes sideways and sliding on their steel shoes, the back tire spinning so fast, their pitching dirt clods at us, what a rush, it excited all the senses at the same time. And then you would cheer your rider on, Sammy Tanner, Mert Lawill, Gene Romero, Jay Springsteen, Kenny Roberts, Gary Scott, Aldena, Tommy Rockwood, our local boy, Nixon, Hocking, Poovey, Bubba, Chris Carr, Scotty Parker and so many more. It’s hard to explain, but something I will never forget. When Ascot closed it was like you lost a close friend, one you would miss for a long time.

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