The Flying Flea: Sammy Tanner

Sammy Tanner was one of the AMA’s best flat trackers from the late 50s through the end of the 60s. He won seven AMA nationals, and was a local hero at the legendary Ascot Park. He was known as The Flying Flea because when he started racing he was barely five feet tall and weighed 100 pounds.

Tanner was born in Texas in 1939, and grew up watching sprint car and motorcycle dirt track races. He bought a sprint car when he was an early teenager, but soon sold it because he was too afraid to drive it. When he was 14 though, he bought a motorcycle and started racing it through the local fields of his hometown Houston. He soon earned a support ride on a 500 cc Triumph.

As a teenager, he followed the Midwest county fair circuit and competed in the dirt track races held there. At one summer fair, the race announcer jokingly told the crowd that he was a rock ‘n roll star back home in Texas, and Tanner was flooded by the crowd after the race with people asking for his autograph and copies of his record. The announcer quickly seized the opportunity and brought Tanner to a recording studio where they hastily wrong a song based off his nickname, and cut a record.

In 1958, Tanner qualified as an Expert in the AMA, and began competing for the title of Grand National Champion. That first year, he finished sixth in the circuit. In both 1958 and 1959, he earned the most points in the AMA for half-mile races. When Ascot Park opened its half-mile track in 1959, Tanner won the first AMA Grand National race held there, and established himself as a hero when he broke the long-held record for an eight-mile race held on a half-mile track by six seconds.

Tanner soon gained sponsorship from Johnson Motors, Triumph’s west coast distributor, and started earning many of his early successes on their bikes. Tanner competed regularly at Ascot Park’s weekly races against the likes of legends Al Gunter, Neil Keen, Elliot Schultz, Stu Morley, Troy Lee, Jack O’Brien, and Don Hawley. From 1959 to 1966, the winner on that infamously competitive and challenging track was either Gunter, Keen, or Tanner. Tanner won the Grand National at Ascot Park three consecutive years.

In 1966, Tanner won his fourth Grand National at Ascot, and placed third in the Grand National Championship only behind the likes of such icons as Bart Markel and Gary Nixon.

In 1972, Tanner retired from racing and started conducting an Arai distributorship in Southern California.