RON "THE MACHINE" LECHIEN & THE 1983 CITRUS BOWL SX
For the 1983 season, Team Yamaha hired a 16-year-old kid from El Cajon, California, named
Ron Lechien to contest the AMA 125cc National MX Championship Series. Lechien had turned 16 in December of 1982, less than a month before the ’83 season-opening Anaheim Supercross. Back then there was no AMA 125cc East/West Regional Championship—it would arrive in 1985—so Yamaha decided to keep their young rider on the sidelines until he got some supercross practice in.
“Atlanta was my very first supercross,” says Lechien, who today works with his father, Dick Lechien, at Maxima in El Cajon. “We were concentrating on the 125cc Nationals that year and Yamaha kept me out of the first three races. I don’t think they wanted to throw me to the wolves too early!
“Atlanta was just the full-on mudder,” says Lechien, who was affectionately referred to as “Dogger” not for only his laid-back attitude, but also because le chien means “the dog” in French. “I rode the last-c hance qualifier and didn’t even qualify. With all the ruts and mud—this was the old Fulton County Stadium, which didn’t have a roof—it was like a slot-car track. I watched the main event from the tunnel. It was raining so hard, I couldn’t even see across the track! Mark Barnett won the main and I thought he was an animal.”
Lechien would compete at Daytona, Dallas, Pontiac, Kansas City, and Washington, D.C., steadily gaining confidence and working on the fundamentals of riding 250cc supercross against the likes of David Bailey, Broc Glover, Jeff Ward, Johnny O’Mara, and (before he got hurt) Rick Johnson. Then, on Saturday morning, June 11, Lechien idled out onto Orlando Citrus Bowl supercross track for practice.
“I was gaining confidence and felt better with each supercross I rode,” Lechien explains. “When I first turned pro, my dad stopped going to the races with me. As an amateur, I had spent so much time with my dad that the way our relationship was, it was like I always wanted to do good for my dad. Orlando was the first supercross he actually went to with me my rookie season.”
Along with such fierce competitors as Bob Hannah, Mark Barnett, and Mike Bell (plus all those other guys mentioned above), Lechien took his time learning the Citrus Bowl circuit. “The way the track was configured, there was a start, a chicane, some whoops, then three or four pretty good-size jumps,” he remembers. “In practice, I doubled one of them. After I did, I noticed that nobody else was doing it, so I decided right then and there not to do it again. “Back then the teams weren’t filming practice and stuff like they do now, so guys like Johnny O’ and David [Bailey] didn’t even know that I had that double down,” Lechien laughs. “In fact, I didn’t even do the double in my heat races. I saved it for the main event! Later that evening came the 20-lap main. “I got a pretty good start—I think I was in about fourth,” the Dogger says. “When we came up to the double jump, I hit it, flew by a bunch of guys, and landed right next to O’Mara, who was leading the race. Johnny lost the front end in the next turn and I was in the lead. “After that, I put my head down and took off,” Lechien continues. “It didn’t take long for me to build up a 15- to 20-second lead. I rode conservatively, watched my lines, made sure I stayed up, and the rest was history.” The 16 year-old Californian on the #224 black-and-yellow Yamaha YZ250 had won his first professional AMA event. Shockingly, it came in a 250cc supercross—Lechien would win his first 125 National eight days later at Lake Whitney, Texas. “I was ecstatic with the wins,” he says. “I was like, ‘I did it!’ I proved to myself t hat I could run with those guys. What was weird, though, was that it was so easy. It was mind-boggling to me that it was so easy to win that race. I guess it was always like that for me. All of my best races were when I felt like it was so easy to win. Whenever I would ride my hardest and give it all I had, I’d finish in fifth or sixth.” Lechien would go on to win 25 more AMA events (10 125cc Nationals, six 250cc Nationals, two 500cc Nationals, and seven 250cc supercrosses), as well as the 1985 AMA 125cc National Championship before retiring in the late 1980s. Despite some ups and downs in his personal life (which you can read about in the definitive piece on Lechien, “What the Hell Happened to Ron Lechien?” in the April/May 2000 issue of Racer X), Lechien remains one of the most charismatic figures in American motocross history.
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BOB "HURRICANE" HANNAH
Bob Hannah will go down in history as one of the greatest American
motocross racers of all
time. He won a total of sevenAMA national championships and when inducted in 1999, Hannah was one of only two riders in the history of AMA motocross racing to win championships in 125cc motocross, 250cc motocross and Supercross.
Hannah easily ranks as the most versatile motocross racer of his era and perhaps of all time. During his 15-year racing career, Hannah won nationals in the 125cc, 250cc and 500cc categories as well as Supercross and Trans-AMA. When he retired from racing, Hannah held the record for the most career wins in both the AMA Supercross and AMA 250cc national motocross.
Hannah was born on September 26, 1956 in the rugged Mojave Desert town of Lancaster, California. His father was a motorcyclist and Hannah grew up riding on the handlebars of his dad’s bikes. When he was 7, Hannah got his own bike and rode countless hours in the high desert surrounding his hometown. The one thing Hannah did not do in those early years was race. He explains:
"My father was against racing. He did not mind me riding, but at the same time he didn’t want me getting hurt. So I never raced until I was 18 years old and living on my own."
By the time Hannah hit the motocross tracks of Southern California, he was more than ready. Even though he didn’t have racing experience, he had practically lived on a motorcycle since grade school and likely had more hours on a bike than any of his fellow competitors. Hannah won his first and only race in the amateur ranks. After his dominating debut, local racing officials told the young Hannah he would have to move up to the expert ranks.
In 1975, his first full year as an expert, Hannah rode in just two AMA nationals. His best finish was sixth overall in the AMA 125cc National in San Antonio, Texas. Not bad for a rider with less than a year’s racing experience under his belt.
In 1976, Yamaha took a chance on the 19-year-old Hannah, who was largely unknown outside of the local Southern California motocross circles. Yamaha signed Hannah to race the 125cc outdoor nationals. He started out the year with some success on a 250cc machine in the AMA Supercross Series, but his real strength was on the 125cc bikes at the outdoor motocross circuits.
The AMA 125cc National Motocross Championships were only two years old when Hannah launched into his first full season in the series. Honda and its rider, Marty Smith, dominated the 125cc nationals for the first two years. Smith was gunning for his third-straight title and he was the heavy favorite coming into the ’76 season. At the first round of the 125 MX series, the famous Hangtown Nationals in Plymouth, California, Smith made the early laps of the first moto look like a replay of 1974 and ‘75. Eight laps into the relatively dull race the crowd came to its feet when Hannah, on his No. 39 Yamaha, came bouncing through the field to grab second. Hannah had picked off 21 other riders in his charge. On the next lap, Hannah took over the lead from Smith, leaving the tens of thousands of Northern California fans stunned. Smith tried to get back past Hannah, but fell in the process and finished a distant second. Hannah came back to win the second moto in even more decisive fashion. It was one of the most stunning debuts for a factory rider in the history of AMA racing. The journalists of the day noted that young upstart Hannah came in like a hurricane and the moniker stuck. He was forever to be known as Bob "Hurricane" Hannah.
Hannah proved that his 1976 opening round victory was no fluke. He went on to win five of the eight 125cc nationals that year en route to the championship. In 1977, Hannah hopped aboard a Yamaha 250 and won the AMA Supercross Championship in impressive fashion, taking six of the 10 rounds. Hannah poured his all into every race and became the first genuine superstar of Supercross racing. He would go on to win the AMA Supercross title for three straight years.
In 1978, Hannah moved up to the 250cc ranks in the outdoor nationals with devastating results for his competition. Hannah's riding was nearly flawless. He won a record eight consecutive 250 outdoor nationals, a record that still stood at the time of Hannah’s 1999 Motorcycle Hall of Fame induction. He continued his impressive streak in the fall Trans-AMA Series, winning four nationals in that series and winning the championship. In 1979, he came back and dominated the 250 outdoor nationals again, handily winning the 250 MX title by earning victories in six of the 10 events. By the late 1970s, Hannah was in a class of his own.
Even though Hannah had numerous attractive offers to race in world championship motocross, he never seriously considered it. Displaying classic Hannah dry humor, he quipped that the main reason he didn’t want to race overseas was that the Europeans served their drinks without ice. Even though he preferred racing close to home, Hannah did represent his country three times in the prestigious Motocross des Nations team competition and was part of the victorious 1987 team, when the international event was held in New York State.
Hannah’s training methods were unique. Instead of riding countless practice laps on motocross tracks, he went back to his roots and trained by riding in the desert. In a 1981 interview with British journalist Chris Carter, Hannah explained his unusual training regimen.
"There’s no better place to practice than out in the desert. I ride there anytime I can. Out there the unexpected happens quickly and you have to sharpen your reactions to stay on the bike."
Water sports were the recreation that Hannah participated in to relax. A water skiing accident in the Colorado River at the end of 1979 nearly cost Hannah his career. His right leg was broken in 12 places when he hit a submerged rock and was catapulted onto the riverbank. Doctors initially told Hannah he would never be able to race again. He was forced to sit out the entire 1980 season while recuperating. During his recovery Hannah earned his pilot license and for the first time in his adult life found interests outside of motorcycle racing.
Whether it was his injured leg or other seemingly endless injuries that Hannah suffered during the early 1980s, or perhaps the loss of his one-time single-minded approach to racing, Hannah never was quite able to capture the magic he had during the 1970s. While he won 20 nationals during the 1980s, he never was able to capture another championship. His best results in the ‘80s were a second-place finish in the 250 MX series in 1981 and third in the same series in 1983, after switching from Yamaha to Honda. Hannah’s final national win came in the 250 outdoor national held in Millville, Minnesota, on August 11, 1985. He continued to race full-time until 1987 and then raced occasionally in nationals until retiring in 1989.
In his 15-year career, Hannah had become the all-time win leader in AMA motocross/Supercross history, having won 70 AMA nationals during his career. That record would stand until Jeremy McGrath broke Hannah’s overall win record in 1999. Hannah’s record of 27 250cc national wins still stood as of his 1999 induction.
Multi-time world champion, and Hannah’s team manager for the winning 1987 U.S. Motocross des Nations team, Roger DeCoster, said of Hannah: "He was a rider of tremendous determination. Sort of a tough guy, like John Wayne. He didn’t make excuses and he had a good rapport with the public."
After retiring from racing, Hannah continued to be a test rider and consultant for Suzuki and later, for Yamaha, through the early 1990s. Hannah was the bridge between racing generations, competing with the earliest AMA motocross stars and then the even bigger stars of the 1980s. Hannah’s popularity helped the sport grow by leaps and bounds.
Hannah continued to seek the adrenalin rush even after his motorcycle-racing career ended. After leaving motocross, Hannah took up the sport of airplane racing in the unlimited class. When inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999, Hannah was living near Boise, Idaho, running a sport aviation sales company.
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MIKE "TOO TALL" BELL
Mike "Too Tall" Bell was one of America's leading motocross and
Supercross racers of the late 1970s and early '80s. He rode for Yamaha during his entire pro career. His biggest claim to
fame was winning the 1980 AMA Supercross Championship, but Bell
proved very versatile throughout his seven-year professional career, winning
a total of 20 AMA and Trans-AMA nationals.
Bell was born in Los Angeles on August 8, 1957. His father, Bill, was an avid racer and well-known tuner who did
development work for American Honda
on its four-stroke
desert racing machines during the late 1960s. Mike began riding
at age 10 up in the mountains outside
Los Angeles where his family had a cabin, but unlike many of his contemporaries
who started much younger, Bell did not start racing until he was 14. Once he got on the track however, with a new Maico,
it didn’t take long for Bell to go right to the top of the highly competitive Southern California motocross scene.
"Even though I didn’ t start racing until I was 14, I knew how to ride," explained Bell, who advanced from novice to expert in just six months. "My dad didn’t want me to get into racing until he knew I was ready for it. I think it proved to be a good decision. A lot of kids were burning out by the time they were 16 because they’d already been racing for so long and I was just really getting into it."
Since Bell’s dad worked at a shop, it was hard to get him enthused about spending his entire weekend around more motorcycles, so the young Bell raced primarily in night motocross events.
"I did a lot of riding under the lights at places like Ascot, Lyons, and Irwindale," Bell remembered. Those experiences would serve him well in AMA Supercross events after he turned pro.
Bell became one of the top club motocross racers in Southern California a s a teenager. He was making as much as $500 per week in the club events and was in no big hurry to run the nationals, where he might have struggled to make that kind of money as he climbed the ranks. A local event at the legendary Saddleback Park changed all that. AMA Motocross champ Jim Weinert showed up for the race to get in some practice. Bell takes the story from there.
"Weinert got the holeshot and I was pretty far back in the field," Bell recalled. "I moved up through the pack and late in the moto saw Weinert’s green factory Kawasaki in front of me. With two laps to go, I went inside and passed him. He tried to come back around me in the next corner and crashed. He was really mad at me. He came up and started yelling at me, but I hadn’t done anything wrong – he was just frustrated that this local kid beat him. I won the second moto pretty easily and I thought right there that if I could beat one of the best riders in the world, granted at my local track, I figured I might be able to do OK at the nationals."
In 1977, Bell began riding for DG Yamaha and began hitting a few nationals. That year he won the support race for the USGP at Carlsbad and then turned a lot of heads by scoring a very solid fourth at the Los Angeles Supercross. Bell’s pro career was off and running.
Bell’s first AMA national win came on June 18, 1978 in the 500cc division in St. Peters, Missouri. Just a week later, Bell would score what would arguably be his biggest win ever. It was the Superbowl of Motocross in the LA Coliseum. Bell pulled off one of the great surprise wins in the history of the sport in a thriller over the hottest rider in all of motocross, Bob Hannah.
"My start wasn’t that great," Bell remembered. "But Hannah got a bad start as well and I found myself running right behind him. I knew he’d be working his wa y to the front, so I figured this would be my chance to jump in behind him and find out how he did it. We passed a lot of riders, but I didn’t really know what place we were in.
"The one-lap flag came out and Hannah ran off the track, but came right back on behind me. He was trying to pass on the inside of every turn. His front tire was rubbing against my leg! I didn’t even realize I was leading until I came around to the finish and got the checkered flag.
"When I woke up the next morning, I thought I had been dreaming. But my father had put the first-place trophy at the foot of my bed and there it was – I really had actually won the Superbowl of Motocross! It was one of the proudest moments of my career."
Bell tweaked his knee a few weeks later and ended the 1978 season ranked sixth in the AMA Supercross standings. That year he also impressed the European riders by finishing third in the Carlsbad 500cc USGP.
By 1979, Bell really started coming into his own. That year he made a late-season charge in the AMA 500cc National Motocross Championship, winning the final three rounds and finishing the season as runner-up to Danny LaPorte. Bell came up just three points short of winning that title and his four wins topped the class. He would try in vain over the next several years to capture the 500cc title, only to fall just short. In AMA Supercross, Bell won in Seattle (his first victory in an indoor stadium) and was ranked third in the series at the end of the season. He also added two Trans-AMA wins to his tally that season.
By this time, the six-foot-4-inch Bell was becoming well known by his nickname "Too Tall." He said the name originated from Yamaha PR man Ted Otto.
"They had all kinds of nicknames for me, like 'Granddaddy Long Legs' and stuff like that, but 'Too Tall' just stuck."
Bell said he felt his long legs gave him a huge advantage in the whoops sections that became popular in Supercross, but he also r an out of room in some of the tighter rutted turns and often wrenched his knees as a result, something that would ultimately bring his career to a premature end.
1980 was Bell’s greatest year. He won a record seven AMA Supercross races en route to that year’s championship. Bell’s Supercross record of seven wins in a single season would not be bettered for 11 years. In 1980, he made a temporary move away from his favored 500cc class to the 250cc division and finished runner-up to Suzuki’s Kent Howerton.
"The Supercross championship was a career highlight," Bell said. "It takes a lot to win a championship and that year it was 17 or 18 races, so it was a long series and it meant a lot to win that."
During the early 1980s, knee injuries were starting to mount and Bell began going through long periods of rehabilitation. Despite having to go through several surgeries on his knees, Bell always seemed able to work his way back to competitiveness. In 1981, he was runner -up in both the AMA Supercross and 500cc Motocross Championships, but by 1982 he was missing more and more races due to injury. In 1982 he fought back to score wins in Supercross in Los Angeles and in 500 Motocross at Washougal. He finished the season outside the top 10 in Supercross for the first time in five years, but managed a fourth in the 500 Motocross series.
Even in his final year, 1983, Bell, now having gone through yet another knee operation, was able to score one last victory at the Dallas Supercross. He retired at the end of 1983. After seven seasons on the circuit Bell had compiled an impressive tally of 20 national wins. He was third on the all-time AMA Supercross and fourth on the all-time AMA 500cc Motocross wins list and in the top ten in career Trans-AMA victories.
After retiring from racing, Bell took some time off and eventually took a position with Oakley, the company known for its sunglasses. He still lives in Southern California and continues to race motocross in legends and other local events. His sons and daughter all followed in their father's footsteps and are avid motorcyclists.
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BROC "GOLDEN BOY" GLOVER
Dubbed the “Golden Boy” by the motorcycling press of the day, Broc
Glover was one of the leading racers in the history of AMA Motocross. In all, Glover earned six AMA National Motocross Championships, a record which stood for nearly 20 years until 2003, when Ricky Carmichael finally eclipsed the mark. Glover won all of his titles riding for Yamaha.
In addition, Glover won the 1981 Trans USA Series (previously called Trans-AMA) held in the fall after the nationals. When he retired after the 1988 season, Glover held the AMA all-time wins record in both AMA 125cc motocross and 500cc motocross. He was also in the top 10 in career wins in AMA Supercross. He tallied an amazing 45 career AMA national wins in both motocross and Supercross and registered five wins in Trans USA competition. He was also a member of the winning 1983 USA Motocross and Trophy des Nations squad and again part of the Trophy des Nations team as a last-minute fill-in for an injured David Bailey in 1984. H e also won the 1978 125cc United States Grand Prix in Lexington, Ohio.
Glover was born in San Diego on May 16, 1960. His family rode motorcycles recreationally and young Broc was on a little Honda Z50 by the time he was nine. Young Glover was busy with Little League baseball and junior football, so racing wasn’t a priority for him. That changed after his older brother began competing in local motocross races. Broc competed in his first race when he was 13, but when his mom found out he’d raced without permission, he was grounded from riding for a while.
Unfortunately for Glover, just about the time he was beginning to race his parents divorced and Glover lived with his mom. In a single-parent family, the money to support racing was no longer available.
Glover’s break came a year or so later when his older brother began racing with support from local enthusiast Jack Lutz.
"I convinced Jack that after my brother was finished with his race that his bike would be sitting there with nothing to do during the novice races," Glover said. "My brother crashed and bent the handlebar on the bike and I thought my chance to race was over. Fortunately, we found someone to loan us a handlebar and I ran second in my race. Jack was enthused seeing his bike running near the front and he let me ride his bikes and became sort of my first sponsor."
Glover’s dad, who after the divorce initially had little contact with his son, was told that Broc was becoming a pretty good racer. He surprised Broc by buying him a new Honda Elsinore and promised to support his racing as long as Broc was willing to learn to work on the bike and put in the hours to keep it in top shape.
"My dad taught me the right way to maintain a motocross bike and it became something I really enjoyed," Glover remembers. "With my dad’s help, my racing career really got going."
Glover quickly rose through the ranks of the CMC races in California, and by the time he was 15 he often led many of the established AMA stars early in motos in Southern California Pro-Am events.
Glover turned pro and headed to the AMA Nationals the week after he turned 16. In his very first race, Glover served notice that he would be a factor when he ran second at the 125cc national at Red Bud, Michigan, before the chain fell off his bike. Glover would go on to win a moto in his rookie season (at Houston) and finish fifth in the 125 series. He was recognized as one of the leading up-and-coming riders in AMA Motocross.
Glover signed with Yamaha in 1977 for what he thought was the princely sum of $14,400 plus bonuses. He would remain loyal to Yamaha throughout the rest of his career racing in America.
In his first full season of pro racing, the 17-year-old Glover won the AMA 125cc Motocross National Championship. He and Danny LaPorte tied in the final standings, but Glover earned the title by virtue of having won more races.
The championship was not without controversy. In the final round in San Antonio, Texas, Yamaha stacked the field with its factory riders from other classes in an effort to help Glover. Teammate Bob Hannah led the final moto and on the last lap was given the infamous (and incorrectly spelled) pit board signal "Let Brock Bye" to allow Glover to win the title. It wasn’t the first and certainly not the last time team tactics would be used in motocross racing, but the photo of the infamous pit board signal made the final race of the 1977 a permanent part of motocross folklore.
Glover came back and proved that his 1977 title was no fluke. He went on to win the championship again in 1978 and 1979 to become the first three-time winner of the 125 series. Along the way, he won the 1978 125cc USGP.
Glover los t the 125 title to Suzuki’s Mark Barnett in 1980 after being plagued with a slew of mechanical problems with his bike.
He moved on to the 500cc class in 1981 and dominated, winning six of the eight nationals and clinching the championship early. In the fall of that year, Glover earned a one of the titles he’s most proud of – the 1981 Trans-USA Championship.
"That series had all the big hitters like Hannah, Barnett, Bell, myself and everyone else," he said. Glover won four of the five Trans-USA races, dominating the series en route to the title.
The 1983 season is another that stands out for Glover. He won his second AMA 500cc motocross title and wrapped up the season by being named to Team USA’s motocross and Trophee des Nations squad. It was the first team that was assembled from the best riders from various manufacturers and Glover, along with teammates David Bailey, Mark Barnett and Jeff Ward, completely dominated the international competition and sealed Am erica’s reputation around the globe as the best in motocross.
In 1984, Glover was a last-minute replacement for David Bailey on the winning Trophee des Nations squad. Glover’s taste of international competition made a lasting impression on him and would play a major factor at the end of his career.
Glover won his final championship in the 1985 AMA 500cc Motocross National Series, once again being the leading race winner in the championship. That title was Glover’s sixth AMA Motocross National title. That was a new record then and a mark that would stand for nearly two decades until Ricky Carmichael set a new standard by winning his seventh AMA Motocross title in 2003.
Glover won his 1985 championship despite riding with an injured wrist towards the end of the campaign. The injury was worse than originally thought and Glover spent nearly a year trying to get the wrist back in shape after surgery. Just as the wrist was coming around and Glover was starting to find his speed again, he broke his leg and went through another long period of rehabilitation.
By 1988, with the injuries mounting and top results getting harder and harder to come by, Glover decided to retire from racing.
Though primarily known throughout his 13-year career as a motocross specialist, Glover was a leading contender in AMA Supercross through the early 1980s as well. He won 10 AMA Supercross races during his career, which placed him at the time in the top 10 on the all-time wins list. In fact, Glover won the final AMA Supercross race he ever competed in – the season finale at the Los Angles Coliseum on June 18, 1988. It was a fitting postscript to his racing career in America.
Glover was coaxed out of retirement briefly in 1989 to race in World Championship Motocross. With his Motocross des Nations experience and his love for the tradition of Motocross Grand Prix, Glover had always wanted to race a full season in Europe. The factory KTM squad he rode for was plagued with constant mechanical problems, however, and Glover was not a major factor in the championship, although he did win the final moto of the season.
After retirement, Glover got married and started a family. He remained very active in the sport working for No Fear, PJ1 and Dunlop Tire in his post-racing career.
Glover expressed an appreciation for the pioneers of motorcycle racing during his Motorcycle Hall of Fame acceptance speech in 2000.
"An old proverb says that one generation plants the trees and the next generation gets to enjoy the shade," he said. "Many of these Hall of Fame inductees paved the way for me to be able to make a good living doing what I loved -- racing motorcycles. I hope I’ve done a small part in making it better for the current generation of riders."
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RICK "TOO HIP" JOHNSON
Rick Johnson was one of the great AMA motocross and Supercross racers of all-time. During the 1980s, he won seven AMA national championships and was part of four winning U.S. Motocross des Nations teams. In all, Johnson tallied an amazing 61 AMA national wins and earned championships in AMA Supercross and both 250cc and 500cc motocross. He retired as the all-time AMA Supercross wins leader in 1991 (his record was later broken by Jeremy McGrath). Johnson would likely have had even more impressive numbers had injuries not forced him into retirement when he was only 26.
Johnson was born on July 6, 1964 in La Mesa, California. His father was an avid motorcyclist and bought his 3-year-old son a minibike from Sears.
"My parents couldn’t pull me off that little minibike," Johnson recalled. "I just enjoyed riding whenever I could."
His older sister, Laurie, also rode, but gave up the sport when she became a teenager.
Johnson started competing in a few TT races when he was 7, before the neighborhood family that took him to the races moved away. He was 9 when he first raced motocross. Johnson smiled when he recalled that he finished last in his first race. He grew up racing in the early heyday of Southern California motocross. The sport was exploding, tracks were being built everywhere and Johnson recalled how exciting it was to be a part of a new and burgeoning sport.
By age 12, Johnson had become one of the top minibike riders in California and at 13 he moved up to the bigger bikes. He was befriended by Broc Glover and started training with the pro. Johnson’s family couldn’t always afford to get him to the important amateur events, so Glover was instrumental in helping Johnson get his first support ride from Yamaha.
In 1980, Johnson turned 16 and earned his pro license. He failed to qualify for his first pro race, the 1980 San Diego Supercross, although he proudly remembers battling with Marty Smith and George Jobe in the last-chance qualifier.
In 1981, Johnson hit the AMA national circuit in earnest with help from Yamaha. He had good success in his rookie season, earning two podium overall finishes in the 125cc class and even getting a moto win in front of his hometown fans at the final race of the 125cc series in Carlsbad, California. Johnson would later call his first national moto win one of the most memorable races of his career.
Johnson finished ranked seventh in the 125 outdoor nationals and earned the 1981 AMA 125cc Motocross Rookie of the Year Award.
Johnson came into his own during the 1982 season. Racing in the 250 class, he took his first national win in the 250 opener at the Hangtown National near Sacramento, California. He went on to earn a slew of top finishes that season, including another win, this time at Mt. Morris, Pennsylvania. Johnson had a solid series points lead going into the final national of the season in Castle Rock, Colorado. In that final event, he broke a front wheel on his bike and lost the championship in heartbreaking fashion to Honda’s Donnie Hansen by just three points.
Johnson suffered through an injury-plagued year in 1983 – first breaking his collarbone at the Supercross opener in Anaheim, California, and then dislocating his hip during the outdoor national season.
By 1984, Johnson’s fourth year on the pro circuit, he finally began steer clear of injury and the wins started piling up. He finally won his first AMA Supercross National at Seattle in February of that year and went on to finish second to Johnny O’Mara. The outdoor season was outstanding. Johnson won four 250cc nationals en route to winning that title – his first AMA national championship. He capped off the season as a member of the victorious Motocross des Nations team that competed in Vanta, Finland.
Johnson’s final season with Yamaha was in 1985, and he remembers it as a sort of sophomore jinx after winning the championship the year before. After the disappointing ’85 campaign, he was ready for a change. Johnson had been talking to Kawasaki about moving to its factory team, but after the 1985 season he was unexpectedly told by Kawasaki that they were going to go with younger prospect Ron Lechien.
"I was livid," remembers Johnson, after being snubbed by Kawasaki. "It turned out OK, though, after Honda’s motocross racing manager Roger DeCoster called me and asked me to come test the new Hondas to see what I thought."
Johnson was impressed with Honda’s new racing bikes and signed on with Big Red for the 1986 season.
Johnson’s change of scenery didn’t necessarily bring him happiness at first, though. He felt like an outsider. Teammates David Bailey and Johnny O’Mara were best friends and trained together in Olympian-like fashion.
"I went to train with them and they about killed me," Johnson joked. "Plus, David and Johnny had the Honda test track really dialed in, so I felt slow trying to keep up with them there. I decided it would be best if I just went off and trained on the tracks I knew and did my own thing."
The opening race of the 1986 season was the Anaheim Supercross, and it will go down in history as one of the best Supercross races of all time. It was a Johnson and Bailey battle throughout, with Bailey coming from behind to eventually take the hard-fought win in front of a sold-out and enthusiastic crowd of over 60,000. Even though he lost, that race proved to be a turning point for Johnson.
"I knew it was my fault alone for losing that race in Anaheim," said Johnson. "I knew then that if I was going to beat Bailey, I would have to ride wide-open for 20 laps. He was smother and a more gifted rider than I was, so I had to go out there and treat each race as if the championship was on the line."
The strategy paid off for Johnson. He went on to win six of the 12 Supercross nationals that season and beat Bailey for the championship. He then took all but one of that year’s 250 motocross nationals, easily winning the title. He also finished second to Bailey in the 500cc class and was named co-winner of the AMA Pro Athlete of the Year with Bubba Shobert (the two would share the honor again in 1987).
The rivalry between Johnson and Bailey was one of the best in the history of American motocross. Unfortunately, the rivalry proved to be short lived. Just prior to the start of the 1987 season Bailey was paralyzed in a practice crash.
Bailey’s untimely exit from racing affected the entire sport, but it was especially hard on Johnson.
"When David was injured, it took away the biggest reason I got up every morning," Johnson remembers. "Maybe I wouldn’t have won as many championships with David around, but I think the two of us took the sport to a new level and I would much rather have had him to race against for a few more years. I considered us like the Ali and Frazier of motocross racing. We despised and respected each other at the same time. When David got hurt, it took away a lot of my motivation."
In 1987, Johnson finished second to Jeff Ward in AMA Supercross, and went on to again dominate the outdoor national season – losing just once in both the 250cc and 500cc class and winning both titles convincingly.
Perhaps his most memorable Motocross des Nations came that year in Unadilla, New York, when the U.S. team with Johnson, Bob Hannah and Jeff Ward won before a home crowd.
"The look of pride on the faces of the fans when the 'Star Spangled Banner' was played is something I’ll never forget," Johnson says, who with the rest of the team was invited to the White House to meet President Ronald Reagan after the victory.
Johnson had made the transition to stardom in motocross and the various companies involved in motocross racing eagerly sought his endorsement. Johnson’s good looks were used to sell all sorts of racing products. His most famous and controversial ad came in 1988, when he posed nude sitting on a rock for a Fox Racing advertisement in a takeoff of Rodin’s "The Thinker" sculpture.
"I caught a lot of flack for that ad from some circles," recalls Johnson. "But to this day, when I make appearances people show up with that ad almost 15 years later and want me to autograph it. I see someone unrolling a poster and think to myself, 'Oh no, not the one where I’m naked.' But that kind of thing really started the whole motocross-in-fashion thing and put it much more into the mainstream."
1988 proved to be another stellar season for Johnson. He won the AMA Supercross title, the 500cc Motocross Championship and was a part of the winning Motocross des Nations team for the fourth time. Johnson also became more of a thinking rider during this time and largely shed his reputation as a wild rider.
Johnson was on a roll and he began the 1989 season with a five-race Supercross winning streak. In February of that year, Johnson broke Bob Hannah’s record and became the all-time wins leader in AMA Supercross with 28 career victories.
Just a few weeks later, Johnson suffered an injury that would ultimately lead to his premature retirement from motocross racing.
It was in Gainesville, Florida, during morning practice for the Gatorback Nationals. Danny Storbeck came off a jump and landed on Johnson’s right arm. The impact badly broke Johnson’s wrist. He would never fully recover from the injury.
Johnson came back to race before the end of the 1989 season, and while he turned in some brave performances, he would not win another race that year. He visited half a dozen doctors trying to see if anything could be done to repair his wrist, but they all said the same thing – the joint would have to be fused.
To show the depth of Johnson’s talent, he returned in 1990 to win two more nationals – the 250 national at Gainesville, Florida, (one year after his injury at the very same circuit) and the 500cc national at Unadilla, New York. This despite riding with a right wrist that he could hardly move and a hand that would totally go numb after just a few laps of racing.
Johnson contemplated retirement after the 1990 season, but he did well at a few of the European exhibition Supercross races during the off season and decided to go ahead and attempt to race in 1991. However, the hand and wrist were getting worse and he crashed numerous times during the early rounds of the ’91 Supercross season and announced his retirement at the 1991 Daytona Supercross. He was just 26.
"I didn’t have any second thoughts about retiring from motorcycle racing," explained Johnson. "I just couldn’t ride up to my standards because of my injury and I was starting to have success racing off-road trucks. So it was the right time for me to leave."
Johnson went on to have success in off-road truck and stock car racing. He took wins in the famous Baja 1000 twice and was American Speed AssoSA) stock car series Rookie of the Year in 1999.
Johnson was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Stephanie, and their children. He is president of a popular web site devoted to motocross and Supercross racing.
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