Back when motocross started the Europeans literally smoked the American racers and were the dominate force in the sport for many years. In 1981 it all changed when a so called ‘B Team’ of racers, all from Team Honda under the leadership of Honda Team manager Roger DeCoster stepped up to the plate and led the challenge of taking on the Europeans in their own back yard at an even called the Motocross Des Nations. The top stars of the day in American motocross were Bob Hannah, Kent Howerton, Mark Barnett and Broc Glover but they all were told by their factory employers to stay home thus setting the stage for an amazing story by the Honda team.
That day in 1981 changed history with the Americas pulling off a surprise victory which lead to decades of American domination in the sport of motocross that continues today.
by Ed Youngblood
The team that beat the world’s best!
It is customarily not considered good scholarship for historians to put themselves in the picture; but, in this case I will indulge myself, because I was there in the summer of 1974 when an official of the FIM made a prediction that then seemed impossible, but now seems inevitable. I was standing trackside at the Mid-Ohio Motocross Course with Charles Dillen, a Belgian delegate from the FIM. The AMA had applied for the right to organize a 125 Grand Prix, and Dillen had been dispatched to inspect the course and the capability of the promoter. He had come on a racing weekend to evaluate the promoter’s staff and the AMA’s officials in action. It was Saturday – amateur day – and the course was like an ant farm of youngsters practicing their motocross skills.
I was quite apprehensive because I doubted that we were capable of any performance that would impress Mr. Dillen. After all, he was a long-standing delegate of the FIM and a seasoned official from the land that had helped invent modern motocross, and that had spawned the likes of Robert, DeCoster, and Geboers. Thus, I was understandably taken aback when Dillen matter-of-factly said, “Soon you [meaning America] will rule the world of motocross.” I needed a moment to let my mind catch up with my ears, and then I replied, “You gotta be kidding!”
Dillen raised his arm, and with his palm open made a broad, slow sweep across the horizon, like Moses parting the waters, and said, “No, it is only logical. There are hundreds of young riders here, and you have hundreds of tracks just like this across a very large nation. If tiny Belgium can produce champions from such a small population, think of what America will do. Your domination of the sport is inevitable.”
It was a logical argument, but still, at that moment in history I simply could not believe it. Jim Pomeroy had proven that an American could win a GP the previous summer, but to me the Europeans were still magical. That America’s success would be simply a combination of opportunity and hard work seemed too simple. That American domination was inevitable seemed too outrageous to be true.
In that era, the true measure of a nation’s motocross prowess was its performance at the Trophee des Nations (for 250cc machines) and the Motocross des Nations (for 500cc machines), were designed to measure the performance of four-man national teams. Having begun in the Netherlands in 1947, a full decade before the FIM created its first individual world motocross championship title; these events were rich in prestige and filled with tradition. Any country might produce the solitary superstar from time to time, but it took depth and breadth of talent to win the Motocross or Trophee des Nations.
Great Britain won 15 times during the first two decades of the program, and then dropped out of sight for the next three decades. Belgium and Sweden played well through the 1960s and 1970s, with Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union winning from time to time.
Americans began to aspire to compete in the Motocross des Nations in the late 1960s. Ron Nelson, Russ Darnell, and Dan Gurney launched a private team funding campaign, supported by Cycle News, but in the absence of a strong FIM affiliated organization in the United States, their task was overwhelming. With the AMA becoming America’s FIM affiliate in 1970, it launched its first official assault on the world team championship in 1972 with Gary Jones, Brad Lackey, Jim Pomeroy, and Jimmy Weinert. Plagued by mechanical problems, they finished seventh.
From there, the project went in fits and starts. With its own internal management and financial problems, the AMA was not able to mount an effort in 1973. A team was sent again in 1974, and for the remainder of the decade Americans learned just how hard it is to muster the talent, money, industry support, transportation, and organization to field a competitive team. There was little evidence that America was making any consistent headway up the world team motocross ladder.
The 1974 team of Jim Weinert, Tony DiStefano, Jim Pomeroy and Brad Lackey finished second in Stockholm, Sweden.
True, the Yanks had earned second in Sweden in 1974 and France in 1977, but in 1979 and 1980 they had not even fielded a team. America’s top riders were not anxious to risk their good names in under-funded and poorly organized efforts, and the manufacturers did not see a lot of benefit in spending money on bikes, transportation, and personnel at the end of a long, hard U.S. national championship season.
Two men who refused to be discouraged were Larry Maiers of Hi-Point Racing Products and Dick Miller of Motocross Action magazine. Figuring a properly-funded effort would cost about $40,000, Maiers set out to raise $20,000, mostly by selling t-shirts, and Miller got the four Japanese manufacturers to commit $5,000 each in matching funds. The plan was to properly support America’s then-current superstars: Bob Hannah, Broc Glover, Kent Howerton, and Mark Barnett.
But Hannah and Howerton had been there and done that and had bad memories from it. The whole program began to unravel when Suzuki withdrew Howerton and Barnett. Then Yamaha followed suit, pulling Hannah and Glover.
America had never seen a funding effort like that put together by Maiers and Miller. Here they were with a pile of money and no team. Furthermore, Bel Ray Lubricants had made a big in-kind commitment to the program. American Bel Ray executive J.J. Hanfield agreed to serve as team manager, and its Belgian-based representative Thur Coen agreed to handle all transportation, accommodations, and logistics in Europe, setting out a plan designed to shield the riders as much as possible from the culture shock of poor food, bad accommodations, and difficult travel. Roger DeCoster, who had moved from Suzuki to Honda’s racing department at the beginning of 1981, came to the rescue by somehow persuading his new employer to put forward a full team, consisting of Chuck Sun, Donnie Hansen, Johnny O’Mara, and Danny LaPorte, plus motorcycles and a full crew of mechanics. DeCoster took on the job of coach and mentor to the riders. For this he was certainly qualified, having ridden on victorious Belgian Motocross des Nations teams six times and Trophee des Nations teams 10 times!
The pundits, especially in Europe, predicted another embarrassing year for America. And why not? This was a B team consisting of less-seasoned riders. They were not even America’s best, so how could they succeed in world-class racing? They were held in so little regard, the promoter of the Trophee des Nations in Belgium refused to give them the start money of a real national team, and DeCoster’s countrymen chastised him for bringing a “second rate” team from America.
Even after the team placed first in qualifying for the event, the Europeans refused to take them seriously. Conventional wisdom within the paddock said that, yes, they were quick young boys, but they would certainly wilt under the punishment of 40-minute motos against real motocross men.
Boys among “men”: Danny LaPorte, Donnie Hansen, Johnny O’Mara and Chuck Sun showed up the world’s best on day in 1981 in Beilstein, Germany.
This was not the case. The quartet won resoundingly. With a low score of 20 winning the championship, the second-place Belgian team earned nearly twice the points at 37. American Motorcyclist reported, “The victory was so lopsided that had all of the European riders been on the same team, the U.S. would still have won by two points!” (1) The legendary Joel Robert, who, like DeCoster, was well beyond his racing career, taunted the president of the Belgian motorcycle federation, stating, “Next week maybe Roger and I will practice a little and ride for Belgium. You need all the help you can get!” (2)
Thur Coen, who was especially incensed by the way his fellow Europeans had treated their American guests, got on the public address system and announced in Flemish, “We have proven that it wasn’t a joke.” (3)
The following week’s Motocross des Nations, held in Germany, was a very different race, but the results were the same. Even with Sun dropping out with an injury, the American team came from behind to beat the British by a single point.
Cycle News reporter Henny Ray Abrams wrote, “To add to the drama the announcer read out the names of the lower placing teams first. When he got to second and announced ‘Great Britain, 43′ it was sheer bedlam for the four young Americans, their team and their many supporters. America became only the sixth nation to win the event.”(4)
DeCoster declared, “One point is just enough. It feels better to win by one point than by 17 like last week. I think it’s maybe more exciting to me than when I won this myself.” (5)
If this was America’s B Team, surely “B” stood for “best.” Addressing the inevitable question as to whether America’s original A Team might have done even better, American Motorcyclist editor Bill Amick declared, “I believe that Hansen, LaPorte, O’Mara, and Sun were the perfect formula for victory. In a sport marked by intense individual rivalries, they set all that aside. They traveled as a team, thought as a team, and rode as a team.” (6)
Still, it might have been a fluke. Europe, collectively, might have been having a bad couple of days. But this is not the case. In fact, it was only the beginning. The historic 1981 world team motocross victories verified that America had become a factory for motocross talent. That factory turned out young Americans who won the motocross team championships for 13 years in a row – from 1981 through 1993 – with encores in 1996 and 2000. To punctuate the miracle of 1981, LaPorte and Brad Lackey won the 250 and 500cc individual world championships the following season.
Six years later, when America’s team won the Motocross des Nations on their own soil at Unadilla, New York in 1987, they were invited to the White House for an audience with President Reagan in the Oval Office. Not only had the young Americans made their mark in Europe, but they raised motocross to a level of recognition as a major sport in their own country.
America’s world team motocross performance throughout the 1980s established a record of uninterrupted domination that no other nation is ever likely to surpass. Charles Dillen’s incredible prediction of the summer of 1974 had come true.
(1.) American Motorcyclist, November 1981, page 63.
(2.) American Motorcyclist, November 1981, page 63.
(3.) Cycle News XVIII, #37, September 23, 1981, page 18.
(4.) Cycle News XVIII, #37, September 23, 1981, page 2
(5.) Cycle News XVIII, #38, September 30, 1981, pg. 18
(6.) American Motorcyclist, November 1981, Page 3.
© 2012, Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum