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Interviews with Four Motocross Champions

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This article was originally published in the June 2017 issue of Dirt Rider.

A lot gets written about titles when they happen. But now that a bit of time has passed, we thought it would be fun to go back and talk to a few of those champions, one on one, and get the real story of their championship years and the problems and funny stories that accompanied them.

1970s

Marty Smith | 1977

125cc AMA Pro Motocross Champion 1974

125cc AMA Pro Motocross Champion 1975

500cc AMA Pro Motocross Champion 1977

Marty's Type Two

Marty Smith was perhaps the first real motocross superstar, with his golden-boy good looks and incredible physique and conditioning. Marty won his first title in 1974, the 125cc Pro Motocross title, which he backed up in 1975. However, he told us his 1977 500cc Motocross title was perhaps his toughest since it featured some knockdown, drag-out battles with Bob Hannah.

To set the stage, there was a lot of drama the year before in ’76 because of the bike Marty rode in Europe. That year he was riding the FIM series and flying back and forth so he could also race the AMA series, which he ultimately lost to Bob Hannah.

“[In 1976], we had a Type One Honda factory bike I was riding, but we were having quite a bit of issues with it. Everybody just thought it was because Bob was new and Bob had a great bike—the OW20—and that was why we were struggling. But we would have struggled anyway. So then Honda came out with that Type Two and I rode it a couple of events. I won every moto on that. Then Honda decided to repo the bike and take it back to Japan, take it right out of my hands. They said, ‘Hey, we’re worried that thing’s going to get claimed by the claim rule and we don’t want to take a chance.’ Bob ended up beating me that year, but that bike ended up being what Honda came out with in ’77 so I was able to ride it in the US series the next year.

“Bob and I were bitter rivals on the track. I didn’t like him at all and he didn’t like me at all. If we were anywhere near each other on the track, we kept an eye on each other. We kept our distance. It was a brutal hatred on the track, I can tell you that. But off the track, we got along. We were very cordial. We had nothing but respect for each other. I don’t think we ever came out and said to each other that we respected each other. We didn’t go that far. I never sent him a Christmas card or nothing like that, but I did respect him.

“So in ’77 I felt like I had something to prove. Our bikes were amazing. The Type Two Honda was just badass. We came out strong and I got a big lead halfway through the nationals. Everything was going great. Just after the halfway point, while Bob was struggling in the first half, I was cruising, and I had a nice 25- or 30-point lead. But then I got involved in a couple of crashes, had some bad starts. I think I had a flat and DNF’d one moto. But Bob caught me in the second half of that series and we went into St. Pete, Florida, the final round, and I think we were just literally a point or two apart. Whoever won that day was going to win the national championship.

“St. Pete was a sand track, and it was beat. Practice was a freeway just like Mammoth Mountain MX is in the morning, and then the first moto it started getting beat up. The second moto it was pretty beat. That was in my favor, to my advantage. It was hot, humid, and rough. That’s about the best I can explain it. But I loved those conditions.

“In the first moto Bob got the holeshot and I followed him around, just stayed right behind him. I kept him at bay and wouldn’t let him get away. I didn’t want to push too hard because I knew we had two motos. But right out of the blue his throttle cable broke, which made it real easy for me to just keep on putting around and win that first moto. Then all I had to do is get eighth or 10th the second moto. I think I got third and won the championship. That was my final championship, on a 500. That was a good year. I felt like I had something to prove and I really wanted to beat Bob. I got my share of moto victories that year, but to be honest with you I was just really consistent. I didn’t win every moto. I don’t know who won the majority of the motos, but it wasn’t me. I was just the guy who was right there, ready to win a championship and not really worried about winning the motos. I just knew that I had to win a championship.”

The Fulfillment Of A 10-Year Goal

In 1982, Brad Lackey became the first American to win the 500cc FIM Motocross World Championship, which was the culmination of a 10-year commitment to the world championships for the Californian. In his final year on a Kawasaki, 1980, Lackey crashed at the final round of the series and lost the title by one point to André Malherbe. The disappointment was bitter. In 1981, Suzuki took a chance on the aging rider with a two-year deal.

To set the stage, the ’82 title chase was coming down to the wire. It was the final GP in Ettelbruck, Luxembourg, and the championship chase was within a few points, with Lackey slightly ahead. Whoever won the final GP between Lackey and Andre Vromans would be World Champion. According to Brad, it should have been cut and dried and pretty easy, but in Canada a few races before, things all went to hell. “I had a big lead and I won the first moto in Canada and Vromans got second,” Lackey said. “In the second moto I was winning, and then I broke a shock halfway into the race so I didn’t finish. It cost me a lot of points.”

After Canada, the series moved back to Europe where Lackey won in England. The circuit then moved to Belgium, Vromans’ home track. “That’s where all the crazy fans are, and I was nervous because I know how it works—fans throwing things and crowding the track when you come by. I was pretty conservative. I think Andre won the first moto and I got second. He gained a few points on me there, but I got through it without any disasters.

“I knew the final track at Luxembourg was my kind of track. I was faster there than he was, for sure, so I knew I had a good advantage going into that. The track was great—a good, moist track. Real fast. I think there were six or eight points separating us going into that race. So if he beat me both motos, he could win the title, but as long as that didn’t happen, which I kind of felt it wouldn’t happen, [I would win].

“I was pretty confident. But Luxembourg is basically Belgium and Holland and Luxembourg—it’s all one little country called Benelux. Nothing but 60,000 Belgium fans, and they all wanted Vromans to win. I knew if I was going to have any trouble, it would be there. That track was really long, and you go back in the woods. There’s no fencing. The spectators are on the track, so anything can happen. The year before, the fans broke Graham Noyce’s arm with a big pole while he was leading. He was in front of Vromans, and they felt he was slowing him up so they broke his arm when he went by. So I decided way before the event to kind of lay back, not be in the lead, and let Vromans just do whatever he’s going to do and stay there until the very end of the race and then kind of do a surprise attack.

“So the first moto, that’s basically what we did. I was running in about third, but he was leading and he was 25 seconds ahead of me. Our plan was on the last five laps. Whatever the lead was, catch him and pass him and beat him before anybody could really react. So I was waiting for my crew to give me a five-laps sign… Three laps and then two laps, so they have to calculate all that. So when I finally got it I turned on the afterburners and made up the 25-second deficit and passed him halfway around the final lap. I think Carl Nunn actually won the race. I got second place, and Vromans ended up getting third. So my lead in the points increased a little bit. When I came in we couldn’t believe that had really happened, that I could make up that much time. But the track was perfectly suited for me and my bike. So I asked my team guys, ‘We did it! Unbelievable! What’s the plan for the second moto?’ They laughed and said, ‘We ain’t got no plan. We never thought that plan would work!’

“So Vromans was crying after the first moto because nobody gave him a signal saying I was coming because nobody thought I would catch him. He was unaware of it, and he broke down after the race and couldn’t believe what had just happened. So the second moto all I had to do was ride around and finish behind him and I had the championship. I was just watching out for spectators and not really attempting to win the race; I just stayed in front of him. I was in second or third I think, and he was back in sixth place or something because he screwed up on the start. He went the wrong way for a second and tipped over and then got back up. So he was mid-pack the first lap, and then he worked his way up to sixth or eighth or something. I think I rode around in third and that was all it took and I won the championship.”

The Black Suzuki

Guy Cooper is world famous for his big-air antics, which made him one of the most popular riders on the circuit from the mid-1980s on. In the ’90s, Cooper learned to temper his wilder side—somewhat—and in 1990, riding for Team Suzuki, Coop won the 125cc AMA National Pro Motocross title in what wound up being a come-from-behind effort over Kawasaki’s Mike Kiedrowski.

Going into his first contract with Suzuki in 1990 not knowing the bike, Coop told us he rode a box-stock 125 and 250 before he signed. He liked the 250 but didn’t like 125. Turns out, though, he loved the works 125. That was the 1990 model. Midway into the season, however, Suzuki came out with the ’91 model, which, of course, it wanted Cooper to ride in the nationals.

During the early part of the season, Coop had dominated the series and built up a 62-point lead over Kiedrowski on the ’90 model. Then midway into the year Suzuki brought out the 1991 model and, after that, Kiedrowski was able to gain to within 29 points on Coop just because Coop was somewhat unfamiliar with the new bike. Then, at Steel City, five races out from the series finale at Unadilla, a freak thing happened.

“I jumped up that uphill, and you don’t think there are that many rocks in it, but there were just little boulder rocks, tennis-ball-size rocks on the track,” Cooper said. “Well, I landed without a skid plate and busted the transmission. I had a 15-second lead whenever that happened, so that was a pretty big setback.”

With the DNF, Kiedrowski caught Cooper in the points, and from that moment on it was a situation where Coop would catch back up, only to lose it at the next race.

Heading into the final round at Unadilla, Kiedrowski led Coop by one point. But Unadilla was a track that Cooper knew all too well. As a matter of fact, he had won a moto at the famed facility earlier in the year during the USGP, beating Jean-Michel Bayle. However, that win came on the 1990 model. So Cooper knew in his heart he could win at Unadilla on the ’90 model, though he had his reservations about the ’91.

The Thursday before Unadilla was a Dunlop tire test day. “We went out and rode the two bikes—the ’90 and the ’91,” Cooper recalled. “Mentally I felt more comfortable on the ’90—it just is one of those things where it all fell into place where that’s the bike that I’m going to go win the championship on.

“So without telling the Suzuki team manager, Ron Heben, Marshall [Plumb, Cooper’s mechanic] and I decided I would ride the 1990 model. The big problem was the ’90 had a black frame and the ’91 had a yellow frame. So Marshall went out to Wal-Mart and bought a spray can of John Deere Yellow. He stripped the ’90 model bike down and spray-painted the frame yellow.

“The first moto I get the holeshot and I stretch out a pretty good lead, but then I crash, but I still came back and won the moto while Kiedrowski finished third. So now if Kiedrowski won and I got second, it was my championship. So off the start of moto two I look up coming around where the score tower is, and I could see Kiedrowski in the lead. I’m about eighth. Eighth is no problem. I can do this. So going into the third turn where you go under the underpass my front end washed and I hit the ground. I get up in 28th place and take off. The closer I got to the front the tighter I started riding, but when I thought it was all lost, I rode like a maniac and rode great. I came through to seventh or eighth within a couple of laps, and then each rider of course is harder to catch and harder to pass, and the last guy to pass was Jeff Matiasevich, and he’s Kiedrowski’s teammate.

“It was maybe five laps to go, four laps to go, and I didn’t have a problem with him in any other race because typically outdoors he would be tired by then. In this case he’s Mike’s teammate and he’s running second, I’m running third, and that’s the deciding factor of who wins. So I caught up to him. I wasn’t really putting any big threat on him, just riding with him knowing there’s still a lot of race left. In the back section where there were very few spectators, he pulled over for me. He didn’t want to be the guy to be the center of a contro­versy. I went around him and he started following me. Typically I would have stretched it out on him. But at that point, with the $100,000 Suzuki bonus, the ‘You’ve won the championship if you can finish,’ I tightened up and rode so horribly. I was tight and Matiasevich is behind me hollering at me, ‘Go! Go!’ It really was messing with me. For about a lap he was right on me. He told me after the race, ‘I’m looking bad here standing in the corners waiting on you.’ Then I kind of got my groove again and stretched it out there a little ways. If I had needed to, I would have probably rode way over my head to get around Matiasevich, but that was one of the few times I can say Matiasevich worked out in my favor.”

The topper to the story is, because of all of the rocks at Unadilla, when the race was over and the bike was sitting in front of the podium, most of the yellow paint had been chipped off from rocks hitting it and everyone knew what bike Coop had ridden. Of course, it was all legal and Guy Cooper went into the history books as the 1990 AMA 125cc National Motocross Champion.

Let Branden By

Mike Brown is known by most of the younger generation for his off-road exploits, most recently riding a Rockstar Energy Husqvarna in the AMA EnduroCross Series as well as being on the US ISDE team for several years. However, two decades ago, Brownie was a motocross star, and he won the 125cc Pro Motocross Championship in 2001 after a fierce battle with South African Grant Langston, who was racing in America after winning the 125 FIM World Championship just the year before. It was an exciting season with an interesting twist in the end.

Brownie is not one to brag about his successes. He’s more of a quiet, blue-collar type, which is why so many love him. The Tennessee native spent the 1999 and 2000 seasons in Europe, also riding the 125cc World Championships, where he finished third on both occasions.

In 2001, Brownie came back to the United States and raced the AMA series for Mitch Payton’s Pro Circuit Kawasaki team, while Langston also came to America and rode the series for KTM.

Travis Pastrana was the defending 125 champ heading into the 2001 season, but it was Langston and Brown who dominated. However, Brown was slow out of the gate.

“I got off to a bad start to the season; I DNF’d both motos at the first round at Hangtown,” Brownie said. “The bike broke in the first moto and then something else happened in the second moto, so I started the season 50 points in the hole. During the middle part of the season I won three races in a row, so that kind of put me back in it.”

The series wound up being a back-and-forth affair for most of the year, while in the 250cc class, Ricky Carmichael was killing and, in fact, wrapped up the title early on his Kawasaki, meaning he didn’t need to ride the final round at Steel City.

At that time, Ricky was tied on the all-time 125cc wins list with Mark Barnett and needed one more 125 win to break Barnett’s record. Since his 250 title was already wrapped up, he was more than happy to drop down and try for the record at the series finale in Steel City and, at the same time, perhaps help his friend, Mike Brown, and his old team, Pro Circuit Kawasaki, win the 2001 title. Many think it was team orders that prompted Ricky to move down for the final race. After all, if he could get between Brown and Langston and help Brownie win the title, it would be in Kawasaki’s best interest.

“Going into the last round, Grant had a nine-point lead on me, and there was a lot of talk going around that Ricky was riding so he could get between me and Grant and help me out,” Brown told Dirt Rider magazine. “Maybe that’s what Kawasaki wanted, but I think Ricky was more interested in beating out Mark for the most 125 wins.”

When racing got underway at Steel City, Brown won the first moto, with Langston in second. Ricky got a bad start and was only able to work his way up to third, so Brownie was able to gain a few points on Langston.

Going into the second moto, Langston now had a six-point lead over Brown in the title chase and just needed to stay relatively close to the Kawasaki rider to win the championship.

Making things easier for Langston, Brown crashed on the first lap of the second moto and dropped to the back of the pack. “I was about top 10 off the start, but then I crashed at the bottom of the big uphill, which put me pretty far back,” Brown said. “I was almost dead last, but I worked my way up pretty fast. A lot of guys helped me out by letting me by easy; I guess they were wanting me to win.”

Meanwhile, Ricky had gotten off to a much better start and rode away with the second moto win. But things would go terribly wrong for Langston when the rear spokes on his 125 KTM started to break. Langston slowed trying to save a finish, but he was eventually left stranded on the side of the track with a collapsed rear wheel, handing the title to Brownie.

By this time, Brown had moved up into second behind Ricky and on the final lap, with title in hand, he slowed to allow Branden Jessemen to go around, handing Ricky his record-winning 26th 125 overall victory.

“When I passed Grant, I thought he had a flat tire because he was riding so slow; I didn’t know what was going on,” Brown said. “The next time I came around I saw him sitting on the side of the track and I knew it was over for him.”