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Welcome to a new Racer X Online Countdown, this one dedicated to the men and women who graduated from the Rocky Mountain ATV/MC Loretta Lynn's AMA Amateur Motocross Championship (est. 1982) and went on to do some other big things in their lives—some in motocross, some in auto racing, some in the motorcycle industry, and some just in life in general. It's our way of counting down the days to the single biggest and most important amateur motocross race of all and how it's helped shape the lives of those who have gone off the starting gates on the land of the first lady of country music, Loretta Lynn.

Not every rider who graduates from Loretta Lynn’s is young. In fact, there is a well-established path back to racing amateur vet classes that has existed ever since the very first Loretta Lynn’s AMA Amateur National Motocross Championship back in 1982. Finishing 11th in the Senior (+30) class was Barry Higgins, who was the winner of the first AMA Pro Motocross National back in 1972 at Road Atlanta. Higgins, who was a factory rider for CZ, Maico, Greeves, and more, rode a Maico that first year. He basically retired from pro motocross in 1974, then came back in ’79 to race the Atlanta SX and finished an impressive 13th. Then he went back into retirement until lining up for that first Loretta Lynn’s.

Of course, ex-pro riders coming back to race amateur has not been without its controversies. The debate centers around the idea that once you’ve turned pro, you can never be an amateur again. But when you’re a lifelong motocross enthusiast of a certain age and well past your supercross prime, going back and racing amateur motocross seems like a sensible plan. Regardless, the multiple vet classes now have different restrictions that allow ex-pros into Junior +25, Senior +40, and Masters +50, but not in the Sportsman classes (College, +30, and +45). 

Mark Barnett at Loretta Lynn's.
Mark Barnett at Loretta Lynn's. Racer X Archives

In 1983, former Husqvarna factory rider Dick Robbins from Michigan came down and raced the Senior class. Robbins was a member of the very first Team USA at the 1970 Motocross des Nations, along with AMA Pro National winners Bob Grossi and Mark Blackwell.

Things went up a notch in 1986 with the addition of a Junior (+25) class. None other than Marty Smith, the original American motocross superstar, came with Kawasaki Team Green to race in the new class. Smith, a three-time AMA Pro Motocross Champion, as well as the winner of the very first AMA 125 National in 1974, had last raced pro with Cagiva in 1982. At Loretta Lynn’s, he went 5-3 in his first two motos before crashing out of the last one. The winner of that race? Kris Bigelow, one of the four fast Bigelow brothers that rode out of Rochester, Michigan, and rode for Team Dynamic. 

In 1987, another OG American motocross superstar, three-time 250 Pro Motocross Champion Tony DiStefano, qualified for the Senior +30 class on a Suzuki RM250. Everyone had Tony D. pegged to win, but lifelong amateur Robbie Neeley thought (and rode) differently. Neeley went 1-1-1 to DiStefano’s 2-2-2, narrowly winning each time. The two even crashed across the finish line in one race as they battled all the way to the checkered flag. 

Jeff Emig in 2002.
Jeff Emig in 2002. Hultner

The next year it was Mark Barnett who came back. Neeley wasn’t nearly as successful as The Bomber, who last raced pro in 1985. Mark went 1-1-1 on his Suzuki RM250 and felt so good about how he was riding that he decided to try a professional comeback the next spring with TUF Racing Suzuki. He did the Florida Winter-AMA Series and raced the first round of the AMA Pro Motocross Championship at Gatorback in Gainesville, Florida, finishing 13th overall. But then he got hurt and called it quits again.

What’s also cool about Barnett’s return-to-amateur win is that he was a AMA Youth Minicycle Champion in 1973 and the ’75 and ’76 AMA 125 Amateur National Champion. Then he turned pro, won three 125 Pro Motocross titles and the ’81 AMA Supercross Championship, rode for Team USA, won the U.S. 125cc Grand Prix, and more… Coming back to Loretta Lynn’s in ’88 meant that Barnett had gone full-circle. 

In the years to follow, more ex-pros and ex-factory riders came back: Jeff Emig, Robbie Reynard, Tim Ferry, Nathan Ramsey, Buddy Antunez, Doug Dubach, Michael Byrne, Todd DeHoop, Ron Tichenor, Austin Stroupe, and even former two-time FIM Motocross World Champions Sebastien Tortelli and Trampas Parker, who came back and raced vet classes at Loretta Lynn’s. Mike Brown made his return last year (and will be back for 2018). It should be mentioned that not every former pro that comes back to the ranch was a top pro or factory rider (including this writer), but it’s the really, really fast ones who get people talking—and debating—about the presence of ex-professionals at the AMA Amateur National Motocross Championships. 

Ricky Carmichael in 2012.
Ricky Carmichael in 2012. Simon Cudby

After all, even the GOAT himself, Ricky Carmichael, returned to the ranch five years after his professional career ended and won the Junior +25 class in 2012, 16 years after capping his amateur career with a ninth Loretta Lynn’s title. He won 150 races and 15 major titles as a professional before retiring in 2007. How did he do? Of course he went 1-1-1!

Here are all of Ricky Carmichael’s Loretta Lynn’s results.