Here’s a look back at the first Motocross des Nations race on U.S. soil, which took place at Unadilla in New Berlin, New York, 1987. Besides being the first meeting of the prestigious international motocross event state-side, the race is memorable because the Americans – Rick Johnson, Jeff Ward and Bob Hannah – were able to keep U.S. MXdN dominance with the team’s seventh straight win. A win that was hard fought for in tough muddy conditions that usually favored the Europeans.
By Kit Palmer
Neither rain, nor knee-deep mud, nor the best motocross riders in the world could stop the United States team from capturing its seventh consecutive Motocross des Nations
World Championship title at one of the world’s most demanding motocross tracks – the 1.l-mile Unadilla Valley Sports Center. Honda’s Rick Johnson, Kawasaki’s Jeff Ward and Suzuki’s Bob Hannah managed to squeak ahead of the Dutch and Belgian teams in the less than ideal racing conditions at Unadilla.
Rain played a major factor in this year’s Motocross des Nations, which was held for the first time ever in the United States. The hilly course turned into a quagmire, giving what many thought was an advantage to the Europeans. But when it was all over, the U.S. prevailed with two points to spare over the Dutch team consisting of Dave Strijbos, Kees Van der Ven and John Van Den Berk. Third place fell to the Belgians with Marc Velkeneers, Erik Geboers and Georges Jobe; Germany and France rounded out the top five. Team U.S.A. totaled five points, Netherlands seven and Belgium nine.
Because of the rains and muddy track conditions, the decision to run a different race format came after practice. The original plan to run the 125, 250 and 500cc classes together in three motos, counting the best six scores of each country was discarded. Instead, a two-class, three moto format was used.
The first moto included the 125 and 500cc riders, the second moto the 125 and 250ccs, and the final moto the 250cc and 500ccs. Thus, riders would only have to race twice and there would be less racers on the track at one time. After completing all motos, the top four (out of a possible six) motos of each country were added, and the country with the lowest point total was declared the winner.
The overall winner in the first 125/500cc moto was 1987 500cc World Champion Jobe, while French rider Jean-Michel Bayle topped the 125cc race with a fifth overall. The next two motos were aced by Johnson, while the 125cc and 500cc winners were Hannah and Van der Ven, respectively.
“I had a bad feeling we weren’t going to pull it off because the European teams, like the Belgians, are so tough and such good mud riders,” Johnson said. “But our team pulled together really strong.”
As Johnson put it, “we got off to a grim start.” After the first moto, things looked somewhat bleak for the U.S. team when both Ward and Hannah encountered problems while running up front. After the first moto, the U.S. team was in third place, three points behind both the Dutch and Belgians, but Johnson sparked the U.S.A team and the American crowd to life with the overall moto victory in heat two. Hannah, meanwhile, became the crowd favorite by topping the 125cc class with an incredible third overall.
Going into the final moto, the U.S. team was tied for the lead with Belgium, but Johnson’s class victory was enough to capture the Motocross des Nations Championship.
A steady downpour made the Unadilla course extremely difficult to ride, and with the Europeans known to be such strong mud riders, it was felt by many observers that this would be the year the U.S.’s win streak would come to an end.
“The mud is going to make it a lot more even,” said Ward after practice. “If the track was dry, hard and hot we would be superior. With the mud, it’s an even ball game. Whoever gets the holeshot is going to be right up there.”
Great Britain’s Rob Herring said, “It will give the Europeans a better chance, and it’ll make the racing a lot closer. Yesterday (Saturday) during practice, the track was the best I’ve ever ridden on – it was magic. It’s a pity the rain spoiled it a bit.”
“The Europeans have been riding in the mud all year,” said Johnson. “That’ll make it a little more even, because we haven’t had that much mud.”
U.S.A. team manager Roger DeCoster said, “All we have to do is ride the best we can and pretty much ride our own race. The key is not to give up; it’s going to be a survival race. It’s now more open to more people being able to do good.”
Unlike normal FIM-sanctioned races, the riders’ star ting positions at Unadilla were determined by a drawing instead of lowest lap times during practice. One drawing was used.
Ward was lined up on the inside for the first moto while Hannah was a few bikes outside of him. When the gate dropped for the start, however, it was KTM-mounted Van der Ven stealing the holeshot ahead of Finland’s Kurt Ljungqvist and Canada’s Doug Hoover. Hannah and his l25cc Suzuki was fourth, while Bayle and Jobe followed. Ward was midpack.
“One or two guys beat me to the first turn,” said Ward, “and my goggles got caked with mud. They also got knocked down below my nose and I couldn’t get them up, so I had to take them off right there.”
“I used low gear, jumped out, did some good shifts and I cut to the inside while everybody went wide,” said Hannah. A few turns later, however, Hannah was passed by Bayle, and then finished the first lap nearly at the back of the pack.
“I got barely bumped going up Screw-U (a steep downhill/uphill section),” said Hannah. “I had to shut off just for a second near the top, and that’s all it took. I just stopped. I kept it running and tried to jump off the bike and push it over the top, but it was like stepping in glue. I couldn’t even move in the mud. So I just turned around and went back down.”
But Hannah’s problems weren’t through yet.
“As I headed back up at the bottom,” said Hannah, “a guy on a 500 kind off shot off me in the berm, and I didn’t even get halfway up before I had to turn around and come back up again. It took a full start to get back up that hill. It wasn’t a lot of fun.”
A lap later, Hannah was running 15th overall. “After that, it was wide open ’til the end.”
A few riders went down in the first turn of the opening moto, one of which was Swedish rider Leif Persson. He was running at the back of the pack, and riding in a lot of pain. In the first turn crash, a rider had run over Persson’s neck; he finished the moto in 30th but was later taken to the hospital for observation.
By the end of lap two, nearly six minutes into the 30-minute-plus two-laps moto, Ljungqvist had taken over the lead fromVan derVen, Bayle, Jobe, Britain’s Kurt Nicoll and Ward. Velkeneers was ninth.
By this point, all the riders and number plates were completely covered in mud, with many riders already tossing away their goggles, including Ward.
A lap later. Van der Veil had overtaken Ljungqvist, while Jobe and Ward closed the gap. Ward was pressuring Jobe and passed the World Champion and then Ljunqvist before losing the front wheel in the mud.
“I fell over in a berm,” said Ward. “The front wheel just disappeared. The suction in the mud was so bad, I couldn’t get the front wheel out of the mud.” Ward picked back up in third behind Jobe, Ljungqvist had dropped back to fourth.
As the race progressed, Hannah took over fourth in the 125cc class behind Bayle, Strijbos and Velkeneers. Up front Van derVen and Jobe began putting on a show that kept the crowd, estimated at 22,000, on its feet. The two riders battled back and fourth, passing each other lap after lap.
“We passed each other several times,” said Jobe. “It was great, but I was completely wet. My pants were very wet and I was slipping off the back of my seat everytime I opened the throttle, especially on the hills.”
Jobe managed to hold on and nip Vander Ven at the finish. Third went to Ward followed by Ljungqvist and first 125, Bayle. Strijbos was sixth followed by Germany’s Dietmar Lacher (500cc), Velkeneers and Hannah.
Immediately following the moto, talk circulated through the paddock about riders being protested for riding outside some of the banners.
DeCoster said, “I know you cannot respect the banners 100% in these conditions, but some of the riders were riding beside the track where you could be riding inside of it. So I brought it up to the jury people so they will do something about it in the second heat. There isn’t much we can do as far as the first heat, because just about everybody went off the track sometime.” There was no official protest filed.
A little more than an hour later, the 125s were back out on the track, along with the 250cc riders, who were seeing battle for the first time.
At the start, it was Van Den Berk blasting into the lead ahead of Italy’s Michele Rinaldi, Johnson, Germany’s Roland Diepold (50Occ), 1987 250cc World Champion Geboers, Strijbos, Herring and Italy’s Corrado Maddii (125cc).
Heading into Screw-U during the second lap, Johnson made his move and darted past Van Den Berk for the lead, while Geboers snuck into third, dropping Rinaldi to fourth. At this point, Hannah had moved into fifth (first l25cc), while Strijbos, Hannah took over control of fourth with a huge margin over Maddii and Bayle. At the 17-minute point, Hannah had reeled in a fading Van Den Berk, who had just been passed by Geboers, making the top five Johnson, Geboers, Hannah, Van Den Berk and Maddii.
The last 10 minutes of the race saw Johnson enjoy a comfortable lead over Geboers. Maddii, however, was gaining on Hannah, despite what Hannah’s pit board read. “It read plus 20, plus 22 seconds,” said Hannah, “but I knew that was wrong. They didn’t see Maddii. Those guys weren’t slowing up behind me; they weren’t acting like I lapped them, so I just kept going.”
By this time, British riders Herring and Kurt Nicoll had dropped out with seized motors in their Yamahas. “Mud got packed in the radiators and they seized,” said Nicoll. “It started seizing up about the seventh lap, then it let go about four laps from the finish.”
Johnson went on to win, giving the U.S. team a big morale boost. Geboers took second, despite crashing three laps from the finish, ahead of Hannah, who barely finished in front of Maddii. Velkeneers, Germany’s Arto Panttila (125cc), Van Den Berk, Diepold and France’s Yannick Kervella followed.
Hannah’s second moto 125cc class win gave him the 125cc overall. “I had it pinned the whole way,” said Hannah. “I didn’t have any choice but to just go. I wanted to get a big lead in case I fell; you could fall and lose 30 seconds in a heartbeat.
“On all the uphills, I took it easy at the bottom and made sure I made it. On the flats, I let ‘er hang out a little bit. The bike never missed a beat, and the suspension was unbelievable to where I could just push it,” he said.
Hannah’s win was an important one for him, especially with all the controversy surrounding his selection over 125cc National Champion Micky Dymond. Many thought it should have been Dymond riding in MX des Nations instead of Hannah. “I wanted to go, Suzuki wanted me to go and I got picked to go,” said Hannah. “but nobody was happy about me being in the 125cc class. The pressure was on me to do a good job, or I would get bad mouthed.”
“But I was thinking out there,”said Hannah jokingly, ”’You know, Micky Dymond, you owe me dinner for you not being here, because, man, you wouldn’t like this out here.’ I was getting mud thrown in my face all day.”
“Today,” continued Hannah, “‘I didn’t want to get beat, because I’m not here for me. There’re three of us here and the pressure is on. I can’t just go out there and say, ‘well, I hurt my leg, I hurt my ankle’ and give up. You have to keep going no matter what. There was no time playing around.”
Everything was on the line for the start of the third and final moto. It was the 250/500cc heat, and to clinch the title for the U.S., either Johnson or Ward had to win their class. But when the gate dropped, it was Van der Ven jamming into the lead followed by Johnson, Geboers, Van Den Berk, Nicoll and Ward.
In the first turn, Johnson. and Ward almost collided. “We touched each other,” said Johnson, “but Jeff let me go by down the straight. I looked over at him and he backed off and sucked in behind me. Then a 500cc rider, I think it was Jobe, passed Ward and almost took me out. I’m thankful Jeff let me by – that’s good teamwork.”
“I let Rick by,” said Ward. “I knew he had just raced, so I wanted to follow his lines.”
In the next couple of turns, Ward was running sixth behind Van der Ven, Johnson, Geboers, Van Der Berk and Nicoll. On the same lap, Jobe ended Belgium’s hopes for the title when he went off the course and got banners wrapped around his rear wheel.
“The banners got caught in my wheel and the rear brake wouldn’t work,” said Jobe.”I stopped and my mechanic tried to get it out but it didn’t work.”
The unscheduled stop put Jobe far back in the pack.
Geboers was having problems himself. He fell in the mud during the second lap, and eventually fell a coupIe of more times before the race was through. “I just kept crashing,” said Geboers.
At this point, six minutes into the race, Ward was on the move, and Johnson was cruising out in front. Ward set out after, and passed Nicoll and Van Den Berk, then began reeling in Van der Ven.
Late in the race, near the 25-minute point, Ward had gained noticeably on Van der Ven and was searching for a line around the KTM rider in the thick and slimy mud. Although Ward got close, he could never launch a serious attack against the Dutchman, especially on the last lap when Ward crashed.
Well in command of the lead, three laps from the finish, Johnson into the mechanics’ area. “‘I stopped to tell my mechanic (Brian Lunniss) that I wanted a new pair of goggles
for the next lap, but he didn’t any. I figured I had two laps to go, so it didn’t matter. Goggleless, Johnson crossed the finish line cleanly ahead of Van der Ven (first 500cc), Ward (500cc), Nicoll,Van DenBerk (second 250cc) and Geboers.
“It feels great to win,” said Johnson.”I didn’t want to make any mistakes. The next 250 was a ways back, and Van der Ven was up there, too. Roger (DeCoster) told me if they (Van der Ven and Van Den Berk) get two firsts, they could win the overall, so I didn’t want either one of them in front of me.” clutch lever.
“This win has to peak right up there with winning my first National at Carlsbad (Californ ia) and winning my first National Championship in 1984,” said Johnson. “This is something I can tell stories about when I’m an old man.”
“Those guys (Europeans) could’ve won it just as easily as we did,” said Ward. ” It was all up to the last moto. I’ve been in that situation before. We had to win.”
”I’m disappointed,” said Geboers. “I didn’t ride too good in the second heat. I had a good start, and then I had to throw my goggles, but it was the same for everyone. Then I crashed; I kept on crashing. I was quite good if I was on the bike. I’m disappointed.”
“I think we were a bit unlucky today,” said Jobe. “I won the first heat and Erik was second in his first heat. We were equal in points after the second moto, and if we had a good race in the third heat, we could’ve won. We showed that we can go fast, that we are able to win.”
“That’s racing,” continued Jobe.
“We finished third and I guess that’s better than last.”
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