What Might’ve Been

| June 13, 2017

There is a proverb by John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) that reads; “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: It might have been.”

I was reminded of how true those words are on my recent attendance at the Lakewood, Colorado round of the 2017 Pro Motocross Championship. It was a sentimental outing for me because I was a mechanic for Team Maico on the 1982 indoor and outdoor nationals, wrenching for national number 93, Scott Johnson. We were the last effort by Maico in the 250cc class before the German manufacturer closed its doors. Though a so-called “factory effort,” truth be told, even triple-digit privateers on store-bought Hondas outclassed our machinery. It was still fun to be part of the “circus”—as we used to refer to it. In 1982 the final round of the season for the 250s was held at Castle Rock, Colorado, just down the road from the Lakewood facility where the national takes place today. That final race of the 1982 season in Colorado went down as one of the great upsets in MX history.

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Incredibly, 35 years had elapsed between my attendances at the Colorado round. There have been a lot of changes. Semi-truck team transporters have replaced the box vans, allowing mechanics to fly to races, unlike the 80s when mechanics (like me) drove; one rider/bike/mechanic per van. It was a lot of driving. In 1982 KTM was a bit of an unreliable underdog with a number of DNFs for the season, which dramatically contrasts the Austrian brand’s success these days under the guidance of another fixture from the 80s—Roger DeCoster. As an aside, I was pleased to see DeCoster is still hounded by fans young and old for his autograph. He is still, ‘The Man.’

1982 was one of the final years that prototype machines were allowed. That season saw the talent pool running very deep, spread over three classes—125, 250, 500—with factory rosters that included Bob Hannah, Broc Glover, Donnie Hansen, Johnny O’Mara, Danny Chandler, David Bailey, Chuck Sun, Mark Barnett, Goat Breker, Darrel Schultz, Jeff Ward, Mike Bell, Kent Howerton, Jim Gibson, Warren Reid and Alan King, as well as a host of extremely fast support riders and privateers, including Brian Myerscough, Billy Liles, Erik Kehoe, Mark Murphy, Clint Hardick, Carlos Serreno, and JoJo Keller. Amid this field of very fast riders was a young seventeen-year-old 250cc rookie from El Cajon, California named Ricky Johnson.

Coming into the final race in Colorado in 1982 the season had seen an epic battle between established hero Broc Glover, new sensation Donnie Hansen, and an even more surprising rising sensation, the aforementioned Ricky Johnson, who, as a support rider aboard a modified production Yamaha against the exotic prototypes, had amassed a fairly comfortable points lead going into the final round at Castle Rock. It was 35 years ago that I was here, winding down the season and witnessed first hand the famous finale to the title chase. There were some infamously rumored words credited to Ricky Johnson that morning in 1982, which have gone down in MX folklore.

To set the stage, some back-story is necessary. Tom Carson, who today runs the Alpinestars Mobile Medical Unit, was a fellow support rider on Team Maico. Tom had a very attractive girlfriend who traveled the circuit with him. The attractive female presence in the Maico pit always managed to attract a number of male visitors, prompting them to create vague excuses to drop by. One of these was Ricky Johnson.

On that fateful morning in 1982, before practice, Johnson dropped by the Maico pit. I was sitting in the van with Carson’s girlfriend when Johnson arrived. People around Ricky were advising him that if he just cruised around conservatively to a safe finish for the day he would be crowned 250cc National Champion. It is well rumored that Johnson responded to that advice with some bravado. Well, I’m here to substantiate that, because I heard him utter the famed words. Milling about in the quiet, pre-race morning atmosphere, with the requisite excitement and anticipation hanging in the air, Tom Carson’s girlfriend echoed what Johnson’s friends and team were advising, that if he played it cool and scored points rather than go for the win, he would be champion. Ricky looked at the ground, and slightly shaking his head with youthful defiance, came back with, “I’m going out in a blaze of glory.” I remember the van went quiet, the few people in attendance realizing what that mindset might result in.

A short while later the gate dropped on the first 250 moto. Johnson went to the task of battling Donnie Hansen and Broc Glover. Ricky’s speed was incredible. Unfortunately, the dry, hard-packed Colorado track, with its gnarly, bike-breaking downhill, took its toll on the Yamaha and Ricky collapsed his front wheel. I was in the mechanic’s area signaling my rider when Ricky pulled in, the distinctive metallic clang and rattle of broken spokes accompanying the shocked and disbelieving faces of Team Yamaha. Ricky DNF the moto. Hansen went on to win, followed by Glover, putting Donnie in charge of points going into the second moto.

This scenario set up more pressure for Johnson, who still had a mathematical chance to clinch the title, provided he finished ahead of Hansen. Forty-five minutes later Glover took the second moto win, with Hansen second, ahead of a hard-charging Johnson. There was an atmosphere of mixed emotions as the moto wound down, everyone in attendance realizing they were witnessing one of those race days that would go down in history as heartbreak for one rider, and unexpected elation for another. In the end, Hansen took the championship with a total of 300 points, three precious points ahead of Johnson at 297, and Glover ending up with 294.

We were based directly across from Team Honda in the pits, and immediately after the moto I vividly recall Donnie taking off his jersey, swigging water and wiping his face when Honda Team manager Dave Arnold came running over to tell him he’d won the title. The look on Hansen’s face was so strange; he wasn’t quite comprehending. My rider, Scott Johnson, said, “It hasn’t hit him yet.” When it did hit, Donnie started smiling. I didn’t see Ricky again that day, but I have to wonder what the teenager was thinking. I’ve often wondered, given Johnson’s subsequent domination of motocross and supercross over the ensuing years, if perhaps the calamitous events of that day in 1982—influenced certainly by youthful vigor—was actually a more powerful lesson that helped motivate Ricky to his future prominence as opposed to if he had won the 250 crown in his rookie year. As with these things, all we can do is ponder, what might have been. CN

By Jeff Buchanan


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