Motocross des Nations 1987 – a seminal event in the long and storied history of the international competition. It marked the first time America hosted MX des Nations and the site, appropriately enough, was one motocross racing’s iconic locales in New Berlin, New York’s Unadilla Valley Sports Center, a track simply known as Unadilla.
American fans had long waited the opportunity to get to see in person the stars of America going up against the best of the rest.
First some context about the ’87 MX des Nations. It had been just 15 years since Team USA first entered the prestigious international competition. It was really only a few years before that 1972 squad of Brad Lackey, Jim Pomeroy, Jimmy Weinert and Gary Jones, that America had even been introduced to motocross in the first place. By 1981 the Americans finally broke through to win, starting a period of domination by the U.S. that would stretch on a dozen more years.
Now the show was coming to the New World for the first time and it was a big deal.
The announcement of the ’87 Team USA squad was not without controversy. Jeff Ward and Rick Johnson were named to the team, which made all the sense in the world. Honda’s Johnson was a double MX champ in ’87, winning both the AMA 250 and 500cc crowns. Wardy was AMA Supercross Champ and runner up to Johnson in the 250 nationals, plus he had ample 500cc experience, so again, a no-brainer.
The controversy came in the naming of the rider to represent Team USA in the 125cc class. Micky Dymond was class champ, and by the estimation of many fans, should have been the third rider. Instead the AMA named Bob Hannah, who by 1987 was riding part-time for Suzuki, hadn’t raced a 125 in five years and hadn’t raced des Nations since ’78.
Unfortunately for Dymond, he ended up never being named to Team USA, in spite of being a two-time AMA 125cc National Motocross Champion.
In retrospect, Hannah’s selection turned out to be genius. it might have been a sentimental pick by the AMA, one last appreciation for the aging icon, or perhaps it was a feeling of invincibility with the U.S. having won six-consecutive times leading up to the ’87 contest. Regardless, the Hurricane got the nod and shocked everyone with his performance, which included a 125cc win and an amazing come-from-behind charge to fourth in class after getting knocked down Unadilla’s infamous Screw-U twice.
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 first moto was the 125/500 combined and it was not good for the home team.
Wardy was riding sans goggles.
“One or two guys beat me to the first turn,” Ward told Cycle News reporter Kit Palmer at the time, “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.”
Hannah nailed a good start, but things went sour fast. By the end of the first lap Hannah was at the back.
“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 over.
“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.”
Even without eye protection, Ward pushed to the front before crashing and dropping back to fourth overall. Belgian Georges Jobé took the Moto 1 victory after a tough battle with Dutchman Kees van der Ven. Third went to an ever-persistent Ward. Hannah meanwhile was wide open after his Screw-U incident and charged all the way back to fourth in the 125 division, ninth overall.
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. His second moto 125cc class win gave Hannah the 125cc overall, not bad for an old guy, who was riding a 125 for the first time in half a decade!
Going into the final moto, the U.S. team was tied for the lead with Belgium.
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, Erik Geboers, John Van Den Berk, Kurt Nicoll and Ward.
Johnson and Ward nearly collided in the first turn.
“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.”
Jobé ended Belgium’s hopes for the title when he went off the course and got banners wrapped around his rear wheel.
In the end Johnson had a big enough lead that he had time to pull off in the mechanics area for a new pair of goggles.
Johnson, the absolute star of the ’87 season, dominated, winning both his motos and along with great rides by Ward and Hannah, Team USA beat the Netherlands by two points (5-7). Belgium was third with nine points.
“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.
“This win has to peak right up there with winning my first National at Carlsbad and winning my first National Championship in 1984. This is something I can tell stories about when I’m an old man.”