Archives: Mr. Smith, Meet Mr. Hannah

Larry Lawrence | June 18, 2019

Archives: Mr. Smith, Meet Mr. Hannah

It was almost preordained that Honda factory rider Marty Smith would win the 1976 AMA 125cc Motocross Championship. After all, coming into the 1976 season Smith was the only 125 MX champ there ever was. He’d won the first two titles after the series was launched in 1974. And Smith didn’t just win the championships, he utterly dominated, racing the stunning, bright red Honda RC125 works machine. Coming into ’76 Smith seemed invincible.

Archives: Mr. Smith, Meet Mr. Hannah

Hannah-Smith 1976
The 1976 AMA 125cc Motocross Championship featured a battle between newcomer Bob Hannah (left) and two-time series champ Marty Smith (right). It became one of the most memorable championships in the history of AMA Motocross.

But Yamaha had been doing their homework. They not only developed their own ultra-trick works bike, the water-cooled Yamaha 0W27, they also hired a 19-year-old unknown desert rat named Bob Hannah. Hannah had practically grown up on a motorcycle. From the age of seven he rode endless hours right outside his door in the desert of Lancaster, California. Years of play riding in the desert and nearby mountains honed Hannah into a brilliant rider, yet he was largely unknown. Turns out that Hannah’s dad, an excellent desert rider in his own right, was dead set against his son racing. He knew too many guys who raced and got injured and he didn’t want that to happen to his son. So, this uber-talent went unknown until Bob was old enough to make his own decision to race. Suddenly in 1975 this wonderkid was unleashed to the world of motocross.

When Hannah entered his first amateur race, he was so dominant that after just one race, officials told him he would have to move up to expert.

Coming into the 1976 AMA Motocross season the stage was set for what would become the most unexpected upset the sport had ever seen.

Marty Smith was not only a two-time champion racing for the mighty Honda, but he’d become the sport’s first rock star. Hailing out of San Diego with surfer good looks, Smith was the envy of every schoolboy racer and the dream of female fans. The contrast between him and Bob Hannah couldn’t be starker. Hannah was this gritty unknown from the high desert, more cowboy than surfer. Smith was a textbook rider with flawless riding style. He looked both effortless and incredibly stylish when he raced, almost as if every corner was a magazine shoot. Still so new to racing, Hannah hadn’t yet acquired a “riding style”, unless you call holding the throttle wide open and bouncing off everything in his path a style. When Hannah raced, it was like a hurricane hit the track. Cycle News race reporter Jimmy “The Greek” Gianatsis noted that fact and the nickname Hurricane Hannah was born.

Still, you could excuse Smith of not taking much notice of Hannah prior to the ’76 season.

“I saw he was winning some CMC races, but winning those and winning nationals are two different things,” Smith said of Hannah. “So, I really didn’t think much about it until we started racing each other.”

After the winning 125 outdoor nationals so convincingly the previous two seasons, Smith and Honda were looking to new horizons and Honda decided to add the 125cc MX World Championship to his schedule. With all this racing, Smith was going to be spread thin.

Smith might have raised an eyebrow when rookie Hannah, riding a 250cc Yamaha production bike, completely dominated the 500cc class in the Florida Winter-AMA Series, at that point an important pre-season series. But like pre-season NFL or spring training baseball, the real show, complete with all the major players, would come with the opening of the AMA Motocross Nationals. The 125cc series opened at Hangtown, at the old location near Plymouth, California.

Lined up at the starting gate for the opening moto was the deepest field of talent and trick machines ever assembled for a 125cc national. Smith on the RC125, Billy Grossi and Danny LaPorte on works Suzuki RA125s, Hannah and Danny Turner on the water-cooled Yamahas, Tim Hart, who’d won the race in ’75 and John Savitski on Can-Ams, Steve Wise on a factory Kawasaki and a large assembly of hungry riders riding for supported teams such as FMF, DG and T&M.

At the gate drop it was Smith rocketing away from the field on his distinctive, all-red Honda. It looked as if the status quo was going to hold. Grossi, LaPorte, Wise and Turner gave chase in that order. Hannah was mired back mid-pack in a 40-rider field. But then, with perhaps the best nine laps in the history of motocross, Hannah came charging through the field, reportedly passing 21 other riders in that distance to catch Smith. A lap later he passed Smith. The crowd went nuts, perhaps not so much because they were fans of Hannah – they largely didn’t know who he was at that point – but simply because someone had finally challenged the almighty Smith, who’d only lost three 125 nationals in the previous two seasons, and hadn’t been defeated for an entire year!

Hannah held his lead, then Smith tipped over and Hannah scored the moto win. In the second moto the two battled, with Hannah leading most of the way, before Smith’s Honda seized.

And it went like that the rest of the season. Hannah was a complete revelation, winning five 125cc nationals in the first six rounds to put the series out of reach.

In spite of his well-earned reputation of being a cocky rider, looking back on it, Hannah admits now that even he was surprised to win that championship.

“He was the champion, he was the smoother rider, he was, whether he knows it or not, God on the 125s, he always was,” Hannah said of Smith. “Nobody had ever knocked him off of that and he probably didn’t think I could either, because I didn’t think I could.”

Another factor for Smith in ’76 was he admittedly struggled with the constant travel back and forth to Europe. Another strike against him was he ended up racing much of the season on a two-year-old factory bike, after a works Yamaha was nearly lost to the $2500 AMA claiming rule at Red Bud, the second race of the season. Honda had a newer version of the RC125, but after Yamaha’s scare, Honda didn’t want to risk losing its one-off, experimental works machine to a claim, so Smith only got to ride the newer bike a few times. As a result, Smith went from winning every national except one in ’75, to being totally shut out in ’76. He did manage to save face to a certain extent by battling, then beating Hannah in both motos (by the way, after Smith gave Hannah a couple of brake checks) to win the overall in the 125cc U.S. Grand Prix at Mid-Ohio.

Ultimately Smith finished second to Hannah here in America and third in the 125cc Motocross World Championships to close out the ’76 season.

Meanwhile Yamaha had found the rare diamond in the rough with Hannah and had out-gunned Honda in the ever-spiraling technology war, making the 1976 AMA 125cc Motocross Championships one of the most memorable in history.

Click here to read this in the Cycle News Digital Edition Magazine.

Larry Lawrence | Archives Editor In addition to writing our Archives section on a weekly basis, Lawrence is another who is capable of covering any event we throw his way.