Archives: The Happening in Houston

Larry Lawrence | June 4, 2019

Archives: The Happening in Houston

When is a race more than just a race and becomes a happening? When all the elements of great riders, trick machines and an epic venue come together into one awesome package. Probably no race in history exemplified a “happening” more than the 1983 Houston TT, aka The Thunder Under the Dome.

Archives: The Happening in Houston

Steve Eklund (No. 8) overcame a first-lap crash to win the 1983 Houston TT National aboard a Rotax-powered Can-Am. Here Eklund gets off the line alongside Brad Hurst (No. 20). Eklund took the victory and became the first three-time winner of the Houston TT. (Gary Van Voorhis photo)

What were the ingredients that made the ’83 Houston TT such a must-see national? First and foremost was rider talent in boatloads. How does this lineup sound? Three-time Motorcycle Grand Prix World Champion Kenny Roberts; 1982 AMA Superbike Champion Eddie Lawson, who was about to join the GP series as Roberts’ teammate on the factory Yamaha squad; and 1982 AMA Pro Athlete of the Year Steve Wise, the motocross ace from Texas, who had won two straight in the high-profile ABC Wide World of Sports Superbikers event. Combine that with a slew of stars from the AMA Grand National Championship like Jay Springsteen, Bubba Shobert, Ricky Graham, Scott Parker, Steve Eklund, Terry Poovey and Randy Goss just to name a few.

And then there were the machines. There was more variety in this race than any other AMA National. Ranging in size from big 750cc twin-cylinder, 500cc singles, two-stroke and four, all the way down to 350cc two-stroke singles. Trick, factory one-offs made especially for this race. Roberts and Lawson raced Yamaha XT500-based machines, breathed on heavily by the factory. Wise was on a works Honda CR500-based two-stroke beast. Eklund was on a powerful 500cc Rotax-powered Can-Am. In spite of the tight environs, Graham and Springsteen raced their big Harley-Davidson XR750s. Graham proved the previous year that the big XR could win in the Dome, when he took the TT victory en route to ultimately winning that year’s AMA Grand National No. 1 plate.

The race was held in the cavernous Houston Astrodome, home to the NFL’s Houston Oilers and MLB’s Houston Astros, the first indoor stadium on this scale, the Astrodome was known as the Eighth Wonder of the World. In spite of the massive size of the stadium, the racing surface was small compared to normal outdoor racetracks and one rider compared racing in the Dome to playing a 33-rpm record at 45 rpm. Everything happened fast. The Dome had been hosting AMA Nationals since 1968 and with strong promotion from promoter PACE, combined with an experienced RJ Reynold’s advance media team, the race traditionally drew big crowds.

Cycle News cover featuring Houston TT winner Steve Eklund.

Houston fans needed a distraction in ‘83. The nation was in the middle of a deep recession, but the Houston area was especially hard hit as it was also going through an oil bust. Unemployment was more than double what it had been just a few years earlier. As a response PACE offered weekend tickets as low as $10 to get into both Friday and Saturday’s races!

The final ingredient, which made for a race happening was that Houston was the opening weekend of the 1983 AMA Grand National Championship. There was always excitement of the start of a new season, with riders often racing for new teams with shiny new bikes and still to be broken in racing leathers.

Eklund started the night off right by topping Time Trials. Lawson, making his Yamaha debut, was second fastest on his factory XT. Scott Parker was third on the big Harley XR. The Can-Am/Rotax bikes seemed to be the sweet spot for the TT. Of the 12 fastest qualifiers, six were on Can-Ams, four on Harleys and two on Yamahas.

Shobert (Can-Am), Lawson (Yamaha), Scott Pearson (Can-Am) and Roberts (Yamaha) won their respective Heat races. Eklund and Gary Scott made the main by way of their Semi wins. Ronnie Jones got in by way of the Last Chance Qualifier.

Two-time Houston TT winner Eklund very nearly didn’t make it through the first lap. He was involved in a crash that saw his leg sucked up and wedged between the fender and rear tire of Rod Spencer’s Yamaha. Fortunately, the red flag came out and Eklund was able to make the restart.

The Houston TT always featured an enticing variety of riders and machines. How’s this for contrast? Here Jay Springsteen (No. 9) races his big factory Harley-Davidson XR750 against motocross ace Steve Wise, aboard a factory Honda CR500-based two-stroke TT bike. (Gary Van Voorhis photo)

A second start was also red flagged when Graham and Roberts tumbled hard in the first turn. Roberts got up and found he was beat up pretty badly and his hand was not quite working, so, perhaps thinking of his real job starting in a month or so, he decided to sit out the restart and out went one of the pre-race favorites. Finally, on the third start, the race stayed green and it was Shobert blasting into the lead with Lawson, Pearson and Graham right on his tail.

Mickey Fay, on a factory Honda, and Eklund were both on the move into the top three. Eklund was going high using the cushion, while most of the other riders were using the inside line. “I hoped no one noticed,” Eklund said of his secret racing line. The line proved to be the winning strategy and Eklund got around Shobert and then leading Fay, to take the point and finally the checkered flag. Fay second and Graham third – Can-Am, Honda and Harley-Davidson.

As a result of his victory Eklund became the first three-time winner of the Houston TT.

Afterwards Eklund admitted he was lucky he was able to hold on to win. Late in the race his Can-Am lost its brakes, “I thought it was over for me at that point,” Eklund said. “I thought I’d lost it.”

Fans went away from Houston that night knowing they’d seen something special. Big names, cool machines, hard luck and charging from behind to win – all the elements you need for one happening TT race.

You can read about this race and much more by subscribing the Cycle News Archives by clicking here:

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.