Archives: Honda’s Saddleback Sweep

Larry Lawrence | January 21, 2020

Archives: Honda’s Saddleback Sweep

In the era of three AMA Pro Motocross classes (125cc, 250cc and 500cc), the odds of a single manufacturer sweeping all three classes were pretty low. First off, with the exception of a one-off race in 1974 (Hangtown) that hosted all three classes, there were only three seasons where all three ran together in the same weekend at AMA Motocross Nationals – that was 1983, ’84 and ’85. All told there were 32 outdoor national weekends in the history of AMA Motocross that hosted all three. Only three times in history did a single manufacturer sweep all three classes and Honda was the only maker to ever accomplish the feat.

Archives: Honda’s Saddleback Sweep

Saddleback ’84 featured an epic battle between Honda’s Johnny O’Mara (No.1) and Kawasaki’s Jeff Ward (No. 4), In spite of “Wardy” putting the “O’Show” in the ground in the first moto, O’Mara came back to win the second moto and the overall. (Mitch Friedman photo)

The very first time a sweep happened was perhaps the most impressive. That first sweep came at Saddleback Park, at the second round of the 1984 AMA Motocross Championships. The reason the feat was so impressive, is not only that it was the first time it ever happened, but the winner of each class – Ron Lechien, David Bailey and Johnny O’Mara – each had to battle strong opposition and overcome obstacles to nail down the Honda sweep.

The very first “triple” national happened in 1974 at Hangtown. It was the first year of the 125cc class and the new series got a big launch running alongside the established 250 and 500cc nationals. Honda’s Marty Smith won that series debut AMA 125 Motocross National and Bill Grossi, also Honda mounted, won the 250cc division. Honda didn’t have a 500cc class entry, so a sweep was not possible.

It was an all-El Cajon battle in Saddleback’s 250 National with Ron Lechien (No. 7) and Rick Johnson (No. 17) going at it tooth and nail. Honda’s Lechien took victory. (Mitch Friedman photo)

Fast forward nine years to 1983, the start of that golden three-year span where all three classes ran on the same day at every outdoor national. Honda and Yamaha both came close a couple of times during that first season, but in the end no manufacturer was able to sweep any of the 11 outdoor nationals in ’83.

Going into 1984, Honda came out for blood with an awesome factory lineup. Johnny O’Mara headed up the 125cc effort, while Bob Hannah and Ron Lechien raced the 250s and the big 500cc bikes handled by David Bailey and Danny “Magoo” Chandler. So it was a no brainer that Honda would be the most likely to have a shot at sweeping all three classes, but then both Chandler and Hannah suffered injuries, leaving the strong squad slight depleted. On paper Kawasaki also had a factory team that had the potential to sweep. Jeff Ward was on the 125, Billy Liles and Kent Howerton on 250s and Goat Breker on the 500. Yamaha was also stacked with Keith Bowen and Rick Johnson on the 250s and Broc Glover on the 500. Instead of a direct factory entry, Yamaha had eight factory-supported riders in the 125cc class, giving them strength in numbers. Suzuki was strong in both the 125 (George Holland) and 250 classes (Mark Barnett and Scott Burnworth), but didn’t have a factory entry the 500, so they were not going to have a shot at sweeping.

David Bailey (pictured) had a major weapon in the form of his ultra-trick water-cooled works Honda RC500, but rival Broc Glover rode inspired and had the home-track advantage. Bailey won, but Glover gave him a strong challenge. (Mitch Friedman photo)

Honda came close to sweeping in the opening round at Gatorback in Gainesville, Florida. Hannah won the 250 national and Bailey in the 500 class, but Kawasaki’s Ward won over O’Mara in the 125 class to prevent the sweep.

Then came round two at the famous Saddleback Park in Orange, California.

First up in the 125 class it was an all-out war between the “O Show” and “Wardy”. Late in the first moto O’Mara was leading, when Ward came underneath him with an aggressive pass, resulting in O’Mara hitting the ground. O’Mara was none too pleased with Ward’s tough pass. “He just rammed me right off the track.” O’Mara claimed. “I didn’t think it was fair. I wouldn’t have done it to him.”

Ward took the win, while O’Mara recovered from the fall to finish second.

In the second moto O’Mara again led Ward and at one point O’Show tried to serve up some payback by doing a hard brake check. Ward smashed his Kawasaki into the back of O’Mara’s Honda, but managed to stay upright. It all came down to the final lap. Ward made a slight bobble and that was all it took; O’Mara scored the second moto win and the overall to give Honda its first checkmark.

In the 250 class Hannah was out after getting injured at Daytona. That put it mostly on the shoulders of young second-year pro Lechien’s to win it for Honda, although Team Tamm Honda’s Alan King was also a possibility. Lechien had his factory Honda in the lead for the first four laps before fellow El Cajon native Johnson and his Yamaha moved past to take the point. Johnson sprinted out to a five-second lead and held it there to the finish. The second moto saw an epic battle between the two rivals. They swapped the lead several times before Johnson came up short on a massive uphill jump and blew out spokes on his Yamaha’s rear wheel. Johnson stayed in it and hit Lechien and the two went down. Lechien quickly recovered and Johnson went in for a wheel change. Lechien made it to the finish in first just ahead of a hard-charging Liles.

“I think Johnson wanted to take me out, because he knew he was going to drop out,” Lechien said before adding. “But crime never pays.”

Two up, two down for Honda.

That left only the 500 class and with David Bailey on the ultra-trick water-cooled works RC500, it was seemingly a foregone conclusion. But this was Saddleback, Broc Glover’s home turf, and in spite of being outgunned on his production-based, air-cooled Yamaha YZ490, Glover knew Saddleback like the back of his hand.

Goat Breker, returning from injury, looked like he would spoil the show for the both of them on his factory Kawasaki, jumping to a big lead in the first moto before crashing. Glover crashed too, leaving Bailey with a huge lead. Glover rallied and tried to narrow the gap, but Bailey was too far gone. In moto two Glover was with Bailey, pressuring him. Then he shot to the lead on the fourth lap approaching an uphill jump. Glover held the number one spot for much of the race, before Bailey charged hard in the closing laps to take back the lead and finish the day with a 1-1, giving Honda the first ever triple sweep of an AMA Motocross National.

Honda’s Saddleback win ad.

“I had so much confidence, that even when Broc passed me I figured I could get him back,” Bailey said. “I waited awhile and made sure everything was under control and then I went for it.”

It was a huge accomplishment for Honda, especially considering just how strong the competition was on that day. The headline in Cycle News read “Red Tide Splashes Over Saddleback.”

Honda would come back and twice more score the triple sweep – once again in ’84 at Six Flags Park in Atlanta, and then in 1985 at Millville. And then the era was gone. Starting in ’86 nationals were split up so that it was either a combined 125/500cc national, or a 125/250cc national. The brief, but glorious era of the triple nationals simply became part of racing history with Honda holding all the chips.

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.