Archives: A Decade of Nationals at Lake Whitney
It was one of the early tracks of the AMA and Trans-Am Motocross Championships – Lake Whitney Cycle Ranch, where riders like Roger DeCoster, Tony DiStefano, Pierre Karsmakers, Kent Howerton, Bob Hannah, Danny LaPorte, Mark Barnett, Donnie Hansen and many more raced and won. It might have become one of the iconic venues in American motocross, but the circuit situated between Dallas and Waco, along the banks of the Brazos River (that divides East Texas from West Texas) was plagued by scorching hot mid-summer races in its early years. By the time the race was moved to earlier on the racing calendar in the early 1980s, the Texas economy was being thrown into a recession after the oil industry went bust due to low prices. The track ultimately could not attract enough fans during that period to keep Lake Whitney going and after a decade of nationals, the run of AMA Motocross Nationals at the track came to an end, but while it lasted Lake Whitney produced some of the most notable races in motocross history.
Archives: A Decade of Nationals at Lake Whitney
Coming up from the river bank with a section going up a hill into a wooded area, Lake Whitney featured natural elevation change and a raceable mix of sand and red clay. Racer Tim Adams recalls the track’s “sandy loam with one hard packed section. Giant berms, huge whoops, great jumps and a drop away at Chuck Sun Hill made for fun and demanding race track.”
The track was built sometime in 1969. The first AMA MX National was held there on Aug. 12, 1973. 100-degree heat greeted fan and riders and many dropped out during the long 40-minute motos. Yamaha’s Pierre Karsmakers continued his domination that season, scoring the 500cc National victory with a 1-2, in spite of riding with broken ribs. Also that day, Tim Hart scored his first 250cc national win.
There was no national at the track in ’74, but it hosted what was an even bigger event at that time, in the form of a Trans-Am that fall. It was MX legend Roger DeCoster taking the victory on his factory Suzuki in an absolute mud bath. The area endured 15 straight days of rain leading up to race day. Promotor Harvey Evans even damned a creek that ran through the property in an effort to divert water away from the track. It was so bad Evans considered canceling, but another Trans-Am near St. Louis had been canceled earlier and Evans knew it would be terrible for the series to have two cancelations in a row, so he made the best out of a bad situation.
As a reward for his efforts, Lake Whitney hosted both an AMA National and Trans-Am in ’75.
Stephen Schneider remembers the epic 1975 AMA 250cc National. “Tony DiStefano and Kent Howerton in the deciding round of the 250 championship. Kent with home state advantage and a mathematical chance to win. Tony D broke a rear shock or shock mount in the second moto, yet managed to finish high enough to seal the deal. Freestone-type summer weather in the manly days of 40-minute, plus two lap motos.”
Tony D kept his Texas momentum going and came back to Lake Whitney in November of that year to become just the fourth American to win a Trans-Am, beating out fellow Suzuki riders Roger DeCoster and Gerrit Wolsink in the process.
After a year away the AMA 500cc MX Nationals returned in 1977 and talk about hot, try 110 degrees! Riders and fans took to the river in droves between motos to cool down. The oppressive conditions presented the perfect opportunity for Texas riders, who were accustomed to racing in the heat. And that’s just what happened. Texan Steve Stackable, with the lower front half of his jersey cut away for ventilation, raced his Maico 400AW to a 1-1 victory, becoming the first home-state rider to win a national at Lake Whitney. He was followed home in second by fellow Texan Kent Howerton on a 390 Husky.
In ’78 Marty Tripes put an end to Bob Hannah’s long unbeaten streak in the first moto of the Lake Whitney 250cc National. As the two gated side by side for the second moto, Tripes looked at Hannah and said, “Do you realize that’s my first national moto win in five years!?” Hannah shot right back, “And it’s your last!” Hannah went on to win the second moto and the overall. Suzuki’s Danny LaPorte took the 500cc National win that day, the opening round of that series.
History was made that fall at the track when Bob Hannah clinched the Trans-AMA Series with his 7-1, third overall, becoming the first American ever to win the prestigious title. Rex Staten won the race on a works Yamaha OW-39 over England’s Graham Noyce on a Honda RC-450. It would mark the final time the Trans-Am would run at Lake Whitney. Just as well, as the series was rebranded as Trans-USA and rapidly fell in importance.
It was in that ’78 Trans-Am where Chuck Sun suffered the worst crash of his career there. He explained in an interview with Shawn McDonald.
“There is a tree named after me at Lake Whitney. I think some of my skin is still hanging off the limbs. The throttle stuck and I hit a tree where a sawed-off branch opened up my leg. That took me out for two months.”
After years of trying, Kent Howerton finally won in front of the home crowd in the 1981 Lake Whitney 250 National. His victory was a minor miracle. He’d been admitted to the hospital earlier that week with a bacterial infection. Thanks to intravenous antibiotics he recovered well enough by Sunday to race and beat rivals Hannah and Donnie Hansen. It was a great weekend for Team Suzuki, as Mark Barnett won in the 125cc class over Rick Johnson and Johnny O’Mara.
It was a weekend of firsts at the ’82 edition of Lake Whitney. Both Jeff Ward (125cc) and Donnie Hansen (250cc) scored their first outdoor national wins.
It was a repeat of first-time winners in ’83 with Team Kawasaki’s Billy Liles winning the 250cc class and Yamaha’s Ron Lechien winning the 125s. That year also marked the only time all three classes ran together at Lake Whitney. Broc Glover won the 500cc class that day on his factory Yamaha.
And that was it in terms of nationals at Lake Whitney. The track fell into disrepair and fell off the radar. New owners improved the facility and revived the track in the 1990s and it hosted major amateur races and an effort was made to bring back a national to the track in the 2000s, but it never quite made the cut. By 2010 the track closed for good.
Today, a decade after closure, remnants of the old track can just be made out on Google satellite images, but it appears almost certain that racing will never again return to the banks of the Brazos, but for the decade Lake Whitney hosted nationals it earned its place in history and will forever be a part of the sport’s lore.