The First Czar of MX, Mike DiPrete
By Kent Taylor
When the party conversation turns to the subject of motorcycle racing in America, motocross arrives fashionably late. For many years, the AMA focused its energies on Class C racing, with its well-established dirt-track and road-racing programs. But by the early 1970s, the organization realized the potential that existed with motocross. They also recognized that it was in need of focused leadership, so in 1975, the AMA hired its first Director of Professional Motocross. His name was Mike DiPrete. A Rhode Island native who had little experience in motorcycle racing, DiPrete would steer the sport for the next eight years. DiPrete sought to bring in a sense of order and a new professionalism to motocross; along the way, he found himself planted squarely in the middle of one of the most infamous incidents in moto history!
Michael DiPrete’s first involvement in the two-wheel industry came in 1970, when he was hired as plant manager with the New Hampshire-based Rokon company. The company offered just one basic model, the two-wheel drive Trailbreaker (still sold today). Rokon wasn’t a player in the motorcycle world, but thought they could be, so DiPrete was tabbed to take the company to the next level.
“It was kind of a screwed-up place” DiPrete recalls today. “A lot of relatives of certain employees had been given jobs; fathers had found jobs for sons, etc., and it just wasn’t working very well. I had some experience in the manufacturing business and so they brought me on board.”
Rokon was failing miserably. In DiPrete’s words “It was awful! There would be a bunch of guys sitting around doing nothing. Welders would be ready to weld up vehicles, but they would have to wait for somebody else to go find the right parts for them.”
Streamlining is never easy and DiPrete made some difficult decisions as he began trimming the fat. When he was done, he had eliminated 40 percent of Rokon’s workforce, “which didn’t make me a popular guy.” But the new, leaner Rokon also saw the manufacturing side increase and with the ship righted, the company announced plans to build a new dirt bike.
“The engines for the new bikes were snowmobile engines, which came down from Canada. I had wanted to build a 250, but the price was going to be too high, so we had to make it a 340. The bikes were kind of heavy and there were some issues in extreme conditions. If there was a water crossing, the riders had to really go through it quickly or else the torque converters on the bikes would fail.
“But it was still a good motorcycle. We put together an enduro team and even went to the ISDT a couple of times. We tried some motocross with Don Kudalski. He wasn’t an official team rider, but we gave him bikes and parts.”
DiPrete had been at Rokon for nearly five years when a friend named Tom Clark recommended him for a new position at the AMA.
“Motocross was really growing at that time,” DiPrete remembers, “and I saw a need for improvement in a lot of areas.” One of DiPrete’s changes resulted in an almost sacrilegious remake of the sport’s two-moto format.
“At that time, the Supercross series was still running a program similar to the outdoors. We were trying to introduce the sport to new fans and that system was confusing. It took a while to figure out the results and a lot of people were leaving the stadium before the results could be posted and they didn’t even know who had won. The promoters asked us to change it, so we came up with something different.”
DiPrete’s new format, which called for riders to qualify via heats in order to gain a spot into a one-moto main event, was tested at the final event in 1976 at Anaheim (won by Marty Smith). It was fully implemented in 1977 and continues as pretty much the same formula today, 43 years later.
There were always matters to resolve between promoters and the riders. “We heard a lot of complaints early on about our tracks. Many of the European riders would tell me I didn’t know what I was doing. Roger DeCoster would complain, but he was polite and helpful. Gerrit Wolsink was, let’s just say, not so nice. I listened because I really didn’t know any better.”
“Eventually, I wound up being appointed to the FIM jury, which meant that I would go to Europe for races three or four times a year. And when I got over there, I found out that our tracks were just as good, if not better than what they had. There were some pretty dangerous courses in Europe. There were trees that were way too close to the tracks, no protective hay bales and so on.”
Though he would spend a lot of time around the riders, DiPrete tried to maintain a professional distance. “I knew I would have to make difficult decisions,” he says, “and that can get kind of messy.”
When asked about riders, like Jimmy “The Jammer” Weinert, a fellow East Coaster, DiPrete pauses. “Hmmm,” and there is a pause that lets you know you’re not going to get the full story. “What do I say about Weinert,” he continues. “Well, he was always on me about money, always thought the riders should be making more money!
“And I liked Bob Hannah. He was cocky, sure, but he always did what he said he was going to do.”
But it was on a hot, summer day in 1977 in San Antonio, Texas, that even Bob “Hurricane” Hannah had to do what someone else told him to do. The setting was the final 125cc National of the season. It’s an oft-told tale, but to summarize, Bob was ordered by his mechanic Keith McCarty to back off late in the second moto and allow Yamaha teammate Broc Glover to pass him and take the race victory. The infamous pit-board message, with 2/3 of its fateful message misspelled (“Let Brock Bye”) was shown to Hannah, who then surrendered his lead. The move helped Glover earn the extra championship points he needed in order for Yamaha to defeat Suzuki rider Danny LaPorte for the AMA’s 1977 125cc National Championship.
“I came to San Antonio that day, because we were concerned about what might happen,” DiPrete recalls. “I spoke about it during the riders’ meeting.”
He is surprised to learn that the incident lives in infamy (or at least on the internet) all these years later. “I carried the rulebook with me. And no rule was broken.” DiPrete said Team Suzuki took no action and that there was no official protest from anyone. “And besides,” he adds, “what could I have done? If I would’ve disqualified Hannah, it would have likely resulted in a lawsuit. I had no reservations, and I don’t regret it.”
Then, after a short pause and with some hesitancy, he offers his own perspective. “Personally,” he says quietly, “I didn’t think it was right for them [Team Yamaha] to do it. And I know Hannah didn’t like it, either.”
There would be plenty of other controversial issues to keep DiPrete at the center of the storm. He battled early Supercross promoter Mike Goodwin on many issues, though he sees today that Goodwin was good for the sport.
DiPrete moved from motocross czar to Commissioner of all AMA Racing in 1978. Eventually, the burden of traveling 40-45 weekends per year became too wearisome, and he moved on from the AMA in 1983. He partnered briefly with PACE management to promote his own events, but left motorsports behind in the ’80s. He ran an irrigation business for 25 years, then opened a small bakery/cafe with his wife. Today, at 85, he lives in a wooded area in Richmond, Rhode Island. When his neuropathy isn’t giving him fits, he likes to play golf.
He will occasionally watch motorcycle racing on television. “I was involved in the sport during an important time of development,” he said. “I’m thankful to have been a part of it.”CN
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