Archives | Ricky Graham
~By Scott Rousseau
This Archives edition is reprinted from issue #40, October 13, 2004. CN has hundreds of past Archives editions in our files, too many destined to be archives themselves. To prevent that from happening, we will be revisiting past Archives articles while still planning to keep fresh ones coming down the road -Editor.
To understand the kind of season that the late Ricky Graham had in 1993, you need go no further than to ask reigning AMA Grand National Champion Chris Carr, who was able to put Graham’s performance in proper perspective.
“If you were to look over the course of a career, everybody’s benchmark is Scott Parker,” Carr says. “But over my career, I have, at one time or another, raced with the last eight Grand National Champions. I said it then, and I’ll still say it today: What Ricky Graham did in 1993, there is not one of those other champions who could have beaten him that year. He was that good week in and week out. He not only won six races in a row, he won five half miles in a row, which is unheard of. To this day, that is the best dirt-track-season performance that I have ever seen.”
Down on his luck after constant substance abuse problems threatened to destroy him, Graham, a 33-year-old, two-time former AMA Grand National Champion, somehow managed to battle his way back to sobriety through the 1992 season. Teamed with Virginia dirt-track tuner Johnny Goad to ride aging Honda RS750s against technologically less state-of-the-art but much more refined Harley-Davidson XR750s, Graham started to show flashes of the brilliance that his long-time fans always knew he had when he wasn’t being possessed by his personal demons. At the close of 1992, Graham vowed that he would stay straight, train and be ready for 1993—and he definitely made good on that promise. Goad recalls being optimistic, but he readily admits that he had no idea of Graham’s potential for that year.
“I figured if we improved a little bit, we might be able to be in there with them,” Goad says. “I didn’t think that we would set the world on fire.”
Yet that’s just what Graham did. After being robbed of the win by a drafting Scott Parker at round two of the ’93 series (the San Jose Mile), Graham went on to score a fifth at the Sacramento Mile and then a third at the Pomona Half Mile.
The next stop on the tour was the Springfield Mile, a track that had always been kind to Graham. In order to win the race, though, he would have to be patient, as rain swept through the area, forcing the postponement of the Sunday event. It would run the next day, Monday, May 31. Goad vividly remembers the start of that day.
“I walked over to Ricky’s motorhome at 7:30 Monday morning, and there he was, already sitting there with his leathers and his boots on,” Goad recalls. “I walked right back over to his motorcycle and patted it on the seat and said, ‘I feel sorry for you today, old girl.’ Ricky went out there that day and won the Springfield Mile by a straightaway.”
It was only the start of Graham’s ’93 domination. At the next round, he finished second to Kevin Atherton on the half mile at Parkersburg, Virginia. After that, Graham went on an unbelievable tear, winning the next six races in a row. Graham stood atop of the box at the Lima (Ohio), Lake Odessa (Michigan) and Hagerstown (Maryland) half miles, then went on and won both days of the doubleheader mile at Syracuse, New York. He capped the record-setting drive with another half mile victory at Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
With the variety of track lengths and racing surfaces, you might think that Goad was having to constantly adjust Graham’s Honda to keep him running fast on such a consistent basis. The truth, according to Goad, is that he hardly laid a wrench on Graham’s bike at the track.
“I didn’t have to make a lot of adjustments once we got to the racetrack,” Goad once said when asked about Graham’s setup. “It didn’t matter what we had on it for gearing or anything that year. Ricky would just come in after practice and say, ‘Don’t touch it, Johnny. I can win on this motorcycle today.’ ”
In fact, were it not for the Peoria TT—a virtual given for Chris Carr—and an inspired win by Will Davis at the Dallas Half Mile, Graham might have kept on winning. He did anyway, sandwiching the Rapid City, South Dakota, Half Mile victory in between Carr and Davis’ wins, then going on to pound the competition three more rounds in a row, amassing a huge series points lead.
“It got to where I felt sorry for them because I knew that when Ricky lined up against them, they barely had a chance,” Goad says. “And they knew it, too.”
Running second in the series standings to Graham, Carr was doing all that he could to defend his title. The task was akin to putting out your hands to stop a speeding Mack truck.
“Ricky just flat laid waste to us in ’93,” Carr remembers. “I did everything I could. I won five races that year, but he won 12. I was still second in the points all year, but nobody had a chance. He did a number on us.”
To this day, some Graham naysayers point to his Honda as the source of his success in 1993. Carr doesn’t buy it.
“Ricky Graham won that championship, and if he had been on Harley-Davidsons, he would have done the same thing. The Hondas really suited his style, but it didn’t matter what he was riding.”
That 1993 season should have been the start of greater things for Graham, but instead it was the zenith of a troubled career. After failed attempts to land a road-racing ride and a failed marriage, Graham sunk back into his battles with alcohol and drugs. He returned to dirt track, but was often injured, a mere shadow of his 1993 championship-winning self.
Yet somehow it appeared Graham was preparing himself for another title run. He began to get healthy again as the 1997 season wore on, and when it was over, he stood fifth in the final standings, optimistic that a new deal with Goad and a pair of championship-caliber Harley-Davidsons would get him back in the hunt.
It never happened. Graham perished when his Salinas, California, ranch home caught fire on January 22, 1998. Although it was determined that the fire started in the kitchen, it was unclear whether alcohol was a factor in the fire. Graham was 39.
“It saddens me to see what happened to Ricky,” Carr says. “I never lived in his shoes, so I don’t know what his life was like, and I think that it’s still a mystery to a lot of us. All I do know is that Ricky Graham was a badass on a motorcycle, and that’s what I choose to remember him by.”