Archives | Billy Grossi: Ode To Sugar Bear
This Archives edition is reprinted from issue #48, December 7, 2005. CN has hundreds of past Archives editions in our files, too many destined to be archives themselves. So, to prevent that from happening, in the future, we will be revisiting past Archives articles while still planning to keep fresh ones coming down the road -Editor.
By Scott Rousseau
There aren’t a whole lot of legends and mysteries surrounding the career of former factory motocross racer Billy Grossi, unless you count his nickname, “Sugar Bear,” a rather unusual moniker for someone involved in the tough-guy world that was the ’70s motocross scene. There’s certainly no mystery as to how Grossi got involved in the sport.
“My brother, Bob, who’s six years older than me, used to race in Northern California with Brad [Lackey] and everybody,” Grossi says. “My dad also was involved in racing, so it was just kind of in the family. I had no choice but to race.”
Cutting his teeth at places such as Hangtown, White Rock [Sacramento], Watsonville, Placerville and Carnegie, Grossi raced for the fun of it, never really thinking that it could someday earn him a living.
“I just kind of grew into it,” he says. “When I turned 16, I went on the road with my brother. I had a sponsorship through a local dealer, and Husky helped me out a little bit. I hit the road and just went for it.”
Grossi’s desire to pin it, win it, or die trying, eventually got the attention of the manufacturers. He landed his first real factory ride with Kawasaki in 1973.
“It wasn’t like a factory ride nowadays,” Grossi says. “I had bikes and parts. At the first of the year I was actually driving a truck for them, and then it got so that the better I did—winning some of the motos in the support classes—[that] before I knew it, I had a mechanic. I started pulling off some pretty good motos. I got second behind Gary Jones a couple of times in some Nationals.”
It all came together.
But after having a solid year with Kawasaki, Grossi was unexpectedly sent packing after the company elected to retain only Jimmy Weinert for the 1974 season. Grossi found a home at Honda, along with a slew of other young lions.
“That’s when they had [Rex] Staten, and me, and [Marty] Smith, and [Bruce] McDougal, and [Chuck] Bower and Tommy Croft. It was a big, young team. They made us work out together, play basketball together. It was fun.”
Grossi began his year with Honda in a big way, winning the AMA 250cc National MX opener at Hangtown in dominating fashion. He won the first moto after going wheel to wheel with Husqvarna’s Marty Tripes, then came from behind to pass defending series champion Gary Jones in the second moto, and battle Tripes to the finish again. Grossi prevailed, going 1-1 for the overall win. Consistency kept him at the top of the points standings into the summer, but a badly broken leg suffered in a crash at the 1974 Superbowl of Motocross ended what appeared to be a certain championship. Instead, he finished fifth in the series.
“I had a big points lead [in the Nationals] up until then, and I probably could have just finished up the series, a couple more races, in third or fourth place and still win the Championship,” Grossi says. “At the time I just dealt with it. I figured I’d have another shot at it [a National title], and sure enough, the next year I did.”
Switching to both the factory Suzuki team and the 500cc class, Grossi arguably hit his high-water mark during the 1975 season.
“I think I rode fastest on the Kawasaki in ’73, but as far as the books go, ’75 was probably my best year,” Grossi says. “I won the National at Ravenna, Ohio. I beat Lackey because he had a flat tire, but I still beat him. That put me into the points lead, but we still had one race left in New Orleans, which was The Battle of New Orleans.”
And, as fate would have it, Grossi wound up losing The Battle and the war.
“Somebody went down in front of me on the first lap, and I hit them and went through the fence and parked my bike underneath somebody’s van,” Grossi recalls. “I knocked the spoiler right off the front of it. It was pretty bad. I wasn’t hurt, but my bike was bent up pretty bad. I got back on it and finished the race, but I ended up fourth in the championship.”
Undeterred, Grossi dropped down to the 125cc class in 1976.
“I battled with Bob Hannah and Marty Smith,” Grossi recalls. “I was kind of hanging in there, and I had as good a chance as anybody,” Grossi says. “I remember that I went 3-3 at the U.S. GP, and I felt pretty good about that. Then I got home, and about two days later, I had an appendectomy, and that put me out for the rest of the series.”
Grossi soldiered on through the decade, bouncing between privateer rides and factory rides, and never quite recapturing that moto mojo that he’d held in the mid-’70s.
“My last real factory ride was with Husky in ’82,” Grossi says. “When that ended, I retired, but then I got a call from a friend and wound up doing a couple races in France. Then I got what I thought was going to be another factory ride with Maico in ’84, but they were going bankrupt, and by the time I got there and did a couple races, it all dissolved. That was basically it for me.”
After a long layoff, Grossi got sucked into racing AHRMA Vintage motocross just after the turn of the millennium. It was a lot of fun until a crash at Sears Point in 2002 left him badly injured and spelled the end of his racing days.
“I just blew my leg up,” Grossi says. “I broke it in five places, and it put me out of work for a year. Now, I just do dual-sport rides and stuff like that up here in Northern California.
“I never really got to say thanks to all the people who helped me after I got hurt,” Grossi adds.
But this doesn’t completely tie up the tale of Bill Grossi. Only one real question remains: In an era when the sport’s top stars were adorned with rough-and-tumble nicknames, such as Hurricane and The Jammer, how on earth did Grossi get saddled with the nickname, Sugar Bear?
“Aww, we don’t have to do that, do we?” Grossi groans. “Okay, I was down in Florida, doing the Florida Series with Tony DiStefano in 1975. I was in the 250 class, and he was in the 500 class; and we were winning everything in sight. So we met a couple gals, and anyway one of them named me ‘Sugar Bear’ because I reminded her of that Sugar Crisp [cereal] bear, you know, and I could never get enough… Well, you can take it from there.”
As for his racing days, it wasn’t perfect, but Grossi wouldn’t trade any of it.CN