Archives Column | Mike Bell

Cycle News Staff | December 20, 2020

Archives | Mike Bell


This Archives edition is a reprint. 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.

Mike Bell: Bell’s Odyssey

By Scott Rousseau

You seek great fortune … you shall find a fortune, though it will not be the fortune you seek.

Those are the words of the Pushcart Prophet, taken from the film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?

All Mike Bell ever wanted was an AMA National Motocross Championship title, and after coming just three points shy of winning the big one, the 500cc National Championship, in 1979, the 6’4” Lakewood, Californian nicknamed “Too Tall” was bound and determined that he would get his in 1980. He did, but it was not the one that he thought he would get.

1980 AMA Supercross Champion Mike Bell
Mike “Too Tall” Bell celebrates the win at the Houston Supercross doubleheader in 1980. He went on to win the championship that year.

“I did have a good 1979,” Bell says. “I came really close to winning the 500 Championship; I had some good Supercross finishes and did well in the Trans-Am [Trans-USA Motocross Series]. So, I made a personal commitment not to take any time off in the off-season. I tested and trained and took each week like it was another race weekend in order to be prepared and put an attack and win a championship that year.”

Bell and the rest of the competition did catch a bit of a break when the big gun of the time, Bob “Hurricane” Hannah, suffered a broken in leg in a water-skiing accident before the start of the 1980 season. Hannah would be out all year, which meant that there would be new champions crowned in the AMA Supercross and AMA 250cc National Championship MX series. Bell wanted that 250cc outdoor title in the worst way.

“I never really felt like Bob’s reign was over,” Bell says. “But in my first season in the 250cc class in 1978, I had actually given Bob a run in a few races, and I had beaten him on a couple occasions. That was a real confidence booster for me. I just took the attitude, ‘Hey, I’m going to work harder than anyone else.’ It didn’t really matter to me who was going to be there.”

As per tradition, the AMA Supercross Series marked the start of the season. At that stage in motocross history the riders and the factories really didn’t place as much emphasis on the Supercross title. Thanks to the indoor heroics of Hannah and tremendous explosion of fan attendance, that attitude was changing, though for the most part, Supercross was still considered the circus sideshow. The “real racing” was done on the big outdoor tracks.

“Winning a Supercross title wasn’t the same as winning an outdoor title then,” Bell says. “It was important, but I had almost won the 500cc title, and that was a big deal. The Trans-Am was still a big deal, too. The thing was that we raced so much among all the series, and we just went out every week to win. And don’t forget, the Supercross season was broken up by the outdoors. Supercross started in February, but it didn’t end until October.”

And even without Hannah, there were plenty of pretenders to the Supercross throne, including Bell’s Yamaha teammate Broc Glover, Team Suzuki’s Kent Howerton and Mark Barnett, and Team Honda’s Chuck Sun, to name a few. Before the ’80 season was over, all of them, as well as Daytona Supercross victor Rex Staten, would be race winners. In fact, after starting off the series by winning the first two rounds in Seattle, Bell finished 11th at round three in Oakland, California.

“I twisted my knee,” Bell says. “That was pretty disastrous. I had started having trouble with my knees in 1978. When you think about it now, if a guy gets 11th now, it’s almost all over for him.”

But that doesn’t mean it was any easier then than now. Besides the level of competition a rider had to face, there was also a virtual “sudden death” format in Supercross to keep the competitors on their toes.

“Another thing that a lot of people forget is that we had four heat races, and that if you didn’t finish your heat race in—I forget what the spot was—but I think they took the top four to the main, and fifth through 12th went to the semi,” Bell recalls. “If you had a DNF or a crash, or you broke a clutch cable or had a chain come off in your heat race, you were done. You didn’t get to ride the semi. It was just over. And even with our works bikes, that was a time when chains used to fall off, people would break cables or foul plugs on the starting line. Wheels broke. Those are things that modern-day riders can’t even comprehend.”

But Bell had come to win and win he did. Before the 1980 season was through, he would win seven of the 17 AMA Supercross rounds that year, clinching the title at the penultimate round of the series, the second night of the doubleheader in Philadelphia. And when he didn’t win, he was consistent, making every main event and finishing off the podium only three times all year. A victory at the series finale in San Diego, California, was just the icing on the cake, with the final points tally showing Bell outdistancing Howerton, 395 to 346.

While winning the AMA Supercross title was all well and good for Bell back then, he says he would only come to appreciate it much later, not just because it turned out to be the only title he ever won, but because the fact is that the AMA Supercross Championship has become the most coveted motocross title in the world today. Like a fine wine, it has aged to perfection, making Bell a vintage icon in the sport. Those whose names grace the honor roll of the now defunct 500cc National Championship MX Series wish they had it so good. The situation leaves Bell proud and humbled at the same time.

“When I look back on it now, it is the single greatest racing accomplishment that I achieved,” says Bell, who retired in 1983. “Five times I finished second in the 250cc and 500cc National Championships. Five times I was the bridesmaid, and those all hurt because I was a contender every time, but to have won even one championship has meant a lot to me, and it [the AMA Supercross Championship] has turned out to be the most important one. At the time, I would have traded my Supercross Championship for the 500cc National Championship in a second, but now, absolutely not. It’s the one thing that nobody can take away from me. My championship is nearly forgettable, but I can say that I have something in common with Ricky Carmichael and Jeremy McGrath. I’m proud of that. You know, the Supercross title is something that became very big, very fast.”

Taking that last point into consideration, maybe it’s not so surprising that Bell won the 1980 AMA Supercross Championship. After all, he too was very big, very fast. CN


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