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Moto Heroes

Heroes: ROGER DECOSTER

My earliest childhood memories are from the early ’60s. My exposure to sports at the time was very minimal. I do remember flat track and speedway races. My heroes were men like Robert Vaughn, Chuck Connors, and Robert Conrad. But these were fictional heroes, as my hero worship didn’t really carry over into reality.

There were also political and social heroes. I remember watching my Mother crying as we learned of the Kennedy assassination live on our black-and-white TV. Upon my graduation from elementary school in Palo Alto, California, in 1967 I memorized and recited Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech at the graduation ceremony in front of hundreds of parents. Those were big life moments that you don’t forget. Like the moon landing and watching Muhammad Ali fight.

It wasn’t until later that I had sport heroes like Rick Barry and Joe Montana. And then there were my motorsports heroes. Men like Al Unser and AJ Foyt. What did all these men have in common? Strong, tough, independent, smart. All the things I wanted to be. But much more than all that they were “cool.” I think that was the most important criteria for any hero. They had to be cool. Hell, Montana’s nickname was “Joe Cool”.

And then one day in 1971, when I was 11 years old, my best friend Paul and I went to see “On Any Sunday” at the theater. Our lives would never be the same.

Motocross did not get started in America until the late ’60s, and didn’t become a real thing until the early ’70s. I had a lot of motocross heroes. But these heroes were different. I could watch them work. I could talk to them. I could take pictures of them. I knew that what they were doing was truly spectacular and fearsome.

And out of all my motocross heroes there was no one cooler than Roger DeCoster. Not even close. Fierce determination, humility, kindness, unselfishness, and toughness made him the perfect ambassador for this fledgling sport.

His nickname was “The Man.” If you knew MX, that’s all you had to say, and everyone knew who you were talking about. He is largely responsible for the popularity of motocross in America, and the world. He was fast, super smooth, always stylish, and a great ambassador. What I admired most about him was how much he hated losing. His quote “confidence is the key” always stuck with me my whole life. And I could see it in all he did.

I took this photo at Sears Point in 1977…

Heroes: KENNY ZAHRT

Kenny Zahrt – Argyll

If you grew up racing motocross in Lo Cal or No Cal in the 70’s, or were partial to the Spanish MX brands with their right side-shifting and left-side kick starters, you were probably a fan of the skinny kid with style for miles. I took this photo at Argyll MX Park in Dixon, CA. It was my local track/home-away-from-home during my teenage daze. Although it was 40 years ago I can still remember almost every section of the track, from the rubber band start to The Matterhorn.

One of the more prominent features was a tabletop that came up after the long back straightaway. It was about 15-18 feet high, with about a 12 foot landing area, and steep on both sides. Everyone would try to get up to the top then scoot across and drop down as quick as they could. When it was muddy many Beginners and even some Amateurs couldn’t make it up. If you were unlucky, like me, you had a decent chance of center-punching one of these losers as they slid out sideways going up the slope. Forcing you to go back and try again.

One day, I remember it like it was yesterday, Kenny Zahrt came to Argyll. He didn’t race there very often at all, but I knew about him from religiously devouring MXA on a monthly basis and seeing him at other CMC events. Kenny could fly! The fact that he looked like he weighed 100 pounds soaking wet must have helped him reach heights others couldn’t. He was so graceful, like a bird in flight. When he cleared that tabletop it was the first time I had seen anyone do it. He was the FIRST. Electricity filled the air that day, as all the spectators crowded around the tabletop to see it again and again.

Zahrt was one of those guys who didn’t care so much about having the latest, greatest technology. He rode Bultaco well past their peak of effectiveness. And in this photo he is on an Ossa, another Spanish brand that was a rare sight on local tracks. Most of his competitors were on superior bikes, yet he always got the most out of what he had and rode with great pride and grace. He just loved to ride.

“Magoo” may have done it later on his KTM, clearing that tabletop. But Danny Chandler was no bird in flight. He was more like a terrifying Pterodactyl, darting here and there, always on the verge of catastrophe. One of those riders that actually scared the hell out of you just by standing by the fence watching him. Kenny on the other hand was poetry in motion. He passed away in 2014. I am sure I am not the only fence-hanger who remembers these courageous deeds of a brave man. And that’s why I consider him a hero. Because on this one day he showed me something that I did not know was possible. And that’s something you don’t forget.

HEROES: KENT HOWERTON

I always hated the Dallas Cowboys. I was born in San Jose, CA, so of course I was a 49er fan. I was a 49er fan way before they were any good. Which was a LONG time. Before Montana came along it was a long string of failures, with just enough decent years to build up your hopes. But once they started winning I really hated Dallas. And, of course, Cowboy fans hated the 49ers. It was expected. Hard to blame them, for all the years they had to suffer at the hands of Rice, Lott, and Joe Cool.

These same type of loyalties also exist in the motocross world, either in the form of favorite riders or beloved bike brands. Sometimes, well many times, it is as simple as a favorite color. Red, Yellow, Green, Orange, or Blue. Take your pick. For me, it all started with Roger Decoster and Joel Robert. Then there was Heikki Mikkola and Gerrit Wolsink, aka the “Flying Dentist”. This was before American racers were able to compete at that level. In the late 60’s and early 70’s you admired and cheered for Americans, but you worshipped at the shrine of the Europeans. They were Gods whose every move was followed in the pages of Motocross Action Magazine.

So I was naturally disposed to be a Husqvarna and Suzuki fan based upon the brands raced by my heroes. My first mx bike was a Suzuki TM125 and I had a couple Husqvarnas also. Once the American racers finally caught up to the Europeans, towards the end of Decoster’s career, these loyalties continued. One of my favorite American motocross heroes from this period was Kent Howerton. Kent rode both Husqvarna and Suzuki to 500cc and 250cc championships. He was one of a group of legendary riders out of Texas which included Wyman Priddy, Steve Stackable, and Steve Wise.

Something about Howerton always stood out to me. He always seemed to be smiling in photos. He had tremendous style. One of my favorite photographs of all time is one I took of him wheelieing his Husky up a steep hill at Sears Point. You can see this photo at the top of the page. He had the nickname “The Rhinestone Cowboy”, because he liked flashy tennis shoes. I always thought it was a mismatched nickname, as he was humble and unpretentious and tough as nails. When other guys were melting in the intense summer heat he just kept going. And he was fast, really fast.

A fifteen year career in professional motocross is a long one. Most careers are a small fraction of that. In all Kent won 32 career AMA nationals and when he retired in the mid-1980s, he was second on the all-time AMA 250cc Motocross win list. In addition, he was the 1980 AMA Pro Athlete of the Year; a two-time winner of the 250cc United States Grand Prix; a two-time member of the American Motocross des Nations team and twice winner of the ABC Wide World of Sports Superbikers competition.

When I was a 17 year-old kid I took a photo of Kent at Hangtown. The year was 1976. That photo was published in Motocross Action Magazine! Pretty much the highlight of my entire high school experience. All those hours in the darkroom at Vaca High were mostly devoted to motocross photos, regardless of Mr. Swinerton’s assignments. That photo is the black and white photo above.

Kent Howerton always did things the right way and raced with fierce determination, but with class as well. He will always be remembered by me as one of my favorite racers ever. If I were to have a beer with any two racers from that time period it would be Howerton and Distefano. Don’t ask me why. Just something about people like that, people whose character is revealed by adversity. And is proven to be worthy of admiration.

‘Stubborn’ Racer Chooses Pain Over Pills

It’s easy to be a role model in motocross when everything is going right, throwing that whip over the finish at the end of a 1-1 race day. However, as Ricky Carmichael used to say, championships are won on a racer’s bad days. RC may not compare to Plato as one of the world’s great philosophers, but he makes a good point: our reaction when things are tough is the true test of who we are and what we are capable of.

Over the past two years I have put in quite a few motos with fellow racer Chris Kinerk. Chris is the manager of The Ridge MX Park, a very quick +30 intermediate racer, and a huge enthusiast of the sport. I practice and race a lot at The Ridge and every time I am there I can’t help but notice Chris coaching riders through different sections, helping people figure out bike issues, and sometimes just high-fiving kids to keep them pumped on moto and for being a part of our sport.

On September 2, at the Top Gun Showdown at Washougal, a start went sour for Chris. After winning his first two motos he ended up getting run over by multiple riders in the first turn of his third moto. The crash left him with nine broken ribs (some in multiple places) and a collapsed lung. In an instant, he went from the highest of highs to an ambulance ride, but what came next is the truly gritty part.

It is normal for patients with severe injuries to receive strong narcotic painkillers to handle the pain. These painkillers are highly addictive and have taken a toll not just on society, but also on many riders at the highest levels of our sport. Injury leads to pain, pain leads to a prescription, and without careful management that prescription can lead to addiction.

Recovering from an injury like this without painkillers isn’t easy. But this is exactly what Chris chose to do. He has seen the hell that opiate addiction has wreaked on friends, and he believes that it simply isn’t worth the risk. As a track promoter he has also been an ardent supporter of the Live Purple organization (now known as Youth Brigade 7), which promotes fitness as a tool in substance-abuse prevention and recovery, and as a catalyst to healthier living.

“If anything I want to use this to show others, especially the youth, that you can say no, and there’s other ways to manage the pain without risking falling into an addiction.” And of course, as he pointed out in one of his social media posts the day after his crash, “I’m stubborn.”

About a week after the injury, I contacted Chris and he said that “as long as I don’t cough, sneeze, hiccup, or make any sudden movements it’s manageable. I was expecting pure hell, but it hasn’t been horrible.”

I know that we will see the 796 bike back on the track again, and he will be there without the worry of addiction. It’s typical to look to our professional riders as role models in this sport, but sometimes role models like Chris can be right there in plain view at our local track, helping us find the good lines and staying out of the rough.

 

Mark Swart

 

You can help Chris Kinerk by going here and making a donation…

https://www.gofundme.com/626qd9k

HEROES: JIMMY WEINERT

Like Tony Distefano, one of his primary rivals, Mitchell Nelson Weinert was the son of a motorcycle dealer and started racing from a young age. Also like Distefano, he got his start on a CZ before signing with a Japanese brand. Early in his career he split time his time between dirt track oval racing and motocross, just like another rival of that era Jim Pomeroy. But don’t confuse “Jammin’ Jimmy” Weinert with any other racer. He was a breed all his own.

His nickname, “Jammin’ Jimmy,” or “The Jammer,” came from then-editor of Cycle News Gary Van Voorhis. During a Florida winter national race, Weinert got a bad start and quickly moved up in the field. As Van Voorhis described it, “He jammed his way to the front.” The next week’s headline read “Jammin’ Jimmy” and the nickname stuck. A serious crash on the dirt track convinced him to stick to motocross. Good decision. Jimmy Weinert is a larger than life personality, one of many that arose in the burgeoning motocross scene of the 70’s. Never one to back down from a challenge, he had a reputation as a tenacious and intelligent racer. Off the track he was the life of the party and always went out of his to make people laugh. He was well-known in the pits for his guitar playing and singing and prank-playing.

In an eleven year career he racked up an impressive total of 22 AMA National Motocross race wins and three AMA National championships. Weinert became the first American to beat the international riders in the Trans-AMA Motocross Series in 1973. That victory marked one of the turning points that brought American motocross up to par with the then-dominant Europeans. For that reason alone he is an American Motocross Hero and deserves all the respect due.

I took this picture at Sears Point in 1977.

Marty Smith – Hangtown 1976

I took these two photos at Hangtown in 1976. If you know your moto history this was a pivotal moment in the lives of two legends.

Marty Smith was all but crowned 125 National Champion before the season even started in 1976. He was the James Dean of American MX in the mid-70’s, a star unlike any other. Marty was the two-time 125cc defending champion and wasn’t expected to have much competition, but some guy named Bob Hannah came along and turned everything upside down. In the first moto Hannah, coming from last place, rode an absolutely insane race, and was on the verge of disaster the whole time. When he passed Smith nine laps later the mantle had been passed, and Marty would never win another 125 National.

I took these now historical photos during the second moto. Hannah got a much better start and they had a great battle for quite a few laps until Hannah started to pull away. This is the moment on the back straightaway where Smith’s Honda, and any hopes of being as fast as Hannah that year, went up in smoke. Well, make that steam. After several futile jabs at his kick-start lever he walked slowly back to the pits all alone. Remember it like it was yesterday.

HEROES: TONY DISTEFANO

I was never a fan of the CZ. I can’t dent that they were very fast. But they just seemed poorly made and the transmissions were crap. Plus, who could ride a bike made by “commies”? Also, being a native Californian, I trusted no one east of the Mason/Dixon line. My favorite racers were either West Coast guys like Lackey, Pomeroy, “Magoo” Chandler, Smith, and LaPorte or Texans like Howerton, Wise, and Stackable. So how did I become a huge fan of a CZ rider from Pennsylvania? To know the answer to that question is to learn about the life and times of the one and only “Tony D”.

Tony was a racers racer, if you know what I mean. His father owned a motorcycle shop and Tony grew up around bikes. He not only raced, but he always worked on his own bikes, even after he turned pro. After rising through the local ranks as an amateur he began his pro career on a CZ as a privateer in 1973 at the tender age of 16. In only his second year he would lead the 1974 500cc AMA National MX Championship for most of the season while living in the back of his van and welding his CZ frame back together with coat hangars. A late season injury allowed factory Kawasaki rider Jimmy Weinert to win that title instead. Although this would be just a short setback it was a foreshadowing of the extraordinary bad luck that would strike him at various points in his career and life. But not before he dominated American motocross like few before or since. In 1975 Tony would change to factory Suzuki and would go on to win three consecutive 250cc National Championships. His dominance in the golden age of American motocross was something to behold. He would also win the Inter-AMA series in 1975 against the best Europeans.

I always liked racers with style. Brad Lackey and Jim Pomery were the head-down, hard-charging type, who would always hit stuff head-on and fast. Bob Hannah and Danny “Magoo” Chandler were the crazy, feet-off-the-pegs guys, who always rode on the edge. Then there were guys like Danny LaPorte, Marty Smith, and Kent Howerton who just had style for miles and always looked good. Tony Distefano was none of those. Although he was incredibly fast, he had no style whatsoever. Bob Hannah would say “Tony rode a bike, basically like a sack of potatoes”. He gained what he earned through sheer hard work and determination. Something about that spirit made him quite endearing. I was an immediate fan.

I would follow Tony’s every move through issues of Motocross Action Magazine and Dirt Bike Magazine. He always seemed to be smiling or laughing in photos. His humility, down-to-earth personality, and sense of humor contrasted greatly against the backdrop of his dominance for those few short years. On the track he was a bulldog who wouldn’t let go. He was the very first racer to come out with his own line of motocross gear. “Full House” it was called. As Marty Smith would later say, “no, that was some pretty dorky clothing”. Jody Weisel just called it “horrid”. And yes, everyone knew it didn’t look good. However, there was nothing like it, just like Tony. It was also not very form fitting, which only made him look fatter than he actually was. And he didn’t really look like a motocrosser to begin with.

And that bad luck I was talking about earlier? He left team Suzuki after becoming disillusioned with the life of a professional motocross racer. In an epic case of stupidity Suzuki engineers allowed Tony to race Supercross with a known defect in the factory triple-clamps. In a well-known crash at the Dallas Supercross these triple-clamps would break off as he landed from a double. It was a bad crash. He had the track doctor sew up the gash in his face so he could watch the rest of the race from behind the starting line. A knee injury later that year made it look like his best years were behind him.

After a brief stint at Can Am he would attempt a comeback in 1979 on a Pro Circuit Husqvarna at the Anaheim Supercross. One week after an excellent outing at Anaheim, while working in his shop, he would injure and lose sight in one eye. Several surgeries later he did his best to come back and race again. He even got into the top 10 in the 500cc Nationals on a privateer Maico. He then started a motocross school and had a great reputation as a teacher.  Tragically while out practicing, he hit a tree root on the side of the track and was paralyzed in the ensuing crash. Amazingly, one year later, he was back teaching his motocross schools from the seat of an ATV. Never one to feel sorry for himself he always takes things in stride and makes the best of what life has given him.

But above all that, Tony is just a guy. Just a guy who would gladly talk to you from the back of his van in the pits, as long as you had something interesting to say and he wasn’t too busy. Just a guy who wanted nothing more than to beat everyone else at the game of motocross, and have fun doing it. Just a guy, who would rather do his celebrating at the bank than at the track. Just a guy who was as nice and funny and down-to-earth honest as they come, but who would tear your heart out if you dared line up against him on Sunday. And that’s why I will always love Tony D…

Memories, of the way it used to be…

Everyone who has raced motocross started out somewhere, and by somewhere I am referring to a specific track. By necessity this usually turns out to be the closest track to your home. For me this was a place called Argyll Raceway, otherwise known as Campbell’s Ranch, just outside the metropolis of Dixon, California. After graduating from high school in Vacaville I went to live and work in Dixon on an egg ranch with 30,000 chickens. And by “metropolis” I mean there was nothing there. Nothing. Well, 30,000 chickens anyway. Then if you went a little outside of Nothing you would find Argyll, on the way to the dump. Countless hours of my youth were spent driving to and from the track, racing there on weekends, and practicing during the week.

I cannot possibly tell you how many times I was there, from the time I was 15 on a brand new Suzuki TM125, to the late 70’s on my Husky CR360. My Dad was friends with old man Campbell and I went out many times on weekdays after school in my ’66 Chevy stepside. It has been over 40 years since I have been there, but I can still remember the rubber-band start, that first turn, the super tall tabletop, the long back straight, and especially the Matterhorn. Amazing that after all this time I can remember the whole track turn for turn.

It was usually hot and dry. And by hot I mean really hot. They had rice husks mixed in the dirt to loosen it up make it manageable, but it was always very windy out there and that rice husk was constantly blowing in your face. I raced the 100 class on my step brothers RM100, 125 class on my Suzuki TM, 250 class on my CR250 Mag Husky, and Open class on my CR360 Husky. The two Huskys I purchased from a good friend, Ted Rogers, who was one of the top CMC Pros. I saw so many legendary racers there. Danny “Magoo” Chandler stands out. There was always an electricity in the air when he raced, a feeling of impending doom. When he didn’t win he usually crashed. And nobody crashed like Magoo. So many races. So many years. So many memories.

I can understand why local pros, who are experts at a particular track, will often do well against established stars at that track. There is something to knowing every turn, every jump, every single little bump that gives you an advantage. I was able to turn this knowledge to my advantage from time to time, allowing faster riders to make mistakes that I avoided by taking a different line. I never did all that well, but I would guess Open Class was the best for me. That 360 hooked up so well. It had narrow gear ratios and I knew how to dump the clutch in second and launch straight as an arrow. That was the best part about that bike, as Husqvarna’s never were known for their cornering prowess.

Even after ALL THESE YEARS, in my dreams I still go back to that track. It is still there, here. I know it’s not the same. It may not have even been exactly as I remember it. Those memories are colored with my mind’s paintbrush, no one else’s. But those are memories that will stay with me forever. Nothing could take them away.

RYAN VILLOPOTO

Mark Simpson, June 4th, 2017

Went to Grays Harbor ORV today. The place is owned by 4 time Supercross champion and 5 time Motocross Champion, Ryan Villopoto. I printed some of my photos of him last night, hoping I might get to see him. He pulled up in a Kawasaki Mule and after waiting a minute I presented him with the photos and talked to him about his races at Washougal. For a world champion he is one of the most unassuming people you will ever meet. Usually when you meet someone of his stature they are aloof and have their noses in the air. Not Ryan. We all had a laugh because Mike went up to talk to him about the track, having no clue who he was, and Ryan was just as nice and humble as can be. As he left he thanked me for the photos. Pretty cool. Here are some of my best photos of RV…

Heroes: “BAD” BRAD LACKEY

Perhaps the first American motocrosser to rise up to the level of skill and dedication that the European riders had. Brad was always different, always going against the grain. Very charismatic and intelligent, he was once referred to as the James Dean of American motocross. A fierce competitor, he was the first American to head to Europe and take on the world’s best on their terms. Through a series of extreme challenges he would eventually become the first American World Champion. He gave all us American motocrossers hope and pride. He was just a bad-ass with the heart of a lion. Only saw him race twice. This photo is at the Sears Point Trans-AMA in 1977.

Great video about his amazing career here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RPWikyxaW14

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