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Great Races: The 1984 Daytona Supercross

I was sitting in a Shakey’s Pizza somewhere deep in the middle of Wisconsin. I was playing college hockey at the time, and a full-on, white-out blizzard had forced the team bus driver to pull off the highway and into the tacky pizza joint to wait it out. I was bored out of my skull and one of my teammates, a kid from Maine named Scott Bunting, came running out of the bar. “Hey, come on!” he said, grabbing my jacket. “You’re not going to believe it!” I ran into the bar with him. He pointed at a big-screen TV. Beaming out from it David Bailey, with the big blue-and-yellow Wrangler Grand National Championship number-one plate affixed to the front of his Honda, leading the Daytona Supercross. Hell with hockey. Hell with winter. Hell with the blizzard. Bunting ordered a pitcher of Old Style beer and we held station on two barstools.

The race we watched on a tape delay was actually held on Saturday, March 10, 1984, the fifth round of the AMA Supercross Championship. Johnny O’Mara had won the opening round before 71,000 fans at Anaheim on January 28; Jeff Ward and Rick Johnson each won a main at the two-night Seattle round on February 11-12; Rick Johnson won Atlanta on February 25. That brought the circus to the infield of Bill France Sr.'s Daytona International Speedway. As the snow continued to fly outside, we looked on at the big screen, watching Bailey lead the way through the deep, gnarly sand whoops. The USA Network announcers explained that O’Mara—who rivaled Wayne Gretzky as my idol at the time—had led the race but had gotten cross-rutted and flew off the track, letting Bailey through.

Bailey led the way, at full sail and flowing around the Daytona sandbox, making it look all too easy. O’Mara actually gained some ground on the reigning supercross champion but would hit the ground along the way. On the white-flag lap, Bailey had it in the bag, but behind him rode O’Mara and Rick Johnson, who was closing fast and hard on the Honda pilot. With a few turns remaining, Johnson blitzed O’Mara. To a frustrated O’Show, the pass was akin to a matador waving a red flag in front of a bleeding bull. O’Mara entered the last turn and twisted the throttle to the stops. Twenty-two years later, O’Mara picks up the story and explains what happened next:

Check out this Mitch Friedman shot from the race which was featured in MX Racer

“Daytona 1984. [David] Bailey won that day, but I always felt that I should have won. I was leading early on in the race,but then went off the track. I was gaining ground on David, who was in the lead, but then threw it away. During the final laps of the race, I wasn’t watching my pit board and didn’t know that Rick Johnson, who was riding for Yamaha then, was catching me. I was so distraught at the fact that I wasn’t going to win and that I had a made a few mistakes during the race that RJ went by me. The thought of getting third really disturbed me. So as we approached the finish line, I made this last-ditch effort for the lead. There was this big sweeper near the finish line. I went to the far right and hit it in fourth gear, wide open. I ended up doing this sky shot over the finish-line jump. I flew over 100 feet before I landed. I ended up getting a lot of ink over that jump.”

Fran Kuhn, the Eugene Smith of motocross photographers, was in Daytona that March afternoon and shot the photos you see here.

“O'Mara just pinned it right at the line trying to get by RJ,” Kuhn explains. “He flew like 100 feet in the air and landed past the big hole on the other side of the jump. I mean, he totally flat-landed it! I forget who got the nod at the finish line. The best part of the last photo is the look on the AMA guys' faces.”

Johnson would win by a nose, but it took a while to sort it all out.…

“I remember people came running like crazy after he landed it,” Kuhn continues. “He rode right over to the AMA referee trying to find out if he got by in time. I remember seeing a shot of this from another angle, from up on the banking. Maybe it was Paul Buckley's shot. What Johnny did really caught everyone off guard. If I knew what he was going to do, I would have backed up—a lot.”

Going backward in time 22 years, my friend and I jumped of our stools and walked around the bar talking to one another. We couldn’t believe what we had just seen. We were so stoked, we bought another pitcher of beer and replayed the incident over and over to one another. Outside, it just kept on snowing. We wouldn’t leave Shakey’s for another three hours.

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