Bench Racing Ammo: Boys in the Hood

Bench Racing Ammo Boys in the Hood

May 3, 2017 3:20pm

With the Monster Energy Supercross Championship coming down to the wire this weekend, we found it fitting to revisit arguably the most dramatic title finale ever, the final round of the 1992 season at the Los Angeles Coliseum. This story originally ran in the June 2001 issue of Racer X Illustrated (subscribe today!) and it’s just as impactful today as it was then.

LESS THAN SIX WEEKS before the 1992 AMA Supercross Series was to drop the curtain on its 16-race tour in the Los Angeles Coliseum, the City of Angels was literally burning. On April 29, 1992, 12 jurors in Sylmar, California, rendered a “not guilty” verdict exonerating a band of LAPD officers from the beating they administered on a black man named Rodney King. Angry with what they saw as a pronounced injustice, thousands of Angelinos took to the streets, cutting a swath of destruction and looting through South Central L.A. which ultimately added up to $1 billion dollars in damage.

In the melee that ensued, the neighborhood around the Los Angeles Coliseum was turned into a combat zone. Once a loose collection of liquor stores, record shops and beauty parlors, the community surrounding the stadium at 3911 South Figueroa Street was reduced to a smoldering pile of ashes, broken glass, and bad vibes. Realizing that South Central Los Angels was No Man’s Land for a motocross race, the AMA duly postponed the race to July 11 and scheduled it for Saturday afternoon rather than risk darkness on that edge of town. As a result, one of the most dramatic supercross title fights ever was pushed back to allow the neighborhood time to simmer down.

ON JUNE 6 in San Jose, California, the penultimate round of the ‘92 season played out before a capacity crowd of 30,124 fans in Spartan Stadium. Only six points separated title contenders Damon Bradshaw and Honda teammates Jeff Stanton and Jean-Michel Bayle. Four laps into the Coors Light Challenge main event, it would all change dramatically as Stanton and Bayle Collided in a sharp hairpin turn, with Bayle losing his balance and slamming into a hay bale. By the time the checkered flag flew, Team Yamaha’s Bradshaw had taken his ninth win of the season, and with it, a six-point lead over Stanton in the series points chase. All Bradshaw needed was a top-three finish in Los Angeles and Yamaha would have its first AMA Supercross Championship since Mike Bell’s conquest in 1980. And with Bradshaw’s brash talent and determination, it looked like a sure thing.

A Town Called Malice

From its very first event—a USC football game held on October 6, 1923—the Coliseum had seen its fair share of great sporting moments. In seven decades, the venerable old stadium had hosted two sets of Olympic Games, two NFL Super Bowls and one World Series. On July 14, 1979, it also hosted the largest supercross crowd in history when 74,085 fans turned out to watch Mark Barnett win his first-ever 250cc main event aboard a Suzuki. Now the great old venue, created by architects John and Donald Parkinson, was hosting one of the most bizarre athletic contests in its 70-year history. 

“It was certainly poised to be a unique event,” says SFX Motor Sports principal Roy Janson, who was instrumental in pulling off the event that July afternoon. “During the riots the Coliseum had been a staging area for the National Guard. The event had to be postponed, and there was so much bad publicity about the area that we had to schedule the race for the daytime.” 

Thrilled at the thought of winning the most prestigious motocross championship in the world, Yamaha opened up the corporate war chest to make sure everything was in its proper place. Keith McCarty, who had worked closely with Bob Hannah and Mike Bell during their supercross championship runs, explained the atmosphere around the Yamaha camp that Saturday. 

“We were really excited because it had been a long time since Yamaha had won the Supercross Championship,” remarks the Yamaha Racing Dept. Manager. “Up to that point things had gone well, and it looked like victory was ours. It was a big thing for Yamaha and everybody was up for a celebration. In fact, Yamaha had a huge catered lunch for the media to try and take advantage of all the publicity.” 

Jeff Emig, a rookie to the 2500c class that year, remembers that, in his opinion, all was not normal in the Yamaha pits. “It didn’t seem like business as usual. It seemed like the Bradshaw family was already preparing for the victory party. I don’t think anybody didn’t believe he was going to win it.” 

In what seemed to be nothing but a six-point formality, Yamaha National Communications Manager Bob Starr, who had only been with the company for a short time at that point, had been dispatched to work with the motor giant’s advertising agency to have a championship victory ad prepared. “We had two ads ready to go,” explains Starr. “Of the two ads, one was for the championship and the other was for most victories—just in case something really unexpected occurred.” 

Meanwhile, just across the pits, all was not well with Team Honda. All season long, a bitter feud had been simmering between teammates Bayle and Stanton. Moreover, matters were made worse by Bayle’s attitude. Already having informed the world that he would be going road racing in 1993, Bayle took a lackadaisical approach to the Coliseum encounter—especially after the San Jose run-in with his teammate Stanton. 

“I pretty much thought it was over,” concedes Team Honda’s Dan Betley, Stanton’s mechanic during his tenure as a Honda factory rider. “I was a having a bad day there. I was also at my wit’s end with the Bayle situation. There was a lot of pressure in the team. The team was a pressure cooker, and it was about to blow.” 

Then there was Stanton himself. Having only won two main events in ‘92, he just didn’t believe it was in the cards for him in Los Angeles. In fact, Stanton, never one to be intimidated, spent the morning of the race jogging through the riot area as way to stay in shape for the 250 Nationals, which had been put on hold to fit in the supercross finale. 

Accentuating Stanton’s lack of confidence was a poor outing in his heat race. Forced to race in a semi after another on-track altercation with Bayle, Stanton retreated to the pit area and withdrew into himself. 

“I didn’t think I had a chance at the title at all,” he reflects nearly a decade later. “I just figured I would go out and do what I could do and whatever happened, happened. I felt miserable in practice, then Bayle and I crashed together and had to ride the semi. He beat me, and I got second. I remember being so pissed off, I went to the front of the box van and just sat in the grass and said myself, ‘However this plays out is just the way, it goes.’ Right there and then I put myself into a zone. I had always done a lot of visualization, and I began to visualize myself getting the start and getting out in front of everyone.” 

Bradshaw, taking a cautious approach, had found his way into the main with a safe and unassuming third in the second heat race

The Crucible

At 6:30 p.m., with the sun still high over the brim of the stadium, the 250 main event was called to the starting gate. For the two primary players in the drama, the race meant different things. For Bradshaw, there was everything to lose; for Stanton, there was nothing to lose. As he began walking toward the gate, Stanton was met by Team Suzuki rider Guy Cooper. What Cooper said to him would have a remarkable effect on the outcome of the race. “I’ll never forget that Guy Cooper walked up and said, ‘Jeff, I am going to ride the best race of my life to help you,”’ recalls Stanton. 

When the gate dropped, Stanton’s vision thing worked as he pulled off an epic holeshot. Bradshaw, meanwhile, gated well, coming out of the first corner behind Cooper and Kawasaki’s Mike Kiedrowski. For 19-year-old Bradshaw, everything was right where it needed to be. 

Then, unexpectedly, it all went wrong. Not able to eat away at the distance between himself and the Kawasaki rider, Bradshaw seemed to slow down. Kiedrowski, meanwhile, turned it up a notch, and on lap seven he raced by Cooper and into second. By this time, an eerie silence had settled over the sparse crowd as 28,322 fans watched Bradshaw slowly become unraveled. Visibly out of sorts, he began to falter, tripping up over a number of the track’s obstacles. 

“I just wasn’t riding well,” says Bradshaw nine years after the fact. “I knew what place I needed to have, but things just weren’t clicking for me. I couldn’t make it happen on the jumps and turns. I couldn’t put together any solid laps—certainly not 20 of them.” 

When asked if the race felt like a nightmare, Bradshaw responds quite candidly, “You know, it did. It really did seem like a nightmare. It was all turning bad for me.” 

Standing next to the track with Bradshaw’s mechanic, Brian Lunniss, McCarty refused to hit the panic button. “At first he seemed to be riding with a lot of caution,” he explains. “Damon was not loose or uninhibited like he normally was. I thought he was just staying out of trouble and sitting back until he needed to do something. I didn’t smell trouble.”

Twilight’s Last Gleaming

Sixteen laps into the 20-lap main, it became obvious that Bradshaw was not going to catch Cooper. In fact, he had lost so much ground that Bayle, who had basically been on a joyride throughout the main event, closed in on the white and purple rear fender of the struggling Yamaha rider.

Things got even weirder when the enigmatic Frenchman slowed himself down, refusing to pass Bradshaw as a way to spite Stanton. (That’s how bad things had gotten over in the Honda camp!) A now confused McCarty continued to stand by helplessly and watch it all go down.

“Multiple things were now going through my mind,” he remembers. “The primary one being just how much pressure Bradshaw had to be feeling at that moment.”

One lap later, realizing there was no way Bradshaw was going to catch Cooper, Bayle whizzed by like a missile and was gone. That’s when young Jeff Emig came up on his teammate. 

“I could see what was going on up front,” says Emig, who would go on to win the ‘97 AMA Supercross Championship. “At one point I saw Bradshaw and thought, ‘Wait a minute, Damon’s not in the right position. I wonder if something’s wrong with the bike....’ Toward the end of the race I pulled up on him and thought, ‘Oh man, this is so bad. He’s not getting the job done.’ I was still racing for the best position, and I wanted to go past him, but the team didn’t want me to go by. I was too young then to realize just how much more important Damon’s situation was than mine at that point.” 

Riding his own race, Stanton, who had led the entire way, was not completely aware of what was transpiring behind him. Then, with only two laps to go and a three-second lead on Kiedrowski, the mechanic Betley flashed the pit board to let his rider know just what was up. 

“I didn’t really grasp anything until the last two laps,” says Stanton. “When you’re out front and you’re leading and everything is clicking, you’re in a zone and nothing is bothering you. And that’s the way it was in that race. I got the holeshot and it felt like the race went by in two minutes. It wasn’t until the last two laps that I knew where Bradshaw was and how it was going to play out. I started to get so excited—I couldn’t believe it!”

Instead of flashing over the finish line jump, Stanton rolled atop the table top with his fists held high in the air. Then he turned to watch Kiedrowski come past in second, then Cooper jump past the finish line in third, a position that assured Stanton his third AMA Supercross Championship in four years. 

Dropping his bike, he again raised his arms and saluted the stunned crowd. He rolled to the tabletop jump’s base and embraced Betley, who just moments before had thrown his pit board into the air. Renowned for their general lack of emotion, the two were whooping it up like a pair of schoolboys. 

“I think everyone there that day was like, ‘Who are these guys?” laughs Stanton. “We were the underdogs, and for Bradshaw to fold that severely was unbelievable. I think that’s why we showed all of that emotion after the race.” 

While all of this was going on, Bradshaw slowly idled back up the Peristyle jump and into the pit area where a group of stunned Yamaha people had already started to gather. It was the most disappointing moment of the then 19-year-old prodigy’s career—one that would stick with him for years to come.

Dog Day Afternoon

Depending on their particular allegiance, the post-race pits were split with people showing entirely opposite emotions. On one side, there was wild rejoicing and hoopla; on the other, deep despair. Team Yamaha’s supercross carriage had, in the span of about 30 minutes, turned into a pumpkin.

“There was certainly a lot of disgust,” offers McCarty, whose team had been planning on its first SX title since 1980. “Brian Lunniss flipped out and lost it and ended up embarrassing us by throwing tools around. It was just a huge letdown for everyone. It was a bad day. It was all tough to handle.” 

Adds Emig, “It was sick. The tension was unbelievable. After the race I think Brian had a hammer and was banging on something. It was all so intense. In a matter of 20 laps Yamaha had gone from taking the supercross championship away from Honda to failing.” 

Bradshaw sat quietly in the shadows of his box vans trying to make sense of it all. He was far and away the most popular and flamboyant rider in the sport at the time, and this should have been the biggest moment in his life. Instead, it had turned into a gutwrenching nightmare. 

“After the race, everybody was really upset,” remembers Bradshaw. “I was, too. There was nothing I could do about it. Nothing. It really did suck and, unfortunately, it was a milestone in my career. I was really dominant the entire season, and one event ruined the whole thing for me. It just took one bad race to turn it all bad for me.” 

When Stanton is asked what was going through his mind after all the on-track celebration, he reflects back to certain members of the Yamaha camp who may have gotten a bit ahead of themselves.

“They had T-shirts made up, the restaurant taken care of and the champagne bought,” he explains. “For Dan and I it was an awesome experience. For everyone else, I think it was pretty somber.”

Including Jean-Michel Bayle. Although he had made his road racing aspirations known through several interviews, no one believed that the Frenchman would really walk away from it all. Three months later, he did, riding his last AMA race at the Budds Creek 500 National finals, where he once again sandbagged the race in the hopes that he could help prevent Stanton from earning the 500cc National Championship over Kiedrowski. But that’s a whole different story....

In the July 22, 1992, issue of Cycle News, Yamaha ran a two-page spread on pages six and seven. With a big and bold purple headline, it proclaimed, “Super Cross Record” and talked up the then-record of nine main event wins for Bradshaw. Three paragraphs into the copy, a sentence read, “From Houston to Seattle to Atlanta to Pontiac to most everywhere in California, Damon was Dominator.” 

Unfortunately for both Yamaha and Bradshaw, “most everywhere” didn’t include the mean streets of Los Angeles.