David Bailey won the first Paris-Bercy Supercross in March of 1984. At the time, it seemed like he had just won a fun, random race in Europe, but as that event grew in scope, the influence of that victory grows larger. Nearly every top champion since has traveled to France to compete in the event, and many have claimed King of Bercy honors. But what was it like to win the race before anyone really knew what it was? What type of travel schedule did the star riders of the 1980s endure?
We rang up The Icon last week to talk old-school Bercy.
Racer X: We’re into the international racing time of the year. So I wanted to get some perspective from you, the first-ever Bercy Supercross winner. First of all, what was this time of year like for you, back in those days? Seems like you guys were doing a lot of traveling during the off-season.
David Bailey: Yeah, I would bounce back and forth from my place in Virginia and Hondaland out in Simi Valley [California]. I’d have to do that because being with Johnny [O’Mara], he never misses a day. He’s up early running, he’s riding a lot, and then he’s cycling. I think I got him into cycling and he got me into running. When we were around each other, it was always a little bit more than I was willing to do, but if I was there, I was willing to do it. So it was always sort of a boot camp situation when I was out there with Johnny. Sometimes I just needed to get out of that, so I’d fly across the country to ride in Virginia, depending on the weather and training. Besides that, flying, we’d always go to Japan and do the GP there. We would do that, and we would go back over again for the Tokyo Supercross, which was always late in the year, usually December or something. That would be our second test with the works bikes. We’d kind of get a look at them during the Japanese GP, we’d make some suggestions and maybe put together a wish list. By the time we got back for that second test, they would have made those changes and corrections and have a bunch of things to test. We’d stick around after the race and do our final test that would establish what they would send to the U.S. Those would be the bikes we’d work with throughout the season.
So you were going to Japan twice a year.
Yeah, because the works bikes were hard to get dialed. They would change so much year to year. You’d look at the bike and go, “Wow, yeah, that thing is amazing!” Then you’d ride it and go, “Wait, I can ride a stock bike better than this thing.” You’re trying to say that nicely. It was always weird because the weather would be cold and the track would be slick and funky, so it was hard but it was important. It was good to get that time on the bike, even though, man, flying all the way to Japan twice, that’s gnarly.
We know that’s the balance all riders have to figure out—and it’s a hot topic for today’s riders. There’s a benefit to racing overseas—you can get paid, or, in your case, you’re testing your works bike—but all of that travel can take you out of your regular training program. Did you have to weigh that out, too?
You know, I think it’s kind of a push between what we had to do then versus what they have to do now. What we had back then was a lot less stuff during the regular season. These guys seem like they have a lot more autograph sessions and marketing things. We had a lot more free time, and that’s part of the reason the guys trained so much. I’d just be bored! And you can’t run all the time, so I then figured I might as well get a bicycle, and then a trampoline, and I’ll put in a pool… I’ll just spend my time being active. We just didn’t have as many obligations as today’s guys do. So when they did ask us to go overseas to race or to test, it wasn’t as much like, “Oh man, again?” So it was fresh. And I was a kid! I was getting to see Tokyo or Paris. It wasn’t a grind; it was neat. That was my life. I knew it would beat me up a little bit, but also when I got home I knew I wouldn’t have some publicist telling me I have to do this or go here or do that. So I think now, when you hear the guys say the season is too long, I think they’re using the wrong terminology. I think it’s not that the season is too long, it’s that they’re too busy during the season. So when the season is extended, they’re just like, “Man, I need a break!”
So you won the first Bercy, but it wasn’t at the normal time of year. It was in the spring. How did that happen?
Yeah, it was in March, right after Daytona. And there’s a funny story behind that. I had just left my house in Virginia to go to Gainesville to test my 500 for the first National. I moved to the 500s that year because Honda had [Bob] Hannah and [Ron] Lechein in the 250 class. So when I moved up to 500s, I didn’t have any time to test until right before the series. I tested the bike and did some Dunlop testing with Frank Stacy. I flew up to do the Atlanta Supercross, then I came back to Florida to race the Gainesville National, and then went straight to Daytona. At that point I hadn’t been home in about a month, and I was also dealing with a broken foot I had suffered back at the Seattle Supercross. So I was really looking forward to the weekend off after Daytona to get back home and try to heal up this broken foot. Then I get a call from Roger [DeCoster] saying, “Hey, there’s this race in Paris we really want you to do.” I had already talked to Xavier [Audourard, event founder] about it. I was interested, but in the end I said, “Nah, I really don’t want to do that.” Roger is like, “Come on, man!” But I said I was busy. I had a foot injury. Then Roger calls again! I was kind of annoyed. I already said no! I told him I really wanted to get this foot injury dialed before the Houston Supercross. So that was that, but Roger called back again five or ten minutes later and he goes, “We already have your bikes on the way there. We told Johnny you were going to do it, and he said, “If David is doing it, I will do it.” At that point, I was like “Well, now that I know all that, I guess I’ll go.” I don’t remember exactly how it went, but it was pretty much like that.
So you never actually said yes and they shipped your bikes anyway.
So what we’re getting at here is, no one knew what this race was?
No. Roger kind of pitched me on it, because I didn’t really know Xavier that well. He’s this French guy talking to me with this strong accent and I’m like, “Look, man, I’ve been gone a month.” Oh, I had gotten robbed at gun point while I was in Gainesville!
Yeah! So it was just a tough trip, and I just wanted to go home and train. Plus, I had this crush on this girl named Gina [Bailey’s now-wife] and I wanted to hang out with her. I didn’t want to leave the country! But long story short, I ended up going. I think I was going to end up winning the first night, I was leading and I slowed down at the end so me and Johnny could go across the line and whip it together. He ended up passing me! But I won the second night, and I got the first King of Bercy thing. Then they had the race again later that year, and I was just a grouch. I had been in Europe already at Genoa and a few places, and I broke my foot again over there. Somebody did an interview with me and I was like, “Europe sucks!” That’s why they didn’t invite me back in ’85. I got to talking to Xavier a little bit and we straightened it out. He’s like, “We thought you didn’t want to come!” And I told him I was just being an idiot and I loved it there. So I ended up going back for 1986, and then had it for three nights. I ended up winning it again. I loved Bercy, I think it was a really exciting show. Over the years, it gets hard to maintain that. But to be there in those first few years, it’s a new, fun event to do. If you didn’t win, it was no big deal. If you did win, it was badass because they gave you this giant trophy that could barely fit on the plane. I still have ’em. That first Bercy, I still have that trophy in my office. It was a great race and I’m glad they did it. I looked forward to going.
The opening ceremonies at this event really became famous. Did they have anything like that in those first few years?
No. The first one I went to, they had this sound system that was amazing. They had this theme song, which I think was a Huey Lewis song or something like that. When we came back in ’86, I think the theme song was, like, from Top Gun. And they pushed us out of the tunnel in a plane that looked like the Spirit of St. Louis. They announced to the crowd that we all weren’t going to be able to make it because we all got stuck testing in Japan. “Yeah, the Americans aren’t going to make it, but we still have Jacky Vimond!” And the crowd’s all bummed, and then they push us out through the tunnel. Some of us were inside this Spirit of St. Louis plane, some of us are standing on the side, it was fun. They always had a really cool way of introducing everyone. They’d have us come out with Playboy bunny-looking girls escorting us to the stage. They’d have a cool BMX thing with guys doing tricks—it was to the point where we were even as riders standing there saying to each other, “This thing is badass.” We were like rock stars. We had the feeling that it’s a race, but we’re also here to entertain. It was a complete left-hand turn compared to what we were doing, so it was nice to go over there and be surprised.
So you did some other European races like Genoa?
Yeah, one time, but I stayed too long. It was raining and I think my gear got stolen, and then I went to Paris and I didn’t get good starts and I screwed up a lot and ending up doing bad. I was mad because I wanted to win it so badly, and I should have won it. So I was bummed out and I was kind of mad at Johnny for something. I think I felt like he held me up or something. He knew I was mad. So, he drove up to a race in Belgium with Eric Gebeors, and Eric was driving fast. Like, I think Johnny was having regrets because it was foggy, and he’s trying to keep up with a Mercedes SL going Eric Geboers speed. I think Johnny was white-knuckling it a bit! But we flew to Belgium and they beat us to the airport! Just to break the ice, they met us there, and Johnny had a sign like you do when do when you have a limo driver. So I’m coming off the plane and there’s Johnny holding a sign with Bailey all spelled wrong. It was hilarious and it broke the ice. Then we went and did this race that Gebeors was putting on, but I broke my foot in the heat race and couldn’t race it. By the time I was done in Europe, I was tired and just wanted to get home. So I didn’t do anything in Europe in ’85, but I still did the Sugo GP in Japan that year, and I think I did a supercross in Japan also. Really, the most important thing we did was a few Golden State [California motocross series] races before Anaheim. It was a long season, but if I didn’t have races to do that people didn’t know about, to stay sharp, I’d go do a local race at Metrolina in North Carolina. That’s where I first met Damon Bradshaw. If I sat around a lot, I felt like I was losing my edge. When these guys are like “I need a break” I get it, because sometimes I would feel like I would need a break. But if I was on the beach somewhere, I could never fully relax. I still felt like I should be riding, because I knew these other guys were riding somewhere. I know some of the guys don’t want to do these races, but I always say, “Yeah, but when you’re 50, you’ll wish there were some races to do.”
Plus, I’m sure you got paid well for some of them?
I didn’t get paid to go to Japan, but I didn’t care. That was part of the job. When I’d do some of the other races, it wasn’t a big deal if I got paid. I had no idea what I got paid, I just know it didn’t cost me anything to go.
So you weren’t doing these races as a moneymaker?
No. The first year at Bercy, I didn’t even know what the purse was. It didn’t matter to me; I just thought it was a cool show, and I want to have a career where I can make an impression and make a difference. I looked up to the guys before me, and I wanted to be like that. So that was first and foremost. The money was secondary. Right now I’m sitting in traffic in a car with a lot of mileage on it. If I had made a ton more money back then, it would be gone by now anyway. I’d still have the same car. Money just comes and goes. I heard someone, I think [Travis] Pastrana one time, he called it dirty paper. It doesn’t really do you any good to hold on to it. I didn’t grow up with much, and money never really motivated me. I just knew when I was racing I had enough of it, but there was never a surplus. So I just got used to that idea—I was never trying to collect a bunch and win Monopoly. I was just happy to go racing and go to Paris in front of those fans who didn’t get to see guys like Rick Johnson, Johnny O’Mara, Jeff Ward, myself, I guess—they didn’t get to see guys like that during the rest of the year. It’s like being in a rock band when you get to tour. You come to that town once and those people are so happy. That’s how I felt when I went to Japan or Europe. The people were genuinely and sincerely jazzed up that you were actually there.