As we countdown to the start of the 2015 Monster Energy AMA Supercross Championship, we’ve been going the years here at Racer X Online. The series began in 1974 as a two-weekend sprint from Daytona to the Houston Astrodome, but by the mid-eighties it had expanded to nearly twenty races, becoming the largest motocross championship of all.
But there was still tension between the OEMs and the AMA, not to mention tension between the factories themselves. Honda was the juggernaut, even though Kawasaki carried the AMA Supercross #1 plate on the front of Jeff Ward’s bike for the 1986 AMA/Nippondenso Supercross Championship. The Red Riders had just hired Rick Johnson away from Yamaha, who along with Suzuki, had pushed the AMA for a “production rule” that would limit spending and get them back on more even equipment for the future. After much back and forth, the rule was introduced for 1986: all race bikes had to be production-based. From that year on, the production equipment one could buy in a motorcycle dealership off the showroom floor would get better and better, as the factories poured more resources into the bikes that people would actually buy, as compared to exotic works bikes. It also allowed the teams to expand, and soon the 125 Class would start seeing top riders getting salaries. The mystique of the works bikes was missing, but the rule has remained in place ever since—a significant span of nearly 30 years.
No matter, Honda would roll into ‘86 with a good production bike and a full team that included previous champions David Bailey and Johnny O’Mara, and now Johnson and Micky Dymond. But they no longer had Ron Lechien. In the fall of ’85 the star-crossed teenager was caught with a small supply of marijuana in his luggage when he landed at the Tokyo Airport for testing with HRC. David Bailey and Johnny O’Mara were with him and all were thoroughly searched (don’t ask). Lechien tried to explain that he brought it along for jet lag. No matter, he was summarily fired, put back on a plane and sent home. He would sign with Kawasaki to become Jeff Ward’s teammate, giving Kawasaki the #1 and #2 riders in 1986.
Much has been written about the 1986 season-opener, arguably the most famous single race in AMA Supercross history. This was the epic Bailey-versus-Johnson duel that captivated 70,000 fans at Angel Stadium in Anaheim.
“It’s a nice way to start off the year,” Bailey told Cycle News’ Kit Palmer after capturing the win. “I’ve got a lot of confidence, and I feel like I’m right back in the winner’s circle, where I belong.”
Honda went 1-2-3-5 in the epic race, as O’Mara finished third while Dymond was fifth behind Yamaha’s Keith Bowen.
Jeff Ward’s title defense started out with a small disaster: he crashed in his Anaheim heat race and broke his throttle cable. The DNF meant he could not go to the semi, and thus could not race. That’s the way the rules worked back then. He left the stadium and ended up at the nearby Del Taco drive-thru, where he could hear the crowd’s roar during the main event battle inside his car.
Ward rebounded quickly with a win in the Houston Astrodome, which marked the second round of the series. Bailey, Johnson and O’Mara finished in the same order as Anaheim, only this time they were 2-3-4 respectively.
Next came San Diego, a home race for many in the field. This was the era of the El Cajon Zone, when Rick Johnson, Broc Glover, Ron Lechien, Scott Burnworth and more came from the same San Diego suburb. That made the win all the more important to Johnson, who got his first for Team Honda at Jack Murphy Stadium.
The Seattle doubleheader was next, and Johnson and Ward split the wins. Here’s the first main event, described by Larry Huffman as being “all for the mud, the blood and the beer!”
Johnson got another win at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium, with Bailey second and Ward third. Johnson left Atlanta with a 20-point lead over Bailey, his momentum building.
Daytona once again featured its two-row start as the field had yet to be shrunken down from 40 to the usual 20 or 22 riders. With defending race winner Bob Hannah (now riding for Team Suzuki) out with an injury, the door was open to a new winner. Johnson stepped up, giving him three wins in a row—his first-ever SX winning streak. You can watch his Daytona ’86 win right here.
After the southern swing, the series went north to the Pontiac Silverdome. Bailey finally got back on track, sweeping the weekend. Here’s a short clip of the Pontiac Silverdome, back when the track went up into the Silverdome stands. Forty-five seconds in you will see Johnson launch a triple that no one else was doing. You will also see Jeff Ward’s troubles continue, in what turned out to be a snake-bitten series for him. He would avenge himself a year later, but the ’86 title was down to either Bailey or Johnson, and RJ still had a 17-point lead.
(There’s an added bonus at the end of this Pontiac ’86 clip that put a smile on my face: highlights from the 1978 Pittsburgh Supercross! It shows Bob Hannah go off the track after passing Marty Tripes, then spin back around on the plastic to get back in the race, then run Tripes down again—I was a 13-year-old caution flagger at that race! Whoever put this together, it’s a great juxtaposition of how far supercross had evolved in less than a decade.)
Bailey would make it three in a row with a win in Dallas two weeks later. Johnson finished second to minimize the damage, whole O’Mara, who struggled all year long with a bum knee, finished third.
Going into the next-to-last round Bailey was on a winning streak, but he was running out of time. It was announced before the main event at Phoenix’s Sun Devil Stadium that Johnson would clinch the title with a win and a finish of ninth or worse by Bailey. Few thought that would happen because Bailey was on a roll. But then he had a miserable night in Arizona, one of many riders who absolutely hated the track built for them that evening. Johnson won, and thus clinched the championship before the last race. Here’s a look at the race on YouTube.
Why was the track so bad? Because the event also featured Mickey Thompson-style off-road car racing, which made the track slick and fast. It was part of the growing encroachment by the cars and trucks that had been going on ever since the Mickey Thompson Entertainment Group and Mike Goodwin’s Stadium Motorsports merged in 1984. The MTEG offices were inside Angel Stadium in Anaheim, and Thompson had long coveted a place at the supercross table. Mickey had founded SCORE to govern off-road racing in 1973, and then built MTEG to take events indoors. By joining forces with Mike Goodwin, would cut down costs for his own off-road series, and have a piece of Goodwin’s SX events. He also wanted the type of crowds supercross brought, which at the time put more people in the seats of the Coliseum and Anaheim than the NFL did.
Goodwin, in turn, wanted to make even more money than the $600,000 he once bragged he made at a single event (an implausible sum given the price of tickets back then and the overhead). The partnership they formed by merging companies soon went sideways, with fourteen different lawsuits between them. They were locked in court by this time, and it was soon to end very, very badly. That’s still to come.
The 1986 AMA/Nippendenso Supercross Championship ended at the Los Angeles Coliseum with another with for the new #1, Ricky Johnson, and Honda ended up 1-2-3 in the final standings of the first year of the AMA’s production rule. Many thought the rule would end Honda’s dominance, instead, they were stronger than ever.
And here’s another bonus: The 1986 Bercy Supercross from Paris.
It’s rough footage, in four parts, and it’s in French. It features the late Georges Jobe, an early European proponent of the craft of supercross, as well as Bailey, Lechien and Johnson. It’s cool to think that there’s a 16-year-old French kid somewhere in the Palais de Omnisport who would change everything. But that’s also still a few years ahead.
Final 1986 AMA/Nippensenso Supercross Championship standings
1.) Rick Johnson Honda 280
2.) David Bailey Honda 228
3.) Johnny O’Mara Honda 216
4.) Jeff Ward Kawasaki 191
5.) Keith Bowen Yamaha 165
6.) Jim Holley Yamaha 145
7.) Ron Lechien Kawasaki 139
8.) Broc Glover Yamaha 133
9.) George Holland Suzuki 118
10.) Scott Burnworth Yamaha 96
125 east Region
1.) Keith Turpin Honda 123
2.) Ron Tichenor Kawasaki 101
3.) Mark Melton Honda 68
4.) Billy Whitley Yamaha 63
5.) Mark Crozier Honda 63
125 west Region
1.) Donny Schmit Kawasaki 164
2.) Willie Surratt Honda 152
3.) Tyson Vohland Kawasaki 130
4.) Robert Naughton Honda 118
5.) Craig Canoy Honda 107