In nearly 70 years of Motocross of Nations competition, the 1986 American team of David Bailey, Rick Johnson and Johnny O’Mara stands out to many as the greatest ever. The squad went 1-2 in all three motos that day in Maggiora, Italy, with Bailey and Johnson (on a 500 and 250, respectively) winning the motos overall, and O’Mara carding an unheard of second in both of his races on a CR125.
That team lives in such lore, that the entire event this year is billed as a 30th anniversary tour, with the race again running in Maggiora, and Bailey, Johnson and O’Mara heading over to be part of the celebration. We talked to Bailey, who hasn’t attended a des Nations since that 1986 race, over the weekend to get his thoughts on then and now. As always, few can articulate the feelings for this race better than DB.
Racer X: Well, you’re going to Italy. This is cool because it’s not like you just wanted to go yourself for a vacation. The European promoters of the race actually asked for you to go, to celebrate that amazing race 30 years ago. So this is actually celebrating America beating Europe, in a way!
David Bailey: I know! I look at it and say, “Should I wear a bunch of USA stuff?” [Laughs] What do I do? But I really appreciate the gesture. I got a message from the guys during last year’s des Nations in France, just giving us a heads up that they wanted myself, Ricky and Johnny, and our wives, to come over this year, and they’d provide accommodations and just let us enjoy it. I’m sure they’ll use us in some promotion, as well. So yeah, it’s going to be a really neat deal. You know, we talk about Anaheim 1986 a lot, but maybe this des Nations team doesn’t get talked about as much. That day all three of us just had good days, and there were a lot of things that contributed to that, a lot of Europe’s top guys didn’t have their best days, and the track really suited us. But I go back and think that at the first race of that season, in Anaheim, the three of us finished 1-2-3 in that race, and then we kind of bookended the season with the three of us at the des Nations. So it will be great to relive that. Even though the three of us all live in Southern California, we don’t get to hang out much. Over there, we’ll definitely be hanging out so it will be cool!
Now we look back at the 1986 team being perhaps the peak moment of the 13-year U.S. winning streak at that event. But it’s amazing to think that, only five years earlier, Team USA winning the Motocross des Nations didn’t even seem possible. In fact, I’m sure when you started racing, America being the fastest nation in the world didn’t seem likely!
Yeah! I actually have a picture here of [Bob] Hannah going around the first turn at Gaildorf, Hannah is wearing red white and blue, and Hannah is looking back at [Heikki] Mikkola. And that was at a time when Hannah was good, he was fast, and America was starting to take its place on the world’s stage. But still, even with Hannah, we didn’t win! There was a time when I was coming up that just being first American in a race was a great honor. By 1981, I had forgotten the team was even over there. I remember the news came, and I was in Mid-Ohio doing like a Winter Series race or something, and we heard. And it was such a shocker because that 1981 team, those weren’t even our best guys at the time. It wasn’t even a race that I remember following that closely. Then I ended up on the team the next year, but I’ll always feel bad about it because I only filled in when Donnie Hansen got hurt. I quickly got a real feel for how big that event is, and it was probably better that I just got thrown into it and didn’t even have time to think about it. By 1982, you could sense the Europeans were ready to restake their claim to it, and we were the young Americans under the pressure to try to repeat that. I was right in the middle of it. I saw Magoo win all four motos, I stepped up and maybe even raised my game a little bit. By 1986, it was the culmination of everything I had learned, and although that was one of our greatest days, it was actually the easiest one I had over there.
It’s amazing how quickly it changed. Yeah, late 1970s, it was like the team had no chance of winning, and then a few years later, the team couldn’t lose no matter what happened.
Right. And it wasn’t even a race we were thinking about. After our last national, we’d just be like okay, the season is over. Even in 1982, it wasn’t like I was an alternate, or the next-best guy. I only got the call because Hansen rode a Honda and I was the next-best Honda guy. As I got out there to Gaildorf, it was so foggy and I couldn’t see anything. But as that fog lifted, you just saw cars forever. It was the largest crowd I had ever seen at a race. It was incredibly packed, probably like it was in France last year. It just hit me. Man, I better take this seriously. I better not mess up. It’s not like any other race, and it’s really hard to describe how important it is and how much pressure there is to perform.
Team USA hasn’t won in a few years now, and we’re hearing a lot about how different it is over there and how racing on the other side of the world makes the odds harder. But I’m sure you guys were up against the same issues, if not more.
It was crazy. In 1983, back then we raced two weekends in a row, and the first weekend was the 500s, and it was in in Belgium, and the Belgian team had [Andre] Vromans, [Andre] Malherbe, [Eric] Geboers and [Georges] Jobe. That’s gnarly! That’s like their best four guys ever except for maybe the Roger [DeCoster] and Joel [Robert] days. And they rode well! It’s not like we got lucky. But we were just rolling. One moto we started 1-2-3 and I remember seeing the face on [Honda team manager] Dave Arnold, he was so pumped, then it all fell apart and we barely pulled it off. I remember in Finland we barely pulled it off, Czechoslovakia we barely pulled it off. Even going around the track, I remember seeing the faces on people as we went around and I could tell if we were in danger. There were a lot of people who donated time to help us, and helped do things like grease the skids so we could ride at a certain track or stay in a certain place. There’s so much riding on this and I better not go out there and just ride however I feel like riding. No matter what, I had to rise to the occasion—no matter how I felt, I knew I had to step up.
And that is the big difference with this event, in my opinion. You raced the USGP at Carlsbad, if you screw up, you say, “Oh well, it doesn’t even count.” Or if you just get top 10 at Anaheim, you say, “It’s a long series.” But here it’s one weekend, and you can’t blow it. If you do, you’ve got to look at all of these people the whole flight back. It’s hard to live with that. So you just dig!
They’re celebrating the team from 1986, and I know when the Americans go over to Europe now, the fans are all over them, because these are the heroes they watch in supercross and those fans don’t get to see them in person much. But what was the fan reaction back in the 1980s? Were they pumped or were you just the enemy?
In Italy, it was pleasant from the time we first got there. No animosity. But I did notice that in 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985. [Laughs] You could just sense that [animosity]. But in ’86, I don’t know if they were maybe just in submission, like, “These guys are on fire” or whatever it was, but everyone was pleasant. Remember in 1986, that was our first year on production bikes and they had works bikes in Europe, and that was a very European style of track. Now, I remember personally loving that track so much that I didn’t want to stop riding it, but I still thought they might have an edge. But we drew gate pick number one, so we got good starts, and that made it easier. It also seemed like the pits were more separated. They would usually move us to an area before the start where all the riders have to stare at each other. In Italy we didn’t see each other much, so maybe that helped. And from the fans, they didn’t have as many air horns as you hear today, but I just remember hearing giant cheers. The crowd was so huge, and I remember Rick, Johnny and I having to get on top of a van just so we could kind of clear out some space to sign autographs. And the van started rocking! Not because the fans were angry, but just because they were pumped!
I think the fans just wanted to see a great show, and Rick was a great showman and he was giving them what they wanted to see. Johnny was jumping that plateau on his 125 and taking his foot off, I had the horsepower on the 500 to jump it, too. So maybe the fans were getting into it from practice and that kind of set the tone for the whole weekend.
"Ricky really did. He was an incredible teammate, also in 1984. He shared everything—lines and all of that. But I wasn’t so good! I was just, call it whatever you want, immature, jealous, whatever."
Last week I wrote a column with a theory on how the American teams got so much better so quickly. And I have a theory that supercross culminated with radical changes to the bikes, and suddenly riding styles and skills improved immensely. You had to get so much better technically, you had to learn the intensity and you had to improve your starts. I think it just rocketed the American racers forward very quickly. Do you think that had a hand in it?
Yeah, I think that’s part of it. There was a real marker in this sport for us to get good at supercross, for Honda to build Hondaland [the first SX test track] and for other manufacturers to build their own tracks. Before that, we were doing supercross testing at Carlsbad! Now we had something more specific. And as we focused on supercross, we had to be fast from the get-go, because we didn’t have 45 minutes to work our way up. Sometimes we’d go over to the des Nations and we’d be shocked at how fast those guys were. We were just young and immature at times. We’d be looking at a European guy and he’d have some funny European gear, or his seat would be too high, or his visor was too low, and maybe we’d be making fun of that guy. Then he’d just smoke us in practice! It was a real wakeup call Supercross helped us learn to go quickly right from the get go. Also having Hondaland as a controlled environment allowed us to really be able to fine-tune things, I think that all gave us an edge. Also, our season was so long, we came in ready. I know right now a lot of the riders are saying the season is too long, and I totally get that. I completely understand that the responsibilities on these riders are much higher than what we had to deal with. But there’s something to be said about going over there with momentum. You just saw what [Eli] Tomac did at the two USGP races. I’m sure if he raced the des Nations I doubt he’d go over there and feel tired. He’d probably be pumped. But that’s not to say we don’t have a great team. The guys this year can definitely win it.
You can look at supercross from 1976 to 1986 and it’s not even the same sport! You guys improved tremendously.
Oh, not at all. At first, they just tried to figure out how to make a motocross track in a stadium. I had some great access when I was a kid, because my dad built the track at Daytona, also in the infield of Talladega, and I watched him lay out the track in the Astrodome and Texas Stadium. There was one time in Texas Stadium where they just had open practice. My dad was riding in it, he was doing okay, getting top ten. Then he pulls in and says to me, “Hey bud, you want to get out there and try it? These guys are going to keep doing for another 20 minutes or so.” So I ran back to the pits, but my boots and my helmet, some goggles, I think I was just out there in jeans and I want out there and rode the track! I was out there with Hannah and [Jimmy] Weinert and those guys. I stayed out of there way a little bit, I had some sense of what I was doing, but you just couldn’t do anything like that now. Not even close. It got so technical, and we kept asking for more. We wanted something really difficult and we wanted something that would separate us. The track designers started getting more creative, and they also got better at making the tracks, so they got more consistent. So once we knew what to expect, we could test on that stuff, so it wasn’t that difficult again, so we kept asking for it to get harder! I think by 1986 they had gone a little too far, and that track might have been too tough. They needed to tone it down so we could focus more on racing each other instead of the track. I think it’s like that right now, where the guys are trying to get through the season without getting hurt.
I know the season is long now, but you were racing all the time. Just a different situation.
I think a lot of guys did. It was so different. I can’t speak for everyone, but I felt like when I wasn’t racing, I was losing my edge. We didn’t have YouTube and all these videos and ways to know what everyone else was doing. I felt like if I wasn’t racing and keeping my edge, I started losing my confidence. I felt lost if there was time off, so during the Florida Winter-Ams, the Golden States, the Trans-Cal Series, we’d go to Japan. If we had a week off I’d go to Charlotte-Metrolina Speedway and hang out with [Damon] Bradshaw and his family when he was young. I did off-road races back home in Virginia, the off-season European supercross races. There was just a huge menu to pick from, and I felt like if I didn’t pick something from every page on that menu, I was losing my edge. Now there’s way more responsibility on the rider these days, especially the traveling part, and there’s so much more as far as autograph signings and things like that. We just had this level of mystery in those days. Everything was so new and fresh and exciting. Everything now, it’s all been done before so it’s less exciting for these guys. When I was there at the des Nations, I was learning from everyone on my team—maybe what a guy was eating on race day. I could learn all that.
I think one of the big differences now is these riders have trainers cracking the whip on them, they ride and live at these training facilities, now everyone feels they can replicate the race experience at home during the week, so they don’t need to go do a Golden State race on an off-weekend. Jason Anderson didn’t even do either of these USGPs, but I’m sure Aldon Baker feels that riding in Florida will do him just as well as any race.
Yeah, now it’s much more of an open book. These guys have so much data so the bikes come pretty close as soon as they get on them. With us, we would all have secret spots where we didn’t let anyone else know what we were doing. There was so much more mystery. I didn’t want to guess and just hope I was ready. I needed to race so I knew for sure.
So you mention these guys kept things secret. You and Rick Johnson battled hard for all three titles in 1986. So how did you do when you were teammates for Team USA. Did you really share?
Ricky really did. He was an incredible teammate, also in 1984. He shared everything—lines and all of that. But I wasn’t so good! I was just, call it whatever you want, immature, jealous, whatever. I had been to the race a lot and I felt like each year I went I had sacrificed my own results for the team, maybe volunteering for the bad gate pick or whatever. In 1986, I felt like I really didn’t care about anything else, I wanted to win the race, and I wanted to beat Rick! So much so that I was probably not the best teammate. And I’ve told Rick about this, and he says he never noticed and I’ve said, “Yeah you did.” [Laughs] What also contributed to that was, Johnny and I were so close. I don’t think a lot of people knew at the race that he was leaving Honda to go to Suzuki. He told me the night before. It wasn’t that Honda fired him, he had just been given a huge offer from Suzuki. So we knew this would be our last race together as teammates, and since this was our last race together, we were even closer. I could see where Rick could sense that, so he just did his thing and executed, and he was still great to me. There’s even some video of the final moto where he even went outside and kind of pointed to me to go inside.
Rick was a great teammate, and he executed. And I was motivated to win, and then Johnny had this extra motivation because it was going to be his last ride on a Honda. Some people may not realize that when Johnny was going out for his final moto, the crowd was so big that his mechanic Chris Haines couldn’t get his bike over to the staging area in time. So then some teams were saying, “He can’t race!” So Johnny was really mad, that motivated him even more, and he went out there and put in that incredible ride. It kind of anchored the whole thing. He was on a production 125 against works everything else. To go by guys like Jobe and Thorpe to get up to finish second, it was an amazing feat. I just remember being on that podium, we’ve won and we’re so happy and he’s just kind of hanging on me, and I notice his helmet, his visor was split in half. His helmet was all pitted. He was just eating roost and rocks the whole way, and to absorb that while also focusing and putting in the ride he did, and the way he had that 125 singing, I could hear the crowd just going bezerk. It was an awesome thing to witness.