In the month leading up to the new MXGP of USA at WW Motocross Park, Racer X Online ran a countdown of the biggest moments in the history of United States Grand Prix motocross—classics, from Carlsbad, Unadilla, Mid-Ohio, and more. But no list of great USGP feats is complete without the ultimate moment—when an American finally broke through to win the Carlsbad 500cc GP.
So now we unveil the story behind one of the most remarkable days in this sport’s history, including our original feature on this race, from the pages of Racer X Illustrated. Here’s the author, Eric Johnson, with his perspective on the piece.
On Sunday, June 22, 1980, Carlsbad Raceway and Marty Moates would forever become synonymous with one another when on that that sunlit afternoon Moates, the consummate underdog as an empty-pocketed privateer, rode his LOP Yamaha to victory at the 500cc USGP of Motocross, a race that up until that day, had been dominated by the shadowy men from a shadowy planet—the Grand Prix riders of Europe. It was the one race every American rider dreamed of winning, and to the many of us who are involved in the sport of motocross today, a race that through airing on ABC’s Wide World of Sports every winter, straight-up illustrated what World Championship motocross was all about. A triumph in Cinderella fashion, Moates, who was born and raised in nearby San Diego, pulled off what remains arguably the single biggest upset in motocross history. Not only was it his finest moment, but to this day, the finest moment in the history of American motocross.
“This was the first race I ever came to as a kid,” Moates told a Los Angeles Times reporter a few minutes after the final moto. “While I was out there I just thought, ‘I can’t believe this is happening. It was great! I’ve dreamed about this race every year and now it’s happened.’”
Twenty-six years removed from watching Marty Moates win that race on ABC in 1980, I found myself working at No Fear, and in doing so, was around him quite a bit (Moates went on to play a large roll in the No Fear company). Moates loved the sport of motocross. Whether it was racing the 250cc World Championships in Europe aboard off-song Ossa motorcycles, living hand-to-mouth as part of the storied privateer LOP Yamaha team, or just riding as a vet at local races in SoCal, he was always in it because he loved it. He didn’t get rich racing motocross, but that never bothered Moates and he was all too happy to see this generation of professional racers make the millions of dollars that they do. To all, Moates was a friendly, approachable, beloved fixture of the community willing to do anything to help his sport or a friend out. The waters ran deep with Marty Moates.
Early on in what were the formative years of Racer X Illustrated, Davey Coombs asked me to sit down with Moates and have him recount the 1980 USGP. We sat down in Marty’s office at No Fear, which sat, as fate would have it, in Carlsbad, California. We talked for two hours straight. That’s the story you’re about to read right now.
On December 7, 2006, Marty Moates killed himself. That next morning, and unaware of what had happened, Mark Simo, CEO of No Fear and a lifelong friend of Marty’s, pulled me in his office and told me the news. I just looked at the wall. Mark then told me he needed me to help put some words and thoughts together about Marty on behalf of the company. So we did that. A few days later, Marty’s funeral was held. Recently, I found a notebook that I had kept from that period immediately following Marty’s death. In doing so, I pulled these words from it. To me, the notes were, well, pretty fitting.
Marty’s funeral was just plain bitchin. The royalty of the San Diego motocross scene showed up—the same guys who helped make the U.S. the world’s #1 superpower in motocross: Broc Glover, Rick Johnson, Ron Lechien, Marty Smith, Marty Tripes. Near the end of the ceremony the lights went down and a number of large video screens lit up. The ABC Wide World of Sports broadcast of the 1980 USGP flashed upon the screens and the start of the final moto. One could already hear the chatter in the hall begin to rise to another octave. The starting gate dropped and #23 holeshot the world’s best, and simply rode away from them all. People clapped and cheered. Others cried. It was epic. It was perfect. It was just the way it should have been. It's also a damn shame that no one could pause the tape right there, Marty Moates alive and leading the world on his favorite track. It was his best day, and that's the way I still remember him.