This story originally ran in the June 2008 issue of Racer X Illustrated. Subscribe now for as low as $9.98 and receive a FREE FXR t-shirt, plus access to our digital edition.
In January, the AMA supercross fraternity went old-school by turning the second Anaheim round of 2008 into a retro celebration. Live Nation took this unprecedented step as a way to honor what many consider to be the single greatest supercross race of all time, Anaheim ’86. That was the night, 22 years ago, when Honda teammates Rick Johnson and David Bailey battled for almost the entire main event, the lead changing hands several times along the way. It was a pivotal night in the history of the sport, and riders and fans at Anaheim ’08 joined in the celebration by decking themselves out in riding gear and casualwear from the era. By all accounts, the celebration was a smash hit.
While there’s no doubt that Anaheim ’86 was a great race, there are at least 43,000 fans on the other side of the country who might argue that another race trumps it. That’s the number of people who showed up at Atlanta’s old Fulton County Stadium on a cold February night 18 years ago to watch the fifth round of the 1990 AMA Camel Supercross Series. The fans were treated to an astonishing display of competition involving the likes of Damon Bradshaw, Guy Cooper, Johnny O’Mara, Jeff Ward, Mike Kiedrowski, Jean-Michel Bayle, and every other top rider of the era. Even Rick Johnson played a major role in what would turn out to be the last great supercross performance of his historic career.
The Atlanta main event was packed with thrills and spills, block-passes and takeout moves, last gasps and go-for-broke chances. The lead changed as often as a NASCAR superspeedway race, and when the checkered flag was finally waved, it was as if the man who flew past it first, pumping his gloved fist in celebration, had materialized out of thin air! So competitive and chaotic was the 1990 Atlanta SX that it took repeated viewings of an old DVD of the race to trace exactly what played out from the green flag onward. Was it the greatest race of all time? We decided to track down some of the participants and race-watchers who were eyewitnesses to the drama and ask them to describe what’s known as “The Battle of Atlanta.” And for good measure, we’ll offer some excerpts of that night’s television broadcast, with moto legends Dave Despain and Larry Maiers in the booth.
Guy Cooper: A lot of people still talk about Atlanta 1990. I remember it like it was yesterday!
Kevin Windham: I was 12 years old—the race just four days before my 13th birthday. It was so cold that my butt actually stuck to the seat that night! At least before the main event it was. Once the race started, I was standing and screaming the whole time, just like everyone else watching.
Mike Kiedrowski: At the time, I was riding Hondas and it was my first year on 250s. I was the 125 National Champ, but I had yet to win anything on a 250.
Jeff Matiasevich: The track was kind of muddy and rain had flattened out the track. There were big, huge bowl turns where you could stuff guys.
The thirty-second card is up! Let’s look forward to another great race tonight and hope we get it in the cold, clear temperatures of Atlanta.
Johnny O’Mara: I had the holeshot and was leading it early, but a lot of stuff was happening behind me. It was really busy and people were going all over the place.
Johnny O’Mara is the leader. The O’Show, the former supercross champion, is showing the rest of the field the short way around this track. Behind him is Damon Bradshaw.
Rick Johnson: It was all kind of a blur because I was in a lot of pain because of my wrist. I’d sucked at the first few rounds, but I was on an upward swing. Everybody gave me everything I needed. My bike was good, my fitness was great, but my right hand was sore. But I got a good start and just tried to forget about it.
Jeff Ward: I got a good start. I was in about fourth, and then I made two or three big mistakes in the first couple laps. I got T-boned, then I missed a double, so I went back to about tenth or 11th on the first or second lap. After that I slowly started picking off one guy at a time.
I’ve never seen riders three and four abreast going through whoop sections. They’re swapping positions back and forth. It’s impossible to keep up with. I have never seen this kind of race action!
Matiasevich: I remember I’d go into a turn for the lead and come out in eighth place! I mean, you’d lose four or five positions at a time and in the next lap gain them back. It was a dogfight. It was the funnest race ever. Being in it and watching it all go down—I was yelling and screaming under my helmet!
Mike Fisher: I got a bad start and I was in the back, and I remember catching up to the mess. Normally, if I would have gotten that bad of a start, I would never have caught them. But I ended up catching the pack of guys.
Bevo Forti: What made the race really good that night was the dirt. The dirt was very tacky and you could basically point the bike where you wanted and turn on a dime and give nine cents change.
Jeff Stanton: Early on in the race I made a mistake. I went off course and got back on and just said to myself, “Keep picking away and picking away.”
There goes Bradshaw to the inside, and he takes over the number-one position.
O’Mara: I’m bummed that I faded. Oh well.… It was my last year and I was just glad to still be up there running with the boys.
Kiedrowski: The race was intense. There were guys behind you trying to get by and there were guys in front of you that you were trying to pass.
Where did Guy Cooper come from? All of a sudden, Cooper has put in an appearance. He’s right up with the leaders! Cooper has come from nowhere.
Cooper: I remember I passed Bradshaw on the inside in a bowl turn. I didn’t hit him, but I was inches from him.
Damon Bradshaw: In my book, Guy was always a bomb waiting to explode. He was fast at times but very unpredictable on the track. He took the lead, but I wasn’t going to get caught up in the moment or get caught up in the carnage if he crashed. I was more like, I’ll wait here until Cooper does what I expect him to do, which is crash.
The key thing is that there are still seven or eight guys still in striking distance of the lead. I don’t know how many times we are allowed to say this is the best supercross we’ve ever seen, but I’m going to take another one right here.
Stanton: There were guys all over the place. No one guy ever really had it. Every lap a different guy was in the lead. That’s when racing was good. That’s when Wardy could win a race, Kiedrowksi, JMB, Cooper, RJ and Lechien—you never knew. That’s what I wish racing was like now.
Bradshaw: One lap later, Cooper stalls, I’m back out front. Next I remember seeing Mike Kiedrowski come out of nowhere and running into me.
Whoa! Kiedrowski into Bradshaw. He came through there like a bowling ball and knocked Bradshaw into the bales!
Kiedrowski: There was a step-up jump that went right into a hard turn. There was a little kicker bump before it, and Bradshaw went to the outside and I went to the inside. I thought I had him, but he moved over and I thought, Oh no, I’m committed. I didn’t take him out on purpose. From our crash, I hit some pennants and caught a stream of them.
Ward: I was kind of the last rider until about five laps to go. It was Cooper and Bradshaw and they were hitting each other and Cooper would then lead. When you watch the TV show, I wasn’t even seen until the end. All of a sudden I was right there.
I caught a glimpse of Jeff Ward there, #3. That’s the first time we’ve seen him moving toward the front of that pack. He’s around Matiasevich back in the tail end of the whoops.
Windham: Ward came back from, like, 12th or something and just kind of kept picking them off.
Ward: Kiedrowski and Bradshaw got together and I got by them. It was just cool. I was moving forward. I could tell what was going on. With five laps to go I was in fifth. With four laps to go I was in fourth.
Stanton: The next thing I know, RJ [Rick Johnson] is off the track. I just kept picking guys off and guys kept falling off. I made another mistake and a couple guys passed me and then I would pass them back. I was just persistent and kept pushing through and pushing through. What I did was kind of overshadowed because of all the drama throughout the race with everybody running off the track!
O’Mara: It was just a barnburner race and people were really going at it.
It’s good to see Johnson up in the middle of this. He’s been fighting that hurt wrist from a year ago. He’s finally feeling healthy again, and he’s up in the thick of this thing.
Johnson: The thing that made it so incredible was how many mistakes that were made. Everybody kept making mistakes. That’s the thing: a lot of times when guys are pushing that hard and getting that close to the edge, that’s what made the race—all of us screwing up.
Fisher: They were all right there at the end and I was tired. I was so tired and so beat, and I almost killed myself on the last lap on this one triple jump that was all rutted out.
Cooper will start trying the desperation moves now.
Cooper: At the end of the race, Rick Johnson was really slow in the whoops. With two laps to go, I passed RJ and took a breath.
Johnson: By then, my hand was numb and it was letting go on me. It was frustrating watching guys beat me that I felt wouldn’t normally, but that’s the way it goes. I had an injury the year before, but I was doing better. Normally, I cruised around between sixth and tenth place and wasn’t threatening anybody, but on that night I was going to fight until the very end—but I couldn’t hold on.
Ward: And then there were about three laps to go and I was in third or fourth. I then ended up getting Johnson in the whoops section.
Ward is under Johnson! He’s run that line about the last three laps. He comes across those whoops at an angle.
Ward: I was getting everyone in the same spot—it wasn’t like I was getting them anywhere else. It was this whoop section that I would wheelie the bump in the middle. There was a groove in the section and I’d jump to the right to clear the whole thing then would meet the guys in the corner. So every lap I did the same thing. So, I knew that if I could stay with Cooper and stay with Johnson through that section that I would get them.
Windham: As a kid I loved ol’ Wardy, but I thought Cooper was going to win his first race that night. He was so close!
Roy Janson: It was a given during that era that we wanted Guy Cooper to win his first supercross. I mean, I was ready to have the checkered flag thrown a lap early for him! I remember thinking, Throw the lights off! Flip the switch!
Forti: Of course I was rooting for the Coop, man! He was just out there putting it to them.
Roger DeCoster: I remember thinking, Cooper is going to win this thing.
Forti: Cooper, I mean, he had the crowd. The crowd was going crazy, no doubt about it. It all went down to the wire and you didn’t know who was going to win until the checkered flag came out.
Cooper: I just got conservative. For once I played it cool, and it cost me the win.
Ward: On the last lap, I got Cooper in the same whoop section where I got Johnson. I won and did, like, the triple fist-pump at the finish. It was amazing!
And the checkered flag with Jeff Ward with a triple-pumper! He was still pumping it as he went off the end of that jump!
Cooper: The thing was, I never knew Jeff Ward was right there! He blindsided me when he caught me and went by. It was a big shock, and it let the wind out of my sails so bad. During the second half of the last lap when he was in front of me, I tried to think of a pass or a move I could make on him, but I had nothing left.
Johnson: In the end, Wardy was the guy who deserved to win. He was on top of it.
Cooper: If I would have known it was Jeff Ward behind me, I would have kicked it up.
Windham: It was probably one of the best races I’ve seen in my entire life to this date, and I was there. I remember everything. I even remember Ward’s triple fist-pump at the end! I remember it all clearly.
Stanton: I wish we had races like that now. It was epic. Five or six guys could have won at the end. It was awesome.
Kiedrowski: I was bummed I didn’t win. I thought for sure I had it. I was really good and it was a great race. At least I was able to be up front and be a part of it.
Forti: Probably the most exciting part of the deal was that Cooper had a real good chance to win his first supercross race ever. I would say there was at least—and this isn’t even exaggerating— thirty different lead changes.
Johnson: I was up front, I was in the back a couple times, I was in the middle. A lot of the strengths that I had before were gone, and I had to conform to their riding styles, and I couldn’t really do anything special at that point. It was another one of those great races that I didn’t win.
Cooper: It was a big, big letdown for me. I had never won a supercross. You know, there were seven times in my career that I led a supercross on a last lap and I ended up finishing second seven times! Still, Atlanta was the race I should have won, but I‘m not a sore loser.
Stanton: A lot of those races that you didn’t win or you didn’t do great at stick in your head because they were good battles and there was so much going on. It was the best race of all time, for sure.
DeCoster: Yeah, Anaheim in 1986 was good, but it was only between two guys, you know? But at Atlanta there was, like, four or five guys involved up to the last lap.
Janson: It went back and forth all night long. It just stands out as being so unpredictable. I’ve been going to supercross races for 20 constant years, and to me, yes, it was the greatest race I’ve ever seen.
Ward: It was a cool deal to win with the last-lap pass. It was just a really good race. For how many people who were in the running at the end that could have had it and didn’t? Yeah, that one race with Bailey and Johnson was great, but it was two guys. The Atlanta race had ten guys who people thought were going to win.
Bradshaw: It’s been a long time, but the only thing I can say about it is that you don’t see that type of racing now. That part of it was really cool—that so many guys could have won a supercross then. It’s just not like that anymore.
Cooper: Afterwards, I was okay. It wasn’t my thing to get too disappointed. I didn’t have the Damon Bradshaw mentality where second sucked and if I didn’t win, I wasn’t going to do an interview. And if you look at my interview from that race, you can see that I was star-struck! For me, if I got in the top five, I was a happy camper. If I gave it 100 percent from start to finish and did the best I could, I was fine. To tell you the truth, to get a podium finish in that race was great. I felt privileged to be a part of it.