Brad Lackey is America’s first–and only—FIM 500cc Motocross World Champion. He earned the title at the age of 29 and had spent the previous ten years working toward the goal. Shortly after winning, Lackey retired and went out with the number-one plate.
Lackey grew up in Northern California, and despite traveling all over the world, he has remained a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area. With his local NorCal roots, it was fitting that the Dirt Diggers North Motorcycle Club named him grand marshal for the 50th anniversary of the Hangtown Motocross Classic last Saturday.
Racer X: Brad, great to see you here at Hangtown. Congratulations on being the grand marshal of this legendary race. What do you have going on in your life?
Brad Lackey: We’re just running around going to a few vintage races. I’m still in the t-shirt printing business, so we print some shirts for those events. After Hangtown, I will attend another three or four events this summer. So we’re a little busy, but mostly just trying to have some fun. Later in the season, actually, we’re going to Scotland for a big vintage race at some castle over there. We’re going to make a little trip out of it and go to Ireland and Scotland in July. Basically my world revolves around building some t-shirts and going to races.
That doesn’t sound like such a terrible world. It’s not very often that the Nationals have grand marshals, and I know you have a special connection to this event.
I rode the first Hangtown event. I think I did win the amateur class. I didn’t win the pro class at that time, but that was some 50 years ago. I was just riding all the local Northern California races at the time and this was one that we went to. So, they thought it was fitting because it’s the 50th and I rode the first race and I’ve kind of helped the club out in the past. Way back in the seventies when they needed a loan to keep the race going, I loaned them some money and kept the 50-year streak intact. So I think they’re just paying me back a little bit by letting me be the grand marshal.
For your t-shirt business, do you just do motocross shirts or do you also have outside the business sales?
I have a bunch of different clients. We have a couple contracts in Nevada with bars and casinos, but I am semi-retired from that. I sold the business, actually, and I just kind of kept some of my favorite clients. Its not too much work—just order the shirts and get them printed and ship them out. I got a lot of free time to still enjoy the sport.
How many vintage races are you attending a year?
It's different every year, but maybe five or six. I go to Italy usually every year, too, for a big vintage race called the TransBorgaro. Well, it’s also vintage guys on modern bikes. It’s a big race that we’ve been attending the last seven years. Guys like Broc [Glover] and Danny LaPorte have attended, and we have also brought Marty Smith and [Ron] Lechien. I’m kind of the team manager for that race, so we bring different riders over each year and some staple guys. So this year I plan to go back to that in November, but in the meantime, I’m going to go to this race in Scotland as well.
What would you say is the biggest vintage event both in America and in Europe?
The biggest event over here is Diamond Don’s race in east Texas. He has a Friday, Saturday, Sunday race, and he has a Friday cross-country, a Saturday vintage, and a Sunday pro vintage. He gets in the range of probably 500-800 riders a day, so that’s pretty big for just strictly old stuff. He calls it the Riverport National, and it’s in Jefferson, Texas. He’s been going on now like 13 years. I think I’ve been to every one of those, too.
I’ve heard that event is a good time, but haven’t had the chance to attend myself.
That one’s fun. He’s a hoot. His property has a train that goes around it, and you can jump on the train and all the women or girls with the guys can go on the train and take it right to town. They can go shopping and drinking or whatever they want to do, and then jump on the train and it brings them back out to the track. He’s got an alligator pit with alligators. He’s got a giant fireworks show after the race is over. He feeds everybody on Sunday nights, all free food and drinks. He just really takes care of everybody.
Going back to your racing days, you’re the obviously first and only American 500cc World Champion. It was a major accomplishment and you retired on top. Talk to me a little bit about your decision to retire that year and how that happened.
I had a two-year contract with Suzuki at that time for ’81 and ’82. So my contract was finished the year that I won the championship. Suzuki won the 125 championship with our dearly departed good friend Eric Geboers. I won the 500 for them and then got first and second in the 500 Class and won the manufacturers’ championship. So they kind of spanked Honda a little bit that year. The economy was bad that year in 1982. It was kind of like the little recession we just had. There wasn’t a lot of money out there. So they decided not to go racing the next year. Like I said, my contract was up anyway, so that was kind of their decision. I already had ridden for Honda and they had a full, giant team with a bunch of world champs and guys, so there was probably no chance of going back there.
Like I said, the money wasn’t flowing around, so Kawasaki got a one-man team out of the distribution center in Holland. Yamaha basically did the same thing with [Hakan] Carlqvist. Nobody really had any money, so the only money available was maybe KTM, and some of the Italian guys were getting involved at that point on testing and R&D in the 500 Class. I just saw that there wasn’t very good odds of getting a decent ride and regaining the title. I had already been there ten years and that was my goal to win.
I just decided while I’m still walking and talking and doing good… I got away with a lot of serious crashes and it was a good time to retire. I told my wife, “I’m going to retire unless I get a million dollars,” which was ridiculous money for the time. As it was, I was the highest-paid rider, I think, at the time, it was about $250,000 a year. But then out of the blue, Cagiva called us and made me an offer of $750,000. I told my wife about it and she thought about it for a minute and she says, “That’s not a million.” I said, “You’re right. It’s not.” So that was it. We left some money on the table, but I don’t feel bad about it one bit. I had a good contract and I had a good bonus to win the championship, so I was good with retiring.
You did come back and race the Carlsbad USGP that year, right?
Yeah, I just wanted to let the number-one plate get out on the track one time, especially at my home Grand Prix and get some photos of me with the plate. We just rode a stock Yamaha, basically. I did okay for what it was. I got fourth or fifth. I think I beat [Andre] Malherbe in one moto and he beat me the other one. It was okay for the effort that we put in, or the bikes that we had. I would have loved to have done better, but against the factory bikes, that was pretty good result.
Are you doing any racing or riding now, or are you just hanging out?
No, Lori’s retired me from the track. We got some street bikes. I have a nice Husky 701 that we bop around town on. I got a couple older bikes. We do a little street riding and a tiny bit of off-road. It depends on which bike we take, but no track stuff.
Do you have any of your old race bikes or any of the stuff leftover from your career?
Yeah, I have a pretty good little collection, actually. I sold a couple beginning of this year, but I have my Suzuki that I won the World Championship on. I have a Husky that I won Nationals on, and maybe a Grand Prix or two on. I have an old American Eagle, which is cool. I got a collection of pristine older bikes that maybe I didn’t have racing time on them or history of them, but that’s just for collection stuff. I have a bunch of CZs as well.
That’s really cool that you have your actual World Championship bike.
That’s the cherry on the cake. It took me 20 years to find it and get it. I had a lot of help with the Suzuki team in Belgium, Sylvain Geboers and all those guys. They helped me locate it. I was very happy to get it. That’s my little star in the collection. I had to track it down. When I won the championship, I didn’t really care, but then as time went on, I thought it would be really cool. But then later, I started kind of wanting it. I didn’t really care about it in the beginning, but then I thought, I might as well get that if it’s available. So I started working on getting it and putting ads out there and talking to people. Finally it came up in Holland at a dealership and I got the tip that it was there. Sylvain from Suzuki in Belgium took me there. It was there except for a couple little parts that were different. They gave it to Harry Everts and he raced it in the Belgium championship after I won the World Championship on it. So he had it for a long time at his house and rode it and practiced on it, and then he sold it to this guy and nobody really knew that much about it—except for maybe one guy—and that’s how we found it.
What are some of the things when you reflect on the years traveling? The world was very different back then and traveling the GPs was a very unique experience. I know there’s probably uncountable stories, but what are some of your favorites?
I think going over and living in Czechoslovakia and behind the Iron Curtain in 1970 was pretty amazing. I went over there and stayed for three months and rode and practiced. I worked at the factory and practiced in town. Got some training that season and won the 500cc Grand Prix in Czechoslovakia. So I got a lot of experience in ’70 over there.
Living behind the Iron Curtain and a country that’s completely closed in with fences and barbed wires, and guys holding machine guns so that you don’t try to escape, that’s pretty crazy. It’s a total different situation than growing up in California. So I think that taught me a lot and opened my eyes to how the world is sometimes. Then, of course, the day I won the World Championship was a big day. We had a lot of stuff riding on that because I got second already twice and I didn’t want that to go down again. So we had a pretty good plan on how to attack the day, and our plan worked perfectly according to plan and I finally came out with the win. Pretty proud of that day too.
Tell me about your family life.
Lori and I have been married for 43 years, and we were together five years before that. So we are closing in on 50 years. We have three kids. They’re all grown up now and are 43, 40, and 34. They’re all great kids. They all have their own lives and jobs and houses, and we even have four grandkids. We are lucky; we get to spend a lot of time with them.
Do any of them ride?
My son did when he was young, but he got hurt too much and then he had to bail. He had shoulder surgeries and foot surgeries. He just wasn’t the right size for the bike. He’s a little bit heavier and bigger, and that’s kind of rough on a motocross guy. You got to be a little smaller and lighter or else you get injured more, and that’s kind of what was happening with him. But he was a great rider and has been riding since he was two. He actually works for Monster at some of the NASCAR events and some other events. He rides for a Harley stunt show team. He goes to the supercross sometimes and he goes to NASCAR sometimes. His handle is Wheelie Pig. He’s a crazy Harley stunt guy, which I think is pretty cool!