Since 1982, the AMA Amateur National Motocross Championships have taken placed at Loretta Lynn Ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee. For nearly four decades, the best amateur riders in the country have been crowned there at what’s become the biggest amateur motocross race in the world. But what about the amateur nationals that took place before Loretta Lynn’s became a motocross thing? Where were those races run? How did they work? Who were the winners?
From 1975 to 1981, the AMA had two different non-pro motocross championships. One was for amateur racers on 125cc, 250cc, and Open class machines. (A 100cc class would be added in ‘79.) The other was for a wide array of youth classes that ranged from 51cc Pee-Wees to 125cc Schoolboys. After a series of AMA District and Regional qualifying races, the finals were held at various tracks around the country, including the old Plymouth, California, track that hosted Hangtown, Carlsbad, RedBud, Spring Creek, and more.
In this first installment of a two-part Racer X magazine series (July 2020), we dug into the history of the old AMA Amateur Nationals. Next month we will be looking at the old AMA/Youth & Minicycle Nationals.
Here at Racer X Online, we’ll be going through those first seven years of AMA Amateur Nationals, beginning with the first one, held on October 12, 1975, at Baldwin Motocross Park in Kansas. And if you have any information, memories, or photos to add, please send them directly to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the early seventies, as motocross racing was growing in popularity here in America, the AMA decided to reward “national titles” based on the total points earned at AMA-sanctioned District races. As a result, the more a rider raced, the more points he would score—but the best amateur riders from around the country hardly ever raced head-to-head. Furthermore, in the motocross hotspot of Southern California, there were hardly any AMA races to speak of. An AMA officer named Jim Nidiffer came up with an ambitious idea to hold a series of qualifying races at the AMA District level around the country, then take the finishers to three regionals: Atlantic, Midwest, and Pacific. Each regional would run three events and then take the top 15 overall finishers to one big year-end race to decide the 1975 AMA Amateur National Champions. Nidiffer’s idea got a big boost when Can-Am, a motorcycle brand made by Quebec-based Bombardier, Ltd., stepped up to be the title sponsor of the whole program.
The club chosen to run the first championship finale was the Wheelsport Motorcycle Club of Lawrence, which ran the Baldwin MX track and had hosted an Inter-Am race in the summer of 1973. Since we’ve been unable to find any film of the ’75 AMA Amateur National, here’s what the track looked like for that ’73 Inter-Am, shot by a spectator:
For the first AMA Amateur National, the Baldwin track hosted a total of 135 riders—45 in each class, from an initial District qualifying field of 4,700 entries—for a three-moto showdown to decide the first AMA Amateur National Champions. The race would be held on October 12, 1975 and include just three classes: 125, 250, and Open. Each of the 135 riders who qualified would wear an AMA-issued bib that included the name of the region in which they qualified.
Among the top qualifiers in the Pacific Region were Bonita, California’s John Tessitore (125); Vaughn, Washington’s Tod Snyder (250); and El Cajon, California’s Gerald Howell (Open). The Atlantic Region’s best hopes were Lexington, Tennessee’s Gene McKay (125); Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey’s Edwin Moor (250); and Alexandria, Virginia’s Vincent D’Ercole (Open). And leading the Midwest contingent were Bridgeview, Illinois’ Mark Barnett (125); Jackson, Wisconsin’s Tim Miller (250); and Ottawa, Illinois’ Don Van Hoozer (500).
The first title went to the winner of the 125 class, a 15-year-old 9th grade student at the time, Mark Barnett. (Yes, the same Mark Barnett who would go on to a Hall of Fame career as a multi-time SX/MX champion.)
“I was living in Chicago and I rode a Honda 125 Elsinore with help from B&E Honda in Valparaiso, Indiana,” recalls Barnett. “They backed me from the time I got my first XR75 until the time I turned pro. Really good guys at that shop.” It was on that first XR75 that Barnett won the very first AMA Minicycle National event in 1973 at Mid-Ohio, though that was the only race Barnett remembers doing in the ambitious eight-race ’73 series.
For 1975, the program was adjusted, and though he won his AMA District races with ease, Barnett remembers the Midwest Regionals being much more difficult.
“The three regionals were in Indiana. One was in Illinois, and we went up to Millville, Minnesota, to the Spring Creek National track there,” he recalls.” You had to ride all three regionals, which were pretty tough. There was a really good guy from Michigan named Leonard Chiesa who was always tough competition for me. Unfortunately he hit a drop-off and broke his leg in practice at one of the regionals, and after that I was pretty much home free.”
Not quite. Out on the West Coast a fast young rider with a penchant for going WFO all the time had qualified for the 125 class, and like Barnett, Danny “Magoo” Chandler was a future AMA Motorcycle Hall of Famer. Chandler, who was supported in ’75 by the Yamaha factory even though he was only an amateur at the time, barely qualified the three-round Pacific Region, which included races at Carlsbad and Spillway in California, as well as Puyallup up in Washington. Cycle News reported the news this way back in September ‘75: “Guess what? Crashes, mechanical failures and all, spectacular little Danny ‘Magoo’ Chandler actually made the cut for the Can-Am Amateur MX Nationals, coming up 14th out of the top 15 in the Pacific Region 125 class who will go to Baldwin, Kansas for the National Final.”
“Yeah, Magoo was there too in Kansas,” recalls Barnett, “but he ended up crashing out too. Once Magoo crashed out [and broke his ankle], and with Chiesa not even being there, that was pretty much it.”
Barnett did get some competition from a fellow minicycle prodigy named Gene McKay, a Tennessean who rode a Noguchi Yamaha YZ125. McKay was considered a three-time Youth champion because he followed more of that ’73 series and won the 60cc class, and the next year he won both the 60cc and 80cc classes before the AMA decided to revamp that whole program to look more like this new amateur competition in 1975. (The first standalone AMA Youth & Minicycle Championship would take place in nearby Pittsburg, Kansas, but that’s another story.) McKay gave chase to Barnett in all three motos, but he was no match for the future Bomber, nor were Pacific Region frontrunners John Tessitore (Bonita, California), Ed Davis (Tacoma, Washington) and Gary Denton (Chino, California).
So what was the track like in Baldwin? Says Barnett: “The track was relatively flat with a gully in the middle that you went in and out of it, so there was a little elevation to it, but not much. Still, it was decent. I can’t remember how it was prepared, if it got dusty or not, but back then you pretty much just rode whatever there was!”
“The thing about that Baldwin track was how long it was—longer than most tracks we had been riding on—and faster,” recalls Troy Bradshaw, a Bultaco rider from Middleberg, Virginia, who qualified for the 250 class from the Atlantic Region. “They had some real long straightaways, as well as a ravine that ran down through the middle of it, so there was a lot of gnarly little drop-offs, then you would turn around at the bottom and climb back out. There was also a grass start with the old-style forward-falling gate. It was pretty fast, and then you went into this high-speed, left-hand bowl turn. After that came a really long straight with a bunch of jumps. It was an impressive track, and they groomed it really well too. For the first-ever AMA Amateur National, it was a pretty good choice.”
The 250cc title would go to a Suzuki rider named Mike McGowan, 18, who hailed from Spring Valley, California, and rode in AMA District 38. He would battle through all three motos with Jeff Heaston from Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Edwin Moor of Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey. McGowan won two of three motos and then finished third in the last one to take the overall for his efforts. For his part, Moor would end up 3-3-2 for second in the final tally; Heaston, who led much of the first moto, would go 2-2-5 for third overall honors. The last moto winner was Blaine Elledge, a Can-Am rider from Woodinville, Washington, but he struggled in the first two and did not finish in the top of either.
“I had never ridden against most of the guys I lined up with in Kansas,” Bradshaw offers. “We never crossed paths with the guys in the other regions. I had battled with Edwin Moor [eventual 250cc runner-up from New Jersey], so I knew I had the speed. I knew I was a top-five rider, though I didn’t think I could win it—I had only just turned 15.”
One thing Bradshaw remembers about 1975 was a special guest of honor at the Regional qualifier in New York. “Something really funny that first year was the fact that Tommy Chong of Cheech & Chong fame was grand marshal,” Bradshaw recalls of the famous comedy duo from the era. “He was there all day, handing out the trophies and everything. Looking back, it was pretty strange.”
Once in Kansas, Bradshaw did not have his best day. It began with a controversy over the start of the first moto.
“We were all lined up behind that old-style starting gate, and everyone was amped up, including myself,” he says. “Well, six or eight of us jumped the gate—I mean, I went right over the top of it! And on another part of the gate, maybe the only other guy in the race on a Bultaco also jumped the gate, and he got stuck on it. So they red-flagged the race, brought everyone back, and made us shut down our bikes. They were going to dock some guys, and the referee pointed at me and thinks I’m the Bultaco rider that got stuck, and Dad yells back, ‘No, it was him!’ pointing at the other Bultaco rider. Everyone was pointing at everyone else, no one was taking responsibility for being the first to jump that old gate, probably because there was so many of us!
“So a guy gets on the microphone and says, ‘Okay, we know we don’t have the best starting gate, but from now on if you jump the starting gate, or even so much as touch it, we are going to dock you a lap automatically, period! If we see you even go near it, we’re dropping you a lap.’ Well, that put it in my head, and I ended up getting near dead-last starts in the first two motos.”
Bradshaw would finish 18-14 in those first two motos, well below his expectations: “Nerves got me. I was just out of my game. Before the last moto the old man says, ‘Look, you’ve got nothing to lose now, you’ve got to go!’ So I got a little better start the last time, rode a little better race and ended up with a seventh.” That would give 15-year-old Troy Bradshaw 10th overall in the 250 class of the first AMA Amateur National.
The final title of 1975 was for the 500cc class, and it would go to Kenny Adams, a 15-year-old who manhandled a Jaroslav Falta-replica 380 CZ from Ritchie’s Cycle. Like Barnett, Adams, who hailed from West Grove, Pennsylvania, won all three motos. Adams was helped by the fact that one of the pre-race favorites, Central Region top qualifier Don Van Hoozer, had a big crash in practice and suffered a broken nose after hitting it off his crossbar. From there Adams outpaced Jeff Prevost, riding a Noel Hall/Quaker State-backed Maico, who was second all three times. Third went to Chuck Pettigrew, another Maico rider from Lucerne Valley, California.
“Ken Adams was from our area, and I had raced a lot with him, but because of the way the schedule worked, I didn’t get to watch his performance in the Open class, which was just fantastic,” Troy Bradshaw says. Adams would later turn pro and race for several years aboard Maico motorcycles. His best career finish would be a sixth in the 1979 Broome-Tioga 500 National in New York.
When all was said and done that day in Baldwin, Kansas, almost everyone considered the first official AMA Amateur National Championship a success. Thirty-seven states were represented, which meant that the class winners were definitely the best in the country. On hand to give out trophies was Warren Daoust, President of Bombardier Ltd., the makers of Can-Am motorcycles.
“We believe in the amateurs. They support the sport, they buy the bikes,” Daoust said. “We are committed to the amateurs for both fun and profit.” He then told the three brand-new champions—Barnett, McGowan, and Adams—that they would each be receiving a Can-Am motorcycle of their choice.
Also on hand was the man who pulled the whole program together for the AMA, amateur activities manager Jim Nidiffer, who got to present the AMA championship medals to each of the three class winners.
The next year, the event would head west to Carlsbad Raceway. We will have the story of the 1976 AMA/Can-Am Amateur National Championships next week.
(A footnote to 1975: Both Mark Barnett and Troy Bradshaw would eventually turn professional and then return to amateur racing after their careers at the “new” AMA Amateur Nationals, which moved to Loretta Lynn Ranch in 1982. Bradshaw would win the Open A class in 1984 and then the +25 class in 1987; Barnett would win the +25 class one year later in 1988 in his one and only appearance at Loretta Lynn’s.)
1975 AMA/Can-Am Amateur National Motocross Championships
- Kenny Adams | West Grove, PA | 1-1-1| CZ
- Jeff Prevost | Perry Hall, MD | 2-2-2 | MAI
- Chuck Pettigrew | Lucerne Valley, CA | 4-6-4 | MAI
- Ken Frost | La Mesa, CA | 16-3-3 | SUZ
- Gerald Howell | El Cajon, CA | 3-12-8 | HUS
- Vince D’Ercole | Alexandria, VA | 11-5-9 | YAM
- Delno Becker | Oroville, CA | 12-7-10 | CZ
- Dale Sanders | Winchester, IN | 20-8-7 | YAM
- Dale Parlin | Athens, MI | 10-15-15 | BUL
- Jim Connolly |Redondo Beach, CA | 17-10-14 | BUL
- Michael McGowan | Spring Valley, CA | 1-1-3 | SUZ
- Edwin Moor Woodcliff | Lake, NJ | 3-3-2 | MAI
- Jeff Heaston | Wayne, IN | 2-2-5 |MAI
- Jeff Matthews | ElCajon, CA | 9-4-4 | C-A
- Todd Snyder | Vaughn, WA | 6-9-9 | C-A
- Blaine Elledge | Woodinville, WA | 15-12-1 | C-A
- Chuck Bender | Appleton, WI 14-15-6 | HUS
- Keith Barghahn | Waterloo, IA | 11-10-16 | SUZ
- David Morris | Poway, CA | 19-18-11 | KAW
- Troy Bradshaw | Middleberg, VA | 18-14-7 | BUL
- Mark Barnett | Bridgeview, IL | 1-1-1 | HON
- Gene McKay | Lexington, KY | 2-5-2 | YAM
- John Tessitore | Bonita, CA | 5-4-3 | YAM
- Brent Euen | South Elgin, IL | 9-2-11 | HON
- Kurt Janish | Plano, TX | 13-8-5 | HON
- Douglas Cowell | Ithaca, NY | 10-9-8 | HON
- Rich Van Hoozer | Ottawa, IL | 11-7-10 | KAW
- Kevin Arnold | Louisville, KY 6-13-15 |YAM
- Ed Davis | Tacoma, WA | 3-6-28 |HON
- Robert Shoup | Tipp City, OH |18-14-7 | HON