In our exclusive series looking at the history of the AMA Amateur National Motocross Championships that took place between 1975 and 1981—before Loretta Lynn’s became the permanent home of the event—we’ve reached the 1977 race. It took place at the popular Lake Sugar Tree MX Park in Axton, Virginia, host to numerous major events over the years, including Trans-AMA races featuring stars like Roger De Coster and Brad Lackey, as well as AMA Pro Motocross Nationals, as recently as 1991. That race was won by Jeff Stanton (250cc class) and Mike Kiedrowski (125cc class).
Unfortunately, complete results for the ’77 Amateur National at Lake Sugar Tree have been hard to locate beyond the top ten that were listed in Cycle News at the time, but we are working on finding them and filling them in. If anyone has them, or any additional information about this race, please send it to: DC@racerxonline.com and we will add it in.
But before we get too far into the 1977 race, let’s take a second to recall how the 1976 race ended at Carlsbad Raceway. FMF Honda rider Ferrell McCollough of Maryland blasted across the finish line to win by inches over California’s Steve Bartley. In our review of that race, McCollough described his sprint to the finish with Bartley like this:
“He went wide open to the finish, a little out of control, and actually ended up going behind the checkered flagman’s back. The guy was standing down on the track on the outside of the last corner berm!”
If you missed our entries from 1975 and 1976, check them out below:
After we posted the story, McCollough sent us a black and white photo of the close finish that appeared in the old Popular Cycling magazine, where you can clearly see that Bartley really did go behind the referee/promoter Butch Lee, who was waving the checkered flag while standing very near the middle of the track!
Can-Am decided to sponsor Ferrell McCollough in 1977, but they did not sponsor the actual national. This time the AMA/Suzuki Amateur National would be at Lake Sugar Tree in Axton, Virginia, which also happened to be David Bailey’s home track. But McCollough would not to race him, as Bailey was set to race the 500cc class aboard a Bultaco.
“To me these guys were like the Marty Smiths that never made it up to the pro level, like Ferrell, for example, and Glenn Taylor,” recalls David Bailey. “These were the guys that I looked up to so much. Glenn came down and did a big regional race at SME or White Oak, on a YZ 125 Yamaha with a fancy #2 on it, and he was just railing the track, so fast. I never saw anyone go any faster—I just saw more of it later.”
It was former MX World Champion Jeff Smith, an Englishman, was in charge of Can-Am’s racing endeavors, and he decided to sponsor Ferrell McCollough in 1977 with a brand new Can-Am MX-3 250 to race. McCollough was a full-time University of Maryland student, so he only got to ride his Can-Am on the weekends. He once again qualified for the amateur national through the Atlantic Region, only this time in the 250 class rather than defending his 125cc title.
At the time the promoter of Lake Sugar Tree was not Gary Bailey, but rather Avery and Barbara Mills. Heavy rains came the night before the race, and that initially scared Ferrell McCollough.
“I was not a mud rider,” he admits. “I was very dejected and felt like it wasn’t going to be a good day for me, but then it dried up enough to have a good, tacky main line that was good to ride. But if you got outside of it, you might get stuck.” By the second moto the track was tacky and fast, which was just the way Ferrell liked it.
With 134 riders signed up for three classes at Lake Sugar Tree, which meant that there were more riders on the starting positions in all three classes.
“For the first moto you would draw a number out of the bucket, and I got the last number, so I was the last person to line up at the gate. Well, there wasn’t enough spots on the gate—they didn’t have individual backward falling gate like today, but rather big metal sections that fell forward—so I had to line up beside the far outside of the gate. Just before the start the referee comes over and says, ‘I’m watching you.’ I said, ‘Okay, that’s fine, I won’t be doing anything like that.’ But when I was out there was just past where the tractor reached when it was tilling the start up, so I had some nice tacky ground on the outside where I could get a good drive on. Everybody else was in this tilled-up dirt, I was really fortunate that I got the last gate pick!”
McCollough didn’t get the holeshot, but he had an excellent start for being so far outside. So did Bultaco rider Troy Bradshaw, who actually started even further outside that McCollough’s Can-Am.
“Ferrell and I both started on the far outside in both motos,” recalls Bradshaw, who rode for Gary Bailey’s Cycle Barn, which was on the Lake Sugar Tree property, as well as the Bultaco factory. “We knew Sugar Tree well. We both raced there enough locally to know the track well, especially in a mud race. Most tracks you look for the shortest, straightest line to the first corner. But at Sugar Tree the first turn was off-cambered with a shoulder on the inside. The outside was flat! So even in local races we would try to line up on the outside. And when we drew the worst numbers before the start, and because they had too many riders on the gate, we had nowhere to line up. So they pointed us to the far outside—we couldn’t believe it! We had great spots. The people walked up and down the start hill to the track there, so it was all hard-packed. And Ferrell was a phenomenal starter anyway. He was our local holeshot king.”
Suzuki rider Dan Carlton was the one who got the holeshot, but both McCollough and Bradshaw soon motored by him. McCollough would end up winning both motos with relative ease—the second moto by nearly half the track.
“I do remember winning the second moto by a long ways,” says McCollough. “There was a lake in the middle and I could look across to the other side and see second-place.”
“Ferrell was on fire that day,” adds Bradshaw. “Once he cleared the first turn in each moto, he was gone. There was nobody that was going to catch him.” For his own part Bradshaw says he felt like he would be a solid second overall, and he was—until he broke his rear wheel, the exact same problem he had the year before at Carlsbad, only it was his front wheel that time. Bradshaw would baby it home, and ended up third overall, with Suzuki rider Mickey Whetzel in between him and McCollough.
Troy Bradshaw would turn pro after Lake Sugar Tree, and then return to amateur racing in the mid-eighties. He would avenge the disappointments he had at Carlsbad in ’76 and Lake Sugar Tree in ’77 by winning at Loretta Lynn’s twice, once in the Open A class (1984) and once in the Junior +25 class (1987).
As for Ferrell McCollough, after winning his second straight AMA Amateur National Championship he was named the 1977 AMA Athlete of the Year. He also had some career choices to make. He wanted to do some pro races, but his parents thought otherwise.
“My mom and dad were putting pressure on me to go to school,” McCollough said. “They felt that college would give me a better future than motocross. They were right, so I started cutting back on motocross racing and started concentrating on school.”
McCollough went to the University of Maryland and ended up graduating with a degree in geology.
“Maybe motocross had something to do with that,” he says. “It’s the study of the earth, soils and rocks and all that.”
McCollough would later go to Penn State for his master’s degree in geology. He started a business working as a sub-contractor for new home builders, with a handful of employees in the Baltimore/Washington, D.C. area. He recently retired after 25 years, then turned his business over to his employees to run. He’s now a mountain-bike rider who specializes in riding long-distance and obstacle wheelies, some of which you can check out on Instagram (@ferrellmc_photos).
“I don’t really know I got into it but it keeps me in shape and it keeps me off the roads where a car can hit me,” he explains. “It’s a safe little sport I have going here that challenges me, tests my reflexes and it’s great exercise. I’m 61 years old now and most of the kids can’t keep up with me!”
Kirk Bigelow is the oldest of the four Bigelow brothers: Kirk, Kris, Kip, and Kreg. They grew up in a racing family in Rochester, Michigan, and became an amateur motocross institution of sorts. They were also four of the first six riders to be a part of the vaunted Team Dynamic, a powerhouse amateur team from Michigan run by a man named Mike Konners. Of all the brothers, Kirk was the first to follow their father Dick into motorcycle racing, starting in 1972 aboard a 70cc Bultaco, in a snow-covered scrambles race.
“Back then there was only three classes, so I really only get two years to race those Amateur National before going pro, ’76 and ’77,” recalls Kirk. “In ’76 I was Michigan State Champion and I got second in season points, so I thought I would do well in the national. I was leading in my qualifier and my chain falls off. I put it back on and was still leading, then the chain falls off again and it jams all up, so I didn’t qualify. I was first alternate to go to the race out in Carlsbad but I never got to go.”
Racing in Michigan every weekend meant racing with some of the fastest young riders in the country, California notwithstanding. Bigelow would race not only with his equally talented younger brothers, but guys like Mark Hinkle, Dan Carlton, Shane Hruska, Dave Hollis, Alan King, and more.
“We went at it every freakin’ weekend,” says Kirk. "It was tough. There was no cruising at all. You had to be on your A-game every weekend.”
“The next year I got a big Yamaha support ride. The ’77 Yamaha was an awesome bike. At one point I won 29 motos in a row, which was like the best record for all of the support riders in the whole United States, so I was doing really good. But when we got to Axton (VA) it started raining. I’m a good rider, but not in that kind of mud, that red slippery clay—the really slick stuff. It was like an enduro or something. To me it didn’t resemble a motocross race. I got bad starts too. I probably should have had new tires on my bike!”
Bigelow ended up eighth, and one year later he turned pro. When asked what else he remember about Lake Sugar Tree AMA Amateur National? “Ferrell McCollough kicked all of our asses pretty bad,” laughed Kirk.
“The thing about back then is the fact that it was a small window of opportunity back then,” he added. “You only had one or two years to make it in the amateur nationals because there were only three classes, total, and you had to graduate up to the top of those classes to even get it. It was like high school—you didn’t get to stay there forever! When you were 16, 17, 18, and after that you had to go pro, or you were done. After that you were just racing for fun.”
In the 125cc class, Illinois’ Mark Van Hoozer won the first 125 moto but then at the start of the second one he got centerpunched in the sweeping downhill to off-camber right-handed sweeper, triggering a chain-reaction crash and injuring his hand in a massive pile-up. First moto runner-up Sammy Bosnic of Wheeling, West Virginia, also went down in the big crash, ruining what would have been a straight shot at the championship. And the same went for Jeff Surwall, who also went down in that big heap. Surwall was one of the fast boys from Illinois, as well as a regular at the Florida Winter-AMA Series every year. He went to Lake Sugar Tree aboard an LOP Suzuki RM125 in the hopes of winning an AMA amateur national title.
“I felt really good going into the race after doing really well in my regional,” he recalls. “My brother-in-law Beaver [Jeff Theodosakis] went down two weeks before and stayed in North Carolina to ride and practice, and then we went to Lake Sugar Tree in Virginia to camp for the whole week and rode. I felt very good on the track and was looking forward to it. And then it rained for maybe two days straight and turned that red dirt into red ice and mud. Everything we learned practicing at the track was kind of out the window!”
Like almost everyone else, Surwall struggled with the conditions, but he did come through in the end for third overall behind fellow Jeff Callihan, an 11th grade student at Fallquier High School in Warrenton, Virginia, who went 4-2 on the day, and the unlucky Van Hoozer, who did manage to get back up to sixth after that first-turn crash.
“I don’t really recall who won or anything,” admits Surwall. “I don’t remember my moto finishes either, other than I did well in one moto and then fell in the mud and struggled in the other.” When told it was Callihan, Surwall laughs, “I don’t mean to downgrade his win but once it started raining it was really more about survival than winning, but I guess he did both! But even David Bailey, I know he got stuck in the gate or whatever, but he knew the track well because he lived about 50 feet away, so everyone struggled in the mud.”
Jeff Surwall remembers one other thing from that race: “Ferrell McCollough won his class for the second year in a row, and then I never heard of him again. I think he went to school or something and made a living doing something else. But he was pretty good on a motorcycle.”
Surwall would go on to race professionally for a while, but he had much more success with his motorcycle industry career as an agent for Jeremy McGrath, Kevin Windham and Travis Pastrana, as well as an executive clothing and gear maker with No Fear—check out Steve Matthes’ longform article “The Rise and Fall of No Fear” for the full oral history of the beginning, middle, and end of the highly-popular gear company.
Going into Lake Sugar Tree, everybody guessed that David Bailey would win the open class. After all, it was his home track. And Bailey was also very, very good.
“David was up and coming back then, he really had the talent to take it all the way,” says McCollough. “He earned the respect of all in the sport.”
As expected, Bailey would win the first moto at Lake Sugar Tree—with the seat falling off of his Bultaco!
“I had to try to hold the seat on with my legs, and then I pulled over and Gary [step-dad] tried to duct tape it in a hurry,” recalls Bailey. He somehow held on to the seat and the win, “but it was one of those embarrassing wins, like when the visor comes off your helmet. I was like, ‘Can I go out and please redeem myself in the second moto?’”
“They had this big, giant forward-falling gate, and being a race like that, everyone was really antsy,” continues Bailey. “They held it awhile, and a bunch of guys launched it and jumped it—including the guys next to me. I tried not to jump it, and I even put my foot up on it to try to hold myself back, and they ended up dropping that great big gate, and my foot was stuck under it! I thought they were going to red-flag the race, and a bunch of us just kind of sat there, thinking, ‘Come on, look at all of us—you’ve got to have another start.’ But they didn’t. They just kept going!”
From Cycle News: “Bailey was over-eager in the second moto and after jumping the starting gate, he was momentarily pinned beneath it. Bailey restarted, but was penalized a lap by referee Joe Gibbs [no, not that Joe Gibbs].”
Once Bailey got going, he rode an amazing race.
“I rode my butt off and caught up to maybe sixth-place, but then afterwards they told me I was docked a lap for jumping the gate, even though I was the one stuck in it!” says Bailey. He ended up sixth overall in the open class, but he found inspiration in the misfortune. “I was super-motivated not to go pro at that point. I wanted to wait for the next year in Atlanta to really graduate the amateur ranks on top.” Which he would, winning the ’78 250cc AMA Amateur National Championship before going on to his own Hall-of-Fame professional career. But on that day at Lake Sugar Tree the 500cc title went to 15-year-old Gary Easton.
“The talk in the pits was that NO ONE had a chance against Bailey at Lake Sugar Tree. But the open class winner was a 15-year-old out of Solon, Ohio, named Gary Easton,” explained another participant, James Smith, on Facebook. “He beat David Bailey on his home track! Easton was NO fluke—he fell down and had to battle back to win that second moto.”
“I got a good start but I went over a hill and there was a little bit of mud and I wiped out,” Easton told a writer for American Motorcyclist magazine that day, the only quote we could find for him from the day he beat David Bailey to win the 1977 AMA Amateur National Motocross Championship.
“Gary Easton was the real deal,” adds Smith. “He won everything in '77—the AMA Buckeye Series, District 12 Champ, the Ohio State Open class MX Champ at Mid-Ohio, and then of course the AMA Amateur National MX Championship! After all that, he was signed by the Husqvarna team along with Todd ‘Goat’ Breker. But then Easton had a horrendous car accident that derailed his motocross racing career. I don’t know the extent of his injuries but they were pretty bad.”
Adds Smith of the race in general, “Those early days of the Amateur MX Nationals were fun and serious. They had an air of professionalism about them. The official AMA referees, the tech-inspections and the quality and quantity of all the bikes and racers—it was very polished.”
Each of the three champions received a Suzuki RM motorcycle. The Suzuki of Axton dealer Harvey Coleman presented each of the winners a brand new RM. David Bailey still remembers his. Then he adds, “The only other thing I really remember about that day at Lake Sugar Tree was watching Ferrell McCollough just walk away in the 250 class. He was amazing that day!”
1977 Suzuki/AMA Amateur National Championship
October 9, 1977 - Lake Sugar Tree Motocross Raceway - Axton, VA.
|1||Ferrell McCollough||C-A||Beltsville, MD|
|2||Mickey Whetzel||SUZ||Clemmons, NC|
|3||Troy Bradshaw||BUL||Brandywine, MD|
|4||John Untiedt||SUZ||Alexandria, VA|
|5||Dan Carlton||SUZ||Owosso, MI|
|6||Shane Hruska||MAI||Union Lake, MI|
|7||Mike Twigg||SUZ||Hagerstown, MD|
|8||Kirk Bigelow||YAM||Rochester, MI|
|9||Chuck Bender||YAM||Appleton, WI|
|10||Bruce Castell||YAM||Bradley, IL|
|11||Mark Hinkle||-||South Haven, MI|
|12||Roy Hubell||-||Ithaca, NY|
|13||Dale Oglesbee||-||Mt. Moore, MI|
|14||Jeff Wolfe||-||New Lexington, OH|
|15||Tim Welker||-||Barstow, CA|
|16||George McNamara||-||San Rafael, CA|
|17||Dave Sanborn||-||Sussex, WI|
|18||John Day||-||Broken Arrow, OK|
|19||John Korallus||-||Lisle, KY|
|20||Mike Smitsky||-||Brugettstown, PA|
|21||Spencer Beach||-||Paw Paw, MI|
|22||Allen Berluti||-||Reno, NV|
|23||William Phillips||-||Richmond, VA|
|24||Thomas Kellam||-||Fielddale, VA|
|25||Dan Leonard||-||Monroe, MI|
|26||Brian Spotts||-||Wooster, OH|
|1||Jeff Callihan||SUZ||Warrenton, OH|
|2||Mark Van Hoozer||SUZ||Ottawa, IL|
|3||Jeff Surwall||SUZ||Des Plaines, IL|
|4||Jimmy Lauer||YAM||Laurel, MD|
|5||Mark Williams||SUZ||Powhatan, VA|
|6||Paul Brandt||SUZ||Taylor, MI|
|7||Sammy Bosnic||SUZ||Weirton, WV|
|8||Tim Shephard||SUZ||Barboursville, WV|
|9||Chappy Blose||SUZ||Phoenix, AZ|
|10||Glenn Taylor||YAM||Perry Hall, MD|
|11||Gary Taft||SUZ||Monmouth Junction, NJ|
|12||Matt Horrocks||SUZ||Ionia, MI|
|13||Ed Horan||SUZ||Point Pleasant Beach, NJ|
|14||Charles Walter||SUZ||Kendallville, IN|
|15||Denis Hilgendorf||SUZ||Perry, MI|
|16||Ricky Shearer||YAM||Sanford, NC|
|17||Kris Bigelow||YAM||Rochester, MI|
|18||Steve Horvath||SUZ||New Boston, MI|
|19||Ken Westfall||SUZ||Harpursville, NY|
|20||George Idzikowski||SUZ||West Bend, WI|
|21||Steve Lewis||SUZ||Pleasanton, CA|
|22||Tom Niccolls||SUZ||Springfield, IL|
|23||Greg Cox||SUZ||Gaston, IN|
|24||David Lahey||SUZ||Moscow, WI|
|25||Henry Warner||SUZ||Gladstone, NJ|
|26||Tom Odekirk||SUZ||Oroville, CA|
Main Image: Courtesy of George McNamara