For 1979, the AMA decided to move the Amateur National back out to the West Coast. The promoter chosen was Charlies Schafer of C.E.S. Promotions, with support from the Sacramento Jammers Motorcycle Club and the Dirt Diggers North M/C, who run the Hangtown Classic. The chosen track was Plymouth Raceway, outside Sacramento—the one that hosted the Hangtown Motocross Classic throughout the seventies. The previous two years saw the races in Virginia and Georgia. As a result, participation of riders from the West Coast was limited at best. With the race back in California, they hoped to draw a healthy mix of West Coast talent.
Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way. For instance, in the newly added 100cc class, not a single rider from west of the Rocky Mountains finished in the top 25. Tucson, Arizona’s Todd Phillips was sixth in the 125 class while Penn Valley, California’s Keith Myers was fourth in the 250cc class. The only winner from the West Coast turned out to be Eric McKenna in the Open class. He hailed from Redding, three hours away from the Plymouth track.
The AMA was likely also disappointed with the media turnout for the California event. Despite most of the major dirt bike magazines located in Southern California, there was scant coverage of the event afterwards, which has made seeking out details something of a detective story. Fortunately, Cycle News gave the race a two-page spread.
And while the race should have been a battle between East and West amateur talent, it mostly turned into a showcase of Midwest talent—Michigan in particular. Seven different members of the Michigan Mafia finished in the top five of the four classes, including 125cc winner Denny Bentley Jr. of Perry, Michigan, and 250cc winner Mark Hicks of Lansing, Michigan. Indiana was also well-represented, as was Wisconsin. Many of the Midwesterners traveled out across the country together.
“I went with Aaron Pitts and his family,” said Osceola, Indiana’s Larry Witmer, one of the Hoosier State’s all-time fastest riders, as well as the longtime RedBud announcer. “We traveled like a gypsy caravan from the Midwest with other moto racers. Great times!”
If you missed our race reports from the 1975, 1976, 1977, and 1978 Amateur National Championships, make sure to read them below:
“Harvey Sorensen and I drove the Team Dynamic box truck there from Michigan,” says Steve Ellis of Rochester, Michigan. “We were also carrying Jim Wolfenbarger’s YZ100. It took about three and a half days, but it was a memorable drive thru Flagstaff and Donner Pass.”
“The drive sucked but it was awesome as history was being made,” said Mike Wallace of Fowlerville, Michigan. “Glad I was there to witness it.”
“I had a good friend named Danny Wallace [Mike’s brother, who would finish eighth] who was also going out,” says Denny Bentley. “I grew up in Perry, which is about 20 miles from Fowlerville, where Danny lived, and so his dad and brother took the motorhome out to California with our two bikes. They left a week early to get there. I ended up flying out with my parents, and I think Danny’s mom as well.”
Bentley almost didn’t qualify for the race.
“I had a heck of a time even getting qualified for that national,” he explains. “Our regional was at Baja Acres, and I crashed in the first or second turn and ended up maybe fourth in that moto. It was, like, 100 degrees out that day, and when I got off the bike I just started hyperventilating. I ended up having heat exhaustion. But I tried to ride the second moto—I had no energy whatsoever—and I ended up DNFing and not making it.
“Fortunately, there was another regional out in Iowa, so we ended up going there,” he adds. “I won the first moto, but I crashed in the first turn in the second one and my exhaust got mangled and I couldn’t finish again. So going into the national out in California, I was the second or third alternate. I remember my dad talking to Dick Bigelow, who was the AMA [District 14] Congressman at the time, and Dick said, ‘Man, you’ve got to go out there because there will be some people who don’t show up.’ So we ended up going out there as an alternate, and then Dick was right, some other guys didn’t show up and I ended up getting in. It was a weird deal.”
Eric McKenna is listed in the results as being from Roseville, California, not far from the Plymouth track, but he was actually from Redding, about 150 miles north.
“I was working in Roseville as a fireman at the time,” explains McKenna, who was 21 in ’79. When asked about his big win at Plymouth, he answers, “Man, ’79 was a long time ago, and the amateur nationals were a lot different then compared to Loretta Lynn’s. Now there’s, like, a bazillion classes—too much to get into.” Back in 1979, there were just four classes: Open, 250cc and 125cc, plus a 100cc class for the first time that year. And everyone had to be an expert to try to qualify.
McKenna felt that he had a chance to win the Open class the previous year in Georgia, but a crash in Saturday’s practice knocked him out.
“There was a big anthill jump in the middle of the track, and they didn’t have any flaggers on top of it,” he recalls. “I flew over the jump and there’s downed riders.” He ended up with a broken collarbone. “I was ready in ’78, so I made ’79 my get-back race. I committed my whole year to getting ready—that’s what I put all of my time into that year.”
The Plymouth track he would be racing was sandy and rough.
“When you put a little water down on it, it was a sand track that just roughs up really, really good,” he remembers. “It was great for spectating, and you just needed to keep it wet so you wouldn’t have any dust. The ground wasn’t hard like the Hangtown track is now.”
McKenna was riding for EuroCycles, a Maico bike shop in Orangeville run by Jan Houtermans. He wasn’t getting any factory support from Maico, just the shop support that Houtermans was giving him for his 440cc Maico Magnum. He would be going up against a couple of other fast Maico riders in Alan King and Glenn Taylor.
“Alan King was an incredibly fast rider—he could just fly,” says McKenna of the rider from Troy, Michigan. “But I don’t know that he was in that great of shape at the time. He was also running the stock Maico Cort & Cosso shocks. And I looked at that and said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. You’re going to run those Cort & Cosso shocks?’ Because I had ridden with them, and they were alright but they would always fade—I knew that. I used Works Performance shocks, and my bike worked really, really well—definitely better than his! But he hauled ass, so I just had to bide my time because the guy went so frickin’ fast at the beginning race until he got tired. So I just waited, and as the race went on, the shocks faded, he got tired, and I passed him and took off late in both motos. I think a lot of that had to do with the shocks he was running.”
Besides King, there was also Florida Yamaha rider Kenny Keylon to contend with—one of the best sand riders in the country. But McKenna was ready and in great shape. “Riding and training was all I wanted to do all day and every day,” he says. “I was ready.”
McKenna still has his trophy for the 1979 AMA Amateur National Championship trophy in his “Garage Majal,” as well as a 1979 champion’s jacket and a couple of other mementos from the race. One thing he doesn’t have any more is the torn-in-two $100 bill.
“There was a local race promoter from Marysville named Charlie Sexton who ran races around Marysville, and he was always encouraging me. After I won the first moto, he came over to me, pulled out a $100 bill, and tore it in half,” McKenna says. “He handed me one half and said, ‘Go out and win the second moto and you can have the second half.’ That was big money for me back then! That was huge for me.” McKenna won the second moto and got the other half and taped it back together.
Today, McKenna lives in Lake Havasu, which gives him easy access to endless off-road riding, and he rides pretty much every day. When we caught up with him, he just happened to have stopped on his KTM 500 XCW and taken off his helmet to drink a Dr. Pepper.
“I’ve got just miles and miles and miles of desert out here, and it seems like anytime I go, I can find a new canyon or crevice or something that I’ve never been in before,” he explains. “Sometimes I can get through, sometimes I can’t, so it’s a lot of fun. Though sometimes I have to do it by myself because hardly anyone else is that ambitious of an explorer!”
Behind him that day in 1979 were three very fast competitors, two of whom would go on to win AMA Pro Motocross Nationals in the next few years. King, a future factory Suzuki rider, would place second, struggling at the end of both motos with those fading rear shocks. Perry Hall, Maryland’s Glenn Taylor ended up third, giving the German Maico brand a 1-2-3 sweep on the class.
The fourth-place finisher was Fort Lauderdale, Florida’s Keylon, a future Honda and Yamaha factory rider. Keylon would later win the 1982 St. Petersburg AMA Pro Motocross 250 National, while King would later win the 1984 Hangtown 250 National. Third-place finisher Taylor was no slouch either. But like his fellow Marylander Ferrell McCollough, he would not turn professional as a racer, going to college instead.
As for the winner McKenna, he would race professionally from 1980 through ’84, with a best finish of third overall at the ’83 Broome-Tioga 250 National, behind only Honda factory riders Bob Hannah and David Bailey.
And speaking of Bailey, he had won the 250 class the previous year in Georgia aboard a Bultaco; rather than spend another year as an amateur, he then embarked on his own professional career. The Little Professor raced four 250 Pro Nationals in 1979 aboard the same blue Bultaco Pursang that he won the ’78 amateur title on, posting the last results ever in AMA Pro Motocross on the fading brand. Then Kawasaki threw him a lifeline in the form of pro support in 1980, and his results quickly improved. After Honda signed him in 1982, he really took off. And like fellow “Before Loretta’s” AMA Amateur National Champion Mark Barnett, he would end up having a Hall of Fame professional career. The two were even briefly Team USA teammates for the 1983 Motocross and Trophee des Nations, both of which the Americans won.
Another name much farther down in the results than pre-race expectations was yet another Michigander, South Haven’s Mark Hinkle. He was the defending champion in the Open class, having won in Georgia aboard a Spanish-made Montesa. For 1979 he switched to Maico and was winning everywhere in the Midwest, but things just didn’t work out at Plymouth.
“It was like foundry soot,” Hinkle recalls. “It looked relatively smooth on top, but it would just be like deep power dust on top. It would put up a spray like you were just going through water. It would also dig out underneath, so there were this big ol’ choppy chunk holes, and in the first moto I stuck the front wheel in one of those holes and went for a ride!”
Because he did poorly in the first moto after the crash, Hinkle had a bad pick for the second moto. He ended up getting pushed off the start into a fence, tearing up his right hand. He tried to continue but pulled off briefly to have his hand looked at by the medics. He ended up going home to Michigan and back to work at the time at the Everett Piano Company in South Haven. By this point, the company was bought out by Yamaha, so he was effectively working for a brand he usually raced against!
Others at the race were thrown off by the soil as well.
“Thinking California hard-pack clay but found out it was sand instead,” Steve Ellis recalls. “I was prepped with the wrong tires but had an off day, likely fatigued from the trip! But it was another good showing by the Michigan Mafia, and only fair by Team Dynamic. Harvey [Sorensen] and I felt we let the state and Team Dynamic down.” Ellis would end up seventh in the 250 class, while Sorensen was seventh in Open.
What made the Michigan guys so fast?
“We took our state pride really, really seriously,” Ellis offers. “We just had to beat everyone else from Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, wherever. We went to races in caravans, we all collaborated on which races to go do together, and we would show up in force.”
“The funny thing is that all of the Michigan guys were staying together at this one hotel complex,” recalls Bentley, who flew out as an alternate but then almost missed the race with a bizarre injury. “We were all playing in the swimming pool the Wednesday before the race, diving off the board and throwing a football and trying to catch it before we hit the water. Me and Alan King and Danny Wallace and Frank Lamp and Matt Horrocks—I remember all of these guys being there—so it’s my turn, and I go to catch it and smack my ear on the water. I was like, ‘Man, that hurt!’ but I didn’t think a whole lot about it—I just thought I had water in my ear. So then Thursday/Friday come along and we had a met a kid from out there who was a local high-school football player. He had a game that Friday night, and a bunch of us decided to go watch, just to have something to do. I was there and it was kind of chilly, and it started making my ear and my head hurt. By the time we got back to the hotel, my ear was killing me. I went to bed, somehow fell asleep, and then woke up at like three in the morning and there’s blood all over my pillow. My dad took me to the emergency room. Turns out I had punctured my eardrum when I dove into the pool and it finally just broke loose, apparently. They flushed my ear out and took care of me, then we went off to the racetrack. That whole Saturday was a practice day out there, and I ended up sleeping the whole day in Danny Wallace’s motor home. So to somehow be able to go out the next day and win that race, my equilibrium off and all, was pretty crazy.”
Incredibly, Bentley wasn’t the only top contender from Michigan to have a swimming-pool injury in California. Jeff Spreeman was considered the odds-on favorite for the 100cc title on a kitted YZ125 F with a 100cc engine. He rode for the Ohio-based American Competition team, members of which raced with stars on their blue-and-red sleeves. While staying at the hotel the day before the event, Spreeman apparently jumped into the hotel pool and landed wrong. He threw out his back so badly that he was unable to ride. Spreeman would redeem himself and American Competition two years later at RedBud.
The Plymouth track was much better than what everyone saw the previous year in Georgia, but it was not without its own challenges.
“I had problems with the sand/silt,” recalls Larry Witmer of Indiana. “Suckered dirt and it killed my motor. Replaced piston but the damage was done. I enjoyed every minute, though.” Witmer would still finish fifth overall in the 250 class.
“It was the original Hangtown track, and the sand or dirt or whatever, it was a different texture,” Denny Bentley says. “The sand up here in Michigan was a little heavier, more consistent, but out there it had that hard-packed feel at times, and then you would start getting those sharp edges where the dirt would break away and you would get those lips or whatever, and they would bounce you around pretty good. It was much different than the year before in Georgia, where I took second. That was pretty much a hard-packed track compared to Plymouth, which wasn’t very good for us Michigan riders.… Going out to California to the [old] Hangtown track, we knew we were going to get a better track [than in Georgia], and it was definitely similar to what we had back home in Michigan, and it showed in the results.”
Wrote Cycle News reporter W.H. Spencer: “Running 20 minutes plus two laps for each moto required thought as the deep sand would wear out both rider and suspension if one didn’t attend to the business of motocross…. The constant battering was changing the track and the easy whoops were becoming double and triple jumps that were deceiving, especially just past the finish line.”
The new 100cc class was a prime example of the roughness of the Plymouth track. Florida’s super-fast sand rider Karl Jordan took off with the lead in the first moto, only to succumb to the track and crash out. He returned to easily win the second moto. The first-moto winner, Scott Hinkle, Mark’s younger brother, won the first 100cc moto on his RPM-backed Suzuki RM100. But like Jordan, he offset his moto win with a quick DNF in the other moto. As a result, Jordan’s DNF-1 earned him seventh overall, while Scott Hinkle’s 1-DNF landed him eighth overall. (The points system was similar to today’s AMA Pro Motocross scoring, with 25 points for a moto win, 22 for second, 20 for third, and on down.)
The recipient of the good fortune left on the table by Jordan and Hinkle was Charlotte, North Carolina’s Todd Harrell, whose 5-2 finishes earned him the title over Pontiac, Michigan’s Jim Wolfenbarger, whose 2-5 scores tied him with Harrell, but Todd’s better second moto gave him the overall. Harrell was riding a Hamme Yamaha YZ100 tuned by his dad. Port Washington, Wisconsin’s John Eidenberger ended up third overall.
Denny Bentley Jr. would take the 125cc championship for Michigan aboard a Suzuki RM125 backed by RPM. He won the first moto easily over Cedar Rapids, Iowa’s Johnny Spaw and Columbus City, Indiana’s Connie Feist.
In the second moto, Bentley and everyone else was caught by surprise when Yuba City, California’s Bradley Harrison came from way back to win. Harrison had crashed out of the first moto early, suffering a DNF. His second-moto win earned him seventh overall. The runner-up at the end of the day was Crown Point, Indiana’s Mark Patterson, who was riding a Suzuki RM125. The aforementioned Johnny Spaw ended up third. Fourth place was Kawasaki rider Jim Van Andel from Muskego, Michigan, while Severn, Maryland’s Al Farmer ended up fifth overall on a YZ125.
The next year, Denny Bentley Jr. would sign a professional contract with Team Suzuki, but injuries hampered his rookie season. Bentley then started 1981 riding an RM250 in the Daytona Supercross, where he finished a solid fifth in his first main event. At the Hangtown outdoor opener later that month, he finished sixth in a stacked 125 class that included Barnett, Jeff Ward, Ricky Johnson, Johnny O’Mara and Danny “Magoo” Chandler. But the next month at the Pontiac Silverdome in his home state, Bentley misjudged a double and crashed, breaking several ribs and puncturing his lung. He would struggle after that to stay healthy. In the end, his best pro finish ended up being fourth in the 250 class at the 1983 High Point National while riding a Yamaha. He ended up riding a privateer Honda to start the ’84 season, but then a sprained ankle ended his supercross run, and he decided to retire, still only 20 years old. (Look for a complete interview with Bentley about his career soon at Racer X Online.)
Look below at Eric McKenna’s mementos from his 1979 AMA National Championship run in the Open class.
Finally there was Lansing, Michigan’s Mark Hicks. He strapped his Honda CR250 to the roof of his family car to make the drive out to California, then reportedly got into a fender bender once he got there that damaged the bike. Mark Hinkle’s dad rolled up his sleeves and helped work on Hicks’ damaged machine, getting it rebuilt in time for the race. Hicks then went out and was part of an all-Michigan train up front, as Cadillac’s Jeff Ellens led, Hicks was second, Grand Haven’s Kermit Anderson was third, and Iona’s Matt Horrocks was fourth. The top-finishing non-Michigander was New Richmond’s Jeff Jacobsen, with Indiana’s Larry Witmer sixth.
Ellens would lead Hicks to start the second moto but crashed back to third, then started having clutch problems and dropped way back. Next it was Horrocks’ turn to battle with his friend and neighbor Hicks, but he would eventually give the lead back to Hicks and his College Bike-backed Honda. Horrocks would end up fourth, but his 4-4 scores were good for second overall and a Michigan one-two. The Michigan Mafia had established which was the most powerful state in amateur motocross.
Up next in our Before Loretta’s series is the 1980 AMA Amateur National Motocross Championships from Spring Creek in Millville, Minnesota.
1979 AMA Amateur National Championship - Plymouth, California
|1||Eric McKenna||Roseville, CA|
|2||Alan King||Troy, MI|
|3||Glenn Taylor||Perry Hall, MD|
|4||Kenny Keylon||Brooksville, FL|
|5||Mark Corbett||Burlington, WI|
|6||Scott Hall||Cedar Rapids, IA|
|7||Steve Ellis||Rochester, MI|
|8||Phil Crampton||Lapeer, MI|
|9||Del Vasey||Glenview, IL|
|10||Paul Walker||Toledo, OH|
|11||Ron Watmore||Tucson, AZ|
|12||Barry Palmer||Thomasville, NC|
|13||Curtis Carpenter||Brook Park, OH|
|14||David Brown||Battle Creek, MI|
|15||Larry Parks||Traverse City, MI|
|16||David Harrell||Modesto, CA|
|17||Fred Rorrer||Eden, NC|
|18||Randy Pockrandt||Sacramento, CA|
|19||Mark Hinkle||South Haven, MI|
|20||Donald Wilson||Sacramento, CA|
|21||Jeff Cunningham||Carson, NV|
|22||Brad Emery||Live Oak, CA|
|23||Todd Kohlmeister||San Rafael, CA|
|24||Darrell Robbins||Bowie, MD|
|25||Michael Lyons||Brownsburg, IN|
|26||Lance Dudley||Dupo, IL|
|27||Dan McIntosh||Creston, IA|
|1||Mark Hicks||Lansing, MI|
|2||Matt Horrocks||Ionia, MI|
|3||Jeff Jacobson||New Richmond, WI|
|4||Keith Myers||Penn Valley, CA|
|5||Larry Witmer||Osceola, IN|
|6||Jeff Ellens||Cadillac, MI|
|7||Harvey Sorenson Jr.||Holly, MI|
|8||J.P. Bunting||Dunbar, PA|
|9||Dave Sanborn||Sussex, WI|
|10||Kermit Anderson||Grand Haven, MI|
|11||Joel Andrews||North Canton, OH|
|12||Tom Schuneman||Elgin, IL|
|13||Jim Benolkin||Minneapolis, MN|
|14||Joey Schlag||Pittsburg, CA|
|15||Glenn Wright||Stafford, VA|
|16||Harold Robison||Strongville, OH|
|17||Jeff Hahnen||St. Paul, MN|
|18||Danny Dennis||Middletown, CA|
|19||Don Cody||Sacramento, CA|
|20||Perry Scott||Longview, WA|
|21||Mark Barr||Pinckneyville, IL|
|22||Steve Holland||Elmore, OH|
|23||John Nazionale||Follansbee, WV|
|24||Tom McKinney||Placerville, CA|
|25||Jim Tarantino||Los Angeles, CA|
|26||Ted Cabral||Petaluma, CA|
|1||Denny Bentley Jr.||Perry, MI|
|2||Mark Patterson||Crown Point, IN|
|3||Johnny Spaw||Cedar Rapids, IA|
|4||Jim Van Andel||Muskegon, MI|
|5||Al Farmer||Severn, MD|
|6||Todd Philips||Tucson, AZ|
|7||Bradley Harrison||Yuba City, CA|
|8||Danny Wallace||Fowlerville, MI|
|9||Frank Lamp||Davison, MI|
|10||Joe Stites||Lacon, IL|
|11||Connie Feist||Columbia City, IN|
|12||Mark Robbins||Cornelius, NC|
|13||Tim Dohm||Charleston, WV|
|14||Chuck Sneed||Hillsborough, NC|
|15||Spoof Pena||Citrus Heights, CA|
|16||Mitchell Moyer||Cedar Falls, IA|
|17||Scott Rebuck||Pinole, CA|
|18||Bryan Wargo||Antioch, CA|
|19||Tom Breault||Wilson, CA|
|20||Kevin Miller||Brownsburg, IN|
|21||David Hand||Mantua, OH|
|22||Jim Cunningham||Pebble Beach, CA|
|23||Rodney Ritter||Bloomington, IN|
|24||Jon Yourd||Meadow Vista, CA|
|25||Pete Langley||Windsor, CA|
|26||Jim Lowe||Lambertville, MI|
|27||Steve Graham||Silver Spring, MD|
|1||Todd Harrell||Charlotte, NC|
|2||Jim Wolfenbarger||Pontiac, MI|
|3||John Eidenberger||Port Washington, WI|
|4||Ronnie Weatherholt||Elkhart, IN|
|5||Aaron Pitts||Wabash, IN|
|6||Tommy Watts||Shelbyville, KY|
|7||Karl Jordan||Largo, FL|
|8||Scott Hinkle||South Haven, MI|
|9||Larry Bergemann||Beaver Dam, WI|
|10||Troy Anderson||Twin Lakes, WI|
|11||Lowell Hancock||Columbia City, IN|
|12||Scott Gile||Stevens Point, WI|
|13||Billy Abel||Louisville, KY|
|14||Archie Bryde, Jr.||Lansing, MI|
|15||Chuck Hicks||Hopewell Junction, NY|
|16||Mike Theisen||Hiawatha, IA|
|17||Doug Bowman||Decatur, IL|
|18||Jim Hallman||Alliance, OH|
|19||Ralph Scannapieco||Yonkers, NY|
|20||Donald Kostar||Richfield, OH|
|21||Randy Minier||St. Johns, MI|
|22||Dave Stevens||Greenville, NY|
|23||Kevin Rice||Peoria, IL|
|24||Jim Sessions||Waterloo, IA|
|25||Kreg Bigelow||Rochester, MI|