In 1979, Michigan prospect Denny Bentley Jr. won the AMA Amateur National Motocross Championship in the 125cc class. Riding for Holder Suzuki on an RM125 modified by RPM, Bentley and his family went to Plymouth, California, to compete for the title. With his convincing win, Bentley was signed to a professional contract by Suzuki after a guy named Dan Branfleman scouted him that day at Plymouth.
“He put a good word into Mark Blackwell after the race, and that’s what got my foot in the door,” Bentley recalls. “For us guys from the Midwest to go out there and spank them, that really opened everyone else’s eyes.”
Unfortunately, no sooner had Bentley turned pro than he was thrown into the proverbial lion’s den: no 125cc class existed in AMA Supercross, so his first stadium races would be in the premier class. Some untimely injuries followed, and despite some decent results, the window didn’t stay open for long for Denny Bentley—he was done by spring of 1984.
Racer X Online: Nice you virtually meet you, Denny. Do you still follow the sport at all?
Denny Bentley Jr.: I follow supercross and motocross a little. I have one son—he’s 25—and I didn’t get him into racing, though we would watch a little bit. You know, it’s funny, my wife, I met her two years after I quit racing, so neither she nor obviously my son ever saw me race. I don’t even talk about it very much, but sometimes when it’s on TV I will say, “Hey, I raced there.” So I still know a little bit about what’s going on, though I don’t follow real closely.
When you were coming up, the Michigan Mafia was probably the fastest bunch of riders outside of Southern California. The Hinkle brothers, the Bigelows, the Lamp brothers, you, Eddie Warren, the Bowens, Jeff Spreeman, Steve Ellis, Lisa Akin.… How did so many fast people come out of the same place practically at the same time?
I was thinking about that a little bit today. We had a lot of nice tracks that helped develop a lot of the racing at that time, and you also had thousands of people racing in Michigan back then, so it was a big talent pool, I guess. I think this state also got into motocross early. I mean, motocross in the U.S. didn’t really get started until maybe 1969 or so, but in Michigan we grasped it real early. I was born in 1964, when my dad was only 17, and he was already racing when I first got a minibike. When I was old enough to get a 50 and be out on the track, my parents let me race. And then it was every weekend after that. Back then there were a lot of TT scrambles and short track, and I raced a lot of that, as well as motocross, especially once I got on an XR75 [Honda]. But it was like everyone just went from one type of racing to another, and that probably helped make us all faster. I would race a flat track at Auto City in Flint on a Friday night and then I would motocross on Saturday and Sunday, so you would get three races in on most weekends. That was the heyday of motocross in this state.
There was also—and pardon the pun—the dynamic of having really strong race teams, like Team Dynamic, the RPM team, the FBI [Fast Boys from Illinois], the American Competition guys with stars on their sleeves.... All of that must have really helped, because there was a lot of state pride, as well as team pride, and that went for Illinois and Iowa as well.
Absolutely. There was a lot of real good riders back then. One of the things I was talking to Rusty Hibbs—another fast guy, by the way—about was this race back in ’77 or ’78, and RedBud actually had a tri-state competition with teams from Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana, if I remember right. So all of the racers from all of those states came and raced together. I don’t even remember who won, but I do remember it just being really cool, because usually motocross is an individual sport, but on that day we were out there rooting for guys that you wanted to beat every other weekend. And at that time we just had a lot of good motocross racers and racetracks. Everyone in this state was gung-ho on riding motorcycles.
Looking at the results for the 1979 AMA Amateur National, it looks like half the people in the race were from Michigan or Wisconsin or Indiana. Didn’t a lot of you guys drive out in a caravan?
They did, but I had a good friend named Danny Wallace [who would finish eighth] who was also going out. I grew up in Perry, which is about 20 miles from Fowlerville, where Danny lived, and so his dad and brother took the motor home 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. But yeah, a bunch of guys drove out there together.
What else do you remember about that year?
I remember that I had a heck of a time even getting qualified for that national. 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. 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 gotta 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.
That’s funny, because in researching these Before Loretta’s races, I spoke to Mark Barnett, who won the 125 class in 1975. I asked Bomber about the next year, 1976, and he told me he didn’t qualify. I had no idea! It was pretty cutthroat even back then. I mean, Barnett was the defending champion, a future AMA Motorcycle Hall of Famer, and he didn’t make it to the amateur nationals in 1976!
It really was. We barely made it, and then I ended up winning.
Were you riding for RPM and Gary Chaplin at the time?
Sorta. I was actually sponsored by Tom Holder, who has a Suzuki bike shop up in Owosso, Michigan—Holder Suzuki. He supplied the bikes for me, and he got connected with Gary Chaplin and RPM, and they did the motor work for us. So I wasn’t really racing for them, but they definitely helped us out with the motor work.
I ask because Gary did my RM100 in 1981 when I was racing in the Youth Nationals. I was riding for what was basically Kawasaki’s new Team Green program, but Kawi didn’t make a 100, so my mom and dad painted my Suzuki green! So I rode a KX125 in the 125 class and a Suzuki in the 100 class. I think Eddie Warren’s dad did the same thing to his 100. Anyway, back to Plymouth. Was that the first time you were ever out in California?
It was. But the funny thing is that all of the Michigan guys were staying together at this one hotel complex. 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 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.
How was the track? It seems like it had the kind of sandy terrain that you guys from Michigan would love.
Yeah, it really was. It was the original Hangtown track, and the sand or dirt or whatever, it was a different texture. 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. That track in Georgia wasn’t really a great track, at least not enough to be a national track. I don’t want to knock it, but it wasn’t what any of us expected. We thought we were going to some spectacular racetrack, but it was more like a practice track. There just wasn’t much to work with there. So going out to California to the [old] Hangtown track, we knew we were going to get a better track, and it was definitely similar to what we had back home in Michigan, and it showed it the results. I mean, I won my class, and I think Mark Hicks and Matty Horrocks got first and second in the 250 class. That ’79 national was kind of a coming-out party for the Michigan Mafia.
Yes, and you guys stayed on top the next couple of years as well, at Millville and then RedBud. And one of your strongest guys back then, Mark Hinkle, had a lousy day at Plymouth. He told me that the track got the best of him, despite the fact that he was the defending 500 champ, but then he came back and won the next two years.
You know, I really don’t think that Mark gets the credit he deserves, even in Michigan, for just how good he was—and for quite a while, too. When people talk about fast riders, I don’t think his name comes up enough. He was a very good rider.
That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this series, because after my dad and his old partner Paul Schlegel came up with the idea for Loretta Lynn’s, a lot of these old amateur races and racers were kind of forgotten about. They aren’t really part of any record books or anything like that. Neither are the old Youth Nationals.
Hey, I was in one of those too! I was in the 100 Schoolboy class in 1977, I think, and I think I took second in the first moto, when it was nice and dry, but then it rained. It just downpoured, and they ended up having to make another track down over the hill just to finish the race. Do you remember that?
"So I come home, the ['84] Silverdome is the end of April, but I sprained my ankle. I still tried to qualify but didn’t make it. I wasn’t feeling it, and after that I told my dad, 'You know what? I really don’t want to waste any more of your money.' And then I just threw in the towel. I had just turned 20." —Denny Bentley Jr.
Absolutely, that was High Point Raceway, and that was my dad who laid out the second track because the real track was absolutely swamped with mud. It was impossible to get around on a minibike!
Yes, I remember now! And after that, the race was kind of a free-for-all, everyone struggling and sliding around in the grass. I also remember that I was racing a Suzuki that Holder made for me where they took an RM125 and put a 100cc motor in it, because the actual 100s were so much smaller that they were barely a step up for an 80. So now you’ve got this tall bike and this short kid—I could barely touch the ground—and I was fine on it when it was dry, but when it was muddy and raining and all, I was like a fish out of water. I couldn’t hardly keep the bike up! I don’t even know what I finished that day, but I was there and it was pretty crazy.
I remember fooling around and doing bad the first day and then my dad making me go flag the second down over the hill! Anyway, it’s been a lot of fun to research these old races and get to talk to folks like Mark Hinkle and Ferrell McCollough and David Bailey and Eric McKenna and yourself—a lot of the guys that were the top amateurs back then, when there was just one class, not A, B, and C like there is today. Like I said, it was cutthroat just to qualify, let alone win.
Absolutely, and you have to remember, I was only 15 when I won at Plymouth, so I was 14 when I took second [in Georgia]. When you look at today, it seems like the kids stay amateur a lot longer. I mean, when I got second, Chappy Blose was the guy who beat me. I think he was 18 and I was still only 14. The guy who took third in ’78, Dennis Hilgendorf, came from the same town as me, Perry, Michigan. He was 18 too. I raced with him for years, and I think riding with older guys really helped me, which is probably why I turned pro right away. Kids today seem to have more of a bridge from amateur to pro than we had back then.
I think part of that may have been another deal my dad was part of, and that was the formation of the 125 class in AMA Supercross in 1985, along with another promoter named Bill West.
And that right there would have been a game-changer for me, because I turned pro when I turned 16 at the end of April 1980, but I had to go to all of these pro regionals first to be able to go race the 125 Nationals. But then something happened along the way that will probably blow your mind. It was the weekend of the 125cc U.S. Grand Prix at Mid-Ohio, the really muddy one that Johnny O’Mara won on his Mugen Honda. We had an off-week from the regionals, me and my dad, so we loaded up my practice bikes to go riding in White Birch. But then it started pouring down rain that Saturday morning. We were sitting there in the van with a 125 and a 250 in the back of the van, and my dad says, “Let’s go down to Mid-Ohio and watch that race instead.” So we leave Michigan and head down to Mid-Ohio, and we get there at like four o’clock in the afternoon. It’s sunny down there, and they had just got done with practice. My dad pulls off near the address where they had this clubhouse or something and goes inside. I’m sitting there in the van, 20 or 30 minutes go by, and I decide to get out and see what’s going on. I walk in there, and it’s pretty much the race headquarters, and I’ll be damned but he somehow talked his way into getting me in the race! Here I am, I don’t have enough points to even enter an AMA National yet, but he talked them into letting me sign up for this 125 Grand Prix! I’m listening to him talk to whoever is in charge there and he’s saying, “Wow, I just can’t believe you guys didn’t get his entry, I know we sent it in.” And then all of the sudden they say, “Okay, we’ll let him race.” I couldn’t believe it!
Ha! Your dad sounds a lot like my dad.
Exactly. So we end up staying in a nearby motel, it rained all night, and we get up the next morning and go out to the track and get my practice bike ready to race. First moto takes off—this place was a mud disaster by now—and I get a horrible start. We’re going into the first little actual turn and I realize I’m right [next] to Mark Barnett, and I was like, “Go ahead.” I didn’t want to wreck his chances or anything. I’m kind of almost a teammate of his at this point, and I didn’t want to mess up his race. So I let him go, and I just keep going, trying to stay up and pick my way around the track. The race ends, and I’m fourth place! Everybody from Europe is there, like Harry Everts and [Eric] Geboers and Gaston Rahier, and they’ve got these handmade factory bikes, and all of the U.S. guys are there on their works bikes, and here I’m out there on this worn-out production bike, and I get fourth, which was pretty cool.
So the next moto comes up, and this time I get a better start. Towards the end of the race I’m fourth or fifth, so I’m in position to take second overall behind Johnny O’Mara, but then with just two laps to go I got stuck in a hole and ended up burning the clutch out trying to get going again. It was my practice bike, so I’m sure the clutch wasn’t very strong to begin with, but it almost got me second overall in the 125 USGP, like maybe three months after I turned 16. And I was only supposed to be there to watch, but my dad somehow got me in there and I damn near took second!
You know, if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have been nobody. He pushed me hard, but he knew just how hard to push me, so all of the credit goes to him.
Another thing I wanted to talk about is your first AMA Supercross. Back then there was no 125 class, of course, so you had to race the 250 class, which meant all of the superstars. That’s why even the very best guys, like Broc Glover and Mark Barnett, didn’t race AMA Supercross at first, because the teams wanted them to focus on the 125 Nationals. Yamaha had Glover wait two years, until 1978, to start racing supercross. But you went to Daytona in ’81 when you were 17 and got fifth in your first SX, right in front of three of your Suzuki teammates in Marty Smith, Kent Howerton, and Mark Barnett. That was very impressive!
Actually, that would have been my second supercross. I had gotten enough points the previous summer to do the last round of 1980—I think it was a doubleheader in Philadelphia. I say I think because I didn’t make it that far! I was on a works 250, and there’s no way that someone who was maybe 130 pounds, 16 years old, and there’s no way I should have been on that bike. But I hopped on it, and I was fourth or fifth in my heat race, and I went over the bars in the whoops and separated my shoulder. So we didn’t stay for the second race—we drove home in the van to Michigan, and I felt every bump in my shoulder along the way. So my first supercross didn’t go nearly as well as my second, which was Daytona at the start of the next year.
And the supercross learning curve was steep before that 125 SX class.
Exactly. And the next year at Daytona I actually won my heat race, and in the main I might have gotten fourth, but I ended up getting passed by Donnie Hansen on the last lap.
The next year you were full-time in 250 SX and 125 outdoors. You were doing well in the 125 Nationals, but then you got banged up pretty good at the Pontiac Silverdome.
Yes, it was the first night of the doubleheader, and one of those weird nights. I got a bad start in my heat race, then worked my way up to second. I think Broc Glover was winning. I ended up crashing with a half-lap to go and missing qualifying by one spot. In the semi, I crashed in the first turn. I had to get second, but I only ended third. So finally it was the LCQ and I got the holeshot and won. I make it in the final, get the last gate pick, and get a terrible start. I’m maybe 14th or 15th and we came up on this double, right to Barnett, and I went for it and ended up kicking the back end up and I went over the bars. I ended up with a punctured lung, some broken ribs.
That knocked you out of the rest of the season and basically cost you the Suzuki ride.
That’s right. I was in the hospital for three weeks, and then when I got out I was bedridden for a month. That was, like, the third week in April when I crashed, and I was worried that I wasn’t going to be able to walk in my high-school graduation, which was maybe the second week in June. But I did get to go to graduation, despite being pretty sore.
So later that year I was trying to get back into shape to maybe race the last couple races, and I called my boss at Suzuki, who was named Tosch, to tell him. He asks me if I’m 100 percent ready to race, and I told him I thought I was at maybe 90 percent, and he goes, “Then you can’t race.” So that discouraged me.
Anyway, about this time there was something going on with the AMA and the factories and the old Trans-USA Series. They all decided they weren’t going to go, and they were going to do this series in California [the Trans-Cal Series] instead. I flew out there for that to get ready to race, and just a couple of days before the first race they called me in and told me they weren’t going to re-sign me. I ended up going back home, borrowing a bike, and riding a couple of the last Trans-USA races instead.
After you were finished with Suzuki, you show up in the results on a Yamaha for one more year, and you had one really good finish—fourth in the ’83 250 National at High Point, which was back where you raced in your first Youth National on the 100 stuffed into a 125 frame.
Yes, that’s right, it was 1983. I signed on as a support rider for Yamaha, and that might have been one of my worst mistakes. I just could not ride that bike fast, for whatever reason. But at High Point, that was similar to that ’77 Mini National because it was great for the first moto, dry and even a little dusty, and then it poured just before the start of the second moto. We knew to put a good mud tire on the back just before the start, and I ended up fourth or fifth. [Editor's note: Bentley actually went 9-3 for third, finishing behind Bob Hannah and Scott Burnworth.]
So what happened next?
Well, Yamaha let me go at the end of ’83, and my dad ended up buying me a couple of Honda CR250s for the ’84 season. I went down to Florida and raced the Winter-AMA Series, and it just wasn’t going really well. I raced the Atlanta SX, and then I raced Daytona. I was doing pretty well—I think I was, like, seventh—when I busted my wheel in the whoops on one of those telephone poles they used to build the whoops there. So I come home, the Silverdome is the end of April, but I sprained my ankle. I still tried to qualify but didn’t make it. I wasn’t feeling it, and after that I told my dad, “You know what? I really don’t want to waste any more of your money.” And then I just threw in the towel. I had just turned 20.
Wow, you were only 20?
Yes, I had just turned 20 that April when I retired. If you look at how things are today, a 20-year-old is almost always still riding Lites, or what is now the 250 class. The other problem was that you don’t recall all of the nicks and bruises you get in the early years of racing, but then it really starts to add up. I mean, a lot of the public probably really doesn’t know how banged up some of these riders are after a while. Had there been a 125 class in SX when I came up, I’m not saying I would have had a great career, but I think some of the early injuries I had trying to ride 250 SX would not have happened. But who knows? I do think adding a 125 class was a good thing to do. A stepping-stone was needed.
That’s because no matter how good of an outdoor rider you are growing up, supercross is an acquired taste. It takes time and experience.
Do you still have your trophy or your trophies from 1979 out at Plymouth?
Unfortunately, a few years ago our house was hit by lightning and went up [in flames] for the most part. We weren’t home, so we had a bunch of pets that we lost. And then after the fire damage we had water damage, so I lost a bunch of things. My trophy was out in the barn, so I fortunately still have that, but it’s seen better days. I may have some after-the-race photos of my dad and my mom, but nothing of the actual race.
You were also unfortunate that Werner Straube wasn’t there shooting, because his stuff from 1980 at Millville and ’81 at RedBud are amazing.
Absolutely, those pictures are priceless. You don’t think of it at the time when you’re racing, but you will want them later on. Having a guy like Werner out there shooting photos would have been great.
You guys from Michigan were lucky to not only have each other to battle every weekend, but you had Werner Straube there shooting a lot of times, and he was a hell of a photographer! Like Mike Konners from Team Dynamic, Werner Straube is a Michigan treasure.
Oh, absolutely. Like I said, you don’t realize just how special some of the times were until you get older. And now when you think back, you wish you had some photos, you wish you had some stuff, and since so many of my pictures got destroyed by the fire or water damage, I don’t have them anymore. Every once in a while someone will put something up on Facebook, and it’s pretty cool to see an old picture for the first time.… It’s still a lot of fun to think of those good old days of racing.
Images: Dick Miller Archives