Main image: Carmichael in 2002, photo by Simon Cudby
This weekend we will see Chase Sexton crowned the 2023 Monster Energy AMA Supercross Champion in the premier 450 class. It will mark the first time since 2003 that a Honda has won this prestigious title, and the first time ever for a Honda CRF450R. Sexton was in the right place at the right time when series points leader Eli Tomac suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon injury last Saturday in Denver that catapulted Sexton into the points lead. And with former champ Cooper Webb also out with a concussion from Nashville two weeks ago, and Ken Roczen 43 points behind Sexton, the championship is already in Sexton's hands. He now joins an elite club of Honda riders who have won the AMA Supercross crown, the first of which the Red Riders won in 1982. For this week's List we thought we would take a look at all of Honda's AMA Supercross Champions.
Donnie Hansen (1982): Despite the best efforts of some excellent riders from 1974, the first year for AMA Supercross, and 1982, Honda was unable to clinch an AMA Supercross crown. Those riders included Marty Smith, Pierre Karsmakers, Marty Tripes, Jim Pomeroy, Steve Wise, Chuck Sun, and Danny Laporte and Johnny O'Mara—all AMA Motorcycle Hall of Famers. In 1980 the team hired a fast California prospect named Donnie "Holeshot" Hansen away from Can-Am, which was in its twilight days of SX/MX. Hansen had not won a single race as a professional through the end of the '81 season, though he was a part of the first Team USA to ever win the FIM Trophee and Motocross des Nations, along with LaPorte, O'Mara, and Sun. But at the start of the '82 AMA Supercross season at Anaheim, Hansen got his first win. That marked the beginning of a magical season that would see him not only win the SX title, but 250 Pro Motocross as well. Hansen also went to Europe and won the season-ending Swedish 250 Grand Prix, the same race where his former teammate LaPorte won the '82 FIM 250cc World Championship.
What happened next was a tragedy. Hansen went from Sweden to West Germany to practice for the following week's Trophee race at Honda GP racer Rolf Dieffenbach's home and ended up crashing heavily. He was knocked into a coma and did not come out of it for some time. When he did awake Donnie had to pretty much learn how to walk and move his limbs again. He had also lost the equilibrium needed to race motorcycles at the highest level. As a result, his career ended right there, and he never got to race with the #1 plates he earned in '82 in either AMA Supercross nor 250 Pro Motocross.
David Bailey (1983): When Hansen was injured in West Germany, Honda called up another top prospect they had signed in David Bailey to fly to Europe and take his place. With a lineup led by Danny "Magoo" Chandler, and included O'Mara and Jim Gibson, David Bailey got his first big win as part of Team USA '82. And just like Hansen again, he then went to the Anaheim opener and scored his first AMA win, only it was the '83 SX opener. And again, just like Hansen, Bailey went on to win the '83 AMA 250 Pro Motocross Championship, a 250 Grand Prix (only it was at Unadilla, not Sweden, and then it was off to Europe to race again for Team USA. Fortunately, Bailey did not repeat Hansen's terrible accident while practicing for the Nations, and he went on to win a pair of 500 National Championships. The "Little Professor" was also the Grand National Champion in both '83 and '84, having scored the most combined points in SX and MX in each season.
Sadly, Bailey's career would eventually line up again with Hansen's in January of 1987. Still a Honda factory rider, and arguably at the very top of his game, Bailey crashed while practicing for a preseason race at Lake Huron, California, and ended up with a spinal injury. His racing career was over, but just like Hansen, who went on to host a very successful coaching clinic and motocross school, there was much more to come for Bailey. He ended up as a commentator for ESPN and ABC on AMA Supercross and Pro Motocross, as well as becoming an Ironman Triathlon Champion, as well as a successful graphic designer. The "Little Professor" is also now known as "The Icon" for style, from both on and off the track.
Johnny O'Mara (1984): Another Anaheim SX opener, another first-time SX winner, another Team Honda rider, and on to another AMA Supercross Championship. That was Johnny O'Mara's star turn in 1984, following closely to the path first paved by his teammates Hansen and Bailey. But what was different is that O'Mara was already victorious outdoors, having won the 1983 AMA 125cc National Championship, and before that the 125cc USGP at Mid-Ohio on a Mugen Honda, and then the '82 125cc Grand Prix of Switzerland, where he battled with FIM Motocross World Champion Eric Geboers. What adds to the achievement of what O'Mara's '84 AMA Supercross title run was the fact that he did it while racing a 125 outdoors, at a time when the two series overlapped. That had only been done one other time, in 1981 by Mark "Bomber" Barnett.
O'Mara remained involved with the sport long after his own racing career ended in 1990, as he went to work with longtime sponsor Oakley. Then in the mid-nineties he was approached by Oakley and the Carmichael family to be a coach and mentor for Ricky Carmichael. That would lead to more SX titles for Honda ('02 and '03) but we will get there further down the page. And the O'Show is still involved with Honda in that he just helped Jett and Hunter Lawrence to a sweep of this year's 250SX West and East Region titles, respectively.
Rick Johnson (1986, '88): An established superstar before he even joined Team Honda in 1986, Rick "Too Hip" Johnson would change the sport with his flashy style and charisma, both on and off the track. He had been with Team Yamaha since he turned pro in 1981, with some success—he won the 1984 AMA 250 Pro Motocross title, but also lost the '82 title when he blew his front wheel out at the last round of the series in Colorado. RJ's star power went through the roof when he joined Honda and began to win all over the world. Besides AMA Supercross in '86 and '88, RJ would also win AMA outdoor championships for Honda, help lead Team USA to several wins in then Motocross of Nations, and won big supercross events in Japan, France, Italy, and more. He also became something of a fashion icon as he teamed up with Fox Racing's Pete Fox to come up with several famous kits that are still copied and sampled to this day.
Johnson became Honda's first two-time AMA Supercross Champion and almost certainly would have added at least a third in 1989, after winning the first five rounds of the series. But then he tangled in practice (why is it always practice for this team?) with Honda privateer Danny Storbeck at the '89 Gatorback National opener and suffered a broken navicular on his throttle wrist. RJ was never really the same after that, as the inability to hold on while twisting the throttle ended his career, though it took two full years of frustration before he finally called it quits early in the '91 series.
Jeff Stanton (1989, '90, '92): When RJ went down in the spring of '89, his understudy was right there ready and waiting to step up. Like Johnson, Michigan's Jeff Stanton had been raced on Yamahas, and when he turned pro in 1985 after an excellent amateur career, he was signed by Team Yamaha. He toiled there for a couple years, never really having a breakthrough ride, but building a reputation as a hard-worker and resolute professional. Honda signed Stanton for the '89 season, and he was right there, ready and waiting, when Johnson suffered his unlucky break. Stanton would clinch the title early, and then go on to win both the 250 outdoor titles as well as the Motocross of Nations with Team USA.
The following year Stanton was met by not one but two new rivals. First, Damon Bradshaw had graduated from the 125 class and was considered an immediate threat in AMA Supercross. Second, Jean-Michel Bayle had moved to America from France full time, and he would be an even closer threat—he was Stanton's new Honda teammate! For the next three years these three—Stanton, Bradshaw, and Bayle—would go through a lot together. Stanton would win again in '90, both SX and MX, but then he would lose both in '91 to JMB, and then re-emerged as a double-champion again in 1992, winning the SX title in dramatic fashion at the Los Angeles Coliseum finale. The odd-man-out was Bradshaw, who never won a major title due to a mixture of bad luck and pressure. Ironically, to this day, Stanton and Bradshaw remain close friends, and even Jean-Michel and Stanton get along!
Jean-Michel Bayle (1991): The enigmatic one. By the time Jean-Michel Bayle lined up for his first AMA Supercross in 1989 at Anaheim, he was well-known in Europe—he was the 125cc World Champion and many considered to be the future dominant frontrunner in Grand Prix motocross. But JMB had his eyes squarely on America, to the point where he came over on his own, with help from Roger De Coster and Mitch Payton, to try SX and one outdoor national—the fateful Gatorback '89—and then went back to the 250cc Grand Prix tour. Bayle steadily improved in this first five SX rounds in '89, going from last at Anaheim after crashing off the start, to second at Miami behind only Johnson. And then he went to Gatorback and won the 250 National! He then went back to Europe, dominated the 250 GPs, and then came back to the U.S. at the end of the season and won the Unadilla 500 National. But this time he was here to stay.
In the '90 AMA Supercross Championship it took Bayle a little while to get up to winning speed. He finally reached the winner's circle at the seventh round in Dallas. Then he went on his first tear, winning four more before ultimately settling for second to Stanton in the final standings, just seven points down. Bayle also rode the 125 National in '90 and almost certainly would have won that title, but he broke his arm in the whoops at Washougal and that was that.
Then came 1991 and one of the single greatest seasons any rider has ever had in AMA SX/MX. Bayle won the AMA Supercross Championship, then added the 250 Pro Motocross and 500 Pro Motocross Championships, marking the one and only time a rider swept three AMA titles in the same season (though one could argue that Bob Hannah did it in '78 when he won the AMA Supercross and 250 Pro Motocross titles, then added the Trans-AMA title in the fall).
No sooner had Jean-Michel Bayle had that amazing three-championship season than he shocked the world by announcing he would soon quit and take up road racing, which he did at the end of a lackluster '92 season where he really didn't want to be on dirt bikes anymore—his masterpiece was complete.
Jeremy McGrath (1993, '94, '95, '96): Speaking of masterpieces, next for Team Honda came Jeremy McGrath. A BMXer-turned-motocrosser from Sun City, California, McGrath had a particular skill for supercross. He went from a 15-year-old Novice class winner at the ’87 AMA Amateur National Motocross Championship at Loretta Lynn’s Ranch to winning the '90 125cc Las Vegas SX main event on a Team Green Kawasaki KX125. That caught the eye of Mitch Payton, who was just building out his first Honda satellite team, the PEAK Anti-Freeze/Pro Circuit team. McGrath dominated the 125 West Region the next two years. By the time he moved up to a 250 in 1993, he was already considered the best 125cc Supercross racer yet to emerge.
For the first two rounds of the '93 AMA Supercross Championship, McGrath was just inside the top five. But then at the third round at Anaheim, McGrath went off, passing three-time champion Stanton for the lead and never looking back—for four years! From '93 through '96 McGrath just got better and better, both indoors and out. He was stuck riding a 125 in '93, even while taking over supercross, and he actually won the opening round at Gatorback. But supercross was where he really excelled, and over the next three seasons he would break every record there was—wins, titles, laps led, everything. His nac-nac maneuver became his signature move, and arguably ushered in the entire freestyle motocross movement. He was also the first true mainstream star the sport ever had.
In 1996 McGrath was just one win away from the perfect season, winning the first 13 races in a row before his rival Jeff Emig finally stopped him at the next-to-last round at St. Louis. But the following week Jeremy picked it right back up, winning Denver to cap the single most dominant AMA Supercross Championship of all time (with a nod to Jimmy Ellis, who won every round in 1975, but it was only a four-race series). Here's the thing: That Denver '96 race would mark the last time a Honda would wear #1 in the premier class on AMA Supercross because he would split with Honda for the following season, taking his #1 to Suzuki, and when Ricky Carmichael came along and won his titles, he always wore #4 once he was champion. (Bookmark this for future silly season conversations.)
Jeremy McGrath lost his title to Emig in '97, then switched to Yamaha and added three more titles in '98-'00, adding to both his title record and wins record—7 and 72—when he was all done. But he had one more Honda moment to come: In 2006 he temporarily came out of retirement to race a Honda CR250 (two-stroke). At the Phoenix SX he somehow got the holeshot against a field of mostly 450cc four-strokes, and when he got to the first triple jump he threw out a huge nac-nac. That was the swan song for 250cc two-strokes in AMA Supercross, and it was only fitting that the last man to lead a main event aboard one was Jeremy McGrath, the King of Supercross.
Ricky Carmichael (2002, '03): After winning seven of eight AMA Supercross crowns from 1993 to 2000, Jeremy McGrath was usurped by Kawasaki rider Ricky Carmichael in 2001. Carmichael had been working for years to finally get to the top of the AMA Supercross world, and his battles to start the '01 title duel with McGrath were among some of the all-time great races in the series. But after a 2-2 split in the first four rounds, Carmichael took off and won the last 13 rounds in a row, clinching the title and ending Jeremy's reign. It wasn't altogether unexpected—Carmichael was deemed the heir-apparent after all of the success he had an a 125, which carried over to the 250, at first just outdoors. But once he was on top Carmichael did something truly unexpected—he left Kawasaki and signed with Team Honda for 2002 and beyond.
Carmichael's time as a Red Rider got off to a rocky start. At the season-ending '01 U.S. Open of Supercross in Las Vegas he was soundly booed. And then at the '02 season-opener at Anaheim he crashed out of the main event, putting himself in a 25-point hole to start his title defense. Wearing his #4 rather than the #1 he earned, Carmichael got to work, digging himself out and started winning at the fourth round. From there he won 9 of 11 rounds and kept the title, as well as the #1 plate he was not wearing.
In 2003 he repeated, though he was not quite so dominant, as Australia's Chad Reed was beginning to blossom as a top supercross rider in his own right.
That fall Carmichael was getting ready to go for a third straight title on the Honda CR250 when he crashed hard at his track in Tallahassee called The Farm and suffered a serious knee injury, knocking him out of the '04 AMA Supercross Championship. And then during the downtime that followed, he and Honda were unable to come to terms. Then he shocked the industry for a second time, leaving Honda for Suzuki. Little did anyone realize that the '03 SX title was the last one Honda would win in the premier class of AMA Supercross for the next two decades—the Curse of the GOAT!
One thing about Carmichael's time with Honda. From 2002 through the summer of 2004 (after he returned from that knee injury) Ricky had TWO perfect seasons in AMA Pro Motocross, winning all 12 rounds and all 24 motos in both '02 and '04. And in 2003 he won 9 of 11 nationals (Factory Connection Honda's Kevin Windham beat him at Unadilla and Washougal). Add it all up—three 250 Pro Motocross titles (the last of which was on a CRF450) 33 wins in 35 starts and two close runner-up rides, plus those two AMA Supercross titles and 18 main event wins, Ricky Carmichael's two-and-a-half seasons and five straight titles with Team Honda must be the most fruitful partnership in the history of motocross.