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By this point, the event was also getting a reputation for its rowdy fans, who developed a penchant for setting bonfires and pushing cars into the pond across Route 8. At the 1980 Winter Olympic Games at nearby Lake Placid, an upstart U.S. hockey team beat the mighty Soviets, inspiring chants of “USA! USA! USA!” that reverberate around our international sporting events to this day. After another Howerton win in 1980, the Europeans seemed to find special motivation for the next two years at ’Dilla. First, British rider Neil Hudson won in ’81, and then Dutch rider Kees Van der Ven upset everyone in ’82—including the soon-to-be “first American” 250cc World Champion Danny Laporte of California. Regardless, the ’82 race would mark two things in the sport’s history: it was the first major win for a KTM on U.S. soil, as well as the last time a foreign rider would win the 250cc USGP at Unadilla.
Throughout the eighties, the Americans dominated Unadilla, and the U.S.-vs.-them vibe began to wane as a result. Other storylines began to take their place, including the time Danny “Magoo” Chandler rode his bike backward across the finish line to protest the AMA, Bob Hannah’s ongoing frustration at not being able to win the USGP (which he finally did in ’86 after leader Johnny O’Mara ran out of gas), and Unadilla itself being awarded the 1987 FIM Motocross of Nations, which the Americans of course won. By ’89, the Robinsons were beginning to think that maybe it was time to park the USGP and join the AMA Pro Motocross schedule instead, to which the FIM offered a compromise: they were finally allowed to host both the USGP and an AMA national later that fall.
The ’89 USGP race was a huge one for Rick Johnson. After having broken his wrist at the outdoor opener in the spring, ending a dominant run in AMA Supercross that almost certainly would have earned him a third title, he returned to action the week before the USGP at Unadilla and finished third. At the USGP he would be facing the man already being heralded as his future replacement at Team Honda, Frenchman Jean-Michel Bayle, who was leading the 250cc FIM World Championship that year but had already signed to race for Honda in America the following year. Hannah was also there, having announced that the ’89 USGP would mark his retirement from the sport.
With the added intrigue of Johnson vs. JMB, the ’89 race was maybe the last of the epic American-vs.-European battles that made the USGP so special. It would also mark Bayle’s first time being the target of the nationalistic insults of partisan announcer Maiers, a close friend of Hannah’s; such jingoism would only get worse in the years to come as Bayle rose to the top in America. But on this day, it was Johnson who was best, winning both motos in a return to form.
“I proved a point,” Johnson exclaimed. “I ain’t dead yet.”
Afterward, as Hannah was taking a farewell parade lap to say goodbye to the ’Dilla faithful, Johnson, heir-apparent to the favorite son, joined him. Both were mobbed by the fans as they finished the lap.
“I said if I got 15th and walked off drinking a beer, I’d be happy,” said the 32-year-old Hannah, who finished ninth overall. “You guys treated me great. You’re not losing a king, since a new one has stepped in—Rick Johnson.”
Few might have guessed that neither Hannah nor Johnson would ever race the USGP at Unadilla again. Johnson’s wrist would never fully heal, and he would injure it again in August. Within 18 months he would announce his retirement. As for the ’89 Unadilla 500 National that October, in a preview of what was to come, Jean-Michel Bayle came back across the pond and won.
As for the next “king of Unadilla,” he would introduce himself in a unique way on the same July ’89 day that Hannah and RJ were taking their bows. Jeff Stanton, Johnson’s Honda teammate, had already stepped in to win both the ’89 AMA Supercross and AMA 250 Pro Motocross titles after Johnson’s broken wrist. RJ was obviously back by July and hoping to once again lead Team USA later that year at the MXdN. It was already a given that Team USA mainstay Jeff Ward of Team Kawasaki would ride the other big bike there, so Stanton decided to show Team USA manager De Coster that he would gladly ride the 125 for the team. Stanton had never raced one as a professional, so he decided to enter the 125cc support class race at the ’89 USGP at Unadilla to prove himself.
What ensued was one of the greatest races that hardly anyone has ever seen, as Stanton went up against such outstanding younger one-two-five heroes as Damon Bradshaw, Mike Kiedrowski, Larry Ward, and Denny Stephenson. Stanton swept both motos to show his worth on a 125, but after Johnson got injured again, he went to West Germany for Team USA on a 250 alongside Ward (500) and fellow Team USA rookie Kiedrowski (125). They dominated.
By this point, the event was getting a reputation for its rowdy fans, who developed a penchant for setting bonfires and pushing cars into the pond across Route 8.
Stanton would return to Unadilla for each of the next three years to race the 250 USGP, and he won all three. And while he was winning each of his cameo appearances on the world stage, other lesser-known Americans like Trampas Parker, Bob Moore, Mike Healey, and Donny Schmit had become an expat force of their own in Europe. Schmit famously crashed at the ’92 USGP in practice, and medics thought he had fractured his neck, so they sent him in an ambulance to a nearby hospital rather than the starting gate. X-rays proved negative, and series points leader Schmit hustled back to the track in time the for the last moto. He finished second to Stanton, then went on to win the world title.
The combined heroics of Jeff Stanton and Donny Schmit in 1992 marked the end of an era for the 250cc USGP. The appeal of international competition had waned not only for AMA-based riders but for the promoter Robinson as well. When the time came to commit for 1993, Unadilla opted out, and the 250cc U.S. Grand Prix moved south to Budds Creek, Maryland. For every year that followed—up until 2020, anyway—Unadilla was one of the premier rounds of Lucas Oil Pro Motocross. Thankfully, ’Dilla is back, and its rich motocross history continues.