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                                                    By Warren Reid

          

                                                                                                                                                      Photo courtesy of FMF

                                  

   The 1976 125 Nationals were now going into the third year of existence.  A little history about the 125 Nationals will help to understand how the 1976 125 National series came to be what it did.  Marty Smith won the inaugural series in 1974 and Honda sold THOUSANDS of motorcycles because of it.  Honda dominated that series with factory riders Marty Smith, Bruce McDougal, Chuck Bower, and Mickey Boone finishing 1-2-3-4.  Think about this.  One team has their entire team beat everybody else and dominate so completely.  This is the only time one factory team has done this.  Honda Team Manager Dennis Blanton found that 1974 Team by going to local CMC races in 1973 and picking the three fastest guys.  Mickey Boone was recommended by a local Honda dealer in North Carolina and had done well at the 1973 (unofficial) 125 Grand-Prix in St. Louis Missouri.  I think Jimmy Ellis and Tim Hart each won a round of the 1974 series, but due to Ellis competing in the 250 Nationals on the same day as some of the 125 races and Tim Hart breaking his wrist at Hangtown, they did not finish high in that series.

   One thing that became obvious in the first 125 National series and continued for years, was the dominance of the California riders and particularly the So. Cal. riders.  A quick look at the top ten in the 125 Nationals from 1974 through the 1980's, reflects this dominance.  What made So. Cal. such a hot bed of 125 talent? Lifestyle, weather, high population, and entrepreneurial spirits are just some of the circumstances.  The popularity of mini bikes in the 1960's was a big part as was the huge number of "city folk" who visited and camped in the desert of South Eastern California.  Literally ten's of thousands of kids rode their mini bikes in the fields or in the desert of Southern California.  Motocross took off in California in the 1960's.  By the early 1970's, many of those early converts to motocross started tuning the 125 and all those kids who rode mini bikes in the 1960's, were now teenagers and buying those 125's.

   E.C. Birt and his prodigy Donnie Emler were some of the first tuners of merit.  When Honda in 1973 and then Yamaha and Suzuki in 1974 and 1975 got serious about building competitive 125 motocross bikes, the number of 125 tuners grew exponentially.  There were so many bikes sold, that all of the tuners had lots of work and riders had sponsorships.  The competitiveness of the So. Cal. scene grew because of it and there were so many tracks that you could race Tuesday through Sunday.  You also had more than one choice of where to race and which club to ride with on many of those day and night races.  CMC was the club with the most clout, the most money races and hence, the most riders.  In 1974 and '75 you could expect to see all of these world caliber riders on the starting line of the 125 Pro Class at a CMC race: Marty Smith, Bob Hannah, Mike Bell, Danny LaPorte, Tim Hart, Tommy Croft, Broc Glover, Danny Turner, Bruce McDougal, Chuck Bower, Ron Turner, Me, Jeff Jenning's and a lot of other guys whom you never heard of but were really, really fast.  The 1974 Nationals were just a National version of the So. Cal. 125 scene.

   When the 1975 season took place, Marty Smith and Honda totally dominated the season winning both moto's at the final six Nationals for what was a long standing record of 12 moto wins in a row.  Tim Hart on a Yamaha won the Hangtown National but could not match Smith's speed at the final six rounds and in fact, was surpassed in speed by Danny Turner on the T&M Honda but held on for second.  Despite this, Yamaha let Tim go and also Bruce McDougal.  They hired Danny Turner and (unknown outside of So. Cal.) Bob Hannah.

   I had never seen Bob Hannah race (ever) at all until I saw him on a Husky in early 1975 at Saddleback running in the 250 Pro top five.  He was wild to say the least and how he stayed attached to that bike was a mystery.  He just flapped in the breeze behind the handlebars.  That said, he did not crash much during this time or in his Pro career.  Many riders with fluid and controlled styles, crashed more than Hannah. His break came when Suzuki introduced their new RM125's at Saddleback one day in early '75.  They had about twenty of them and offered them to any Pro who wanted to try.  Only middle of the pack Pro's and riders who normally rode 250's stepped up.  It was a CMC $1000.00 purse day so there were about 40 125 Pro's.  Bob Hannah rode one of the Suzuki's and got third in the 125 Pro class.  Suzuki then made him a test rider and he dominated two classes every Sunday throughout 1975 on the local scene.  He did ride a Yamaha at the final two 125 Nationals for DG, placing well at San Antonio and passing out in the heat at New Orleans.  How Suzuki let him go to Yamaha for 1976 is a mystery.

   Marty Smith had become so popular winning those first two Championships that Honda was feeling pretty good going into the 1976 season. Smith had also done well in the 1975 500 Trans-AM series against the best in the world.  Honda, with new manager Terry Mulligan, was feeling so good they didn't even hire a 125 teammate for Smith.  They had hoped that Honda privateers would be support enough.  Myself, Broc Glover, Don Kudalski and Steve Wise partway into the season, would have to help hold up the Honda banner by proxi.  As you know, Honda decided to have Smith compete in both the 125 Nationals and the European based 125 GP's. A pretty tall order.

   After Suzuki lost Hannah, they hired two riders unknown outside of California to team up with Billy Grossi.  There names were Danny LaPorte and Jeff Jennings (Mike Bell's cousin by the way).  The Tune Up shops got serious for the 1976 125 Nationals for the first time too.  DG, FMF, and T&M were noteworthy.  Even with all these established and new riders coming on the National scene, everybody knew that Marty Smith would kill 'em all in the 1976 season.  Not believing the general consensus motivated us all.

              

   

   For 1976, the original Hangtown course in Plymouth California, again hosted the opening National of the season.  Hangtown has been held at the current location since 1979.  The original course was great. It has deep sand and is fast and rough.  It is a lot like the old Southwick layout.  A quick tidbit.....In 1974 Hangtown hosted the 125, 250 and 500 National on one day.  The 125 class did 3 20 minute + 2 lap motos too.

   It was exciting at Hangtown in 1976 for the 125's.  A lot of riders with National experience and a bunch of new riders.  Everybody expected a lot from Danny Turner who had a new Yamaha factory ride and he hailed from nearby Placerville (Hangtown was the historic name of Placerville and it was in the gold mining days that so many dudes got hung there) and that's how this race got it's name.  Of course Danny was teamed with Bob Hannah who a lot of folks had finally heard of since he had beaten Steve Stackable at the 1976 Florida Winter Series.  If you can beat Stackable in the Florida sand, you could do well at Hangtown.  The "in the know"  folks knew he would be fast.  Suzuki had moved Billy Grossi down to the 125 class.  He had battled down to the final race for the '75 500 National title and had won a 500 National that year.  He had also won the 250 National here at Hangtown in 1974 for Honda before breaking his leg later in that season.  Everybody from California knew Danny LaPorte and Jeff Jennings who were the two new Suzuki riders.  They would all be tough.  The 1976 Hangtown round was also the first time any of us had seen a kid named Danny Chandler.  He showed up on a KTM 125 and held that piece of shit WIDE OPEN while using the entire width of the track.  If the course was 2 miles long, he went 2 1/2.  It was impressive though.  I found out years later that his father and my Nor-Cal cousins from my real Dad's twin sister were very good friends and another cousin from my Dad's older brother was a maid of honor at his wedding. It's a small world.....

   My Step-Dad, Jon R who had been Marty Smith's mechanic for '74 and '75 was going to Europe for Smith's assault on the 125 GP's against defending champ Gaston Rahier.  Dave Arnold would be taking on the mechanic duties on the Nationals for 1976.  Hangtown was the only race of the season that I got Jon R help preparing my bikes for the races.  After this race, he was off to Europe and our house was Fatherless and mechanic-less for the rest of the season.  I got to spend some time with my real Father in Florida for a while during a short summer break in the Nationals, so I was exposed to some mature male guidance at least part of the time, rather than just on weekends.  I was 17 and graduating in June. Don Emler and FMF had me supplied with the fastest stuff and made sure that things were good at the races.  I got a bunch of holeshots during the season.  I did the complete bike prep every week between Nationals at a friend's house or at a hotel.  I had learned from Jon R and could do complete rebuilds, but Jon R was the best. I had to take a full curriculum at school, test (by myself), train, practice, prepare for a summer away at the Nationals, graduate and do all of the work on my race and practice bikes.  The woman who is now my wife, made me go to the prom the night before a local race.  That's OK, I got her to marry me. Four years of dating, 26+ years of marriage and three kids now grown.

   The first race of the year has high expectations for the favorites and hopefulness with a lot of rookies.  Hangtown '76 was no different.  As many of you know, Hannah won both motos.  He was fast and the Yamaha's were fast.  The Suzuki's were fast too.  LaPorte broke the front end off his Suzuki in the second moto I think and got knocked out.  Smith also broke after getting passed by Hannah in the second moto.  Honda knew after the first moto that they were in trouble and in big trouble after breaking in the second moto.  Because of my close relationship with Honda through Jon R and my factory support from them as well as my friendship with Marty Smith, I had an acute awareness of the mood around Marty during the 1976 season.  The mood that I was most aware of though, was this instant preception of the changing of the guard with so many people, especially the press.  The Hangtown coverage in Motocross Action, I felt for example, was very one sided in favor of Bob Hannah. "Smith gets smoked" I think is one quote I remember.  Marty could feel that perception from others I think, although his championship attitude never wavered as evidenced by his dominance at the 125 GP at Mid-Ohio.  Regardless of the results of the rest of the season, Marty was doggedly determined but increasingly frustrated as the season progressed.  A lot of the riders were very fast, but the entire 1976 season was just Smith vs. Hannah.  Period.  The rest of us were working to place and get or keep a factory ride.

   Others have iterated but I want folks to just think of the magnitude of trying to beat two men in two different series on two different continents and both of these men would be acknowledged to be among the best there has ever been.  Bob Hannah and Gaston Rahier are legends and what Marty attempted has never been attempted to this day.  He got 2nd in the US and 3rd in the GP's without doing the whole season due to conflicts with the Nationals.  Also, traveling in Europe back then is nothing like now.  It was before the fall of the Iron Curtian and the advent of the European Union with a common currency.  Every border crossing was harder than it is for an illegal to cross into this country now.  Every language was different and you had to exchange currencies in each country.  Marty told me on numerous occasions how much he hated traveling to Europe and in Europe.  He liked the people, but not the environment.  He liked to practice on his motorcycle everyday and play with his toys.   Marty kept, and I would say still keeps all of his stuff immaculate. Cars, vans, mini bikes, dune buggies, everything.  He liked to go out to a good restaurant near the race hotels and get a meal.  He liked to hang out with his buddies and get ice cream.  That way of living is his personality and is what seemed to keep him in the right frame of mind for racing.  You couldn't do that in Europe back then.  There were no Baskin Robbin's and none of his buddies and none to find because Marty was on the plane after each race.  If it wasn't traveling to Europe with his then girlfriend and now wife Nancy, he would have gone nuts.  Jon R is a good travel mate, but when you are 19 years old, you need your girl or your buds.

   Bob Hannah was, and still seems, close to a small circle of people.  He was very intense in his racing environment and guarded around strangers.  He could let go with his friends, but that group was always small and loyal.  He was happy and fun but not a lot of people saw it.  Bob was one of the toughest motocross competitors ever.  He showed up at Hangtown ready to race.  That was obvious.  I have to admit that it was frustrating to a lot of us So. Cal. riders, that a guy could go from racing his first local Pro race in early '75 on a stock Husky and then dominate the Nationals in less than a year.  In hindsight, his success was just a testament to Bob's natural talent, dedication and highly competitive nature.  Bob went to the front very fast at every race in the 1976 125 Nationals.  He and Bill Buchka were a good team.  They had similar personalities and dedication to winning that gelled well.  Yamaha also had great bikes.  I would tell you more about Bob's season, but I was trying to beat him and was not within his small circle of friends to know more about his season.  I think he did back it down in the second to last race at Rio Bravo to wrap up the championship.  He was not known for backing it down.

   The claiming attempt by former Honda factory rider Mickey Boone upset Hannah's momentum after Red-Bud.  It also upset the momentum of all the factory riders and a bunch of factory supported riders.  Every factory had a bunch of checks made out in the amount of a claim and if their "works" bike got claimed, they would have their team riders and support riders hang around the AMA trailer until the claiming period ended.  If the bike got claimed, we would also file a counter claim and try to dilute the chance of the claimant getting the bike.  I spent every post race near the AMA trailer to help Honda.  What a pain in the ass.  Mickey Boone was my friend.  I understand why he did it but that doesn't mean that I liked it.  I had better things to do than hang around an AMA trailer after the races for any reason other than to pick up my money.

   By about halfway through the season, the field had dwindled. Billy Grossi got appendicitis and couldn't finish the season.  My friend Danny Turner had a terrible season and couldn't seem to get going, then he had a broken bone and a mysterious stomach ailment.  Danny and I had become good friends the year before traveling to a lot of the races together.  Jeff Jennings disappeared and even though he was a So. Cal. rider like me, I had no idea where he went.  Danny LaPorte started to come alive late in the season as did Steve Wise and Broc Glover.  These guys each won a moto.  Wise won the overall at Keyser's Ridge and was always a threat.  I had a good time with Steve that year and we got to be lifelong friends.  We still talk via. Email a couple times a month.  In the early 80's his mechanic on the Honda Road Race team used to stay at my house in Southern California when he was working at the nearby Honda plant.  That mechanic, Paul Turner went on to co-found Rock Shox  MTB suspension with Steve Simon of Simon's forks fame.

   LaPorte had been creeping up on the Hannah/Smith speedwagon as the season progressed as did Glover.  You could tell that LaPorte and Glover were gaining confidence every race.  LaPorte won the overall at Rio Bravo after Glover won the first moto and Bob and Marty had championships to win or surrender.  LaPorte won again at New Orleans after Bob and Marty took each other out at the end of the second moto. ( I remember Marty saying after the moto, he asked Bob to "get off of my bike".  Apparently Bob was standing on it while trying to start his bike after the crash.  It sounded more like an etiquette issue than a Mike Alessi thing.  Check with Bob and Marty about it though).  LaPorte went by the two on the ground to win the moto and the overall.  He was ready to win though as he would later prove in 1977.  LaPorte's riding changed in the fall of '76 under the tutelage of Roger DeCoster and their styles looked identical for a while.  Wise, LaPorte, Glover and I were the race behind the Hannah/Smith show.  Of the top guys in 1976, only Wise was not from CMC racing in So. Cal.  Don Kudalski out of Florida was a surprise.  He was known before that year as "Rokon Don".   He was the only guy I can remember who did anything on an automatic transmission Rokon.  He got on a Honda by the summer of 1975 and went on to beat Hannah at the sand track of Midland Michigan.  He flat hauled in the sand.  We were buddies, but the 1975 Honda Team Manager, Dennis Blanton had told me before the start of the 1976 season that there would be a works type 1 Honda 250 available for the Trans-AM series.  I knew that if I wanted to ride that bike, I needed to do good in the National series.  Kudalski was a threat to me to get that bike.  I put a number on his back. He was my friend, I liked him and I hung out with him.  I had to beat him.  Luckily there were no more sand tracks after Michigan.

   I traveled the last three Nationals to San Antonio, Rio Bravo and New Orleans with Dave Arnold, Marty Smith's mechanic in a rented Leaseway Ford van with a 16 foot trailer.  Remember the Honda truck had gotten crashed at Mid-Ohio and I had refused to drive with the driver that FMF hired to drive the FMF truck.  I had blown up the FMF truck early in the season on the way to Red-Bud Michigan and Emler, probably rightly so, thought it better to have someone over 18 to be responsible for the truck.  When the dude drove to Maryland from Southern California in 50 hours by himself, I knew there was a drug issue.  To quote a music lyric written by Kris Kristoferson "Give me weed, whites and wiiiiine........and show me a sign" seemed to be his motto.  I was scared to death.    Anyway, Dave and I had a good time and were good traveling partners.  Dave was always a cool guy and easy to get along with.  He and Marty were a good match too.  Both had easy going ways and complementary personalities.  During our travels those last three weeks, as it became doubtful with each passing week that Hannah would surrender enough points to let Marty back into the hunt and  Dave seemed to resign himself to that finality.  A funny incident happened at the hotel in New Orleans during the week before the last race.  A little black kid came up to us in the parking lot where we were working on the bikes.  He walks up and says, "Ha' youuuu seeeeen a blaaaaack bike?  I was smimmin' in da' poo' at the hotee and I come out dapoo' an' my blaaack bike is gooowun". We told the kid we saw the hotel manager pushing a bike around the corner and it must have been his.  He accepted this and then hung around and checked out what we were doing.  In those days, many parts of the country had never heard of MX.  He asked a bunch of questions and was a cool little kid.  He did eventually got his bike back. For years Dave and I would greet each other with a "Ha' yo' seeen a blaaack bike?" instead of a "How ya' doin'?"  I promise you he will laugh when he reads this.

   In retrospect, the 1976 125 Nationals was a great season.  The top 5 guys are all in the MXA hall of fame.  Has that ever happened since?  Maybe in the old 250 Supercross series where everybody rode 250's and there wasn't a 125/Lites SX class.

   I still speak with those top 5 guys every so often.  Marty was very helpful to me in 1974 after he came to Honda. He would take me to the races around California once in a while and let me stay and practice with him.  He taught me how to practice. Wide open for a long time on a difficult track.  I think that Marty was one of the best cornering riders that ever lived and had a jumping style years ahead of his time.  He kept the bike level all the time on every surface even with 8 awful inches of travel.  Bob is, I think, one of the greatest self motivated competitors in the history of the sport.  He was fast because of his competitiveness and balance.  He was not a pretty rider, but his style was beautiful in it's aggressiveness and tenacity.  He would have found a way to beat Johnson, Stanton, McGrath, and Carmichael in their primes.  Maybe not all the time, but they wouldn't dominate and would be forced to hang it out more than they did and we all know what happens then.  He rode like Stewart does now but without hitting the ground.  Danny LaPorte became the first US rider to ride as precisely as DeCoster, even before he knew him.  He was very strong too which helped him to later win a 500 title and a World Championship.  LaPorte was the first rider I saw control the trajectory of the bike off of jumps.  Steve Wise was a great all around rider.  He was fast on any surface and that talent obviously helped him to win in Supercross, 125 Nationals, 250 Nationals and a Road Race National.  He was a bull sometimes but smooth even so.  He was also one of the hardest to move out of a berm.  I didn't bother trying.  Broc Glover was probably the best mix of talent, style and determination of any rider.  I still believe he had the best all around technique of any rider ever.  A kid coming up would do well to emulate that technique.  Low center of gravity, elbows up but not exaggerated, forward cornering position, a spine kept close to level to the ground and curved all the time for protection of impacts.  This base position also limited the effect of his core position on the bike when the bike hit obstacles, keeping him in control.  6 National titles and no serious injuries enforce my opinion.

   I also still value the support of FMF and Don Emler.  My first job was welding pipes for FMF.  I got pretty good and learned to make a pipe from scratch and to any shape.  I couldn't do it now without a lot of practice.  Everybody at FMF was so helpful and cared about my finishes.  I made many friendships from my association with FMF.  Bob Oliver who worked with Ricky Johnson and myself is still at Yamaha and Cliff Lett who also worked with Ron Lechien and Rick Johnson at Yamaha and then to Associated R/C Cars where he won a National Championship.  I still feel a sense of pride to this day, when I see an FMF sticker on the back of a truck or an FMF logo on a T-Shirt some kid is wearing.  Just last year I started a conversation with a lady at a soccer game who had an FMF umbrella.  I was pumped to be in the 2006 FMF calendar (Twice).  One of the photos is with LaPorte at the 125 GP in 1976.  It is gratifying to see FMF still so strong in the industry today.  Most of all for me though, 1976 was a pivotal year in my life because of my family.  In 1970, my mom, divorced with two boys, sold her car, bought herself a dirt bike and a truck and would take me and my brother riding on weekends with other folks.  No baseball, no piano lessons, no fear of "what if I get hurt or my kids get hurt?"  Just fun in the mountains and the desert.  She would not let me race but occasionally and would not let me hop up my bike.  It took me years to understand the benefit of her reasoning. In hindsight, it made my hungry.  We had fun and met great people riding for the next 3 years including Dennis Blanton of Team Honda.  He is the guy who hired Marty Smith.  He bought me my first real race bike in 1973 and took me racing around So. Cal.  A little after that is also when my mom and Jon R got hitched. 

    Fast forward to the 1976 season.  My mom lets me go to the Red Bud and Midland Michigan 125 Nationals with a friend in my van.  I am 17 years old. I got to the rest of the Nationals with FMF or with Dave Arnold.  Jon R was not at any of the races.  But even still.  How many mothers would not have panic attacks with just the thought of sending their kids alone across the country for months at a time?  No Cell Phones.  Redneck cops in every podunk town who didn't like hippies then and really didn't like long blond haired California punks with them Dirt Bikes.  She let me go, and I am sure with much trepidation, with just a gas card and handful of Travelers Checks.  I lived on my winnings though.  I learned responsibility, money management, conflict avoidance, technical skills, navigation, and how to sustain a relationship with my girl from far away.  I did OK though and after Jon R got home from Europe, we went after the 250 Trans Am series and I earned my factory ride with Honda.  My mom gave me the gift of freedom to achieve instead of the protection from failure that often results in a lifetime of mediocrity.   1976 was the year it all came together and set the course for the rest of my life.

      "1976........................It was a very good year"