By Davey Coombs
AlliSports.com and Racer X Online are counting down the days to the start of the 2011 Lucas Oil AMA Pro Motocross Championship, which will mark the 40th year of the American motocross circuit. We were forty days out when we started, which gave us a nice round number to begin our countdown at the series' first year, 1972. Today, we bring you another crucial season, 1976.
The Hurricane himself, Bob Hannah, came into 1976 unknown. That would not last long.
The Inter-Am Series was dead, the Trans-AMAs still flourished, AMA Supercross was growing, and so were the AMA Motocross Championships. But the story of 1976 really starts with the Florida Winter-AMA Series. Yamaha Motors Corp. had hired a pair of relatively unknown racers in the high desert’s Bob Hannah and Oregon's Rick Burgett as they got serious about their motocross efforts. Hannah dominated the still-relevant winter tour on his #39 Yamaha, leading Cycle News beat reporter Jimmy “The Greek” Gianatsis to dub the relatively unknown wild child “Hurricane.” Burgett did not come off so well; he was “The Lumberjack” based on his Northwestern upbringing.
Hannah really was wild, but he was also extremely fast and hardworking, and nothing and no one intimidated him. And when the 125 National started at Hangtown at the old Plymouth track in NorCal, he went right at established favorite Marty Smith and put a whipping on the #1 Honda factory rider. Hannah so dominated the proceedings that Smith never really recovered—not that he had time to. Honda had enlisted Smith to race in both AMA Motocross and the 125cc Grand Prix tour in Europe against the established Belgian hero Gaston Rahier. The travel back and forth, not to mention inconsistent bikes—Hannah's OW Yamaha was better than the bike Smith rode, though Honda had a decent Type II RC125, but they were afraid it would get “claimed” by another rider (namely Mickey Boone) and all of their factory secrets would go with it.
Marty Smith's reign as the top U.S. 125 rider ended in 1976 without a single outdoor national win.
So Smith struggled with the travel scheduling, the changing equipment, and mostly with this new force of nature known as The Hurricane. He did not win a single national along the way, and Hannah would claim Yamaha's first title in the division. But two names did pop up in the win column: privateer Honda rider Steve Wise, who decamped from Kawasaki because their 125 just wasn't right for him, topped the Appalachian Highlands National at Keyer's Ridge, Maryland; and another desert rat named Danny LaPorte took the last two rounds on his Suzuki.
Danny LaPorte had a breakout year for Suzuki, winning the last two 125 Nationals.
As for Smith, his only wins in '76 came at the Danish 125 GP and the USGP at Mid-Ohio, where he rode Honda's best bike without fear of claiming in an FIM race. But that was it for Smith—he would get his revenge on Hannah one year later in a different class.
America was celebrating its 200th birthday in 1976
In the 250 class, Tony D. would rack up a second straight title for Suzuki, battling back the likes of Jimmy Weinert, Jimmy Ellis, Hannah, and more to earn his second straight title there.
And in the 500cc class, Kent Howerton withstood a fierce late charge by former Husky teammate Gary Semics to take the title—what turned out to be the once-proud Swedish brand's final AMA Motocross title.
From former 125 National regular Jeff Greenburg: “Here is one of Werner Straub's pics you could maybe use for your 1976 piece. I'm sure Werner would love it.... That's me sliding out the front end! We sent this to Warren [Reid] and he has it up on his Facebook.”
Look closely at this Werner Straub photo and you will see Warren Reid (20) and a falling Jeff Greenberg
The real story, though, was the emergence of Hannah, who would also go straight at Roger DeCoster in that fall's Trans-AMA Seres. He set the stage for a career that would change the sport forever, beginning with the next year's dominance. More about that tomorrow.
1976 250cc AMA Motocross Championship
4/4 - Plymouth, CA - Jim Ellis (E. Hampton, CT; Can-Am)
4/11 - Phoenix, AZ - Jim Weinert (Middletown, NY; Kaw)
4/25 - Houston, TX - Tony DiStefano (Morrisville, PA; Suz)
5/2 - Forsyth, GA - Jim Weinert (Middletown, NY; Kaw)
5/16 - Keysers Ridge, MD - Bob Hannah (Whittier, CA; Yam)
5/23 - Allentown, PA - Jim Weinert (Laguna Beach, CA; Kaw)
6/6 - Southwick, MA - Pierre Karsmakers (Holland; Hon)
1976 250cc National Point Standings
1. Tony DiStefano, Morrisville, PA - 291
2. Jim Weinert, Middloetown, NY - 236
3. Steve Stackable, Austin, TX - 204
4. Kent Howerton, San Antonio, TX - 187
5. Gary Semics, Lisbon, OH - 177
6. Bob Hannah, Whittier, CA - 175
7. Rick Burgett, Sandy, OR - 173
8. Jim Ellis, East Hampton, CT - 154
9. Gaylon Mosier, Huntington Beach, CA - 128
10. Rich Eierstedt, Norwalk, CA - 115
1976 500cc AMA Motocross Championship
5/30 - Mexico, NY - Kent Howerton (San Antonio, TX; Hus)
6/13 - Axton, VA - Kent Howerton (San Antonio, TX; Hus)
7/18 - St. Peters, MO - Pierre Karsmakers (Holland; Hon)
8/1 - New Berlin, NY - Steve Stackable (Austin, TX; Suz)
8/15 - New Castle, KY - Gary Semics (Lisbon, OH; Kaw)
8/22 - St. Petersburg, FL - Gary Semics (Lisbon, OH; Kaw)
8/29 - New Orleans, LA - Gary Semics (Lisbon, OH; Kaw)
1976 500cc National Point Standings
1. Kent Howerton, San Antonio, TX - 286
2. Gary Semics, Huntington Beach, CA - 279
3. Steve Stackable, Austin, TX - 211
4. Pierre Karsmakers, Holland - 197
5. Tony DiStefano, Morrisville, PA - 188
6. Rick Burgett, Sandy, OR - 162
7. Rich Eierstedt, Norwalk, CA - 162
8. Tommy Croft, San Diego, CA - 141
9. Gaylon Mosier, Huntington Beach, CA - 125
10. Chuck Sun, Sherwood, OR - 119
1976 125cc National Motocross
4/4 - Plymouth, CA - Bob Hannah (Whittier, CA; Yam)
5/23 - Buchanan, MI - Bob Hannah (Whittier, CA; Yam)
6/20 - Midland, MI - Bob Hannah (Whittier, CA; Yam)
7/4 - Keysers Ridge, MD - Steve Wise (McAllen, TX; Hon)
8/1 - Delta, OH - Bob Hannah (Whittier, CA; Yam)
8/15 - San Antonio, TX - Bob Hannah (Whittier, CA; Yam)
8/22 - Houston, TX - Danny LaPorte (Yucca Valley, CA; Suz)
8/29 - New Orleans, LA - Danny LaPorte (Yucca Valley; CA Suz)
Steve Wise took a win on a privateer FMF Honda in 1976
1976 125cc National Point Standings
1. Bob Hannah, Whittier, CA - 347
2. Marty Smith, San Diego , CA - 260
3. Danny LaPorte, Yucca Valley, CA - 259
4. Steve Wise, McAllen, TX - 243
5. Broc Glover, El Cajon, CA - 222
6. Warren Reid, Westminster, CA - 154
7. Ron Turner, Buena Park, CA - 144
8. Mickey Kessler, Farmingdale, NJ - 142
9. John Savitski, Atlas, PA - 141
10. Bill Grossi, Santa Cruz, CA - 117