European Motorcycles

Today in Motorcycle History

Almost Famous

The Early Years of Motocross GP

by Michael James

The title says it all in this piece... almost famous. While every man woman or child who has slung a leg over a dirt bike and entered a race dreams of stardom, there are only a select minority who reach the pinnacle of their desires. Motocross, being the elusive sport that is, has urged many a Pro rider on towards their vision-quest only to slam the door shut in their faces. Some recover and carry on bravely, sailing into destiny while others simply fade away like old soldiers do.

Great American hero, "Bad Brad" Lackey raced the 500cc Grand Prix circuit for a decade and each time he came within smelling distance of winning the title something always seemed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Brad raced against -and was one of- the most fearsome riders of his generation: DeCoster, Mikkola, Carlquist, Noyce, Malherbe, and a protege of the legendary 250cc GP rider Joel Robert, Andre Vromans. With the exception of Vromans, all of the others were multi-time World Champions. More on Vromans later.

While Lackey was the lone American running down a dream, he wasn't getting any younger and this no doubt led him to sign on to race the super-light, ultra-trick Kawasaki KX500SR. It was Kawasaki's finest effort at GP racing machinery but it was an unproven product. Lackey spent two years refining the bikes but missed being the championship both times because the bike broke at the most inopportune times to hand the titles to Belgium's Andre Malherbe. The gods smiled on Lackey when he was signed to race for the seasoned Suzuki team on the RN500, a bike with much Grand Prix lineage. The earlier RN400s had carried none other than Roger DeCoster to his championships in previous years. The only trouble was Suzuki also hired the man who would be Lackey's nemesis for the entire year.

Remember the protégé from previous paragraphs? Yeah, that guy, the big Belgian, Andre Vromans had come into his own that prior season and was a deserved member of such a prestigious team. Vromans matched Lackey moto for moto. If Brad won race one, Vromans would win race two and back and forth it went. The two warriors were so evenly matched they were nearly tied on points going into the last race in Luxemburg. Moto one started with a Vromans holeshot and race win with Lackey fighting to make up for a mediocre start to a second place finish. The pressure was on both men and whoever won the final moto was going to win their first world championship.

The two teammates lined up apart from each other and this would prove to be Vromans' undoing. Vromans, a rabbit of a starter, flew out of the gate ahead of the pack but was so focused on only beating Lackey, he turned left at the top of the huge starting hill... Lackey and the rest of the astonished GP pack veered right, the correct direction. By the time Vromans realized his mistake, the pack was gone. To his credit, Vromans was the fastest man on the track as he fought desperately to salvage any points he could but it was too late. Lackey didn't crack under the enormous pressure and went on to win his and America's first World Motocross Championship. Andre Vromans is sadly not remembered as one of the fastest motocross racers of his generation, he is remembered as the guy who went the wrong way and lost a kingdom in the process. Lackey remains an icon in American motocross while the venerable Vromans is now... almost famous.

The mid-eighties in the 125 GP class bore the Renaissance of Italian motocross. Cottage factories like Beta, Gilera, and Ancilotti were regularly leading GP races with Italian and non-Italian riders aboard. When the Castiglione brothers entered the fray with their superbly engineered 125cc works racer history was in the making. They hired the super fast Italian Corrado Maddii to pilot the bike. In only their first season on the GP circuit, they found themselves leading the championship over another Italian, the much-favored Michele Rinaldi. Rinaldi was the smooth tactician with Maddii the wild man who gave it his all all of the time.

Their intercontinental ballistic rivalry led them to the forefront of the Grand Prix circuit in 1984 and at the final round, Cagiva rider Maddii had a slim but safe points lead. Maddii also set fast time in practice, demolishing Rinaldi's initial practice time. When Rinaldi responded by going out and besting Maddii's time, the ever-proud Italian went back again and shattered not only Rinaldi's record but set a track record in the process. After his record-breaking laps he cruised towards the pits, satisfied that no one was going to top his time. On the sidelines and cruising toward his destiny of becoming Italy's first World Motocross Champion, he inexplicably veered back onto the track... directly into the path of oncoming GP newcomer Michele Fanton in the middle of his qualifying fast lap.

The resulting crash was heard 'round the world as both riders went flying to the dirt. Maddii's bike and lower leg were broken in the process thus ending any chance of him becoming Italy's first world champion. All he had to do was basically finish the event and he would've been crowned champion. Instead, Rinaldi won the crown, Italy's undying love, and more fame and fortune than the man who in many people's eyes was the fastest 125 rider in the world that fateful day. There was a famous photograph that ran in Motocross Action magazine showing Maddii being carried away on a stretcher. The look on his face spoke volumes about what had been lost in that instant of a moment. Rinaldi's win also put him in the good graces of Sylvain Geboers. More on Geboers later. After retiring, Rinaldi himself went on to manage both the Suzuki team and now the Yamaha-Rinaldi team that bears his name. Maddii also manages GP motocross teams but no doubt wonders what might have been. Corrado Maddi, a hero in my mind but... almost famous.

Team Cagiva also suffered the same fate as Maddii, they would have been the first Italian company to win an MX world title in 1984 and the first manufacture to win a world title in their freshman year. Fate, a great bike and smart hiring gave them the next two 125cc World Championship titles under the throttle hands of Dutchman Davey Strijbos, and Finn Pekka Vehkonen. The sentimental Castiglione brothers also saved the dying road bike company Ducati and Swedish off-road icon, Husqvarna. The Husqvarnas you see today are the descendants of the Cagiva motocross bikes that won those world titles and numerous GP races under the riders mentioned as well as the blazing British rider Jem Whatley and Dutchman Gert-Jan van Doorn.

Back to Sylvain Geboers... before he became the Team Suzuki GP manager, he was a formidable world class 250cc racer as well. His primary problem was the birth of another Belgian, Joel Robert. Until Stefan Everts' recent string of championships, Robert held the record of six world championships. That record held fast for thirty years. Had Robert never been born, Geboers would've been a four time world champion... this was how many times he finished second to Robert. When Geboers raced for the potent CZ factory, Robert signed on and won them three titles. When Geboers split to join the fledgling Suzuki team and race their famed 187 lb. works RH250, Robert signed on too and won three more titles. Robert seemed to have a personal vendetta against Geboers.

Belgians never quit and the Geboers family definitely never quits. Post racing career, Sylvain turned his attentions to training his younger brother Eric... you remember him? He was the first man to win a world championship in all three classes of GP motocross - 125cc, 250cc, and 500cc. Sylvain's years on the GP circuit were really the training for his real destiny, grooming future champions. George Jobe, then the youngest ever rider to win a 250cc championship, was a protégé of Sylvain. Stefan Everts and Greg Albertijn were also groomed on the Suzuki team by Geboers. Sylvain Geboers became almost famous, then very famous.

All of the conjecturing and second guessing is purely academic and a moot point. What is, is and what happens, happens. If that is the case then James Stewart was meant to be the fastest Black motocrosser on the planet. Just for a moment, imagine that blazing fast Tony Haines, the original number 259, didn't go riding on that fateful day when he suffered paralyzing injuries. Would it be his face plastered on giant billboards hawking Oakley glasses? Would he be the media darling looking back at us from all magazine covers? The lines between victory and defeat, glory and anonymity, winning and losing, and even life and death are sometimes very slim indeed. Motocross is a game when all is said and done... a sport. It is a magnificent sport however and the boundaries and obstacles one must overcome are numerous at every level.

There is always some faster, smoother, braver, stronger, or more talented... even when you win. There are many, many pieces to the motocross puzzle and most of us amateurs hope to simply put a few of these pieces together on any Sunday in a race. For when we do, there is a magic that cannot be described to one who has not been there and known the feelings first hand. Motocross was and is never about only the winning of an event or a championship; it has always been about the reaching, the striving, and clawing to get to the next level... your own very personal next level. Some days the pieces of the puzzle lock in automatically and other days it seems like the gods conspire against you.

It is the indomitable spirit within YOU, my friends and fellow 'crossers, that makes our sport so special. We always keep trying, reaching, and striving to attain our spiritual nirvana. Whether it be qualifying for your home country's Grand Prix or winning the local 40+ B class, the feelings are always the same. I'd bet if you asked Mr. Geboers, Mr. Vromans, Mr. Maddii, and Messrs. Malherbe, DiStefano, Chandler, Bailey, Haines, Beirer, Leok, and Fonseca if they would do it all over again, I surmise they would all say 'yes!' For all the sacrifices I've made for motocross, the broken bones and shattered spirits, the money spent and family time lost, I too would do it all over again. To quote a fellow fellow District 34 racer/journalist friend and of mine, Chris van Blarcom... "It is better to be a racer for a moment´┐Ż than a spectator for life."

Article by Michael James