1976 125 Nationals - Part 1

Introduction - Part 1

There has never been a professional motocross championship series that was so filled with drama and excitement as the 1976 AMA 125 Nationals. It is best known for the fantastic battle between Marty Smith and Bob Hannah and has been the topic of many bench races but hardly anything has been written about it.

It was the year of the assault on Honda’s dominance in the 125 class. A virtually unknown rider, Bob Hannah, came out of nowhere and provided the biggest upset in AMA motocross history. It was also the year that the claiming rule went haywire. Almost everyone knows that Mickey Boone tried to claim Bob Hannah’s works Yamaha, but hardly anyone knows that another privateer also tried to claim one of Marty Smith’s works Honda’s. Another little known fact is that at mid-season Honda came out with a brand new, designed from the ground up, works bike that had Yamaha actually thinking they might lose their grip on the championship. This caused Yamaha to make a very bold move and risk losing their super exotic OW27. The drama that went on behind the scenes was as dramatic as the classic battles that went on at the track. There were so many twists and turns that took place that year that you really never knew what to expect from one week till the next.

The complete story of the biggest upset in AMA motocross history has never been told, until now.

MXworksbike.com caught up with two old friends, Dave Arnold and Bill Buchka who were at center stage for the entire series. Dave Arnold was Marty Smith’s mechanic and Bill Buchka was tuning for Bob Hannah. It was these two that had the closest view as to what actually happened as the drama unfolded. In this exclusive interview, both Dave and Bill were kind enough to share with us all the details of the events that happened in this historical series. While Smith and Hannah were battling it out on the track, turmoil was going on back at headquarters. With the threat of the works bikes being claimed on a weekly basis, the factories were now faced with major decisions. Do you run the works bikes and risk having them claimed, or do you run modified stock bikes and hope that you do well enough on those? Everybody soon found out that it was next to impossible to beat a top rider on a works bike with a modified production bike. The difference in the bikes, was that big. Within the factory circles, it was a real pressure cooker behind the scenes. Rumors ran wild among the privateers and speculation as to who was going to claim what bike became common fodder. One of the privateer's fathers was even going around to the journalists, telling them that he was going to claim a bike the next week, no matter what. It was like that nearly the entire season. Ironically, Dave and Bill were both involved in another nail biting series the prior year, the infamous battle of New Orleans, where the 1975 500 National Championship was decided in the final moto.

Reigning 125 National Champ Marty Smith had won the last six 125 nationals in 1975 which gave him his second consecutive 125 title. Marty had also won the 125 USGP twice in a row, beating the Europeans, who at the time were considered the best in the world. For 1974 and 1975 Marty rode for the Honda factory team on the incredible RC125 works bike. Without a doubt Marty Smith was the best 125 motocross rider in the world. He was a national hero and had a fan base that stretched across the United States. This success led Honda to sell every single CR125 production bike that they could make. Starting lines across the country were literally filled with CR125 Elsinore’s. Honda owned the 125 class. For 1976 Honda decided to expand their horizons even further by going for the 125 National Championship in the US and the 125 World Championship in Europe. They were going to fly Marty back and forth in an attempt to win both titles.

What spawned out of the Honda Elsinore phenomena was another flourishing business, the 125 aftermarket speed shops. Most of these shops were located in Southern California and most of them specialized in making the already fast Honda CR125 even faster. 1976 was undoubtedly the pinnacle year of the 125 speed shops. Millions of mid-seventies dollars were spent hopping up the125 Elsinore. There was FMF, DG, T&M Engineering, CH Industries and a few other smaller shops. For 1976 each of these aftermarket firms fielded full-blown teams to contest the 125 nationals. The mail order business was booming and success across the country on the national circuit meant more sales. They hired the best 125 talent that they could find, many of whom were former factory riders. They then put them on the fastest bikes that they could produce and hauled them around the country in transporters that were equal to what the factories were using. This was the only year that saw an effort of this magnitude by so many aftermarket companies.

Yamaha and Suzuki, having had enough of Honda’s success, wanted their share of the market that Honda had owned for the past two years. They each had their own plan on how to knock Honda off of its pedestal. The works racing teams would now put a serious effort into the 125 class. Each team had brand new state of the art works bikes. Suzuki had the RA125 that had been developed in Europe over the last season by World Champion Gaston Rahier. Yamaha was to debut the water-cooled OW27 monoshock. This bike was so innovative that it even had a thermostat in the shock that would adjust the damping as the oil viscosity deteriorated. The shock alone for the OW27 was $5000.00. Compare that to a brand new YZ125 that cost less than a $1000.00. Kawasaki even had a new reed valve works bike that finally broke away from their conventional rotary valve model. All the Japanese works bikes were right at the minimum weight limit of 176lbs. nobody was sparing any expense.

Suzuki hired seasoned veteran Billy Grossi and CMC 125 specialist Danny LaPorte. They would later add Southern California hot shoe Jeff Jennings to the team. Yamaha on the other hand, hired the top privateer from the 1975 Nationals Danny Turner and a virtually unknown rider outside of Southern California, Bob Hannah. Bob Hannah had quietly been making a name for himself decimating the local CMC scene riding the pre-production versions of the soon to be released Suzuki RM series. Prior to that Bob had been riding for DG on a Yamaha YZ125C. For some reason Bob wasn't taken that serious even in Southern California, where he was winning a lot. I never understood this. Every time I saw him he was flat hauling. He had some come from behind rides that were unbelievable, yet the locals at the time just wrote him off as a flash in the pan. It seemed like I was arguing every week with someone about that. I really thought he was for real. Kawasaki hired Steve Wise to ride their new works SR125.

As for the other manufacturers, Can-am had veteran Jimmy Ellis on a works bike that at mid season became water-cooled. Husqvarna was well represented by Swedish star Nils Arne Nilsson. Nils won the 1973 125 USGP in St. Louis and Jimmy Ellis won the Superbowl of Motocross at the LA Coliseum in 1975 against the worlds best, including Roger DeCoster.

With the new involvement from the factories and the speed shop participation, the competition was at an all time high in depth. It was not uncommon to see someone like Warren Reid or Bruce McDougal, who were absolute jets, battling for 15th place. Almost nobody rode the 1975 series so nobody was ranked. This meant virtually everybody had to qualify. The qualifiers were insanity. Nobody shut the gas off anywhere at any time. It was WFO all the way. Never before, or since has the competition been this deep. I rode as a privateer and for me it was a major accomplishment just to qualify. I remember my first qualifier at Midland Michigan. I was running seventh and at the end of a very long and bumpy straight, I let off the gas just a fraction of a second too soon and was passed by what seemed like six riders at once. I never did that again. The speeds that Smith, Hannah, Grossi, LaPorte and the other factory riders were maintaining for forty-five minutes were incredible.

Here is a list of some of the riders and the teams they rode for. These are just some of the names you had to beat just to get into the top twenty.

  • Marty Smith Honda
  • Don Kudalski Honda
  • Warren Reid Honda FMF
  • Mickey Kessler Kawasaki
  • Steve Wise Kawasaki / Honda
  • Billy Grossi Suzuki
  • Danny LaPorte Suzuki
  • Jeff Jennings Suzuki
  • Bob Hannah Yamaha
  • Danny Turner Yamaha
  • Ron Turner Honda T & M
  • Bruce McDougal Honda T & M
  • Jimmy Ellis Can-am
  • Nils Arne Nilsson Husqvarna
  • Arlo Englund Husqvarna
  • Mickey Boone Suzuki
  • Brad Dutoit Honda
  • Broc Glover Honda DG
  • Mark Tyer Yamaha DG
  • John Savitski Honda

Below is a copy of an article that ran in Cycle News the same week as the 1976 125 Hangtown coverage. Obviously it was written before the season started but it shows just how serious Yamaha and Suzuki were. Click on the pages to enlarge for reading.

Part II will be the complete interview with Dave Arnold and Bill Buchka on the amazing battle between Marty Smith and Bob Hannah that took place during this incredible series. You will hear some unbelievable behind the scenes stories that have never been told before. It promises to be a fantastic read. Also included in part two will be photos from Dave and Bill’s personal archive as well as a host of other photos from other named sources.

Part 2