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                                                     By Steve Wise

                                                                            Steve on his National winning CR125

   Before we go directly into that incredible 1976 season it might be good for me to set the stage, so to speak and to point out that this article is from my perspective.   

   Toward the end of 1974 I received a phone call at my home in McAllen, Texas, and what a surprise it was to hear the person on the other end of that phone line.  The man said, “Hello Steve, my name is Tim Smith and I’m the factory Kawasaki motocross team manager here in Los Angeles, California.  We have been trying to sign Steve Stackable to ride for us, but he has already signed with Maico for the 1975 season.  During our conversation, I informed Stack we were also looking for a rider to race the 125cc national class. I told Stackable, I have already seen most of the California riders and was wondering if he knew of anyone that might interest us.  Short Stack said, ‘There is a young gun here in Texas that smokes everyone in the 125 class and gives Howerton and myself a good run in the 250cc class.  You might want to look at him.’ ”

   The rest is history!  Kawasaki flew my father and I out to L.A. for the purpose of watching me race one of Torlief Hansen’s old 1974 European 250 works bikes against the locals at Carlsbad, CA. 

   I had only been to California one time in my young life, on a family vacation.  The amazing part of that vacation was, without planning, we happened to be there the very same weekend the first-ever Superbowl of Motocross was raced in the LA Coliseum.  My father bought tickets and we sat in the stands watching an incredible show.  Who would have ever dreamed the young man we watched win this race, Marty Tripes, would one day be a friend and teammate on the factory Honda racing team. 

   When we arrived at the Carlsbad track that Sunday morning, driving the Kawasaki Racing Team truck, I was in awe.  That huge fast downhill was like nothing I’d ever seen in Texas, and to say it was a local event is a real understatement.  Seeing names like Smith, Croft, McDougal, Hart, Semics, Staten, West, and others who would one day make their mark on the National circuit was somewhat unnerving.

   There was a guy on a Maico, wearing this really strange looking helmet, who was going incredibly fast.  He passed me in practice as if I was stopped on that long downhill, and I knew this wasn’t going to be like the local races in Texas I usually dominated, if Kent and Stack were not around.  That rider never made it big on the national circuit, but I’m telling you, he was fast on that track.

   That local race was an awakening for me.  The guy who won the 250 Expert class that day, which I was in, wore a jersey that had “Wheelsmith Maico” on it.   Knowledgeable motocross fans will remember him as the late Gaylon Mosier and I was actually very happy to finish 6th overall on that strange Kawasaki works bike, my first time at Carlsbad.

    I guess my finish wasn’t too bad, because that afternoon my father and I were invited to meet Mr. Smith and a Japanese man at American Kawasaki on Monday morning.  They offered me a contract to be a factory Kawasaki rider for the 1975 season, riding the 125 Nationals and some 250 races. 

   Sharing that story always gives me great joy, and I will always be thankful to Steve Stackable for mentioning my name to Tim Smith.

   Earlier, in 1974 at the age of 16, I raced my Honda 250 Elsinore in two Nationals back East, placing a respectable 8th and 9th, but didn’t receive any attention from the factories.  At Carlsbad, I was six months older and quite a bit stronger.  What an incredible feeling it was, flying home to Texas, knowing I was now a factory motocross rider at the age of 17.

   The 1975 works 125 didn’t arrive in time for the first National in Hangtown, so Kawasaki decided for me to ride the 250 class that day.  There wasn’t much to remember, but I did get a good start that first moto and boy, was it was muddy.  I think my finish was somewhere in the top 10, probably closer to 10th.

   When the 125 did arrive a few weeks later, it looked great, was light and handled even better, but had absolutely no power.  I battled hard early in the year, and did finish in the top 5 a few times, but to say that bike was slow was an understatement.

   I viewed a magazine picture one day that showed me being half a bike length ahead of everyone right out of the gate during the 125 national in Herman, Nebraska.  After coming out of the gate there was a steep, long, uphill straightaway before the first turn. By the time we reached the top of the hill, I was mid pack. 

   Halfway through the season, I was tired of doing everything I could to work back into the top 7, after getting horrible starts.  Things weren’t working out well, and Kawasaki, being disappointed with my results, decided to pull out after the Nebraska national.  Kawasaki and I went our separate ways and that was fine with me.

   My father and I decided to skip the next two nationals in Ohio and West Virginia.  We began preparing for the national race coming to my home state of Texas in a month.  It was the first time a 125 national championship event would be held in San Antonio, and I was looking forward to it.

   My father, being a successful real estate broker, also owned the local Honda dealership, in McAllen, TX.  We took a CR 125 off the show room floor and my good friend and great mechanic, Jimmy Strait, began preparing the motorcycle. He ported the cylinder, put on some Girling gas shocks and an FMF pipe.  Those were the only modifications we made.  Oh yeah, I think we drained the fish oil out of the front forks and replaced it with Bel-Ray.

   As we all know, Marty Smith had dominated every moto of the year, winning by a mile, except in the first mud race in Hangtown CA.  The first moto in San Antonio would be a different story.  As usual, Marty got the holeshot, but for the first time that year, I came out of the first turn in second place.  Half way through the first lap I passed Marty for the lead in that 100+ degree Texas heat on a basically stock CR 125.

   I had never been out front in a National before and the pace was more intense than I could stand for that 45-minute moto.  Marty was pressuring me the whole way, and finally passed me to take the win with about 10 minutes left in the first moto.  I was so worn out from that first moto fight, I could barely ride the second moto, doing everything I could just to finish in 4th.  The 2nd & 4th moto finishes gave me 2nd overall for the day, which beat every factory rider except Marty Smith. 

   That was probably the first time Marty had ever seen me in a race, but it surely wouldn’t be the last.  I was excited about my finish in San Antonio, and looking forward to the next race, which was the last national of the year in New Orleans, LA.  I finished 3rd in the first moto and was doing really well in the second moto, running toward the front, until my front-end steering yoke became very loose.  This caused me to slow down tremendously, ending the day with a 5th overall.

   At the end of 1975, I received a phone call and again it was Tim Smith at Kawasaki.  He commended me on my finishes in the last two races and said, “ We realize the bike we provided you was way down on power, but in Japan they have been working on a completely new 125 works bike for the 1976 season.  You have proved yourself and we would like to have you back again.”  Of course, the call caused great excitement and my answer was a positive yes, but I stressed to him, the bike needed to be competitive.

   We received the new bike just a week before the first National at Hangtown, and I flew to California hoping to be competitive in that first race.  When we all saw the brand new bike, with a completely new design and a new motor, there was a positive feeling.  Finishing high enough the year before in total points to be national number 14, left no doubt in my mind I was one of the top riders, but the bike needed to have the horsepower the other factories had, for me to be competitive.

   That new works bike was so trick looking,  handled great and weighed only 167 lbs.  It’s pictured on the front page of a Kawasaki manual and can still be viewed on the web today showing its total restoration under links at my web site.  But, it was slow, really slow!  I knew after practice in Hangtown, a hard ride was in store for me just to finish in the top 7. 

   The speed I experienced running with Marty the previous year in San Antonio was one thing, but I knew before the first moto, my chances were slim to none on this bike.  Marty was number one that year and by looking at him you knew he was in excellent condition.  Everyone loved him, thinking he would easily dominate again, and from what I remember, everyone wished they could be Marty.

   Of course, we now know that was the day a young upstart named Bob Hannah smoked the reigning unbeatable champ.  Marty was that good looking surfer from Southern California, riding that red factory Honda, but that day I think Honda and Marty were caught off guard.  They ran into a buzz saw named Bob Hannah who had the True Grit personality of John Wayne.

   I’d heard a little about Bob Hannah, but after that race everyone knew who he was.  He was intimidating, confident, cocky, and you just knew he was going to win or die trying. He wouldn’t be an upstart for long, for as we now know he would become one of the greatest MX – SX riders ever.

   While talking to a factory rider just a few years back he said to me, “You guys back then wouldn’t have had a chance with the tracks we ride today.  You would have never been able to run up front like you did back then.”

   I looked at him and said, “ Let me tell you something, any top rider back then would have been a top rider today and there were a lot more of us back then who could win, than the few you have winning today.”  I went on to say, “I know Bob Hannah well and raced against him many years.  He would have found a way to beat the top guys of today and win a Championship. 

   I respect Ricky Carmichael and his many championships, but I would’ve bet the farm Ricky would not have won the straight outdoor motos for the many years he did, if Bob Hannah was in the race.  In fact, in my opinion, Ricky would’ve lost more than he would’ve won.” 

  A former SX announcer I spoke with a few months ago said, “Bob and Ricky were cut from the same mold and Bob was the Ricky in our day.  But riders back then were much more competitively minded and weren’t afraid to try and knock around or beat the top dog.”  He continued to say, We don’t see that today.  They just let the top riders go by so easily.”

   Bob Hannah didn’t just “come by easily” without a fight from us back then.  If I had the strength, I was going to fight however long I could, with whatever I had. Today, it seems most of the riders just let the top guys go by so easily, without even a fight.  That wouldn’t have happened in our day.  Many a rider found himself with a decision to make, either shut off or eat the fence, including the very top guys.  I’ll write more about this later.

   I was so disappointed after Hangtown, so instead of flying back to Texas, I drove back with my father.  Our conversation was dominated by whether I should stay with Kawasaki and continue trying to develop the new works bike or quit and take a stock CR 125 off our show room floor in McAllen, TX once again.  My friend, Jimmy Strait, had already proven he could make a CR 125 scream, but I would be giving up suspension travel and 20 lbs of extra weight, compared to the factory works bikes.

   On Wednesday, the week after Hangtown, I called Kawasaki and informed Tim Smith that I was going back to my stock Honda for the remainder of the season.  He was a very nice man and though he understood my dilemma, he was surprised.  He wished me the very best. 

   Without a factory ride I decided to pass on the next round in Buchanan Michigan, but Terry Mulligan with American Honda called, promising me a bike to race at that round.  I was hoping to get a decent bike to ride, but being under the gun with Bob Hannah’s domination at the previous race, understandably, I wasn’t given much attention.  They gave me some old practice CR 125 that hadn’t been worked on in weeks.  Without a mechanic to help me even get the bike ready, there was no chance for me to finish well.

   The next national at Midland, Michigan,  was over a month away.  During this time we took a CR 125 from our show room floor and Jimmy Strait modified it for me.  We drove my van to the event and it was the first time in a year I was comfortable with my machine.

   The track was all sand and really rough.  I placed in the top 5 and the Bob Hannah Show continued, as he won the overall.  What I distinctly remember about that race is how fast Don Kudalski was going; he was flying.  He was always fast in the sand and with a few breaks that day Don could have been the first privateer to win a 125 national.  I don’t remember everything about the day, but I think Don won the second moto after crashing out in the first.  Dave Arnold correctly said, “There were many guys who could have won a moto.”  I agree with him, but things had to be perfect for one of us to beat Hannah or Smith.           

   It was another month before the next national in Keysers Ridge, Maryland.  Again, Jimmy Strait, my father, and I drove our van back East with great expectations.  We had been able to dial in my production CR a little better over the month.  Jimmy ported another cylinder, put on a 34mm Mikuni carburetor, and a new FMF pipe, all hoping to gain a little more horsepower.  Along with the Girling gas shocks, handlebars and grips those were the only modifications.

   During the practice session in Maryland that day, my bike seemed to be working well on the track, and really fast.  I wrote above that things had to be perfect for anyone other than Hannah or Smith to win a moto, much less the overall.  With this summer day being somewhat cool and the track being fairly smooth, July 4, 1976 was that perfect day.   

   When the gate dropped with 40 top pro riders in that first moto, I exited the first turn with the lead.  I remember it seemed as though I was opening up a huge lead so easily.  I was cruising through the first moto until about half way, and then I got the sign, Smith closing! I tried to increase my speed, but sensed he was on the charge.  Marty caught me around the 35-minute mark and I didn’t give him much of a fight, choosing to save what energy I could for the second moto, in case it came down to a last lap shoot out.  Marty won easily and I was way ahead of 3rd so I just cruised the last few laps.  I think Bob Hannah had mechanical problems and DNFed the 1st moto.

   The second moto was exactly the same, as I got an incredible holeshot again.  My Jimmy Strait tuned CR was humming and I was easily stretching the lead.  Marty Smith must have gotten a horrible start because he was nowhere to be seen and I continued charging.  Though I was way out in front, I was trying to keep the pace as fast as possible, because I knew Marty or Bob could be closing in the latter half of the moto.

   Just as I thought, about half way Jimmy gave me a sign, Smith -15, then Smith -14, then Smith -12, Smith -10 and so on.  I was doing everything I could to maintain a pace that would be hard for Marty to catch.  After 40 minutes and with 2 laps to go Smith, on his $25,000.00 works bike, caught me on my $600.00 modified production CR 125.

   But, this time, this Texan wasn’t going to make it so easy on the reigning Champion.  As we took the white flag he was right behind me and both of us had our bikes pinned.  I shut the door on him hard 4 or 5 times while he was trying to pass coming into the corners, but I knew there was a long, rough, uphill section just before the finish that would need to be negotiated perfectly by me to maintain the lead.  I knew Marty had power and suspension travel on me and he would be faster up that hill. 

   As I came out of the right hand turn starting up that hill, I positioned myself in middle of the track, because I didn’t know on which side Marty would try powering by me.  As we were full out, with the bikes digging, grinding and bouncing, going up that rough uphill, I felt his vibration coming upon my left side.  I could sense he was closing on me and as soon as I saw his front tire, I veered straight left toward him and the fence.  I gave him a choice, ram me and take your chances, eat the fence, or shut off.  Well, he shut off, and losing all his momentum, I cruised through the last two turns taking the checkered flag, as well as the 1st overall victory.  Bob Hannah was nowhere in sight, finishing 3rd in the second moto.

                                                                                                                                                                 ""Steve and mechanic Jimmy Strait at the Houston National, the same bike, but a little more modified than in Keysers Ridge"


  I want to make it clear to all the readers, that I realize things had to work out perfectly for a true privateer to win a National.  It’s reportedly only been done 3 times, but I don’t know anything about the others and I’m not sure if they were full privateers or not.  My Honda CR 125 came from my father’s Honda shop with only the modifications I mentioned above.  Marty beat me many times, and there’s no doubt he was the fastest guy on the track that day, on his works bike, but he didn’t win, and that’s what history shows.   

   I skipped the Delta, Ohio, round because I wasn’t in the running for the points.  That was between Bob and Marty.  In San Antonio I had mechanical failures in the first moto and while running 3rd on the last lap of the second moto, some nylon snow fence laying across the track got tangled up in my rear wheel.  I DNFed both motos in my home state and how strange that seemed.  It’s always, the older we get, the better we were, but if, just if that fence hadn’t been there, I would have easily beat out Danny LaPorte for a 3rd in the overall standings behind Bob and Marty.  Of course, I know Danny had his problems early in the year as well, so that’s history!     

   In Houston, after a terrible start I worked my way up to finish 4th in the first moto. In the second moto, after a 40-minute fight and with 2 laps remaining I was pressuring LaPorte for the lead.  Danny began to vomit all over himself and just as I was preparing to pass him, my rear tire went flat.  Though Danny was sick, with me having a flat tire he was able to hold me off.  With Smith or Hannah nowhere to be seen, I skated around the last few laps to finish 2nd in that moto on my privateer Honda. 

   After Houston, Dave Arnold and Warren Reid drove down to my home in McAllen, TX.  We had a lot of fun that week and they worked on their bikes at my father’s Honda shop.  Dave gave me some works fenders and Jimmy made them fit my production CR, which looked pretty cool. Then we all headed to New Orleans, LA for the last national of the year.  I don’t remember one thing about the New Orleans race, so it must not have been a monumental finish in my career.         

   Yes, 1976 was an historic year - Bob Hannah defeated the reigning 125 Champion Marty Smith and for me, I became the first 125cc privateer to defeat the mighty factory riders!  Another real plus for me that year was meeting and becoming lifelong friends with Warren Reid.  After we became factory Honda teammates in 1978, I would stay at his house often when I was out in LA.  We spent many hours together riding, testing and having a boatload of fun playing golf.  Warren’s pretty good!  He has a swing like John Daley, but he’s much skinnier.  We have continued our friendship over the years, communicating by phone or E-mail and get together when we can. 

   I’ve enjoyed reflecting and hope you enjoyed my perception of these events.  Check out my web site for further pictures and information on what I’m doing now.  God Bless!      

   Steve Wise


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