The Story of the first American world motocross champion
Competition riders, especially the ones who dedicate their lives to motocross, ride either for the joy of winning and if that never happens, at least they had a great time doing what they know best. What I know is that the adrenaline rush pushes them to the highest culms of success and the ones that reach that point often say that they ride to be remembered.
Such a motocross rider is Brad Lackey, one of the first racers in the United States. His career unreeled in the 1970s and 1980s with the two most successful years being a decade away. In 1972, Lackey won the AMA 500cc Motocross Championship and in 1982 he accomplished his dream of adjudicating the 500cc World Motocross Championship.
In order to obtain such impressive results, Lackey gathered experience on two continents. In Europe, he rode for CZ, Suzuki and Honda, while in the United States he was associated with the Kawasaki name. Also in the seat of a green thumper, he won the first AMA title.
Born in Berkeley, California, on July 8, 1953, Lackey was soon “took over” by his father who was a motorcyclist and got young Brad involved in the sport. By the time he was 9, Lackey was riding with his dad and other friends, cow-trailing through the coastal and interior mountains of the San Francisco Bay area.
At 13, Lackey began racing scrambles across his native Northern California and progressed quickly through the amateur ranks. In the early 1970s, Lackey became an expert-ranked rider just as motocross was beginning to take off in America. Lackey competed against the top European riders in the Inter-Am and Trans-AMA series. By 1970, he was winning support races for the Trans-AMA Series and often was the top American finisher in Trans-AMA races.
"The Europeans taught us that we needed to take our training much more seriously and I took that to heart," Lackey remembers. "From the beginning I knew I wanted to go to Europe and compete against the top riders in the world at that time."
In 1971, CZ sent Lackey to Czechoslovakia to enter a training camp. He also got his first taste of the World Championship Motocross Grand Prix circuit when he raced in a few 250cc GP races while attending the training camp. In 1972, Lackey won the AMA 500cc Motocross Championship in its first season as an independent series. Prior to ’72, the top American finisher in the Trans-AMA Series determined AMA motocross champions, but by 1972 the AMA national series had evolved into a series on its own.
Lackey was dominant, winning five of the eight races. After winning the championship, Kawasaki wanted Lackey to stay in the United States to wear the number-one late and defend his title. But Lackey was determined to chase his dream of a world championship, so he went to Europe to race in the GPs in 1973 with only minimal support from Kawasaki. Without solid backing, Lackey suffered a tough learning season in the 500cc world championship during the ’73 season.
Lackey signed with Husqvarna in 1974 and he steadily earned better results in the GPs during his three years with the Swedish company. That first year, he was part of the U.S. Motocross des Nations team that shocked the Europeans by finishing second in the international competition. That result told the world that after less than a decade in motocross, the United States was becoming a powerhouse in the sport.
In 1977, Honda signed Lackey and he won his first GP — the British round of the 500cc series (below). By 1978, Lackey was nearing his goal. He finished second in the world championships to Heikki Mikkola. In 1979, Lackey returned to Kawasaki to help the company develop a new motocross bike and the resulting teething problems kept Lackey from consistently winning. By 1981, Lackey had landed at Suzuki.
The company was coming back to the 500cc World Championships after dominating the series for much of the early-to-mid-1970s. Lackey again found himself helping a team develop a new motocross bike, but this time things fell into place. In 1982, his second year with Suzuki, the bike was excellent and Lackey, after a decade of trying, came through to finally win the 500cc World Championship.
He and Danny LaPorte (who won the 250cc world title in 1982) became the first American motocross world champions. Lackey left racing on top. He retired after winning the ’82 world championship, leaving a legacy as one of America’s top motorcycle racers of all time. During the early part of his career Lackey was considered something of an outsider to the racing establishment.
A child of the "Flower Power" age in the San Francisco area, Lackey called himself a bit of a hippie. He felt strong enough to make his political views known by often riding with a dove on his handlebars during the Vietnam War era. After retiring from racing, Lackey stayed involved in the sport by turning out motocross training books and videos. When inducted in 1999, Lackey still occasionally raced for fun in vintage events and still lived in Northern California, where he owns an apparel company.
So if you ever wondered how somebody ends up riding bikes ever since early childhood you now know that it is in their blood. But the road to success is always paved with ambition and heavy training, just like one of the character’s we’ve brought back to you today. Something that you may have noticed is the fact that no significant crashes affected Lackey’s evolution and remember that the bikes weren’t as advanced as they are today. This can only mean that the rider took his time and retired without too many metal parts in its body. A good advice for today’s ambitious riders!