Everyone loves a story about an underdog rising up and supplanting the established star. Hollywood generally sensationalizes the narrative, building drama by creating an antagonist so despised that the collective audience can’t help but root for the protagonist. Think Ivan Drago in “Rocky IV” or T-1000 in “Terminator 2.” In motocross, there have been plenty of historical events that would transition well to the big screen, none more than Team USA’s surprising victory at the 1981 Motocross des Nations.
Younger generations will find it hard to believe that the United States hasn’t always been a global motocross power. Up until 1981, European powerhouses such as Belgium, England and Sweden churned out the best talent. That point was made known at the annual Motocross des Nations events. Held every year from 1947, names like John Draper, Jeff Smith, Derek Rickman, Bengt Aberg and Roger DeCoster were instrumental in piloting their national teams to victory. The United States, on the other hand, hadn’t been introduced to motocross until 1967 (by Edison Dye and Torsten Hallman). Americans were neophytes in the sport, outmatched by the European establishment in every way.
Team USA fielded its first effort in 1972 with Brad Lackey, Jim Pomeroy, Jimmy Weinert and Gary Jones. They finished seventh; a respectable showing given the circumstances, but they were never in the running. Team USA steadily improved in the overall standings, until 1979, when they failed to send a team due to disinterest from manufacturers and their sponsored American racers. Again in 1980 there wasn’t a team. It appeared that America’s presence at the Motocross des Nations was all but over.
DeCoster got Honda management to support Chuck Sun, Danny LaPorte, Donnie Hansen and Johnny O’Mara in representing Team USA. Keep in mind that no one on the team had won a title in 1981. As such, they were considered the “B Team.”
This is where the story gets good. MXA started a fund raising effort to send a team in 1981—it was driven by the hard work of Dick Miller. Fielding a team wasn’t easy. Most of the American stars didn’t want to go, but thanks to a small impassioned group led by MXA’s Miller, Hi-Point’s Larry Maiers and Bel-Ray’s J.J. Hanfield the money was raised. All we needed was a team—but the established AMA stars of 1981 refused to go. Every big name rider that you can think of turned down a chance to be on the 1981 MXDN team. Roger DeCoster, a 16-time winner in the Motocross and Trophee des Nations for Team Belgium, felt that America should be represented at the MXDN in 1981. DeCoster got Honda management to support Chuck Sun, Danny LaPorte, Donnie Hansen and Johnny O’Mara in representing Team USA. Keep in mind that no one on the team had won a title in 1981. As such, they were considered the “B Team.”
Team USA kicked off their European adventure by racing the 250cc Trophee Des Nations event in Lommel, Belgium. The deep sand and treacherous conditions practically guaranteed a Belgian win…only it didn’t happen. Belgium’s Andre Vromans won the 250 overall, but Team USA took the next spots to clinch their first Trophee Des Nations win. It was a monumental victory for an underdog — facing adversity and overcoming the odds on foreign soil.
Team USA still had unfinished business. One week later the 500cc Motocross des Nations was held in Bielstein, West Germany. The overall came down to the wire in the mud between America and England. It could have gone either way, but then Lady Luck shone brightly on Team USA when Britain’s Graham Noyce suffered a flat tire. The tide had shifted. The United States clinched by one point over the Brits and emerged with the coveted Peter Chamberlain Trophy.
Winning member, Danny LaPorte recounts, “Still, to this day, I remember pulling into the pits after we had sealed the victory and seeing the excitement on the faces of my fellow Americans. Even the Europeans rallied around us and celebrated our win. It was amazing! Fans were climbing over the fences and wanted autographs. Winning a National Championship doesn’t even come close to the feeling of winning the Motocross des Nations. There was so much emotion.”
Team USA would go on to win 13 straight MXDNs (and 22 overall), and American interest in the annual world motocross event was renewed. It was all due to a small group of people who believed in American motocross as much as they believed in an underdog.