FLASHBACK FRIDAY | JOHN ROEDER & THE AMA’S CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS
For a brief period in 1979, John Roeder was the most important man in the sport of motocross. Yes, we know that you’ve never heard of John Roeder, but that’s because John never scored a single AMA point; however, he did scare the pants off the factory teams. At the 1979 Hangtown National, John Roeder put in a $3500 claim for Marty Tripes’ works Honda. Back in the day, any rider who was entered in an AMA National or Supercross could claim any bike of any rider he competed against for $3000 for a 125, $3500 for a 250 or $4000 for a 500. The object of the claiming rule was to keep the factories from entering super-exotic one-off works bikes against a gaggle of privateers on $2000 production bikes. Roeder wasn’t the first rider to try to take advantage of the AMA “claiming rule”; he was just the first to succeed.
The first rider to try to claim a works bike was Mickey Boone, a talented 125 campaigner who tried to claim Marty Smith’s RC125 in 1976. He didn’t get it. The next week, Mickey put a claim in on Bob Hannah’s water-cooled YZ125. He didn’t get that, either. Boone vowed that the next week he would claim Mark Barnett’s Suzuki RA125. But, the next week the factories had put modified stock 125 engines in their race bikes. Boone had successfully defeated the factory works bikes—not on the track but with the rulebook.
If Boone claimed Smith’s and Hannah’s works bikes, why didn’t he get them? The factory teams joined together and pooled their counter-claim checks so that if one of their works bikes got claimed by Boone, Roeder or any other privateer, they would all claim it (Yamaha was rumored to carry $40,000 in cashier’s checks to every race). When more than one rider put in a check for a bike, the winner was determined by a drawing. The factory teams had a pact that whoever won the bike would give it back to the other factory team immediately. In fact, after John Roeder put in his $3500 cashier’s check for Marty Tripes’ second-place Honda RC250, the factory teams threw in nine more checks (Roeder even added a second check to the kitty). When John Roeder reached into the hat that held 11 claims, he drew the winning number.
It is an understatement to say that the factory teams freaked out. On Wednesday, four days before the upcoming Saddleback National, Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki told the AMA that if they didn’t drop the claiming rule they would pull out of the AMA Nationals. By that Sunday, the claiming rule was rescinded by the AMA. In typical AMA fashion, the claiming rule was only in the rulebook until someone used it.
Would Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki have pulled out of the 1979 AMA Nationals? No, not if the team managers wanted to have jobs a week later, not if the manufacturers wanted to win titles and not if the riders wanted their paychecks. The “Big Four” were bluffing. They would have showed up on modified production bikes at Saddleback, and the same riders would have won; however, the Big Four knew that the AMA was spineless, so they bluffed and the AMA blinked.