FLASHBACK FRIDAY | WHY THE AMA 500 NATIONALS DISAPPEARED (1971-1993)

Mike Bell (5) leads a pack of yellow-plated 500s into the first turn.

Over the course of motocross history, the 500cc class had been the premier showcase of the sport. The emphasis on the 450 four-stroke class has only been a recent trend—fueled by market forces and a strange twist in the AMA rule book. For the first 40 years, true success in motocross was measured by success in the 500cc class. Roger DeCoster was the 500 World Champion five times. Heikki Mikkola, the 1974 250 World Champion, used his 250 title as a springboard to get him into the 500 class (where he went on to win three crowns). Rolf Tibblin, Jeff Smith, Paul Friedrichs, Andre Malherbe, Hakan Carlqvist, Eric Geboers, Georges Jobe, Mark Blackwell, Brad Lackey, David Bailey, Ricky Johnson, Broc Glover, Jeff Ward, Jean-Michel Bayle, David Bailey, Jimmy Weinert, Marty Smith, Danny LaPorte, Jeff Stanton, Mike Kiedrowski and Mike LaRocco have all earned glory in the 500 class.

What was the aura that surrounded racing a 500? Exclusivity. Of all the men who have ever raced a 500cc two-stroke, only a few have ridden them to their potential, and the men that rode them best proudly stated that what they achieved on the big bikes ranks highest in their echelon of achievement. But, if the 500 class was the premier class for the first 40 years of the sport, what killed it? The list of suspects in the killing of the 500 class includes jealousy, poor bike sales and greed. 

Suspect one: Suzuki won its one and only 500cc National Championship in 1979, but sales of the mellow RM400 and RM465 were less than stellar and Suzuki quit making Open bikes in 1984. For the next decade, Suzuki watched the other brands garner 500cc glory. Suzuki wanted the 500 Nationals killed.

Suspect two: Yamaha was a big supporter of the 500 class starting in 1971. Yamaha won six of the 23 AMA 500 National Championships held; the last three titles on the antiquated, air-cooled, Yamaha YZ490. After they tried to race the cobbled-together-from-spare-parts WR500 in the 1991 Nationals, it became apparent that they were no longer competitive in the 500 class, so they joined Suzuki in the anti-500 camp.

Suspect three: The AMA, or rather AMA apathy, was the third enemy of the 500 class. Dropping it made their lives easier. They liked that route.

Who killed the 500cc two-stroke? Well, it wasn’t Colonel Mustard in the library with a candlestick. It was a combination of forces, driven by all manner of motives, not the least of which was jealousy. What were they jealous of? That Honda, Kawasaki and KTM were getting publicity in a class that the others didn’t make bikes for. 

In the 1972 AMA 500 National Championships, there were eight marques represented in the 500 class—Kawasaki, Yamaha, CZ, Ossa, Suzuki, Bultaco, Maico and Husqvarna. When the 500 class officially died in 1993, there were three brands in the top 10—Kawasaki, Honda and KTM. The 500cc enemies listed the dearth of machinery as a reason to drop the class. While it looked like a logical decision, it should be noted that the same statistics could be applied to all the classes over the same time period.

Amazingly, the AMA 500 National Championship is alive and well today. We just know it by a different name. What is it? It is hard to deny that the new 450 four-stroke class isn’t just a rebirth of the old AMA 500 National Championships.

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