How was the track? It seems like it had the kind of sandy terrain that you guys from Michigan would love.
Yeah, it really was. It was the original Hangtown track, and the sand or dirt or whatever, it was a different texture. The sand up here in Michigan was a little heavier, more consistent, but out there it had that hard-packed feel at times, and then you would start getting those sharp edges where the dirt would break away and you would get those lips or whatever, and they would bounce you around pretty good. It was much different than the year before in Georgia, where I took second. That was pretty much a hard-packed track compared to Plymouth, which wasn’t very good for us Michigan riders. That track in Georgia wasn’t really a great track, at least not enough to be a national track. I don’t want to knock it, but it wasn’t what any of us expected. We thought we were going to some spectacular racetrack, but it was more like a practice track. There just wasn’t much to work with there. So going out to California to the [old] Hangtown track, we knew we were going to get a better track, and it was definitely similar to what we had back home in Michigan, and it showed it the results. I mean, I won my class, and I think Mark Hicks and Matty Horrocks got first and second in the 250 class. That ’79 national was kind of a coming-out party for the Michigan Mafia.
Yes, and you guys stayed on top the next couple of years as well, at Millville and then RedBud. And one of your strongest guys back then, Mark Hinkle, had a lousy day at Plymouth. He told me that the track got the best of him, despite the fact that he was the defending 500 champ, but then he came back and won the next two years.
You know, I really don’t think that Mark gets the credit he deserves, even in Michigan, for just how good he was—and for quite a while, too. When people talk about fast riders, I don’t think his name comes up enough. He was a very good rider.
That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this series, because after my dad and his old partner Paul Schlegel came up with the idea for Loretta Lynn’s, a lot of these old amateur races and racers were kind of forgotten about. They aren’t really part of any record books or anything like that. Neither are the old Youth Nationals.
Hey, I was in one of those too! I was in the 100 Schoolboy class in 1977, I think, and I think I took second in the first moto, when it was nice and dry, but then it rained. It just downpoured, and they ended up having to make another track down over the hill just to finish the race. Do you remember that?
“So I come home, the [’84] Silverdome is the end of April, but I sprained my ankle. I still tried to qualify but didn’t make it. I wasn’t feeling it, and after that I told my dad, ‘You know what? I really don’t want to waste any more of your money.’ And then I just threw in the towel. I had just turned 20.” —Denny Bentley Jr.
Absolutely, that was High Point Raceway, and that was my dad who laid out the second track because the real track was absolutely swamped with mud. It was impossible to get around on a minibike!
Yes, I remember now! And after that, the race was kind of a free-for-all, everyone struggling and sliding around in the grass. I also remember that I was racing a Suzuki that Holder made for me where they took an RM125 and put a 100cc motor in it, because the actual 100s were so much smaller that they were barely a step up for an 80. So now you’ve got this tall bike and this short kid—I could barely touch the ground—and I was fine on it when it was dry, but when it was muddy and raining and all, I was like a fish out of water. I couldn’t hardly keep the bike up! I don’t even know what I finished that day, but I was there and it was pretty crazy.
I remember fooling around and doing bad the first day and then my dad making me go flag the second down over the hill! Anyway, it’s been a lot of fun to research these old races and get to talk to folks like Mark Hinkle and Ferrell McCollough and David Bailey and Eric McKenna and yourself—a lot of the guys that were the top amateurs back then, when there was just one class, not A, B, and C like there is today. Like I said, it was cutthroat just to qualify, let alone win.
Absolutely, and you have to remember, I was only 15 when I won at Plymouth, so I was 14 when I took second [in Georgia]. When you look at today, it seems like the kids stay amateur a lot longer. I mean, when I got second, Chappy Blose was the guy who beat me. I think he was 18 and I was still only 14. The guy who took third in ’78, Dennis Hilgendorf, came from the same town as me, Perry, Michigan. He was 18 too. I raced with him for years, and I think riding with older guys really helped me, which is probably why I turned pro right away. Kids today seem to have more of a bridge from amateur to pro than we had back then.
I think part of that may have been another deal my dad was part of, and that was the formation of the 125 class in AMA Supercross in 1985, along with another promoter named Bill West.
And that right there would have been a game-changer for me, because I turned pro when I turned 16 at the end of April 1980, but I had to go to all of these pro regionals first to be able to go race the 125 Nationals. But then something happened along the way that will probably blow your mind. It was the weekend of the 125cc U.S. Grand Prix at Mid-Ohio, the really muddy one that Johnny O’Mara won on his Mugen Honda. We had an off-week from the regionals, me and my dad, so we loaded up my practice bikes to go riding in White Birch. But then it started pouring down rain that Saturday morning. We were sitting there in the van with a 125 and a 250 in the back of the van, and my dad says, “Let’s go down to Mid-Ohio and watch that race instead.” So we leave Michigan and head down to Mid-Ohio, and we get there at like four o’clock in the afternoon. It’s sunny down there, and they had just got done with practice. My dad pulls off near the address where they had this clubhouse or something and goes inside. I’m sitting there in the van, 20 or 30 minutes go by, and I decide to get out and see what’s going on. I walk in there, and it’s pretty much the race headquarters, and I’ll be damned but he somehow talked his way into getting me in the race! Here I am, I don’t have enough points to even enter an AMA National yet, but he talked them into letting me sign up for this 125 Grand Prix! I’m listening to him talk to whoever is in charge there and he’s saying, “Wow, I just can’t believe you guys didn’t get his entry, I know we sent it in.” And then all of the sudden they say, “Okay, we’ll let him race.” I couldn’t believe it!
Ha! Your dad sounds a lot like my dad.
Exactly. So we end up staying in a nearby motel, it rained all night, and we get up the next morning and go out to the track and get my practice bike ready to race. First moto takes off—this place was a mud disaster by now—and I get a horrible start. We’re going into the first little actual turn and I realize I’m right [next] to Mark Barnett, and I was like, “Go ahead.” I didn’t want to wreck his chances or anything. I’m kind of almost a teammate of his at this point, and I didn’t want to mess up his race. So I let him go, and I just keep going, trying to stay up and pick my way around the track. The race ends, and I’m fourth place! Everybody from Europe is there, like Harry Everts and [Eric] Geboers and Gaston Rahier, and they’ve got these handmade factory bikes, and all of the U.S. guys are there on their works bikes, and here I’m out there on this worn-out production bike, and I get fourth, which was pretty cool.
So the next moto comes up, and this time I get a better start. Towards the end of the race I’m fourth or fifth, so I’m in position to take second overall behind Johnny O’Mara, but then with just two laps to go I got stuck in a hole and ended up burning the clutch out trying to get going again. It was my practice bike, so I’m sure the clutch wasn’t very strong to begin with, but it almost got me second overall in the 125 USGP, like maybe three months after I turned 16. And I was only supposed to be there to watch, but my dad somehow got me in there and I damn near took second!
You know, if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have been nobody. He pushed me hard, but he knew just how hard to push me, so all of the credit goes to him.