After 3 Straight 2nd Place Finishes, Finally A Win At The Las Vegas 400

By Scot Harden


FINALLY WE GET THE JOB DONE
Yamaha Shows Up To Make Things A Lot Tougher

Big changes were in store for 1980. Not only  was it the start of a new decade, including the beginning of the Reagan era, it also represented a seismic shift in the world of Baja/Off-Road racing. Yamaha entered the scene, snatching up Jack and LR to lead their effort. In addition, the Ogilvie/Miller team would also be receiving more support and be in a better position to challenge for overall wins. In addition, they would field a 250cc class team. Furthermore, Jack, LR, Bruce and Chuck would all be competing on the new Yamaha 465. In the world of high-speed Baja and Off-road racing, bigger displacement meant not only faster top speeds but the ability to accelerate faster from 50 – 90 mph where a lot of the race was run at. Husqvarna, on the other hand, was stuck with the aging 390 as their open class offering, which we would soon learn, was at a severe disadvantage. To make matters worse, Al Baker and Mugen Honda were developing a 500cc four-stroke and even KTM had a new 420 as well.  As we would quickly learn, there is “no replacement for displacement”.

Besides the changes in team structures and the stagnant state of Husqvarna's product development, I was looking to broaden my horizons. One thing that loomed as a personal goal was Six Days. Ever since "On Any Sunday," riding Six Days was on my to do list. I did not want to be known as just a Baja/desert racer and since I had already won every major SCORE event, Six Days seemed the next logical challenge. With LR and Jack now gone at Husky, I leveraged my position to negotiate some additional support to attempt to qualify for the 1980 ISDE and set myself on preparing for the challenge. Before that, though, there was still work to do in the off-road scene. If there was any question whether or not Yamaha was serious about winning, they quickly removed all doubt when the Ogilvie/Miller team took the season-opening Parker 400 overall win. It was evident to Brent and me that the Husqvarna 390OR we were racing was seriously down on power. With wide-open sections on the California side like Thunder Alley(a 14 mile long straight as an arrow road)  and the high-speed power line roads on the Arizona side, horsepower was king. Although we only lost by 3 minutes we could already tell we were fighting uphill. We lobbied the powers at Husqvarna to see what they could do, which we knew was not much since they were already locked into the 390 powerplant.

Fortunately, the next race on the schedule, the 1980 Las Vegas 400, wasn’t abou sheer HP, it was a much rougher, more technical event. If we were to have a real shot at winning one of the big races in 1980 it would have to be the Las Vegas 400. I had finished 2nd overall for three straight years at that event and was determined to improve the result. So was Brent. An additional incentive came in the form of new Husqvarna USA President Sven-Erik Eklund, who showed up at the race just to check on what our program looked like. From the start, we rode with purpose and with focus. Brent gave me the bike at the first rider change with a small lead, and we built on that lead lap after lap. Even a small thunderstorm that broke out mid-way through the event couldn't slow us down. We took the overall win in 10 hours 12 minutes comfortably beating the Ogilvie/Miller team by close to 20 minutes. Finally, the monkey was off my back. Brent’s too!

I had finally won my hometown race and in front of the President of Husqvarna to boot. I got to spend some time with Sven-Erik while waiting for Brent at one of the rider changes. During a brief meeting in my grand parents motorhome he asked what I wanted to do with my future. I of course shared my racing goals but I also mentioned in passing that someday I would like to work in the motorcycle industry. It was just casual conversation but little did I know I had planted a seed that would soon change the direction of my life. In any case, if there was ever a time to win a big race, that was a good time. Unfortunately, that would be our only big win in 1980. The simple truth was our 390s were simply too underpowered to compete against the mighty Yamahas that year. For the 1980 Baja 500 Husky developed an oversized piston that that increased displacement from 390cc to 412cc, but in truth, it was just a bandaid. I crashed my brains out coming out of Mikes Sky Ranch trying to play catch up. It was just after a pit stop. I left in a hurry, and just about the time I hit 5th gear, I hit a hidden rock that caused a massive endo. It was a really bad crash, and more importantly, I dislocated my shoulder. Another Husky rider hit the same rock a few minutes later and was life flighted out. I was lucky. I managed to get the bike back to the pit where we mounted some new handlebars, and I soldiered on riding one handed to get the bike to Brent.  I was out of the race. Brent rode the rest of the race solo, and I think we came home fourth in Class 22.  The 1000 later that year was equally frustrating. It's funny, but I don't even remember where we finished because I’ve tried so hard to block that year in Baja out of my memory.  Husqvarna’s stranglehold on Baja and Off-Road racing, in general, was over. It was a huge disappointment and a matter of pride that I couldn’t deliver for the brand. So many fans and supporters loved the Husqvarna brand and its legacy in Baja, going back to Malcolm Smith and JN Roberts, and we were no longer King of Baja. I felt like I let a lot of people down. Husqvarna meant a lot more to me than just another motorcycle brand. It was something I had aspired to since I was 14 years old. I believed in everything it stood for. 

The only bright side for me personally, other than winning the Las Vegas 400, was qualifying for the 55th ISDE in Brioude, France. Getting there was quite a journey. You have to remember I grew up in the desert and was a Baja/desert specialist. My experience in trees and mud was nil. The only experience I had was at the Tecate Enduro, where after some really wet years, I got a little experience riding in mud. In 1980 they took your top scores from three qualifiers for the selection process. Fortunately, the first two were held in dry conditions at the Zink Ranch in Oklahoma and at California City. I did quite well at Zink because it was mostly rocky, and it didn't rain, earning a gold medal and a fourth in the Open class. I actually had a lot of fun doing that event.  At the California Qualifier, I also got another gold medal and was set to qualify for Six Days, all I needed was a decent finish at Trask Mtn.

AC Bakken was riding the qualifiers at that time and offered to take my bike in his van to Oregon. Unfortunately, it rained hard at Trask Mtn, and my lack of mud riding skills was immediately exposed. To top it off, the event was held just a couple of weeks after Mt St Helens erupted, and the rain was filled with volcanic ash rendering goggles useless. I rode horribly, struggling to keep on time at the checkpoints turning really lousy times in the special tests. On the greasier, rutted sections, I could barely manage to stay upright. The only saving grace was that Frank Gallo, one of the top US Six Day riders at the time, gave me a tip on the final day. He saw I was struggling and told to me let the air out of my tires. You see, I was running too much pressure, 15 lbs when all I needed was 8 or 10 lbs. With that tip, I faired much better, but by then it was too late. What should have been an easy finish and enough points to qualify for the team ended up being a complete throwaway, meaning I would have to compete in the next qualifier at Bellingham, Washington, to have any chance. Going into Bellingham, I heard horror stories about how bad it could be, which were quickly confirmed when it started raining, and the first woods section was loaded with tree roots and mud ruts. I was shocked to discover that the woods were so dense and so dark in some places I actually needed my headlight to see where I was going. I was really feeling the pressure as this was the last qualifier on the west coast and the last one I could attend. If I didn't do well, I wouldn't qualify. With my back against the wall, I dug deep and discovered one of the biggest lessons I ever learned in racing. Attitude is everything. If you ride with a negative attitude, you'll get negative results; if you ride with a positive attitude and have fun things worked out better. At some point at Bellingham, I flipped the switch, and with the advice and a few more tips from Frank rode well, collecting another gold medal and qualifying for the team. I was going to fulfill my next big dream, riding Six Days.

The 1980 ISDE (the first year it was called “ISDE; before that it was called “ISDT” if you recall) was held in Brioude, France. It would be my first trip to Europe, and we got a nice send-off from our families and friends in Las Vegas. Both Jack and I had qualified for Six Days, and it would be a great adventure for both of us. Kristi also joined me on the trip, and from the time we landed in Paris, it was one epic adventure after another. There were three things we quickly learned; 1.) rental cars were actually race cars; we hammered them from the moment we got  them; we even built a moto track in a gravel yard near our base 2.) the food being served at the US compound was the worst food we had ever eaten; all the meats were served raw and 3.) in the world of enduro  racing the Europeans were kings and Americans weren’t.  As preparations unfolded for the event, I quickly learned just how serious Six Days racing was viewed and, more importantly, how much Europeans treated motorcycle racing as a legitimate sport.  The spectators and crowds were enormous. I set myself busy picking up my race bike that was delivered along with the rest of the Husqvarna loan bikes; essentially a box stock 1980 390 WR. I spent two days prepping the bike mounting what few special pieces and parts I could bring from the US and got my riding gear and spare tools ready. By the time the opening ceremonies were over, we had completely given up on the food being served at the US compound and were sneaking off to buy pizzas in the local village. When we returned from Opening Ceremonies, a giant thunderstorm burst over our small village, quickly flooding the river that ran next to our hotel and, more importantly, the mess tent where we ate each night. We stepped off the bus just in time to see the food tent get washed away by the raging torrent as the river next to it flooded its banks. A huge cheer rose from the US contingent. It was funny as hell.

1980 ended with some new personal goals accomplished but our Baja/Off-road program was in serious trouble. We would have to dig deep if we were to win any races in 1981. Fortunately for Husqvarna both Brent and I weren’t afraid of working a little harder. 

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