By Scot Harden
I recently came across a couple of lists for the “Top 10 Desert Racers of All Time” and naturally they caught my attention. Like everyone else I read the lists and found areas of agreement and disagreement. Picking a Top 10 isn’t an easy thing to do because there is always going to be room for debate. It’s hard to compare riders from different eras, the overall level competition faced and each rider’s impact on the sport. When someone says “best desert racer of all time” it means something very special to me. “Desert Racing” is about racing a motorcycle across the desert faster than anyone else. It’s about lining up for a bomb run and once the banner drops twisting the throttle longer and harder than anyone else is willing to for as long as it takes. Its about pounding mile after mile, hour after hour sometimes night and day across some of the toughest terrain on the planet and risking everything just to be the first rider to see the lights of La Paz or the finish line of a long hare and hound. It certainly isn’t about the money. After giving it some thought I decided to create my own list. Afterall I have the unique perspective of competing against many of the riders who would be on such a list and I’ve also had the opportunity to work with, manage, and even team with many of them as a racer and as Off Road/Desert Racing Team Mgr at Husqvarna and KTM. I know as much or more about their strengths and weaknesses, their backgrounds and personal stories as anyone else and most of all I know how they were viewed by their peers. Before sharing my list though, I gave a lot of thought to the selection criteria so lets’ start there because I think its very important to understand on what basis a rider is selected.
For me a clear distinction needs to be made up front between “desert” racing and “off road” racing. “Desert” to me is highly individual, man to man racing and would include D-37 desert racing (any local desert racing association for that matter), AMA Natl H&H and all the classic H&H events of the day like BtoV, Check Chase, Moose Run, Whiskey Pete’s and Cherry Creek. It’s the most transparent form of rider comparison and as a result I place slightly more weight on this on my list. “Off Road” as it is used in this context represents SCORE, BITD, NORRA, HDRA, etc and therefore the Baja 500/1000, Vegas to Reno, Parker 400, Mint 400 and Las Vegas 400. And while for many “off road” enthusiasts these events represent the pinnacle of the sport (by virtue of the event name and reputation), these are team events involving other riders who share in the workload, and ultimately the results. Off Road is also about logistics, pit/air support, planning and financial backing and are as much about resources, as they are about pure skill at riding a motorcycle fast across the desert. On my list consideration is given to a rider’s achievement in both arenas and their impact should be felt in both the individual (desert) and team (off road) arena with slightly more weight given to individual accomplishment.
The rider had to be widely recognized as the clear favorite at some point in time in his career to win any given desert race he entered.
The rider will have had to dominate (or at least win more races than anyone else) over a minimum of five years and had to be victorious in both local desert and the big long distance off road races. No specialists. You had to win at every form of desert racing not just Baja and not just Hare and Hound.
Or more succinctly stated….Scoreboard Baby! Overall victories count for everything in desert racing. Nothing else matters. D-37 Heavyweight number one plates, SCORE and BITD Championships, overall victories in Baja, the states and in rallies around the world. At the end of the day a Top 10 List should reflect how many wins at major events a rider has under his belt. It’s the only truly objective ranking measure.
Based on these criteria here are my top 10 Desert Racers of All Time:
Bruce-O was as tough a competitor as the sport has ever seen and synomymous with Honda’s Baja racing program. No one worked harder than Bruce or paid more attention to the details. Starting from his early days with Harley Davidson Bruce grew up through the ranks winning a D-37 Heavyweight #1 plate in 1980, B to V and the Baja 1000 four times overall his last at age 51. Bruce also took home overalls at the Baja 500 and Parker 400 as well as amassing 11 overalls in D-37 competition. Bruce approached off road racing like life and death and it showed in his discipline, detrmination and work ethic. His impact on the sport his still felt today by anyone that has ever thrown a leg over an XR of CR450X Honda motorcycle.
The original “Desert Fox” was one of the most naturally talented desert racers ever and amassed an amazing 31 D-37 desert race overalls. Larry’s career came at a point in time just before the boom in offroad racing and even though the number and types of off road races were still evolving he dominated during a period when mostly all there was was D-37 desert racing. A pioneer in Baja racing Larry won the 1968 Mexican 1000 beating all other vehicles in the process with Gary Preston as his partner. Larry was also extremly involved in D-37 club activities and providing a foundation for the growth of the sport that was to come.
Following in JN’s footsteps Mitch was a member of the infamous H-D Baja 100 wrecking crew that included LR, Bruce-O, Terry Clark and several other young desert stars of the early 70’s. From 1973-1976 he was the absolute king of the desert. His list of accomplishments includes a D-37 Heavyweight No 1 plate, 2X BtoV overall winner, 2X Baja 1000 winner and Baja 500 victories. Mitch was the prototype of a new breed of highly trained, professional desert racer and set a standard that forced others to radically steup up their game. It was no longer a sport for wild-eyed throttle jockeys but for serious athletes and professionals when Mitch’s career was over. Had Mitch had more time to apply his craft who knows where he would have taken the sport.
Jack let everyone know he was a force to be reckoned with when as a huge underdog he and his partner Mark Mason upset mighty Team Husqvarna on a privateer Yamaha at the 1975 Mint 400. He went on to win the Mint 400 back to backn in ’75 and ‘76, 4 Cherry Creek Hare and Hounds, 4 Baja 1000s, 2 Baja 500s overall and is still the only rider to solo to victory at the Baja 500 (a feat that will probably never be matched). Along the way Jack won every SCORE event overall on a motorcycle and was one of the most feared riders in the desert. Jack competed well into his late 50’s where he still set some of the fastest times in the sections he rode at the Baja 1000. Sheer power and force of will were keys to Jack’s success and ultimate entry into the AMA Hall of Fame.
Destry won five AMA National H & H championships and was the dominant rider in the desert during the first decade of the 21st century. Destry also accumulated several BITD overalls along the way. The only thing missing from Destry’s resume is an overall in Baja but that can’t hold him back from being in my top 10. Destry worked hard at his craft and trained harder than anyone else from his era. Destry also successfully made the transition from two to four stroke. Destry’s pure love for the sport and the desert racing community made him a fan favorite and hero to a generation of desert racers.
Kurt was a product of D-37 desert as well and grew from #1 in the mini class to 3X consecutive AMA National H & H champion, to stage winner and evolving overall threat at Dakar. He was the outright winner at the Desafio Rally in Argentina, putting him on a very short list as the third American in history to ever win a raid rally overall. On any given Sunday from 2009-2014 he was the fastest man in the desert. Although Kurt never took home an overall in Baja he elevated the sport there at a time when interest in Baja racing was waning and who knows what he would have accomplished had he been given more time. His accomplishments in other areas of the sport make him perhaps the best all around rider ever produced by the U.S. but his accomplishments in his beloved desert home put him sixth on my list. I have got to believe that somewhere Kurt is riding with Danny hamel and his dad, Rich Caselli. God Speed Kurt!
After switching from moto to off-road Ty went on to dominate AMA National H & H, SCORE Baja and BITD racing and was nearly unbeatable in the late 90’s. Following in the footsteps of his father Terry Davis, Ty elevated the sport through his dedication to physical conditioning and the professionalism he brought to the sport. No one prepared better than Ty and no one made winning look as good in the process. A three time AMA National H&H champion, winner of 4 consecutive Baja 1000s and 1 Baja 500 Ty was one of the most dominant riders ever. On a list of best all around U.S. off road racers ever Ty would easily be in the top 3.
Five straight AMA National H & H championships, outright domination of the D-37 Heavyweight class and numerous overalls in SCORE, HDRA and BITD competition. Dan also won the inaugural Whiskey Pete’s World Championship H&H and BtoV, the two biggest desert races of the time. From 1982 to 1989 Dan Smith was undisputed King of the Desert winning a record (59) D-37 desert races overall and (7) #1 Heavyweight plates. Like several on this list Dan came from a desert racing family and his impact on the sport paved the way for future champions like Danny Hamel.
LR’s domination of western desert racing and Baja racing in particular is well documented. His career spans a thirty plus-year period where he competed for overalls in any event he entered throughout the entire period. LR was the King of Baja winning the 1000 ten times overall and the Baja 500 nine times overall in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s for three different manufacturers and with a number of different teammates. He was also a D-37 #1 Heavyweight plate holder in 1978. No one was smarter, more calculating or more blessed with good fortune than LR when it came to long distance off road racing. He had an inherent knack for always being in the right place at the right time and makng the most out of every opportunity.
Desert racing can be broken down into two eras, BJ and AJ (before JN and after JN). He was the Danny Hamel of desert racing before there was a Danny Hamel. No one was more dominant than JN at the peak of his riding caeer. 4 straight B to V victories winning his last B to V overall by over 20 minutes (I know I was at the finish line). Throw in a win at the grueling Mint 400, two overalls at the Baja 1000 a D-37 Heavyweight #1 plate and you have a record that is unmatched. For a period in time from 1967 to 1972 JN was simply unbeatable in D-37 competition setting the record for consecutive overalls at 9 and the second most ever at 34. JN was also an innovator as he proved the new batch of “spindly, little two strokes” coming out of Sweden were an outright advantage against their much bigger and more powerful 40” competition from England. He also was the first rider to use protective gear including shoulder and knee pads. JN was an inspiration for every kid following desert racing in the late 60’s and early 70’s.
No rider posessed more pure natural talent, control or sheer speed on a motorcyle than the unassuming kid from Boulder City, NV. Danny channeled JN Roberts for a generation of motorcyclists in the early 90’s. His ability to see in the dust, ability to read terrain and commitment to the throttle was unmatched by any desert racer ever. No one left it on longer or harder than Danny and even though his physical size and strength allowed him to overpower his KTM 540 and KX500 at will he relied more on finesse to win races and see him consistently through to the finish line. Five consecutive AMA National Hare & Hound Championships, winner of the last BtoV, 2 Baja 1000 overalls and countless BITD, local and D-37 wins, Danny rode like a man on fire. Unfortunately, his talent and skill came with an expiration date. Danny left us way too soon but will always be remembered as a really good person, a tremendous ambassador for the sport and a gentle soul who always had time for a fan and remained humble throughout his remarkable career.
Dan Ashcraft, AC Baaken, Al Baker, Bob Balentine, Tommy Brooks, Johnnie Campbell, Gene Cannady, Gary Conrad, Steve Hengeveld, Art Knapp, Paul Krause, Jimmy Lewis, Whitey Martino, Chuck Miller, Russ Pearson, Malcolm Smith, Max Switzer, Brent Wallingsford.
So there you have it, my Top 10. These ten men (and another dozen or so who could also lay claim to a slot in the Top 10) all held one thing in common. An unquenchable desire to be the very best at a sport that offered little to no financial compensation in return, an almost spectatorless stage to perform their artistry on and the satisfaction at having taken on one of the most dangerous forms of racing in the world and succeeding. How badly did these guys want it? Two of them gave their lives in the pursuit of the sport they loved while others were dealt with serious and sometimes life changing injuries. Desert racers are a rare breed for sure and some of the most amazing men I have ever met. My hats off to each and everyone!
(Editors Note): Naturally some will ask where I rank myself, and frankly, that is something for others to decide. For now I all I will say is I feel very lucky and blessed to have had a long and successful career winning overalls in Baja including (2) 1000s, (3) 500s, (2) Parker 400s, (4) Las Vegas 400s, (4) #1 plates in local desert competition, (1) BtoV and as a pioneer of rally racing winning America’s first overall victory in Rally competition (1987 Djerba Rally in Tunisia). I capped my career off by finishing Dakar at the youthful age of 49. I also helped train Chris Blais who would go on to finish on the podium at Dakar in 2007. In fact my greatest achievement and the one I take the most satisfaction from is helping upcoming riders as Team Mgr at Husky and KTM. Dan Smith, Dan Ashcraft, Danny Hamel, Jimmy Lewis, Destry Abbot, and the Pearsons are just but a few of the riders who I signed to their first factory contract and helped launch their professional racing careers. For this I take a great deal of pride and satisfaction. Let’s just say I am happy to just be a part of the conversation.