Throughout 2023 MX Vice is going to be running through the ultimate list of 1980s Motocross riders, the top 50 in fact, from both sides of the Atlantic divide. With detailed statistics and incredible images from the vaults of legendary photographer Jack Burnicle, you’ll get the true story of the best riders from that iconic time.
Words: Ben Rumbold | Images: Jack Burnicle
The 1980s was a massive decade for Motocross, and many still consider them the Golden Years of the sport. So, who were the best riders? How can that be measured in the intensely divided Motocross world? When presented with the legendary names of the time, how do you pick out the ones at the very top?
The idea for this list started with an online “debate”. The usual thing, a few Americans argue with a few Brits, the Nations of ‘86 & ‘94 get mentioned and everyone goes away with exactly the same opinions they had in the first place! When I delved into the results, the points, the stats, I was finding a lot of names in there that just don’t get mentioned much when those years get discussed.
So I wanted to find a way to highlight those that really did deliver, and show them off in a slightly more unpredictable way than just listing the champions and winners from each year. A badass list of the best that would bring up a random-looking bunch of characters from different parts of the world and who rode wildly different motorcycles as well. So here it comes!
As always, the numbers simply cannot tell the whole story. There is no asterisk to say that a bike broke down, he was taken out, he was injured, etc. All the numbers can do is tell you won the overall on any single day – the most number of times! They can’t take into account the strength of the opposition, issues with machinery, the level of the playing field. The stats can’t tell you all of that. What they CAN do is eliminate the ifs, the buts, the maybes. This is what DID happen. These were the names on the trophies, and that can’t be argued with.
Those Gosh-Darn Americans
Without doubt the biggest difference between the 1970s and the 1980s is the rise of the USA, in both major forms of two-wheeled sport. American road racers won 80% of the world titles in the 500cc class that became MotoGP between 1978 and 1993. In the Motocross world, Americans largely stayed in their own country, Supercross became massive and the AMA Nationals also grew throughout the decade. Americans won GPs and of course the Nations too, so they have to be included in the discussion.
Some of you reading this were there in person, reading papers and magazines, or watching the inevitable VHS tapes that Santa would deliver each year, and will already have names bouncing round your heads. So let’s see how good they really were…
To get into the list, a rider must have won at least TWO major overall events from 1980-89 inclusive. The list is ordered by percentage of wins against races entered. Every Grand Prix or AMA National on a 125, 250, or 500cc counts. I will drop the bombshell here – this does NOT include Supercross. Simply put, it just became a different game, played only on one continent, and it didn’t fit with the point of finding the best Motocross racers from the time. It will naturally get mentioned when we talk of those who did it, but the statistics from Supercross do not affect this list.
Now with the Nations, up until 1984 it was basically a modified GP, all on the same capacity bikes. We’re counting the MX des Nations for 500s, Trophee des Nations for 250s, and from 1981-84 the Coupe des Nations for 125s. And we’re counting INDIVIDUAL wins at the Nations, team results don’t come into it. From 1985 onwards, all classes ran on the same day and if a rider won their class – 125, 250, or 500 – then that’s a win towards their total in this list.
The GPs were straightforward. 12 rounds per year for each series unless one got cancelled, which happened four times in total. The AMA changed massively. From 7 or 8 rounds a year for each class, to 10 or 11, to then radically splitting the classes from 1986! From then, 125cc riders did 11-13 rounds whilst the big bikes split the year, so they had 5-7 rounds on 250s, and 6 on 500s.
Here’s an example, for someone who fell just outside the top 50 – Australian legend Jeff Leisk.
Jeff rode 14 GPs in the 1980s – The 1984 British 250GP at Newbury, the 1988 500cc USGP, and the entire 1989 500cc season. He also rode three AMA seasons, 1986 & 87 in the 125cc Nationals – 23 races – then 6 250cc and 6 500cc Nationals in 1988. He also rode for Australia at the Nations in 1985, 88, and 89. So that’s (14+35+3 equals) 52 top class races, and he won 2 of them – the Finnish and San Marino GPs of 1989. So he won 3.8% of his races. The man at #50 in the list got 3.9%. So poor Jeff got very close! An empty fuel tank at Valkenswaard kinda close!
We will reveal the list weekly on MX Vice, running from #50 to #1, highlighting those with the best winning rates. There are 26 Americans and 24 Europeans. 21 riders who focused on AMA racing, 24 who just did GPs, and 5 brave souls who did serious work on either side of the divide! There are 6 Belgians, 5 Brits, 4 Dutchmen, 4 Italians, and 5 from other European nations – I’ll let you take your guesses who they are. Most importantly the list contains the winners of all 60 AMA & FIM titles available in the 1980s, spread amongst 15 AMA Champions, 17 World Champions, 2 who won titles in the 70s, 3 who would go on to be champions in the 90s, and an unlucky 13 who simply never won a major Motocross title!
So join us as we count down the Top 50 Motocross racers of the 1980s – By The Numbers! It kicks off with an Italian flavour and one of the most emotional season finales of all time. See you next week!