Thursday Throwback: Bob Hannah at Unadilla ’87

Retired from fulltime racing, Bob “Hurricane” Hannah was coaxed into riding a 125 for Team USA at the 1987 MxDN. Typical Hannah, he put in a heroic ride.

Bob “Hurricane” Hannah still scratches his head when asked how, when at the ripe old age of 31, he ever came to ride in the 125cc class for Team USA at the 1987 Motocross des Nations. The hows and whys are far less important than the outcome, though, as Hannah’s stunning performance in the event at the fabled Unadilla Valley Sports Center in New York stands as perhaps the most heroic performance of his storied racing career.

Bob “Hurricane” Hannah (left) hams it up on the Unadilla MXdN announcer’s stage with legendary announcer Larry Maiers (right). At the 1987 Motocross of Nations, a semi-retired Hannah added to his legacy by winning the 125cc class to help lift Team USA to victory. Of course, Hannah did it all his way. PHOTO BY PAUL BUCKLEY.

“I think it was a vote,” Hannah once recalled of his nomination to the team. “I remember all the promoters calling me up and saying, ‘Hey, I voted for you to ride Unadilla.’ But I said, ‘What!?’ I don’t want it.’ I wasn’t even racing fulltime anymore.”

True that. Suzuki director of engineering Tadami “Shiggy” Shigenoya had signed Hannah to a testing contract with Suzuki, but with a limited racing schedule thrown in to “race test” some of the technology Suzuki was pursuing.

But come MXdN nomination time, someone at the AMA got the idea that Hannah should be on Team USA one last time. The problem was that with younger superstars
Ricky Johnson and Jeff Ward all but a lock to ride the 250cc and 500cc classes respectively, the only place left to put Hannah was in the 125cc class, a preposterous notion.

“It was crazy because how many years had it been since I’d even been on a 125? Ten?” Hannah recalled. “So, I told Suzuki that I wasn’t going to do it, and Shiggy just threw a rod. He said, ‘We’ve got to ride this. You are going to get a lot of publicity for Suzuki – win, lose or draw.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but I don’t want to lose or draw, Shiggy.’ Johnson could have ridden a 250 or a 500 – either way – and I didn’t have a 500 at Suzuki, so the logical thing would have been to put Wardy on the 125, me on the 250 and Johnson on the 500. And that’s if you even wanted my old ass in there anyway.”

As if the situation wasn’t weird enough already after Hannah was confirmed to be Team USA’s 125cc rider, it went from bad to worse when Johnson and Ward publicly chided him for not being a team player because Hannah refused to take part in the Team USA training camp in Pennsylvania.

“Here’s my problem with that,” Hannah said. “It really isn’t a team deal until the day of the race. I took a lot of shit for that, but Johnson and Ward can both kiss my ass. [Team USA manager Roger] DeCoster wasn’t too happy with me at the time, but he knows me really well, so he didn’t buck me too bad. But Johnson and Ward both said crappy crap to me and about me, saying that I’m not the team guy because they were all going to ride at some place in Pennsylvania the week before the race, and they wanted me to come there.”

But if riding a 125 at the MXdN wasn’t originally a part of his 1987 agenda, Hannah decided that he was going to be the one to set his own agenda once he accepted the challenge.

“I needed to ride my bike, and I needed to test my bike,” Hannah said. “I needed to do the job that I know very damn well how to do, and I didn’t need to be holding Ward and Johnson’s hand for a week, eating dinner with them and acting like I’m their teammate. I was going to be their teammate at Unadilla. It doesn’t mean that we needed to have a love affair before then, right? I just told Roger, ‘When the goddamn gate drops, I’ll be ready.’”

With just 30 days to prepare, Hannah went to work.

Knocked down in the first moto, Hannah pinned his factory Suzuki 125 through the Unadilla mud to finish fourth. In Moto 2, Hannah left nothing to chance, dusting 125cc World Champion Davy Strijbos en route to a moto win that gave Team USA the overall win by two points. PHOTO BY PAUL BUCKLEY.

“I was going there to win,” Hannah says, “so I told Shiggy, ‘Okay, here’s how we’re gonna do this: You call Japan and have them ship two works 125s over here immediately. I’m robbing another mechanic out of your shop to be my practice bike mechanic, and he’s going to Idaho with me for 30 days. I’m going to Idaho, and I’m not coming out of Idaho for 30 days. I’m not going to do squat but ride this 125 every day, and my mechanic Randy is going to get the race bike prepared to do the race. So, I went to Ketchum [Idaho], and I had a run [running trail] there, up Fox Creek. It went from 6000 feet to 8500 feet, and it was about an eight-mile run. I had 21 days straight on that eight-mile run. Twenty-one days straight. I never missed it, and I never missed a riding day either.”

When he wasn’t running, Hannah killed himself daily by racing two 45-minute practice motos on that works 125 practice bike. By the time the gate dropped for the MXdN at Unadilla on September 13, 1987, he was in just about the best shape of his career. And he needed to be when the start of moto one commenced.

“I got knocked off two times on the first uphill by 500s,” Hannah remembered. “Riding a 125 against 500s at Unadilla was going to be tough anyway, but on a muddy track – especially with a bunch of Europeans who were good in the mud there – that wasn’t good.”

Hannah finally got going, in 15th place. It would have been easy to just give up already.

“It would have been, but I didn’t train one month straight to look like a scapegoat,” Hannah said, “and then to get my ass knocked off twice on that uphill and look like a fool.”

Instead, Hannah pinned his screaming 125 to the stop and rode like he was being chased by the devil. When the moto was over, he’d made his way to fourth 125—not great but still in the hunt. In moto two, however, the still-possessed Hannah left nothing to chance, outdistancing Italian ace Corrado Madii and reigning World 125cc MX Champion Davy Strijbos to finish third overall in the moto and go 4-1 in his class, which was good enough to net the 125cc overall win and lift the USA past the tough Dutch team to claim the MXdN gold by two points.

(Left to right) Hannah, shown here with Broc Glover, Mike Bell, Rick Burgett and Hannah’s then-mechanic Keith McCarty at the 2015 Yamaha Wall of Champions ceremony, was part of Yamaha’s ‘fab four in 1978. The team swept every AMA national motocross and supercross title available that year. PHOTO BY SCOTT ROUSSEAU

“If we’d lost that race, you know it was going to be Bob Hannah’s ass,” Hannah said. “I hate to say it, but I rode great. And I got lucky. There were a lot of good riders there that day. I told my mechanic afterward, ‘I don’t know how the bike didn’t blow up, because I didn’t baby it.’ I couldn’t. That was a good bike, I have to admit.”

In retrospect, Hannah said he is okay with people remembering him for his last MXdN appearance. Like most of his fans, he believes it to be at the top of his list of heroic performances.

“Absolutely it is,” Hannah said. “You know, I couldn’t do it but I actually had it in my head to try and outrun Johnson in that second moto, but he was just too good on that 250. You know, a lot of people were on my side to run that race but, really, I wasn’t the right guy for the job.”

History proves otherwise.