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Memories of the 1976 “125 Nationals”

Written by Steve Wise

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Before we go directly into that incredible 1976 season it might be good for me to set the stage, so to speak and to point out that this article is from my perspective.

 

Toward the end of 1974 I received a phone call at my home in McAllen, Texas, and what a surprise it was to hear the person on the other end of that phone line.  The man said, “Hello Steve, my name is Tim Smith and I’m  the factory Kawasaki motocross team manager here in Los Angeles, California.  We have been trying to sign Steve Stackable to ride for us, but he has already signed with Maico for the 1975 season.

During our conversation, I informed Stack we were also looking for a rider to race the 125cc national class. I told Stackable, I have already seen most of the California riders and was wondering if he knew of anyone that might interest us.  Short Stack said, ‘There is a young gun here in Texas that smokes everyone in the 125 class and gives Howerton and myself a good run in the 250cc class.  You might want to look at him.’ ”

The rest is history!  Kawasaki flew my father and I out to L.A. for the purpose of watching me race one of Torlief Hansen’s old 1974 European 250 works bikes against the locals at Carlsbad, CA.

I had only been to California one time in my young life, on a family vacation.  The amazing part of that vacation was, without planning, we happened to be there the very same weekend the first-ever Superbowl of Motocross was raced in the LA Coliseum.  My father bought tickets and we sat in the stands watching an incredible show.  Who would have ever dreamed the young man we watched win this race, Marty Tripes, would one day be a friend and teammate on the factory Honda racing team.

When we arrived at the Carlsbad track that Sunday morning, driving the Kawasaki Racing Team truck, I was in awe.  That huge fast downhill was like nothing I’d ever seen in Texas, and to say it was a local event is a real understatement.  Seeing names like Smith, Croft, McDougal, Hart, Semics, Staten, West, and others who would one day make their mark on the National circuit was somewhat unnerving.

There was a guy on a Maico, wearing this really strange looking helmet, who was going incredibly fast.  He passed me in practice as if I was stopped on that long downhill, and I knew this wasn’t going to be like the local races in Texas I usually dominated, if Kent and Stack were not around.  That rider never made it big on the national circuit, but I’m telling you, he was fast on that track.

That local race was an awakening for me.  The guy who won the 250 Expert class that day, which I was in, wore a jersey that had “Wheelsmith Maico” on it.   Knowledgeable motocross fans will remember him as the late Gaylon Mosier and I was actually very happy to finish 6th overall on that strange Kawasaki works bike, my first time at Carlsbad.

I guess my finish wasn’t too bad, because that afternoon my father and I were invited to meet Mr. Smith and a Japanese man at American Kawasaki on Monday morning.  They offered me a contract to be a factory Kawasaki  rider for the 1975 season, riding the 125 Nationals and some 250 races.

Sharing that story always gives me great joy, and I will always be thankful to Steve Stackable for mentioning my name to Tim Smith.

Earlier, in 1974 at the age of 16, I raced my Honda 250 Elsinore in two Nationals back East, placing a respectable 8th and 9th, but didn’t receive any attention from the factories.  At Carlsbad, I was six months older and quite a bit stronger.  What an incredible feeling it was, flying home to Texas, knowing I was now a factory motocross rider at the age of 17.

The 1975 works 125 didn’t arrive in time for the first National in Hangtown, so Kawasaki decided for me to ride the 250 class that day.  There wasn’t much to remember, but I did get a good start that first moto and boy, was it was muddy.  I think my finish was somewhere in the top 10, probably closer to 10th.

When the 125 did arrive a few weeks later, it looked great, was light and handled even better, but had absolutely no power.  I battled hard early in the year, and did finish in the top 5 a few times, but to say that bike was slow was an understatement.

I viewed a magazine picture one day that showed me being half a bike length ahead of everyone right out of the gate during the 125 national in Herman, Nebraska.  After coming out of the gate there was a steep, long, uphill straightaway before the first turn. By the time we reached the top of the hill, I was mid pack.

Halfway through the season, I was tired of doing everything I could to work back into the top 7, after getting horrible starts.  Things weren’t working out well, and Kawasaki, being disappointed with my results, decided to pull out after the Nebraska national.  Kawasaki and I went our separate ways and that was fine with me.

WiseandStraitMy father and I decided to skip the next two nationals in Ohio and West Virginia.  We began preparing for the national race coming to my home state of Texas in a month.  It was the first time a 125 national championship event would be held in San Antonio, and I was looking forward to it.

My father, being a successful real estate broker, also owned the local Honda dealership, in McAllen, TX.  We took a CR 125 off the show room floor and my good friend and great mechanic, Jimmy Strait, began preparing the motorcycle. He ported the cylinder, put on some Girling gas shocks and an FMF pipe.  Those were the only modifications we made.  Oh yeah, I think we drained the fish oil out of the front forks and replaced it with Bel-Ray.

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Steve Wise

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