Chronicle Archive | Bob Hanna
larry laurent | February 13, 2022
Cycle News Archives
Hurricane Hannah’s Last National
On a typical New England spring day in May 1989, characterized by intermittent light rain and sunshine, legendary motocross racer Bob Hannah raced his last AMA Motocross National. The track was Moto-X 338, better known to fans across the country simply as Southwick. Today, if you look quickly at the final results of that race, you would have seen Hannah finish ninth overall and perhaps thought that the driver, who at the time was the winningest driver of all time in the history of the AMA Motocross and Supercross, was out with a whimper. But the thing was, 14 years after racing her first AMA MX National, 32-year-old Hannah made her National Finals and was more competitive than ever. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that Hannah was fighting out front in both motos on an underdog Suzuki, and if it hadn’t been for a mistake by Jeff Ward that knocked Hannah out in the second moto, at all the less Hannah would have on the podium and with a bit of luck he might even have clinched the national victory!
The fact that Hannah was fighting out front, two years after retiring from full-time racing, was pretty amazing in itself. But then consider that the Suzuki RM250 wasn’t the most competitive bike in ’89. Honda won all but one 250cc national championship, Troy, Ohio, where Lechien won on a factory Kawasaki. Consider that Ron Tichenor was the best Suzuki rider on the 250 in ’89, and he failed to score a podium all season. Southwick was pretty typical for Tichenor – he went 8-4 for fifth overall.
Although he hadn’t raced full time for a few years, Hannah came to Southwick in good shape because he had been testing for Suzuki for a few years. What she lacked in race endurance Hannah made up for by having hundreds of laps on the bike in testing and her body felt fresh from not having been through the pounding of a full race schedule.
The only reason Hannah was even at Southwick that day, he now admits all that year later, was “because the promoter paid me to be there”.
Looking back on today’s race, Hannah still speaks with her signature confidence.
“I should have won that day, hands down,” he said flatly. “I was ready to win it and I would have won it. On a rough track nobody should have been able to beat me. Maybe Lechien in the first run, but not in both.
“I screwed up mixing it up with Wardy and Lechien at the start of the second run. It was stupid, I should have stayed back and let them get tired.
I should add that during our entire interview Hannah did not recall Jeff Stanton winning both motos that day at Southwick. His recollection was that Lechien had won the first and once he passed Jeff Ward in the second moto he was chasing Lechien for the lead and the overall. While her memory of the second moto pursuit leader Lechien was correct (Stanton made a late charge to win that moto), Hannah had completely forgotten that Stanton had won the first moto. I chimed in by mentioning Stanton and Hannah stopped for a second and said, “No, I don’t think Stanton was up there that day.” After texting him about race coverage, he replied, “That’s why you write this stuff, because us old folks don’t remember shit!”
Despite the fading memories, Hannah has always been an excellent rough-track rider, and they didn’t come rougher than the sandy loam that is Southwick. Although he was extremely confident about his chances in the Moto-X 338 sandbox, he had actually only won one national victory on the track and that was in 1978, in the 250cc class. But he’s been solid there throughout his career, scoring podiums again in 81 and his final full season of 87, finishing second to Kent Howerton and Rick Johnson, respectively, in motos.
Fans flocked to Southwick that day to see Hannah. Technically it wouldn’t be his last race, he raced the USGP at Unadilla a few weeks later, but most fans knew it would be their last chance to see the hurricane at The Wick.
In the first moto, it was Ward who took an early lead on his Kawasaki with Stanton, Danny Storbeck, Lechien and John Dowd in pursuit. Hannah put himself in a hole with a bad start, but he made up for it by being the fastest driver on the track, despite doing it in heavy traffic as he headed towards the leaders. Six laps into the race, Hannah worked her way up to fifth, but her charge then ran into a problem in the form of local hero Dowd. Despite her best efforts, Hannah couldn’t find a way around Dowdy. Hannah even hit some bars trying to intimidate the rider nearly 10 years her junior, but Dowd’s knowledge of the track and tenacity kept him on the pace. Finally, after five rounds of combat, Hannah found a way around Dowd and continued her pursuit forward. He managed to pass Ward for third place, but the prolonged battle meant Stanton and Lechien were too far ahead to catch up.
Still, third wasn’t bad at all, considering her poor start, and with a good bike under her belt, Hannah was in a good position for moto two. If he could get a better launch and take the lead early, an overall victory might be possible.
And that’s exactly what Hannah did. After a false start where Stanton’s gate didn’t go down, the riders were called up for a rare restart. This time Hannah landed a big leap out of the gate and got stuck right behind Ward and Lechien. Lechien quickly passed Ward and opened up a small lead. Then a few laps later, the crowd could be heard cheering throughout the facility as Wardy and Hannah moved into Lechien, setting up a three-way battle. Today, Bob admits he made a strategic mistake at that time.
“My nature of always wanting to fight and overtake people whenever they were in front of me, won me a lot of races and championships,” says Hannah. “But sometimes it also caused me problems. That day at Southwick I found myself in the leading group [with Lechien and Ward] and we kind of broke up with the rest of the guys. I should have backed off a bit, waited about 20 minutes, then hit go. I was playing smart, trying to stay out of the way and not fight these guys too close, so it was all good. When Wardy and I pulled up on Lechien you could hear the roar of the crowd and it really got your adrenaline pumping.
Suddenly things took a turn for the worse. At the end of Southwick’s fastest straight, Ward lost control of his Kawasaki and traded hard as he hit the face of a jump and flew all the way down the track and clipped the Suzuki d ‘Hannah, putting Hannah hard on the ground.
“I was all the way to the other side of the track, trying to give Wardy a lot of space,” Hannah recalled. “I had this line in this straight that worked well and had a ton of momentum and I was in the air about to go through Ward and all of a sudden he traded, came flying all the way through and took out my front wheel and it slammed me.
Lo and behold, Hannah’s day was over. What could have been a career-ending storybook victory in his national final ended in a DNF in the second run and ninth overall.
Hannah went to Unadilla for the USGP a few weeks later and thought he might have a chance to win there since he had won the 1986 USGP at the famous track and was part of the victorious team of the United States at the Motocross des Nations there in 1987. “But when I saw the track, I said [promoter] Ward Robinson that he fucked me,” Hannah said. “They had leveled the track smoothly, so it wasn’t the rough Unadilla I was hoping for.” Hannah finished ninth overall with a 9-12.
I asked Bob, after such a solid performance at Southwick in 1989 with a sure podium and possible win before the crash, why he decided to walk away.
“If Roger [DeCoster] asked me to come and ride the Honda, I would have done it,” admits Hannah. “This bike was clearly the best back then, and I know I could have done some damage on this thing. But they were stacked with runners, so I understand.
So let the record show that Bob Hannah was competing for wins from the day he won his first National in 1975, through several generations of riders until his last National at Southwick in 1989. If you look at the raw results you might I don’t know but for the folks who were there Hannah battling for a win in his national final is another reason many fans of that era consider him the greatest runner in motocross rider to ever throw a leg over a bike. NC
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