By Shawn McDonald
Anybody who has met Anthony Joseph DiStefano the III would never call him a pirate. Indeed, he is of the finest quality of gentlemen and the most serene of souls. Why, then, do I impugn the character of such an upstanding representative of the championship motocross fraternity? Because he was the last true privateer to challenge for a National Championship against the established multi-national motorcycle factory race teams and their star riders.
He was the most scurvy of pirates, stealing riches and plunder from the long-standing establishment without any permission or a by your leave. Who was this 17-year-old teenager from Pennsylvania who had American fans cheering for the biggest underdog to ever hit the national scene? Stranger yet, his exploits occurred on a piece of machinery called a CZ 400, designed and manufactured in a communist country. Was a revolution brewing in the air? Was the American corporate way of life in danger? Was anarchy close at hand, all rules and laws about to be thrown out the door?
The year was 1974, our protagonist was sometimes called ‘Tony’ by the pirate press, and he was leading the 500cc National Motocross Championship against the factory Yamahas of Jammin’ Jimmy Weinert and Mike Hartwig, the Maico of Steve Stackable, the Husqvarna of Gary Semics and the Suzuki of Mike Runyard. At least he was, until injury deflated his victory sails. But during the following three years the establishment brainwashed the young pirate and turned him into a three time straight AMA 250cc National MX Champion, in 1975/’76/’77. But from then on life was a sad affair for pirates, as he was the last of his kind to challenge for the throne.
Birthplace: Bristol, Pennsylvania
Birthdate: February 6, 1957
Mother/father: Margaret, Anthony (deceased)
Children: Joseph age 17, Anna age 14
Sisters: Donna age 49, Vicki age 43
Racing height: 6’
Current height: 4’11”
Racing weight: 190 pounds
Racing championships: 1975, 1976 & 1977 AMA 250cc Motocross Championships, 1975 Inter-Am Champion. Florida
1975 Cycle News Rider of the Year
Motocross Action Hall of Fame
AMA Hall of Fame
Seven times a member of the Motocross & Trophy des Nations team
Bench Racer: Do you have anything you would want to change in your career?
Tony DiStefano: Not really. I’m pleased with how things came out. Looking back, in a perfect world I would have concentrated more on supercross. Supercross back then was just a joke. You were primarily hired to race for the National Championship. I was the more conservative type from back east, and I concentrated all my resources on winning a National Championship. In 1976 I had the supercross title locked up by leading Dallas and winning Daytona, but then my Suzuki broke in half. That was after DeCoster’s Suzuki had broken in half, so the brand decided to not race the next two supercross races. But I was only doing it because I was doing well with so little effort.
One year, in the 500cc Supercross Championship, there were only three races – at Daytona, Houston and Dallas. That series was mine until the gearbox locked up, and I broke my front brake. I still could have won the race, but it just didn’t seem to be serious enough for me. I would never have guessed that supercross would come along as big as it did. I have the highest respect for Jeremy McGrath, because I would have bet my life nobody could win that many supercross championships. As supercross evolved into a very technical sport it seemed you were either an outdoor motocross specialist or a supercross specialist, without any crossover. That now seems to have changed, with Carmichael and Bubba being able to conquer both supercross and the outdoor nationals with equal skill, which I am very happy about.
My outdoor record stands at three 250cc championships, an Inter-Am title, AMA Athlete of the Year, AMA Hall of Fame member and a member of the Motocross des Nations team. So I would say if anything were missing it would have been nice to have a supercross title, but like I said we considered it a joke back then. It was sort of like putting money in Microsoft back in 1982. Who would have thought it would end up where it did?
BR: What was your favorite motocross track?
TD: What was really unique back then was Unadilla, because it was raced on only once a year. The other tracks were pretty much race tracks. With so few races on the grass you ended up cutting up and wearing down the track, because everybody ended up taking pieces of grass turf home with them on their bikes.
BR: How do you like the Washougal track?
TD: Nice track. Clay track. Beautiful setting. It’s always one of the better tracks in the US, because of the prep work they do before the race ever starts. What made Unadilla different was you didn’t prep it before the race. You started out with high grass, and it would just get tougher throughout the day. I think being in shape and being prepared gave you an advantage on those tougher tracks. I always did well on the sand tracks because I was in shape. Sand tracks are hard work, and very physically demanding. The Puyallup MX track was sand, and rewarded the prepared racer. The only real sand track left is Southwick.
BR: When you were racing, what did you most like to race on?
TD: I liked the faster, and bumpier courses. I wouldn’t say that I liked rain or mud, but I always did real well because of the will and experience. Mainly it was your mind that made the difference. I also had the experience of racing in the northeast, where it rains quite a bit. The guys in California didn’t ride in the rain, and weren’t prepared. At the Puyallup Trans-Am you had to bring your long johns, because it would be freezing and hailing. You had to be prepared by wearing the right types of clothing in layers, know from training in that environment, and how to set up your bike.
BR: You went to Europe to race in the Motocross des Nations but never competed in the World MX Championships. Is there any reason why?
TD: Nobody wanted to go, because we knew we weren’t good enough. We got close. People don’t understand how it was back then. We were Americans, and we weren’t taken seriously. The Motocross des Nations came at the end of the year, and most of the Americans wanted to go and have a good time and not race in Europe. So I took on the obligation along with the team leader Brad Lackey, Jim Pomeroy and Jim Weinert. We would be against the Belgian team, which fielded three present and future world champions – DeCoster, Harry Everts and Gaston Rahier – and we’d race in Holland. They told us we wouldn’t even be able to ride around the track.
I love it when people say I can’t do something, it just makes me want to do it even more. The guys would say it’s too rough, and I would tell them, “No way could it be rougher than the tracks in Florida, like Cocoa Beach and Jacksonville.” Anybody who has ever been to Europe will tell you it’s a lot easier going here than there. We’re spoiled here with Holiday Inns, same money, same basic food, common laws, one language, no passports and McDonald’s everywhere. Myself, I like the challenge of border crossings, different-colored money and exotic food. I didn’t realize that when the Europeans came over here they were as crazy as could be. They would rent and wreck cars, go drinking and still easily win the races. When they were over here they were on vacation. When we were over there we would be driving through Italy trying to find this place, and they had these all street signs that kept saying these two words “Uno sentico.” I’m not sure of the spelling, but it means “One Way.” I think that we were going the right
way? Or when we were in Germany there were signs that said “Ausgang”, which meant “Exit”, as we passed this big city we were supposed to stop off at. Racing in Europe meant real hardship, especially when we were making some money here in America. I was making about $100,000 a year, but $30,000 of that was coming from my clothing endorsement with Full House. I made a $10,000 bonus if I won a championship. Today riders get that much for a heat win. Today’s riders get paid ten times more.
BR: Brad Lackey was very proud of the 1974 US MX des Nations team which finished second that year, behind the home team of Sweden. What did it feel like, being part of that team on a privateer CZ?
TD: I was privileged to go with Lackey, Pomeroy and Weinert as the USA team. We didn’t really know what was going on with the FIM back then, because the age limit for international competition was 18, and I was 17. There was some controversy about that when we got there, but I didn’t really know about it until afterwards. I think they were a little embarrassed, because they didn’t know how to enforce the rule. We just tried to do the best we could. Weinert and I did pretty well, but Lackey and Pomeroy were better. Because Weinert had the worst score he was dropped from the final tally, which was what happened in the rules back then. I was real happy to come in second that year, against the Belgians and the Swedes.
BR: What was your first European trip like?
TD: The first time I ever left the country was to go to Czechoslovakia at age 17, and it was the first time I flew on an airplane. There was this break in between the Inter-Am races in 1974, and I went to Prague and visited the CZ factory and raced. The situation was a little different, because they had all these guards walking around with machine guns.
BR: You were the first, and most likely last, American motocross racer to have a full line of clothing from Full House that included boots, socks, gloves, jerseys and leathers named after you. How did that all start?
TD: It was really a licensing deal with my name, but also I gave feedback to the manufacturer about how to make the products better. With my name on the equipment you could tell I was wearing what I said I was wearing. Unlike some riders who said they used the product and didn’t, but still collected the contingency money. We all started off using hockey equipment to protect us in a kind of hodge-podge, thrown-together outfit. What Full House did was bring someone in from the skiing industry to make a complete outfit that looked good and was functional. The pants were made for you in the sitting position, and the gloves were pre curved to hold onto the bars. That is all standard practice today, but it was brand new back then. I developed and wore that clothing practicing, racing and almost sleeping in it. That was a good experience, and I made a lot of contacts for later in my career.
BR: Keith McCarty, the head of Team Yamaha Motocross, was your first factory Suzuki mechanic.
TD: In 1974, when I was a privateer on a CZ, Keith and Brian Loonis would let me sleep on the floor of their motel room and let me take a shower, even though I was beating their factory Suzuki rider, Rich Thorwaldson. The next year Keith was my mechanic with Team Suzuki, and Billy ‘Sugar Bear’ Grossi was my team-mate.
BR: Who do you connect with when you go to the Outdoor Nationals or supercross races?
TD: I would take my kids to the Kingdome to watch the supercross when it was here, and we would always see Keith McCarty. I also see Roger DeCoster, especially since we are both connected with Suzuki in the past and present. It’s kind of strange though, because when we raced against each other I was working for the subsidiary American Suzuki, and Roger worked directly for the Suzuki Corporation in Japan. It was my job to try and go out and beat him. I didn’t understand the corporate politics back then, but if we beat the factory team it was a major upset. It’s great talking with Roger today about normal stuff like kids.
BR: Who would you say was your greatest competitor?
TD: My initial thought is Jimmy Weinert. Every year it was different, though. One year it was Weinert, the next year it was Marty Smith, and then there was Kent Howerton and Steve Stackable. In 1977 it was allegedly the whole Honda team with Smith, Tommy Croft and hired gun Jim Pomeroy. I don’t see many of those racers today. I saw Marty Smith’s wife down at the Anaheim Supercross last year, and I didn’t recognize her because the last time I saw her she was 20 years old. I occasionally see Weinert at some races in his home state of New York.
BR: How did you like racing the US grand Prix?
TD: I guess that would be another regret, because the GP was always right after the 250 Championship was over. I never realized how big it really was, even though it was televised on ABC. I mean we raced against DeCoster, Wolsink and Mikkola, who were dead serious racing for the World Championship, and the best we could get was to be first American, which was usually way back in the results. So I could have done more to get ready for the GP and tried for the win, but I didn’t.
BR: Tell me an interesting story?
TD: It was in my last race in my last championship year, in 1977. In previous years they had counted points by overall wins, and then they changed it to moto wins. Marty Smith was in second place in the standings, and all I had to do to win the championship was to finish in third place in one of the motos. Smith took off with the lead in the first moto, and I was happy to sit in second place and get the championship. Then Weinert, who wasn’t doing well in the championship, comes by and passes both of us with four laps left in a 45-minute moto. I was fine, still sitting in third place to secure the championship, but the race was in Mt Morris, Pennsylvania. Now that is on the other side of the state and about 350 miles away from my home, but it was still Pennsylvania. I look over to the side of the track, and all the fans were yelling “TONY D! TONY D!” and breaking down the fence, and I just said to myself that I got to go for it. It was hot, and it was Memorial Day weekend, and I passed Smith and Weinert to win that moto and the overall.
BR: You have always been an east coast racer, haven’t you?
TD: The east is where it started. I was the first one who stayed close to home, which actually worked out better for the races because you didn’t have far to go. From where I lived in Pennsylvania there were six national events within a five-hour radius. The nationals were almost a northeastern series. These other guys always had to fly in from California. I used to always stay out on the road because it’s more convenient; you’re more acclimated to the local weather and you retain your focus on racing. When you get away from racing you get civilized, and you can get into trouble.
BR: What do you think of today’s racers?
TD: Well, Carmichael and Stewart are the guys. They work hard and are talented. It’s different today, because they start out on mini bikes and become MX stars before their voices change. The modern-day stars of MX make a lot of money, and don’t seem to race as much. There wasn’t anyone to challenge McGrath all those years, and now there doesn’t seem to be anyone to challenge Carmichael. In my day we would never accept not challenging somebody, even if we had to run into him.
My play on it is these guys are making a lot of money, 600 thousand, 800 thousand, a million dollars, and not racing. I’m disgusted that they have to bring in Europeans to compete with us because the Americans are not hungry enough to do it. The Europeans, South Africans and Australians come over here to race, and after a little while they get Americanized and start sitting out in the sun. You have very talented guys without the desire. You have guys in supercross sitting at home, earning a guaranteed contract. I think you need to have a bonus system from the factories which will pay the riders on results alone, and make them hungry again. When I see my old friend Bob Hannah at Daytona he just shakes his head.
Suzuki just hired Ricky Johnson to work with the riders. Today’s riders don’t know much about the bikes, and how to set them up. Roger DeCoster is real good with the bikes but not real good with the riders, because he feels they are getting paid money to ride and they should be ready to do that. He was brought up like that, as we were. Why don’t these guys go out and get their own trainers, psychologists and somebody to hold their hand to get the job done? I don’t know, maybe that’s just the modern day.
You see what they call privateers today with an 18-wheeler truck, mechanic, clothing contract and guaranteed salary. A kid with an old pick-up truck, a bike and some spare parts who races the Nationals is a privateer. I’m concerned with the amateur racing too, because they are more worried about what they look like and the racing is almost secondary. You have the helmet all painted up and all these exterior things. How about the race? I guess I’m just a purist from a different day.
BR: What type of music do you like listening to as the sun is rising somewhere in Kansas?
TD: I like the old style Country and Western music, before it changed. I liked Shania Twain’s music before I knew she looked so hot. She has a great story about how she took care of brother and sister after her parents died in an accident. That’s pretty phenomenal.
BR: You don’t strike me as the party boy on the circuit. Is that true?
TD: I just wasn’t. I had to work at what I did. I don’t think I was that good, and I had to work hard and stay serious. When the Europeans came over for the Trans-Am they would just goof around and party, and the other Americans enjoyed that. But with guys like Pierre Karsmakers setting the training standards to race and win, I started training and it paid off. The objective was always to win. The guys on the west coast had the long hair, and when I started winning and the guys would cut their hair they would say, “That looks like the Tony D look.” I don’t think I missed out on anything.
BR: You and Hannah seem to be good friends today?
TD: Yeah, I guess so. Because he wasn’t really in my time – well he kind of was, but he really succeeded me. During that time I really didn’t care for him because he was a pretty wise guy, and uncouth. But he learned how to deal with things.
One of the things when you race is that people always want something from you. So there is always a little resistance from the top racers because of that. When you get a chance to know him he would do anything for you. Bob is from the old school, because he did what he had to do and he would be serious about doing it. Bob helped me out with my MX Schools when I crashed, and became paralyzed. He was doing Suzuki promotions at the time, and came out as a guest instructor about six times a year. He did stuff he didn’t have to do, and he did it right.
Bench Racer: At what age did you start riding bikes?
Tony DiStefano: About the age of five, on a Yamaha step-through motor scooter. My dad had a motorcycle shop, but he was more of a used car salesman. Back then nobody made any money racing bikes. My dad’s name is Anthony Joseph DiStefano. My name is Anthony Joseph DiStefano Jr. I don’t really like the name ‘Tony’. Growing up I was always called Anthony and my dad was Tony. When I started racing the other racers started calling me Tony. They also couldn’t pronounce my last name, so Peter Lampuu started just calling me Tony D. Of course Lampuu was from Finland and had a hard time pronouncing anything English. We named my son Joseph Anthony DiStefano to give him his own identity.
BR: Huge change, switching the names around, Tony!
TD: I didn’t want him to be a junior or the third. My grandfather was from the old country and his name was Antonio Josepe DiStefano. I’m not sure how that all works when someone dies, if you still get to be a junior or what.
BR: Technically that would make you Anthony Joseph DiStefano the third, and if you had not swapped names with your son he would have been the fourth. Kind of like a King Anthony the third.
TD: I didn’t have any inspiration for my son to be a racer, but if he decided to race he would have a tougher time carrying that name around with him. And if he did well it would be under his own name.
BR: Did your son ever want to race?
TD: He never got a fair shot at it. Joseph was two when I was injured, and shortly after that his mother and I divorced. He would ride a couple times a year when he would stay with me for the summer, and now he stays with me all the time but he is busy doing other things.
BR: Let’s go back to when you started riding the Yamaha?
TD: No, no, I take it back. The first bike was one of those mini bikes with the Briggs & Stratton lawnmower engines in it. You know, the ones with the square wheels.
I finally started racing at age eight on a Yamaha 100 twin. That was 1965, and a good local racer, Ray Martino, was like a racing mentor to me back then. The first race was near Allentown, PA. It was really muddy, and I was wearing a bubble shield on my helmet. I didn’t get around very well. That was at the end of the year, and I started racing more the next year. They used to lie to me and tell me there wasn’t a race going on, so I wouldn’t know about it. I was pretty big for my age, so they would tell the organizers I was 12 or 14 years old. Every race I would be a different age. It was OK, because there were just a few people and nobody took it too seriously. Guys would ride to the races on enduro bikes with pie plates on the headlights, and race. It was just a lot of fun racing scrambles back then.
BR: When did you start getting around the track successfully?
TD: I went from Amateur to Expert in scrambles racing when I was nine years old. At that time I was racing a Bultaco. You have to put it into perspective, though. There would only be eight or 10 people in a race, and even then a couple of the bikes would break down. I really enjoyed doing it, though. The hardest thing to do was getting to the races as a kid. When I was 14, motocross arrived in Pennsylvania. A scrambles race would last maybe four to six laps, and you would have to wait around all day to race. In motocross you could race a couple of classes and race in three 20-minute motos for each class. You just got a lot more racing time in motocross.
We had some beautiful grass tracks in Pennsylvania, laid out on farmland with maybe a creek crossing to make it interesting. By then I was racing a CZ, but motocross wasn’t my kind of thing. I wasn’t real physical, and I just wasn’t made for motos. I just kept going to the races though, and got better. You have to do what you like, and I liked trail riding, which is very close to motocross.
BR: You said it was hard to get to the races. Did your family go with you?
TD: They would go sometimes. At about age 12 they weren’t getting along, and by age 14 they had broken up. Since my dad had the motorcycle shop there was always someone to go to the races with. I had to work on my own bike and know how to do everything both at the shop and at the track. You just always had to find a ride to the races. My dad carried Yamaha and Suzukis, but the shop burned down when I was around 12 years old and he didn’t restart it. He just went back into used cars. He wasn’t an enthusiast. It was all about making money. He never raced because he was about making money, and there was no money in racing motorcycles. Fortunately I was in the first wave of motorcycle racers to make money. Racers told me that Dick Mann, the AMA Grand National Champion, was poor and he had to work hard at being that way. In motocross you could make a decent living. Today’s MX stars make 10 times more.
BR: What did your family think of you racing?
TD: In the early years they were behind it, and then my parents split up and didn’t really know what was going on with me, and Ray Martino stepped in and helped me out racing. I actually started living there under the guise of working on bikes. It was a good move to get out of that environment. When I got successful they were proud, I guess, but I didn’t know because I was out on the road all the time.
BR: You lied about your age to go racing professionally?
TD: I got my license when I was 14 and raced Unadilla with number 2B under the name Carl Dockerty. I used a phony driver’s license that I got through my dad’s connections. We used to have regional races to qualify for the nationals, because they sold 250,000 dirt bikes back then compared to 50,000 today. I won a couple of regional races and I wasn’t 16 yet, and the age minimum then was 18 for a professional license. Somebody ratted me out and I got caught, and had to pay a $50 fine and race amateur until I hit 16 because they changed the rule and lowered the age limit.
Today they need guys to fill out the starting line of a national race. It was certainly the heyday of dirt bike racing, in terms of numbers at least.
I was on the road, racing bikes, when I was 16 because home life wasn’t that good. My birthday is February 6, so I got my real driver’s license and went down to Daytona to race in the beginning of March. I think I got in the top 10 in a three-moto race. I got lapped a couple of times by Lackey and some of the other guys. I was racing a CZ back then, because Ray Martino and his business partner had a bike shop that had CZs and they worked good. Until 1973 they were good bikes, and then they fell off the competitive map because they weren’t improving the bikes like the Japanese were doing all the time.
BR: In 1974 you were 17 years old, racing the last true privateer bike and leading the 500cc National Motocross Championship on a heavy, technologically inferior bike. Didn’t you know you weren’t supposed to be there?
TD: In 1973 I finished in the top 10 nationally, and I had some decisions to make. I would play sports in school, and every Friday I would get in the van and drive to Texas or Florida, most of the time by myself. I would come back some time on Monday, and I couldn’t participate in wrestling or football. So I made the decision to quit school and race the Trans-Am series in the fall, because at that time it was considered part of the national championship. CZ started to give me a little help after seeing I was its top finishing rider.
In 1974 things started clicking, because I began to train to finish strong in the 40-minute motos. I got real serious over the winter and raced the Florida series, and started winning. Then the nationals came up and I put up a big lead in the points. The first race I won was in California, where I slept in my van and went out and won the two 40-minute motos the next day. Then there was a six-week break in the championship in which they ran the Inter-Am series.
I went out to California for the first time and stayed with tough guy John ‘The Flyin’ Hawaiian’ DeSoto who helped me out. John is a great human being, and he introduced me to night racing. We didn’t have any night races back east. We would race on a speedway track – they watered the track, and they cut a drainage ditch across the motocross track where the lighting wasn’t too good. On the first lap of that night race I hit that ditch and broke my thumb. There were only four races left of the 10 race championship, and the only way Jimmy ‘Jammin’ Weinert could win is if he won all four races and I didn’t do so well. And guess what happened? Weinert won the remaining four races and I rode, but with a broken thumb not well enough to hold onto the championship by just a little bit. In retrospect it probably worked out for the best that I didn’t win that championship.
BR: Then you turned Japanese?
TD: During the off season I had some offers from Suzuki. I really wanted to ride for Husqvarna, and I really wanted a mechanic after years of doing it all myself. But Rolf Tibblin was in charge, and they took Mitch Mayes instead. So I signed with Suzuki in 1975 for the 500cc Championship, and the 250cc Championship came up first on the calendar. We used to run both, one after another. I won the 500cc Florida Winter Series and then won the 250cc Championship that summer. When the 500cc Championship came around we always got DeCoster’s USGP hand-me-downs from the June race. Little stuff happened that made the bikes break, and they never put 110 per cent into it. The 500s never really worked out. One year the bike broke in half.
When the Trans-Am races came around I got going again. I was the first American behind DeCoster and Wolsink, and I won three races. Before that Jim Weinert had won just one Trans-Am race. I won one in Texas, and then came Puyallup. Suzuki told me that DeCoster could wrap up the title at Puyallup, so if we were close to each other to just let Roger go ahead. I had never done that before. Marty Smith won that race and DeCoster wrapped up the title. The next race at Livermore was when the steering stem on DeCoster’s bike snapped, and he didn’t race the last two events. So I won the Livermore and Saddleback races. I wanted to win Saddleback, because it was in the heart of the industry in California. I couldn’t advance any farther in the points because DeCoster and Wolsink just kind of played with us, but I did finish top American and third overall in the series.
BR: What stopped you?
TD: I was going to go for my fourth championship in 1978, and then I hurt my knee in April at Pontiac, Michigan. I didn’t even fall down. I went down to LA and got checked out and had some cartilage fixed, but the first race at Hangtown was the next week. My goal was always to win four titles. Gary Jones didn’t even do that. I even won the 1975 Inter-Am, so you could call that four titles if you wanted to. I just raced the 500 championships that year, and at the end of it Suzuki did not renew my contract. I delivered a lot in my time with Suzuki and I was the highest paid racer at the time, but then Bob Hannah started winning everything and brought in a new era.
Then I signed with Can-Am in 1979, but they quit half way through the season and the equipment wasn’t too good to begin with. Then I started riding Huskys and Maicos for the rest of the season.
I could have continued making a living racing based upon my name, championships and good public relations work. The promoters wanted me out there, but the top riders were now lapping me and I did not like that at all. That’s when I decided to start the motocross schools.
BR: What about your eye injury?
TD: In some ways that was more devastating to my career than anything. Until then I thought I was pretty invincible. It was a freak accident in which a screwdriver nicked my eye. It was enough that the lens had to be removed, the liquid in the eye was lost and my eye looked like a prune. I was lucky to be near a really good hospital, or I would have lost the eye. Basically I’m blind in the eye, but the contact lens keeps the eye looking straight. That helps when I’m talking to a group of people and I’m not looking two ways at once.
The contact lens it keeps the eye in one place so that I can see. It’s like looking through binoculars, where the vision becomes one. If the contact starts bouncing around then you start getting double vision, and my big asset on the track was always picking the right lines to be smooth through. I lost that ability. I didn’t want to hurt anyone else or myself racing. You couldn’t tell in the first corner if anybody was next to you or not. That really pushed me to start the MX school in 1981. The school is now in its 22nd year. We first started out with Huskys and then Maicos, before settling down with Suzuki in 1988.
It paid off not to burn any bridges with Suzuki when my contract wasn’t renewed. It has been a real pleasure working with it over the years. We have a mutual respect for each other, and many of the people who were there when I was racing, such as Mel Harris, are still there today.
BR: How is it that you find yourself in a wheelchair today?
TD: I stopped racing professionally in 1981, but I still rode all the time teaching the school. I was out practicing at my home on October 13 on a sand track. There were no jumps, and I had been riding out there since I was 12 years old. I just got off the track a little bit and high sided into a set of whoop-de-doos, and my head hit first and the rest of the body followed like a torpedo into the track. I had crashed 10 times harder before without any injuries.
The visor was broken, the helmet was scuffed and the wind was knocked out of me, but I had done that a lot in my lifetime. I never passed out, but when I finally came to my senses I realized that I couldn’t move my feet. I always had that in the back of my mind, that I wouldn’t get killed or anything but getting paralyzed was a possibility. It was a shocker, certainly.
I was fortunate to have missed Supercross as the jumps got bigger and bigger, and the risk of being injured became greater. I was now done racing, my knee didn’t hurt and I was in good shape. Like I said, it was a shocker. My daughter was just nine days old and my son was about two-and-a-half years old when I crashed, and that made it a little bit harder. My injury was a T-5 (Thoracic vertebrae 5), which is paralyzed from mid-chest level down, which is common among motocross racers. The body is an excellent design, but that spine seems to have a flaw in its design.
BR: In many ways you resemble an American Joel Robert, in that you were both multi time 250cc champions, rode for Suzuki, had smooth styles and were the husky-sized riders of your time. Anybody ever mention that to you?
TD: Well, I was bigger than him. Joel was a little fireplug. I was up to 220 pounds. I wrestled and played football in school and they even wanted me to play golf, but I did those sports really for motocross training. To be successful in moto, though, you had to be lean, and at best I was 200 with a low of maybe 190 pounds.
In 1975 I had hurt my knee in a big mud race when I went to Hangtown, and I finished in second place. I went to the next race and won it and hurt my other knee. They said you have to get it fixed, and actually the guys at the Honda camp would tape it up for me and I had to adjust my style so it wasn’t too flashy to get the job done and finish the last 10 minutes of the race.
I was just different all the way around. I was the really the first big guy from back east. Weinert from New York was out a little before, but he came out to California early. I talked a little different and they didn’t take me too seriously, but when I started winning that got their attention. When the movie Rocky came out and they heard the way people talk back in that part of the country.
BR: Wasn’t Jimmy Weinert one of your early rivals?
TD: Most definitely in 1974 he was. Jimmy is quite the character. He would always be talking that Al-Frazier trash talk to pump himself up. Even his pit board would get him going, and if he got his emotions jacked up he could ride real well. That was a long time ago.
BR: Who were your rivals?
TD: In 1975 they counted points by your overall finishes in the races. I think that I won only one moto that year. They were saying that he won because he was consistent, and he can’t win races. I think Kent Howerton won three races that year on overalls compared to my one. The next year they changed the point system to moto wins. You play the game according to how the rules are written that year. I won that year, but I didn’t win the most motos. The third year they maintained the moto scoring system and I won more motos and races than anyone else. In 1977 Honda brought Jim Pomeroy over from the GP wars in Europe as their hired gun to win the 250cc championship. Honda also had Jimmy Ellis, Marty Smith and Tommy Croft, who were riding real well and they thought that they were going to clean up. That year I won and Honda got second and third with Smith and Pomeroy, with Kent Howerton on a Husky in fourth followed by Tommy Croft in fifth place.
BR: It seems that the racers today can’t exist unless they have the semi trailer, the personal masseuse, dietician, mechanic, business manager, PR agent and physical trainer with a private hotel room, and I’m talking about the privateer racers! You were racing professionally against the best in the nation, out of your van, and when you were 16. Tell the youngsters of today how you did it, please?
TD: In the first year, if I finished in the top 20 I could make enough money to keep going for a couple of weeks. A lot of people were doing that back then, so I wasn’t the only one sleeping in their van. The hard problem was getting a shower. If somebody had a room you could be assured that they were making deals with all the other racers who wanted a shower. It didn’t seem that bad back then, when we were doing it. I feel grateful now, when I look back, thinking ‘why would I want to do that?’ You had to know how to weld and modify your bike from week to week to be competitive, while traveling by yourself. We were pioneers back then, blazing the trail for the comforts of the racer today. Now the riders go and hide in their team semis, never to be seen by the public.
BR: Tell me about your school?
TD: The Tony D Motocross School (www.tonydmxschool.com) is an independent company that is sponsored by Suzuki. We have been in existence for 22 years, with the last being sponsored by American Suzuki. If you buy a new Suzuki RM you get to come to school courtesy of American Suzuki. The Tony D School is the only school with a major manufacturer backing it.
All motorcycles are welcome to come, and we usually get a 50-50 mix. We also get riders aged from six to 61. I just had a rider from northern California who was 71 years old. That California Old Timer’s group gets ready for its season! The class size can range from 40 to 60 riders, with about six instructors and some additional help. We break the groups up into manageable sizes, and we turn away riders when it gets to over 60 participants. We try to retain the quality over the quantity.