When it comes to motocross of the 70s and 80s, one name tends to consistently rise to the top. Bob Hannah. The "Hurricane," as he came to be known, blew onto the national scene in 1976 in dramatic fashion.
The Californian, at just 19 years of age, had been signed by Yamaha to contest the 125cc AMA outdoor nationals, the Japanese motorcycle manufacturer having been impressed by the youngster’s domination in the 500cc class at the Florida Winter-Am series (a popular warm-up for the AMA nationals).
What’s incredible is that Hannah had only been racing motocross for two years.
The AMA 125cc National Motocross Championship was only two years old when Hannah lined up as a relative unknown aboard his number 39 Yamaha. Two-time champion and the obvious favorite to win was Marty Smith. Having won the AMA MX title in 1974 and 1975 he was brimming with confidence aboard his factory Honda.
At the opening round in 1976 at Hangtown (the series’ traditional start point), Smith holeshot and built up a solid lead. It was a replay of how Smith had conquered the class two years running and confirmed most everyone’s expectations that a third title was in the offing for Smith and the unbeatable Honda.
A palpable excitement swept through the crowd near the mid-way point of the moto, erupting in cheers and drawing the spectators to the snow fences bordering the track. However, the cheers weren’t for Smith. Hannah, the unknown motocross rookie, had recovered from a dismal start and had been steadily picking off riders each lap.
What roused the crowd was the all-out, feet off the pegs, throttle-pinned style on display by Hannah. Most of the spectators had to look at their program to find out who the wild rider was on the number 39 Yamaha. The crowd went berserk when Hannah got into second and set his sights on Smith. Hannah reeled superstar Smith in and passed him to take the moto win.
Any notion that this was a one-time fluke was thoroughly quashed when Hannah went out and easily won the second moto. The Hurricane went on to nab five of the eight rounds that comprised the series to take the 1976 AMA Pro Motocross Championship, dethroning Smith.
Hannah firmly established himself as a go for broke rider who would try to win at all costs. Also, he had absolutely no hesitation about mixing it up with the fastest riders in the country, regardless of their stature or fame-in fact, because of their stature and fame.
Hannah stormed through the next few seasons, winning three successive Supercross Championships (1977, 78, and 79), the 250cc Motocross and Trans-AMA titles in 1978-as well as being voted Pro Athlete of the Year-and won his seventh, and final 250cc championship in 1979.
Bob Hannah was famous for appreciating his fans, staying at the track well after dark to ensure every fan that wanted an autograph or a picture, got it. He always thanked them for their support and reminded other riders that the sport owed its popularity and future to them. Hannah made a lot of fans happy by throwing his mud-spattered jerseys into the crowd after a win.
However, that warmth and personal contact wasn’t extended to his competitors, well, unless you count bumping and knocking each other down as contact. Hannah was a virtuoso at the psych-out. Gifted at the fine art of talking smack, his wisecracks came with the same velocity as his riding, right up to the drop of the gate.
Hannah wasn’t without controversy in his career. He battled MX legend Roger DeCoster hard for the Trans-AMA title, actually flattening the exhaust header on his factory YZ from repeatedly impacting the 5-time world champion (again proof that Hannah had little room for sentimentality when it came to heroes).
The most famous of his on-track boxing matches took place in 1981. Hannah had to sit out the entire 1980 season due injury. He had broken his leg in a water-skiing accident, the compound fracture becoming infected to the point that doctors talked about amputation.
When the Hurricane got back on his Yamaha he set out to reclaim his 250cc title. The man in his way was Kent Howerton, who had taken over the Hurricane’s number one plate in his absence.
The second race of the 1981 season-which marked Hannah’s comeback year-delivered what is considered by many to be the most intense race in MX history. In the first moto Howerton and Hannah fought hard for the lead, banging and smashing their way around Saddleback Park in a two-wheel version of roller derby.
The pushing and shoving finally escalated to an all-out ram by Hannah that had him literally use his factory Yamaha YZ250 to T-bone Howerton’s Suzuki, landing the Rhinestone Cowboy on the ground. However, it wasn’t over. Howerton remounted and charged back to the front and, amazingly, took the lead back from the Hurricane.
Unfortunately Howerton couldn’t mount an equal display in the second moto as he’d caught his arm on Hannah’s sprocket in the fall and it was causing him too much pain.
However, the duo raced all season, becoming the center of attention at every round, with Howerton getting the better of Hannah at the end of the year. There was an incident of Hannah flipping off his nemesis when Howerton (who had the championship wrapped up provided he finished smart) let him pass to avoid confrontation.
There was another on-track incident that shook the motocross world, which had Hannah at its center. It happened in 1977 at the final round of the 125cc championship in San Antonio, Texas.
Suzuki-mounted Danny LaPorte was leading the title chase by ten points, with team Yamaha golden boy, Broc Glover second in points. Hannah was a somewhat distant third place.
Yamaha was intent on winning the championship and in a somewhat less then subtle act, brought in their 250cc and open class riders (Rick Burgett, Mike Bell, and Pierre Karmsmakers) to ride 125s. Obviously the idea was for them to run interference to help Glover.
The uncharacteristic move of bringing in the big-bore riders to ride the small displacement bikes roused the AMA refs’ suspicions and there was a somewhat famous rider’s meeting where a firm warning was voiced about blocking.
Glover went out and won the first moto, with Hannah second, and LaPorte third. The points spread between LaPorte and Glover had been reduced to five.
In the second moto Hannah jumped out to an early lead, opening up an impressive 25-second gap over second place, Broc Glover, who had some distance on third place LaPorte.
In the closing stages some math was tallied in the Yamaha pit and the powers that be realized that if the riders finished in this order, LaPorte would win the championship.
The decision was made and Hannah’s mechanic, Keith McCarty, held out the famous pit board signal, complete with the misspelling; "Let Brock Bye." Several photographers captured the infamous moment as the board was held out ordering Hannah to stand down.
Hannah slowed his pace and relinquished the insurmountable lead, handing the win to Glover. As a result, Glover tied LaPorte in points with the tie-breaker being total moto wins for the year ruling in Glover’s favor. After taking the checkered flag Hannah was reported to have ridden into the woods and waited until dark, returning to the pits only after everyone had left.
The incident set off a firestorm of accusations about "fixing" races and team orders. It took the AMA several weeks to finally declare no infractions and officially handed the title to Glover.
Although Hurricane Hannah came back from the 1980 skiing accident in excellent form and won 20 more national races (the last win coming in 1985), he never won another championship.
Hannah officially retired in 1989, ending a fifteen-year racing career that earned seven AMA championships and an amazing 70 national wins-a record that stood for ten years before Jeremy McGrath topped it the same year Bob "Hurricane" Hannah was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame; 1999.
After his retirement Hannah took up the radical occupation of Unlimited Air Racing, piloting a highly modified P-51 Mustang around the pylons at the Reno Air Races with speeds touching on 500 mph. Today the Hurricane resides in Idaho and owns an aviation sales company.