During the first practice of the 1985 AMA Motocross National in Las Vegas I witnessed something-along with twelve other mechanics-that signaled motocross was on the verge of change. David Bailey, riding the open class Factory Honda, railed the berm leading to a complicated section of five jumps.
Most riders were either taking them as a triple, then a double, or a double, followed by a triple. But Bailey had another option. He had the big 500cc Honda pinned and was going to go for the whole set of five. When he launched, the jump’s lip kicked the front end up into what looked like an imminent loop.
Sailing high above our heads, Bailey kept his cool, calmly pulled in the clutch and tapped the rear brake, which stopped the wheel’s movement, the gyroscopic forces bringing the front-end level.
Still airborne high overhead, he engaged the clutch, revved the engine to get the rear wheel spinning again, pulled in the clutch and tapped the rear brake once more, this time lowering the front end to perfectly match the downward slope of the last jump.
After clearing the five jumps in one leap Bailey landed smoothly and then laid the dirt bike beautifully into the next corner in one perfectly syncopated action. One of the mechanics turned around and said; "This changes everything!"
He was right. We all realized in that moment that motocross had changed forever. In the off-season Bailey had been working on the physics of how and why a motorcycle did what it did in the air and how he could effect it with throttle, front brake, rear brake, as well as body English. Before Bailey few riders had consciously experimented with these traits. Bailey transformed them into an art form.
David Bailey had an advantageous start to motocross. His stepfather was Gary Bailey, one of the first Americans to run with the Europeans in the early days of motocross. He earned the nickname "The Professor" from being one of the first people to put on motocross schools in the States.
Young David traveled the country soaking up day after day of Gary’s instruction to students. He learned early on that the key to riding fast was riding smooth and controlled.
Bailey turned pro in 1979 and riding a Bultaco made enough of an impression to get signed to Kawasaki’s support program. His first title was in the support class of the Trans-AMA. In 1981 he finished the year seventh in the 250cc championship.
In 1982 word came down that Honda was building a major motocross effort and was aiming to win the 125, 250, and 500 titles as a package deal. They fielded one of the largest motocross teams ever, with team manager Roger DeCoster signing Johnny O’Mara, Jim Gibson, Chuck Sun, Donnie Hansen, Danny Chandler, Darrell Schultz, and David Bailey. Bailey would be riding the ultra trick factory CR250.
The 1982 season served to further refine Bailey’s smooth style and he came into his own in 1983, winning both the AMA motocross and supercross titles. David was always picture perfect, riding so smoothly that he betrayed how fast he was going.
It wasn’t just his riding that was always perfect. Bailey was a perfectionist when it came to his riding gear; always immaculate, jersey tightly tucked in, goggle strap perfectly aligned around the circumference of his helmet.
Bailey was moved to the 500cc class for 1984, his smooth riding style well-suited to the open class machine. He rewarded Honda with the AMA 500cc Motocross Championship, earning the title again in 1986 while simultaneously competing in the 250cc and supercross series.
Bailey was one of the protagonists in what is considered to be the most spectacular supercross race of all time; the 1986 Anaheim opener. Bailey and teammate Ricky Johnson went at for the entire race, swapping the lead numerous times. People who were there that night knew they were watching history being made.
Later that year Bailey was competing in the Golden State Series, which many of the top riders and teams used as a kind of warm-up for the nationals. Bailey attempted a huge double and crashed hard. The crash resulted in permanent paralyses and Bailey was confined to a wheelchair, cutting short one of the most brilliant careers the motocross world had ever seen.
News of the crash and the realization that one of motocross’ rising stars would never race again had a profound impact on the other riders. The fact that such a practiced technician of riding, known for control and smoothness, had been so seriously injured reminded everyone of the inherent dangers of the sport.
After the crash Bailey retained his competitive spirit and converted that into an impressive career as a triathlete, winning the 2000 Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii. He proffered his immense knowledge of racing and keen sense of observation into a commentary career, covering televised AMA motocross and Supercross events.
In all David Bailey won 30 AMA nationals, 4 championships, and was a member on 5 winning Motocross des Nations teams. He was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999.