Kent Howerton enjoyed one of the longest and most diverse racing careers in motocross. Nicknamed the "Rhinestone Cowboy" (after the Glenn Campbell country crossover hit song) Texas-based Howerton was a motocross mainstay of the 70s and 80s, winning three AMA National Championships, two Trans-USA titles, and two 250cc USGPs.
Howerton was also twice chosen to represent the U.S. in the prestigious Motocross des Nations, and twice took home the win in the Superbikers-the precursor to supermoto, when it was a one-off ABC Wide World of Sports special event. In all, Howerton won 32 AMA nationals and was voted AMA Pro Athlete of the Year in 1980.
Although the majority of his success came aboard a factory Suzuki, Howerton rode a Husqvarna in his early pro years, garnering his first AMA national win as a privateer in the 250cc class in 1974.
Husqvarna signed Howerton to a full factory ride in 1975. He rode both the 250cc and 500cc classes that year, finishing second in the 250s and placing fifth in the 500cc ranks.
Husqvarna-mounted again in 1976, Howerton nabbed his first 500cc Championship (also finishing fourth in the 250cc class). That same year he won the Mid-Ohio round of the Trans-AMA. Following that banner year, 1977 proved to be a tough season for Howerton, with mechanical problems forcing him to relinquish the number one plate.
In 1978 Howerton was picked up by Suzuki to campaign the 250cc AMA nationals. That season pitted the Rhinestone Cowboy against a hot new talent; rookie sensation Bob Hannah, who dominated the class aboard his Yamaha. The following year, 1979, Hannah came back and continued his unbelievable winning streak.
It’s well documented that Howerton was obsessed with beating Hannah. He finally did it, collecting three wins that season, becoming the only rider to run with Hannah-who won his second 250cc title. Little did anyone know this was setting the stage for an all-out war that would unravel over the next two seasons.
After upsetting Hannah’s win streak that year Howerton went on to win the Trans-USA, the Anaheim Supercross and the ABC Superbikers, placing him in the key role as potential spoiler for the upcoming 1980 season. His entire focus was to break Hannah’s stranglehold on the 250cc title.
However, with the New Year came an upset. Hannah broke his leg badly (in a water skiing accident with friend Marty Tripes at the wheel) and was forced to sit out the entire season. Howerton pounced on the title, taking 10 wins, 3 seconds, and a fourth out of fourteen motos to dominate the field.
He followed that feat up by successfully defending his Trans-USA title and finishing second in the Supercross championship. It all led to being named 1980 AMA Pro Athlete of the Year.
However, despite the accolades, there were murmurs in the press about the absence of Hannah having made the run less substantial than it was. The insinuations plagued Howerton and robbed him of his hard earned due. This set the stage for 1981 when Hannah returned and publicly voiced his intent to reclaim the 250cc title.
The second race of the 1981 season, at Saddleback Park, became one of the most epic races in history. Having won the opening round at Hangtown the previous week, Howerton was intent on beating Hannah again to prove his 1980 championship title was not merely circumstance. Hannah was intent on regaining the throne and had equal intensity going into the first moto.
Howerton and Hannah (running first and second) bumped and nudged each other for a good portion of the moto, each successive contact growing in intensity. Hannah-the aggressor-was out for blood and became infuriated when Howerton rebuffed each attack.
The "Hurricane" finally resorted to a full bike slam and plowed his factory Yamaha into Howerton in a corner, knocking the Rhinestone Cowboy off his factory Suzuki. The move gave Hannah the lead and left Howerton on the ground.
Amazingly, Howerton remounted and launched a charge that had him catch, and pass Hannah for the win. The fans that were in attendance couldn’t believe the performance, knowing they had just witnessed an infamous battle between two legendary racers.
Unfortunately Howerton’s arm-which had been cut on Hannah’s Yamaha’s rear sprocket when he went down-prevented Rhinestone from repeating the feat the second moto. The two went on to battle one another the entire season, with the championship coming down to the final round, which Howerton placed well enough to clinch the title.
Howerton suffered several injuries over the next two seasons, the most serious being a broken leg in Atlanta in 1982 while riding a Suzuki in the 500cc class. He signed with Kawasaki for the 1983 season and finished second to another Yamaha sensation, Broc Glover.
In 1984, after finishing seventh in the 250cc class and winning the Superbikers a second time, after fifteen years of racing professionally, Howerton retired, ending one of the most impressive and diverse careers in motorcycle racing.
Kent Howerton, "The Rhinestone Cowboy," was inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame in 2000.