Out of Minnesota – The Tom Benolkin Story
Written by Bob Chase, Published March 21, 2007
He came from a state where the tracks are covered with snow half the year, was far from the factory breeding grounds of southern California, and had little history of producing top professional motocross riders. But for a few years in the early 80s, Minnesota native, Tom Benolkin, was a force on the national Motocross circuit, and then just as quickly, disappeared. For those that live outside of the Midwest, he may be the fastest rider you’ve never heard of.
Tommy, as he was known then, along with his brothers, Jim and Steve, were regular front-runners at Minnesota amateur Motocross events starting in the late 70s. District 23 had a history of having some of the fastest amateur riders in the region, but had very few professional riders. Tom moved up quite quickly in the local and regional ranks, and started looking towards competing as a pro.
This photo is from his first race on a 125 back in 1973, which he won
But being one of the first from Minnesota to go national had many challenges. The primary obstacle was getting sponsorship. Up to that point, the factories and support teams had never really looked much in the Midwest for talent. There was a kid from Illinois named Mark Barnett who was starting to change that, but this was way before his many AMA championships. Tom rode a few nationals in 1978, beating Jeff Ward in a qualifier at the Herman, NE national, but not getting any offers of help
Even back at his home tracks, the promoters weren’t used to the situation either. After being served a certified mailing that requested that he attend their next meeting, a club that put on local races told him, “…riders with Pro licenses would no longer be able to race at their events. Their events were designed to promote family environment type races, not to support a pro-level culture.” Not exactly the warm, supportive, welcome back one might expect. It was still a learning experience for all sides and someone had to be the pioneer.
It was in 1979 that a large color photo of Tom that appeared in Motocross Action magazine. It was taken at the 1979 Mid-Ohio USGP, where, as a privateer, he finished 7-10 against the best in the US and Europe. Yet, as the 1980 season loomed, he was still a privateer. Early that year, Tom took an old 1979 CR 125 down to Florida to race the Florida Winter Series, a series with much more national participation in the pre-Supercross era. In the first race that he entered, he squared off against three-time 125cc national champ, Broc Glover, and came away with both moto wins. That must have got Honda’s attention, because a week later, he received a package at the front desk of the campground they were staying at. As Tom later described, “We took it back to camp to open it and almost passed out. It was a complete CR 125 motor all titaniumed out and ready to go.” Honda’s race team was all contracted for the year, so Tom received bikes and parts, but was not paid.
By the 5th national, they had accumulated enough parts to build another complete RC 125, so he had a works bike for the Mid-Ohio GP and the two remaining nationals. 500cc World champion, Graham Noyce, had just suffered a broken leg so they sent Bill Buchka over to work with Tom.
Buchka was probably the most famous mechanic of his time and helped bring a then little-known rider through the ranks, named Bob Hannah, then went on to win World Championships with Neil Hudson (250) and Graham Noyce (500). Everything was now in place. Only a few months after bringing a well-worn bike down to Florida, Tom now had a factory Honda with arguably the world’s best mechanic spinning the wrenches.
The first race with the combination was the 125 USGP, held in Mid-Ohio Motocross Park. The first moto went very well, as Tom finished a strong second. Unfortunately, he suffered a mechanical DNF in the muddy second moto, but people were now starting to find out what this “unknown rider from Minnesota” could do. In the two remaining nationals that year, he finished fourth overall at Binghamton , New York and second at St. Petersburg, Florida.
At that time, there was some political turmoil going through Honda, with Team manager Gunnar Lindstrom moving on, Dave Arnold coming in and Roger DeCoster possibly coming in also, either to manage the team or to head up rider development. Their budget was quite in the air because of all this. Kawasaki came through with an offer for a full-blown factory ride for all the 125 nationals and supercross races for 1981. Much as he would have liked to stay on the powerhouse Honda team, that offer was not yet out there and the Kawasaki ride was on the table.
To understand the decision and ramifications, one has to remember that this was long before the production rule, and was also a time of radical change for dirt bike technology. With the dream of riding one of only a handful of hand-crafted, cutting-edge machines came the cost of being the test rider for unproven innovations. When a test fails, someone was going to DNF. Even Roger DeCoster commented on the rate of development after his triple clamp broke during a race, causing a crash that was near career ending.
Tom joined Team Kawasaki in 1981, racing the factory KS125SR. He was a regular in the top five finishing fifth overall at year-end, hurt in the points by some mechanical DNFs. In front of him were three past or future champions; Barnett, Jeff Ward, and Johnny O' Mara. The riders behind him included Rick Johnson and Danny Chandler. Tom had his best finish of the year at Washougal, finishing second behind Barnett. This was the year that Barnett almost had a perfect outdoor season, 20 years before RC accomplished it.
The next year, Kawasaki moved Tom up to the 250s. It was this year that the prototype nature of the works bikes showed their dark side. A Kawasaki factory rider pushing his broken machine back to the pits was an all too familiar sight that year, and Tom had more than his share of breakdowns. It was quite a list of parts; exploded wheels, boiled over radiators, blown shocks, silencer packing and end caps blowing off, a seat fell off, a gas tank fell off, and the always fun-to-ride-out, throttle hand assembly broken and wide open.
His best 250 finish would have been second in Saint Petersburg, Florida, but the silencer end cap came undone that day. The bike would not run because when it bounced around, it would intermittently block the exhaust completely. His best actual finish was 10th at the Anaheim opening Supercross.
Through it all, there were no episodes of kicking the bike, yelling at his mechanic, or crying to the media. Asked how he kept his cool through what must have been a very frustrating time, Tom replied with something that reflects a wisdom and maturity not always present with riding talent. “It was tough to maintain (mentally) bike DNFs, but I really got used to handling the setback. To this day, I regularly tell my son that how you recover from a setback to a large degree determines how well you do in life. It seems managing setbacks is a part of daily life. I never really had tantrums on the professional level because I had learned years before that others are always watching you and looking up to you as a role model, to represent your state, or in some other way.”
Tom continues, “In looking back they (Kawasaki) were being the most innovative with the first single shock and disc braked bikes. I really prefer to stay on a positive beat, so I guess I will just quote my former mechanic. When I visited him at a Tampa Bay Supercross in 1996 he said, ‘Dude you were fast. We cost you your career.’”
He was released from Kawasaki at the end of 1982. Early in1983, he came back to Florida on privateer Hondas, just like his breakout year in 1980. Even though he won the 250 series championship, the series did not have the pull it had in previous years, and no support came his way. After the winter series, he decided to, “hang up racing to get ready for the first of our three children. I raced a couple nationals, a 250 GP in Montreal, then the Millville national, before quitting totally. I knew I had to get as far away from it as possible so I bought a fishing boat and never picked up a magazine for almost 10 years.”
Looking back after all this time has passed, the thing that sticks with him the most is being in the sport at that moment in time. “The factories were just beginning to perfect areas of development that would define the sport for the next 20 years. Developments such as: Long travel suspension - how much is enough?, how much is too much? Water-cooling - Was it worth the added weight of plumbing, liquid and a radiator? Single shock technology - Kawasaki began its development in 1977, but Suzuki continued to win championships with twin shock bikes until 1980. Disc brakes - was it really the way to go with all the elements an MX track had to offer? “
“There was a lot of uncertainty as to which package to give a bike. I even went testing with Bill Buchka on the RC125 at Saddleback one day in June of 1980 with the Ribi-X-link one-shock front-end on it. You just never knew what you were going to see show up at the pro races and that made it an era in MX history that stands alone in my mind.”
It’s perhaps because of the interest in that time period that lead to Tom’s involvement in vintage racing. Racing doesn’t hold the high priority it once did, but when time permits, he’ll still make it to a vintage race (a Penton 125 was his weapon of choice as of Jan 07), often wins, and cuts lap times that would embarrass many of us on “modern” bikes.
Tom still lives in Minnesota with his wife of 26 years, Roxanne. He operates an irrigation business in that is in its 18th year, with 6-8 employees. As he describes it, “I have used this as a vehicle to mentor young men into being entrepreneurs. I have had my primary focus on people that did not have a father or much of a father type role model. My first employee had never met his father. To see what they grow into and where they take theirs lives is amazing. We have also done Habitat for Humanity trips to Mexico with youth groups. This has been more rewarding than racing.”
Helping “break trail” for pro riders from the Upper Midwest wasn’t always easy, nor was living with mechanical DNFs, but Tom Benolkin faced the challenges without complaint, achieved a high level of success (oh, what might have been) and now, not surprisingly, uses his strength of character to achieve success in his business while helping others along the way. Though long out of the public eye, his racing efforts 25 years ago, helped pave the way for future riders from his state, such as the late multi-time world champion, Donny Schmit, Corey Keeney, SXGP champion, Heath Voss, Tucker Hibbert, and, Ryan Dungey. Long before any of them, the quiet man with the entertaining, keep-it-pinned, style put Minnesota on the Motocross map.