By now we all know about Ryan Villopoto racing the GPs in 2015. Here's the first part of my story with the GPs from a different time...heck, from a different world!

In 1981, after a dismal LOP satellite team ride that was riddled with mechanical problems, I was back at ground zero. I was starting out the ‘81 season as a full-on privateer. I don't mean satellite or even dealership-supported privateer, it was total privateer, buying my own bikes, parts, and everything that goes into racing the Nationals and SX Series. I bought two 250 Yamahas and kept on doing what I had been doing for the last nine years, training, practicing and racing. The beginning of the New Year started off with the pre-season CMC winter series in California.

I remember one day while out practicing alone I have a bad crash. While laying there waiting for the pain to stop, the “What am I doing?” question came to mind. Is this really worth pursuing? An hour or so later, after the pain had subsided, it was back to autopilot, doing what I knew how to do best and believing I could still restart a factory career.

During these times I was still talking to Yamaha, trying to convince them to support me at least somewhat for the season. They were not showing any interest. That was until I placed 3rd overall at the first National in Hangtown. That sparked not only Yamaha's interest, but Suzuki's as well. The only problem was they both wanted me on production bikes in order to test and develop their production line. They wanted no modifications, full stock. This was a time before the production rule. There was no chance in competing with the top riders on factory bikes. So I had a big decision to make.

After testing the stock Suzuki against my personal modified Yamaha I decided to jump horses in the middle of the stream and switch to Suzuki. My modified Yamaha motor was way better but the Suzuki suspension (first year of the single-shock Full Floater) was way better. I figured I could mod the Suzuki motor and have a lot better bike than the Yamaha. Yeah, I know I'm not suppose to mod anything, but get real, a little motor mod wouldn't hurt, right? It turned out that I never could get that last air-cooled Suz motor up to par.

Let me close this subject by making a long part of “my story” short. After all, this is about my GP experiences. However, it's interesting to know what led up to my GP endeavors. I was maintaining a fourth place in the 250 National Series with one final round to go. But in the second moto at High Point I hit a false neutral on a jump and broke my collarbone. With only two laps to go I finished the moto but missed the last round in St. Petersburg, FL. That knocked me down to ninth for the series.

Suzuki wanted to give me bikes, parts, expenses, and pay me a 15,000.00 salary for 1982, but again it would be on production bikes, more or less as a test rider. I didn't want that. I still felt like I could win. So the GPs were starting to look good to me.

I had been racing the US Nationals, SXs and the Trans Am Series my entire career. That was until 1982, when former 1979 500cc World Champion Graham Noyce, talked me into going to Europe in order to run the entire 500cc Grand Prix (GP) Series. Graham and I had become good friends when he was racing in the Trans Am Series here in the states. I was only 28 years old, but the factories in America weren’t offering me anything good enough to make me want to stay in America. Graham was making the GPs sound like the place to be. He had called a guy named Fred (don't remember last name) who was his contact at the Honda Importer in Germany. I never spoke to Fred, I didn’t have to, Graham was setting the whole deal up for me.

The deal was that I would go to the German Honda Importer and get two production 500 Hondas, a spare engine, a huge parts supply, and a truck. Then I would drive up to Graham’s house in Belgium. Graham’s mechanic’s brother would be my mechanic. Graham would set me up with his agent so I could get good start money at several of the International Races in Belgium, Holland and France before the GPs started. With all the great tracks and racing across Europe that Graham was telling me about I decided to stop everything in the states and go for it.

Graham was from England but lived in Genk, Belgium, during the racing season because it was centrally located. Both England and Belgium were too cold in the winter to ride and train so Graham would stay at my house in Southern California during a few months for his pre-season training. At that time our racing season ran all the way through the beginning of December, where it would come to an end after the 12-race Trans Am Series, which pitted the best Americans against the best Europeans. They should still have that series, right? We would take the rest of December off and go skiing and relaxing. This was our longest, and really only, off time of the entire year. Wow, a whole three weeks, but what a wide-open three weeks it was. The International races would start around mid February and the GPs started the second week in April. So our New Year’s Resolution was to start training again January 1st.

This is when I learned that I'm not supposed to keep training when I get sick. Everything was going great but then after the first week of training I got a simple cold. I was so gung ho about the whole concept of getting in awesome shape and racing in Europe that I didn’t want to stop training, and Graham’s persuasion didn’t help either, so I thought I would keep training and train that cold right out of me, WRONG. What we think and want doesn't always line up with reality! I couldn't believe how sick I got. It turned into a deep upper respiratory infection that just wouldn’t go away. Soon I was so sick that there was no way I could have trained. I couldn’t do much of anything. I was forced to just rest. In the meantime I got an offer from a motocross clothing company in France (Motocross Marketing). They wanted Marty Moates, Rick Burgett and I to come there in the middle of February to race the famous beach race called Le Touquet located on the North Shore of France. They organized good start money for us from Canada Dry. Canada Dry would organize everything we needed for the race, Kawasaki 500s, mechanics, trucks, everything! All we had to do was show up. This was a great opportunity for me because now I had all my expenses taken care of to get to Europe and get paid to do this first race with some really good start money. Motocross Marketing wanted to continue to sponsor Marty and I for the GP Series. I was really stoked about the whole deal but at the same time, really concerned about my conditioning. I had been to several doctors and was taking medicine, but seemed to be getting worst instead of better.

Marty and I flew to France for the Le Touquet race and were very well taken care of by the good people from Motocross Marketing. They picked us up at the airport and took us where we needed to go. We got to test with the Canada Dry Kawasaki Team mechanics a few days before the race. They had special bikes set up for Rick Burgett, Marty and I. The La Tu Cay race is not a motocross race. It’s more like a big GNCC. The race promoter took us for a ride around the five-mile course a few days before the race and that’s the only time we could see the track until the first lap of the race. The track started on the beach and ran straight down the shoreline for four miles before turning left into the sand dunes. Then it would wind around through the dunes and even make a few turns through the small town of Le Touquet before returning to the four mile straightaway on the beach. There would be over 1200 riders all starting and racing together over a period of three hours in front of over 150,000 spectators. Okay, now that we know what we’re in for, let’s go back to testing.

During testing it was in the low 40s F. and overcast, not good for my sickly condition. In order to improve the handling of the bikes for the fast sandy track, Canada Dry had modified the front of the bikes by giving them more rake. This greatly improved their straight-line stability for the 100-plus miles per hour shoreline miles, and high speed sand dunes. The bikes were also geared really high and would run around 110 miles per hour. Most of the sand dune sections were very fast with average speeds being about 60 miles per hour. These things were not a problem. The big problem was getting the jetting right in the cold temperature. At the time I didn’t know much about jetting and unfortunately neither did those mechanics. The bikes were way too rich off the bottom, other than that they seemed to run great. We never did get them to have any power off the bottom, but I didn’t think it would be a big problem because the track was so fast. By late afternoon I had to get out of the cold. We didn’t seem to be making any progress anyway. Boy if I only knew about the jetting like I do now, I could have fixed the problem in about 20 minutes by just putting a leaner pilot jet in. I don’t think they had any leaner ones anyway. The other problem that I didn’t know about at the time was that the main jet (for the top end power) was too lean. It was good getting back to the warm motel.

All the race entrant’s bikes had to be put into an impound area in the middle of downtown Le Touquet the night before the race. The next morning we would wake up, get our riding gear on, grab a quick breakfast and take a short drive to the impound area. Oh yeah, I should mention that The Motocross Marketing people had a friend who was a masseuse. He came to our room just after we woke up and gave us each an upper body message. That was a great way to wake up for a race. I was already starting to like the racing way of life in Europe!

The next part of the adventure wasn't so pleasurable. Over 1200 riders were getting their bikes out of the impound area at the same time. Then we all had to follow a car through town and down to the starting line on the beach. We all had to move so slowly and kept stopping, it seemed to be taking forever and all the exhaust from cold, loaded-up two-strokes was by far the worst I had ever experienced. It was so bad when we would be stopped on the narrow streets between the buildings, tears were running down my face and my already sore throat and chest were telling my brain to start clutching this thing and get out of here. When the beach was finally in sight we had to stop yet again. Once they finally released the 1200 choking riders, it was a mad dash for the first-come, first-served, starting line positions. It was great to finally get down to the beach in the fresh air. Now you have to understand that this was not an ordinary beach. I lived near the beach in California but I had never seen a beach with such a wide area of hard-packed sand for the entire four-mile stretch we were to run on. This hard-packed sand was littered with potholes, from the tides coming in and out. Many of these potholes were big enough to make you crash at 100 miles per hour. They had a small ditch dug out across the starting line that all 1200 riders had to put their front wheel in. The beach was literally wide enough for all 1200 riders to easily fit across. When the starter felt that everyone was ready he would throw the flag and the race was on.

This was the first time we three Americans raced this race, unlike many of the other top riders. So our pit crew gave us the scoop for the start. They told us that the other top riders would back up a bit to take their front wheel out of the ditch. Of course, this would be a big advantage in the deep sand. We just had to do it before the starter threw the flag, not too early or we would be seen. The moment was getting near as we waited for all the other riders to get set on the starting line. I could hardly wait, keeping the big desert-tanked 500 Kaw running in the stopped position was no easy task with the extra rich pilot jet trying to flood the carburetor. It was very important to get a good start in this race because when we got to the end of the beach and turned left into the sand dunes there were going to be some very slow-moving and stopped bottlenecks. So I really wanted to be one of the first ones through so I could be up with the front-runners, as the race developed. Finally everyone was set. I concentrated on the starter and as he threw the flag I was wheelieing over the ditch and out of there! As we raced down the beach to top speed I noticed that I was running about fifth or sixth place.

1200 motorcycles running down a beach of hard packed sand with large pothole scattered throughout at 100 plus miles per hour. No problem, I’ve got a good start and the 500 Kaw is fast, just swerve a little to miss the potholes and race for the sand dunes. That was the plan but the big Kaw had another idea. About halfway down the beach the big Kawa seized. OH ****! It wasn’t a sudden stop seize, it was a gradual going-to-seize type of seize. I realized what was happening and immediately pulled the clutch in and coasted to safety on the side as other bikes went screaming by. As a matter of fact, all 1200 of the other bikes went by. Remember earlier, when I said we had jetting problems, well the bottom was way too rich and the top was too lean. After a few seconds I could kick the big bore over. It didn’t have much compression, so I figured it must have just stuck a ring. I kicked and kicked but it wouldn’t start. I had an extra plug and plug wrench on board. After installing a nice fresh plug, to my surprise, the big-bore fired up.

By this time I was riding solo. At the end of the beach, when I reached the sand dunes, I had already caught up to the back of the pack. The only problem was, they were not moving. There were so many riders going into the narrow passageways of the sand dunes that it was a standstill. There were riders and bikes stuck, fallen over, and they couldn’t get up, other riders trying to go through and/or around and all kinds of mayhem. I picked and fought my way through and soon was passing riders in open spaces. As the race wore on I was getting into a groove and feeling really comfortable. It seemed like I was moving up good but I really never knew what position I had worked up to. Every time I came by my pit area they just jumped, shouted something and waved me on. They seemed pretty excited so I thought I must have been doing pretty well. At the halfway point I had to stop and have the big desert tanked filled. They didn’t know for sure what place I was in. Okay whatever, I’m here now so just go as fast as possible to the end and we’ll see.

The track was getting interesting. It was getting whooped out in the dunes and there were some good lines to be found. The beach had become the spectator’s favorite place. The 150,000 thousand plus spectators had lined most of the long beach straightaway. It was basically a long road down through the spectators. The spectators were making mad dashes back and forth across the track. We were going down through there at 100 plus MPH. It was getting pretty scary. Gerard Rond, one of the factory KTM Riders and a young GP hopeful from Holland pretty much ended his career that day on the beach. A young lady holding the hand of her very young daughter tried to cross the track and didn’t make it. The way the people lined the straightaway caused it to be crooked. The lady must not have seen Gerard coming and he hit her at over 100 MPH. She was killed, fortunately her little girl was not hurt badly. Gerard cartwheeled down the beach and suffered many broken bones and other injuries. With everything going on I didn’t even know this unfortunate accident happened until after the race.

Finally, I get the last lap flag from my pit crew! By that time I was thinking great, just one more lap, because I was ready to stop. So here I am screaming the big-bore Kawa down the beach for one last time and it decides to seize again. OH Sh*** again, are you kidding me? I didn’t have anymore plugs and it just would not restart. Most of the people were clearing out and a few of them helped me push it the mile or so back to the truck. That was the end of that race. I think it was Heinz Kinigadner who won the race on a KTM. It was back to the motel for me, no glory that day, but at least I survived.

Next, I had to pack all my new riding gear that Motocross Marketing stocked me up with, and make my way to Honda of Germany. So far I had the help of the nice people from Motocross Marketing and The Canada Dry Kawasaki Team, and the companionship of my two American racer friends Marty Moates and Rich Burgett, who, by the way, didn’t do very well either in our beach race excursion. But now I had to head out on my own. I'd never ridden a passenger train before, especially from France to Germany, another first for me. But Honda of Germany here I come. What was going on when I finally got there was a hugh surprise to me...

(Check back next month as I share more of my racing experiences from across the big pond).

Here's a video of the race from 1987. Jump forward to get past the French talk and into the action.

Gary Semics

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