Bryan Kenney:American Motocross Pioneer

Santa Clarita, CA US
10/5/2011 7:40pm Edited Date/Time 1/26/2012 7:27am
This was one of the first American's I remember riding in the GP's. I would follow the GP's in Cycle New's with the reporting by David Maltais. Scroll down the page at Ed Youngblood's "Motohistory" to see the related photos. Great read. Read this story and you'll realize how mollycoddled American riders are today, especially when they go to the MXdeNations for just a few days, with their huge entourages to make them feel like they've never left home.

Bryan Kenney:

American motocross pioneer


Bryan Kenney was racing motocross in Europe before most Americans had ever heard the term. He finished in the top four (with Dick Mann and Malcolm Smith) at Wilseyville, California the day in 1966 when Torsten Hallman made his American debut. He was in the international top five and battling for top American when the AMA moved to take motocross mainstream in 1970, he won the Florida Series and the first Daytona Supercross in 1971, was the first American to win F.I.M. motocross events in Europe, and was the first American to finish in the top ten in the Grands Prix in 1972. Arguably, few people have more right to recognition as an American motocross pioneer. Today, after a successful second career in motorcycle sales, Bryan Kenney lives quietly in an 1805 farmhouse in Litchfield County, Connecticut where he and his artist wife, Ann Mallory, work together to create public works of art.

Bryan Kenney (pictured above today and at right at age 16), born in Cleveland in July, 1943, got his first motorcycle ride astride the gas tank of a neighbor's Whizzer. He declares, “I was in love. You didn't have to pedal.” With paper route money, he got his own Whizzer—a $40 non-runner—at age 11, learned how to work on it, and got it running. He recalls, “Turning the wrenches came naturally to me, and from ages 11 to 14 I became kind of a neighborhood Whizzer dealer. In that period I must have bought, fixed up, and sold more than a dozen Whizzers.” At 14, he bought his first real motorcycle, a Triumph Terrier. A year later, Kenney got a 1948 Norton International for the road, then a 350 Royal Enfield for enduros (pictured at right intact, below left broken in two). Aboard the Enfield he won his class at the Little Burr Enduro at the age of 17. The Enfield also carried him 497.2 miles into the Jack Pine 500 Enduro, at which point, while another first-in-class was virtually wrapped up, the bike succumbed when its frame broke in two. About his Jack Pint ride, Kenney admits, “Somewhere early on in the 500-mile event, an experienced rider on a Triumph twin invited me to just stay on his tail for the rest of the enduro. I managed to do just that, which meant I was regularly nailing the check points, far more frequently than a young rider with my experience would have done on his own. Turns out, the helpful mentor was the legendary Eugene Eposito!” Kenney adds, “This type of goodwill--which I experienced with virtually all the racers I competed with over the years--is one the great qualities of the motorcycle community.”

By now, Kenney was immersed in British motorcycle magazines where he found an article about how to convert a Norton International to a Manx. Just for comparison, before building it into a road racer, he decided to see how fast the International would run. He picked out a rural stretch on the Ohio Turnpike, took the baffle out of the megaphone, and headed down the turnpike while the Smiths speedometer worked its way up to 110. It just so happened that the Norton's top speed was confirmed by a state highway patrolman, for which Kenney paid by losing his driving license for a year. By 18, he had his home-built Manx ready for competition, and went racing. About the Norton, Kenney says, “It was a terrific road racer. I took it to Mosport in 1961 and had a series of battles, swapping the lead with a little French Canadian aboard a Gold Star. I was holding my own toward the end of the final when I hit a downed rider's oil patch, crashed and broke my jaw. After he won, the little Canadian—Yvon Duhamel—came over to my pit to see about this old Norton that had been taking the lead from him everywhere but on the long straightaway."

That autumn, Kenney took his wired-up jaw and went to Atlanta to attend Emory University, where he majored in English. After 1964, his Junior year, he took a year off to travel in Europe. He and a friend each bought a Matchless G80CS in England and headed for the Continent, where Kenney got his first exposure to motocross. He was immediately swept away just watching as a spectator, and wanted to do nothing else in the world. In order to extend his stay in Europe, he entered the University of Grenoble, studied French, converted his Matchless to a motocross machine, joined a local club, got an FIM international license, and launched his international motocross career (pictured above right is the Matchless in motocross trim). He says, “I did quite well in my first national races in France. Then, with the help of a friend named Franc Lucas, I secured entries and starting fees for international motocross events. At that level I met the likes of Dave Bickers, Jeff Smith, and Les Archer.” At one competition in France, Kenney blew off the lot of them with a hole shot. In the pits he introduced himself to Archer, which developed into a valuable and lifelong friendship (pictured left, Kenney at Tarrar, France).

Summarizing the summer of '65, Kenney says, “It was a wonderful and colorful time in my life.” But, now it was time to return to finish his degree at Emory. Kenney laughs, “I studied French before at Emory and made Ds. After a year away, I walked back into the classroom with the same French teacher and became a straight-A student. She couldn't believe it.” As soon as Kenney finished at Emory, he bought a BSA Gold Star scrambler and one of Les Archer's long-stroke Manx Nortons, which Archer shipped over from England (below right, the Archer Norton in Nature's workshop). He recalls, “I loaded both bikes in a VW bus and headed for San Francisco State, where I diligently began a graduate study in journalism.” Coincidentally, however, he had placed himself—probably not accidentally—at the epicenter of one of the great hotbeds of American motorcycle racing.

The Wilseyville Hare Scramble, started in 1949 and run annually ever since, is a tough and prestigious race in any given year, sending riders through six 12-mile laps of rugged, mountainous terrain. Wilseyville 1966, however, was something special because it was the American debut of World Champion Torsten Hallman, who had come to the United States to demonstrate his fluid, acrobatic European motocross style aboard his world-beating Husqvarna. Bryan Kenney was there as well, aboard his Manx Norton scrambler, as were Dick Mann on a BSA and Malcolm Smith aboard a 250cc Husqvarna.

Hallman and Mann set the pace, with Mann dropping back after the third lap and finally dropping out with a failed gearbox. Kenney, who had been ranked as a B rider because he was new to the area, ran third throughout the race, then moved into second, before having to re-rail a stretched drive chain. Smith battled with Kenney and took top honors in the small-bore class. Wilseyville '66, a muddy and rain-swept ordeal, was historic not only for the stunning performance of Torsten Hallman, but because three riders—Mann, Smith, and Kenney—had proven they could compete at a world-class level (left, the Norton after the muddy Wilseyville race).

The following spring, Kenney left San Francisco State, boarded a freighter for England and hooked up with Les Archer in preparation for the 1967 FIM motocross season. Archer had given Kenney a job and an unheated room over the family garage at Aldershot. Kenney recalls, “It was what I described as 'a pound a day and a place to stay.' During the winter I about froze, using a little gas hotplate to try to stay warm.” From this base, Kenney lived motocross for the 1967 and '68 seasons. During 1968, he raced his only GP behind the Iron Curtain, in the DDR. He laughs, “There was a lot of tension in the atmosphere. They put us up in a military barracks, and the next day I learned that I had slept on the floor above a whole room full of Viet Cong who were there to learn how to blow up Americans.”

By now, the big Norton had become uncompetitive, and Kenney started campaigning on a Cheney BSA. He says, “Turns out, this was going from bad to worse. The reliability and the suspension was really not up to the demands of international motocross where the two-strokes were coming into their own.” Kenney chose a twin-pipe CZ for the 1969 season, about which he states, “It was a good, reliable bike. I had some promising finishes, but seems like I spent a lot of time reconstructing smashed expansion chambers.” A single-port CZ followed, then Kenney switched to Husqvarna for the 1970 season, with support from Competition Accessories, back in Xenia, Ohio.

Stateside, everything had changed. After Hallman's 1966 debut, Edison Dye's Inter-Am Series triggered a fervent enthusiasm for European motocross. Kids were taking to it by the thousands, and a new regime at the AMA had thrown off its policy of isolation and joined the FIM as the official U.S. Affiliate. From this position, the AMA launched its own international series—the Trans-AMA—in the fall of 1970, with strong backing from BSA and Suzuki, who sent over their best talent, including Jeff Smith, Dave Nicoll, John Banks, Joel Robert, and Sylvain Geboers. America's age of motocross had begun, and Bryan Kenney returned to the states to enter the Trans-AMA fray in both the 250 and 500cc classes. Though the BSA wrecking crew swept the series, Americans Dick Burleson and Bryan Kenney finished fourth and fifth overall. With Burleson's Top American score just under 4,000 points, Kenney fell only 165 points behind when his handlebar broke at Saddleback before the final round of the series (above right, Kenney circa 1971 at the beginning of the American motocross era).

But he redeemed himself a few months later. He won both the open class AMA Florida Winter Series and the first-ever Daytona Supercross. He says, “I got really good press from those wins, and with the help of Dan Gurney's and Kim Kimball's American Motocross Team funding group, I returned to Europe in the spring of 1971. My big goal for the AMXT that season was to be the first American to beat the European riders at their own game." And that happened in July at an International Moto-Cross at Montfort-le-Rotrou in France (below right, Kenney at Montfort). Later that year, as captain of the AMXT, Kenney put together the first American team to compete the Motocross des Nations at Vannes, France (above left, the AMXT VW bus transporter with Hotshoe, the mascot, checking out the roof). It consisted of Kenney, Gunnar Lindstrom (who by then was living in the States), Barry Higgins, and a last-minute replacement for Brad Lackey, John Barclay. The course was unusually rocky and led to lots of DNFs, crashes and wheel/tire/rim failures, including Higgins and Barclay, and even DeCoster, whose Suzuki was rendered un-rideable. Out of the 60 riders entered, Lindstrom finished 25th and 23rd, while Kenney finished 20th and 19th. Nothing to write home about, but America was clearly getting into motocross on the world stage.

Upon his return to the U.S. for the Trans-AMA that autumn, Yamaha offered him what was supposed to have been a factory ride. But on the Yamaha the Trans-AMA did not go well for Kenney. Yamaha provided a stock RT2MX that was simply not ready for top level competition. He recalls, “I was installing CZ pistons just trying to make the thing run a complete moto, which it virtually never did.”

In 1972, Kenney returned to Europe and picked up a ride with Maico. He states, “It worked out great. The bike handled and had beautiful power, and the Maico factory was very supportive." He won some international competitions, and then found himself in a race with Mark Blackwell, Billy Clements, and Bob Grossi to be the first American to score a point in a Grand Prix (pictured below with Mark Blackwell and Bob Grossi). He chalked up two 11th place over-all finishes in two of the 500cc GP's, but finally, on July 16th at the West German Grand Prix at Beuern, he actually finished in the top ten 500cc class riders to become the first American to garner a point counting toward a motocross world championship. Less than a month later, at the Luxembourg GP, Billy Clements also slipped into the top ten for a GP point."

Again, back in America later that season, the news was not so sweet. Although he finished 6th American, the Maico importer failed to provide adequate support or meet his financial commitments to Kenney during the '72 Trans-AMA. Kenney says, “It just wasn't worth it. I was approaching 30, and I wasn't in the mood to continue giving it everything I had without decent, high-level support.” Kenney retired and returned to Atlanta, holding a works Maico that his departing Maico factory team riders (Ake Jonnson, Guissippee Cavalero and Serge Bacou) gave him as hostage hold until the U.S. Maico importer paid the money he owed.

With professional motocross behind him, Kenney returned to road racing in his spare time during the next decade, racing WERA and occasionally AMA Superbike (rights, Proline frames ready to ship; below, racing a Maico at Daytona). He opened a bike shop and founded Proline Racing to provide modified frames and swing arms, while creating some unusual machines, including his very successful GP and Superbike versions of the GT-750 Suzuki, and a Maico 400 road racer. The business grew. Bryan became a Maico dealer, bought out a Suzuki dealership, then took on Honda, plus Kawasaki and Ducati. He built a 16,000 square-foot building to house his business, and between 1985 and 1990 often ranked among Honda's top dealers, placing third in the nation for ATV sales. Success was his again, but, looking back, Kenney relates, “It was 80-hour weeks, almost year round. After more than 15 years of it, when Hertz became seriously interested in leasing my property, I sold my franchises and became a landlord.” With that, Kenney bought a sailboat, headed out to the Bahamas and started his own charter business.

In 2003, during a gallery opening in an art studio in Connecticut, Kenney overheard the artist say she was looking for someone who could do some special welding on her kiln. Curious, he asked what was needed, and soon found himself deeply involved in the world of three-dimensional art (right, Kenney and Mallory with the Archers; below left, in Mallory's studio). In 2005, Kenney and the artist, Ann Mallory, were married. Ann is a Stanford University graduate who works in ceramics, bronze, and iron. What a former motocross star might have to share with such a person is more than you would think. Kenney explains, “I still enjoy the process of figuring out how to build something better, just as I did when building expansion chambers and fine tuning my race bikes. Now I have fun using my old metal-working skills to help turn Ann's creative imaginings into reality. Her latest work, commissioned by a corporation in California, required a 52-foot wall sculpture consisting of more than 1,100 sections of 2-inch square tubing welded end to end. That one kept me on the torch for a while!”

Bryan and Ann live in an early 19th century farm house, and ride the scenic western Connecticut countryside aboard their Honda Pacific Coast and Triumph Sprint, when time permits. And while Bryan's days as one of America's pioneers of motocross have long since passed, he still keeps his edge on the dirt aboard his 2002 KTM 520.

To read about the 1970 Trans-AMA Series at Wikipedia, click here. For more about the 1970 Trans-AMA, click here. To see the 1971 Daytona Supercross on YouTube, click here. To see latter-day videos of the Wilseyville Scramble, click here and here. To read about Ann Mallory's work, click here. To visit her web site, click here.
Northridge, CA US
10/5/2011 9:14pm
Nice find Bruce! Here is another pioneer you will remember. Russ Darnell, I wonder what he is doing these days? I'd love to see one of the monthly mags interview those guys! DC, Jody, ?????

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