In 1981, a young American team consisting of Johnny O’Mara, Donnie Hansen, Danny LaPorte and Chuck Sun showed up in Lommel, Belgium for the Trophee des Nations (as it was then called). After a two year absence, Team USA was once again participating in the Olympics of motocross. As the format then dictated, the American foursome rode their blood red works Honda 250s to a stunning upset over the heavily favored Belgian team (Andre Vromans, Harry Everts, Eric Geboers and Marc Velkeneers). To a certain extent, that day marked the emergence of America as a motocross world superpower. For the next nine years, Team USA failed to lose the Motocross des Nations. Then, on Sunday, September 16, 1990 in Vimmerby, Sweden, Jeff Ward, Jeff Stanton and Damon Bradshaw, dodged a bullet when they won the Motocross des Nations over Team Belgium by one single point. In fact if not for an epic ride by Jeff Stanton on the whooped-out sand of Vimmerby, it would have been all over with (Stanton, who tangled with a Russian rider at the start of the third and final moto, came from way, way back to place second). Smelling blood and tired of getting their asses kicked for a over a decade, the European-based Federation Internationale Motocycliste’ went looking for another sand circuit to hold the 1991 event. Now cognizant of the fact that the Americans were out of their element when it came to silica, draconian politics came into play as the rough and tumble Eurocircuit in Valkenswaard, Holland was chosen (for the first time ever) to promote and produce the storied Motocross des Nations.
If you drive along the border of northwest Belgium and southern Holland, you’ll come across the epicenter of European motocross. For it is here, smack in the middle of the Low Countries that the notorious sand circuits of Lommel, Mol, Genk, Oss and Valkenswaard reside. Sahara-like chunks of real estate, it is on these tracks that riders such as Stefan Everts, Marnicq Bervoets and Joel Smets honed their amazing sand craft. And to drag contemporary motocross into it, Grant Langston and Chad Reed – both now superstars in America – based their Grand Prix headquarters on the outskirts of Lommel, where they rode and trained in the deep sand day after dreary day. But back to the topic at hand. Driving towards the Dutch border, Team USA drove – as fate would have it – right through Lommel. Coming full circle, Jeff Stanton, Damon Bradshaw and Mike Kiedrowski – who were chosen to represent Team USA in Holland – headed toward their destiny of defending America’s decade-long win streak.
The sand loving Dutch and Belgians were at their battle stations and waiting.
“I think the U.S riders are not much faster this year,” said recently crowned 125cc World Champion Stefan Everts, who’s father Harry was on the losing Belgian effort at Lommel in 1981. “They will have to fight very hard for a Motocross des Nations win against Belgium.” Teamed with Marnicq Bervoets – who was rapidly coming into his own as a world class rider – and a revenge seeking Dirk Geukens. You see the year before in Sweden, Stanton, in his frenzied charge to the front of the field in the high-drama final moto, intentionally “parked” the 500cc rider, sending him and the Belgian team’s head first into the sand. Nobody in Belgium had forgotten about it. Meanwhile, just across the pit area, Team Holland was poised to send out Gert-Jan van Doorn (500cc), Edwin Evertsen (250cc) and the sensational Pedro Tragter (125cc). Race day, as it often does at Valkenswaard, dawned cool and cloudy. Beneath slate gray skies, an epic crowd of over 30,000 fans – many of them Belgian – rolled into the Eurocircuit to see if the men from the Low Countries could finally hand it to the Yanks. As the time to launch the first moto approached, the tension and excitement had reached fever pitch levels.
“The Dutch had a very underrated squad,” offered lauded British journalist Jack Burnicle, who covered the event for a host of titles across the globe. “Gerrit Wolsink, the fabled five-time winner of the Carlsbad 500cc USGP, had chosen a young team of Pedro Tragter, Edwin Evertsen on the 250, and the wonderful Ger-Jan van Doorn on the 500. Belgium had a tremendous team with Stefan Everts on a 125, Marnicq Bervoets on the 250, and Dirk Geukens on the 500. Everyone there was just waiting to see what they could do to the Americans.”
When the gate thumped into the sand to launch the opening 500cc/125cc moto, it was Marcus Hansson of Sweden out front and pulling away. For six laps, Hansson held the point, before Stanton, who had passed a man a lap, flew by the Swede to take the lead. From there, the Michigan rider bashed out lap after lap, taking the win some 35 seconds clear of Hansson and Van Doorn. Meanwhile, the 125cc machines, screaming their metallic guys out on the sticky, brown sand, scrambled for whatever places they could. When the checkered flag flew, it was Everts with the win (earning a sixth place on-track position), followed by Tragter, Germany’s Pit Beirer and Kiedrowski (who had come from 22nd place). Moto two brought out the 250cc and 125cc bikes. On the opening lap, it was Finland’s Pekka Vehkonen running away from Bradshaw, Alex Puzar (Italy), Peter Johansson (Sweden) and Marnicq Bervoets. 10 minutes into the moto, Bradshaw shoved his way past Vehkonen, as did Bervoets. The battle was on. The tough talking American against the demure Belgian. Bradshaw held station ahead of the blazingly fast Bervoets, but with three laps remaining, Bervoets – then considered the best sand rider in the world – went by the Tar Heel to take the moto win. In the eighth-liter class, Everts completed a Belgian sweep, taking the measure of Kiedrowski and Tragter. The massive crowd got what it had come for: a third moto showdown for global bragging rights. With one heat remaining, it was Team Belgium in the lead with eight points, Team USA in second with nine points, and Team Holland, third with 13.
Jack Burnicle of the atmosphere which cloaked the venue: “By the time the third moto came around, the conditions were terrible,” explained the Englishman to this writer. “The black Valkenswaard sand was heavy and wet and sticking to everything. The skies were so dark that the venue had this otherworldly feel to it that was so dramatic. The atmosphere was electric as over 30,000 rabid Dutch and Belgian fans awaited the final drama.”
Then it was on.
Once again, it was Marcus Hansson with the holeshot. However, three turns in, a large and collective groan went up as Belgian Geukens – the weak link of the Belgian effort – had bailed and, somehow, managed to take Bervoets with him! It was over for the Belgians. However, all was not well for the American war effort, either, as Stanton has also crashed. Picking himself up, he frantically kicked the big Honda 500 to life and took off like a man in a wild eyed trance. Bradshaw was 10th. The Dutch crowd went berserk as van Doorn ran in third and Evertsen had gone by Bradshaw. Stanton, back in 20th, kept blasting through the sand. A few laps later, Evertsen was up to third and Van Doorn (who had recovered well from a small miscue) was fourth (and leading the 500cc class). The Dutch now held the lead of the 1991 Motocross des Nations! As the race boiled down to the halfway mark, the skies darkened and rain began to fall. Back in ninth and 30 seconds adrift of van Doorn , Stanton kept coming.
“I fell down on the first lap and my bike was all tweaked, the handlebars bent, and I’m last and I said to myself, ‘Oh God, here we go, this is not good!’ So I just got up and knew I had 40 minutes and just started picking guys off. Every time I would pass the mechanics’ area I would see all the Americans with droopy faces, but I kept going and next thing I know I’m passing Bradshaw.”
Said Clear Channel Entertainment’s Roy Janson who was trackside that day as part of the American effort, “Jeff Stanton rode that last moto with the entire weight of the U.S. team, U.S. motocross, and what American motocross stood for upon his shoulders. All through the moto we had written our chances off, but Stanton kept going and going, and at the very, very end, I remember thinking, ‘My God, we’re going to win this thing!’
Valkenswaard had now become a survival of the fitness affair, and nobody there that day was stronger and more determined than Stanton. With two laps to go, Stanton appeared through the blinding roost ahead of Soren Motensen (Denmark) and Hansson. On the verge of victory, he then set out after 500cc class leader van Doorn. “I remember thinking, ‘this bastard’s going to win it for them again!’” laughed Burnicle. “I remember Gert-Jan van Doorn had the face of a haunted man. He knew Stanton was coming for him and his face had this expression of agony and anguish. He knew Stanton was going to get him.” And he did. Halfway around the final lap, Stanton and his growling Honda passed the Dutchman like he was standing still. It was over. Team USA had won the Motocross des Nations, pushing the win streak to 11. Through Jeff Stanton’s heroic effort, Team USA had played in the Dutch and Belgian and box – their sand box – and managed, almost single-handedly, to keep a firm grasp on the toy (the Peter Chamberlain trophy) they lusted for so badly.
“I just kept picking it up,” said Stanton, who today works as a consultant for Team Honda, of his astonishing final moto performance. “I could see the enthusiasm on Bevo Forti’s face more than anybody. He and everyone else was screaming and urging me to keep going. Then with only minutes to go all the Americans are going ballistic, so at that point, Dan [Betley] had on the board who I had to pass and sure enough, that’s what I did.”
And in doing so, he instantly became an indelible part of American motocross folklore.