Of all the champions who needed no introduction at Yamaha’s recent 60th anniversary fest, maybe the guy who needs one least is Bob Hannah. I remember reading about Hannah at the drugstore newsrack before I could drive, so it’s an interesting thrill to talk to the guy and understand he’s not many years older than I am; he’ll be 60 next year. Here’s a short intro anyway.
Hannah’s a seven-time AMA champ who won 125, 250cc and Supercross, and who would sometimes race all three 125, 250 and 500cc events at the same round. At a time in the laissez faire 1970s when nobody knew from training, Hannah was already doing plenty, much of it in the desert around Lancaster, California, where he was born. His legendary work ethic and drive allowed him to enjoy a 15-year career. His first big win came at Hangtown, in 1977. His last win was the 250 National at Millville, MN, in 1985, but the Hurricane kept battling part-time for Suzuki until 1989.
JB for MO: Hurricane, can you describe the best day you ever had on a motorcycle?
Bob Hannah: Oooo. The best day I ever had… well I had a lot of good ones. Some came and I didn’t know they were coming. I’m sure there were some, some are too long to remember… like the first National, the one I won in Hangtown . I had no idea I would win when I went there, not even a remote chance of winning it. Marty Smith was there and I’m thinking, I really didn’t think I could beat that guy… And when it happened, well, it was a helluva day… but I don’t recall that day, that’s how good it was, so I can’t swear to it.
BH: I do remember a couple of days I wanted to win more than anything in the world, that would’ve been ’83 in Daytona when they, actually I shouldn’t say that, but Daytona ’83 I wanted to win real bad. And I knew I could if I didn’t get crashed in the first corner, it was not going to be a contest. Saddleback Park same year, I really really wanted it bad, I knew I was ready … I just remember those days. But really, one day being outstanding, none really pops into mind. Maybe after I broke my leg in ’79, the first Supercross I won, I think it was Pontiac, that was a big day because it had been a long struggle. [The Hurricane hit a submerged rock water-skiing, broke his leg in 12 places, and nearly had to have it amputated.] That one was kind of emotional, because I’d won that race many times and my sister was there, I think that was a big deal for [Keith] McCarty and I – it was a long hard battle back.
JB: Would you have one day that would be the worst one you ever had.
BH: I’m sure there were a lot of those also, and I’m not the Lone Ranger. Sometimes you think when you’re riding … at one time I had a screwed-up ankle, it was cracked, doesn’t quite need a cast – but it’s crippling me, and I am ready to win. This is also in ’83. I can win, but I can hardly put the foot down. And I’m thinking God is persecuting me for some reason, I’m asking ‘why can’t I get this fixed and beat these guys?’ I remember driving back from the racetrack, asking why I’m being personally persecuted?
JB: Did you ever come up with the reason?
BH: I guess I didn’t really think it, I was just going ‘what the hell is going on here?’ I did nothing but try to win races at that time. NOTHING!
JB: Yes, you were famous for doing nothing. (Actually, I didn’t say that but I wished I had.)
BH: So, it’s not like I’m having a good time in life like lots of people seemed to think. And the one thing I’m working for I can’t do. This is horrid. There were a lot of those days when you’re hurting. But now when I look back, the bad days, okay here’s a bad day. I’m at Daytona ’84, I’m gonna win this one hands down, it’s not even going to be a contest. If I don’t get killed in the first corner I’m gonna win it. Well, some kids leaning on a chain link fence, bend the fence down, and I’m riding by in 4th gear, and the front lever gets caught in the fence. I charge myself, I’m yelling at myself for not seeing that in play, but I move over to that line, they lean in, I’m running fast down there, BAM! catches my front brake lever, crashes my ass off, breaks my ankle, another one, and screws up my wrist. Why didn’t I see that coming? Why didn’t I see those guys leaning on that fence?
Then, I looked at that and said that is terrible luck. Now, my philosophy on this whole deal is, when you start feeling sorry for yourself – and this goes for any rider – you are a big damn baby, and you need to quit. If you can walk out of this sport, you are a lucky bugger. I look back at all my friends, Tony D [DiStefano], David Bailey – in a wheelchair. Now that’s a bad day. Breaking your leg is not a bad day. Losing Daytona because some idiot leaned on a fence is not a bad day.
JB: You keep it in perspective.
BH: Perspective. Man, think of all these races I would’ve won if something hadn’t screwed up. That’s stupid, because we all have bad days. Ricky Johnson had his bad days, Roger DeCoster had horrid days; I saw DeCoster at Carlsbad when he thought he was being persecuted. But in the long run, Big Deal. BIG DEAL! I didn’t win L.A. Coliseum. At the time, it’s a big deal. Now I look back and I see I have seven national championships. Do I really care? No. If I had five, or if I had ten, would it matter to me? No. I walked out of there. Nowadays, going for a bicycle ride, that’s what means something to me. It’s a whole different deal. Now I feel like I’m the luckiest guy in the world.
JB: You are the luckiest guy in the world, or close to it.
BH: Lou Gehrig said it a long time ago, and I am him. I’m actually luckier because I’ve already outlived him, and now I do exactly what I want.
Not exactly. Happy to be back in SoCal where he grew up, the Hurricane was about to break training and go for a second Double Double with onions from the In-n-Out truck, when he got called away for more glad-handing and photos. He doesn’t seem to mind really, in fact he seems like the happiest guy in the world. As well as the luckiest.