Larry Lawrence | February 12, 2019
Archives: Decided by a Single Point
It’s so rare to have a 26-race championship series decided by a single point, but that’s exactly what happened during the 1980 AMA Grand National Championship (at that point known as the Winston Pro Series). That season came down to an epic battle between a trio of future legends – Randy Goss, Hank Scott and Ricky Graham. In the end the title would not be decided until the final lap of the final race of the season. And the setting for that nail-biting season finale was at Southern California’s legendary Ascot Park.
Archives: Decided by a Single Point
The 1979 season had been a “David-versus-Goliath” affair with Steve Eklund and his Mario Zanotti Enterprises Harley-Davidsons and Yamahas beating the mighty factory Harley-Davidson squad. Eklund became the first privateer to win the title in 16 years and he stopped Jay Springsteen’s streak of AMA Grand National No. 1 plates at three.
The 1980 Winston Pro Series was a wide-open affair. Some experts predicted as many as 10 riders might have a shot at winning the title. In addition to defending champ Eklund and three-time champ Springsteen, the field was absolutely stacked.
Scott Parker was a revelation in ‘79. The kid from Flint became the youngest rider ever to carry an AMA Expert competition license and he became 1979 Rookie of the Year in a class packed with talent. That season he became the youngest rider ever to win an AMA Grand National. His eye-opening performance in ’79 put Parker near the top of the list of many people’s pre-season favorites.
Then there were riders like Randy Goss, who broke through to score his first national wins in ’79 and was the only rider that season to score points in each of the 23 dirt track nationals. He finished a strong third in the championship, earning the factory Harley ride alongside Springsteen for 1980. Other leading contenders included the ever-versatile Mike Kidd and the streaky Steve Morehead, who funny enough, was being sponsored by an ambulance manufacturer. Then there was the veteran Gary Scott and his younger brother Hank, as well as talents like Alex Jorgensen, Rick Hocking, Corky Keener, Ted Boody, Terry Poovey, Ricky Graham, Scott Pearson, Billy Labrie and Garth Brow. Not to mention some promising rookies like Gene Church, Bubba Shobert, David Jones and Jeff Haney.
The field truly was as deep as it had ever been in the series.
And the stakes were high. Tobacco money could be lucrative for the top riders and the pot was getting even richer. Winston up it’s point fund by $25,000 in 1980, pushing the fund up to $125,000. That translated to a cool $30,000 to the winner of the championship, a decent sum of cash in 1980s dollars.
Interestingly with Kenny Roberts off to race the Grands Prix, nearly none of the riders who raced primarily in road race nationals were expected to be contenders for the overall Grand National Championship, with the possible exceptions of Gene Romero and David Aldana. Road racing truly was beginning to peel away from dirt track ever more and few of the dirt track experts even bothered to enter road races for the extra points by 1980.
Eklund was quickly out of the running to defend his No. 1 plate after a disastrous start to his 1980 campaign. He failed to score a single championship point until the Ascot Half-Mile in May, six rounds into the season. Springsteen continued to be hampered by nagging digestive disorders, which sapped his strength. That meant two of the leading contenders were mostly out of the picture before the series was a quarter of the way through.
In somewhat of a surprise it was Alex Jorgensen emerging as the series leader by the end of May, with Hank Scott right on his tail. Those two were well ahead of the rest of the pack.
The mid-way point of the year came in late June with the Road Atlanta road race (won by Rich Schlachter, the only road racer in the top-10 in the standings at that point). In a showing of parity, eight different riders had scored victory at that point. Hank Scott, with a series-leading three wins, was the series leader and took home the $10,000 mid-season payout from Winston. Scott had 92 points at the halfway point with Morehead and Goss (77-73 points) locked in a tight battle for second.
In the second half of the season Hank Scott continued strong outings with victories at the Du Quoin Mile and Topeka Half-Mile. Goss hadn’t won a race all season, but continued to be consistent at each round and Ricky Graham began clicking into a groove taking victories at the Indy Mile and Tulsa Half-Mile putting him into contention. Tulsa was pivotal. Not only did Graham score the victory over Hank Scott and Scott Drake, but series points leader Goss missed making the main when rookie Rob Crabbe stole the lead from him with two turns to go in their Semi. Scott’s runner-up finish put him into a tie with Goss for the lead with Graham’s victory putting him close third, just six points back.
The final two races of the 1980 series were in California, the San Jose Mile and Ascot Park Half-Mile, those two events would decide the title.
Goss bounced back from his Tulsa disappointment with a key win on the San Jose Mile. It was his first time he stood atop the podium all year. But the points haul from Goss’ win was blunted somewhat by the fact that Hank Scott finished second, putting him just four points behind Goss. Graham’s surge and shot at the title came to a crashing end when he fell on the seventh lap at San Jose.
The two weeks between San Jose and Ascot had to be excruciating for Goss and Scott. For his part Goss said he just tried make it simple. He said he tried to put the math of his four-point lead and all the various scenarios out of his mind.
Scott knew his best shot at the title was to go for nothing short of victory at Ascot. He ripped in time trials and set the fastest time. It seemed like the pressure might be getting to Goss. He was nearly a full second off Scott’s time and that would put him on the second row of his heat race. Not to worry though, Goss used the power of his Brent Thompson-tuned factory rig to move up to finish third in his heat, safely putting him in the National.
In the main Scott and Goss were running mid-pack and moving up together. Goss then decided just to park it on Scott’s rear tire, knowing if he finished right behind Scott, no matter what the title would be his. That strategy worked for most of the race, but then Scott forced his way past Springsteen to move into third behind Labrie and Eklund. If Scott could pass Eklund the championship was his. Unfortunately for Scott there were just three laps to go and in spite of closing the gap, he couldn’t get close enough to challenge Eklund.
“I didn’t even bother this week figuring out what place I had to get,” Goss told Cycle News reporter Dale Brown after the race. “I just came to do the best I could. Hank knew, when we came around the corner he looked back and he knew I’d gotten it. Then I knew.” Goss said a big grin came across his face as he took the checkered flag and scored what, before the season began, seemed like a longshot championship.