Danny Hamel: The Best There Was

They heard him before they saw him; that’s how it was with Danny Hamel. He had a distinct method of riding a motorcycle that nobody could duplicate. Hamel started the 1995 Baja 500 as the third overall rider and Jim “Bones” Bacon and David Pyle went up course a few miles because they wanted to see Hamel one last time. Support personnel for Team Green Kawasaki, their next move was to take his teammates to the first rider exchange.

It was a moody, drizzly early June morning in Ensenada, Mexico, just past 6:00 a.m., neither dark nor completely light. Bacon and Pyle stood in the mist in front of a Gigante Supermercado on the outside of a 90 degree right hand turn that sent riders in a flat, straight line down Federal Highway 1, a four lane thruway, toward Maneadero. They watched a Honda rider, the second competitor in the Pro Motorcycle class, come through the corner. He blipped the throttle, tip-toed the bike on the wet pavement and didn’t seem in much of a rush to leave behind the last shred of civilization he would see for the rest of the day.

Then came Hamel. The sight of the young man finally caught up with the thunderous “BRAAAP” of his 500cc two-stroke Kawasaki. Pyle estimates Hamel came into the right-hander at about 40 miles per hour and marveled at how someone could carry such speed on a fresh set of Dunlop 695A tires. Pyle remembers the goose bumps on his arms as he watched, smiling.

The green machine went into a two-wheeled drift, the tires hazing the pavement. With complete control, Hamel backed the half-liter bike into the corner, smoothly rolled on the throttle, floated from the inside to the outside, kissed the edge of the pavement near where Pyle and Bacon stood, tucked himself into the bars, grabbed gears and blazed out of town.

Hamel already sat just 10 seconds behind the rider in front of him. The crew was in a good mood, high fives were exchanged and the display of skill Hamel just shared with them, something he had done many times in his short career, led them all to say, “Did you see that?” Unfortunately, it was the last time anyone saw Danny Hamel drift through a corner.

One minute later, what the members of Team Green expected to be another punch through the Baja Peninsula, abruptly turned into the longest day of their lives.

Growth Spurts

The Hamel family had a rule: the motorcycle had to be back in the garage before the sun went behind the McCullough Range. Other than that, Daniel Bryan Hamel had complete freedom to explore endless acres of desert riding, which started at the end his family’s driveway in Boulder City, Nev. Every day, Danny came home from school, ate a sandwich, hopped on his Suzuki RM80 and went riding. The whole Hamel family rode. Even mom, Marcia rode recreationally and they often hit the single tracks south of Boulder City in an area they called the Nelson Mountains. It was Danny’s favorite spot.

On the weekends he and older brother, David, went to the local Motorcycle Racing Association of Nevada (MRAN) off-road races with their father, Roger. Marcia practiced frugality and, due to the expense, the boys didn’t get to race until Roger wrapped up his own amateur career. When Danny started racing at 11, his Suzuki RM80 dwarfed him. By 15, he grew so much Roger moved the handlebars as forward as they could reasonably go. In 1988, Roger bought him a stock RM250. Danny was just 15.

“Everyone said I was crazy,” Roger says. Danny grew quickly and accelerated into the 250cc expert division. By the middle of the year he started winning overalls, beating the open pro and 250 pro riders who started ahead of him. On that Suzuki 250, Hamel built the foundation that turned into his legacy: The Best There Was.

Speed Reader

Nobody remembers the first time they actually met Danny. Yet everyone remembers the first time they saw him ride, the way he stood over top his gas tank like a totem pole with arms, his tree trunk-sized thighs pressed against the handlebars, how he never, ever lifted the throttle and the way he often chose a riskier but time-saving line. Danny had the confidence and skills to make those choices.

“I vividly remember this kid on a Suzuki come screaming into the pits,” Jim Bacon says. “I watched him for awhile after his exit from the pits. He caught my eye. I just kept watching and thought, This kid is moving. I said, ‘Who is that guy?’”

Larry Roeseler said the exact same thing during a race in Idaho as he climbed a canyon. A Suzuki blitzed by him and weaved through the S turns, taking little cuts in the banks as if the rider went on pure instinct.

Danny Hamel, Nov. 1990. Kinney Jones Photo

“And then it dawned on me,” Roeseler said. “That’s that kid from Nevada that everyone is talking about.”

One of Roger’s favorite stories to tell happened at a Hare & Hound in 1988. The race ended in Caliente, Nev. Danny had a five-minute physical lead on second place, a rider on a Honda CR500.

“Dad, I’m going to lean on it a little bit to the finish line,” Danny told Roger. After taking the checkered flag, Danny changed his clothes and ate a sandwich before second place came in. He won by 35 minutes.

“I’d never met anybody that was that confident,” said four-time Baja 1000 winner Ted Hunnicutt. “He was going to beat you. He would look at you and think, I’m going to beat you. And he could go through stuff, cross grain, three to four feet deep and never lift. Wide open.”

Hamel liked to see how far he could win by, not just because he could, but because of a valuable lesson he learned at a Hare & Hound in 1988 as a young 250 expert rider. On a 12-degree day in central Nevada, Hamel started behind the pro riders. A dry but icy lakebed near the beginning of the course scattered the pros like bowling pins and Hamel tip-toed his way into the overall lead.  

“I’d never met anybody that was that confident,”

Ted hunnicutt

Throughout the race he noticed a white bike about 40 seconds behind; the rider never got closer but never fell further back. Hamel just assumed it was an open class bike and didn’t change his own pace even though he had plenty left to give. At the end of the race he discovered the white bike was in his class but had started in a wave behind; that guy won the race based on time. Roger laughed and asked his son what he learned.

“I’ll never let someone get that close to me ever again,” he told his dad. 

Roger Hamel, without hesitation, said Danny picked up his supernatural ability to read terrain from the thousands of hours he spent riding after school in southern Nevada.

“There’s nothing to do out here but ride in the desert, so it came naturally to me,” Danny told Cycle News in a January 1994 interview. That’s the only thing I’ve ever known.”

If he didn’t have the speed on a particular day, Danny used his eyes and aptitude for reading the course to win. When Ty Davis had him licked one day, Hamel saw a turn arrow long before Davis missed it. While Davis corrected his error, Hamel stole another victory. “Your vision tells you how fast you can go,” says former teammate Jimmy Lewis. “He could see father out, and see things that ordinary people simply couldn’t.”

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Fired

Hamel loved racing but he treated it like a job, telling Cycle News, “To look at it as a hobby you’re not going to go as far in the sport.” Danny rode that RM250 until the end of 1989 when KTM Team Manager and future AMA Motorcycle Hall of Famer, Scot Harden signed the teenager to a two-year deal. He won his first Hare & Hound title in 1991, which extended KTM’s title streak in the series to six. He also got his first taste of Baja racing under the tutelage of Harden and five-time Hare & Hound champ Dan Smith.

Lewis also rode for KTM and raced five Baja events as Hamel’s teammate. The two had a comical size mismatch. At 6-ft. 2-in. and 210 pounds, Hamel could ride an open class bike like it was a 125. Lewis weighed just 165 pounds and still laughs about the logistics of trying to be desert racing partners. “Danny was a man-mountain and I was this little guy,” Lewis says. “We couldn’t set up the bike in a way that suited either of us.”

The team decided to set up the bike specifically for Hamel. In the interest of better results, Lewis agreed it was the best arrangement. “The speed we could gain wasn’t worth the speed Danny would lose,” Lewis says.

Team Green Kawasaki Manager Mark Johnson grew tired of getting beaten by KTM and courted Hamel through the 1991 season. Hamel only became available for 1992 because Harden let the 19-year-old go. “We had signed him to a third year and were all set to proceed when we received notice that the KTM factory was in financial trouble at the end of 1991,” Harden says. Harden called Hamel first to release him. He knew Kawasaki wanted him.

Danny Hamel at the 1994 ISDE. Kinney Jones Photo

“We didn’t want to interfere with his career. I told him from the start we would be there to help him get as far as we could get and when we couldn’t help any further we would let him know. I doubt may other companies or team mangers would have been so open and so generous but this is how we treated people at KTM.” 

Hamel continued to dominate in 1992 and beyond. He didn’t just make his competition feel sorry they signed up, he made them sorry they got out of bed on race day. According to off-road tribute site The Banner Is Up, Hamel won 26 national Hare & Hound and Hare Scrambles events between Oct. 1990 and April 1995. Danny had one-in-a-lifetime type talent. “He wasn’t satisfied with just winning,” Lewis says. “He wanted to pulverize everyone.”

“Kind of like in motocross how watching Ricky Carmichael never got boring, that’s the way it was watching Danny,” Bacon says. “Every single time I saw him ride, it was just, Wow.”

In his career Hamel won five consecutive Hare & Hound titles, three Best In The Desert championships, the San Felipe 250 four times, the Baja 1000 three times and the Baja 500 twice. And although it didn’t suit his strengths – or stature – he wanted to win a National Enduro title and he worked hard at becoming a better rider in the tighter disciplines. He raced a few rounds and took some thirds and fourths and contested a few Grand National Cross Country events but he didn’t get the chance to try it full time. He did, however, get to the ISDE in 1992 in Australia and 1994 in Oklahoma where he took gold medals both times as a Junior World Trophy team member for USA.

“To watch anybody, whether it’s NASCAR, speedway, off-road or motocross, to see excellence, to watch it happen, it’s really stunning,” said Pro Circuit founder and former desert racer Mitch Payton. “And to watch Danny ride an off-road bike was stunning. Exceptional.”

Larger Than Life

After races, Hamel didn’t hop on the podium and grab the microphone to soak up accolades. While outgoing with his friends and family, he actually had a fear of speaking in public and took two semesters of college courses to work on it. When he did stick around to accept his trophies he often handed them to the nearest young rider who would be too shocked to say anything at all. He relished being an ambassador for the sport and was never too busy to offer tips or take someone off to the side. He never forgot how legends, such as Smith and Harden, took him in as a kid and mentored him. So, he took deliberate steps to pass it on.

“He would take a kid and say, ‘You want to go for a trail ride? Let’s go!’” said four-time Baja 1000 winner Quinn Cody who often benefitted from Hamel’s wisdom. “This is your hero and he’s offering to take you for a ride. He made a huge impression on me for sure.” 

Hamel had a less serious side as well. He loved to laugh, tell stories, socialize and snuck Twinkies and cupcakes at the races. Team Green’s Coordinator, Sharon Richards, particularly remembers a team gathering in Nashville where Danny and a teenage Ricky Carmichael smashed whipped cream and chocolate into faces. She became a lucky recipient.

“He was a child in a huge body,” said Hamel’s mechanic, Mike Hodges. “He had a huge heart.”

Even though Danny quickly progressed from rising star to active legend by age 23, he stayed grounded and kept good people around him. His father went to all of his races, even as a pro. At the H&H events he was the gasman. At Danny’s last race, the Baja 500, he and his wife waited at a river that had run high, about 20 miles from the start. He held a clean pair of gloves and goggles for his son when he heard the call over the radio. Number 1X was down.

June 3, 1995

After they returned home from Mexico, Roger and Marcia Hamel received a handwritten letter in the mail. It was from a four-wheeled racer, a man they didn’t know at all, who described what he witnessed on Highway 1. The man was making his own way to the starting line and the letter explained that the driver of the vehicle that pulled out in front of Danny was a police officer in his personal car. He was late for work; he was supposed to be at the starting line and needed to turn left [north] on Hwy. 1. The southbound lanes were for race traffic and closed to local motorists. The northbound lanes were split for the locals – one lane for north and one for south.

When the Honda rider who started second went by, the police officer assumed he had about 30 seconds to get across the four-lane highway and into the single northbound lane. Traffic was heavy and the motorist jumped into the road at his first opportunity. He didn’t see the green rocket coming at him at 107 mph.

After exiting the corner and passing David Pyle, Jim Bacon and his two teammates, Hamel saw Ron Heben and Mark Johnson about a mile and a half up the road. Even at triple digit speeds, Danny was not only able to pick out people he knew on the side of the course but was comfortable enough to take a hand off the bars and wave. A Team Green KX500 prepped for the Baja 500 had a 16-tooth countershaft and a 42-tooth rear sprocket, which helped the bike sustain a top speed of 118 miles per hour. The gearing proved most useful on the ten miles of pavement leaving Ensenada.

When he returned his hand to the controls, Hamel’s torso bolted upright and he grabbed the brakes. Traveling 157 feet per second with nowhere to go and an automobile crossing ahead of him, Hamel laid the bike on its side and slid on his fanny pack into the back of the car. The impact was so severe that the front end of the bike – the wheel, forks, triple clamps and bars – completely severed. Witnesses said Hamel’s body bounced backwards 20-30 feet. Both of his femurs were broken but his helmet didn’t get a scratch.

Bacon and Pyle jumped into their van when they heard the call on the radio. Entering the road, they could see black smoke billowing into the sky – the bike had caught on fire.

When they arrived, Bacon saw Heben and Johnson administering CPR on Hamel. One of them yelled out for a pair of scissors to cut off the chest protector. Nothing made sense and, to this day, Bacon can’t escape the looks on the faces he saw, especially Larry Roeseler’s, which he described as “horrible”. Roeseler’s hall of fame career ended only six months prior after winning his 10th Baja 1000. He came to Mexico for support. Bacon and Ty Davis, another teammate, unsuccessfully searched for a fire extinguisher. Ted Hunnicutt, originally scheduled to start the race, stood near an old Mexican woman. She grabbed him, hugged him tightly and they bawled their eyes out.

When first responders loaded Hamel into the helicopter, Sharon Richards went into shock. As Team Green’s den mother, the riders were little brothers and sons to her. She walked aimlessly toward the helicopter and got so close to the tail rotor that Roeseler had to pull her to safety.

By the time Roger and Marcia arrived, the helicopter was taking off, flying to a recently built hospital in town. The Hamel’s met the doctor when they arrived. At that point their son lived and someone worked to arrange a fixed-wing airplane to get him to San Diego. Richards sat with Marcia Hamel on a curb in the parking lot while Roger paced. Less than an hour later the doctor came back.

Danny didn’t make it. The internal injuries were severe and all of his organs bled too much. He was 23. Bacon hadn’t received the news. He wandered the hallways of the hospital looking for his friend. Bacon peeked into one room, had a feeling he was in the right place, but didn’t step in. He kept walking until he found a door that led him into a parking lot behind the hospital. He saw Roger comforting Marcia. Their lives had just been shattered. Bacon understood without asking and he dropped to his knees in the parking lot.

“I don’t remember much after that,” Bacon says. “It was over. There was nothing anybody could do.”

Pro Circuit tribute to Danny Hamel from Cycle News
Visions of Danny

The sounds Danny Hamel made in the desert are gone. But everyone who knew him, friends, a sponsor, a competitor or someone he passed on a trail, still sees him today. Every morning when Mark Johnson backs out of his garage he sees a 4-ft. by 5-ft. photo on the wall, the last shot ever taken of Danny. Mike Hodges has photos of Danny on the walls of his home gym. Every morning he says hello to his friend. Sharon Richards had a dream about Danny after she returned home from Mexico in June 1995. She was sitting at a picnic table and Danny sat across from her.

“He said, ‘SR, I’m OK, don’t worry about me, I’m OK,’” Richards says. That dream helped her find peace in what she calls the darkest day of her career in the motorcycle industry. Roger thinks about Danny when he attends WORCS races, a series that his older son, David created in 2001. Roger and Marcia didn’t attend another off-road race until WORCS started. Even though David sold the series in 2008, Roger, known as “Homer” in the off-road world, continued his duties in the staging and starting areas at every event.

Roeseler still finds Danny’s memorial sticker plastered to the walls of random taquerias in Mexico. The stickers do not say R.I.P or In Memory Of. There isn’t an image of his face or a racing number. Instead, it’s his first and last name curving above a big set of initials with four words curving underneath: “The Best There Was”. It’s a bold statement that nobody disputes.

Harden, who won two Baja 1000 and three Baja 500 overalls himself, put Hamel at the top of his list for greatest desert riders. Upshift Online asked him in 2017 to rank the all-time 10 best and, despite the truncated career, made Danny number one. “His ability to see in the dust, ability to read terrain and commitment to the throttle was unmatched by any desert racer ever, Harden said in the article. “No one left it on longer or harder than Danny.”

“If Danny hadn’t had his accident, for sure, he would have surpassed the win list of any one of us,” Roeseler says. “He had that kind of drive and talent. You knew he was going to be successful. For me to read that and see that, I don’t even blink an eye. He absolutely was definitely the best.”

Lewis now owns and operates Dirt Bike Test and lives only 80 miles from where Hamel grew up. He sometimes rides on the same desert trails where Hamel learned to read terrain. When he stands over the front end, opens up the throttle, allows the landscape to whiz by and feels the pressure of the wind resistance on his body, he thinks of his old teammate and wonders if he could maybe be going Hamel speed.

Just maybe.  


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