In 1983 David Bailey suffered through two injuries, overcame a massive points deficit, and won the AMA Supercross Championship. Chase Sexton is hoping to repeat history.
Hope is not lost for Chase Sexton. Although Sexton inexplicably crashed away the lead in Oakland, Tampa and Seattle, and won only two of the seven points-paying main events he’s led laps in through the first 11 rounds of 2023, he’s still not in as deep of a hole as David Bailey was in 1983.
Here’s a short story from 40 years ago about another factory Honda rider, one who was 42 points down after 11 rounds of AMA Supercross. And like Sexton (22 points behind after round 11), Bailey also trailed two former champions in the points.
Bailey left the Kansas City Supercross on May 7, 1983 ranked third overall. He had three-time champion Bob Hannah and the 1981 champion, Mark Barnett ahead of him. He had five rounds to make up the difference. He only needed four.
It’s by far the biggest comeback in Supercross history at this point in the season and he did it with a broken left foot and a severely sprained right ankle.
David Bailey’s Bad Luck
Bailey started the 1983 season strong, winning the opener in Anaheim, his first ever Supercross victory. He was on the podium five times in the first six races. While testing the track at round eight in Dallas, however, his right foot slipped off the peg and rolled sideways under the weight of force from landing off a jump. His ankle swelled so severely that his arch touched the ground before his heel and toes.
“People forget that I was all up in the title chase with Mark Barnett and Bob Hannah and then ruined my ankle on a press ‘night’ at the Cotton Bowl,” Bailey says. “Worst pain ever! They carried me out of there and my trainer, Jeff Spencer, arranged for me to fly to LAX and get picked up by a Dr. Martin from Pasadena.”
Spencer said it was the worst ankle sprain he had ever seen and documented it, later using the case in a book he wrote.
Dr. Martin put Bailey on diathermy – deep heating beneath the skin – to get the swelling down as quickly as possible. With swelling abated, the ligaments and tendons could begin healing quicker. Lying on a table covered in towels, he sat in a sweltering room by himself overnight, four hours on heat, one hour off, for 24 hours. “No TV, no books, no Walkman, just treatment,” Bailey laughs today.
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A week later, April 24, 1983, he was in Florida where he won the Gainesville National with 2-5 scores. It was his first Pro Motocross win and he didn’t know his lopsided scores earned him the overall until someone came showed up at his box van and asked him to come to the podium. Bailey may have ridden with a handicap but his competition suffered bad luck – thrown chain, flat tire, illness… He still can’t believe he pulled that off. He could barely walk. “I was in pain the second moto,” he told Cycle News. “I had to hold my foot in the air in corners.”
After a Supercross double header in Pontiac, the series headed to Kansas City, the last stadium race ever held at Arrowhead Stadium (and in the city). Barnett won his fourth main event of the season and finished 3-3-6 at the next three rounds.
At round 12 in Washington D.C., Bailey won his second main event of the season (and 2nd of his career). His two title rivals finished right behind him so he only made up a few points. As good as the win felt, he celebrated it from the hospital. While trying to pass his teammate Johnny O’Mara in the whoops, Bailey said he “just sent it”, missed a whoop and slapped his left foot on the ground. He didn’t crash and he blocked out the pain.
Bailey passed Hannah and at 5:55 p.m., crossed the finish line with both hands stretched to the sky above RFK Stadium. On the podium, he asked announcer Larry Maiers to hurry up because he could feel his foot swelling. He spent the evening in the hospital with Johnny O’Mara and O’Mara’s girlfriend keeping him company.
Bob Hannah’s Bad Luck
The Supercross series took a break while the Pro Motocross championships stretched into the halfway point of the schedule. Bob Hannah won all three rounds of the 250 class – St. Louis, Mt. Morris, Binghamton.
On June 10, however, Hannah was asked to do a Friday evening test ride in the Citrus Bowl, the first ever Supercross held in Orlando. Like Bailey did in Dallas two months earlier, Hannah was there to test out and give feedback on the track. Instead, he broke his wrist in practice. Hannah tried to ride practice on Saturday but was in so much pain he left town to visit his doctor.
“I was bummed and I felt the asterisk,” Bailey says today. “In fact, I was disappointed, I think I finished seventh in Orlando” (he did, and 16-year-old Ron Lechien won).
Hannah raced the Lake Whitney Motocross one week later (8th) but on July 9, he showed up at the Pittsburgh Supercross, rode a few laps of practice and didn’t race. Curiously, Hannah limped his way through the 1983 Pro Motocross season (even winning the final round at the end of August) but didn’t race another Supercross event, which ended in Pasadena on August 6, 1983.
Mark Barnett’s Bad Luck
Bailey regained the points lead in Foxborough, Massachusetts when Barnett failed to qualify for the main event. After Bailey and Barnett each earned their championship points for winning their heat race (more on that below) they met in the semi-finals (again, more on that below) where Barnett’s Full Floater RM250 came to a stop in the whoops. Because of the DNF in the semi, Barnett was done for the day. He didn’t qualify for the main event, which Bailey won.
Bailey and Barnett entered the final round separated by ten points. Barnett picked up a point by beating Bailey in the semi-final but he finished second to Broc Glover in the main event and lost the championship by two points, 420-418.
“I won the SX title by a couple of points and the Wrangler Grand National title by one point,” Bailey said. “If I hadn’t gone through all that therapy and suffered my way through some races, I wouldn’t have won those titles.
Can We Get Back to Chase Sexton?
So. What does any of this have to do with Chase Sexton and 2023? David Bailey is the only rider in Supercross history to overcome a deficit larger than what Sexton has (-22 points) after 11 rounds.
Honda hasn’t won a 450SX championship since May 2003. Can Sexton do it and pull off something that hasn’t been done in four decades?
Side story: Sexton took his 3rd career Supercross win in Detroit, yet scored fewer championship points than Cooper Webb and Eli Tomac, the two riders he’s battling for the title. Sexton got credit for the win but was docked seven points for jumping while the red cross flag was. Is it any coincidence that this all went down in the home of the NFL’s Detroit Lions, a team still trying to overcome the Curse of Bobby Layne.
Layne was the starting quarterback when the Lions won three NFL titles in the 1950s (pre-Super Bowl era). In fact, in the photo posted above Sexton is in the foreground of one of those championship banners. Early in the 1958 season, the Lions unexpectedly traded away Layne. Before the door hit him in the a– he famously proclaimed the Lions wouldn’t win for another 50 years. It’s been far more than 50 and the Lions haven’t been to an NFC title game let alone the Super Bowl.
Honda seems to be under a curse as well. Their premiere class championship drought started in Sept. 2004 when Carmichael completed a perfect 24-0 season and then dragged his gear bag over to Suzuki. That’s another story for another day (but it’s coming soon…)
Carmichael is a bit classier than Bobby Layne and never said a bad word about his former team but it’s hard not to think there’s a curse waiting to be broken.
An Important Note on 1983
This doesn’t change the scope of the story but I want to mention that points awarded and qualifying were much different in 1983. Factor in the AMA/Wrangler Super Series and it makes record keeping today downright confusing. Supercross heat and semi-final races awarded championship points. And to qualify for the main event, riders raced in the heats AND semis. Seven riders transferred directly from one of four heats to the two semi-finals. Eight riders transferred to the main event. Two more riders came out of a consolation (last chance qualifier). The main events featured 18 riders.
According to the final points published in Cycle News and Motocross Action and other publication, Bailey beat Barnett by two points (420 to 418). Retroactive record keeping (assigning points just for the main events) has Bailey beating Barnett by seven points. Either way, Bailey overcame a deep deficit to win the title.
To make this even more confusing, throughout the season, the media focused and printed standings only for the Wrangler Super Series, an overall title that combined the points from Supercross and all three divisions of Pro Motocross (125, 250, 500), which went back and forth until the end of August 1983.
So even though Barnett raced the 125MX class and Bailey and Hannah in the 250MX class, the points they earned in motocross were tallied all together under the banner of the Wrangler Super Series, which was 27 rounds long. The Supercross and Pro Motocross titles were still separate championships but nobody published those points until the very end of the series.
Hat tip to Clinton Fowler of @fowlersfacts for inspiration for this rabbit hole of statistical fun.
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