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The Moment: Paul Buckley’s Gatorback 1993 Photo

By Brett Smith

Erik Kehoe and Jeremy McGrath
Erik Kehoe and Jeremy McGrath at the 1993 Gatorback National. Photo: Paul Buckley

Paul Buckley messed up. He should have been at the finish line. Yet, if he had been paying attention, the photograph above wouldn’t exist. He would have shot an up-close ‘guy in the sky’ image, and the moment he immortalized would instead be a tale passed down between bench racers with no visual reference to back it up.

Because of Buckley’s gaffe, Erik Kehoe is eternally 28 years old and remembered as that guy on the number 22 Honda CR125 who shot himself to the moon. On February 28, 1993, Kehoe told himself there was no way in hell Jeremy McGrath was winning the final 125cc moto at the AMA National Motocross Championship opener in Gainesville, FL. Even though he had seven career victories to McGrath’s zero, his last overall win was in 1988. He was now a privateer, riding for an upstart team, going against younger riders with more support, who were making more money. Kehoe remembers swapping the lead with McGrath several times throughout the race.

“We were so close, we were screaming at each other in the air,” said Kehoe, who is now the team manager for American Honda. “It was so fun, we were going ‘woo hoo!’ It was one of those races where you didn’t notice the effort because you’re having so much fun.”

McGrath was looking for, not only his first overall victory but his first top-three finish in his 28th career start. He didn’t need to beat Kehoe in the moto, but finishing 1-1 sounds good and always looks better on a score sheet or in the pages of Cycle News. When Kehoe heard McGrath come around the outside, he flashed back to 1988 when George Holland made a move in this same valley to steal away a moto victory. Not this time, he thought. He looked up at the long elevator-style climb ahead – the gateway to the checkered flag – and rolled open the throttle.

“I heard him sweeping the outside,” Kehoe said of McGrath. “I just started grabbing as many gears as I could. I said, ‘I’m not going to lose this moto by a wheel.'”

Pro Circuit’s Jim “Bones” Bacon always stood up the course from the mechanic’s area, which was in a median between two long straightaways. In addition to working with his own team’s riders, Bones had spent time testing with Kehoe before the season started. He especially enjoyed working with Kehoe because of the veteran’s work ethic, his insatiable drive, and ability to improve bike setup. Not only that, Kehoe had a good sense of humor and could take a ribbing.

While testing suspension at a spot called Railroad Canyon, Bones remembers trying out a setting he called ‘B-7’. Kehoe loved it, but the two spent a week trying to ‘beat it’, testing speak for improving a setting further. No matter how hard he tried, Bones couldn’t make it better, and Kehoe ended up running B-7 for the entire motocross season. As Kehoe and McGrath approached the finish line launch at Gatorback, Bones walked into the middle of the track.

From the mechanic’s area, Shawn Persinger couldn’t see what was happening. When he saw the leaders drop into the canyon, his rider had a scant lead over McGrath, who had won four of the first seven premier division AMA Supercross races as a rookie. Kehoe’s best 1993 supercross finish to date was 12th. As the checkered flag waved, he heard the crowd getting amped up in the tall, packed grandstands on the opposite side of the course. He saw their bodies lean toward the finish in anticipation of a close call. Was Kehoe really about to pull off this upset? He was fifth in the first moto and between races had only asked for the rebound to be opened up two clicks; the shock was packing. Persinger also washed it, changed the tires, air filter, and topped off the fuel. Normal stuff.

“Then Erik went off in his own area, staring at the bike and in his own zone,” Persinger said when asked if he saw anything unordinary between motos. “I never noticed him doing that before. That day I did. Something told me, ‘He’s going to do better this moto, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he won this.'”

Persinger, then only 22, had been Kehoe’s mechanic since getting a phone call on Christmas Day 1991. Before that, he worked for a journeyman racer named Jeff Glass, who gave him the loathed nickname “Junior” when he was 19. The two were watching “Smokey and the Bandit” together, and somehow, seeing Buford T. Justice call his son ‘Junior’ (among other foul nicknames) gave Glass the idea. It stuck until Persinger left the industry 10 years later.

By the end of 1992, Kehoe and Persinger didn’t know if they would be racing anymore. Already competing as privateers, their team – On The Line Racing – was unfortunately going offline. It had also been a mediocre year: one top 10 in the supercross premier class and one podium in motocross (125cc, 3rd). A lifeline came from a new team called Honda of Troy, backed by Ohioan Phil Alderton and named after a dealership in Troy, OH. The beginnings of what became known as “The Fifth Dragon” started as a one-rider let’s-see-how-it-goes effort for 1992 500cc AMA Motocross Nationals with Michigander Todd DeHoop, a former 125cc East AMA Supercross champion.

The black 13-speed International cabover truck that hauled the HoT bikes to the races in the first half of 1993 actually belonged to DeHoop. He and his wife, Robyn, drove it to each event with Persinger playing third wheel. When DeHoop was too tired, he handed the wheel to the mechanic, who didn’t have a commercial driver’s license. “That’s how I learned to drive a semi-truck,” Persinger said. On one trip, he missed a downshift on a humped bridge in Mobile, AL, and got stuck over the water.

In Gainesville, both Persinger and Kehoe remember Alderton being in attendance for the first time as a team owner. He brought his wife and daughter, and the whole team went out to dinner the night before the race. “Phil was just so happy to be there,” Persinger said. “He had no expectations of winning at that point.” The team received suspension and engine modification help from Pro Circuit but was still a very independent effort.

“Expenses were paid for, but we were doing whatever we could to get ready for the weekends,” DeHoop said.

Buckley was 590 feet away from the finish line, with a quarry full of water between. He had lost track of how far along the race was when he saw the official holding on to the black and white checkered flag. He climbed a small embankment and focused his 300mm Canon lens on the finish line. He was in photojournalist salvage mode, and he was going to take what he could get. When the leaders entered his viewfinder, he snapped three shots.

In the moment, he was more miffed about how he could have spaced on walking to the finish line. He got caught up in the race between Kehoe and McGrath. “It was a really killer moto between those two,” Buckley said. “You could almost feel it was Kehoe’s last grasp at a moment of glory.” He didn’t realize he had taken an image that would proudly hang on the walls of both Pro Circuit and American Honda 25 years later.

When Buckley dropped his camera away from his face, Fran Kuhn, the renowned photographer and editor of a new, high-quality, and oversized (9.5-in. x 12.75-in.) magazine called Inside Motocross, was standing on his left. Kuhn took his own shots of the finish but didn’t have time to get properly focused. Buckley was shooting on Fujichrome 100, a professional-grade color film that yielded rich saturation.

“It really reproduced the neon colors of the 1980s and 90s gear and bikes much better than the Kodak stuff did,” Buckley said. To get that look, he spent $250 per race on processing ($435 in 2018 dollars). Since Buckley was staying in Florida for the Daytona Supercross the following weekend, Kuhn offered to take the film back to California for processing. He was gathering material for the second issue of his new quarterly publication. Buckley, a lifelong Massachusetts native, was happy to be spared the task and the expense. When Kuhn returned to Pasadena, he examined the slides and shook his head in pleasant disbelief.

“There’s Paul with his coke bottle glasses, and he’s outdoing me again!” Kuhn remembered telling himself. “To be able to nail that shot, which was a split-second decision of being able to grab the barrel, bring the camera up to his face and focus, it’s a lot harder than you would think. He may have miscalculated that it was the last lap, but he still had the instinct to pull the camera up at the right moment.”

Kuhn called Buckley a week later to tell him about a photo from Gatorback that he wanted to use as a two-page spread.

“What photo?” Buckley asked, incredulously. He didn’t recall taking any photos worthy of that much glossy real estate.

“The Kehoe/McGrath finish,” Kuhn said.

“What? I thought I totally missed that shot!”

“No, wait until you see it,” Kuhn told him.

Across pages 84 and 85, within the spring 1993 issue of Inside Motocross, Buckley captured not only the conclusion of a race but the emotions of every spectator in a single frame of film. Two football fields away was the perfect distance, given the context of the moment. Every neon-hatted head and body were turned and leaned unnaturally toward the finish line, toward a wily veteran who could still hang, who was still willing to hurl himself into the atmosphere for the chance of winning. They rewarded him in fist pumps. He gave it back, ignoring all consequences and testing the stress points of his own ankles, wrists, and a good set of alloy rims.

“It was a lucky accident that I lost track of where the moto was,” Buckley said of the image that still gets requests 25 years later. “Had I shot from the finish line, it wouldn’t have had the same context. It would have been a close shot of just Kehoe flying through the air.”

When Kehoe launched from the takeoff, Persinger joined the crowd in throwing his fist toward Kehoe. He strained his neck upward to follow the unusually high arc of his rider’s path. “We felt it when he hit the ground,” Persinger said. “Even with the crowd yelling, you could feel it.”

The front rim cracked at the welds, but Kehoe rode away, his body miraculously unstrained. Davey Coombs was a freelance reporter and photographer, five years out from launching his own glossy motocross magazine, Racer X Illustrated. He asked Kehoe what he was thinking up in the air.

“I was just looking for a place to land,” were the words printed over the photo in Inside Motocross.

Kehoe won the moto for second overall, the last top-three finish of his career. Today, the front number plate from Kehoe’s bike hangs in the living room of Persinger’s Wyoming home. He stayed with Phil Alderton’s team as a mechanic through the 1999 season before moving into the oil and gas industry.

“After that weekend, Phil just thought we were going to kind of win like that from there on out,” Persinger said, half-joking. Kehoe and DeHoop both remember Gatorback being the perfect hook for Alderton to pursue building a strong race team that could contest for championships. “It put a nitro shot into it,” DeHoop said. “He was ‘in,’ but I don’t think he was thinking about being that involved and that gung ho until after that weekend in Gatorback.”

Kehoe’s racing career ended in the spring of 1994 when he broke his back at a motocross race in Mt. Morris, PA. He moved into a managerial role, first with Alderton’s Honda of Troy [and later Yamaha] teams before moving to American Honda until 2013. After a five-year “extended vacation” to spend more time with his high school-aged son and family, Kehoe returned to Honda at the end of 2017, filling the team manager role.

To welcome him back, Kehoe’s co-workers collaborated on a gift, and they knew exactly who to call: Paul Buckley. When Kehoe returned to his Torrance, CA office after a five-year hiatus, he found a large, framed printout of his last win hanging on the wall behind his desk.

Buckley’s innocent error from the 1993 Gatorback National holds a parallel with what Kehoe had at that moment in time; they both worked with the tools they had on hand. For Buckley, it was a long lens but a seemingly impossible distance. For Kehoe, it was a solid motorcycle, but one that lacked the choicest parts, such as a factory transmission, ignition, and suspension.

Kehoe twisted a wrist. Buckley depressed a button. The result is an impossibly cool moment that continues to drop jaws.