Rainey Was Beach: The 1985 AMA Grand National Championship

Scott Parker (11), Wayne Rainey (60) and Alex Jorgensen(44)  race to the finish of the Sacramento Mile in 1985.

When JD Beach announced that he would compete in both the MotoAmerica Championship and the American Flat Track Championship in 2019, no doubt, those among us “of a certain age” immediately harkened back to the halcyon days of the original AMA Grand National Championship.

Founded and sanctioned by the American Motorcyclist Association in 1954, the AMA Grand National Championship encompassed five distinct forms of competition, including mile, half-mile, short-track, and TT dirt track races, along with road races. Legends of the sport, such as Dick Mann, Gary Nixon, and Kenny Roberts all raced successfully in the Grand National Championship, a series that thoroughly tested a rider’s motorcycle-racing talents, including their versatility and adaptability to various motorcycles, tire designs, and racing surfaces.

Though the AMA Grand National Championship is long gone, JD Beach, in 2019, will attempt to become a modern-day Grand National Champion of sorts. But Beach is not the only MotoAmerica star to attempt such a feat. In fact, he follows in the footsteps of the series’ own President, Mr. Wayne Wesley Rainey himself.

In 1985, Rainey faced nearly the same set of coincidences that Beach faced at the end of this past season. Just as Beach found himself out of a Yamaha factory-supported ride at the end of this past MotoAmerica season, Rainey was in a similar predicament at the end of 1984. He had raced that season for Kenny Roberts’ Yamaha Factory-supported privateer team in the 250cc Grand Prix World Championship, but the team disbanded after just one year, which suddenly made Rainey a free agent.

Returning to America, Rainey accepted an offer to join MacLean Racing, a privateer team owned by Bob MacLean, to race a Honda RS500 in the 1985 AMA Formula One road racing championship, as well as a Honda RS250 in the AMA’s 250GP class.

The 1985 season would become the final year of the Grand National Championship, although it actually wasn’t Rainey’s intention to race for that final championship. He was committed to road racing full-time and took the ride with MacLean Racing to “keep himself in the window,” in the hopes that he could land a job with America Honda the following year, which he did. And then, he captured his second AMA Superbike title in 1987, his second year with American Honda.

In 1985, Peter Starr, who was the creator of the iconic, award-winning, motorcycle-themed documentary Take it to the Limit, was set to produce a series that would televise several of the Grand National mile races. Stroh’s Beer sponsored the broadcast of the eponymously named Stroh Mile Series.

The made-for-TV series caught the attention of legendary dirt track racer, tuner, and builder Mert Lawwill, who got together with Kenny Roberts and built a one-of-a-kind Harley-Davidson XR750 dirt tracker equipped with, among other exotic accoutrements, a special set of Simons upside-down front forks and Ohlins twin shocks at the rear.

The plan was for Roberts to race the bike at Springfield Mile II in September, but the one-of-a-kind machine needed to be developed, so Lawwill asked Rainey to ride the bike at the other Mile events on the schedule. And so, 1985 was the perfect year for Rainey to address some unfinished business: dirt track.

Rainey also campaigned a Bob MacLean Honda RS500 in the AMA road racing championship in 1985.

Rainey was a member of the famed “Class of ’79,” a group of dirt track rookies that included such luminaries as Scott Parker, Ronnie Jones, and Tommy Duma, among others. And even though Rainey, like Beach, had found a future in road racing, he still had a love for dirt track, having grown up in Southern California just down the road from the iconic Ascot Park where he spent almost every Friday night dirt-track racing as a kid with his father Sandy as his tuner and crew chief.

At the time, dirt track racing was in its heyday, and there were 5000 to 6000 AMA-licensed dirt trackers in the U.S. compared with today where there are more like 500 to 600 AMA-licensed dirt trackers. In the mid-1980s, racing on the Miles was ultra-competitive, and it was a regular occurrence to have all 17 riders in the Main Events take the checkers not only all on the same lap, but also all on the final straightaway to the finish line. Rather than shy away from the intense level of competition in dirt track during that era, Rainey welcomed it.

And so, aboard the MacLean Racing Honda RS500, he competed in the AMA Formula One class at seven road racing events. He won at both Sears Point and Road America, and he also raced at Loudon, Pocono, Laguna Seca, Mid-Ohio, and Brainerd.

Aboard the Mert Lawwill Harley-Davidson XR750, he raced at San Jose I, Springfield I, Indy I, Indy II, Syracuse, San Jose II, and the season-concluding Sacramento II. Rainey qualified for the Main at every Mile dirt-track event that he entered, except for Indy I, which was the first night of the two-round Indy race weekend.

He and Lawwill worked diligently all summer long to develop the specially equipped XR750 into a bona fide weapon. The bike improved every time he raced it. As the season wound down, Rainey became more and more confident that he could put the bike on the box, if not win aboard the machine.

“The engine on that XR750 was a rocket,” Rainey said. “But the chassis was lightweight and wobbly, which made the whole package a handful. We had a lot of little teething pains with the chassis all summer long, but the engine was never a question. We worked pretty hard to get the whole package right, and towards the end of the season, we had it set up pretty good.”

At the San Jose Mile, which was the penultimate event of the season, Rainey finished a very promising fifth, and he was looking forward to Sacramento, which was the final event of the 1985 Grand National Championship season and also the last chance for him to put the Lawwill XR750 on the box.

In the 25-lap Main Event, Rainey’s close friend and newly crowned 1985 Grand National Champion Bubba Shobert led in the early going over Scott Parker, Terry Poovey, and Rainey. At about the halfway point of the race, Rainey took the lead over Shobert. As the laps wound down, four riders opened up a gap at the front, with Rainey being stalked by Parker, Alex Jorgensen, and Hank Scott.

With one lap to go, Rainey knew his fellow “Class of ’79er” Parker would try to pass him and snatch the checkers. Rolling off the throttle on the back straight, Rainey hoped Parker would take the bait and move into the lead, enabling Rainey to use the draft to slingshot past Parker before the finish line. But, Parker stayed put in second, so Rainey knew what he had to do: twist the throttle all the way to the stop, take the inside line, grab the left fork tube upper, crawl under the XR750’s paint, and hope for the best.

What he didn’t figure on was a bit of crafty gamesmanship from Parker as the rivals took the checkers nearly in unison. There was no finish-line camera set up to provide photographic proof, so the AMA officials relied on their own judgment in declaring the winner.

Parker crossed the finish line just a whisker or two behind Rainey, and he immediately raised his arm and started celebrating excitedly on the cool-down lap. All that genuflecting from Parker made it obvious to the AMA officials that Parker had won the race.

Rainey fully succeeded in his mission to put the Lawwill XR750 on the podium, and he smiled broadly as he accepted the second-place trophy.

Just don’t ask Rainey if he won.