Danny LaPorte helped the United States make the transition from underdog to world leader in the sport of motocross. The rider from Los Angeles scored an AMA 500cc National Motocross Championship in 1979 before going on to become the first American to win the FIM 250cc World Motocross Championship in 1982. LaPorte was also a key member of the 1981 Team USA Motocross and Trophee des Nations squad that brought America its first win in the prestigious international Olympic-like competition.
LaPorte started racing local motocross events when he was 11. At first, he was a little intimidated by being on the track with all the other riders, but he soon found that he was a natural at the sport. He was so good, in fact, that he quickly became one of the leading young riders in Southern California by the mid 1970s.
At 16 LaPorte turned professional in local CMC events and began making money.
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Maybe winning came too easy, or LaPorte was simply looking for new challenges – something that would become a recurring theme throughout his racing career. Whatever the case, he was bored and burnt out with racing by 17. A trip to Snake River Canyon, Idaho, to watch Evel Knievel’s ill-fated rocket cycle jump changed all that.
After his trip to Snake River, LaPorte dove wholeheartedly back into racing and he won like never before. He won so many races in Southern California that he got a call from Suzuki at the end of 1975 asking him to join its factory racing team the next season. He accepted the offer and in 1976 he debuted in the AMA 125cc National Motocross Series.
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The epic entrance of Bob Hannah overshadowed LaPorte’s debut in AMA National Motocross, but LaPorte did get into the thick of the Hannah/Marty Smith battles a number of times, and even managed to win twice in the eight-race 125 series. His victory in Houston in August marked not only his first national win, but also the first-ever victory for Suzuki in AMA 125 National Motocross competition. He ended the season a solid third (just one point out of second) in the 1976 AMA 125 Motocross standings.
LaPorte came back in 1977 and nearly won the 125 national championship with Suzuki. In perhaps the most notorious season finale in the history of AMA Motocross, Yamaha used controversial team tactics in the final round to help Broc Glover win the title. The championship ended with Glover and LaPorte tied in points. Glover won by virtue of earning more moto wins, but the way the Yamaha factory team helped Glover win the final moto became part of motocross racing lore.
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In 1978, LaPorte moved to the 500cc class, still with Suzuki. He won the season opener and had other good outings, but a string of bad luck with mechanical problems caused him to finish the season ranked fifth.
In 1979, LaPorte returned for a fourth year with Suzuki and got revenge of sorts on Yamaha when he narrowly beat Yamaha’s Mike Bell for the AMA 500cc National Motocross Championship. He won three races en route to earning his sole AMA national championship. Always more of an outdoor specialist, LaPorte cracked the top 10 for the first time in AMA Supercross that season, taking ninth in that series.
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The 1980 campaign was a big disappointment for LaPorte, who spent most of the year searching in vain for the combination that brought him the 500cc title in 1979. There were flashes of brilliance – LaPorte was runner-up in the 500cc U.S. Grand Prix at Carlsbad and he won a 500cc national in St. Petersburg, Florida – but for the most part he suffered through a long season. LaPorte finished the year ranked seventh in the AMA 500cc National Motocross Championship and the St. Petersburg race proved to be his final AMA national victory.
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In 1981, Roger DeCoster moved to Honda to act as team advisor and, having great faith in LaPorte, he convince him to join Honda as well. LaPorte earned four podium finishes and ended the year ranked fourth in the 500cc nationals, but he suffered his first season without a victory.
It looked as if 1981 would be another forgettable year for LaPorte, but that was before he and teammates Chuck Sun, Johnny O’Mara and Donnie Hansen traveled to Germany for the Motocross and Trophee des Nations. LaPorte was one of the leading scorers on the team that finally brought the United States its first victory in the celebrated international event. That year’s victory for Team USA was perhaps the single most important accomplishment in American motocross history. It was a turning point for the sport in this country and proved that America had finally mastered the sport brought over by the Europeans a decade earlier.
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His success at the des Nations inspired LaPorte. Once again, he sought new challenges and asked Honda if there were any openings in the company’s World Championship team. Unfortunately, the team was already set, but Yamaha’s European racing consultant Heikki Mikkola had talked to LaPorte after the des Nations, telling him of a possible opening on that team. A deal was made and in 1982 LaPorte headed off to Europe to pursue the 250cc World Championship.
LaPorte’s 1982 world championship campaign was a come-from-behind classic. He was up against heavily favored world champion Georges Jobé and a host of other talented and experienced world-class riders. The season began slowly for LaPorte, but he gained confidence mid-season by winning the second moto of the Czechoslovakian Grand Prix. His first GP victory came in France. He followed that up with a win in Great Britain. The turning point came on the sands of Holland. LaPorte upset the sand specialists by winning both motos and prompted four-time world champ Heikki Mikkola to proclaim, "Today I saw a motocrosser. Danny rode a perfect race, not one mistake. I have not seen a better race."
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LaPorte proved an instant success, winning the famous Baja 1000 three straight years as part of Kawasaki’s factory team.
LaPorte will always be remembered as one of the most influential riders in the period when American motocrossers made the move from also-rans to world champions.
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