MOTOCROSS’S COOLEST MOMENT

1 month ago | Words: Jack Burnicle | Photos: Alex Hodgkinson, Geoff Meyer

In 1988 at the Belgian GP, Sweden’s Hakan Carlqvist stopped mid-moto to skull a beer. He went on to dominate the day at the famous Namur track with a 1-1 result. Was this motocross’s coolest ever moment?

With Jett Lawrence’s historic AMA 250MX title win on the weekend, there’s been a lot of reminiscing in the Transmoto officethis week. “Okay, but stats and record books aside,” one of the boys asked, “what do you reckon the sport’s coolest ever moment was?”

Obviously the sport has seen a pantheon of greats and many, many cool moments. But one story always seems to stand taller than any other; a story complemented by the fact it was told by one of the sport’s greatest ever writers, Jack Burnicle: When two-time World MX champ, Hakan Carlqvist’s, stopped trackside to skull a mid-moto beer at Namur in 1988. This Burnicle-penned Ripping Yarn first appeared in Issue #11 (August, 2011) of Transmoto Dirt Bike Magazine.

By the time he reached Namur for the 1988 Belgian 500cc MX GP, two-time World Motocross Champion Hakan Carlqvist had already announced his imminent retirement. Having fought the Honda Racing Corporation almost single-handedly for Yamaha over seven seasons on the YZ495 ‘motor of death’ (and then been unceremoniously dropped by current MotoGP Führer, Lin Jarvis, when their radical YZM appeared in 1987), the mighty Swede had already enjoyed two years on a private Kawasaki. Relieved of blisters (no vibration!) and the demands of a factory contract, he still harboured a particularly special ambition…

The imperious medieval Citadel boasted a track like no other. Situated high above the confluence of two major rivers and connected to town by cable cars and sinuous cobbled climbs, this fortress had for almost 2000 years played a major part in European military fortunes. The motocross circuit, first used after World War II, weaved through woods, beneath ancient footbridges and over road crossings, plummeting downhill, skimming trees, ravines and garden walls before howling along 200 yards of tarmac past the packed Monument Café. Then it launched back uphill into the woods alongside the towering Citadel walls, leaping massive terraces until bursting back on to the open esplanade in front of a vast old stone grandstand.

What a setting for the 1988 world title to be decided between Honda duo Dave Thorpe and Eric Geboers. But a Scandinavian spanner in the works awaited them on this particular day.

My rich mate, Ben Richardson, whose company processed my film in London, drove us across to Belgium in his absurdly ostentatious 1961 Bentley Continental Drophead. We arrived late Friday, thanks to my inept navigation, and fell into a midnight conversation in the hotel corridor. Suddenly a bedroom door sprang open and a bedraggled head emerged. “You blokes have wakened me up and now you’re keeping me awake,” said David Thorpe in his quiet, menacing voice. “Do you mind going away? Goodnight.”

Next day we glided down the Meuse Valley, morning sun hovering over misty

silhouettes of riverside fishermen, and up the steep cobbled slopes, huge tyres squealing softly around the tight hairpin turns. The Citadel already hummed with anticipation, the carnival atmosphere in full swing. Down at the Monument Café, Thorpe, making a brave return with broken collarbone plated, gave a reassuring thumbs-up to the rowdy fans as he scorched past. They loved it. Fists, flags and throaty roars went up every time he, Geboers and Carlqvist broadsided past, the latter looking dangerously restored to his powerful pomp.

That night, in one of the myriad of cafes spread around the esplanade, Thorpe knew his old foe was the dangerman: “Hakan played the crafty one, parking down that little road at the far side of the pits,” explained Thorpe, good humour restored. “He was starting and finishing his lap times by his mechanic out there in the woods, so as far as the timekeepers in the main arena were concerned, he wasn’t in it. But I followed him. I know he’s on the same pace as me and quicker than Eric and Kurt [Nicoll]. It will be between me and Hakan tomorrow. No one else will get a look-in. He wants to go out on a winning note.”

The 34-year-old Carla had recently bemoaned the lack of Sunday evening beer-drinking companions on the Grand Prix circuit, so Rob Andrews offered to join him after the races. But Hakan had other plans for his beer. Sunday morning, he justified Thorpe’s fears by setting a scalding lap time of 3:01.7 to oust the Brit from pole position. He chose to start central on the grid, Thorpe from the extreme inside. The Kawasaki hit the wide, sweeping right-hand first turn ahead of the Honda, and within two laps they were 30 seconds clear of the field! Then, after 10 blistering minutes, Carla came around alone. Thorpe had hit a trackside fence while diving through the precipitous woods, broken a bone in his right hand and pulled out in pain; meaning Geboers would be crowned 1988 world champion.

“I said to my brother, ‘if I am leading by more than 20 seconds, you buy the beer’. I stopped and took the beer in my left hand. My face mask got in the way, but I took half the beer. The spectators were screaming like hell!”

Carlqvist eased back. “I was going maximum when David crashed,” he said. “Now I was still pulling away two or three seconds a lap. That was enough.”

Enough to activate the most unlikely moment in motocross history. With six

minutes to go, Hakan’s lead suddenly dropped from 42 to 34 seconds. Up on the esplanade, we thought nothing of it. Down at the Monument Café, they knew why.

After his clear-cut victory, I found Carla sitting quietly beneath his awning as if nothing untoward had happened. He flashed that toothy, infectious grin. “I have dreamed about it for five or six years now,” said the 1983 world champ imperiously. “But I couldn’t do it when I was a factory rider in case I lost the race. I said to my brother, ‘If I am leading by more than 20 seconds, you buy the beer’. He was standing on the fence with it. I stopped in neutral and took the beer in my left hand. My face mask got in the way, but I took half the beer. The spectators were screaming like hell!”

While Geboers savoured the adulation of the crowd, news of Carla’s fabulous feat raged through an astonished paddock. Then he went out and dominated the second moto, crossing the line fists aloft before hugging his unquenchably jolly Danish mechanic, Jens. A voice was raised from the jostling crowds around them, asking the question we were all thinking: “Carla, will you still retire?” The response from our elated hero was instant and emphatic: “Yes, I will.”

“I couldn’t have lost the race to a better bloke,” said an appreciative David Thorpe later, echoing the sentiments of his whole racing generation. “Anyone who can come to Namur and win both races is very special. Especially at 34. I don’t think anybody can fill the gap Hakan will leave. He’s a legend. There’ll never be another like him.”

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