[Features]

The No.2-plate Posse

4 months ago | Words: Andy Wigan | Photos: Roger Harvey, Transmoto Archives

The boys in the office were into me during last week’s meeting about upcoming online content. “Let’s get this right, Wigan. You want the article to focus on the best guys not to win a world championship? Bit of a negative approach, isn’t it? Why single out these poor bastards and put them through a world of humiliation and hurt all over again?,” they asked with furrowed brows.

Okay, they kind of had a point. But so did I, and I aired it: “Look, these runners-up aren’t ‘poor bastards’; they almost won world motocross titles. That ain’t exactly something they need to be eternally embarrassed about, is it?”

But there was that cruel and merciless qualifier: “almost” … they almost won a world title. With all the overused sayings to remind runners-up of their place in a competitive world – “No one remembers who came second”, “Coming second just means you’re the first loser”, and, as Ricky Bobby’s coked-up old man in Talladega Nights said, “If you ain’t first, you’re last!” – it’s as if coming second is a worst fate than coming third or fourth or fifth, or even nowhere!

And maybe it is. If it’s true that mountaineers who are forced to turn back within reach of Everest’s summit become more dispirited than those who couldn’t get past Everest Base Camp, are elite motocross riders similarly affected? Do runners-up forever live in the shadow of what could have been? Have their incredible achievements been overlooked because we tend to avoid insensitive talk of their not winning?

Truth of the matter is, the response seems to vary from rider to rider and according to the predicament that stood between them and that top step of the podium. Some riders are psychologically scarred and drift into obscurity. Others treat defeat as a character-building experience; a painful lesson that puts a fire in the belly for the battles ahead. And it’s the latter group we decided this article ought to focus on – those riders with an indomitable fighting spirit; riders who’d never say die, irrespective of whether their chance to win a world title was slammed shut in their face by a superior rider, or whether injuries or untimely mechanical problems deprived them of it.

Sensitive as the issue may be for some, the time had come to turn the spotlight back onto the dozen gutsiest motocrossers who came so tantalizing close to victory without actually tasting it. These are their stories, presented in no particular order…

THE CONDITIONS…

Before we get started, let’s frame the eligibility for this list. There are so many great motocross riders who didn’t win a world title, these ground-rules were the only way we could whittle the rider list down to a dozen:

  • The rider must have packed his bags and headed overseas to have a serious stab racing a World or AMA Championship. This explains why so many multiple national MX and SX title-winners – guys who didn’t compete overseas – don’t appear here.
  • Near-winners of AMA national titles also qualified for consideration. This condition acknowledges the incredible depth of competition in the American race scene (and the fact many Americans are barely aware there’s a world – and World Motocross Championship – outside the USA!).

1. SYLVAIN GEBOERS

If anyone should be acknowledged for establishing a record of near misses, it’s Sylvain Geboers. Back in the early days of the World MX Championship, the Belgian finished in the top three of the 250cc class for five consecutive years from 1968 to 1972, overshadowed on each occasion by fellow Belgian, Joel Robert, who seemed to have a vendetta against Geboers. When Geboers raced for the potent CZ factory, Robert signed on with CZ and snatched two titles. Then, when Geboers joined the fledgling Suzuki team in 1970, Robert also signed on to race the famed new lightweight works RH250, and banked another three 250cc titles.

To Geboers’ credit, he did amass 14 GP wins, won the MX des Nations multiple times, and topped the Trans-Tasman Motocross Championship in 1971. But Sylvain Geboers will best be remembered for the opportunities he created for others in the sport after his retirement. As manager of Suzuki’s European motocross team, he helped groom young riders such as Georges Jobe, Greg Albertyn, Stefan Everts and his younger brother, Eric, who would go on to win five world titles and lay claim as the first man to win a title in all three GP classes: 125cc, 250cc, and 500cc.

2. CORRADO MADDII

The mid-1980s saw a renaissance of Italian motocross. Young brands such as Beta, Gilera and Ancilotti were regularly leading 125cc GP races, but when the Castiglione brothers entered the fray with their superbly engineered works Cagiva and hired super-fast Italian Corrado Maddii to pilot the thing, history appeared in the making.

Halfway through the 1984 season, the wild Maddi found himself leading the World 125cc Championship over another Italian: the much-favored smooth tactician, Michele Rinaldi. But at the very last round of the Championship, where Maddii basically only had to finish to be crowned champion, the inexplicable happened. On his way back to the pits after setting the fast qualifying time, Maddii suddenly veered back onto the track, directly into path of Michele Fanton. The resulting crash broke Maddii’s bike and lower leg, and the title – and Italy’s undying love and adulation – went to Rinaldi; not the guy many believe was the world’s fastest 125cc rider of the era. Team Cagiva suffered the same fate as Maddii, as they would have been the first Italian company to win a world MX title and the first manufacturer to win a world title in their debut year. Like Rinaldi, Maddii went on to manage motocross GP teams, but was never again in a position to stand on the top step of the podium himself.

3. KURT NICOLL

The son of former factory BSA rider, Englishman Kurt Nicoll was a front-runner in the World Motocross Championship for 15 seasons between 1983 and 1997, racing primarily for KTM and Kawasaki. The plucky Pom posted 13 GP wins while forging a take-no-prisoners reputation, but two Honda-mounted greats – the legendary Eric Geboers and Georges Jobe – would stand in front of Nicoll’s title aspirations not once, but on four occasions! Yep, Nicoll had to settle for runner-up finishes in the World 500cc MX Championship in 1987, ’88, ’90 and ’92 – twice to Geboers and twice to Jobe.

Undeterred, Nicoll didn’t fold under the weight of disappointment. In 1994, with teammates Paul Malin and Rob Herring, Nicoll was a member of the victorious British 1994 MX des Nations team. And a decade later, at the ripe old age of 40, the gritty Brit won the AMA Supermoto Championship aboard a KTM.

With that sort of career-long loyalty, Nicoll was appointed as KTM’s Racing Director in 1998 – where he assisted many top riders achieve their title aspirations during 11 successful years – before going on to take up a position with Godfrey Entertainment, Inc., a gig that included looking after Travis Pastrana and his mad Nitro Circus posse.

4. JEFF LEISK

West Australian native, Jeff Leisk, won several 125, 250 and 500cc Australian MX Championships (famously winning all three class titles at the one meet in 1988), two prestigious Mister Motocross crowns (1984 and 1985), and teamed up with Craig Dack and Glen Bell at the 1988 MX des Nations in France to record Australia’s then best ever result of fourth. But he always had plans to race overseas.

After mixing it with the best of the Yanks in the AMA MX and SX series from 1986 through ’88, Leisk had the World MX Championship in his sights and, in 1989, he scored a support ride with HRC as teammate to two legends: Dave Thorpe and Eric Geboers. Most expected to see a learning-the-ropes year from Leisk, but the pint-sized Aussie was an immediate sensation on the fire-breathing factory CR500. He laid down the gauntlet from the opening round in Holland, where he infamously ran out of fuel on the last lap of Moto 1 while leading, before winning Moto 2. In his first season in Europe, Leisk finished an incredible second in World 500cc MX Championship standings, splitting his famous Honda teammates on the podium. Had he not run out of fuel in Holland, Leisk might very well have nabbed the world title in his debut year and created history for Australia. In 1990, and seen as a serious contender for the title, Leisk copped the attentions of the top riders and was involved in several on-track bingles. The resulting injuries saw him only race half the season’s 12 GPs, after which he returned to Oz.

Like Sylvain Geboers, it wasn’t long before Leisk gravitated back to the sport to help other achieve their racing goals. In 1995, he was contracted to run KTM Australia’s national race team, before moving on to roles in sales and marketing and then, in 2001, General Manager for KTM and Husaberg (subsequently replaced by Husqvarna) – a role that he only recently stepped down from.

5. MIKE HEALEY

The American had made a name for himself on the AMA scene by the mid-1980s as teammate to Bob Moore on a young Suzuki team. Healey followed Moore to Europe a few years later, teaming up with him again at KTM. He had a breakthrough year of sorts in 1989 when he won some 125cc GPs, though his efforts were largely overshadowed by the Cinderella story that was America’s Trampas Parker. Healey then narrowly lost the ‘91 World 250cc Championship to Parker, but it was the way Healey lost that title that’s best remembered. At the final round of the Championship in Japan, American Jeff Stanton showed up and won the race. In doing so, he took just enough points from Healey for him to lose the title. In a post-race incident (only more recently revealed by Stanton), Healey couldn’t contain his frustration and punched Stanton in the face. Not only did Healey have to live in Trampas Parker’s shadow, and then watch Americans Donny Schmit and Bob Moore go on to win world titles, but he also had to accept that that Stanton’s cameo in Japan cost him his best chance at the world No.1 plate.

Healey went on to teach motocross schools in SoCal, but in late 2009, he was arrested for stealing an elderly woman’s purse in a Huntington Beach mall, leaving her with a broken collarbone, and faced a 15-year jail sentence.

6. DARRYLL KING

During 25 years of motocross racing, New Zealand’s Darryll King won more than 50 NZ Championships. But it was King’s gutsy and committed dig in the World Motocross Championship from 1989 to 2000 that he will best be remembered for, and especially how gracious he was in defeat to the great Belgian Joel Smets in the 1997 and ’98 500cc world title chases.

“My two second places didn’t come from disasters,” a humble DK explained, years later. “I was beaten by a better man both times. In 1997, I worked my way into second Overall in the 500cc World MX Championship after improvements on the big Husqvarna over the 12-round series. In 1998, I led until Round 5, before Joel Smets started his attack. I could not hold the points’ lead or his speed over the 45-minute motos. He was simply at his best and had a legion of Belgian supporters cheering him on wherever he went. The two seconds I achieved was my top effort; I really put everything I had into those two seasons.”

After that, King broke the C6 vertebrae in his neck in a nasty step-off and was forced to wear a halo brace for four months. Somehow, King got his big, sinewy frame back in order and back on a motocross bike. He enjoyed a six-year stint in Australia (2001 to 2007) with the CDR Yamaha team, and won three premier-class titles in both the Australian MX Championship and the prestigious ADB Thumpers Nats, staging epic battles with the likes of Craig Anderson, Daryl Hurley, Cheyne Body, Jay Marmont and his 1996 World MX title-winning brother, Shayne. Like many other former greats, DK puts a lot back into the sport these days via personal rider tuition.

7. MARNICQ BERVOETS

Marnicq Bervoets has an imposing physical presence. Short-cropped hair, muscles on top of muscles, neck like a tree trunk, a 5’9” bull terrier personified. And that’s exactly how the Belgian great approached his long World Motocross career – like a bull at a gate. Despite amassing an impressive tally of 19 MX GP wins, he had the misfortune of racing at a time when fellow Belgian greats, Stefan Everts and Joel Smets, were at the absolute top of their games – Everts on the way to a historical 10 world titles, and Smets en route to four. Riding for the Suzuki factory team, Bervoets finished second to Everts in the World 250cc Motocross from 1995 to 1997, so he switched to the Rinaldi Yamaha factory team and the 500cc class. But he could never escape the other Belgians. Smets bettered Bervoets in the 500cc class in 2000, while Smets and Everts (Bervoets’ new teammate at Rinaldi Yamaha) relegated him to third the following year.

Bervoets wasn’t always the bridesmaid, and was a member of three victorious Belgian teams at the MX des Nations. But with four silver medals and a bronze in the cabinet, and injuries starting to catch up with him after such a long and illustrious career, he knew the time had come to hang up the boots.

8. JOSH COPPINS

Inspired by New Zealand’s King brothers, Darryll and Shayne, Josh Coppins headed to Europe in the mid-1990s and steadily worked his way up the world rankings. One of the sport’s most determined and thinking riders, Coppins had developed himself into a genuine title contender by 2002, and he finished runner-up to the flying Mickael Pichon in the hotly contested 250cc class. After an injury-marred ’03 season, Coppins rode 450cc four-stroke for the first time in ’04, placing a solid third behind Everts and Pichon and posting his first ever GP win. The following year, he bettered Everts several times and only narrowly missed out on upstaging the sport’s all-time greats in the title chase. A string of injury woes then left the Kiwi salvaging average results in ’06, and focusing his energies on his exciting new Rinaldi Yamaha ride in ’07, where he replaced the departing Everts.

And what a season it was … at least, for the first three quarters of it! After building a massive 106-point lead from the Belgian duo of Steve Ramon and Kevin Strijbos, Coppins was dealt one of the cruelest hands ever seen in modern-day motocross. Two freakish rear brake problems at the one round cost him a DNF and badly injured shoulder. And despite desperate measures (oxygen chambers, acupuncture and magnetic therapy) to speed up his recovery, JC soon had to accept the agonizing reality and let go of what appeared to be a title certainty. Still injured, he sat helplessly on the sidelines at the final round while Ramon and Strijbos overhauled his points tally, relegating the Kiwi to third.

With a new breed of talent coming through in Europe, Coppins wasn’t able to emulate that dominant 2007 form. After taking on a development role with Aprilia in 2010, Coppins fulfilled his dream of seeing out his racing career in Australia [INSERT URL OF RP_#25 PIECE] (where he won the premier MX1 class title with CDR Yamaha at the 2012 MX Nationals) before running his own successful race team, JCR Yamaha, back in his NZ homeland.

9. ANDREW McFARLANE

Andrew “Sharky” McFarlane tasted plenty of success in Australia by the mid-1990s, but it was his 1999 and 2000 seasons where his prodigious talents were best showcased. All of which put him in a great position to capitalise on the arrival of the World MX GP on Australian soil for the first time in 2000, and take a step toward his goal of racing overseas on a top factory team. Who will ever forget the image of McFarlane railing that KX500 though the first turn at Broadford with the cream of the world’s MX talent in his roost?! After dicing with world champs, Andrea Bartolini and Joel Smets, McFarlane went on to post a 3-9 scorecard for 4th Overall. But, more importantly, he’d attracted attention from factory team managers, and sure enough, he was signed to partner the great Stefan Everts on the Chesterfield Rinaldi Yamaha for 2001. McFarlane holeshot the Broadford GP yet again in ’01. He diced with Everts for the entire race, finishing just behind the Belgian legend for second, and earning a legion of Aussie fans in the process.

But McFarlane couldn’t continue that form in Europe. After two injury-marred seasons and a couple of disappointing top-10 finishes, McFarlane finally learned what it took to successfully contest a 17-round season by 2005. Riding for the Ricci Yamaha team, he reeled off four GP wins in the World MX2 Championship and led the points’ chase from Antonio Cairoli and appeared set to clinch the title … until a series of late-season, untimely DNFs tipped things narrowly in favour of the little Italian.

Looking for a fresh start in ’06, Sharky joined fellow Aussie Brett Metcalfe on American powerhouse team, Yamaha of Troy. And while he posted a few classy podiums, niggling injuries continued to hamper McFarlane’s successful transition from Europe to America. His aspirations for AMA titles never materialised. Shortly after heading back to race in Australia, McFarlane tragically lost his life after crashing at the Broadford round of the 2010 MX Nats. How ironic that the venue which had launched his illustrious international racing career in Europe and America, would also claim his life.

10. KEVIN WINDHAM

With eight Loretta Lynn titles to his name, there were massive expectations for Kevin Windham when he turned Pro in 1994. But, despite his natural gifts and textbook riding style, Windham remains arguably the best American rider never to have won a national championship. He finished second in the Overall points’ standings an agonising five times in an era dominated by Ricky Carmichael, Chad Reed and James Stewart.

K-Dub took the AMA Rookie of the Year Award in 1994, before being picked up by the factory Yamaha team, with whom he claimed two West Coast 125cc Supercross titles and two runner-up places in the 125cc Outdoor series (both in ’96 and ’97). Then, after beating all comers in a one-off ride in the 250cc class at the Charlotte SX in ’97, all eyes were on the man in 1998 when he stepped up into the premier class.

He adapted to the big bikes well but not spectacularly, and by 2002 – with two Outdoor runner-up finishes, average supercross results and a badly busted femur to his name – he walked away for the sport amid suggestions he was burned out.

Rejuvenated and back in form in ’03 aboard a Factory Connection Honda, Windham really took it up to the ever-dominant Ricky Carmichael, and claimed two wins. There were several more race and Overall podiums in the following years, but that national title continued to elude the man. Windham’s best title chance came in ’07 when an injured Chad Reed limped home in the back half of the supercross season with a busted shoulder, but Windham came up tantalizingly short yet again.

11. MICHAEL BYRNE

The gifted Queenslander turned Pro in 1997 and had earned three Australian Championships (and an ADB Thumper Nats series win aboard the big XR650) by the turn of the century. Byrne’s supercross skills drew the attention of former AMA SX and MX champ Jeff Emig, who signed the Australian for his TheEdgeSports.com Kawasaki team in 2001.

Byrne moved to America permanently the following year, racing with the Amsoil Honda outfit. But at the very first round of the ’02 East Coast 125cc SX Series, while reeling in Mike Brown and Chad Reed in the Main event, Byrne’s CR125 spluttered on the upramp of the track’s biggest triple and he hit the deck. Badly! While Reed went on to post his first of many AMA race wins, the luckless Byrne broke his ankle and ribs and collapsed a lung. And that monumental incident kind of set the scene for the Aussie’s title aspirations in America. For years, he was always a top-three guy in both classes, but bad luck niggling injuries continually thwarted his momentum toward the top step of the podium.

Byrne’s most impressive seasons came after the switch to Suzuki in ’07 and the Rockstar/Makita Suzuki factory big-rig in ’08 and ’09. While injuries again cost him a decent SX finish, the fit-as-a-fiddle Byrne began to shine in the Outdoors, placing consistently on the podium in the back half of the 2009 season and finishing fourth Overall. Notably, Burner was the only 450cc-class rider to score points in all 24 motos of the 2009 AMA Motocross Championship.

12. BRETT METCALFE

After an outstanding Junior career in Australia, Brett Metcalfe was always tagged as the next Chad Reed. Recognising the kid’s talent, KTM’s Jeff Leisk helped broker a deal with KTM’ Europe’s Kurt Nicoll, and at just 17, Metty was contesting the 2002 World MX Championship on factory machinery. Despite flashes of brilliance, Metcalfe’s two brief seasons in Europe were riddled with injury, after which he set his sights on the USA.

Aboard the Red Bull KTM, Metcalfe immediately earned a fifth-place in the Supercross Lites East series and announced himself as a title contender, but a horrendous knee injury (and complications after surgery) made his life tough going in the Outdoors.

In ’05, Metcalfe joined the Yamaha of Troy team and won the Lites class at the US Open of Supercross. He also made his debut in the West Region Supercross and earned a couple of top-five spots en route to sixth Overall, doing enough to attract the attention of Pro Circuit Kawasaki’s astute boss, Mitch Payton. Despite missing the entire SX season and four rounds of the Outdoors through injury, Metcalfe finished seventh Overall in the Outdoors and re-signed with the Kawasaki squad for ’08. He finished a close fourth in the Supercross Lites West standings, and immediately backed that up with a third Overall in the Motocross Lites Championship.

In 2009, Metty joined the GEICO Powersports Honda squad and won the first round of Supercross season, but his celebrations were short-lived as a busted collarbone and wrist forced him out for the remainder of the supercross season. Determined, he returned for the Outdoors, where he finished third again, behind the flying Ryan Dungey and Christophe Pourcel. Along with Dungey, Metcalfe was the only 250cc-class rider to score points in all 24 motos of the MX Championship. Racing back in Australia for the past few years, the evergreen Metcalfe remains as competitive as ever, finishing runner-up and then fourth to his Penrite Honda teammate, Justin Brayton, in the 2018 and 2019 Australian Supercross Championships, respectively.

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