AUGUST 1, 1982

THE DARKEST DAY IN MOTOCROSS

Words by Brett Smith

 

 

Memories fade. They get foggy or faint; sometimes they fizzle and can be fickle or fleeting. Too often they simply fail. While everyone remembers where they were in a highly emotional occurrence (say, September 11, 2001, or JFK’s assassination), the details surrounding an event can warp over time – even when one was directly involved. There are over a dozen types of memory errors, from false memory to bias, intrusion, misinformation, absentmindedness and transience (forgetting over time). When a memory isn’t periodically reinforced, it gets boxed up, packed away and sent into a mental black hole. 

For those who attended the 1982 NMA Grand National Motocross Championships in Ponca City, Oklahoma, the afternoon of Sunday, August 1, is one of the most unforgettable of their lives. Yet, everyone remembers what happened a little bit differently. Some wildly differently. Nobody at the four-day event witnessed the accident that happened one mile east of the racetrack, which took the lives of three of the sport’s best youth motocross racers: Bruce Bunch (16) Rick Hemme (16) and Kyle Fleming (13). The legend and the rumors about what happened in the Mercury Lynx wagon driven by Oakley’s Dana Duke have grown, and when people discuss it today, it sounds like they think they witnessed… something. With the advent of the internet and social media, those beliefs have only spread. 

What we know for sure is that four exceptional lives were affected at 4:43 pm on August 1. Bunch and Fleming were killed instantly. Hemme died in the hospital nine days later, and Duke spent two months in a coma with slim chances of survival. He lived, but 35 years later is still undergoing surgeries and suffering complications. It’s arguably the darkest day in the history of motocross, and even though these teenagers seem to have become faster with the passing of time, for many there’s no doubt that the motocross record books of the 1980s and 1990s are missing three names: Bruce Bunch, Rick Hemme and Kyle Fleming.

This is the untold story of their lives and deaths.

 

RICK HEMME, LARRY BROOKS & BRUCE BUNCH | Ponca City, 1982 | Photo courtesy Larry Brooks

RICK HEMME, LARRY BROOKS & BRUCE BUNCH | Ponca City, 1982 | Photo courtesy Larry Brooks

BRUCE BUNCH | Saddleback, 1982 | Photo courtesy Tom Corley

BRUCE BUNCH | Saddleback, 1982 | Photo courtesy Tom Corley

KYLE FLEMING | Photo courtesy Fleming family

KYLE FLEMING | Photo courtesy Fleming family

KYLE FLEMING | Ponca City, 1982 | Photo courtesy Fleming family

KYLE FLEMING | Ponca City, 1982 | Photo courtesy Fleming family

RICK HEMME | Quartz Hill, California | Photo courtesy Tom Corley

RICK HEMME | Quartz Hill, California | Photo courtesy Tom Corley

 

Excerpt from the Author

"The idea for this story was brought to me by the team at META and once I dug into it, I could tell it was one that people wanted to know more about. For many people, the deaths of Bruce Bunch, Kyle Fleming and Rick Hemme is still a very fresh memory, 35 years later.  Last October I started the journey of trying to tell the story of what happened in Ponca City, OK on August 1, 1982. 

Maybe my work will only lead to more questions but the promise I made to the Bunch, Fleming and Hemme families was that everyone would know who their boys were and who they wanted to be.

Over 6 months of reporting went into this article, involving interviews with 50 different individuals, which ended up being 8,000 words, an unheard of length in motorcycle magazines. It was a complicated process and not every detail was able to get to print. I also ran into the issue of one person's account completely contradicting the account of another person's and I knew I could only report the stories that was I able to corroborate from multiple sources. 

The family trusted me with this story and that's a very high honor. Word has started to leak about this article's release and I've been getting phone calls from complete strangers, men who were friends of the boys and just wanted to talk about them. I've also been getting messages from young men who are only in their 20s but they want to know more. It let me know that their memory is still very strong and now a younger generation will know who they were as well."

 

Read the Story in Volume 009