A Life Less Ordinary
Words by Davey Coombs | Photos by Drew Ruiz | Video by FMF
Danny LaPorte’s motorcycling odyssey has taken him across the globe and back many times.
“I'LL NEVER FORGET THE DAY MY DAD PULLED UP IN FRONT OF OUR HOUSE WITH A BULTACO IN THE BACK OF HIS TRUCK,” BEGINS LAPORTE, LOOKING BACK ON A LIFE IN MOTORCYCLING. “I JUST SAW THAT BIKE AND THOUGHT, `WOW. THAT IS SO COOL!' I WAS MAYBE NINE YEARS OLD, AND IT BLEW MY MIND.”
LaPorte grew up in Torrance, California, west of Los Angeles, not Yucca Valley, as it says in the AMA record books.
“Yucca Valley was my parents’ second home, and that’s where we built some tracks once I started racing for Suzuki in ’76,” he explains. “Roger (DeCoster) was with Suzuki, and when he was in the country to race he went out there with a dozer and built some tracks. A lot of teams and racers tested there after that.”
There were also lots of tracks in the area, which gave LaPorte and everyone else the chance to race two or three times a week at hotspots like Ascot Park, Indian Dunes, Perris Raceway, Carlsbad, Saddleback Park and more.
“THAT WAS A REALLY FUN TIME BECAUSE EVERYONE WAS STILL EXPERIMENTING AND LEARNING, AND THE BIKES WERE GOING THROUGH A LOT OF DEVELOPMENT,” HE RECALLS. “NO ONE REALLY THOUGHT MUCH ABOUT THE MONEY—MY FIRST CONTRACT WAS LIKE FIFTEEN OR TWENTY THOUSAND DOLLARS, AND I THOUGHT I WAS RICH!”
LaPorte rose quickly through the ranks, though his parents made him stay in school so he would have options. He worked with his father, an electrician, after school and during the summer. He wanted to keep his options open, not knowing whether a career as a pro motocrosser would ever pay the bills. And when Suzuki, Yamaha and Kawasaki decided to go all-in in 1976 on their shared goal of knocking off mighty Team Honda rider Marty Smith, LaPorte was in the perfect place.
“There were all of these fast SoCal guys, like (Bob) Hannah, myself, Broc Glover, Jeff Jennings, Danny Turner and more, and the other factories all wanted to beat Marty and his Honda. One day phone rings and it’s Tosh Koyama from Suzuki,” LaPorte says. “He told me that his factory wanted to pay me to go race the 125 Nationals. I said, ‘Okay, but I need to ask my parents first!’”
LaPorte woundup driving down to Suzuki and negotiating the contract himself. He was 18 years old and still in high school.
“We all knew Marty, and we really looked up to him—he was a SoCal guy who made it, and we all wanted to be just like him,” adds LaPorte. “He really opened the doors for all of us.”
That didn’t stop LaPorte and the others from wanting to beat him. And at the first round of the ’76 AMA 125cc National Championships at Hangtown, someone did beat Smith, but it wasn’t LaPorte. “Hurricane” Hannah erupted that day, reestablishing the American motocross hierarchy in two blindingly fast motos. Smith and LaPorte each had bike troubles in one moto, though they were no match for Hannah in the other.
How popular had motocross become by that time in California? At the Hangtown 125cc National opener, nine of the ten top finishers hailed from the Golden State. Only eighth-place Steve Wise wasn’t a Californian—Kawasaki had hired him from Texas.
“Practically the whole industry was in California by that point,” explains LaPorte. “The OEMs were there, the magazines, the aftermarket companies, and there were endless places to ride. Even though we lived in the city, I could just go down the street and ride in any dirt lot. That was why a whole bunch of us in California just kind of emerged all at once.”
By the end of the ’76 series Hannah had dethroned Smith as champion, and LaPorte finished just one point behind Smith in the final rankings—and he won the last two rounds.
One year later, LaPorte was in position to take the title from Hannah, but at the now infamous finale in San Antonio, team Yamaha’s pit board ordered Hannah to “Let Brock Bye.”
Overlooking both the grammatical errors, the Hurricane grudgingly did, leading to tie in the final championship standings at 240 points each for LaPorte and Hannah’s teammate Broc Glover. Based on tie-breakers, Glover was declared champion.
“It was a bad deal, though I actually think it was worse for the other guys,” offers the ever-gracious LaPorte. “They didn’t want to do it, but the company wanted to win the title badly and had invested a lot of money. It was just normal team stuff. Suzuki didn’t want to get into a big protest or anything, and neither did I. To me, I lost the championship at some other point. I had won both motos at the opener and had some really good races, but some bad ones, too.
“IT SHOULD NOT HAVE COME DOWN TO THAT LAST MOTO, BUT IT DID. I JUST MOVED ON TO THE NEXT THING, WHICH IS WHAT I'VE DONE MY WHOLE LIFE—I NEVER LET THINGS HOLD ME BACK.”
Indeed, within two years, LaPorte had his own AMA National Championship, albeit in the 500cc Class. That’s the same class his hero and sometime mentor Roger DeCoster was dominant in, only DeCoster’s five titles were FIM World Championships over in Europe. As a kid LaPorte watched DeCoster on ABC’s Wide World of Sports when they featured the annual 500cc U.S. Grand Prix from Carlsbad, and soon he and his friends were calling every good wheelie or cross-up they could pull on their bicycles a “DeCoster” in his honor. And when DeCoster retired at the end of the 1980 season and went to work at American Honda, LaPorte immediately switched teams to ride for The Man.
Unfortunately, LaPorte had an injury-riddled ’81 season, but it culminated with a life-changing event—two of them, actually. DeCoster talked Honda into sending four of his American riders to Europe to compete in the Trophee and Motocross des Nations, which are basically the Olympics of motocross. The young Americans shocked the world at both races, first on 250cc motorcycles (Trophee) and then 500cc bikes (Motocross), winning each event for the first time ever. It might not have happened if not for a special request DeCoster made of LaPorte.
“The Trophee race was in Lommel, Belgium, which was a sand track, and the week before the race Roger said, ‘I’m not sure our fuel tanks we use in America hold enough gas for 45-minute motos here,’ so he asked me to go out and do a full moto at race speed,” explains LaPorte. “I did it, and sure enough, the bike ran out of gas on me. So, we all switched to our bigger 500cc tanks. If not for that, all of us would have ran out of gas at the end of the race!”
LaPorte, who always had an eye on one day racing Europe, used the unexpected results as a bargaining chip to get him a deal in Europe. DeCoster and Honda had nothing to offer, but Yamaha did, so LaPorte lined up for the 1982 FIM 250cc World Championship in Europe riding a white-works YZ250.
What transpired over the course of that summer was even more earth-shaking. While LaPorte battled the elegant Belgian legend Georges Jobe for the 250cc title, “Bad” Brad Lackey’s decade-long crusade to win the 500cc world title finally reached a successful conclusion. Yet another Californian, speedway ace Bruce Penhall, was on his way to the FIM World Championship. And DeCoster returned with his American Honda riders to sweep the Trophee and Motocross des Nations again, which meant neither of America’s first world champions, Brad Lackey and Danny LaPorte, were on the team. No matter: The balance of global motocross power has shifted from Europe to the U.S.
The following year LaPorte battled the late Jobe again for the 250cc world crown, but this time the Belgian Suzuki rider got the better of the American Yamaha rider. LaPorte did one more year in Europe, this time in the 500cc class, but by that point Yamaha was in financial trouble. Their bikes had fallen well behind Honda’s exotic-works bikes, and that had a profound effect on LaPorte’s results. He would return to the States at the end of the 1984 season, but even with his diverse resume, he found it hard to get proper support. He didn’t even race until that summer’s 500cc Nationals. LaPorte’s last-ever pro motocross race would be the Six Flags National in Georgia, in which he finished a remarkable fourth overall. What made it so remarkable was the fact that he was on Husqvarna, then a fading Swedish brand on the brink of bankruptcy. That would stand as Husqvarna’s best AMA Motocross finish until the 2015 Hangtown National, when Jason Anderson finished third for the revitalized brand, now owned by Austrian juggernaut KTM.
LaPorte was done with motocross, but not racing in general. Many top European stars, like Gaston Rahier and Andre Malherbe, transitioned into endurance and desert racing following their MX days, in part because the money transfused into the sport by cigarette brands like Marlboro, Lucky and Gauloises made it more lucrative than racing Grand Prix motocross. LaPorte wanted in, despite the news that Malberbe, a three-time world champion, had suffered a broken neck in a Tunisian race. He was advised by his friend Jean-Claude Olivier of Yamaha France to try U.S. desert racing first, which he did. He teamed up with Kawasaki legend Larry Roeseler. Three Baja 1000 and three Baja 500 wins later, he was ready for even bigger races, like the Paris-Dakar Rally and the Pharaohs race across Egypt.
“That was a great way to round out my career because that’s how I grew up, going out to the desert and riding with my family,” says LaPorte. Unfortunately, he suffered a big crash of his own in Niger, resulting in a heart contusion.
“I NEARLY DIED. IT WAS TWELVE DAYS OF MY LIFE WHERE I DON'T REMEMBER ANYTHING, EXCEPT FOR THE FACT THAT MY LUNGS WERE SO FULL OF BLOOD THAT THEY STABBED A TUBE IN MY CHEST SO I COULD BREATHE.”
But he did recover, and he would go on to win the Pharaohs Rally as well as finish second in the Paris-Dakar, holding the highest finish for an American to this day. It was enough to allow him closure, and he soon retired altogether from professional racing. In 1997 he was offered a job at FMF Racing by lifelong friend Donny Emler, and he still rides “at least a couple of times a week” as part of his role in research and development.
It was while racing in Europe that LaPorte met his future wife Georgia, a lovely woman from Paris he was introduced to by Gabriele Mazzarola, of Alpinestars fame. Danny and Georgia have two children: Shane, who lives in Norway, and Estelle, who was in London but now works in Florida with the World Tennis Association.
MOTORCYCLING HAS HAD A PROFOUND EFFECT ON DANNY LAPORTE'S LIFE. IN TURN, LAPORTE HAS HAD A PROFOUND EFFECT ON MOTORCYCLING IN GENERAL.
“I feel extremely fortunate to have lived the life I have so far,” says LaPorte, still rakishly young at the age of 60. “I got to travel, I got to meet wonderful people along the way, and my world is just so large because of all that. And I still get to ride motorcycles pretty much whenever I want. It’s a good living.”
Absolutely. Not to mention a life less ordinary.