The Day Doug Henry Fell From the Sky
Words by Brett Smith
Everybody reacted differently. Some of the sunbaked spectators were slow to process what had just happened. Others were quick to respond, but clearly unsure what exactly they were supposed to do; one shirtless man, holding an aluminum can wrapped in a koozie in his right hand, ran from out of the camera’s view, hurdled the fence like a horse in a steeplechase, and stood near the rider’s feet. Some spectators just stood there, slumped over the fence, motionless; others slowly raised their disposable cameras to their eyes and snapped a photo. Many pointed back up the hill as if they were still trying to convince themselves of what they just saw and where it came from.
Stacey Henry saw it happen from the back of a Honda box van. She was watching the race and evading the oppressive Father’s Day sun and humidity that always blanketed southern Maryland in mid-June. Her angle was head-on and far enough away that she said to herself, “What kind of line was that?” A couple of seconds passed and she wondered why her husband hadn’t gotten up yet. Henry always bounced right back up. Then John Dowd’s wife, Trish, came over and told her to get down to the track.
Jeremy McGrath didn’t understand why he was hearing Doug Henry’s engine accelerating through the braking bumps. McGrath had moved slightly to his right to avoid the uphill chatters and thought if he ran it in deep on his teammate he could gain a few tenths of a second. He looked to his left and saw Henry hanging off the back of his bike and then floating away like a Nordic ski jumper. McGrath let up. Henry was still gaining velocity and height by the time McGrath started descending from his own jump. “I thought he was dead,” McGrath says.
Davey Coombs turned around just in time to see something fall out of the sky and hear what he called a “sickening thud, the sound of metal breaking and a bomb hitting but not going off.” He was shooting photos and writing for Cycle News. He and Motocross Action’s Chris Hultner were loading film in their cameras. They looked at each other and then raced toward the fence.
Jonathan Beasley had been awake for two days preparing his racetrack for this day, the fourth round of what is now called the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship. He faced the course but was engaged in a conversation with someone his own height: 6’4”. Chatter from his two-way radio filled the other ear. Suddenly, the chatter died; he saw the whole thing and today calls it one of the scariest moments of his life. He was 80 yards away and jumped on his ATV. “He was probably 70 feet in the air at the height of his jump,” he says. “It was just sad seeing how he fell like a rock.”
Brian Austin knew he was being lapped. The leader, Mike LaRocco, had just passed and he knew that second and third would soon follow. Then he heard something that wasn’t quite normal and he looked over his right shoulder. Nothing. Then he looked up—way up—and saw another rider in the air at an obscenely abnormal height. He didn’t know who it was until impact. He was 10 to 15 feet away from where Doug Henry landed, and Austin’s most vivid and disturbing memory was that he actually felt the ground shake. “I could feel it, hear it, and taste how much compressive force happened,” he says.
Shelton Hines, a lanky construction worker from Columbia, Maryland, was the first person to reach Henry’s side, within 10 seconds of him landing. Hines jumped the fence and in long strides walked to Henry and picked up the purple Scott goggles that had been discarded. “It looked like his eyes were rolling into the back of his head,” Hines says. “It was pretty bad.” He remembers being asked for water and then dropping the goggles and attempting to remove Henry’s helmet. Within seconds, an EMT shooed Hines away. He and three other random spectators, who all ran in from different directions, scattered.
An obvious statement: Doug Henry’s June 18, 1995, crash at Budds Creek Motocross Park in Mechanicsville, Maryland, is one of the most infamous and bizarre motorcycle wrecks of all time. But to merely describe it as a crash is a gross misrepresentation of what actually happened. It was more like a flight, then a plummet. In trying to learn why this incident will be just as memorable another 20 years from now, understand that Henry did something that had no possibility of yielding a benefit. “If he had landed it…” was not an option. He didn’t crash attempting a unique jump combination or endo or high side or swap out of control; he sent himself into the atmosphere seemingly on purpose. For everyone who witnessed the crash, it was completely nonsensical. For most of the spectators, Henry had come from completely out of view to suddenly five to seven stories in the air. People were forced to make their own conclusions. In 1995 there was no live TV at motocross races, or even a TV truck from where team and race officials could get answers. ESPN aired the footage in a tape-delayed telecast.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, a book that examines the factors that lead to high levels of success, there is a chapter that makes the argument that plane crashes do not happen as the result of a single catastrophic cause. Instead, Gladwell says, plane crashes are a subtle process that begin slowly and gradually overtake the pilots until the plane ends up in an unredeemable crisis. Doug Henry, the only person who truly knows what led to his own crash from flight in 1995, would agree. From small mistakes to fatigue, pride, determination, a wardrobe issue, and even bike setup, a series of factors led him to be dropped from the sky that day.
Henry was battling McGrath for second place. They were halfway through the second-to-last lap and the defending series champion, LaRocco, was less than two seconds ahead of them. In a rutted left-hand corner, on a secluded area of the course, Henry took the inside, McGrath the outside. McGrath saw Henry make a mistake in the corner and he gained a little time. Then Henry, on a No. 4–emblazoned Honda HRC 250, cased the downhill double out of the corner and nearly landed on a car tire that served as a crude track barrier. McGrath cleanly landed on the downside and closed more distance on his Honda teammate. Riders then raced into the bottom of a valley before climbing another steep hill. After hitting the midpoint between the hills, Henry started to climb and then hit a bump with a square edge; the suspension compressed and his whole body position shifted. While McGrath was in a smoother line and in attack mode, elbows out, head over handlebars, Henry’s butt patch was rubbing the stickers off his rear fender. His feet were also hanging off the backs of the foot pegs.
It was late in the moto and Henry was understandably fatiguing; arm pump had affected his grip and the temperature that day was 88.9 degrees. He couldn’t relent; he was in a battle with not only his teammate, but with the championship points leader. Henry had won the previous round at High Point Raceway a few weeks earlier, his first career win in the premier class of AMA motocross. Beating McGrath meant taking over the points lead. Hanging off the back of the bike while simultaneously on the throttle with his fingertips, Henry’s last resort was to get his foot on the rear brake to slow himself down.
If only he hadn’t been wearing John Dowd’s right boot that day. Henry tweaked his ankle in practice days prior and it hurt so badly that he borrowed a size 11 boot, one size too big, and asked Honda tech Cliff White to fit a steel plate to the insole. It was flex that caused him the most pain, and the plate eliminated the flexing—including when he really needed it.
The last thing working against Henry was his own bike setup. In normal conditions his Honda 250 was perfect for his riding style: a shorter front end with more weight bias and a looser rear shock. Henry was tall and lean and didn’t like too much rebound in the shock. According to Dave Arnold, Honda’s team manager in the ’80s and early to mid-’90s, the looser damping, lesser rebound, and amount of speed and torque a factory Honda could produce was lethal in that specific moment on that specific track obstacle. A different bike setup wouldn’t have saved Henry from flight, but he may not have flown as high or as far.
“Everything happened in reverse for Doug at that moment,” Arnold says. “Everything happened that you didn’t want to happen.”
The one thing that did go correctly for Henry was his decision to stay on the bike. He debated letting go upon takeoff. Once the decision to stay on the bike was made, he then thought maybe he could make it to the retention pond that was in the infield.
“[I thought] that [would] be a soft landing, not realizing I was only a quarter of the way there,” Henry says. “I decided to get control of the bike and just land it and see what happens. I remember going off that jump in the air and it was like one of those dreams. It wasn’t real. I’ve always had dreams where I’m riding and I land and I wake up. It really felt like that. It was really just a dream.”
It wasn’t. Once airborne, he was able to pull his body weight forward. With the front end high, he looked like Evel Knievel jumping the fountains at Caesar’s Palace. After 2.8 seconds of airtime, Henry’s rear wheel touched down first, about 20 feet shy of reaching the corner at the bottom of the hill. To this day, LaRocco claims that he saw Henry’s shadow and thought to himself, “What is he doing?” The sprinklers at Budds Creek are spaced 60 feet apart and Henry came down next to the third one from the top. He traveled more than 120 feet downhill, nearly to the flatbottom. Beasley has since had the land surveyed and discovered that the vertical height of that track obstacle is 112 feet.
When the front wheel slapped to the ground, Henry’s body was violently slammed into the seat; his torso folded completely in half and his head was drilled into the front end. His right arm was blown from the handlebar and tossed out and behind him as if winding up for a pitch. The force of the impact was so great on the bike that the load was transferred from the suspension into the bolts that held the shock into the frame. Cliff White remembers that the bolts were bent and had to be beaten loose from the frame. Surprisingly, the wheels were intact.
When the suspension rebounded, Henry was sprung over the front end and he did a forward somersault with the motorcycle. It was like he was wrestling his bike to the ground. His hands were tangled in the flailing bike and he was knocked in the head. When he finally stopped rolling, he immediately took off his goggles with his left hand, paused, evaluated himself, realized that he could move his legs and feet, and then tried to roll onto his back. A sharp pain sent him back to his side.
His spine was bent so far on impact that his L1 vertebra burst, causing spinal-cord compression. Doctors said it was miraculous that he retained full movement in his legs. At the hospital, when Stacey Henry asked one doctor to explain the surgery they were going to perform, he said, “You wouldn’t understand.” She handed him a piece of paper and a pen and asked him to draw it. He drew a crude stick figure that didn’t explain much.
“‘He’s young, he can find another job,’ Stacey remembers a second doctor telling her. “How he dismissed all the hours and heart this guy had, I thought, ‘He has no clue what this guy’s been through,’” she says. “‘He thinks it’s just a backyard accident.’ So I knew immediately that I had to get him out of there.”
Stacey moved her husband to George Washington University, where a young neurosurgeon named Charles Riedel teamed up with an orthopedic surgeon to clean up the bone fragments that were still dangerously close to the spinal column and to rebuild Henry’s L1, a procedure that, at the time, was still new. “In place of that vertebra, we then placed a titanium mesh cage, which we filled with grafted bone so it would grow and replace what used to be there,” Dr. Riedel says. Had the two doctors at the first hospital been more compassionate and empathetic, Stacey Henry today believes that she would have allowed them to perform a more traditional and safer operation with rods that would have fused six to seven vertebrae together. Henry’s career as a professional motocross racer would have been over with.
As emergency responders knelt near Henry’s head in the Budds Creek dirt, trying to ascertain the location of his pain, the rider struggled to remove his gloves. He pulled his left Fox Pawtector off, which revealed a gold wedding band. Henry didn’t remove it even while racing. Exhausted, he stopped moving and rested in the fetal position while the EMTs and Honda staff worked to stabilize him.
When a transport vehicle wasn’t able to get into the valley to drive Henry up to the ambulance, four EMTs and two Honda team members picked up the stretcher. With his legs and torso taped down, his neck in a brace, his jersey cut off, and his mouth smothered with an oxygen mask, he was carried right back up the very hill that dropped him from the atmosphere—now called Henry Hill. Maybe it was at his request, maybe he wrestled them loose, but Doug Henry’s arms were free. When he raised his two bare arms into the air and held a double thumbs-up, the crowd at the fence, which had swelled, knew a legend had been created, and the reaction was unanimous: euphoria.