America’s Original Extreme Offroad Race
Words by Dale Spangler | Photos courtesy MX Sports
Many would agree the Blackwater 100 is America’s original extreme offroad race. Before the terms “extreme enduro” or “hard enduro” even existed, before there was an EnduroCross Series, and before there was a Grand National Cross Country (GNCC) series—there was the Blackwater 100. One of the most famous (some would argue most infamous) offroad races in the world, the Blackwater 100, for the most part, has been all but forgotten. What’s the background of this race and why was it so significant? What became of it?
It began as an idea in the mid-1970s, when a preacher from the small town of Davis, West Virginia, located in the northeast part of the state in the heart of coal country, approached a race promoter by the name of Dave “Big Dave” Coombs at one of his motocross races. The preacher, concerned for the economy of his struggling little town, had an idea to hold a motorcycle race on lands surrounding Davis in the hopes of attracting spectators and racers to the area. Big Dave and the preacher watched the movie On Any Sunday, and after seeing the scenes featuring the Lake Elsinore Grand Prix, they decided a similar type of event would be just what was needed to the boost the economy of Davis. Big Dave went down and inspected the land around Davis and saw that the area had immense potential for a motorcycle race, which resulted in the first race being held outside of town in 1974. For 1975 the race was moved into town and became part of Davis’ “Alpine Festival.” The event was named the “Blackwater 100” because of the surrounding Blackwater River that runs through Davis, and the nearby Blackwater Falls. The race’s length was to be 100 miles, therefore “100” was added to the end of the name, and the Blackwater 100 was born.
Steep hills, tight woods, water crossings, swamps—you name it, the Blackwater had it all. The event was a true test of endurance—for both man and machine—and to simply finish became a sought-after achievement. Due to the difficulty of its varied terrain and four grueling 25-mile laps, the event was eventually dubbed “America’s toughest race.” The winner that first year in 1975 was Kevin Lavoie from Chepachet, Rhode Island riding an Ossa, and he would go on to win the 1976 and 1978 versions of the event also. Other notable names in those early years included Frank Gallo (1977 winner), and Mark Hyde (1979 winner).
“I always looked forward to Blackwater every year as it was one of those must-do events,” remembers 1979 winner Mark Hyde. “After watching the movie On Any Sunday, and seeing how that played out, it was cool to be in a race that had an impact like that. After I won the race for the first time in 1979, I was rewarded with my first factory support ride, and started my career in the motorcycle industry.” [Hyde would go on to win the event three more times].
Through the support of spectators, racers, and sponsors alike, the Blackwater event continued to grow in popularity. Davey Coombs, son of Big Dave and current Editor-in-Chief at Racer X Illustrated magazine, explains how the event quickly gained the attention of powersports media at the time: “A large part of the popularity of the event came when the staff of California-based Dirt Bike magazine—Rick ‘Super Hunky’ Sieman, Tom Webb, Paul Clipper and Dennis ‘Ketchup’ Cox—came back east for the event at the invite of Big Dave. They had little experience with the thick woods and bottomless swamps, and struggled to even finish the event, yet they wrote very complimentary articles about it (it was Super Hunky who dubbed it ‘America's toughest race’ after he tried to ride it on a big-bore Maico and had a brutal day just trying to get around). They gave the event immediate credibility, and helped bridge the gap that existed between eastern off-road racing and the mostly-California-based motorcycle industry.”
By 1980, due in part to the event’s popularity, the single-day Blackwater event evolved into a three-race 100-mile series with the Blackwater 100 as the premier race. Three-wheelers were added in 1983 (later to become four-wheelers) and then in 1984 Wiseco Piston signed on as title sponsor of the seven-race “Wiseco 100 Miler Series,” which was renamed the Wiseco Grand National Cross Country (GNCC) series in 1986.
“It was back in 1981 when I was working for Wiseco that I first met Dave Coombs,” explains Bob Gorman, former Wiseco Sales and Marketing Manager and current CEO of Cometic Gasket. “He threw out his idea of the Blackwater 100, and I thought, ‘what a great way for Wiseco to reach out to its customers, and at the same time have some fun.’ Knowing Dave and the Coombs family and how they operate—treating the competitors with respect and always taking care of their sponsors—it wasn't a tough sell.”
Just how difficult was the Blackwater 100? Unlike today’s GNCC series, where each race is a timed event, the Blackwater, and the other races that comprised the Wiseco 100 Miler Series, were distance events. Perhaps the speeds may not have been as high as today’s races, and of course, the machines of today have evolved to allow higher speeds, but in some respects, the 100-mile races may have been more difficult than today’s races. Whereas today’s GNCC races last around three hours, the winners of the Blackwater event clocked in at over five hours—and that was for the winner! A grueling five hours on a motorcycle or ATV unlike today’s lightweight, high-horsepower and high power-to-weight ratio long-travel machines.
“Going into the race, my first goal was always just to finish, and if you did that you would end up with a good result,” recalls Mark Hyde. “I never finished the race in under five hours and I don’t think I ever made it through a year without getting stuck at least once. It was also on Father’s Day Weekend every year, and since I started out riding with my dad as a kid, he went to most of my races. That was also special.”
“The Blackwater 100 made the Baja 1000 look like a trail ride,” shares former pro motocross racer and Wiseco employee at the time, Steve Johnson. “I have ridden them both and finished.” Johnson raced the 1989 Blackwater on a mostly stock Yamaha Warrior 350 ATV and finished fourth in the Four-Stroke A class. “It was like racing on the moon in some spots, the Bayou in other spots, and rainforest in others,” continued Johnson. “You would be riding a wave of mud on top of the moss, it was insane, if you stopped you sank to your waist! I have never been so tired in my life. The best feature of the Warrior was e-start and reverse! Nothing like backing up at a bottleneck.”
The Blackwater 100 was survival of the fittest, and finishing not only required endurance and strategy, but also the ability to keep one’s machine running for the entire event after crossing gas-tank-high streams, smashing through hundreds of rocks, and navigating the swamps and deep woods of rural West Virginia. And then there was the dreaded Highway 93 river crossing, the most famous and popular obstacle on the race course. A place where thousands of adult beverage-fueled spectators (called “mud fleas”) lined the course to watch riders navigate the Blackwater River, followed by a steep, greasy uphill embankment. Imagine a chaotic festival atmosphere where riders funnel through a narrow chute, cross the river, then attempt to climb the slippery embankment. The tricky part, climbing the embankment, often involved a technique whereby a rider launched their motorcycle or ATV up the sheer face in hopes that the mud fleas deemed the effort worthy of their assistance. Make it across the Highway 93 River crossing once, and you only had to accomplish the task three more times.
Adds Hyde, “Having the race in that setting was very special and my wife would go every year along with other family members and friends. We would go check out the falls and other interesting things in the area. Year in and year out, it was always the most difficult race we had on the schedule. It had a wide variety of terrain that was very challenging, plus the bogs and river crossings made line selection very important. The spectators were also very different and they did not hesitate to jump in and be a part of the race. I have been lucky enough to travel the world racing motorcycles, and when that race was in its prime, I would get asked about it where ever I went.”
The list of winners of the Blackwater 100 reads like a veritable who’s who of offroad racing legends. Names such as four-time winner and KTM Ride Orange Manager Mark Hyde, multi-time ISDE Gold Medalist and AMA Motorcycle Hall of Famer Jeff Fredette, four-time National Enduro Champion Terry Cunningham, and future GNCC champions Scott Summers and Fred Andrews. ATV winners include two-time winners Jeffrey Bernard and Roy Dains, three-time winner and two-time GNCC champion Bob Sloan, and future seven-time GNCC champion Barry Hawk.
“My first experience at Blackwater was something I will never forget,” describes Barry Hawk. “I was 15 years old and went with a friend who ended up with a broken collarbone, which left me scrambling to find a way home. Somehow, I made it, but the entire experience of being there and watching the race, the sights, the smells was something I knew I wanted to be part of from that day on.”
The following year, Hawk was finally old enough to compete in the race, but as he explains, it didn’t quite go as planned: “I’m pretty sure I finished, but I didn’t get a trophy which was something that I absolutely wanted in the future. Heck, thinking back on it, I didn’t get a trophy until the final year in 1993, but it was well worth the wait. I started on the last row of the pro riders and it was extremely dry and dusty that year. I knew any guy that I caught I would beat on adjusted time, but that wasn’t good enough for me. I pushed the entire race until the last lap and passed Bob Sloan who was physically leading the overall, and even though I didn’t need to pass him because of the time adjustment, I had to do it, and it paid off: I crossed the finish line first and won the freaking Blackwater 100! To this day, that ranks up there as one of the best and most memorable wins for me. I have so many more stories and memories from that event, it truly was a unique experience that every person that’s been there I think would agree with me.”
In its heyday, the Blackwater 100 was the Indianapolis 500 of offroad racing, and at the time, there was no other race like it, except the Baja 1000 in Mexico. The race was as unpredictable as it was difficult, such as in 1990 when a little-known racer from Norfolk, Massachusetts named Tommy Norton won the overall on a 125cc KTM—the only rider to ever do so. Then the following year, Scott Summers would win the 1991 race on his 321-pound air-cooled Honda XR600R and follow it up with another win in 1992. The Blackwater required strategy—not just speed—and nothing was a guarantee until a rider crossed the finish line. Winners of the Blackwater 100 earned their win, and winners became instant legends.
“The Blackwater from a racer's perspective was so thrilling,” recalls 1991 and 1992 winner Scott Summers. “The place is breathtakingly beautiful, but when trying to negotiate all the dangers lurking, from course obstacles and sometimes spectators, you didn't have much opportunity to really soak in all the beauty. The faster you went, the more dangerous it got, but the reward was significant. Winning that race was a big deal. Maybe like winning the whole GNCC series today. What made it so thrilling is that it always lived up to the hype. It was physically, mentally and emotionally draining—so many eggs were in that basket—the stress was unbelievable.”
The last Blackwater 100 took place in 1993, the race shut down due to environmental and liability concerns. “One of the reasons for the demise of the event was that it had outgrown itself,” explains Davey Coombs. “Because there was no admission, no fences, no real rules out there in Canaan Valley (where the race was mostly contained) the liability became too much for not only the Alpine Festival but Racer Productions as well. Too many people were out there riding around on their own ATVs and motorcycles (but not racing) or just walking the trails that the event became risk adverse.”
Adds Summers, “I'll cherish my Blackwater memories forever, there was no better way to enjoy nature and quench your desire for excitement than to spend Father's Day among other thrill seekers in the middle of one of West Virginia’s biggest parties. It was insane, and it was a legendary experience—definitely quality time.”
During its heyday, the Blackwater was a legendary offroad race with lasting effects on those who witnessed or experienced the event. “In all of American motorsports there are very few events that are larger than the series or sport they are a part of,” suggests Fred Bramblett, Scott Summers’ mechanic and business manager at the time of his Blackwater wins and GNCC championship runs. “In automobiles, for open-wheel racing it’s the ‘Indy 500,’ and in NASCAR it’s the ‘Daytona 500.’ In motorcycles, for road racing there is the ‘Daytona 200,” and for offroad racing there was the ‘Blackwater 100.’ To have entered and finished was a huge rite of passage. Any winner of this event was ensured huge media exposure and a line of happy sponsors wanting to be associated with them. Here it is 20+ years later and you cannot name any other single offroad event that a rider could make a career around winning.”
Fortunately, by the time of the Blackwater’s demise, the GNCC series had grown into 14-rounds for both motorcycles and ATVs and established itself as one of the premier national championship offroad racing series. Today the GNCC series is considered the pinnacle championship in offroad racing in the United States and a coveted title by the OEM manufactures. Wiseco remains a big part of off-road racing, being a feature sponsor of GNCC today, and even having a title GNCC event, the Wiseco John Penton in Millfield, Ohio. Riders from around the world move to the United States to race GNCC events, and the series has experienced record crowds and rider turnouts at each round in recent years.
From its humble beginnings as a single-day, one-off event called the Blackwater 100, to the multi-round GNCC championship of today, cross country racing continues to thrill racers and spectators alike. Wiseco is proud of its shared history with an event of such legendary status and its continued support of the GNCC series today. It was an easy decision early on for Wiseco to get behind the Blackwater 100 and Big Dave Coombs’ vision of an elite offroad racing championship series.