When opening ceremonies were complete, after the national anthem was sung and the riders’ names and sponsors were announced over the P.A. system with dramatic flair, after the starting gate had fallen and the frantic sound of 40 125cc bikes had rocketed uphill toward the first turn, Dave Coombs would grab at the radio transmitter clipped to the collar of his shirt.
“Meet me at the front gate,” he’d say, calling his daughter, Carrie Jo. It was always just after 1:00 p.m. on the Sunday before Memorial Day. No checkered flags had been waved, no trophies handed out, no jerseys soaked in victory champagne. Yet, after weeks of back breaking preparation–cutting down weeds, mowing grass, spreading sawdust, fixing bleachers and running heavy equipment–his thousands of customers were scattered around the valley of High Point Raceway and enjoying what they had paid for: four motos of AMA Pro Motocross. The event staff and race officials he put in place were more than capable of handling matters for a spell.
With his daughter riding shotgun in his truck, Dave turned right out of the racetrack and headed south on Taylortown Road. Just two miles away, across the West Virginia state line, was the Walnut Lane Inn, a dark dive bar filled with coal miners and country music. The only illumination came from the dangling neon beer signs and a brightly lit cooler against the wall. White linoleum wrapped around the L-shaped bar and billiards tables filled up the back of the room. When Dave walked in he was greeted warmly and by name even though he was not a frequent patron. It was because of the way he treated people, especially those who worked in service or came from nothing.
“Because that’s what he came from,” Carrie Jo said of her father. “He came from nothing.” Coombs was the kind of man who helped those in need, from the token gesture of buying a PW50 for a close friend’s son to mortgaging his own house to help someone who had fallen on hard times; the patrons at the Walnut Lane Inn were his people.
Once at the bar, Dave always ordered Lord Calvert with Coca-Cola and Carrie a Coors Light. The conversation would wander but this was mostly Dave’s way of winding down; the hardest work was done. After a couple of drinks, they would drive back across the state line to prepare the facility for the mass exodus of motocross fans that began around 5:00 p.m.
It’s been 20 years since Carrie enjoyed this annual ritual; her father passed away on August 3, 1998. The building at the corner of Taylortown Road and Route 100 is still there but the bar is closed down. In another half dozen years, Dave Coombs will have been gone longer than he spent creating and promoting dirt bike and ATV events. But the playbook he left behind, for races like the High Point Motocross National, the AMA Amateur National Motocross Championships at Loretta Lynn’s and the Grand National Cross Country Championships, among others, is still in use today.
Known for his morning-to-midnight work ethic and his gloves-in-the-back-pocket preparedness, Coombs’ legacy is peculiar given his first career path. In the early 1970s, not long after his 30th birthday, he walked away from rock and roll, abandoning an opportunity to tour the country and record a second album. He had spent nearly a decade building a career in music. By 1972, the two passions Coombs had been concurrently feeding – music and motocross – were on a collision course. The life of a rock star can be fleeting but the dirt was a sure thing. As a boy from Booth, West Virginia, the dirt was where he came from.
Dave Coombs laughed at the nervous sounding teenage voice on the other end of the line. ‘What the heck?’ he probably thought to himself. He was 26 with a wife and three kids under 10. He wasn’t exactly a pop star poster child. If 16-year-old Joey Cerisano was any good at singing, he’d also probably be inexpensive and more in-tune with the rapidly changing musical tastes of youth in the late 1960s.
Cerisano was anxious before he had even dialed the number: 296-4157. Now he could hear the man on the other end laughing. He was a junior in high school and, at the urging of his mother, was on the phone with the bassist and leader of a band called “JB & The Bonnevilles”. Cerisano’s dream was to be a singer. He was shocked when he discovered that a distant cousin named John was in the Bonnevilles, a popular club circuit act based in Morgantown, West Virginia. Coombs, however, was the band’s leader and Cerisano had to start with him first.
In addition to raising a family, Coombs and his wife, Rita were attending West Virginia University part-time, working on the teaching degrees that took them 10 years to finish. When he wasn’t rehearsing, playing a gig or sitting in class, he was working odd jobs: painting houses, selling vacuum cleaners or shoveling coal out of the hand-loaded mine from a small plot of land Great Aunt Gusty left him after he graduated from high school. At $8 a ton, he wasn’t getting rich heaving coal into the back of a truck. Dave Coombs sweated for every dollar he ever made and could have told Cerisano to ‘beat it, buzz off or move on.’ After all, he was just a kid. He didn’t even have his own car.
Coombs wasn’t a talent scout but he could sense passion and hunger and he let Cerisano attend a rehearsal session. He arrived with his mother and belted out Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood”. The members were impressed and soon Cerisano was skipping school on Friday afternoons to join the Bonnevilles at the popular college clubs in Morgantown. They were a cover band and played the part of a 1960s pop/rock group right down to the moppy hairdos that sat above suits and ties. For several summer they were the house act at the Bayshores Club in Somers Point, NJ and played 102 consecutive nights. Carrie Coombs remembers getting picked up on the last day of school in the family’s Pontiac Bonneville, a U-Haul trailer attached at the bumper. Dave wasn’t a musical prodigy; he was a self-taught musician who only started playing because he needed tuition money for college. He was a side hustler a half a century before it was trendy.
“Everything I learned about businesses and ‘going for it’, I learned from Rita and Dave,” Cerisano said. “They were a major force in my life.”
In 1969 Cerisano and Coombs formed a new band called Kaboose, which became Elderberry Jak, a nod to Coombs’ great uncle who made elderberry wine. This time they wrote and recorded their own tracks. Musical tastes and appearances had changed drastically. The hair and sideburns were longer, the suits permanently stayed at the dry cleaners and the sound had a psychedelic/funk feel that fit the time period. Elderberry Jak caught the attention of Kenny Rogers’ brother Leland who signed them to a recording contract with the Electric Fox label. In 1970 “Long Overdue” was released and the quartet toured in the Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia region, opening for Three Dog Night, the James Gang, The Byrds and even the Supremes.
One of Cerisano’s brightest memories from the band’s brief time in the spotlight was playing in front of 10,000 in Columbus, Ohio ahead of Three Dog Night. The way he remembers it, that performance earned them an offer to tour nationally. By that time Dave was already lost to motorcycles.
Rita and Riding
At first, Rita just thought her husband’s motocross fascination was going to be a hobby. The 1965 Honda Scrambler didn’t hold up under the stress of Dave’s impromptu off-road adventures. So, he got a 650 Triumph and vowed to keep it on the street. Except when he didn’t. There was always a hill to be climbed or a trailhead to explore. One Sunday ride, around 1969, Dave and Rita passed a sign that said “Motorcycle Races”. They turned around to check it out. Dave liked–no, loved–what he saw. In a 1984 interview with Dirt Rider magazine, he recounted what he did next.
“So, like a dummy, I went over to somebody and said, ‘Hey, can I try your bike? And everybody looked at me like, well, like they would now if someone walked out of the crowd and wanted to ride your bike.”
Dave went home and sold a 1917 Ford left to him by a great uncle. He bought an orange coffin-tanked Maico for $1000. His best friend rode a Maico. His favorite rider became Maico rider Åke Jonsson, a Swede and a 9-time MXGP winner. Coombs was off to the races. “And like everything else, I overdid it,” he told Suzi Mingo of Dirt Rider. “I lived, ate and slept motocross.”
Their Sunday rides turned into afternoons spent at the racetracks, which morphed into membership–and soon a leadership position–with the Mon Valley Competition Riders. Rita knew it was serious when Dave started leaving the house with both his Maico and his Fender Telecaster Bass. Elderberry Jak, would play a club on Saturday and Dave would hit a motocross race in the region on Sunday. Other members of the band started to question why they were playing so many rural shows in western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and West Virginia.
“He was just hyper,” Rita Coombs said. “He wanted to be everything. He wanted to be anything. Just whatever was the moment.” In 1971, he got his AMA pro license and tried to compete in the first motocross race ever held at Daytona International Speedway. He was already 31 years old. “Who does that?” Rita said, laughing “But he did.”
Rita and Dave went to Morgantown High School together; they were in the graduating class of 1959 but they never actually met. Rita vaguely remembers Dave making a fool of himself when he performed at a school assembly but their first real interaction came when they worked at the university bookstore together. They were both broke. She was ‘city poor’ and he was ‘country poor’. She was raised downtown on Brockway Avenue. Rita Forrelli was the most popular girl in school, an honors society member, the drum majorette, the May Queen, a beautiful brunette who was “Miss Everything” Dave was once quoted.
Dave grew up seven miles southwest of Morgantown, West Virginia in unincorporated Booth, West Virginia. His father was an alcoholic and young Dave had to fend for himself. He yearned to play baseball but his parents wouldn’t buy him a glove. He started a green bean garden and sold the crop to pay for a mitt. His extended family owned farms and he eventually worked for his aunts, uncles and grandparents for 25 cents a day; he was driving a tractor before he was 10. He and his sister, Beulah, had one bicycle to share, which she wasn’t very willing to do. She was six years older and routinely bullied him but Dave was cunning, a deep and mischievous thinker. To deter his sister from wanting to ride the bike, he painted an eyeball on the seat and told her the eye would always be looking up at her britches. She relinquished the bicycle.
For his entire life, Dave was a devilish prankster; he’d leave you on the side of the road during a pit stop or run into the back of your car while driving at speed down a road. But he saved the best for Beulah. Punking her on Christmas became a tradition. He once lit an old car on fire and pushed it down the hill of her front yard; it stopped when it hit a tree. Then there was the year he left a porta potty on her walk. Another year he erected a cemetery on her lawn.
The details are fuzzy but in December 1959, Rita was looking for a date for New Year’s Eve and Dave Coombs, the lanky country boy with the long neck, sharp nose, blue eyes and square chin raised his hand. They were married in 1960; their first child was born in 1961. Two more kids followed and they soldiered their way through their degrees in education. They didn’t attend their graduation ceremony (they were at the races). Dave even claimed they never picked up the diplomas.
One day, motocross emerged as the clear winner in his life. The exact circumstances vary from person to person but Rita simply remembers Dave coming through the door of their house on Brockway Avenue–it was after a gig–and he didn’t have a guitar case in his hand. “Because you don’t let a Fender out of your sight,” Rita said. “Those were precious. I said, ‘Where’s the guitar?’ And he said, ‘I left it for somebody else to play. I quit.’ From then, it was full on motorcycles.”
Cerisano was well aware of Coombs’ motorcycle obsession by 1972 and even remembers watching Dave try to turn his Triumph into a chopper in the middle of the living room of the house. Dave’s boys, Timmy and Davey were showing interest in riding and then there was the offer to tour nationally with the band. “I think Dave realized he couldn’t leave his family,” Cerisano said. “We could have been a big deal.” The drummer was also “getting off track” in his musical tastes and the band fizzled out.
Cerisano continued his dream of music, formed other bands and became “America’s most famous anonymous singer”, performing in national commercial spots for Coca-Cola, Miller Brewing Company and the Navy. He also co-founded the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and cut two albums with the group before leaving. Living in New York City, around 1989 he took his family to a Monster Truck show at Madison Square Gardens. He noticed something familiar in the stance of a man standing in the dirt on the other side of the arena. He rose from his seat and walked the perimeter of the arena, descended the stairs, leaned over the railing and was dumbfounded to see Dave Coombs working on the floor. He had promoted the motorcycle races that happened before the monster truck show. It had been 11 years since they last saw each other. They never completely lost contact and the lessons Cerisano picked up lasted forever.
“He was really f—ing smart and such a people person,” Cerisano said. “I used to watch Dave like a hawk and learned how to be serious and set a goal. But you know who was really the driving force? Rita. She could make me and Dave poop in our pants if she got mad. We stood at attention when she spoke.”
Yet, no matter how zany the idea, Rita was a fan of whatever Dave was into, even when there were three young kids to feed and clothe and rent and utilities to pay. While Dave wove in the oddest of odd jobs while playing music and attending school, motorcycles became his true calling and, just like she did with the band, Rita adapted.
“My mom was the two-punch to his one,” said Davey Coombs, Rita and Dave’s youngest son. “He was the lead off guy but she was right behind him, also a task master, also a perfectionist. But unlike dad, she wasn’t a motorcycle enthusiast. She was a Big Dave enthusiast. That’s what the job of being his wife entailed. You had to learn to do everything so she was the accountant for the band, she was helping out when he was a coal miner. When he got into racing, she learned how to do all that and kept going.”
Here’s how crazy Dave was about motorcycles. When he got his teaching degree and picked up work as a substitute, he rode his dirt bike to school and changed into a suit when he arrived. Coombs was a runner before it was a popular fitness method and he figured out ways to make class field trips into opportinities for him to sneak in workouts; a race up the steps of the water tower, nature walks, etc. He always had an angle. It wasn’t until he saw a documentary movie that he developed the idea to promote racing.
On Any Sunday was released in the United States on July 28, 1971 and Dave, Rita and a friend named Dave Allen went to see it at the Warner Theater. Sitting in a dark movie house on High Street, Coombs found something he could immerse himself in for the rest of his life. He was most captivated by the Lake Elsinore Grand Prix scene. It was a race that engulfed an entire town, that riders of all abilities wanted to take part in. He had already learned that he probably wasn’t going to make much money as a rider. But there was a potential living in promoting races, which created opportunities to ride even more.
Inspired by the Elsinore GP, in 1975 Dave and Rita hosted the first annual Blackwater 100 in Davis, West Virginia. Also known as the Father’s Day Massacre, it was a four-lap, 100 mile long torture fest with terrain that showed off Dave’s devious side. The Elsinore GP was tough but not necessarily ‘extreme’ so where, exactly, the idea of laying out a race nearly impossible to finish is a mystery. Yet, competitors were drawn to the event, which took place every June on the outskirts of the Monongahela National Forest where the Blackwater River and Beaver Creek come together. Entries were capped at 500 masochists who willingly paid Coombs $25 for the privilege of destroying a $1500 motorcycle. Spectating was free and the town embraced the Blackwater 100, which started on main street, just like the Elsinore GP did. Many years just a few dozen riders finished the race.
“You had to have an adventure” Carrie Coombs said. “The ride wasn’t enough. And he was a Tom Sawyer. He could get you to do anything.” Every January 1 he held an informal gathering of friends called the “New Year’s Day Massacre.” Rarely did anyone ride it twice. One year they got trapped in a valley. Another year they ran straight through a waterfall. There was the time Dave had to tie his own bike to a tree to keep from falling down a ravine. Never mind the fact that the weather was usually cold and miserable. If his friends weren’t already having a tough enough time, he’d ride and wait in the woods and tackle them off their motorcycles as they rode by.
Promoters are supposed to encourage customers to register for their events, but the Blackwater became so revered that Coombs used dissuasion as a marketing tactic.
“I feel I must ride the Blackwater 100,” said Torrance, California’s ‘B.A.’ in a special Blackwater mailbag feature in Dirt Rider magazine. “Would you please send me all the info you have?”
“If you feel you must ride the blackwater 100 then you must be having trouble at home. Nobody wants to ride the Blackwater 100,” Coombs replied.
But Coombs didn’t just cackle at the chaos he created. He joined in. After laying out and marking the course, he raced (and often won the Senior class). Then he’d lead the sweep to make sure everyone made it back to town. In 1981, the editors of the Valencia, California-based Dirt Bike magazine showed up for their first of many Blackwaters. In the September 1981 issue, Editor Rick “Super Hunky” Seiman wrote, “Coombs is 40 years old, looks like a cross between Paul Newman and Daffy Duck, has a lovely wife who is the real backbone of his racing promotions, and he is a racer himself. If he didn’t have such a pleasant, outgoing personality, the man would have been lynched years ago. The man they love to hate.”
Like anyone who participated in the Blackwater, Seiman had good reason to dislike Coombs; in 1981 he found himself stuck in the mud and unable to finish the race. A prolific figure in the off-road community, Seiman tried it all. Twenty-five years after the final edition of the Blackwater, he maintains it was the single toughest race he ever entered. He developed a close relationship with the family, not because of Dave’s ability to challenge riders, but because of his personal touch.
“Coombs would talk to riders, sit around and actually talk to them,” Seiman said via telephone. “A straight shooter, real good guy. When he put an event on, it was marvelous. You wanted to go just to be there.”
Blackwater, however, wasn’t the first race. In 1973, Dave and Rita got the opportunity to take over management of a motocross track at Appalachia Lake Park in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia. Within a year they hosted their first AMA Pro Motocross National. Pierre Karsmakers and Tony Distefano won the 250/500 doubleheader on May 5, 1974. In 1976 they moved their events to Keysers Ridge, Maryland and in 1977 they teamed up with the Holbert family and found a permanent home in Mt. Morris, Pennsylvania, coincidentally, just a few miles from Lazzelle Union, the now defunct track where Dave saw his first motocross race.
For 25 years, Dave did a little of everything on the dirt: ATV motocross, hare scrambles, poker runs, dual sport rides, co-founded the National Promoters Group and even twice tried promoting supercross in Three Rivers Stadium in downtown Pittsburgh. The first time was in 1978 and it nearly ruined him, financially. Now cheekily remembered as ‘Mudders Day’ weekend, the May 13-14 races (1,350 amateurs on Sunday) happened, of course, just six weeks into the baseball season. Rain that began on May 12 turned the stadium into a bowl of chili by Monday morning the 15th. On May 23, 1978, the Wall Street Journal ran a page 1 story “Joy in Mudville: Bullpen in Ballpark is no Longer Pigpen”. Two days were budgeted for the dirt removal and cleanup but took more than twice that long. “Even the dugout had to be dug out,” wrote reporter Gay Sands Miller. After the dirt was removed, the drainage system had to be unclogged. The cleanup took so long that the Pittsburgh Pirates were close to making the decision to postpone games. Needless to say, with attendance 8,000 below break-even point and hundreds of extra labor hours, all involved took a bath on the race. It was five years before Pittsburgh hosted another supercross. After that Coombs stuck to the great outdoors. He even sold the term ‘Arenacross’ to the AMA for $1.
The Blackwater 100 turned into the 100-Miler Series, which eventually became the Grand National Cross Country Series. Dave’s son Davey likes to joke that his father was terrible at keeping time, thus he never took to participating in–or promoting–enduro events. His ultimate legacy, however, will always lie with a little motocross race in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee he founded with Rita and Paul Schlegel. The Loretta Lynn’s Amateur Motocross National Championships started in 1982 because he wanted a better experience–not just for his own two boys who were near the top of their divisions–but for all amateur motocross racers.
On a 600-acre campground owned by the Grammy-winning legend Loretta Lynn, Coombs created an event that today serves as the barometer and benchmark for all of amateur motocross racing. As chronicled in a 2018 one-hour documentary podcast, it was far from perfect but Coombs never stopped improving.
“He had a competitiveness in him that every job you did had to be done better the next time,” Davey said. “That was passed down to my brother and sister and myself. You’d mow the lawn and he’d critique it and tell you how it had to be better next time and it damn well better be better next time. I think we all kind of became perfectionists as a result of that.”
The racing business eventually became steady enough that Dave and Rita didn’t have to take part-time work as substitute teachers in the off-season but total security was always fleeting. Rita beat stage four ovarian cancer. She even survived an aneurism in 1997, which was bad enough that doctors instructed the family to say goodbye. “After that we thought we could make it through anything,” Carrie said.
In May 1998, Dave Coombs went riding. Nobody can quite remember the injury he suffered but it was bad enough that he went to a doctor for treatment. His blood was drawn and the doctor asked Dave how he had been feeling in a way that suggested there was a mutual understanding. “Been a little tired lately,” Rita remembers him telling the doctor. Dave had maintained long hours of labor for decades but in his early 50s he had been diagnosed with cardiomyopathy and shrugged off the sluggishness as a symptom of the disease.
“No,” the doctor replied. “The reason you’re tired is because of the leukemia.” Rita and Dave looked at each other with quizzical expressions. The doctor realized his patient had never been diagnosed. Dave hadn’t outwardly shown any symptoms of leukemia. A bone marrow transplant was considered to be too risky. Dave was 57 but his sister was a match. Rita remembers him saying “I don’t want to live like this anymore,” referencing his handicap. He was confident he could beat it, that he could rejuvenate himself. They’d beaten so much in their lives, like not being able to get a loan for a house to facing bankruptcy over a bad event, to Rita’s health scares. The operation was July 4, 1998 and went fine. “We didn’t think we had anything to worry about,” Carrie said. “Dad’s tough.”
But then he developed a staph infection and sepsis set in. He swelled up. He couldn’t talk. “I was leaving the hospital one night and leaned down to kiss him goodnight, and I could hear this wheezing in his chest,” Rita said. The next morning he was in the intensive care unit. He died on August 3, the morning of opening ceremonies at the 17th annual Loretta Lynn’s Amateur National Motocross Championships. Carrie, Timmy and Tim Cotter were already at the ranch preparing the facility. Davey was flying across the country from covering the AMA Motocross National in Washougal, Washington for ESPN and his own magazine named Racer X Illustrated, which he had launched in glossy form six months earlier. He called home en route somewhere between Nashville and Hurricane Mills, TN and his mother told him dad had ‘checked out,’ which at first he didn’t understand. She said she was on her way to Tennessee the following morning and “I’m bringing him with me.” There was still a race to be run and Big Dave wouldn’t have had it any other way.
When Davey pulled into Loretta’s ranch, he knew exactly where to go to find his siblings. “We hugged and we cried for, man, a good five minutes,” Davey said. “Then, we just kind of turned around and we went to work. Me, Timmy, Carrie, Tim Cotter. We knew exactly what to do. We knew exactly what he wanted us to do and we knew mom was coming. We knew that the best way to remember him was to make the 1998 AMA Amateur National Motocross Championship the best it could possibly be. It rained all week. It was messy. And it was awesome.”
At the opening ceremony meeting on Monday night, Carrie summoned the courage to step into her father’s shoes. She grabbed the microphone and walked onto the stage of the pavilion like her father had done 16 times before her and welcomed the participants to Loretta Lynn’s. “Today my father died,” she told the crowd. “And tomorrow we race.”
Twenty years later, they’re still racing. That’s why it doesn’t matter where August 3 falls on the calendar. The day that the first bike hits the track at Loretta Lynn’s motocross is the day the family most associates with losing their patriarch. He’s been gone longer than he put on the event but Coombs taught everyone around him to keep going. And they did.
So, when it rains this year in Hurricane Mills–and it probably will–don’t think of it as Mother Nature making your race difficult. Think of it as Big Dave helping you have a better adventure.
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