It all came so easy. Or at least that’s the way it seemed to us. Ron Lechien was one of those rare talents who came off the track looking fresher than he’d started. His dark brown moppy hair masked any sign of helmet head. He always seemed to breathe normally at the podium. And did he even have sweat glands? Because he didn’t seem to perspire. His grace and ease extended beyond dirt bikes, too; when he was five, a teacher told his mom he was such a “neat kid” that he’d either lead the Hells Angels or become President of the United States. Both are still completely viable options, although he’s too nice off a motorcycle to join a notorious bike gang.
In 6th grade he discovered that motorcycle industry companies sent free stickers through the mail to anyone who took the time to write a letter and provide a self-addressed stamped envelope. He sold his stickers on the playground during recess. He had a lucrative little enterprise going until the parents of his customers finally figured out why their kids didn’t have any money at lunchtime.
When he reached his testosterone-fueled teenage years, discovered girls and made more money than most of the adults in their El Cajon, California neighborhood, his dad put an alarm system on the house that signaled when a window opened. This prevented young ladies from sneaking into his bedroom.
In high school, “Ronnie”, as he was called, took tennis as an elective. He played so well the varsity tennis coach asked Ronnie’s father, Dick, if Ronnie could join the team and play in a match as soon as that coming weekend. Dick declined and said they had a motocross to attend. “This is more important than a stupid motorcycle race,” the coach blustered. “Have you seen him play tennis? You’re missing the boat!”
It came so easy.
Maybe the skills to be multi-talented came from his dad. Dick drag raced professionally in the 1950s and 60s, started a car club and held records in the top fuel division. For more info on that, check out Bill Pitts’ 10-part YouTube series that takes a tour through Dick’s drag scrapbooks. He was also a pro bass fisherman, worked as a fishing industry rep and owned a pro shop.
Ronnie’s mother, Pat, said she didn’t even know her son played tennis until the coach contacted them. A career in tennis–a game known for crisp whites and tidiness–might have better fit Ronnie’s fastidious ways. He never had to be asked to clean his room. He didn’t just pick up toys. Ronnie organized his clothes, closets, drawers and arranged his belongings and made his own bed. When he returned from a friend’s house after a weekend stay, the mom called Pat upon his return to say that Ronnie was welcome to visit her son any time he wanted. Not only did Ronnie clean his friend Kevin’s bedroom, he color-coordinated the clothing as well.
Pat said Ronnie gets tidiness from her and, as an adult, he still organizes his clothing by color and aligns his socks. In his refrigerator, every product is arranged so that the label faces out and can be easily read. For example, a row of Pacifico beer bottles are meticulously placed at exactly the same angle. He said a female friend recently visited and asked if he’s embarrassed by this. He embraces his OCD ways.
But Ronnie didn’t pursue tennis. Or baseball. Or basketball, even though he showed natural proficiency in all three. He raced motorcycles, which he’d fallen in love with from the time his dad brought home a Honda QA50. It needed a lot of love and parts and Ronnie sold oranges door to door in his El Cajon, California neighborhood. He made a whopping $7 and Dick made up the $141 difference in parts.
When they fixed it, Dick took Ronnie out to a dry lake bed where he watched his son ride in a straight line and get smaller on the horizon. It dawned on Dick that the kid probably didn’t know how to turn around. By the time he got his own bike started, Ronnie came back and stood tall on the foot pegs, “looking like a professional,” Dick said.
For Christmas in 1974, 8-year-old Ronnie got a Honda MR50. One day, when Dick came home from work, Pat told him to go out back and look at his kid. “I stuck my nose over the fence and he was just hauling ass on that 50.” That evening at dinner, Ronnie asked to go to Barona Oaks Raceway to watch motocross. As the proprietor of Lemon Grove Honda, Dick tried to avoid local races because he got pestered by people who wanted a deal on bikes or a sponsorship. He obliged the first request but when Ronnie wanted to return for another day of spectating, Dick said on their next trip they would race. He recalls Ronnie finishing in third place but spent the whole race staring at the back tire of the kid in second. Dick taught Ronnie how to pass. Ronnie followed directions well at that age and Dick kept doling out advice and tips.
“It was a big ego thing for me, Dick said. “I got him really good at using the front brake. I was busting with pride.” At eight years old, in 1975, he raced regularly. Mom joined the scoring team at Barona Oaks so she could watch her son race without really watching him (motocross scared her and she once retreated to the women’s room’s for an entire main event that Ronnie won). Ronnie remembers being intimidated by the pomp and show around a kid named Jon Jon Belisle whose World Mini Grand Prix title was printed on stickers and shirts and how the custom seat on his mini bike had ‘Jon Jon’ stitched into the leather. “I remember thinking, ‘who’s this f—ing guy?’” Lechien said.
Ronnie grew quickly and moved up to a Honda XR75. In 1979, the 12-year-old engulfed his Suzuki RM80. His shoe size matched his age and he stood nearly six feet tall and weighed 140 pounds. He soon found himself racing much older boys, sometimes men. Dick fondly remembers one spring day in 1981 at Saddleback when they finally beat George Holland, local hero and future 125cc Pro Motocross Champion (1988). Ronnie was only 14 years old and showed enough maturity on the track to compete in the expert class. That June, he went to the Mammoth Mountain Motocross and dominated the 125cc class, beating Ron Turner, Marty Moates and Marty Tripes.
David Bailey was a Kawasaki support racer in 1981 and a photo of Lechien at Mammoth caught his eye. The kid’s style and gear caused him to take a mental note. Later that summer Bailey went to Reidsville, North Carolina to watch at the AMA Youth Amateur National Championships. Kawasaki sponsored the event and it was an easy drive from his home in Virginia. He saw Lechien ride in person. “This guy is GOOD,” he said to himself. “He’s already good and doesn’t even need to be doing [amateur] stuff.”
All he saw was style, a new style both fast and effective. When he realized it was Lechien from the Mammoth photo, he walked by their trailer for a peek. “Just a cool looking kid, young and energetic. I had no idea he was 14.” It wasn’t speed that caused Bailey to watch the kid from California, who grew up about an hour south from where Bailey spent the first 10 years of his own life. It was the style that Lechien seemed to wholly own, the way he laid himself out in corners, his body always in one straight line. He loved the head tilts in the turns that said, ‘This is so easy, how much longer can I go?’
“He didn’t seem like he had to put anything into it but he put everything into it,” Bailey said. Lechien had almost a year and half to go before he had professional eligibility and he dominated 125cc youth races. He threw himself in with the experts every chance he got.
On the bike and on the track, Ronnie had moto maturity. Physically, he fit in. He rode with the right amount of aggression. He didn’t care if the rider in front of him already graduated from high school, had a mustache or even a pro license. Pat was flabbergasted one afternoon at Saddleback when she went to the starting line and saw her (not so) little 15-year-old lined up next to men with stubble or beards on their chins. Off the track, Ronnie was just a kid who avoided or ran from bullies and jocks. He just wanted to get along with everyone.
Learning how to fit in (or just deal) with older rivals likely came from an unexpected–and little known–quirk in Ronnie’s upbringing. In the summer of 1980, only 13 and a half years old, Ronnie skipped the 8th grade completely. He went from 7th grade directly to high school, the racing equivalent of jumping from a 65cc to a super mini and competing against kids old enough to drive. “They thought he was mature enough to go to high school, Pat said. “We took their word for it. It wasn’t a good idea.”
Ronnie was a good student, tested well, but not at the genius level usually associated with skipping grades. Ronnie said he felt way in over his head, especially in algebra. And the older kids competing in traditional varsity sports didn’t care that he was some hotshot dirt bike racer.
“When someone says you can do one less year of school…” he said trailing off. “But it was tough on me. I was cool, but I was running,” he said, referring to the response he got from unimpressed older peers. Ronnie adjusted, made friends and may or may not have stolen a few girlfriends over the next four years. As a senior his stock rose sharply. By the time he graduated in 1984 at just 17, Lechien was halfway through his sophomore season as a pro athlete and made well into the six figures. He was a rock star and it came so easy. Or so it seemed.
“If I could buy [Ronnie’s] talent for $1 million, I’d buy it because I could make $3 million with it,” Bob Hannah said on SPEED’s “The Motocross Files” in 2009. Hannah spent two years as Lechien’s teammate at Honda (1984/1985) and got to see more of the kid than other competitors.
There’s no doubt Lechien had an athletic gift but it didn’t come without dues. He felt he never got credit for the amount of time he spent on the bike. As a child, he never had to be asked to practice or ride. To him, that wasn’t work. He thoroughly enjoyed it and spent every afternoon riding by himself on a 15-acre piece of property behind his house. He jumped house pads, over roads and raced up cliffs and rocks. “My passion was just to ride,” he said. “Not just ride but ride hard.”
“It bugs me when people say ‘he’s just a natural,’” said Bailey, who won the Supercross Championship in 1983, Lechien’s rookie year. “Yeah, people have a gift but they have to polish it. Maybe he didn’t polish it running or in the gym. But there are no races in the gym.”
As he aged and picked up more sponsors and attention, the pressure to perform increased. “[Dad] had me bullied down pretty good,” Ronnie said. “We didn’t have a father/son relationship. It was boss/employer and he put a lot of pressure on me. All my friends were scared of him. I was scared of him. I tried to impress him. My whole life has been about impressing my dad. There were days when I wanted to tell him to shove that bike up his ass.”
Dick would take a mulligan here if allowed. He knows now that he pushed too hard but just wanted his son to realize the gift of talent he had and how to value it. “He didn’t understand what the future was worth.” Ronnie wanted to be a kid and do more kid things and resentment grew. When Dick needled him to train more off the bike, Ronnie ran down the street, out of sight, sat on an electrical box or loitered on the school’s bleachers. Then he splashed some water on his face and ran home, feigning exhaustion.
In 1982 Lechien won everywhere he went. He swept the 125cc Expert divisions at the World Mini GP in Orange, California and split the stock and modified championships with Billy Liles at Ponca City, Oklahoma. At the inaugural AMA Amateur National Motocross Championships at Loretta Lynn’s in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee, Lechien looked to be a sure bet to win four titles (riders could sign up for four classes in 1982/1983). He destroyed the 125 12-15 stock/mod classes and had the 125 stock/mod classes on lock until the monsoon arrived for the third motos and he couldn’t keep his bikes running.
Lechien spent 1980-1982 racing for Yamaha and when Dick approached Yamaha’s Racing Division Manager Kenny Clark about a pro contract, Clark asked what he thought Ronnie should get. “Draft up a deal and tell me,” Dick remembers Clark asking. Dick thought it should be a performance-based arrangement and asked for a low salary, about $25,000 or $30,000, with a large incentive to win. Clark called Lechien when he got the draft.
“This isn’t going to work.”
“Why not?” Dick asked.
“Because if he won every race we’d owe him $350,000!” They settled on a $55,000 base salary and much smaller incentive bonuses. Before his 16th birthday fell on December 13, 1982, Lechien signed a contract to race for factory Yamaha. Ronnie had just started his junior year of high school when he signed a contract to compete against future AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame riders Mark Barnett, David Bailey, Jeff Ward, Broc Glover, Johnny O’Mara, Mike Bell and Bob Hannah.
He was so young, Yamaha didn’t think he’d be ready to race the opener at Anaheim in late January and they benched him for the first three rounds. His first races as a true pro came in January at the CMC Golden State Nationals where he competed in the 125cc Pro class against Ward, Barnett, O’Mara and more. He finished 9th in round one, 2nd in round two (won a moto) and won the overall at round three. Being only 16 against title contenders didn’t faze him.
On March 5, 1983, the 6-ft. 1-in., 160-lb. teenager made his supercross debut in Atlanta and didn’t qualify. A week later he finished 9th at the Daytona Supercross and earned a podium in Irving on April 16. On June 11, he showed up in Orlando and craftily found an advantage in practice. In the main he used it to grab the lead on the opening lap and beat O’Mara by over 20 seconds.
“I can’t believe that I did it!” Lechien ecstatically told Cycle News’ Tom Kolnowski. Lechien said he found an opportunity to turn two single jumps into a double. No other rider even considered it, let alone try it. Ronnie cleared it once in practice and left it alone until the main event. Teams didn’t use video cameras during practice in 1983 so nobody noticed or had evidence. In the final he used that double to stretch his advantage every lap. To him, it was just like playing on the ungroomed riding areas behind his house in El Cajon.
“What was weird, though, was that it was so easy,” he said in a 2011 interview. “It was mind-boggling to me that it was easy to win that race. I guess it was always like that for me. All of my best races were when I felt like it was so easy to win. Whenever I would ride my hardest and give it all I had, I’d finish fifth or sixth.”
Lechien remains the youngest premier class main event winner in the championship era of supercross (1974-present*). And he did it in an era of parity. In the early to mid 1980s, six to eight different riders won races each season. In the nearly five decades of supercross championships, the average is only 4.5 different winners a year. Today, teenagers rarely win 450 main events. The last teenager to win was 19-year-old Ken Roczen in 2014. Before that it was 18-year-old Josh Hill in 2008. For the real stats nerd, Damon Bradshaw, an anomaly on his own, won 17 main events as a teenager between 1990-1992.
Dick Lechien was at Orlando but rarely attended races after Ronnie turned pro. Dick co-founded Maxima Oils in 1979 and couldn’t afford to pay himself a salary for the first few years. He also couldn’t afford to take large chunks of time off to be at the races with Ronnie. Instead, Pat or Dick dropped their son off at the San Diego Airport every week. At the races he was in the care of Kenny Clark and Mechanic, Keith McCarty.
One week after Orlando, on June 19, Lechien did it again, this time at the Lake Whitney Motocross National in the 125cc class. He beat Ward and Barnett for the overall, dominating the second moto. By that point in the season, however, Lechien sat 40 points behind in the standings. That championship started poorly for the rookie. He fried his clutch in the very first moto of the series but finished 4th in the second moto. At rounds 2-8 he finished in the top five overall but lost a bolt in his triple clamps at Washougal and suffered another moto with no points. He wasn’t in serious contention for any of the titles in 1983 but by the summer he made the lives of those who were very difficult. He also became a source of inspiration and ideas.
“[Ronnie] was the kind of rider that, if he wasn’t in your practice, you’d hand your bike to your mechanic and go to the fence to watch hispractice,” Bailey said. “He was pure skill. You wanted to see what he was doing.”
The most impressive and overlooked test may have happened on an oppressively hot day in August 1983 when Lechien proved he had guts and talent. The Spring Creek National in Millville, Minnesota was the final round of the motocross season. Johnny O’Mara had a slight advantage over Jeff Ward for the 125cc title. Additionally, Wrangler Jeans sponsored a grand national championship that awarded $30,000 to the rider who amassed the most combined points for the entire year between supercross and motocross. And that rider got to wear a special grand national number one plate the following season. The 125/250/500 class riders all competed on the same day in separate class championships.
Coming into the finale, 250cc rider David Bailey held a two point advantage for the Wrangler crown over 125cc rider Barnett (817-815). Barnett, a three-time 125cc champ, suffered too many mechanical DNFs to win a fourth consecutive class title but he held the edge to win every race he entered. If his boss mustache didn’t convince you of that, the 25 125cc career overalls he’d won would. Plus, he’d already won five races that season, more than any other rider.
The heat, the humidity, the 45-minute plus two lap motos, meddling with Barnett’s pocketbook, none of it deterred Lechien. He caught Barnett on lap five of the first moto, stalked him for two laps, passed him and dropped him. With three laps to go he had an 18-second lead. In the 250cc class, Bailey went 4-1 (and got help from his teammate Bob Hannah in the second moto), which put Barnett in a win-or-bust situation to win the $30,000 ($77,000 in todays’ dollars). Lechien couldn’t be cracked. Even against the pressure of a champion who measured his training progress by the number of practice bikes he destroyed, the rookie did it again.
“I remember racing the hardest race I ever raced in my life,” Lechien said. He passed Barnett two laps into the final moto of the season but couldn’t pull away. Barnett and Lechien set such a blistering pace that on the final lap they lapped fifth place rider Johnny O’Mara, who would win the championship by nine points if he stayed in position. The battle for the lead caught O’Mara off guard and nearly caused his teammate and friend Bailey the Wrangler win. Coming out of the second to last corner, O’Mara casually tried to make his way to the white flag, oblivious to the rabbit fleeing from the fox.
“I don’t know what O’Mara was doing,” Lechien said. “He turned right in front of me and I almost crashed. My front wheel was on his side plate!” Lechien’s right leg kicked straight out as he exited the high speed right-hand corner. O’Mara fully turned over his shoulder to see who blasted him. He scampered to the outside of the track to get out of the way of Lechien, who grabbed as much throttle as his rotary valved Yamaha allowed. He dropped into the inside rut of the final corner, a left, and Barnett made a desperate move, the only option he had left: he slammed into the back of Lechien. It didn’t work. In an awkwardly hilarious video recap, filmmaker Peter Starr used editing and narration to create a battle between O’Mara and Barnett and said Lechien ‘came out of nowhere’.
On that day in Millville, it didn’t look so easy. He came off the track exhausted and suffered from dry heaves. Lechien finished the year with four straight moto wins and had the attention of higher bidders.
“It would take a considerable amount of money to pull me away from Yamaha because they have helped me a lot,” Ronnie said in the August 1983 issue of Motocross Action.“It’s hard to leave a company that has groomed you and helped you to where you are today.” In that same interview, he lamented about not having time to go fishing. He didn’t compete like his dad but enjoyed fishing in ponds and streams and he took the crawdads to Dick’s store to sell them as bait for five cents apiece. He continued to fish after Dick sold that business.
A considerable sum did get presented. Honda offered them three times what Yamaha paid in 1983. Dick called Kenny Clark. “Mr. Lechien,” Dick recalls Clark saying. “If you don’t like the deal that you got, you can just leave.”
The managers from Yamaha of Japan got upset. Lawyers got involved but the Honda deal got done, the Yamaha bikes, parts and accessories got returned to Cypress, California and Ronnie Lechien was soon a senior in high school making a six-figure income.
Because of the dispute with Yamaha Ronnie didn’t race for over a month, according to an article in the Los Angeles Timesand he needed a bike for the CMC/Miller High Life Supercross in San Diego on November 5, 1983. The San Diego event was the finale of the two race Trans-Cal Series, yet all the top AMA racers competed in it. Honda wouldn’t provide a bike until his Yamaha contract expired so Dick bought a YZ250 off the showroom and left it with Mitch Payton at Pro Circuit. They didn’t see it again until race day, when Bevo Forti, who had also left Yamaha, brought it to Jack Murphy Stadium.
Riding his $2500 production-based, aftermarket-tuned Yamaha, Lechien led from start to finish. Ricky Johnson cut into Lechien’s four-second lead late in the race but didn’t get close enough. Lechien won his second premier class main event of the year but don’t bother looking for this one in the record books. Not a part of the AMA championship, it doesn’t count in Lechien’s career total of eight SX wins. Lechien also won the Trans-Cal championship.
On Monday, while sitting in homeroom at Granite Hills High School, students listened to the morning announcements and learned that one of their very own Eagles, Ronnie Lechien, won the San Diego Supercross. “I almost fell out of my chair when I heard it,” he said. At lunch, a small group gathered around his shiny, lifted Toyota to see the new star. “Once I won that race, it was on!”
Lechien had dozens of memorable performances in his pro career, which unofficially ended on October 1, 1989 when he broke his femur at the Steel City National. He finished 5th in the 1991 500cc motocross championship and attempted a supercross comeback in 1994 but he never again rose to the level of the rider once known as “The Machine” and later “The Dogger”. Between 1983 and 1989 he won eight AMA Supercross races (36 podiums) and 18 AMA Motocross races (44 podiums) between the 125/250/500 classes, two United States Grand Prix overalls and served on two Motocross of Nations winning teams. His 1988 MXoN performance on the 500 in France is still considered an all-time classic.
In 1985 Lechien beat the competition badly in the 125cc Pro Motocross series. Despite a DNF at the opening round, he wrapped the championship early and moved up to the 250cc class at the final round to help teammate Johnny O’Mara score more points against Jeff Ward. In supercross that same year he won the most main events (three), but lost the title by six points. What irks him today is that he knew he carelessly gave up “bucket loads of points.” He finished runner-up in the supercross championship in 1988 and 1989.
When he had fun, he was unbeatable. “I just took it as it wasn’t a big deal,” Lechien said of professional racing. “I didn’t treat it like it was national championship racing. The only way to handle it was to treat it like that. That was the only way I could handle the pressure.”
The one thing that didn’t come easy to Ronnie was sobriety and ignoring temptation. His battle with substance abuse affected his career from around the end of his senior year in high school until the end of the 1990s when he spent seven months in the East Mesa Jail for violating the terms of his parole. Those stories are well documented in a Racer X Illustrated article printed in 2000 called “What the Hell Happened to Ron Lechien” and in an episode of “The Motocross Files”that aired on SPEED in March 2009. Lechien has been clean since 1999 and today works at Maxima Racing Oils in sports marketing and promotions. If you’re looking for sponsorship from Maxima, you’re eventually talking to The Dogger.
If Dick Lechien had it to do over he’d wouldn’t have been so hard on his son. If Ronnie had it to do over he would set his goals a little higher because, from his side of the track, he accomplished everything he wanted as a kid. His dream was to be a national motocross champion, which he did at 18 years old. He may also have chosen different friends who lived cleaner lives. Some may cast his career off as a waste of talent, another burnout, an unfortunate failure. Others can look at the positive parts.
“There’s no bummer about it,” David Bailey said. “It’s all cool as far as I’m concerned. When it’s your turn you do your thing. When it was his turn, he did his thing.”
Lechien beat the best in his sport and did it while finishing his high school education. Whether or not his accomplishments are worthy of induction into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame is up to the lifetime members of the American Motorcyclist Association who choose to vote this month. Also eligible for voting are all living Hall of Fame members. If you’re an AMA Lifetime member, be sure to cast your votes. If you know a Lifetime member, urge them to vote.
Ballots come via email. If you’re not sure if the AMA has your most up to date email address, send a message to: email@example.com
“It doesn’t eat at me, whether I get in or I don’t,” Lechien said. “If I did, though, it would be the ultimate compliment to those who helped me in my career.”
*ED NOTE: Ron Lechien became a member of the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in December 2019.
Also, Marty Tripes, turned 16 just before the 1972 Super Bowl of Motocross at the LA Coliseum, a one-off International Invitational motocross commonly acknowledged as the event that laid the foundation for what we now call the Monster Energy Supercross series, which crowed its first champion in 1974. For the overall, Tripes went 2-2-2 in a three race format. He beat Swedish MXGP riders Arne Kring, Torlief Hansen and Haken Andersson, who won the motos.
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