Pat Hennen was the first American to win a 500cc World Grand Prix road race. His victory at the 1976 Finland GP paved the way for a flood of American riders who would come to dominate the sport.
Here are a dozen interesting facts about Hennan, who was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2007.
1. Hennen was born in Phoenix in 1953 but grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. He first became interested in motorcycle racing when he was 15 and spent four years honing his skills riding regional dirt track and scrambles races across Northern California.
2. Hennen entered his first professional event as a novice at the end of the 1971 season. Even though he was a promising flat track racer, he began focusing his efforts more toward a career in road racing. In 1973, Hennen scored enough points to turn expert, but he chose to stay in the Junior ranks one more season to earn more racing experience and to try to attract more sponsorship.
3. Hennen’s first major win came at Daytona International Speedway in 1974 when he set the fastest qualifying time and won the junior event. He ended 1974 as the AMA’s top-ranked Junior road racer.
4. He gained further experience and confidence when he raced during the off-season in New Zealand and Australia where he scored some very strong finishes, including a podium in Australia’s Bathurst Grand Prix. He earned the New Zealand Marlboro Championship in both 1974 and 1975.
5. In 1975, Hennen became an expert and began a very rapid rise in his career. He signed as a factory rider with Suzuki. Hennen was also part of the American team for the Trans-Atlantic Match Races. That year, the United States won over Great Britain for the first time.
6. Hennen shocked a lot of racing fans when he scored third in the 1976 Daytona 200 on a Suzuki TR-750 triple behind winner and world champion Johnny Cecotto and second-place Gary Nixon, a former AMA national champ and current AMA Motorcycle Hall of Famer.
7. In Imatra, Finland, on Aug. 1, 1976, Hennen raced into history by winning the Finnish Grand Prix to become the first American rider to win a World Championship 500cc Grand Prix road race
8. So unexpected was his victory in Finland that organizers didn’t have a sound track of the U.S. national anthem.
9. Hennen wore a cowboy hat on the podium as a tribute to his father who was once a professional rodeo cowboy, much to the delight of the European photographers.
10. In 1978 Hennen was coming into his prime. He opened the season with a dominating performance in the Trans-Atlantic Match Races, regularly beating future AMA Motorcycle Hall of Famers Kenny Roberts and Barry Sheene in the process of becoming the top scorer in the prestigious event.
11. But also in 1978 tragedy struck. Hennen did the Isle of Man TT to please his British sponsor. A crash there left him with a career-ending head injury. He would recover over time, but suffered lasting effects from the injury and never returned to racing.
12. Hennen’s rival Kenny Roberts would go on to win the championship that year to become the first American to win the 500cc Grand Prix World Championship