Mike "Too Tall" Bell was one of America’s leading motocross and Supercross racers of the late 1970s and early '80s. He rode for Yamaha during his entire pro career. His biggest claim to fame was winning the 1980 AMA Supercross Championship, but Bell proved very versatile throughout his seven-year professional career, winning a total of 20 AMA and Trans-AMA nationals.
Bell was born in Los Angeles on August 8, 1957. His father, Bill, was an avid racer and well-known tuner who did development work for American Honda on its four-stroke desert racing machines during the late 1960s. Mike began riding at age 10 up in the mountains outside Los Angeles where his family had a cabin, but unlike many of his contemporaries who started much younger, Bell did not start racing until he was 14. Once he got on the track however, with a new Maico, it didn’t take long for Bell to go right to the top of the highly competitive Southern California motocross scene.
"Even though I didn’t start racing until I was 14, I knew how to ride," explained Bell, who advanced from novice to expert in just six months. "My dad didn’t want me to get into racing until he knew I was ready for it. I think it proved to be a good decision. A lot of kids were burning out by the time they were 16 because they’d already been racing for so long and I was just really getting into it."
Since Bell’s dad worked at a shop, it was hard to get him enthused about spending his entire weekend around more motorcycles, so the young Bell raced primarily in night motocross events.
"I did a lot of riding under the lights at places like Ascot, Lyons, and Irwindale," Bell remembered. Those experiences would serve him well in AMA Supercross events after he turned pro.
Bell became one of the top club motocross racers in Southern California as a teenager. He was making as much as $500 per week in the club events and was in no big hurry to run the nationals, where he might have struggled to make that kind of money as he climbed the ranks. A local event at the legendary Saddleback Park changed all that. AMA Motocross champ Jim Weinert showed up for the race to get in some practice. Bell takes the story from there.
"Weinert got the holeshot and I was pretty far back in the field," Bell recalled. "I moved up through the pack and late in the moto saw Weinert’s green factory Kawasaki in front of me. With two laps to go, I went inside and passed him. He tried to come back around me in the next corner and crashed. He was really mad at me. He came up and started yelling at me, but I hadn’t done anything wrong – he was just frustrated that this local kid beat him. I won the second moto pretty easily and I thought right there that if I could beat one of the best riders in the world, granted at my local track, I figured I might be able to do OK at the nationals."
In 1977, Bell began riding for DG Yamaha and began hitting a few nationals. That year he won the support race for the USGP at Carlsbad and then turned a lot of heads by scoring a very solid fourth at the Los Angeles Supercross. Bell’s pro career was off and running.
Bell’s first AMA national win came on June 18, 1978 in the 500cc division in St. Peters, Missouri. Just a week later, Bell would score what would arguably be his biggest win ever. It was the Superbowl of Motocross in the LA Coliseum. Bell pulled off one of the great surprise wins in the history of the sport in a thriller over the hottest rider in all of motocross, Bob Hannah.
"My start wasn’t that great," Bell remembered. "But Hannah got a bad start as well and I found myself running right behind him. I knew he’d be working his way to the front, so I figured this would be my chance to jump in behind him and find out how he did it. We passed a lot of riders, but I didn’t really know what place we were in.
"The one-lap flag came out and Hannah ran off the track, but came right back on behind me. He was trying to pass on the inside of every turn. His front tire was rubbing against my leg! I didn’t even realize I was leading until I came around to the finish and got the checkered flag.
"When I woke up the next morning, I thought I had been dreaming. But my father had put the first-place trophy at the foot of my bed and there it was – I really had actually won the Superbowl of Motocross! It was one of the proudest moments of my career."
Bell tweaked his knee a few weeks later and ended the 1978 season ranked sixth in the AMA Supercross standings. That year he also impressed the European riders by finishing third in the Carlsbad 500cc USGP.
By 1979, Bell really started coming into his own. That year he made a late-season charge in the AMA 500cc National Motocross Championship, winning the final three rounds and finishing the season as runner-up to Danny LaPorte. Bell came up just three points short of winning that title and his four wins topped the class. He would try in vain over the next several years to capture the 500cc title, only to fall just short. In AMA Supercross, Bell won in Seattle (his first victory in an indoor stadium) and was ranked third in the series at the end of the season. He also added two Trans-AMA wins to his tally that season.
By this time, the six-foot-4-inch Bell was becoming well known by his nickname "Too Tall." He said the name originated from Yamaha PR man Ted Otto.
"They had all kinds of nicknames for me, like 'Granddaddy Long Legs' and stuff like that, but 'Too Tall' just stuck."
Bell said he felt his long legs gave him a huge advantage in the whoops sections that became popular in Supercross, but he also ran out of room in some of the tighter rutted turns and often wrenched his knees as a result, something that would ultimately bring his career to a premature end.
1980 was Bell’s greatest year. He won a record seven AMA Supercross races en route to that year’s championship. Bell’s Supercross record of seven wins in a single season would not be bettered for 11 years. In 1980, he made a temporary move away from his favored 500cc class to the 250cc division and finished runner-up to Suzuki’s Kent Howerton.
"The Supercross championship was a career highlight," Bell said. "It takes a lot to win a championship and that year it was 17 or 18 races, so it was a long series and it meant a lot to win that."
During the early 1980s, knee injuries were starting to mount and Bell began going through long periods of rehabilitation. Despite having to go through several surgeries on his knees, Bell always seemed able to work his way back to competitiveness. In 1981, he was runner-up in both the AMA Supercross and 500cc Motocross Championships, but by 1982 he was missing more and more races due to injury. In 1982 he fought back to score wins in Supercross in Los Angeles and in 500 Motocross at Washougal. He finished the season outside the top 10 in Supercross for the first time in five years, but managed a fourth in the 500 Motocross series.
Even in his final year, 1983, Bell, now having gone through yet another knee operation, was able to score one last victory at the Dallas Supercross. He retired at the end of 1983. After seven seasons on the circuit Bell had compiled an impressive tally of 20 national wins. He was third on the all-time AMA Supercross and fourth on the all-time AMA 500cc Motocross wins list and in the top ten in career Trans-AMA victories.
After retiring from racing, Bell took some time off and eventually took a position with Oakley, the company known for its sunglasses. He still lives in Southern California and continues to race motocross in legends and other local events. His sons and daughter all followed in their father's footsteps and are avid motorcyclists.