Danny LaPorte helped the United States make the transition from underdog to world leader in the sport of motocross. The rider from Los Angeles scored an AMA 500cc National Motocross Championship in 1979 before going on to become the first American to win the FIM 250cc World Motocross Championship in 1982. LaPorte was also a key member of the 1981 Team USA Motocross and Trophee des Nations squad that brought America its first win in the prestigious international Olympic-like competition.
LaPorte was born in Los Angeles on December 3, 1957. His dad was an avid off-road motorcyclist and young Danny grew up riding in the desert and in the numerous small vacant lots and informal motocross tracks near his Torrance, California, home.
"This was the late 1960s and early ‘70s," LaPorte explained. "There were five or six motocross tracks within a half-hour drive of home. With the inexpensive two-strokes that were coming in, there was an explosion in motocross during that period. It was an exciting time and place to grow up."
LaPorte started racing local motocross events when he was 11. At first, he was a little intimidated by being on the track with all the other riders, but he soon found that he was a natural at the sport. He was so good, in fact, that he quickly became one of the leading young riders in Southern California by the mid 1970s.
At 16 LaPorte turned professional in local CMC events and began making money.
"The first prize money I earned was $65 at Indian Dunes," LaPorte remembers. "I thought I could retire right there."
Maybe winning came too easy, or LaPorte was simply looking for new challenges – something that would become a recurring theme throughout his racing career. Whatever the case, he was bored and burnt out with racing by 17. A trip to Snake River Canyon, Idaho, to watch Evel Knievel’s ill-fated rocket cycle jump changed all that.
"There was a motocross race held in conjunction with the jump and it had a $100,000 purse," LaPorte said. "I watched Marty Smith win the 125 race and I couldn’t believe it. I raced against and often beat Marty and here he was winning this big money race. I was happy for him and it got me inspired again."
After his trip to Snake River, LaPorte dove wholeheartedly back into racing and he won like never before. He won so many races in Southern California that he got a call from Suzuki at the end of 1975 asking him to join its factory racing team the next season. He accepted the offer and in 1976 he debuted in the AMA 125cc National Motocross Series.
"There was a real youth-movement push by the factories that year," LaPorte recalls. "I came in that year along with guys like Bob Hannah, Broc Glover and Jeff Ward. All these kids who were tearing up the tracks in Southern California."
The epic entrance of Bob Hannah overshadowed LaPorte’s debut in AMA National Motocross, but LaPorte did get into the thick of the Hannah/Marty Smith battles a number of times, and even managed to win twice in the eight-race 125 series. His victory in Houston in August marked not only his first national win, but also the first-ever victory for Suzuki in AMA 125 National Motocross competition. He ended the season a solid third (just one point out of second) in the 1976 AMA 125 Motocross standings.
LaPorte came back in 1977 and nearly won the 125 national championship with Suzuki. In perhaps the most notorious season finale in the history of AMA Motocross, Yamaha used controversial team tactics in the final round to help Broc Glover win the title. The championship ended with Glover and LaPorte tied in points. Glover won by virtue of earning more moto wins, but the way the Yamaha factory team helped Glover win the final moto became part of motocross racing lore.
LaPorte explains: "The final race of the season was San Antonio, Texas. Glover and I were virtually even going into the last race. Yamaha moved all of their big guns from the other classes down to the 125 class for the race and they lined up on both sides of me in both motos.
"Naturally, at the start of both races I was pushed out and by the time I worked through traffic, Hannah and Glover were gone. Glover still needed to win the final moto and Hannah was leading late in the race. Bob didn’t like pulling over for anyone and as stubborn as he was Yamaha panicked and on the last lap they put out the infamous (and incorrectly spelled) pit board that read 'Let Broc Bye.' Hannah finally did pull over and gave the win to Glover and that’s how they won the championship."
In spite of the controversial way he lost the title, LaPorte carries no grudge against Yamaha.
"It was smart strategy by their team," LaPorte said. "They just made a mistake throwing the sign up there for the whole world to see."
In 1978, LaPorte moved to the 500cc class, still with Suzuki. He won the season opener and had other good outings, but a string of bad luck with mechanical problems caused him to finish the season ranked fifth.
In 1979, LaPorte returned for a fourth year with Suzuki and got revenge of sorts on Yamaha when he narrowly beat Yamaha’s Mike Bell for the AMA 500cc National Motocross Championship. He won three races en route to earning his sole AMA national championship. Always more of an outdoor specialist, LaPorte cracked the top 10 for the first time in AMA Supercross that season, taking ninth in that series.
The 1980 campaign was a big disappointment for LaPorte, who spent most of the year searching in vain for the combination that brought him the 500cc title in 1979. There were flashes of brilliance – LaPorte was runner-up in the 500cc U.S. Grand Prix at Carlsbad and he won a 500cc national in St. Petersburg, Florida – but for the most part he suffered through a long season. LaPorte finished the year ranked seventh in the AMA 500cc National Motocross Championship and the St. Petersburg race proved to be his final AMA national victory.
In 1981, Roger DeCoster moved to Honda to act as team advisor and, having great faith in LaPorte, he convince him to join Honda as well. LaPorte earned four podium finishes and ended the year ranked fourth in the 500cc nationals, but he suffered his first season without a victory.
It looked as if 1981 would be another forgettable year for LaPorte, but that was before he and teammates Chuck Sun, Johnny O’Mara and Donnie Hansen traveled to Germany for the Motocross and Trophee des Nations. LaPorte was one of the leading scorers on the team that finally brought the United States its first victory in the celebrated international event. That year’s victory for Team USA was perhaps the single most important accomplishment in American motocross history. It was a turning point for the sport in this country and proved that America had finally mastered the sport brought over by the Europeans a decade earlier.
His success at the des Nations inspired LaPorte. Once again, he sought new challenges and asked Honda if there were any openings in the company’s World Championship team. Unfortunately, the team was already set, but Yamaha’s European racing consultant Heikki Mikkola had talked to LaPorte after the des Nations, telling him of a possible opening on that team. A deal was made and in 1982 LaPorte headed off to Europe to pursue the 250cc World Championship.
"It had always been a dream of mine to race in the World Championship," LaPorte explained. "Even though I could have made twice the money staying in America, I just knew that those kinds of opportunities didn’t come along often and I wanted to take the chance."
It proved to be the best move of LaPorte’s racing career. Riding on the factory Yamaha squad, he shocked the European establishment and won five rounds, including four straight, at one point, to become the first American to win the FIM 250cc World Motocross Championship. LaPorte won his title only weeks after long-suffering Brad Lackey finally won the 500cc championship he’d been striving to win for years. Lackey and LaPorte’s championships, the first ever for U.S. riders, solidified America’s standings in the world motocross community.
LaPorte’s 1982 world championship campaign was a come-from-behind classic. He was up against heavily favored world champion Georges Jobé and a host of other talented and experienced world-class riders. The season began slowly for LaPorte, but he gained confidence mid-season by winning the second moto of the Czechoslovakian Grand Prix. His first GP victory came in France. He followed that up with a win in Great Britain. The turning point came on the sands of Holland. LaPorte upset the sand specialists by winning both motos and prompted four-time world champ Heikki Mikkola to proclaim, "Today I saw a motocrosser. Danny rode a perfect race, not one mistake. I have not seen a better race."
Europeans became fast fans of "Danny the Door" – LaPorte means door in French – and he adapted easily to the lifestyle there. He adapted so well that he later moved and lived in Europe for much of the 1990s.
Despite winning three GPs in 1983, LaPorte lost his 250cc world title to Jobé. He then went on to try the 500s, but with uncompetitive machinery he was unable to regain the form that led him to his earlier championship.
LaPorte wanted to give international motorcycle rally racing a try, but at the time motocross racers had not been successful at making the transition to rally, and none of the leading teams seemed interested in hiring him. To prove that motocross racers could succeed at rally, LaPorte came home and began racing for Kawasaki in cross-country racing events. LaPorte proved an instant success, winning the famous Baja 1000 three straight years as part of Kawasaki’s factory team.
With that, the European rally teams came calling, and during most of the 1990s LaPorte lived in Europe and raced international rally events. He had good success in that arena and in 1992 he won a stage and finished second overall in the grueling Dakar Rally riding for Cagiva.
While living overseas, LaPorte helped set up FMF Racing’s European operations. In 1997, he and his family moved back to his native Southern California. He continues to ride and even made headlines when he considered a comeback to AMA Motocross in 2002, but broke his leg in a training crash.
LaPorte will always be remembered as one of the most influential riders in the period when American motocrossers made the move from also-rans to world champions.