Bob "Hurricane" Hannah will go down in history as one of the greatest American motocross racers of all time. When he was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999, he had seven AMA national championships to his credit, and was one of only two riders in the history of AMA racing to win championships in 125cc motocross, 250cc motocross and Supercross.
Hannah easily ranks as the most versatile motocross racer of his era, and perhaps of all time. During his 15-year racing career, Hannah won Nationals in the 125cc, 250cc and 500cc categories as well as Supercross and Trans-AMA. When he retired from racing, Hannah held the record for the most career wins in both AMA Supercross and AMA 250cc National motocross.
Hannah was born in 1956 in Lancaster, Calif. He grew up riding in the rugged Southern California deserts with his father and got his first bike, a customized Honda 55, when he was 7 years old. The one thing Hannah didn't do in those early years was race.
"My father was against racing,” Hannah explains. “He did not mind me riding, but at the same time he didn’t want me getting hurt. So I never raced until I was 18 years old and living on my own."
By the time Hannah hit the motocross tracks of Southern California, he was more than ready. Even though he didn’t have racing experience, he had practically lived on a motorcycle since grade school and likely had more hours on a bike than any of his fellow competitors. Hannah won his first and only race in the amateur ranks. After his dominating debut, local racing officials told the young Hannah he would have to move up to the expert ranks.
In 1975, his first full year as an expert, Hannah rode in just two AMA Nationals. His best finish was sixth overall in the AMA 125cc National in San Antonio, Texas. Not bad for a rider with less than a year’s racing experience under his belt. A Saddleback racetrack announcer called him "Hurricane" Hannah, and the moniker stuck: He was forever to be known as Bob "Hurricane" Hannah.
Early in 1976, Hannah won the prestigious 500cc Florida Winter-AMA Series. Then Yamaha took a chance on the 19-year-old phenom, who was largely unknown outside of the local Southern California motocross circles.
Yamaha signed Hannah to race the 125cc outdoor AMA Nationals. He started out the year with some success on a 250cc machine in the AMA Supercross Series, but his real strength was on the 125cc bikes at the outdoor motocross circuits.
The AMA 125cc National Motocross Championships were only two years old when Hannah launched into his first full season. Honda and its rider, Marty Smith, had dominated the 125cc Nationals for the first two years. Smith was gunning for his third-straight title and was the heavy favorite coming into the '76 season.
At the first round of the series at the famous Hangtown Nationals in Plymouth, Calif., Smith made the early laps of the first moto look like a replay of 1974 and '75. Eight laps into the relatively dull race the crowd came to its feet when Hannah, on his No. 39 Yamaha, came bouncing through the field to grab second. Hannah had picked off 21 other riders in his charge. On the next lap, Hannah took over the lead from Smith, leaving the tens of thousands of Northern California fans stunned. Smith tried to get back past Hannah, but fell in the process and finished a distant second. Hannah came back to win the second moto in an even more decisive fashion.
It was one of the most stunning debuts for a factory rider in the history of AMA racing. Hannah proved that his 1976 opening round victory was no fluke, and stormed ahead to win five of the eight 125cc nationals that year en route to the championship.
In 1977, Hannah hopped aboard a stock production Yamaha 250 and won the Florida Winter-AMA Series and the AMA Supercross Championship in impressive fashion, taking six of the 10 rounds. By the end of the AMA Nationals season, he was in contention for the 125cc, 250cc and Open Class titles -- becoming the first rider to win races in all three classes in just one season.
Hannah would go on to win the AMA Supercross title for three straight years. Known for his tireless training regimen and fierce demeanor on race day, his tell-it-like-it-is, never-say-die attitude toward racing endeared him to hundreds of thousands of fans, and he became the first genuine superstar of Supercross racing.
In 1978, Hannah moved up to the 250cc ranks in the outdoor Nationals with devastating results for his competition. Hannah's riding was nearly flawless. He won a record eight consecutive 250 outdoor events, a record that still stood at the time of Hannah’s 1999 Motorcycle Hall of Fame induction. He continued his impressive streak in the fall Trans-AMA Series, winning four nationals in that series and winning the championship to become the first American to win the Trans-AMA Series.
In 1979, he came back and dominated the 250 outdoor Nationals again, handily winning the title by earning victories in six of the 10 events. By the late 1970s, Hannah’s career was at its zenith, and he was clearly in a class of his own.
Even though Hannah had numerous attractive offers to race in world championship motocross, he never seriously considered it. Displaying classic Hannah dry humor, he quipped that the main reason he didn’t want to race overseas was that the Europeans “served their drinks without ice.” Even though he preferred racing close to home, Hannah did represent his country three times in the prestigious Motocross des Nations team competition, and was part of the victorious 1987 team when the international event was held at his favorite racetrack, Unadilla, in New York state.
Hannah’s training methods were uncommon for the era. In addition to riding countless practice laps on motocross tracks, he went back to his roots and trained by riding in the desert. He was obsessed with winning and trained every day, but purposely downplayed his training regimen to maintain a psychological edge over his competitors.
"There’s no better place to practice than out in the desert,” he told British journalist Chris Carter in 1981. “I ride there anytime I can. Out there the unexpected happens quickly and you have to sharpen your reactions to stay on the bike."
Water sports were the recreation that Hannah chose for relaxation. A water skiing accident in the Colorado River at the end of 1979 nearly cost Hannah his career, and the near amputation of his right leg. Hannah’s leg was broken in 12 places when he hit a submerged rock and was catapulted onto the riverbank. Doctors initially told Hannah he would never be able to race again. He was forced to sit out the entire 1980 season while recuperating. During his recovery, Hannah earned his pilot license and for the first time in his adult life found interests outside of motorcycle racing.
Whether it was his injured leg or other seemingly endless injuries that Hannah suffered during the early 1980s, or perhaps the loss of his one-time single-minded approach to racing, Hannah was never quite able to harness the magic needed to capture another championship. Yet he was still a formidable force to be reckoned with, and he won 20 more Nationals during the 1980s. His best results were a second-place finish in the 250 outdoor AMA National series in 1981, and, following a switch from Yamaha to Honda, third in the same series in 1983.
Hannah’s final win came in the 250 outdoor National held in Millville, Minn., on Aug. 11, 1985. He continued to race part-time with Suzuki from 1986 until his retirement in 1989.
In his 15-year career, Bob “Hurricane” Hannah had become the all-time win leader in AMA motocross/Supercross history, having won 70 AMA Nationals during his career. That record would stand until fellow Hall of Famer Jeremy McGrath broke Hannah’s overall win record in 1999. Hannah’s record of 27 250cc National wins still stood when he was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999.
"He was a rider of tremendous determination,” said multitime world champion, Hall of Famer, and Hannah’s team manager for the winning 1987 U.S. Motocross des Nations team, Roger DeCoster. “Sort of a tough guy, like John Wayne. He didn’t make excuses and he had a good rapport with the public,” an understatement given Hannah’s deep devotion to his fans.
After retiring from racing, Hannah continued to be a test rider and consultant for Suzuki and later, for Yamaha, through the early 1990s. His knowledge, skill and work ethic made him a valuable bridge between racing generations, competing with the earliest AMA motocross stars and then the even bigger stars of the 1980s.
Hannah continued to seek the adrenalin rush even after his motorcycle-racing career ended. For almost a decade, he raced a highly modified P-51 Mustang at speeds close to 500 mph, 30-50 feet of the ground, in the Unlimited Gold Class at the Reno Air Races.
Bob “Hurricane” Hannah was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999, and is currently living near Boise, Idaho, where he owns an aircraft sales company.