Of the five types of races that make up the American Motorcyclist Association Grand National series—short track, half mile, mile, tourist trophy steeplechase (TT), road race—the mile is the hairiest. It's run on a simple dirt oval, one mile around. The bikes hit 130 mph on the straights and may slow to 90 on the turns. Or they may not. If the track has a "cushion" of loose dirt along the edges, an especially bold rider can blast around turns at full throttle, sideways, his steel-plated left foot skimming the track like a flesh-and-bone outrigger, kicking up billows of dust while the rest of his body struggles to maintain balance.
In the 31-year history of the AMA pro circuit, no one has won more mile races than the newly crowned AMA champion, Bubba Shobert of Lubbock, Texas. In his six years in the expert ranks, Shobert has won 13, including four this year. His full name is Don Wayne James Shobert, but for all his 23 years he has been called Bubba, which is what his two sisters dubbed him when he was born: their little bubba. Shobert is still relatively small—5'7", 135 pounds—but that's the mold for motorcycle racers and their kindred spirits, rodeo riders. They have in common, too, the nomadic life of the circuit, frequently busted bones and, traditionally, broken hearts.
Motorcycle racers are also like downhill skiers: If you want to be a champion, start early. Bubba started when he was six, "still crawlin' up and down his daddy's spine," according to Delbert Price, a former Kawasaki dealer from Lubbock who teamed with Don Shobert, Bubba's dad, to create the AMA champ. Price, who was Bubba's mechanic in his early years, is a stubble-chinned, raspy-voiced gentleman. He walks with a hitch—a loaded .44 fell out of his truck and he was shot in the knee—and is missing the three middle fingers of his right hand, the result of an accident with a meat grinder.
Last September, on the eve of the San Jose Mile, the race that would clinch the championship for Shobert, Price pulled half a tattered dollar bill out of his wallet and slapped it on a table in a local cocktail lounge. "I been carryin' this around for about 14 years," he said. "Bubba has the other half. I can't remember exactly when we tore it apart, but I remember we swore that we'd put it back together the day he got number one."
December 2, 1985
When Bubba was 10, he won his first big race; the word "big" is used loosely because it was a national minibike race. By 13 he was a consistent winner on full-size bikes at his home track, Ross Downs, a quarter-mile oval—or short track—near Fort Worth, a 5½-hour drive from Lubbock. "I'd usually miss half a day of school Friday," Shobert says. "We'd drive there and race on Friday night, try to catch something else on Saturday night, maybe run up to Wichita, then drive home Sunday and I'd go to school on Monday." These were "outlaw" races, events not sanctioned by the AMA, so the 13-year-old could race for money. The purses were small—maybe $100 to $150 for a win—but Don Shobert allowed his son to keep all of his winnings.
Father and son rolled down the highway to small-time races for nearly 10 years, during which time Don saved his money for Bubba's 16th birthday, the day he would become eligible for his AMA pro license, novice division. When that time finally came, Don sold Shoberts' Wholesale Meat Co. in Lubbock, packed their motor home, and he and Bubba hit the national circuit—along with Bubba's mother, Martha, his sister Donna and Price. "We had talked about this since he was 10 years old," says Don.
"It's really hard for kids to know what they want out of life, but Bubba always knew," says Martha. "That's why we did it for him."
Bubba suffered his worst injury that first year, at a short track in Granite City, Ill. "I crashed and a guy ran over me and my hand went through his chain," he recalls. "When they took off my glove, three of my fingers fell off. But they were able to sew them back on. They came out O.K., but they don't bend on the ends."
While Shobert was in the hospital, his father began to question the path they were on and raised the possibility of Bubba's trading racing for college. "No," replied Bubba, "I don't think I'd ever be satisfied with myself if I knew I didn't try with all I had."
Shobert's progress as a pro wasn't spectacular, but it was steady. He was named 1980 Rookie of the Year in the expert division, riding a used Harley-Davidson and a Yamaha. In August 1981, at the Peoria TT, he hooked handlebars with Freddie Spencer, the Louisianian who is now the 250cc and 500cc World Road Racing Champion, and became involved in a crash that broke Bubba's arm, dislocated his shoulder and ended his season. In '82 he finished eighth in points and won his first two miles. At about that time, says Don, "It was time to get out of the picture and let him go on his ability." He went back into the meat business and Sandy Rainey took over as Bubba's traveling mechanic, and in '83 Bubba was fourth in the standings with three more mile wins.
For more than a decade, the Harley XR750 had been the warhorse of the racing circuit. But three years ago, Honda began challenging the Harleys with a new machine, the RS750, and in 1984 they hired the two best riders they could, Shobert and Ricky Graham. (When Gene Romero, the Honda team manager, asked Skip Eaken, a veteran mechanic new to the Honda team, whom he wanted to work for, Eaken replied, "I want Bubba.")
Last year the Honda RS750, with its 90-hp, V-twin-overhead-camshaft 750cc engine, was the winner in 14 of 25 AMA races on dirt tracks. King Harley was dethroned.
Shobert won six of those races but finished No. 2 in the point standings to his teammate Graham, who also won six. "Everything happens for a reason," says Shobert as he reflects on the ups and downs of the '84 season.
On July 7, at a short track in Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Shobert punched a fellow Texan, Terry Poovey of Euless. "We never got along all that good," says Shobert. "He was four years older than me, and I was always like the little kid, the amateur. When I started beating him, he didn't take it too good.
"In St. Louis we were going for it in practice, which was the first mistake—practice don't pay nothin'. On the front straightaway he moved over and drove me right into the hay bales and I hit one head-on and flipped. [Poovey claims that Shobert had passed him going too fast and that, as Poovey cut back beneath him to regain his lead, Shobert must have hit a rut, flown over the handlebar and into the bales.] Nothing was broke, but I was bumped-up and sore. We seen each other in the pits, and we got in a little disagreement. I just lost it, I guess, just punched him. It wouldn't have been so bad but he had sunglasses on, and he got cut under his eye and had to go get stitches. After I done it I knew I was gonna get in trouble, so I went and told the referee what I'd done."
"In 15 years of racing, ever since he was seven, it was the first time I'd ever seen that boy lose control," says Don.
The AMA fined Shobert $1,000 and suspended him for nine races. The sentence was later reduced to six at an appeal hearing. But even six races—18% of the season—seemed a harsh penalty for a fairly routine dustup. Though the missed points from those races would cost him dearly, Shobert learned something from the episode.
"When you're racing every week on a factory team," he says, "you take for granted what you've got, and you forget about how hard it was to get to where you're at. So when I almost lost it—I was afraid Honda would fire me—I realized this was the chance of a lifetime, the best chance I was ever gonna have to win the championship. So I trained harder and had a different frame of mind when I came back, more determined. I was 83 points down and everybody said there's no way you can catch up, but the idea was to just go out there and win as many races as possible. I had nothing to lose."
Shobert came back streaking; in the final 12 dirt-track races he won four and finished second seven times, not including the Hagerstown, Md. half mile, which he won while his case was under appeal. That victory was eventually disallowed. Had Hagerstown counted, Shobert would have joined Kenny Roberts and Dick Mann as the only riders to gain career wins in all five types of AMA races.
The final race of the 1984 season was the Springfield (Ill.) Mile, held on the fastest dirt track in the country. Shobert was 15 points behind Graham in the standings, and his only realistic chance for the title was a win, worth 20. On the next-to-last lap, he was leading Graham and Oklahoman Ted Boody, when Graham and Boody tangled in Turn 2 and Graham crashed hard. When Shobert came around the turn he saw his teammate sprawled among the hay bales, and the No. 1 plate flashed before Bubba's eyes, momentarily blinding him. Shobert's loss of concentration enabled Boody to pass him in the final turn to win by half a length. Meanwhile, Graham had staggered back onto his bike with a broken hand and chugged to the finish, the last bike running. Because his 13th place was worth two points, he beat Shobert for the championship by one. "Ricky beat me last year because he earned it," Shobert said at San Jose in September. "But it was my turn this year."
The San Jose Mile, held on the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds' dirt track, is considered the AMA circuit's classic. The track is known for its hard-packed surface and its long straights, which produce exciting drafting. "At this place, if you don't take a few chances you'll end up in seventh place," says Shobert.
There were 48 entrants at San Jose, including the four best milers ever: Shobert and Jay Springsteen with 13 wins, Graham and Hank Scott with 12. Only 17 of those 48 riders would make it into the main event. Little guys with big dreams stomped around the pits wearing steel shoes strapped to their left boots. Teenage warriors in battle dress of colored leathers leaned over the plastic pennants surrounding the Honda team, gazed at the RS750 and fantasized about the future.
Graham won the first heat by 100 yards, riding with a dislocated thumb, an improvement over last year, when he raced with a steel rod in his femur, although there had been six more broken bones in between. Shobert won his heat, too, by a bike length over 18-year-old rookie Chris Carr, touted by some as the next Bubba Shobert.
Before the main event Shobert sauntered around the pits—his walk is a strange combination of loose legs and rigid upper body—feeling little sense of destiny. Nervous? "What for?" he says. "It don't help to be nervous. But I'm ready to get it over with. I'll play better golf tomorrow if I clinch it."
In the main event the bikes burst from the starting line in a raspy roar, their exhaust notes somewhat stifled by giant mufflers called boom boxes. The pack emerged from the dust in Turn 2 and rolled through the back straight. The machines appeared riderless, as the racers tried to hide from the wind by hunkering down on their gas tanks.
Twenty-five laps—just 15 minutes and 54 seconds—after the start, Graham and Shobert were on the victory podium with Scott Parker, who had finished second on a Harley. Graham had passed Parker coming out of the second turn of the final lap and went on to win by a bike length. Shobert took third by half a length after battling a pack of five bikes the whole way; on the 23rd lap, he'd been sixth. It was the 16th consecutive mile in which Shobert had finished third or better, and third at San Jose was good enough to clinch the AMA championship. The No. 1 plate meant, among other things, $80,000 from Honda, $40,000 from Camel Pro Series sponsor R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and $20,000 from the Stroh Brewery Co.
Graham poured his champagne over Shobert's head and ceremoniously handed over the No. 1 plate. Price was on the verge of tears, and Don ran off to call Martha back in Lubbock. "I was so happy I couldn't hardly get it out on the phone," he said. Someone broke out the freshly made BUBBA SHOBERT GRAND NATIONAL CHAMPION T shirts, and when Bubba pulled one on over his leathers, he let loose a whoop of relief and elation. "I hope it ain't as hard to keep as it is to get," he said. "My stomach feels worse now than it did before the race."
"They can't take it away from us now," said Price. "They took it away last year, but the sumbitches aren't gonna get it again."
"This year makes up for it," added the jubilant Shobert. "I'm the champion, and I feel like I'm on top of the world right now."