Legends: Steve Wise
Made famous by wins in ABC Wide World of Sport’s The Superbikers, Steve Wise, the only rider in AMA Pro racing history to win a supercross, motocross and roadracing National, just may be the best American-born motorcycle racer of all-time.
Last August in the Home Depot Center in suburban Los Angeles, 20 riders – 11 of them motocrossers – lined up for the inaugural running of the Moto X Supermoto at the Summer X Games. On the starting gate were race-winning motocrossers such as Chad Reed, Grant Langston, Jeremy McGrath, Jeff Ward, and Kevin Windham. Interestingly, Chad, Grant, Jeremy, Jeff and Kevin are all major roadracing enthusiasts, thus they were about to compete on a course that was 50% dirt and jumps, the likes of what they earn their living on; the other 50% of the circuit was made-up of sinuous asphalt, the type of adhesion-friendly circuit they dream of, perhaps one day, racing upon.
Almost 25 years ago, another winning motocross rider from McAllen, Texas named Steve Wise stood in the same boots and felt the same exact way about motorcycle raodracing as the five aforementioned men. Having won the Red Bud National at Buchanan, Michigan precisely five months earlier, Wise and his works Honda CR480 waited for the green flag to start the ABC Wide World of Sport’s The Superbikers main event (the grandfather of Supermoto). An hour later – and with nearly 30 million viewers watching him on national TV – Wise flashed across the finish line, winning handily over 500cc World Motocross Champion Andrea Malherbe and young Kawasaki superbike ace Eddie Lawson.
Steve Wise, in the final year of his factory Honda motocross contract, came back to win the Superbikers again in 1981. Cognisent of the fact that he was out of work for the 1982 supercross and motocross series, the win was something of a bittersweet affair for the versatile rider. But then fate stepped in. With Honda star Freddie Spencer headed to Europe for the 1982 World Roadracing Championship, a seat was left vacant on the American Honda roadracing team. Wise was asked to fill it. He did. And the rest is history. In 1982, Wise would miss winning the Formula 1 Championship – then, far and away the most prestigious asphalt class in the America, three-time 500cc World Champion Kenny Roberts, as well as future World Champions Eddie Lawson and Wayne Rainey competed in the ’82 series – by a scant three points. In doing so, Wise was named the AMA’s Pro Racing Athlete of the Year. In 1983, Wise would win the Mid-Ohio Superbike National and in doing so, became the only rider in AMA history to win a supercross (New Orleans in 1979), AMA 250cc National (Buchanan, Michigan in 1980,) AMA 125cc National (Keysers Ridge, Maryland), AMA Superbike National (Mid-Ohio) and ABC Superbikers Championship (1980 and 1981). Wise even made the podium in an AMA dirt track TT race (Houston in 1982). Sadly, 1983 would also be the year that Steve Wise’s spectacular motorcycle racing career would come to an end (but we’ll get to that later).
Although his career was somewhat abbreviated – 1973 through 1983 – what Steve Wise accomplished in that period of time, especially when versatility is factored into their equation, is awe-inspiring. In fact in the hearts, minds and opinions of many educated motorcycle enthusiasts, Steve Wise just may be the most talented, multi-dimensional American-born motorcycle racer of all time.
“In 1973 I turned pro and signed-up to race the Texas State Championship,” begins Steve Wise of how it all began. “I was 16 years-old. Jimmy Weinert, Gary Jones, Kent Howerton and other riders also showed-up to ride it. I ended up winning the series. Kawasaki tried to sign Steve Stackable, but he had already signed with Maico. Steve didn’t take the ride, but said, ‘Hey’s there’s this young kid down in Texas named Steve Wise who is really fast.’ So Kawasaki flew me out to do a race at Carlsbad. I did well and Kawasaki hired me the next day. I was kind of in shock because I had never even been out of Texas before.”
Wise started raced for Kawasaki in 1975, but the bikes were so slow and ill-handling, that he quit the team. he then duly went out and bought a Honda from his dad, who owned a Honda dealership back in Texas. Kawasaki called Wise back and talked him into racing for them again in 1976. Wise took the offer, but after just one race, the Hangtown National on April 4, quit again. “Our bikes were 10 horsepower down to the Hondas,” scoffs Wise. “It was like riding an 80. So I went and bought another Honda off my dad. On Sunday, July 4 – the 200th birthday of the United States of America – Steve Wise, as a full-on privateer, won the 125cc National at Keysers Ridge, Maryland. “I won that race as a full, full privateer. In fact Kawasaki team manager Tim Smith called me the next day to apologize to me for their bikes being so slow earlier in the year.
“After the 1976 season, Cliff White called me. Even though I had won a National for Honda as a privateer, they never called me about 1977. I was pretty surprised – and disappointed – about that. Cliff told me he had a deal with a company to make a full run at the Nationals. I said, ‘Let’s go!’ So Cliff flew down and for two months completely overhauled and changed a a Honda 125 in my dad’s shop. It was the trickest 125 in the nation. It had Simons forks, Fox Air shocks, a factory tank and set, which was given to us by Dave Arnold at Honda. The bike even had a very trick Mugen motor. With Moto-X Fox helping us out, I ended up fifth overall in the 125cc Nationals.”
In the December of 1977, Steve Wise signed a contract to race factory Hondas for the 1978 race season. He was fourth overall in the 125cc National Championship and seventh in the final supercross series points. “In 1979 I moved into the 250cc class, and on my birthday, I won the New Orleans Supercross. That was an incredible feeling. I ended up fourth overall in the supercross points and had a number of great races. it was a great year. In 1980 I was hurt a lot. I broke my wrist, my ribs and suffered a knee injury. A number of nagging injuries put me in a position where I couldn’t train and I wasn’t riding at my full potential. It should have been a great year because I started off very strong. I led the Atlanta Supercross by a mile – like a quarter of a lap – before the bike broke. Then I hurt my knee at Daytona and was never able to get back to 100% The bright spot of the season was winning the Red Bud 250cc National in June.”
The ABC TV Superbikers
On December 1, 1979 legendary motorcycle racing promoter Gavin Trippe, with the wherewithal and might of the ABC Televsions network at his back, held The ABC Wide World of Sports Superbikers race at Carlsbad Raceway in the North County region of San Diego. Held on a 2.1-mile track consisting of high-speed asphalt turns, a 100 mile-per-hour drag strip, a sweeping dirt-track style oval, and a motocross course section, 25 of the world’s best motorcycle riders came out to try and win their share of the $20,000 purse. 30 million people watched the race on ABC and it was immediate, resounding hit.
“I first rode the Superbikers in 1979,” explains Wise, who finished well behind winner Kent Howerton. “It was a real last minute deal. Our team manager that year said, ‘Who wants to ride this Superbikers race?’ Nobody wanted to do it, so I said, ‘I’ll do it.’ I rode a big Honda open bike, but it had drum brakes. In less than a lap, my brakes were gone.
“When time came for the 1980 Superbikers, I had a first class bike that was phenomenal,” Wise continues. “I fit the bike well and we did a lot of testing. For two days we tested gearing on the Carlsbad track while I worked on my technique and learned lines. I felt really comfortable and I loved it. During the test session I was the only rider backing the bike into the corners. After practice Roger DeCoster [Honda Global Motocross advisor] came up to me and asked, ‘Do to feel comfortable doing that?’ I said, ‘Yes!’ Roger then said, “keep it up.’ He was amazed at how well I was riding the bike on the pavement.”
Steve Wise and his number nine red Honda took the lead of the 1980 Superbikers main event on lap number two and despite some rear brake troubles near the end, never relinquished it. While on the victory podium with Andrea Malherebe (runner-up) and Eddie Lawson (third place) Wise said, time and time again, “It feels good, man; it feels good!”
And what did Team Honda think of his resounding win? “The Honda people were surprised and shocked with my roadracing skills, but I still had another year on my motocross contract, so the race win wasn’t discussed too much.”
Then came 1981. While his motocross and supercross seasons were both something a bit of a bust, thwarted by injuries, Wise showed-up at Carlsbad on November 1 to defend his ABC TV Superbikers title. He did it in a stomp-off, easily smoking to victory in the 12 lap main over second and third place finishers Graham Noyce (the 1979 500cc World Motocross Champion) and Eddie Lawson. “In 1981, my motocross season, due to injuries, was really up-and-down,” offers Wise. “The bike also broke a lot. Towards the end of the season, Dave Arnold approached me and told me my contract would not be renewed. But then I went out and won the Superbikers again.”
Not long after, Honda, out of the blue, asked the 24 year-old Wise if he would be interested in roadracing. He was very interested. After a successful test at Willow Springs , which he did on a 150-horsepower, 350-pound motorcycle, Honda liked what they saw and tendered Wise an offer.
Before the 1982 AMA Formula One and Superbike series launched at Daytona in early March, Wise decided he wanted to compete in the now long-gone Houston TT dirt track race. With friend Jimmy Straight, the two Texans worked on the CR’s motor (“Straight filed the head with a rat-tail file to try and lessen compression so the bike wouldn’t stall in all the tight turns,” muses Wise) and then cut its frame to pull the rake in, thus optimizing cornering.
“I was so sick that night that I showed up just five minutes before qualifying,” says Wise. “I was sick as a dog. I ended up qualifying 34 out of 38. In my first race I was in the back row. I ended up working my way up to fifth in the race. They took the top four to the main, so I had to ride a semi. I won that easily. I was in the last row for the main event. At the start, everyone went really wide in the first turn, so I hugged the inside and came out of the turn in sixth. I got into second place, right behind Ricky Graham, but then my brake cable broke. For the last three or four laps I tried to hold off Mickey Fey, but he eventually got by me to finish second. I ended up third.”
AMA Formula One
On Sunday March 7, 1982 Steve Wise lined-up for his first professional roadrace: The Daytona 200. “I rode the 1982 200 on a 1981, in-line, four-stroke, while my Honda teammates Freddie Spencer and Mike Baldwin got the new V-4 FWS. That bike [the FWS] was a huge deal because Honda quietly told all of us that it was a true $1 million dollar motorcycle. Meanwhile, my bike had a half-faring and was nowhere near as quick. In fact Marco Lucchinelli, the 1981 500cc World Champion, flew to Daytona from Italy to race the 200. When he saw the bike Honda had waiting for him – the same type of bike I was going to ride – he turned right around and flew home.”
Nonetheless, Wise placed a highly respectable seventh in the Formula One class.
Wise continued to improve at each and every race. In fact on June 19 at Loudon, New Hampshire, he and a young rookie from California named Wayne Rainey fought tooth and nail for their first-ever win in the Superke class. “At Loudon, Wayne Rainey and myself were both going for our first victory. We were going nuts. Eddie Lawson and Mike Baldwin were way behind us. We could both see that first win ahead of us and we were wide-open. With one lap to go I lost the front end and hit the pavement. I still had that killer instinct and really wanted to win, but I ended up with a big crash.”
With five of the six races run, Steve Wise went into the final Formula One race of the season at Sears Point, California holding the points lead. A pro motocrossers just one year earlier, Wise, astonishingly, was on the brink of winning America’s number one roaddracing championship. “I went into the final round at Sears Point leading the championship by one point. If my teammate Mike Baldwin won the race, I had to get second. But during the race I just couldn’t get by Wes Cooley, who was in second place behind Baldwin. I knew I needed to get by him and I was dying inside. Sears Point was very treacherous back then and I remember thinking to myself, what is this worth? It’s not worth getting hurt over. I just couldn’t find a way by Wes – at least a way that would not take the two of us out. I wasn’t going to do that.”
When all was said and done, Baldwin won the championship over Wise by three points: 72 to 69. “It really was heartbreaking,” Wise laments. “I was very disappointed. On the other hand, I was already looking forward to 1983. I knew I was one of the best riders in U.S.A. and that I was definitely in the mix.”
With a very strong showing at Daytona on March 13, the 1983 campaign started off very well for class sophmore Steve Wise. “When I showed-up at Daytona in 1983, people surrounded me everywhere I went. I was mauled by photographers and journalists from all over the world. For Daytona, Spencer and Baldwin got the new NR500 two-strokes. I was on the V-4 FWS. I ended up finishing third behind winner Kenny Roberts and Eddie Lawson (who both rode potent, yellow and black Yamaha OW69s). Not bad company to be in, huh?”
At round three of the 1983 Superbike Series, Wise crashed hard at the Riverside, California round. So hard, a series of photos shot by a UPI photographer capturing the crash ran in newspapers all over the world. A month later and healed-up, Wise returned to action at Mid-Ohio on May 21 and 22. It was a bittersweet weekend for the Texan. For after winning the Superbike National on Saturday, on Sunday he went to the line for the F-1 National on his new bike: The nasty NS500 two-stroke. Wise placed second to Baldwin in the race , but he struggled to come to terms with the violent 500.
Then, in early June, Steve Wise’s spectacular rise to prominence in roadracing took a dramatic turn for the worse. “Elkhart Lake… Oh my… That’s where the two-stroke got me. I remember that day clearly. I was having a rough time switching from the 475-pound 750 four-stroke Superbike to the 270 pound two-stoke F-1 bike, which had the powerband of a light switch. I was really struggling jumping back-and-forth from one bike to the other. Freddie Spencer and Mike Baldwin could do it, but they were more much experienced than I was.
“I went out to ride the 500 and crashed hard. I was later told my face smashed right into the track when I came off the bike. I don’t remember a thing. I was out for 10 hours. When I woke up in the hospital, I didn’t know where I was. I ended up missing over half the races and tried to come back at Laguna Seca (Note: On July 16 and 17) because I was still in the running for the F-1 Championship. I was like, ‘I’m coming back!’ Udo Gietl, Honda’s roadrace team manager, said to me, ‘Are you sure?’
“I had no business coming back,” continues Wise. “I went out for the first F-1 practice session. Kenny Roberts came by and me and I said to myself, ‘I’m going to stay with him.’ I came out of turn nine, and at around 80 miles per hour, got sideways and slammed into a wall. When I came to, I was in terrible pain. I went to the hospital and was informed that I had internal bleeding, broken ribs and two broken collarbones. Udo came into my room and I said, ‘Udo, I don’t want to do this anymore.’ I knew right then I didn’t have the eye of the tiger. I did not have the killer instinct to be the best. I admitted that to myself right then and there. Even though I had a year and a half left on my Honda contract, we talked it through, they gave me a very nice severance check, and I called it the end of my career.”
Only one year and a half in duration, Steve Wise’s mercurial roadracing career was over almost as quickly as it began. Alone in Texas and out of work, he had a very tough time adjusting to the reality of his new surroundings. Says Wise: “I’m a Christian man. I’m a believer in the Lord. I’ll be frank here: In January, before the start of the 1984 season, I found myself on my knees crying and weeping in prayer. I knew everyone was about to begin testing and I wasn’t there. I knew it was the end of the only thing I knew. God helped me get through that. I was really torn up inside. It took me almost a year to say to myself “I am no longer a professional motorcycle racer.”
These days Steve Wise is a happy and successful business man. Heavily involved in real estate, as well as a board member for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Wise and his wife Saundra have three children, Whittney, Joshua and Jonathan. Whittney, 27, is enrolled at Texas Christian University; Joshua, 26, is a professional actor having on appeared on such highly successful shows as Frasier.
“It’s been over 20 years ago since I quit racing,” says Wise. “But I’m not bitter. I’m not bitter at all. I’m very grateful for what I accomplished in racing. When I was 14 years-old I would sit in my dad’s Honda shop and read names like Brad Lackey, Bruce McDougal and Tim Hart in Cycle News and think, One day it would be so awesome to be in here. Now, when I think back at what I achieved in motorcycle racing, I’m blown away. And for that I feel very blessed.”
By Eric Johnson
See some great videos of Steve on his site here