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Garage Finds | Ricky Graham’s 1993 Championship Leathers


Garage Finds | Ricky Graham’s 1993 Championship Leathers

Presented by Backyard Design

I started my moto journalism career way back in 1990 when Cycle News hired me as an Assistant Editor. My Editor in Chief, Jack Mangus, was an intimidating fellow and man was he hard on me. At the time, I almost resented him for the fear he struck into my heart on a daily basis, but looking back it was Jack who instilled in me the work ethic and drive that has gotten me to this point today. I owe Jack Mangus a great deal, and I will always be grateful that that grumpy old guy.

When I started, Mangus assigned me to cover the Grand National Championship Series. I knew nothing about motorcycle flat track racing, but he sat me down and gave me a one-hour lecture on how the sport worked and who the main players were. I felt like he was playing a cruel joke on me at the time – sending a Japanese-American reporter to cover a sport that was dominated by Harley-Davidsons and largely attended by bikers and such. “Just make sure you wear this hat, for Pete’s sake, and put that hair in a ponytail,” he said, handing me a hideous red corduroy Cycle News hat. Jack was not a fan of my shoulder-length hair and he told me that if I ever went to the races with it, not in a ponytail, he’d disown me.

My first-ever flat track race was the Sacramento Mile, and I was hooked instantly. If you’ve never been to a mile flat track race, you don’t know what exciting racing is! I struggled to keep track of the dozens of passes for the lead that happened in each race that night on my pad of paper, but I crafted a race report that Jack was pleased with. To my surprise, the flat track racers were all welcoming to me and not hard to talk to at all. Apparently, as the only media outlet that offered regular coverage of the sport, Cycle News was highly regarded by everyone in the infield pits.

One of the racers who I seemed to click with instantly was Ricky Graham. A former two-time Grand National Champion – 1982 and 1984 – Graham was a privateer who still rode a Honda RS750. We became friends from the get-go, and I was super excited for him when he won the Springfield Mile in 1991. Sadly, RG had a well-publicized problem with alcohol, and he missed the Pomona Half-Mile soon thereafter when he was detained by the police for sleeping in his car, with alcohol on his breath. Mangus was all over the news and he made me write an article about Graham’s incident in Cycle News that week. He told me that I could not let friendships with racers affect my job, which was to report the news. I was actually a little scared to face Ricky when I saw him next, but he was more embarrassed by what had happened to him than upset at me for writing the story. 

In 1993, Ricky G got sober and did the impossible. Nine years after winning his last AMA Grand National Championship, Graham joined forces with tuner Johnny Goad and Jim Landes on the newly formed Team Undo and won the Grand National Championship in dominant fashion. It was amazing, and I will never forget the way Ricky literally toyed with his competitors that year. “Watch this Donny,” he said to me, before the main event at that year’s Pomona Half-Mile. “I’m going to wear my titanium shoe.” I didn’t know what that meant, but he just told me to watch. As he entered turn one in the main event in the lead and dragged his titanium shoe across the Pomona dirt, sparks flew from it, three or four feet long! Somehow, titanium shoes were not illegal, but they were frowned upon for their tendency to spark. After Ricky won the race, Scott Parker stormed over to complain about the shoe and Ricky just sat in his lawn chair and smiled. Actually, years later when Jason Lawrence beat Ryan Dungey for the Western Regional 250 Supercross Championship largely with mind games (and skill), it reminded me of the way Ricky had toyed with his competitors’ emotions in 1993.

During my years hanging around Ricky, I also became good friends with a member of his crew, Danny Malfatti. Danny was Ricky’s best friend and a flat track racer himself, and also a primary sponsor of Ricky’s racing efforts with his family’s Z Gallerie stores. I spent a few amazing days with Danny and Ricky trail riding in Clear Creek; the two of them torturing me on technical hill climbs and tricky singletrack…

We named Ricky Graham the Cycle News Rider of the year in 1993 and I was proud to write the cover feature on my friend. We celebrated by going on some epic mountain bike rides in the hills near his Salinas, California, home. I was proud to be his buddy.

Sadly, things didn’t turn out the way Ricky had hoped in 1994 as he had hoped that his championship might earn him a factory road race ride. He did get to race Daytona as a guest member on the Camel Honda team, but nothing beyond that really materialized. He started drinking again, and the results again became spotty.

Through it all, we remained good friends, but when I was hired by Dirt Rider Magazine in 1996 I didn’t get to see Ricky because I wasn’t at the flat track races any longer. Daytona Bike week was always a good chance to catch up, but beyond that, we would only chat on the phone here and there. 

Then one day in late 1997 when I was working in my Los Angeles office at Dirt Rider Magazine, I looked up and Ricky was poking his head in my office door! I was surprised to see him and I asked what brought him into town. He said he had a meeting or two, but wanted to stop by to see me and give me something. The whole time, he only had his head peeked in my door, but when he finally walked in, what he had in his hands took my breath away. Literally. 

Why he chose to give me his championship leathers from the 1993 season is beyond me. I had asked him for a helmet in the past, but I would have never dreamt of asking for his leathers…might as well ask for his damn motorcycle! Unlike motocrossers, flat-track racers often have one set of leathers…and they use them for multiple seasons! Ricky, of course, got new ones in 1994 because he needed that fat number one on the back, but still! “I was thinking about what good buddies we are, and I wanted you to hold on to these.” I was in shock! Needless to say, they were displayed on my office wall with the utmost pride, and they have been one of my prized possessions ever since.

On January 22, 1998, Ricky Graham died in a house fire. I found out when Danny called me, in tears. “He’s gone, Donny,” was all he could say, over and over. I was heartbroken. Ricky had called me a few weeks earlier and we had chatted about meeting at Clear Creek for a ride. I asked him how he was doing but didn’t get a definitive answer. From what I know, Ricky had been cooking something and fell asleep on the couch, and what he was cooking caught fire and took down the entire house. He died of smoke inhalation in his sleep. 

I’ll never forget the days I spent with Ricky Graham at the races and on the road, but some of my best memories with him are actually of our trail rides at Clear Creek. One time after a rain, I had gotten stuck in a giant mud bog and was unable to get the Honda CR500R I was riding, free of the quagmire. Furious and frustrated, I walked away from it and shouted, “To hell with this! I’ll just report it stolen!” Ricky and Danny laughed hysterically at my tantrum, and the laughter grew even heavier when Danny fired up my bike and rode it out of the mud with apparent ease. I finally joined in on the laughter later on, at the end of the ride. When we were changing out of our gear, I noticed that the Fox Racing logo on the front of my boot had popped off. That year, Fox produced a boot called the “Chameleon” that allowed you to pop the F-O-X logos out of the shin plate and swap them for different colors. The “O” was the actual Fox head icon, and that’s what I had lost.

A couple weeks later, Ricky called me, laughing as hysterically as when I had gotten stuck in the mud. “Hey Donny, I rode Clear Creek today, and guess what I found? Your Fox head!” Out of the miles and miles of trails we rode at Clear Creek, it seemed amazing to me that RG had spotted the small plastic boot part, randomly on the trail. Turns out it wasn’t so random “It was where that big mud bog was!” he said.

I miss my friend Ricky Graham.

Flash forward to this past January. Hours after my staff and I got the news that AMI was shutting down TransWorld Motocross Magazine, I got a call from Danny. I’ll never forget it. Danny and I have stayed in contact through the years and have even ridden motocross together a few times. (Most notably, amateur day at the Washougal MX National when I landed on him, but that’s a tale for another day. haha!) “What’s going on? I read on your Instagram that Transworld is gone?”

The conversations that followed were frequent and very personal, but I can say one thing for sure: without Danny Malfatti I would have never been able to launch Swapmoto Live. I’ve never been an entrepreneurial person and have never dreamed of owning my own business: I’ve always liked to simply work hard for my boss and do the best job possible. Danny convinced me that working for another media outlet was not the right way to go and that I had a voice in motocross that could sustain a new media outlet. Lo and behold, with an awesome team around me – Anton, Doni, Dommer, and Chase – we’ve been able to make it all happen, and we owe a lot of it to my old flat track buddy, Danny.

A couple of weeks ago, I met Danny and a group of his buddies at Clear Creek. I didn’t get stuck in a mud bog this time, but I spent my fair share of time rolling around on the ground. (Trail riding isn’t my thing, give me a break!) The mountains were just as big and the scenery was just as amazing, and I thought of ole Ricky G the whole time I was there.

At the end of the day, I told my friend Danny that I appreciated everything he’s done for me, and that he essentially saved my life. “That’s what friends are for,” he said. I knew he would say that.

The night before I made the trek up north to Clear Creek, I wondered what I could possibly give Danny to show him how grateful I am for his support and friendship. I thought about how priceless his support has been, and came up with the only priceless thing I owned.

Thanks again, Daneh. And thanks, Ricky, for bringing us together.

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There’s something about neon colors and motocross. Some of the most iconic gear or bikes made use of the impossible to miss hues and its recent revival has lasted about five years, helped along by the aftermarket plastic kits offered by a number of companies. But if you are going to go with neon, be sure to tone it done with a simple black-white-grey graphic kit like the one here from Backyard Design. With the winter months upon us, now is a great time to give your bike a facelift with new body panels and fresh graphics to match.

Donn Maeda

Donn Maeda is a 30-year veteran in moto-journalism, having worked at Cycle News and Dirt Rider before launching MXracer Magazine and TransWorld Motocross Magazine. Maeda is the Editor-In-Chief at Swapmoto Live and you can catch him on a dirt bike or in the saddle of a mountain bike on most days.

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1 Comment

  1. Dan Oates December 21, 2019

    I remember a race at Springfield one year Ricky and Scotty Parker we’re passing each other for the lead several times a lap, it came down to the last lap Ricky was passing Scotty for the lead when Ricky got in front he may have swerved a couple times so Scotty couldn’t use the draft to pass him it pissed Scotty off so he gets along side Ricky on the cool down lap and started pointing and giving Ricky hell then on the back straightaway they both pulled wheelies side by side and with one hand on the bars they were still giving each other hell. On the podium Scotty says Rickys a great rider and I probably couldn’t have passed him anyway but when he was swerving it was just dangerous, what a great race and they were friends again shortly after.