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Top Ten Best Desert Racers of All Times

Desert racing, a sport that has been around for more than 50 years, has produced a ton of motorcycle racing skills, colorful characters, and all-around good guys, leading to the title of the best. Compiling a top 10 list has been difficult. Best, we’ve weighed in on everything after talking to our favorite savvy journalists like Rick “Super Hunky” Seaman and desert fox Mark Curia. We took performance, talent, personality and era into consideration to create something more than just entertaining. Considering that our goal was to create a list that reflected desert racing and not off-road racing, we believe the final product represents the sport’s five-decade history very well. Before you send your angry email, keep this in mind. Is this the final list? Probably not. Some desert lovers will no doubt be offended if they a) don’t find their personal favorite on this list or b) are unhappy with the position in which they do. We’re still disappointed about some names that didn’t make the list. Here is our refined list of the Top Ten Best Desert Racers of All Time.

Top Ten Best Desert Racers of All Times – Top Rated

10. Larry Bergquist

Top Ten Best Desert Racers of All Times

Larry Bergquist was a founding member of Buzzard’s Motorcycle Club and the most successful rider in AMA District 37 history. Bergqvist’s first career victory in desert racing didn’t come until he was 31, in a sport often considered the domain of the young. With 31 victories, he ranks third on the all-time AMA District 37 desert racing wins list. He and teammate Gary Preston won the 1968 Baja 1000, giving the Honda brand the first of its record-breaking 25 Baja 1000 victories. Bergquist was a true pioneer who was not only fast on a bike but also a supporter and defender of desert racing.

9. Whitey Martino

Top Ten Best Desert Racers of All Times

James ‘Whitey’ Martino, born in New Jersey, moved with his family to Southern California in the 1940s and quickly developed a passion for the desert, where he became one of the fastest motorcycle racers of all time. Became one. Martino, a member of the infamous Checkers Motorcycle Club of Southern California, won the first AMA District 37 Desert Championship for the Husqvarna brand in 1969. He also starred in the film On Any Sunday, and in June 1971, he graced the 1971 cover—First Edition of Dirt Bike Magazine. Martino died in 2005.

8. Mitch Mayes

Top Ten Best Desert Racers of All Times

From 1968 to 1976, there was a strong possibility that if you wanted to win a desert event in Southern California, Mitch Mays would fight you. As a factory Husqvarna racer in the 1970s, Mayes rose to prominence after starting his career on the Harley-Davidson Baja 100. He teamed up with other top riders like Larry Roeseler and A.C. Bakken to win SCORE Baja events in Mexico. With two Baja 1000 victories (1973, 1976) and a Baja 500 victory (1974), Mays ranks fourth in District 37 desert racing with 29 wins. Messi’s career ended prematurely due to injury, but he deserves more than that.

7. Malcolm Smith

Top Ten Best Desert Racers of All Times

Should Malcolm Smith, a legend, be higher on this list? Probably. But there’s no denying that the grinning star, who starred in the Bruce Brown-directed classic motorbike film On Any Sunday, is mainly associated with desert racing. Smith’s career in the motorcycle industry indeed began long before that, when he teamed up with JN Roberts to win the motorcycle division in the 1967 Baja 1000. Baja 500 victory (he also won additional Baja titles in four-wheelers). He was instrumental in the development of the Husqvarna brand in America.

6. Kurt Caselli

Top Ten Best Desert Racers of All Times

One of only two racers on our list deserving of the comic book superhero label is Kurt Casselly. “Captain America” was tragically killed, leading the final stage of the 2013 Baja 1000 just as he was about to become an international off-road superstar. Caselli, a Southern California native who grew up in the desert, was driven to succeed in District 37’s desert racing environment. As a member of the Red Bull KTM Factory Rally Team, he won stages at the Dakar Rally in Argentina and the 2013 Defeat Rota 40 Rally. He won three consecutive AMA National Hair and Hound Championships in 2011, 2012 and 2013.

5. Johnny Campbell

Top Ten Best Desert Racers of All Times

Johnny Campbell, one of the most decorated men on this list, is practically a god at SCORE Baja Racing. The factory Honda driver leads the field in motorcycle wins south of the border and added two more in 2007 and 2008 to an incredible run of nine overall in the Baja 1000 from 1997 to 2005. As a rider and team owner, he also won four additional Baja 500 races and one multiple-point overall motorcycle points championship. In the United States, Campbell was a four-time Best in the Desert champion, the 1995 Nevada Rally Champion, and the 1996 AMA District 37 Best in the West champion. He also participated in the Dakar Rally.

4. Dan Smith

Top Ten Best Desert Racers of All Times

Dan Smith was the most successful rider in Southern California desert racing history as a factory Husqvarna (and later KTM) rider during the 1980s, compiling 59 AMA District 37 victories. In addition, Smith won the first AMA National Championship Hare and Hound Series race in 1986 and has since racked up four additional victories in a row. He is one of only three players to have won the Hare and Hound title five times, and he and the late Danny Hamill are the only two to do so consecutively. Smith and partner Dan Ashcroft also succeeded in Baja, taking the Baja 1000 and 500 titles in 1983 and 1984, respectively.

3. Larry Roeseler

Top Ten Best Desert Racers of All Times

Larry Rosler, who has 10 victories in the Baja 1000 and 12 overall in the Baja 500, had to beat competitor Johnny Campbell to surpass the score as the most successful motorcycle racer in Baja history. Also, “LR” won more Baja races than any other rider in history on a Husqvarna, Harley-Davidson (yes, that’s real), Yamaha, and Kawasaki. His reign as champion spanned three of the five decades that desert racing has spanned: the 1970s, 80s and 90s. In 1994, Rosler won his tenth and final Baja 1000. He then left the two-wheeled racing scene to pursue a career on four wheels, where he continued to dominate and record overall Baja victories.

2. J.N. Roberts

Top Ten Best Desert Racers of All Times

The standard to meet for all others was set by James Nelson “JN.” Roberts. JN He is one of the few motorcyclists who can quickly enter the desert. Along with teammate Malcolm Smith, Roberts set the record for the first motorcycle to win the Baja 1000 and tore a path of destruction through the deserts of the Southwest. His notable victories include four consecutive victories in the Barstow to Vegas race from 1968 to 1971, making him the most successful racer in point-to-point race history. Along with his two Baja 1000 victories, he has won the Mint 400 three times and the Baja 500 twice.

1. Danny Hamel

Top Ten Best Desert Racers of All Times

The mere mention of Danny Hamill should be enough to convey everything. Hamill, the last rider to win the legendary Barstow to Vegas Hare and Hound in 1990, was the best person to capture the beauty of moving fast through the harsh desert terrain. He quickly rose to fame after switching from the factory KTM team to the factory Kawasaki team in 1991. He dominated the AMA National Hair and Hound Championship for five consecutive years from 1991 to 1995 and was a vital member of the Baja 1000 winning team in 1993. And in 1994, it entered the record books in AMA and SCORE desert racing.

Top Ten Best Desert Racers of All Times – Top List

Sr. # Top Ten Best Desert Racers of All Times
1 Danny Hamel
2 J.N. Roberts
3 Larry Roeseler
4 Dan Smith
5 Johnny Campbell
6 Kurt Caselli
7 Malcolm Smith
8 Mitch Mayes
9 Whitey Martino
10 Larry Bergquist

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