Seldom have two motorcycle riders been so evenly matched, and so far in front of the competition, as are motocross riders Jeff Ward and Rick Johnson this year.
In 21 national motos in Supercross, 250cc and 500cc, they have 18 wins.
Ward, 26, a Kawasaki factory-supported rider who lives in Mission Viejo, already has won the Supercross series for stadium races, which will conclude tonight with the Coors Superbowl of Motocross at the Coliseum.
Johnson, who will be 23 on Monday, is the Honda team leader, lives in El Cajon and two weeks ago won his second straight American Motorcyclist Assn. 250cc championship.
In the opening event of the 500cc season last week in San Antonio, Johnson and Ward each won one moto.
The rider who scores the most total points for the three major national championship series will win a $15,000 truck.
Johnson has 547. Ward has 547.
Next closest is Ron Lechien with 442.
Ward and Johnson are as different in personality and riding style as they are close in points.
Ward is short (5 foot 6 inches) and quiet and has muscles like Popeye. He was known as the Flying Freckle when he won world mini-bike championships before he was 12. He is tireless and tenacious, not spectacular but steady.
Johnson is an athletic 6-foot 1-inch, 175-pound blond whose smooth riding and his own line of clothing have earned him the name Style King. He rides in the manner of his Honda team manager, five-time world champion Roger DeCoster--seemingly effortless but very fast.
Tonight, in the 16th renewal of this event, the two will go at one another again.
No championship is at stake--Ward has already won that--but there are bragging rights, plus the continuing struggle of two young Southern California riders who want to be recognized as the best.
"A race is still a race," Johnson said. "The Coliseum is the biggest stadium we race in, and it's where Supercross started. That makes it mean something extra to win here."
Ward: "Being champion makes it easier, but I'll be trying to win just as hard. I might not take as many chances because I don't want to reinjure my ankle with the 500 season just started."
Surprisingly, both Johnson and Ward have been hurting this year, but even with that, they have had no serious challengers.
In the season opener, last January at Anaheim Stadium, Johnson came up a little short on a triple jump in the second lap and landed on his head. The impact knocked him out, and he was carried from the stadium with a concussion.
"That's another reason I want to do well in the Coliseum," Johnson said. "The last time my friends saw me around here I was getting a gigantic headache."
Ward won the first two events, at Anaheim and Houston, but his trouble started a week later at San Diego.
"I tangled with another rider and crashed and broke my ankle," Ward said. "I had surgery three weeks later and that only aggravated the ankle. When they tried to put a screw in the bone, it shattered and became a bigger problem than the doctors had anticipated.
"I had to keep riding because there were no weeks off. The ankle was weak, for weeks I could barely walk on it, and I had to change my routine. It's still sore."
Johnson won five of the next six events to take the lead while Ward was recovering. Then came Pontiac, Mich.
"I made a miscalculation in a heat race and fell and broke a finger and sprained my right hand," Johnson said. "I got up and tried to ride, but the pain was too much. I flew back to California to get it fixed and missed two races."
In the three races Johnson missed--one in Anaheim and two in Pontiac--Ward won two and finished fourth in the other.
"Johnson broke a finger and missed a couple of races, but an ankle is used so much more, it's a lot slower to heal," Ward said. "I had to work really hard to get where I'm at this year."
Ward's perseverance has paid off with important points under difficult circumstances. At the Meadowlands, he miscalculated a jump and crashed. The bike cartwheeled off the course, bounding over a row of protective hay bales. Ward picked himself up, chased down the bike, restarted it and pulled back onto the course, nearly a lap down.
Johnson went on to win easily, but Ward worked his way through most of the field to finish fifth.
Ward and Johnson are not close friends, but they bring out the best in one another. Johnson explains the rivalry:
"He wants to win; I want to win. We're like two kids fighting over one toy.
"Jeff's a nice guy and we get along OK, but we don't hang around together. He's a tough competitor and he's a clean rider. That's important to me. But he's unpredictable and tough to pass. Most guys, you know exactly what they'll do in certain situations, but not Wardy. That's what makes him so good. You never know what line he's going to take, or what he's going to do.
"I imagine when we're through racing, we'll throw down our guards and be friends again. A couple of years ago, we were on the same Motocross des Nations team that went to Europe and won the world championship, and we had a good time together.
"Until then, it's hard to ride against someone, as hard as we go at it, and be very friendly."
The rivalry has been going on for three years.
In 1984, Ward won the national 125cc championship and Johnson the 250cc. They rarely raced against one another, however.
Ward won both the national outdoor 250cc and Supercross championships in 1985 as Johnson suffered from what he calls "the champion syndrome," meaning he didn't work as hard to stay on top as he did to get there.
Last year, it was Johnson's turn as he won the 250cc and Supercross titles and finished second to Honda teammate David Bailey in the 500cc. Ward slipped to fourth place in all three.
"I want the 500 national this year," Ward said. "It would make me the first to win all four classes, the 125, 250, 500 and Supercross."
Johnson wants it, too.
"I won six Supercross races this year to five for Ward, and I won five out of six 250s and Ward didn't win any," he said. "It's important for me to win the 500. David (Bailey) barely beat me last year, and he's out with injuries, so I figure I'm the one to beat.
"First, though, it's the Coliseum. The only place better (to win) is San Diego. There you're the talk of the town, especially in El Cajon, and you're king of the hill until the next time comes around."
Johnson is one of four nationally ranked riders from the San Diego bedroom community of El Cajon. The others are Broc Glover, a former national champion and 1980 Superbowl winner who is out with a broken leg; Lechien, who is third behind Ward and Johnson in Supercross points, and Scott Burnworth. HOW THEY STAND
Fin. Driver Team 1. Jeff Ward Kawasaki 2. Ron Lechien Kawasaki 3. Broc Glover Yamaha DNF Rick Johnson Honda
Fin. Driver Team 1. Jeff Ward Kawasaki 2. Keith Bowen Yamaha 3. Johnny O'Mara Suzuki) 4. Rick Johnson Honda
at San Diego
Fin. Driver Team 1. Rick Johnson Honda 2. Ron Lechien Kawasaki 3. Micky Dymond Yorba Linda 7. Jeff Ward Kawasaki
Fin. Driver Team 1. Rick Johnson Honda 2. Ron Lechien Kawasaki 3. Jeff Ward Kawasaki
at Daytona Beach, Fla.
Fin. Driver Team 1. Rick Ryan Honda 2. Jeff Stanton Yamaha 3. George Holland Suzuki 10. Rick Johnson Honda 20. Jeff Ward Kawasaki
Fin. Driver Team 1. Rick Johnson Honda 2. Jeff Ward Kawasaki 3. George Holland Suzuki
Fin. Driver Team 1. Rick Johnson Honda 2. Jeff Ward Kawasaki 3. Jeff Leisk Yamaha
Fin. Driver Team 1. Rick Johnson Honda 2. Jeff Ward Kawasaki 3. Ron Lechien Kawasaki
at Pontiac, Mich.
Fin. Driver Team 1. Jeff Ward Kawasaki 2. Keith Bowen Yamaha 3. Jeff Leisk Yamaha DNS. Rick Johnson Honda
at Pontiac, Mich.
Fin. Driver Team 1. Ron Lechien Kawasaki 2. George Holland Suzuki 3. Johnny O'Mara Suzuki 4. Jeff Ward Kawasaki DNS. Rick Johnson Honda
at Tampa, Fla.
Fin. Driver Team 1. Jeff Ward Kawasaki 2. Ron Lechien Kawasaki 3. Rick Johnson Honda
Fin. Driver Team 1. Jeff Ward Kawasaki 2. Rick Johnson Honda 3. Ron Lechien Kawasaki
at Meadowlands, N.J.
1. Rick Johnson Honda 2. Ron Lechien Kawasaki 3. Eddie Warren Kawasaki 5. Jeff Ward Kawasaki
Place Driver Points 1. Jeff Ward 260 2. Rick Johnson 221 3. Ron Lechien 209 4. George Holland 199 5. Jeff Leisk 159