Jeff & Rick Show Is Motocross' Main Attraction

Times Staff Writer

The formula for the overwhelming success of stadium motocross in Southern California over the past few years has been rather simple.

For starters, riders Jeff Ward of Mission Viejo and Rick Johnson of El Cajon have developed one of the fiercest rivalries in motor sports, dominating motocross for the past three years.

Then there's an awesome, crowd-pleasing obstacle--the triple jump, in which riders may go as high as 40 feet and travel as far as 60 feet--on the man-made course that also features wild dips, turns and bumps to test a rider's skills. All of which add up to box office appeal.

Last year, a crowd of 70,315 jammed Anaheim Stadium, and another capacity crowd is anticipated at 8 tonight for the series opener of the Coors Super Crown of Stadium Motocross.

The season opener offers fans an opportunity to see any equipment changes among the major manufacturers and the debut of several new team members. But the majority of the big crowd will be watching the Jeff & Rick Show.

The show never materialized in last year's event. Johnson crashed on the second lap of his heat race when he came up short on the triple jump and landed on his head. The impact knocked him out, and he was carried from the stadium with a concussion.

Johnson, a Honda factory rider, also missed two races in Pontiac, Mich., when he broke a finger and sprained his right hand. Despite the injuries, Johnson won his second consecutive 250cc national title.

Ward, riding a Kawasaki, won the season opener at Anaheim and went on to capture his second Supercross title despite riding most of the season with a broken ankle. Of the three races Johnson missed, Ward won two and finished fourth in the other.

Johnson and Ward were hurting most of last season, yet neither had a serious challenger. Both said they expected more competition in 1988.

"It's not good to have two guys winning everything, especially if one gets hurt," Johnson said. "If Jeff is out of a race, I tend to ride more relaxed. It seems like we have won everything the last couple of years, but I think Ron Lechien, Broc Glover and Micky Dymond are capable of winning on any given night."

Ward, who is fully recovered from his ankle injury, said he expects the keen competition in the local Golden State Series to carry over to the Supercross series.

"Everybody has been trying extra hard," he said. "There's five or six riders who could win at Anaheim. It's never healthy when one or two riders win everything, but I can't change that."

Although Johnson and Ward are equally adept in the sport, they are vastly different in personality, physique and riding style.

Ward, 26, is a muscular 5-foot 6-inch veteran who won his first world mini-bike championship before he was 12. He is never spectacular but is steady and smooth on the track. He's very quiet off the track.

Johnson, 23, is a 6-1, 175-pound blond with the looks of a model. He is aggressive to the point of daring on the track, and he is brash and outgoing off the track. Johnson is a tireless promoter of the sport.

Johnson and Ward are friendly toward each other, but both were quick to point out that it has been difficult to become close friends under the present circumstances.

"We're friends, but we're also fierce competitors," Johnson said. "It's hard to be buddy-buddy with someone that you're trying like mad to beat every week. I wouldn't try to hurt Jeff, but that won't stop me from riding as aggressive as I know how.

"It's hard to ride against someone, as hard as we go at it, and be very friendly. He wants to win; I want to win."

Ward downplayed the rivalry, saying his only concern on a race track is how well he is performing.

"I don't think about the rivalry, and I don't think about Rick," Ward said. "I worry about myself. If I ride well, I'll win. I have no control over what Rick does on the track, so why worry about it?"

The duo tuned up for tonight's race by each winning a moto in the Golden State Series race at Carlsbad last Sunday. Ward won the first moto with Johnson finishing second. Johnson came back to win the second moto and was declared the overall winner with Ward second.

Ward, riding essentially a stock production bike, said he was surprised by his performance at Carlsbad.

"I hate that track, but I rode really well," he said. "I felt very comfortable. Carlsbad is basically a speed track where a rider like Rick excels. There's very little technical riding involved.

"I was riding with a stock motor and surprised myself in the first moto. I've been training hard and my ankle feels fine. Everybody has been anticipating the season opener, and I'm ready to go."

Johnson, an intense competitor, admitted that he is often moody and his temper gets short before a big race.

"There is more anticipation before the Anaheim race than any other in the series," he said. "You've got new bikes and new riders. Everybody's been training and testing, now they want to see the results.

"The tension is so high, and it doesn't cool down until the checkered flag falls. I get real intense, but I usually calm down after the first qualifier."

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