For Bobby Ott, speedway motorcycle racing's self-proclaimed showman, tonight's return to the Orange County Fairgrounds after a three-year absence is more than a homecoming.
Ott, nicknamed "Showtime Bobby Ott" because of his daring and crowd-pleasing style of riding, returns from the British Speedway League, where he is the top rider for the Wimbledon Dons. He has appeared only four times on the tiny, 190-yard oval at Costa Mesa in the past four years.
It was four years ago that Ott became the central figure in the most unusual ending to a national championship in the 22 years the race has been held at the fairgrounds.
Ott, a relative newcomer in only his second national race, was on his way to winning the 1987 U.S. Championship in a four-lap runoff against Brad Oxley when his bike went out from under him entering the third turn of the first lap.
Ott had a three-bike-length lead over Oxley when he fell and forced Oxley to lay down his bike to avoid a collision. Oxley was later declared the champion when Ott was excluded for causing an end to the runoff.
According to the American Motorcycle Assn. record book, Ott and Oxley tied for the championship with 14 points, and Oxley won a runoff for the title. But the majority of the sellout crowd on Oct. 10, 1987, will remember that Ott lost the title more than Oxley won it.
"Bobby Ott actually had it won, blew it, and he knows it," said Steve Lucero, who won the title in 1988. "He got the start, made a clean turn through Turns 1 and 2 and then fell. I don't know if he got overly excited or was just showing off."
A videotape replay shows Ott with a clear lead heading into Turn 3 as he stretched his compact 5-foot-6 frame far over the side of his Weslake motorcycle. Suddenly, a startled Ott is on the ground, and Oxley has no recourse but to lay down his bike. The championship ends, oddly enough, with two riders on the ground.
Ott got up quickly and pushed his bike to the start-finish line before he realized what happened. After a few moments of confusion, referee Irwin Moon declared Oxley the winner. Ott was so heartbroken that later he failed to take his place on the podium as the runner-up during an awards ceremony.
Four years later, Ott has difficulty dealing with the events that night. Clearly, it was no time for "Showtime."
"I'll probably never get over it," Ott said earlier this week from his home in London.
The runoff featured two riders with the most contrasting styles of riding in speedway. Oxley, 6 feet 2, was cut from the old school of racing, learning his textbook style of riding from former three-time world champion Barry Briggs.
Ott represented the new wave of riders first introduced by former two-time world champion Bruce Penhall. He had great balance on the lightweight bikes that allowed him to dare to ride faster than anyone.
"He pulled off some pretty far-out stuff on a bike," said former two-time U.S. champion Bobby Schwartz. "The guy is a talent who goes along the lines of Kelly Moran and Danny Becker as some of the most naturally gifted riders who ever got on a bike. I have to work hard at winning. Bobby Ott is a natural."
While Oxley worked to become a model of consistency, putting together four consistent laps in every race, Ott raced for each corner, often at carelessly high speeds.
"He never looked smooth, he never rode smooth, but he went real fast," Lucero said. "Some of the riders were afraid of racing against him, because you never knew what he was going to do. He dared to do things others would never consider."
The U.S. Championship is contested in one night, 16 riders and 20 four-man heat races. Each rider competes in five heats, never against the same rider twice. For Oxley, winning the title meant working overtime. He had to win two restarts among his five heats and the runoff before claiming the crown.
"I had never made four starts in my career, and here I was with a chance of becoming the national champion," he said. "Ott was hot that night, easily the fastest rider in the race."
Oxley was undefeated after four rounds. Ott dropped a point in his fourth heat when he finished second to Lucero, but he had clearly won over the fans with some spectacular wheelies down the back straight in three previous heat victories.
The two had their only scheduled head-to-head meeting in Event No. 17. Ott started on the pole and Oxley was in Gate 3. The race wasn't close; Ott won by half a straightaway, and his victory left both riders tied at 14 points.
"He smoked me," Oxley said. "I realized that Bobby was faster, but I also knew he was prone to making mistakes. He had been on the edge his entire career. I figured my only chance would be if he made a mistake."
Oxley began formulating his racing strategy for the runoff shortly after losing No. 17. As both riders entered the pit area, Oxley bumped Ott's rear tire with his front tire. The ploy angered Ott.
"It set him off," Oxley said. "When we got to our pit area, his dad was screaming at my dad. His mechanics were screaming at my mechanics. Bobby and I were screaming at each other. It wasn't pretty."
Fortunately, there were three more heat races before the runoff. Both riders had cooled off when they went to the infield for a coin flip to determine their starting positions. When Ott won the flip and chose the pole position, Oxley had his work cut out for him.
Oxley figured his only chance to win the runoff was to line up as far away from Ott as possible and drive deep into him going through Turn 1. But the strategy backfired when Ott got a great start and quickly pulled away to a three-bike-length lead coming out of the turn.
Coming to the apex of the next corner, Oxley noticed that Ott was laying far over the side of his bike. Suddenly, the bike went out from under him.
"I had nowhere to go," Oxley said. "I went down in the interest of safety. A lot of people thought I knocked Bobby off his bike, but I was never that close to him. I never touched him."
Oxley was so startled by the turn of events that it took several minutes for him to realize that he was now the national champion.
"What hurt most that night was someone said, 'You didn't win the national title, Bobby Ott lost it.' To be honest, there's certainly some truth to that."
Tonight, Ott and Oxley will face each other again in Event No. 12 of the weekly racing program. While it's only a scratch heat, the reunion is bound to stir some memories for both.
Ott was evasive when asked earlier this week to detail his memories of the 1987 U.S. Championship, finally telling a reporter, "I'm not happy with the way this interview is going. Why don't you cancel it?" before hanging up.
Oxley is certain both riders will flash back four years to the championship.
"I'm sure when he shows up and goes out on the track for his scratch heat against me, he'll be thinking about that night," Oxley said. "I know I will."