Before the 1989 motocross season started, Jeff Stanton was a little-known rider from Sherwood, Mich., and a house guest of Supercross champion Rick Johnson in the San Diego suburb of El Cajon, where he rode, trained and talked shop with his Honda riding partner for two months.
Johnson, as expected, won the first five Supercross races of the season, passing Bob (Hurricane) Hannah and becoming the sport's all-time leader in victories with 28. Stanton, in the meantime, was learning what it takes to become a champion.
He proved to be a quick study. In Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, in race No. 6, Stanton turned on his benefactor and ended Johnson's streak. Johnson, fighting off a challenge by Stanton in the late stages of the race, slid out in a corner and went down, allowing Stanton to take the lead.
"That win really gave me a lot of confidence," Stanton, 20, said. "I was looking forward to a season of close riding with Rick, 24. He is the best, and to beat him was something special. I'll always remember that win.
"He was like my big brother. We became really close, and he taught me a lot about racing, and especially about how to win.
"I felt after beating Rick at Atlanta that I actually had a chance at the title, even though he had a pretty good lead at the time," Stanton said. "There were still nine events remaining."
They have not raced one another since.
Johnson, practicing for the opening event of the 250cc outdoor series in Gainesville, Fla., on March 5, was making a jump when he was hit by Danny Storbeck in mid-air. When Johnson hit the ground he broke his right wrist and is still out of competition.
Stanton won the next two events at Daytona and the Astrodome, added another victory last month at the Meadowlands, and clinched the Supercross championship with a fifth-place finish last Sunday in Oklahoma City.
Tonight, in the Coors Super Challenge at the Coliseum, final event of the American Motorcyclist Assn.'s stadium series, Stanton will attempt to climax his season with a win in America's most prestigious motocross. Once called the Super Bowl of Motocross, the Coliseum event ranks as No. 1 because it is where the sport started in 1972 and it is contested before all the major cycle manufacturers and sponsors.
"I was glad to get the championship over with last week, so I could come to Los Angeles without any worries," Stanton said. "This is our big race, our Super Bowl, and I'm glad I'm in it without having to concern myself with championship points."
Stanton, who never finished better than sixth in a single stadium event riding a Yamaha last year, will collect $50,000 as the 1989 Supercross champion.
"I'd ridden a Yamaha ever since I started, as an amateur and for my first couple of years on the pro circuit, but switching to Honda this year was the best decision I ever made," he said.
"Rick had a big influence in it, both for me and for the factory. He recommended me and then convinced me I should make the move. It really worked out well, getting Rick to ride with and (former world champion) Roger DeCoster as a coach."
Stanton is also close to winning the 250cc national outdoor championship. With two events remaining, Stanton holds an almost insurmountable 35-point lead over defending series champion Jeff Ward of Mission Viejo, 238-203.
"Ward's the one who'll be toughest in the Coliseum," Stanton predicted. "He's small and he rides those tight stadium courses well."
Ward won the Supercross championship in 1985 and 1987 and also won in the Coliseum in 1984.