David Bailey was a leading AMA motocross and Supercross racer of the 1980s. He won the AMA 250cc National Motocross Championship and AMA Supercross Championship in 1983 and went on to win the AMA 500cc National Motocross Championship in 1984 and 1986. He tallied 30 AMA national race victories during his eight-year professional career, which was cut short in his prime after a practice crash left him paralyzed just before the start of the 1987 season. After his injury, Bailey reemerged in the early 1990s as an expert motocross television commentator.
Bailey was born on December 31, 1961 in San Diego. When he was 10, he started traveling the country with his stepfather, Gary Bailey, a motocross star of the 1960s who ran a traveling racing school. Young David started riding and racing mini-bikes. His racing heroes as a youth were Roger DeCoster, Bob Hannah and Marty Smith.
At first, his results were not great, but Bailey always believed that he would eventually get good at racing. He kept working on his skills and the hard work started paying off. By the time he was in his late teens, he started winning on the amateur level.
Bailey turned pro in 1979. Bultaco sponsored his dad, so that’s what Bailey rode. In fact, as Bailey remembers it, all his equipment that first year was from his dad’s sponsors.
"I didn’t like all the stuff I had to use in that first year," remembers Bailey. "All my friends were riding Yamahas and wearing JT gear and I always wore some other stuff."
Bailey’s best finish in his rookie season was a 14th overall in the 250cc outdoor national at Mt. Morris, Pennsylvania.
In 1980, Bailey became one of the first Team Green Kawasaki support riders. His results rapidly improved and he won the minor championship of the support class of the Trans-AMA Series. (The Kawasaki win ads read “The Little Professor Graduates,” in reference to his dad’s nickname of the professor) He also cracked the top 10 at a couple of the 250 nationals and one Supercross national that year. By 1981, Bailey was clearly one of the leading young riders coming through the ranks, after finishing seventh in the final standings of the AMA 250 Motocross Series.
His steady progress led to a factory ride with Honda for the 1982 season.
"Roger DeCoster was putting together the team that year and he got a bunch of young guys," says Bailey. "They knew they could get me for nothing and I was willing to ride for nothing. I always wanted to ride for Honda.
"I was racing down in Florida, getting ready for the season, and I remember going to the airport to pick up the new ’82 CR250. I took it out of the crate and it had an aluminum gas tank that came completely down to the engine cases, an aluminum rear removable tail section and a blue seat that went all the way up on the gas tank. I mean the bike was ridiculous. It was like a flying saucer. I’d never seen anything that radical. That bike was the biggest technological leap probably ever in the sport. We were all just stoked to be able to ride it. And there wasn’t any great expectations on us since all of us were so young.”
On the factory Honda team, Bailey began to turn in some good performances. He earned five podium finishes in the 250 outdoor series and one in Supercross. At the end of that year, Bailey was named as an alternate on the Motocross and Trophy des Nations team and was called to ride after Donnie Hansen was injured in a crash just before the international competition. Bailey says of all the Motocross des Nations he competed in, the first one was the most memorable.
"It was a real team atmosphere," Bailey recalls. "The U.S. had just won its first Motocross des Nations the year before and we really wanted to prove that that wasn’t a fluke. We were really close as a team. We ate together, shared rooms, walked the track and shared racing lines. It was the best."
The 1983 season proved to be a turning point for Bailey. His off-season training paid off and he opened the year with his first AMA national victory in the Anaheim Supercross. Bailey went on to win the AMA Supercross title. He then won the 1983 AMA 250 National Motocross title as well, after tallying three national victories.
Bailey finished runner-up to Jeff Ward in the Supercross series by a single point in 1984. Honda wanted to spread its talent around in motocross and moved Bailey to the 500cc series, where he completely dominated by winning eight straight races in the 10-race series.
The 1986 season was a busy one for Bailey. He competed in three series, Supercross, 250cc and 500cc motocross. He won the 500cc title over Honda teammate Ricky Johnson, but was runner-up to Johnson in both the 250 motocross and Supercross championships. During that year, Bailey came out on top in what is considered by many to be one of the greatest AMA Supercross races of all time – the ’86 season opener at Anaheim, California. Bailey won an exciting race-long battle with rival and teammate Johnson, which saw both riders in their primes pushing one another to the limits.
"The race was a sell-out back when Anaheim was huge," Bailey remembers. "The atmosphere was just thick with excitement and noise from the crowd was just incredible. I’ll never forget that. About the third or fourth time we exchanged the lead and the laps were ticking down, and we were still side-by-side, the crowd was on their feet, the energy and the noise. I knew then that people would talk about that race for a long time."
Unfortunately for motocross racing fans, 1986 would prove to be the final time they would get to see Bailey on a motorcycle. Just a couple of weeks before the start of the 1987 season, Bailey suffered a hard crash during a practice session at a track near Fresno, California, and was paralyzed. It was a devastating blow to the entire motorcycle racing community.
"I was attempting a double jump that no one else was even thinking about doing," Bailey says of the accident. "It was a case of too much confidence. I felt like I could do anything on a motorcycle at that point. (Johnny) O’Mara came up to me just before the accident and said he couldn’t believe how fast I was riding, but at the same time he cautioned me that I was maybe pushing the limits too far.
"It took me a long time to realize what had really happened to me. I just couldn’t really even comprehend it."
Bailey shifted his focus to running his motocross facility in Virginia, but after the track lost its AMA National, Bailey sold the property. He and his family moved to Southern California, where he worked in the motocross accessories and apparel business as a consultant.
In 1993, Bailey was asked to provide expert commentary for ESPN coverage of AMA Supercross. He put a lot of work into learning to be good on television. He credits Dave Despain for helping him learn how to bring out the thoughts he had as he watched the races. Bailey became a great commentator and, when inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999, continued a busy schedule of working all of ESPN’s AMA Supercross and motocross coverage.
Bailey was a fanatic on physical training when he was racing and that carried over after his racing career. He became a leading triathlete and in 2000 won his division of the prestigious Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii.
Bailey will always be remembered for his smooth and fluid racing style and his short, but outstanding career. When he was forced into retirement in 1987, Bailey was third on the all-time AMA Supercross win list with 12 victories and fourth on the combined Supercross/motocross all-time win list with a total of 30 national victories. He was also a member of five winning U.S. Motocross des Nations teams.