Kent Howerton was one of the most versatile motocross racers of the 1970s and early 1980s. The Texan, nicknamed the "Rhinestone Cowboy," won three AMA National Motocross Championships and two Trans-USA titles. He is best known for his time as a Suzuki factory racer, but he also rode for Husqvarna and Kawasaki during his 15-year professional racing career.
In all Howerton won 32 career AMA nationals and when he retired in the mid-1980s, he was second on the all-time AMA 250cc Motocross win list. In addition, Howerton was the 1980 AMA Pro Athlete of the Year; a two-time winner of the 250cc United States Grand Prix; a two-time member of the American Motocross des Nations team and twice winner of the groundbreaking ABC Wide World of Sports Superbikers competition.
Howerton was born in Wichita, Kansas, on July 11, 1954. He was raised in the Denver area and first learned to ride motorcycles when he was 15 on friends’ bikes. At 16, Howerton got his first motorcycle, a 100cc Kawasaki Trail Boss, and his family moved to San Antonio, Texas, which would become his permanent home.
He rode the little Kawasaki all around his neighborhood and caught the attention of an older off-road rider, who saw talent in Howerton. The fellow rider invited Howerton to ride his bike at a nearby motocross race and told him he was good enough to race in the expert class. Not knowing any better, Howerton raced as an expert in his very first race and finished a credible third. Two races later, he won his first local event and Howerton’s racing career was off and running.
He quickly became the leading up-and-coming rider in Texas and first realized his potential when he held his own against some of the top AMA national riders at an off-season Texas race. In 1973, Howerton began racing a limited number AMA nationals, primarily in the South. The young Texan showed tremendous promise, finishing in the top five overall in both a 250cc national (fourth at Lake Whitney, Texas, on a CZ) and a 500cc national (fifth at Houston on an AMP) in his rookie season.
In 1974, Howerton won his first AMA national in the 250cc class in New Orleans riding a Husqvarna. He went on to finish sixth in the final AMA 250 Motocross Championship standings that year.
Howerton signed his first factory contract with Husqvarna in 1975 for $8,000. He finished runner up to Tony DiStefano in the 250cc championship that year and scored a series-leading three wins along the way. He also ranked fifth in the 1975 AMA 500cc Motocross Championship.
Around this time announcers began to call Howerton the "Rhinestone Cowboy," after the popular Glen Campbell song. Press photos of the time began showing Howerton wearing a cowboy hat, which became something of a trademark.
1976 proved to be a breakthrough year for Howerton. He earned his first AMA National Championship in the 500cc class in a tough battle with Gary Semics that went to the final round. Once again, Howerton kept busy, also competing in the 250cc nationals and scoring fourth in that series. He also won a round of the popular Trans-AMA Series in the fall at Mid-Ohio. Howerton’s 1976 AMA 500cc MX title for Husqvarna would prove to be the final AMA Motocross Championship for a European manufacturer for 27 years. Grant Langston finally put a European maker back on top in 2003 when he won the AMA 125cc Motocross Championship on a KTM.
Howerton was unable to defend his title in 1977. That year, his factory Huskys were plagued with numerous mechanical problems and for the first time in three years he didn’t score a single win.
Howerton’s stock was down at the end of the 1977 season, but Suzuki’s Mark Blackwell saw Howerton practicing in the off season and saw that the Texan had a great deal of natural talent. Suzuki signed him for 1978 to race in the 250cc class.
Blackwell focused Howerton on physical conditioning and it paid off. Howerton scored three podium finishes in the series that year including a victory at Red Bud in Buchanan, Michigan, but like the rest of the riders in the class, Howerton was overshadowed by the incredible talent of Bob Hannah, who won all but two of the nationals that year.
In 1979, Hannah continued to dominate the 250cc championship.
"My dreams at night were all about beating Bob Hannah," Howerton admitted. "I was obsessed with stopping his winning streak. I trained harder and harder, got faster and closed the gap."
By mid-season, Howerton became the first rider to stop Hannah’s streak by winning the 250cc national at the sandy Southwick, Massachusetts, circuit. The end of 1979 proved to be a turning point for Howerton. Suzuki’s team manager Blackwell saw the transformation.
"Kent was so talented, had so much confidence, that we knew he’d win if he stayed healthy," Blackwell said. "He beat Bob [Hannah] three times late in the ’79 season, and then finished the year by winning the Trans-USA, the Anaheim stadiumcross and the Superbikers. That changed Kent, brought him to a new point in his career. Mentally, Kent was no longer just a ‘top five’ rider anymore – he was a winner."
And win he did. In 1980, he tallied 10 firsts, three seconds and one third in the 14-moto, seven-race 250cc series. Howerton wrapped up his best season to date by defending his Trans-USA title by a scant two points over Broc Glover. Yet in spite of his incredible 1980 campaign the motorcycling press could not help but constantly point to the absence of Hannah, who had badly broken his leg in a boating accident and sat out the year.
Howerton was also a solid supercross rider, even though he was generally regarded as an outdoor specialist. He won five AMA Supercross races in all and finished a career-high second place in the 1980 AMA Supercross Series standings.
Even though Howerton was awarded the AMA Pro Athlete of the Year Award in 1980, Hannah’s absence somewhat diminished the recognition he richly deserved for the amazing season. But it helped set the stage for one of the most incredible showdowns in the history of AMA Motocross.
Hannah returned to competition in 1981 and announced he was ready to reclaim the championship. Howerton, however, had never been more eager to face a challenge in his life. Howerton started the ’81 campaign by dominating the 250cc national opener at Hangtown over Hannah.
The knock-down-drag-out in round two of the series at Saddleback Park became a race of legendary proportions.
In the first moto, Howerton and Hannah bumped each other progressively harder while battling fiercely for the lead until an infuriated Hannah took aim and torpedoed his Yamaha into Howerton’s Suzuki. Howerton fell across Hannah’s bike and on his way down caught his arm across Hannah’s bike’s flying rear sprocket, cutting it deeply. Amazingly, with less than 10 minutes left in the moto, Howerton remounted his bike and chased down and passed Hannah to take the first moto win in one of the best comebacks in history.
In the second moto, Hannah pulled away early. Howerton, his arm badly swollen and bleeding under bandages, was never able to mount a challenge and finished second. Accusations between the two riders flew and the motorcycling press eagerly played up the conflict.
Howerton then mounted a four-race winning streak that gave him almost an insurmountable lead in the championship. Hannah mounted a last-gasp charge, winning the penultimate round in St. Petersburg, Florida, but it was all over but the champagne-spraying by the time the series came to the final round in Castle Rock, Colorado.
In the first moto, Howerton led early but was being hounded by Hannah. Per Suzuki team orders Howerton pulled over and allowed Hannah past and rode to a safe third place finish to clinch his second straight championship. Hannah seemed angered by the move of letting him by and gestured to Howerton as he rode past. With the title clinched, Howerton went out and easily won the second moto, providing a fitting close to one of the most contentious and intense battles ever in AMA Motocross.
A broken wrist at the end of 1981, followed by a broken leg in 1982, took its toll on Howerton. The constant rehab and grueling travel schedule began to wear on him. Another factor that led him to consider retiring, he later acknowledged, was that he’d met the goals he’d set out to achieve and his drive to keep racing began to slowly fade away. Plus, he was getting more involved in business projects outside of racing.
Howerton signed with Kawasaki in 1983 primarily to help the company develop a new line of motocross bikes. Even though he finished runner up to Glover in the 1983 AMA 500cc Motocross Championship, his passion for racing fulltime was gone. Howerton finished seventh in the 1984 AMA 250cc Nationals and then quietly retired. He continued to race select nationals for the next four years, mainly when the series visited his home state of Texas.
Outside of motocross, Howerton was a pioneer in the formation of supermoto racing. He won the very first made-for-television Superbikers competition at Carlsbad (California) Speedway in 1979, riding a Suzuki. The ABC Wide World of Sports special featured riders from different disciplines of motorcycle racing coming together to race on a track made up of road racing, motocross and flat track sections to determine the best overall rider. Howerton won the race again in 1984 with Kawasaki. He also helped export what would become supermoto by racing in the Guidon d’Or in France, which helped spawn a supermoto revolution in Europe. He said he gained more recognition from winning the Superbikers than all his years of motocross.
After retiring from racing, Howerton kept busy with various businesses, including a tire-testing business used by many of the nation’s top manufacturers and a commercial masonry supply company.
When inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000, he continued to live in San Antonio with his wife and two boys, who both took up motocross. He still enjoys riding and occasionally competes in veteran motocross and off-road events.
Inducted in 2000