Living the Dream - Donny Schmit Wins Millville National

The year was 1987. The state, Minnesota. The mullet was in style, the sounds of Great White (Snake) Lion could be heard echoing in the clubs, the Twins were leading a weak American League West Division despite having a terrible road record, and President Ronald Reagan was finishing up his legacy work.

I had moved back to Minnesota in April after living a year and a half in (the state of) Virginia. The move back to Virginia didn't work out that well. After an almost three year layoff, I got back into racing , but ended up totally broke and back in the frozen North. My comeback was less than spectacular. I had seemed to lost a bit of the edge on the time off and wasn't quite "A" class material anymore.

When I got back to Minnesota, I didn't know anyone that rode anymore, didn't know where to ride, and, most importantly as it turned out, couldn't afford to race. I had lived outside of Minnesota 6 out of the last 8 years and the two years that I lived here, I didn't race and didn't go to amateur races (seemed weird to go to a race and not compete). I had been out of the Minnesota racing scene for a long time. I'd remember some of the names that I saw in Cycle News, but I really only knew a few people that still raced.

I had closely followed the progress of Donny Schmit, not because I was an expert motocross talent scout that saw something in him that would lead to future championships, but mostly because he was not just from Minnesota, but from Bloomington, Minnesota. I had grown up in Burnsville, an adjoining suburb. Both towns had some pretty good riders over the years, so it was a bit of a rivalry and we would often practice at the same tracks.

Donny was some little kid that people called Peanut. I didn't really hang around with younger kids, but I remember him riding. He didn't seem that fast before I went into the Navy, but after I left and he moved up to the big bikes, it seemed like his progress was exponential. I was telling my racing friends in Virginia, "Look out for this guy, he's going to be good. " I didn't know that. It was just fun watching someone from back home starting to make a mark at the national level.

As young riders progress through the amateur ranks, it's always hard to tell if they will continue improving until they make it to the pros. Many of the fastest young amateurs have had very limited success at the professional level. People tend to hit a certain level and never go higher. The peak of my career was mid pack Open A rider, but those that can keep stepping up to the next level are very rare, and it's tough to know early on which kid is going to be the future factory rider.

Four years earlier, I was at the Amateur Nationals at Loretta Lynn's Dude Ranch. I had ridden my street bike there from Norfolk, Virginia. I was a few weeks removed from the happiest day of my life up to that point, getting out of the Navy. Life was good. I was taking a slow meandering way back home and the timing was just right to go to the amateur nationals for my first (and still only) time. They didn't have a KZ 440 class, so I mostly spectated and went into the creek .It was very hot.

It was fun watching the people from Minnesota there that year. I still knew most of them. Although several local guys did quite well, the races I remember most were in the 100 class where two fast amateurs from the upper Midwest were going at tooth and nail for the lead every lap of all three races. Those future stars' names: Donny Schmit and Jeff Stanton.

Getting back to 1987, I was really looking forward to going to the Millville National. The year before I had missed the national and it was (and remains to this day) the only one that I've ever missed. I had quit racing a few months earlier and hadn't been to a race of any kind since then. The racing bug was pretty much dormant, but I still enjoyed having a few beers and watching the pros tear up the track.

This would be the first time I had seen Donny ride since Tennessee four years earlier. He was riding for Team Suzuki and had won his first national, seven rounds earlier, at Secession MX in Anderson, South Carolina, carding a 7-1 score. Since then, his best finishes were a fourth overall at Red Bud and a strong 3-2 for second overall at the previous race in Troy, Ohio. We knew he had the speed and that he knew the track better than anyone he would be racing against, but could he pull it off? Being typical Minnesotans, we hoped for a hometown boy win, but wouldn't let our hopes get too high. This was, after all, the horrible stretch between the Viking's fourth Super Bowl loss and the Twins 1987 World Series championship.

The 125s roll out for the first moto of the day. Donny is getting huge cheers from the large crowd during the warm-up lap. Many of the local TV stations have done stories on him, so even the non-racers in the crowd (which seem to be in the majority on national day), know who the Minnesota boy is. The gate drops to spring them loose and out of the first turn with the holeshot is the yellow Suzuki wearing number 401.

Donny immediately pulls a huge lead. He comes out of the sandwash section of the track and he is wide open. That bike has some motor and he is just clicking through the gears. He already has a few seconds on the pack and the first lap isn't even over yet. He's the local boy come home, has just pulled the holeshot, and the crowd is going nuts.

I was really getting into it. Minnesota has had a few good riders over the years. Tom (Senile) Benolkin had a Kawasaki factory ride a few years back, but had never won a national. Seeing someone we knew leading a national at our own track was a great feeling. I was screaming every time he went by and so was nearly everyone else. This has to be a dream come true for him. He seems to feed off the crowd, never being challenged, and wins by 16 seconds.

As he was out there riding, it felt like a little part of me was out there leading the national. I had ridden Millville before quite a few times at amateur races, and hey, who doesn't have the "beating the pros at your local track" fantasy? I knew I would never reach anywhere near that level so, vicariously, it would be. I was actually a bit drained after the race.

After Ricky Johnson roosts to an easy win in the first 500cc moto (with Yamaha mounted, Jeff Stanton, clinching second in the class), the 125s roll to the line again. I felt nervous. I really wanted him to win bad. That Minnesota loser legacy was still gnawing at me despite Donny's domination in the first race.

Moto two is off and Donny and factory Honda rider, Micky Dymond (who had already clinched the championship in the first moto), are fighting for the lead at the start. A few turns into the race, they tangle and Dymond goes down. Suzuki teammate Eric Kehoe scoots by both of them for the lead, with Donny hanging onto second. It's obvious that the two Suzuki riders have the rest of the pack covered this race. Since Kehoe finished fifth the first moto, he is not in contention for the overall. Donny has it, barring a late error or mechanical problem. Everyone keeps cheering until the last lap. The native son has conquered.

Donny went on to two World Championships. He is the only Minnesotan to have won a GP Championship, coming out on top of the 125s in 1990 and the 250s in 1992. He had 15 GP wins, the most of any US-born rider. Given the current state of the two series, it is a record that will likely never be broken. He retired from professional motocross in 1995 and was, once again, living full time in Minnesota. We didn't get to see him here as often when he was off winning several nationals and his two world championships. Everyone was looking forward to having him around again, to having him show up more often at local races (except for perhaps the people he'd be racing against), and maybe do the national each year to give the new kids a run for their money. But that was not to be. That winter, the day before the Metrodome Supercross, he suddenly died of a rare blood disorder called Aplastic Anemia. He was 29 years old.

I wish I could talk to him, to ask him how it felt that day in 1987, ask what it was like to be recognized in Europe as a motocross star, and maybe even ask him how the ice riding and fishing went last winter. But all these wishes seem so selfish. I know that many others feel the vacuum he left behind, many at a much more personal level than I would.

That day in 1987 will always live on vividly in my memory. I used to take for granted that anyone who raced motocross in Minnesota would have already heard this story and countless other ones about his many amazing rides. If you were not sure who Donny was before reading this, I hope this gives you a hunger to learn more about Minnesota's most accomplished rider. For those who knew the end of this story almost before I started it, I hope it brought back some pleasant memories. Nothing can take those away.