Hammer against the Pros in Florida

The question of the first Minnesota rider to race professionally can be a tricky one. In the early days, there were many places that the pros could race and make money besides the AMA nationals. If you go back far enough, the AMA National series didn’t even exist yet. Into this conversation enters Rick Heiseke.

Early in 1974, Rick Heiseke, Hammer as he was known back in District 23, travelled to Florida to race professional Motocross. He had won two consecutive 250A championships in Minnesota and had an opportunity to spend time in Florida during the winter. Once there, he got a job working construction on Clearwater beach and raced on the weekends.

This is the 1973 CZ 250 he brought to Florida

With his newly obtained pro license, he was able to make some money racing at tracks such as Sunshine Raceway and Croom Motorcycle Park. While he was in Florida that winter, he also got to watch this crazy new sport that resembled Motocross, but was being called Supercross. Rick raced two rounds of the Daytona Warm-Up series. The series attracted many of the top national riders as they got ready for the very young AMA Motocross series. Gary Jones, Mike Hartwig, Pierre Karsmakers, Jim Weinert were there, as were many fast but lesser known riders.

His experience was not the “Minnesota Privateer beats Factory Rider” story. That would come six years later. The suspension on his CZ, and its chronologically-challenged engineering, was no match in the whoops against the works bikes of riders such as Karsmakers. Since many of the tracks were nothing but whoops and berms, this was quite a disadvantage.

But that’s not to say he wasn’t racing against some good riders. Plenty of local fast guys made the trek to Florida in the winter, non-factory riders in the same boat as Rick. Their battles were every bit as hard fought as the ones of the national elite. After a few months of racing in Florida, he headed back to Minnesota.

February 1974 - Heiseke is wearing the yellow jersey with hockey shoulder pads, two spots to the left of Frank Stacy. “I don't remember who won but I'm sure I was just middle of the pack, because there were some strong riders down for the winter that year and they started moving their suspension up and I had my old clapped-out CZ from the 73 season."

Rick would return to Florida two years later and be much more competitive. Early in the winter of 75/76, he loaded up the Maico 250 that he had raced the previous season, and together with his friend Steve Harris, travelled to Florida for another winter of racing. Like he did in 74, he got a “day job” and raced whenever he could. He rode the 250 Pro class for the entire Winter National Motocross Series. Florida was a hotbed of winter racing at this point. There were other organizing bodies besides the AMA where a rider could make money. The series that Rick competed in was sanctioned by the National Motorcycle League or NML.

There were many riders in the series who would go on to great things. One of Rick’s toughest competitors, Don Kudalski, also competed in the AMA Winter series. Besides racing both 125 and 250 in NML, he and his father would shuttle between the AMA rounds and NML, one often working on the bike in the van while the other drove. “Rokon Don” Kudalski was known then for his ability to manhandle a bike, and the Rokon itself was known for having a pull start. I’m not kidding.

Kudalski hit the nationals later this same year and was a regular on the series for the next three years, scoring many top ten finishes in Supercross and Motocross. By far his career best was a 125 round later in 1976 at Midland Motocross Park, Michigan. Now on a Honda, he finished second overall between race winner Bob Hannah, and defending champion Marty Smith.

While Don rode a popular brand in 1976, in 1977, he was on a Penton. The Penton was somewhat unusual, not to the extent that a Rokon was, but not nearly as noteworthy as the 250 Harley Davidson he rode in 1978. His first national race on the factory H-D MX250 was the Omaha national (Herman actually), the same race where Tom Benolkin gave Minnesota its best finish up to that point, and Mark Barnett battled Broc Glover hard in both 125 motos to come away with his second straight overall win.

Barnett gets us back to our 1976 story. A 15-year-old Barnett was also racing the NML series. He was not allowed to get an AMA Pro license until he was 16, but NML did not have that restriction. He raced both 125 and 250, possibly 250 professionally for the first time. Rick recalls a race early in the series where Barnett had crashed the 250 and seemed a bit dazed. Rick pointed him to his bike, let him know which track he was at, and went on his way.

Rick raced the complete nine-race series. He won races and finished third overall. These “outlaw” races, as some would call them, paid quite well. When he won the overall with a 1-1 score, he received $80 for the overall and each moto win. The $240 payday was more than he would make working two weeks of construction.

This is Rick and Steve Harris at the last NML race in the spring of 76 in Jacksonville. Steve was assigned number 69. He wasn't dressed to race because he cracked the cases the week before.

Rick retired from Motocross a few months later. After experiencing life away from Minnesota winter a few times, when he got the chance to move to Florida, he took it, and never looked back. As of 2021, he was still in Florida and still riding.