Out of Minnesota – The Tom Benolkin Story
Even back at his home tracks, the promoters weren’t used to the situation either. After being served a certified mailing that requested that he attend their next meeting, a club that put on local races told him, “…riders with Pro licenses would no longer be able to race at their events. Their events were designed to promote family environment type races, not to support a pro-level culture.” Not exactly the warm, supportive, welcome back one might expect. It was still a learning experience for all sides and someone had to be the pioneer.

It was in 1979 that a large color photo of Tom that appeared in Motocross Action magazine. It was taken at the 1979 Mid-Ohio USGP, where, as a privateer, he finished 7-DNF against the best in the US and Europe. Yet, as the 1980 season loomed, he was still a privateer. Early that year, Tom took an old 1979 CR 125 down to Florida to race the Florida Winter Series, a series with much more national participation in the pre-Supercross era. In the first race that he entered, he squared off against three-time 125cc national champ, Broc Glover, and came away with both moto wins. That must have got Honda’s attention, because a week later, he received a package at the front desk of the campground they were staying at. As Tom later described, “We took it back to camp to open it and almost passed out. It was a complete CR 125 motor all titaniumed out and ready to go.”

Honda’s race team was all contracted for the year, so Tom received bikes and parts, but was not paid. By the 5th national, they had accumulated enough parts to build another complete RC 125, so he had a works bike for the Mid-Ohio GP and the two remaining nationals. 500cc World champion, Graham Noyce, had just suffered a broken leg so they sent Bill Buchka over to work with Tom.

Buchka was probably the most famous mechanic of his time and helped bring a then little-known rider through the ranks, named Bob Hannah, then went on to win World Championships with Neil Hudson (250) and Graham Noyce (500). Everything was now in place. Only a few months after bringing a well-worn bike down to Florida, Tom now had a factory Honda with arguably the world’s best mechanic spinning the wrenches.

The first race with the combination was the 125 USGP, held in Mid-Ohio Motocross Park. The first moto went very well, as Tom finished a strong second. Unfortunately, he suffered a mechanical DNF in the muddy second moto, but people were now starting to find out what this “unknown rider from Minnesota” could do. In the two remaining nationals that year, he finished fourth overall at Binghamton , New York and second at St. Petersburg, Florida.

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