Out of Minnesota – The Tom Benolkin Story
At that time, there was some political turmoil going through Honda, with Team manager Gunnar Lindstrom moving on, Dave Arnold coming in and Roger DeCoster possibly coming in also, either to manage the team or to head up rider development. Their budget was quite in the air because of all this. Kawasaki came through with an offer for a full-blown factory ride for all the 125 nationals and supercross races for 1981. Much as he would have liked to stay on the powerhouse Honda team, that offer was not yet out there and the Kawasaki ride was on the table.

To understand the decision and ramifications, one has to remember that this was long before the production rule, and was also a time of radical change for dirt bike technology. With the dream of riding one of only a handful of hand-crafted, cutting-edge machines came the cost of being the test rider for unproven innovations. When a test fails, someone was going to DNF. Even Roger DeCoster commented on the rate of development after his triple clamp broke during a race, causing a crash that was near career ending.

Tom joined Team Kawasaki in 1981, racing the factory KS125SR. He was a regular in the top five finishing fifth overall at year-end, hurt in the points by some mechanical DNFs. In front of him were three past or future champions; Barnett, Jeff Ward, and Johnny O' Mara. The riders behind him included Rick Johnson and Danny Chandler. Tom had his best finish of the year at Washougal, finishing second behind Barnett. This was the year that Barnett almost had a perfect outdoor season, 20 years before RC accomplished it.

The next year, Kawasaki moved Tom up to the 250s. It was this year that the prototype nature of the works bikes showed their dark side. A Kawasaki factory rider pushing his broken machine back to the pits was an all too familiar sight that year, and Tom had more than his share of breakdowns. It was quite a list of parts; exploded wheels, boiled over radiators, blown shocks, silencer packing and end caps blowing off, a seat fell off, a gas tank fell off, and the always fun-to-ride-out, throttle hand assembly broken and wide open.

His best 250 finish would have been second in Saint Petersburg, Florida, but the silencer end cap came undone that day. The bike would not run because when it bounced around, it would intermittently block the exhaust completely. His best actual finish was 10th at the Anaheim opening Supercross.

Through it all, there were no episodes of kicking the bike, yelling at his mechanic, or crying to the media. Asked how he kept his cool through what must have been a very frustrating time, Tom replied with something that reflects a wisdom and maturity not always present with riding talent. “It was tough to maintain (mentally) bike DNFs, but I really got used to handling the setback. To this day, I regularly tell my son that how you recover from a setback to a large degree determines how well you do in life. It seems managing setbacks is a part of daily life. I never really had tantrums on the professional level because I had learned years before that others are always watching you and looking up to you as a role model, to represent your state, or in some other way.”

Tom continues, “In looking back they (Kawasaki) were being the most innovative with the first single shock and disc braked bikes. I really prefer to stay on a positive beat, so I guess I will just quote my former mechanic. When I visited him at a Tampa Bay Supercross in 1996 he said, ‘Dude you were fast. We cost you your career.’”

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