Out of Minnesota – The Tom Benolkin Story
He was released from Kawasaki at the end of 1982. Early in1983, he came back to Florida on privateer Hondas, just like his breakout year in 1980. Even though he won the 250 series championship, the series did not have the pull it had in previous years, and no support came his way. After the winter series, he decided to, “hang up racing to get ready for the first of our three children. I raced a couple nationals, a 250 GP in Montreal, then the Millville national, before quitting totally. I knew I had to get as far away from it as possible so I bought a fishing boat and never picked up a magazine for almost 10 years.”

Looking back after all this time has passed, the thing that sticks with him the most is being in the sport at that moment in time. “The factories were just beginning to perfect areas of development that would define the sport for the next 20 years. Developments such as: Long travel suspension - how much is enough?, how much is too much? Water-cooling - Was it worth the added weight of plumbing, liquid and a radiator? Single shock technology - Kawasaki began its development in 1977, but Suzuki continued to win championships with twin shock bikes until 1980. Disc brakes - was it really the way to go with all the elements an MX track had to offer? “

“There was a lot of uncertainty as to which package to give a bike. I even went testing with Bill Buchka on the RC125 at Saddleback one day in June of 1980 with the Ribi-X-link one-shock front-end on it. You just never knew what you were going to see show up at the pro races and that made it an era in MX history that stands alone in my mind.”

It’s perhaps because of the interest in that time period that lead to Tom’s involvement in vintage racing. Racing doesn’t hold the high priority it once did, but when time permits, he’ll still make it to a vintage race, often wins, and cuts lap times that would embarrass many of us on modern bikes. He enjoys restoring them nearly as much as riding them, taking pride in finding exotic machines and making them ready for action again.

In his post-racing years, he operated an irrigation business for nearly 30 years, with 6-8 employees. As he describes it, “I used this as a vehicle to mentor young men into being entrepreneurs. I have had my primary focus on people that did not have a father or much of a father type role model. My first employee had never met his father. To see what they grow into and where they take their lives is amazing. We have also done Habitat for Humanity trips to Mexico with youth groups. This has been more rewarding than racing.”

Helping “break trail” for pro riders from the Upper Midwest wasn’t always easy, nor was living with mechanical DNFs, but Tom Benolkin faced the challenges without complaint, achieved a high level of success (oh, what might have been) and, not surprisingly, used his strength of character to achieve success in his business while helping others along the way. Though long out of the public eye, his racing efforts for those 3 years in the early 80s, helped pave the way for future riders from his state, such as multi-time world champion, Donny Schmit, Corey Keeney, Heath Voss, and of course, Ryan Dungey. Long before any of them, the quiet man with the entertaining, keep-it-pinned, style put Minnesota on the Motocross map.

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Written by Bob Chase, Published March 21, 2007