by Paul Dean
To say that Ricky Graham was “talented” would be a gross understatement. This good-natured Californian was one of the most gifted dirt-track racers anyone had ever seen, and he used those skills to win three prestigious American Motorcyclist Association Grand National Championships.
Graham’s uncanny ability to hold the throttle open longer, ride into a corner deeper and power out of it sooner than his competition amazed everyone, including his fellow riders. Even the incomparable Scott Parker—2009 Motorsports Hall of Fame inductee, winner of a record nine AMA Grand National Championships and 94 of that series’ main events—was awed by Graham, once stating that he “could ride a motorcycle like no one else I’d ever seen.”
Graham began his professional flat-track racing career in 1978 but didn’t emerge as a front-runner until winning his first AMA national in 1980. By 1982, he had become a force to be reckoned with, riding a privateer Harley-Davidson to his first Grand National Championship. Two years later, after switching from a Harley to an upstart but floundering Honda-backed team, Graham stunned the dirt-track community by capturing his second championship. The legend of Ricky Graham had begun.
It was widely known that Graham battled personal issues, including bouts of alcoholism, as well as countless injuries. Nevertheless, throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s, he still won races but not with the consistency needed to contend for a championship. It’s hard to battle fiercely competitive fellow racers and one’s own demons all at the same time.
By 1993, Graham had gotten his life back under control and embarked on what remains the greatest season by any rider in the 79-year history of Grand National racing. Among his achievements were 12 main-event wins, including six in a row, both of which are records that still stand. Graham walked away with the ’93 championship. In addition, he set a record for the longest period between championships, nine years.
What’s more, Graham also was the 1993 champion of the AMA’s Harley-Davidson 883 series, a support program held in conjunction with Grand National events. It’s no wonder that Graham’s remarkable season earned him the AMA’s 1993 Athlete of the Year award. Perhaps equally impressive was Graham won the title on a Honda, even though the factory had ceased its support of dirt-track racing six years earlier. The ever-growing shortage of parts that resulted made just keeping a Honda on the track a challenge, never mind winning a championship with one.
Graham continued racing a Honda until the end of the 1997 season and amassed a total of 39 career wins, yet he never again approached the success he’d achieved in ’93. He planned to switch back to a Harley-Davidson for 1998, but that, sadly, never happened. On January 22, 1998, Graham lost his life in a house fire at his home just outside Salinas, Calif.
In mourning his loss, racers and friends alike praised Graham not just for his sensational on-track abilities but also for his warmth, approachability and steadfast loyalty to his fans. Any time he was confronted by admirers seeking an autograph, he was never too busy, never too aloof, never too self-important. That fire didn’t just claim an exceptional motorcycle racer in Ricky Graham; it also ended the life of an exceptional human being.