Russ Darnell was one of the early stars of American motocross racing. His most famous win came in the prestigious Grand Prix at Corriganville (later known as the Hopetown GP) in 1964. Darnell was one of the star riders who bridged the gap between the "rough scrambles" days of the 1950s and ‘60s to the time when motocross became firmly established in the United States by the early 1970s. The bespectacled racer was also one of the first Americans to compete in Motocross Grand Prix and International competition in 1969 and 1970.
Darnell was born in Santa Cruz, California, in 1947. He likes to say he was riding motorcycles before he was born since his dad would take his mom on rides on his Triumph while she was pregnant with Russ. Russ’ father, George, was a leading desert racer of the 1940s and ‘50s. Russ got his first motorcycle, a pre-war Royal Enfield 175cc two-stroke, and later a BSA Bantam, when he was 6 years old.
Darnell began going on desert rides with his father when he was 7 and began to hone his skills as an off-road rider from an early age. At 9, he entered his first race, a 100-mile hare scrambles. Darnell loved the camaraderie and competitive nature of desert racing. By the time he hit his teen years, Darnell was already a formidable veteran among the desert rats, as the desert off-road racers like to call themselves, and had already earned dozens of victories. He earned his AMA expert license while still in high school. He also branched out and competed in nearly all forms of motorcycle racing, from TT to observed trials, scrambles, drag racing, hillclimbs, enduro, flat track, speedway and road racing.
Darnell’s first job was working as a gofer/parts washer and later mechanic at Nick Nicholson’s motorcycle shop in North Hollywood.
Darnell’s biggest victory came relatively early in his racing career. The Grand Prix at Corriganville was one of the biggest off-road races of the 1960s. The track setting was idyllic. A challenging seven-mile circuit set in the scenic hills of a 1,600-acre movie ranch in Simi Valley, California, owned by movie actor Ray "Crash" Corrigan. The ranch was later bought by Bob Hope and renamed Hopetown and the race renamed the Hopetown GP.
Corriganville brought out all the best off-road riders from across the country. Even some of the top AMA Grand National riders were regular participants. That race was a predecessor of what would later become motocross.
In 1964, Darnell was one of the top riders in the 250cc expert class entered in Corriganville. The race featured a huge field with 25 to 30 rows and 20 riders across, all starting en masse.
“Everyone was cheating, trying to move forward for a better starting position,” Darnell recalls. “Steve McQueen was the starter the year I won and he walked out in front of all those guys and picked up the flag. He was going to do something fancy with the flag but as soon as he touched it we were gone. He had to run for his life.”
Darnell started from the third row. By the time the field got to the part of the track where it narrowed down to double-track it was Darnell and Preston Petty up front battling for the lead. On the second lap, Darnell pulled out alone in the lead on his 250cc Greeves after Petty had problems.
“I pretty much rode by myself out front until the last lap,” Darnell said. “Halfway through the last lap I heard someone yell ‘Mann!’ Dick Mann was closing in on me. I put on a real hard push. He was the defending AMA national champ and one of my boyhood heroes and I didn’t want him to catch me.”
Darnell held on for the win over Mann. Greeves swept the top four positions in the 250cc class at Corriganville and Darnell’s victory was heavily advertised in industry magazines. Darnell remembers winning around $1,200 for the victory and it earned him a great deal of recognition. At 17, Russ went on to win the No. 1 plate in AMA District 37, becoming the youngest rider at that point to win that title.
Darnell went on to become one of the top motocross racers in America in the mid-to-late 1960s, just when the sport was being introduced in this country. He did so well that he went to Europe to race 500cc International invitational races and the 250cc Motocross GP World Championships with Husqvarna in 1969 and ‘70. Darnell was the first American to race the European circuit full-time. He won an International (non-world championship race) race in Vannes, France. The victory gave him credibility in Europe.
“These were the money races that most of the motocross racers did between GPs,” Darnell explains about the race he won in France in 1970. “They were top-level invitational races that paid start money to the big-name riders. Some of the best riders in the world supported their GP racing by running in these international races.
“Before I won the race in France, no one wanted to see an American rider in the motocross events there. After I won, my appearance money went up considerably and I lived quite well over there.”
He returned to the United States in 1971 as one of the first factory Suzuki riders in America. The Suzukis he rode were production TM400 models and he experienced numerous mechanical failures on the underdeveloped bikes. His top finish of the year was a fifth overall in an Inter-AMA race at Castaic Park, California.
Suzuki also helped when Darnell established his motocross schools. Darnell transitioned in the early 1970s from racing to focusing on his motocross schools full-time. He later started one of the first ATV training programs in America with Honda. Darnell continued running his schools through the mid-1990s. He taught tens of thousands of student riders over 25 years in 47 states and 50 countries. His students gave him the moniker Dr. Darnell.
He wound down his racing career in the late 1970s, although he raced occasional events through the 1980s.
In addition to being a top-notch motocross rider, Darnell also proved to be a successful academic. He earned nine degrees (including three doctorates) and became an engineering consultant. He travels the world and solves technical problems involving a wide variety of engineering challenges. “I guess you could say I specialize in the three Fs, fire, floods and famine,” Darnell says with a laugh.
He also is designing automobiles and motorcycles for Chinese manufacturers, and is working on a secret project to be unveiled at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
When inducted into the Hall of Fame Darnell lived in Northern California with his wife and their two children. His daughter became a world-class racquetball player, and his son is a black belt in Shotokan karate.
Darnell said he still enjoys riding these days at a slower pace on a dual-sport machine. He often uses dual-purpose motorcycles for work to get to remote areas in some of his engineering projects.
“I’m not active in the sport today, but I keep up with it through the publications,” Darnell says. “Motocross gave me the opportunity to travel the world and I also met wonderful people in the sport.”