Donny Schmit was a wiry and determined motocross rider who emerged from the unlikely environs of Minnesota to become one of the most successful American racers ever to compete in World Championship Motocross. Schmit was a two-time World Motocross Champion, winning the 125cc title in 1990 before moving up to win the 250cc series in 1992. When he retired, his 15 career victories in World Motocross Grand Prix were the most ever by an American rider. Schmit retired from full-time racing after the 1994 season and tragically died less than two years later from complications of a rare disease called aplastic anemia at only 29 years of age.
Schmit was born in Minneapolis on January 17, 1967. His older brother, Dave, was an avid motocross rider and Donny, 10 years Dave’s junior, followed in his big brother’s footsteps when his dad bought him a Honda XR75. The Schmits had a lake cabin west of Minneapolis, and there with his brother and an older neighbor, young Schmit developed a toughness from having to put up with good-natured tomfoolery dished out by his older riding mates. He rode the little Honda for hours on end and intensely studied his older brother’s motocross tapes, closely watching the moves of American motocross stars such as Bob Hannah and trying to copy them on his little XR.
His first race at Millville, Minnesota, did not give a hint of Schmit’s future greatness. He wore cowboy boots and Dave wrapped a kidney belt around his little brother about three times because he was so skinny. Donny couldn’t make the big hill and came back crying. Dave was right there, giving him encouragement and telling him how to take the hill. The encouragement from his big brother and his own determination helped young Schmit to quickly become a leading rider in the small-bike classes, even though he was always one of the smallest riders on the gate.
"Everyone called Donny 'Peanut' because he was just a little guy," said his wife, Carrie. "He was such a little kid he used a milk crate to hold himself up on his bike at the starting line."
Once he got a better bike, it didn’t take long for Schmit to start winning. He caught the attention of Kawasaki’s Team Green, signed with them and had great success in the amateur ranks. In 1986, Schmit turned pro and won two AMA 125cc West Region Supercross races en route to earning the championship in his first season on the pro tour. He earned a reputation as a hard-charging rider who worked hard, never gave up and found ways to make it to the front.
He signed with Suzuki in 1987. That year he scored his first AMA Motocross National win in the 125cc division at Anderson, South Carolina. Schmit went on to win the 125 national at his home circuit in Millville and finished the year ranked fifth in the series.
Schmit was a fanatic about training, at times even making the people around him part of his strict regimen whether they wanted to be or not.
"Donny never let himself have the luxury of anything that would spoil him or make him a wimp in a race," Carrie explained. "That also meant that I had to experience a lot of the not-so-pleasant training methods. Air conditioning was forbidden. On the hottest, humid, Minnesota summer days, we'd be out practicing. When we were done, he'd make us ride home in the van, gear on and windows up, with the heat on! Donnie would smirk, 'Gotta get ready for those hot and humid races!' I thought I was going to die! But we were a team and I made the commitment to go along for the ride and support his ways of training that made him feel he possibly had one up on his competition."
By 1988, Schmit moved up to race in the main 250cc AMA Supercross division, but suffered injury, and even though he showed great promise early on in Supercross, Schmit never seemed to be able to come to terms with the bigger 250s on the tight stadium tracks. He eventually decided to stay away from Supercross so that he could concentrate on motocross. Initially, this decision hurt his career, but ultimately it would lead him to an opportunity to race in the world championships. That season, Schmit rode to seven podium finishes in AMA 125 motocross, including a victory at Millville, and finished runner-up to George Holland. He was named AMA Rookie of the Year.
Suzuki dropped Schmit after 1988, and many felt it was because of his lack of success in AMA Supercross. Instead of sulking, Schmit bought a Honda and a van, and with his new wife, Carrie, hit the AMA outdoor nationals as a privateer. He finished 1989 ranked fourth in AMA 125 Motocross and was the top-ranked non-factory rider. At the end of that season, Team Bieffe Suzuki was looking for a rider to contest the 125cc world championships and they chose Schmit.
Schmit shocked the world, and perhaps even himself, with his immediate success on the world circuit. He won four Grands Prix en route to earning the 1990 125cc World Motocross Championship. The dashing blond American quickly became a favorite rider among the European fans. Schmit made time to return to the U.S. briefly to race at his home event in Millville in the 125 class. He finished runnerup to Mike LaRocco.
In 1991, he won three GPs and looked well on his way to defending his title. But an injury suffered at the Hungary GP forced him to miss a good portion of the season and kept him from repeating as world champ.
In 1992, Schmit looked for new challenges in the 250cc Motocross World Championship, and it was there that he struck gold again. That season, riding for Chesterfield Yamaha, Schmit won his second world title, tallying five 250 GP wins along the way. He stayed with Chesterfield Yamaha for the next two seasons and even though he won three more 250cc Grand Prix races, he never regained the world title. He finished 1993 ranked third behind rivals Stefan Everts and Greg Albertyn, and in 1994 he finished the season ranked seventh.
Despite offers to continue racing in Europe, Schmit and Carrie knew it was time to return to America. The couple missed home and nagging injuries were starting to build up for Schmit. Many riders would have stayed simply to collect a paycheck, but not Schmit. He was never driven by money and his happiness was more important to him than monetary gain. At the end of the 1994 season, Schmit retired from full-time racing.
In 1995, Schmit made a very popular return to the AMA national at Millville, where he scored a respectable fourth with Honda of Troy after getting the holeshot in the first moto to a deafening roar from the partisan crowd. He also won the Four-Stroke Motocross Championship for CCM at Glen Helen Raceway in San Bernardino, California. And he took up a new hobby – road racing. Schmit raced in a few AMA 600 Supersport Series events and, despite doing it for fun, Schmit actually showed great promise on the pavement.
Schmit’s death came suddenly. Undoubtedly, his excellent physical fitness masked the extreme extent of his illness until it was too late. He had gone to a doctor on a Monday, worried by the color of his urine and the color of his eyes. After two days of tests his aplastic anemia was diagnosed and he was sent home to await a bone marrow transplant. He had planned to attend the AMA Supercross race in Minneapolis that weekend, but on Friday he had an extreme headache and Carrie rushed him to the hospital. He collapsed in the hospital elevator with Carrie at his side, never to regain consciousness.
Schmit died on January 19, 1996. The shock to American motocross fans hit home the next night in the Metrodome, when the crowd of 68,000 assembled for the supercross was told of their hometown hero’s passing. A silent tribute was held in Schmit’s honor.
Schmit will always be remembered for being one of the best, if not the best, American rider ever to compete in the World Motocross Championships. His tenacity on the track and his friendly demeanor in the pits earned him legions of faithful fans.