Steve Wise will go down in history as one of the most multi-talented riders in the history of motorcycle racing. Wise earned the distinction of becoming the only rider in history to win AMA motocross, AMA Supercross and AMA Superbike nationals. The Texan further proved his all-around talent by earning a podium result in the AMA Grand National Championship when he took third, in his very first Grand National Dirt Track appearance, at the Houston Astrodome TT National in 1982.
In addition, Wise twice won the popular ABC Wide World of Sports Superbikers competition in the early 1980s, an event that featured the top motorcycle racers in the world from all disciplines. ABC’s Superbikers was a predecessor to Supermoto, which flourished in Europe and later attained AMA national status in 2003. Wise’s versatility helped him earn the prestigious AMA Pro Athlete of the Year Award in 1982.
Gary Steven Wise was born in McAllen, Texas, on June 2, 1957. Steve’s father, Gary, was an avid motorcycle enthusiast and took young Steve to local races from an early age. In the late 1960s, Wise was a spectator at one of the first motocross races in America held in Conroe, Texas.
"I remember as a young kid sitting by this jump and watching Sylvan Geboers and John DeSoto flying over this jump. I was thrilled," Wise recalled. His father bought Steve a Honda SL90 and he began tearing up the hills surrounding McAllen. Wise’s father, a successful real estate broker, loved the sport so much that he opened a Honda dealership.
With his father’s backing, Wise stepped up to a stripped-down Honda SL125 and started doing well at local motocross races. Even though Wise did well on the Honda four-stroke, he was having a tough time against the hot riders on Yamaha’s potent YZ two-stroke motocross machines. His dad’s novel solution was to add the Penton line of motorcycles to his dealership. Once he was on the light, two-stroke Pentons, Wise became nearly unbeatable.
Texas was a hotbed of motocross in the early 1970s and produced other top riders such as Steve Stackable and Kent Howerton. Wise became the Texas State Motocross Champion in 1974 and beat national motocross stars such as Gary Jones and Jimmy Weinert en route to the title. Victories over such top-notch talent suggested that young Wise was ready to tackle the nationals. When he turned 17, Wise traveled with his father to a few nationals and earned top-10 finishes.
Wise got a big break in 1975 when Steve Stackable recommended the young Texan to Kawasaki. Steve and his father flew to California for a try-out race and did well enough to earn his first factory ride. In 1975, Wise tallied two top-10 finishes in the four-race AMA Supercross Series and went on to score a handful of top-10 finishes in the 125 nationals, including a second in San Antonio, his first AMA national podium appearance. He ended his first full season of professional racing a very credible sixth in the final AMA 125 National Motocross standings.
Wise began the 1976 season with Kawasaki, but unhappy with the bike, he decided to leave the team mid-season. A few weeks after leaving Kawasaki, Wise took his first AMA national victory aboard a Jim Strait-tuned Honda CR125 at the national in Keysers Ridge, Maryland. He earned the distinction of being the first privateer to win an AMA 125 National Motocross race. Wise ended the 1976 season ranked fourth in AMA 125 Motocross.
Wise did well enough on a privateer Honda in 1977 that Honda signed him to a factory ride in 1978. He would stay with Honda the rest of his racing career and experience his best success with the team.
With Honda, Wise earned his highest national motocross ranking of third in the AMA 250 National Motocross Championship in 1980, along the way winning the Red Bud 250cc National in Buchanan, Michigan. It was during this period that Wise experienced perhaps his most memorable victory.
The 1979 New Orleans Supercross was held on Wise’s birthday. Before the race, the 40,000-plus fans in the Superdome sang "Happy Birthday" to him. With the fans cheering heartily for Wise, he edged Jimmy Weinert in the main to take an emotional victory that night.
Ultimately, Wise proved to be a leading contender in both motocross and Supercross, but injury and untimely bike failures kept him from winning the national championship he coveted. However, a special made-for-television race would dramatically change Wise’s racing career.
In the late 1970s, ABC’s Wide World of Sports was the highest-rated sports show in America. Racing promoter Gavin Trippe pitched ABC the idea of a motorcycle competition bringing together the best riders from all forms of racing and the Superbikers was born.
Wise raced in the first Wide World of Sports Superbikers competiton in 1979, but the bike he rode was not competitive.
"Honda asked me if I wanted to race in the Superbikers again in 1980 and I told them 'Sure, but give me a competitive bike,' " Wise recalls. "And boy did they ever. The bike had a special factory engine. It could run 140 mph and had powerful disc brakes. It was great."
Wise won the Superbikers race in 1980 and 1981 against two of the most talented fields of riders ever assembled and he instantly became one of the best-known motorcycle racers in America and in Europe, where Superbikers was also shown. Honda was so impressed by Wise’s ability on Superbikers, he was asked if he would like to try roadracing a Superbike.
During the winter of 1981, Wise tested a Freddie Spencer Honda 1000cc Superbike at Willow Springs Raceway. Wise remembers that as the most intimidating thing he’d ever done in motorcycling.
"Here I was riding this 150-horsepower Superbike for the first time on Willow Springs in 40 mph winds," Wise said of the tryout. "It was only by the grace of God that I survived that day. I ran off the track into the rocks a couple of times at 130 mph. I was shocked by the power of the bike. It was a real eye opener."
In spite of the intimidating first ride, Wise did well enough that he was offered a three-race contract for the 1982 AMA roadracing season. If it went well, he would continue roadracing. To say it went well would be an understatement.
Wise made a spectacular road racing debut. He led the AMA Formula One point standings for most of the season and was nipped by veteran Mike Baldwin by just three points for the championship.
Earlier that year, Wise had qualified for the Houston TT in the Astrodome in his first-ever appearance in an AMA Grand National Dirt Track race. Riding a modified Honda CR450 two-stroke Wise thrilled the Astrodome crowd with his aggressive supercross style on the TT circuit. Late in the final, Wise worked all the way up from the back of the field to the tailpipe of leader Ricky Graham. It was obvious to all on hand that Wise was setting Graham up for a pass when a rear brake rod broke on his Honda forcing him back to third at the finish. Nevertheless, the Houston TT podium only added to the legend of Wise’s amazing ability.
Wise was recognized for his success in all forms of AMA competition when he was named 1982 AMA Pro Athlete of the Year.
In 1983, Wise would earn a permanent place in American motorcycle racing lore by winning the Mid-Ohio round of the AMA Superbike Series. He became the only motocross winner to cross over to roadracing and win a national. Earlier that season, Wise earned a podium finish in the Daytona 200. His future in roadracing looked bright.
Just when things seemed to be falling into place, Wise was seriously injured in a high-speed crash at Road America. He returned prematurely from the injury and crashed hard again at Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, California, a month and a half later and was badly hurt once again. The injuries began to pile up and while he was in the hospital after the Laguna crash Wise decided to retire from racing.
Gavin Trippe convinced Wise to come back and race the Superbikers once more at the end of the 1983 season, but when he couldn’t even crack the top five in a race he’d previously dominated, Wise said he knew he didn’t have it in him to race any longer.
After retiring from racing, Wise went on to Bible College and became an ordained minister. He later followed in his father’s footsteps and started a real estate investment company. He is a frequent featured speaker at various Christian meetings. Wise had three children with his high school sweetheart Sandra.
Wise will always be remembered for his amazing decade-long racing career that proved him to be one of the most versatile racers in the history of AMA racing.
See more at Steve Wise's personal web site.