Pat Hennen was the first American to win a 500cc World Grand Prix road race. His victory at the 1976 Finland GP paved the way for a flood of American riders who would come to dominate the sport. Hennen began his career in 1972 as an AMA dirt track and road racing competitor. His rapidly rising career was ended prematurely by a crash at the Isle of Man TT in 1978. Hennen’s short but brilliant career was an inspiration to all American road racers of his era. He proved that an American could win in the highest echelon of motorcycle racing at a time when few thought it could be done.
Hennen was born in Phoenix, Arizona, on April 27, 1953. His family moved to the San Francisco Bay area when he was a child. Hennen first became interested in motorcycle racing when he was 15 and spent four years honing his skills riding regional dirt track and scrambles races across Northern California. He rapidly became one of the top up-and-coming riders in Northern California.
Hennen entered his first professional event as a novice at the end of the 1971 season. Even though he was a promising flat track racer, Hennen began focusing his efforts more toward a career in road racing. In 1973, he scored two top-10 finishes in 250cc road races aboard a borrowed Suzuki built by his brothers, Chip and David. Hennen scored enough points in 1973 to turn expert, but he chose to stay in the Junior ranks one more season to earn more racing experience and to try to attract more sponsorship.
“I was getting good experience and doing well,” Hennen said. “If I would have moved up to Expert I would have been up against far more expensive equipment and I just wasn’t able to afford a winning machine at that time.”
Hennen’s first major win came at Daytona International Speedway in 1974 when he set the fastest qualifying time and won the junior event on a Ron Grant-sponsored Yamaha over a talent-laden field that included riders such as Wes Cooley, Pee Wee Gleason, Hank Scott and Randy Cleek. Hennen went on to win the Junior races at Loudon, New Hampshire, Monterey, California, and Talladega, Alabama, and ended 1974 as the AMA’s top-ranked Junior road racer.
Hennen gained further experience and confidence when he raced during the off-season in New Zealand and Australia where he scored some very strong finishes, including a podium in Australia’s Bathurst Grand Prix. He earned the New Zealand Marlboro Championship in both 1974 and ’75.
In 1975, Hennen became an expert and began a very rapid rise in his career. He signed as a factory rider with Suzuki. Mechanical issues often kept Hennen from showing his true potential, but he showed signs of brilliance by qualifying first at the road race national in Ontario, California. His best finish that season was fifth at Laguna Seca. Hennen was also part of the American team for the Trans-Atlantic Match Races. That year, the United States won over Great Britain for the first time.
Hennen shocked a lot of racing fans when he scored third in the 1976 Daytona 200 on a Suzuki TR-750 triple behind winner and world champion Johnny Cecotto and second-place Gary Nixon, a former AMA national champ. Hennen remained humble in spite of his excellent finish, saying after the race that he was just honored to be on the same podium with Cecotto and Nixon. Hennen also scored runner-up to Kenny Roberts in the Lightweight race at Daytona.
No matter how unexpected Hennen’s 1976 Daytona 200 finish was, it paled in comparison to what he pulled off in Imatra, Finland on August 1, 1976. That was the day that Hennen raced into history by winning the Finish Grand Prix to become the first American rider to win a World Championship 500cc Grand Prix road race. So unexpected was his victory in Finland that organizers didn’t have a sound track of the U.S. national anthem. Hennen wore a cowboy hat on the podium – a tribute to his father who was once a professional rodeo cowboy – much to the delight of the European photographers.
“My friend, Tepi [Lansivuori], helped me win that race,” Hennen said in a 1977 interview. “That was his home track. I had some problems in practice and didn’t get many laps. He let me follow him in practice to learn the place. It’s a long street circuit, about four miles around, and even where it’s straight there’s a jump. You could just go over it or use it as a launching pad. Tepi showed me that among other things.”
In the race, Hennen battled with Lansivuori and Giacomo Agostini before coming out on top on his Suzuki GB RG500.
Hennen scored two other podium finishes in 1976 and finished ranked third in the world championships. He was now truly an international racing star. Hennen quickly became a fan favorite. He was always accessible and his modest and soft-spoken manner endeared him to Europeans.
In 1977, Hennen scored a victory in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone riding a Suzuki. He took four other podium finishes and once again finished third in the final world standings.
In 1978 Hennen was coming into his prime. He opened the season with a dominating performance in the Trans-Atlantic Match Races, regularly beating Kenny Roberts and Barry Sheene in the process of becoming the top scorer in the prestigious event. He then proceeded to win the Spanish Grand Prix at Jarma and took the world championship points lead.
“All I heard when I went to the GPs in 1978 was that I had to beat Barry Sheene,” Roberts said. “I was surprised when it turned out that Pat was the rider to beat that year. He was a very steady rider. You felt good racing hard against him. He didn’t do anything spectacular or crazy. He was just solid and fast.”
Roberts won the next three rounds and the two Americans were separated by only a single point atop the world championship standings when tragedy struck Hennen at the Isle of Man TT.
Hennen did the TT to please his British sponsor. A crash there left him with a career-ending head injury. He would recover over time, but suffered lasting effects from the injury and never returned to racing. Hennen’s rival Kenny Roberts would go on to win the championship that year to become the first American to win the 500cc Grand Prix World Championship.
In spite of being forced out of racing in the prime of his career, Hennen left a strong legacy. His victory in Finland in 1976 was a seminal event in the history of American racing. It helped change the face of GP racing and opened the door for many American riders who followed in Hennen’s footsteps.
When inducted in 2007, Hennen still resided in Northern California and continued working in the motorcycling industry. He became a devout Christian and is active in church activities. Hennen said that the great people he met along the way in motorcycle racing was the best aspect of his career in the sport.