Danny Hamel accomplished much as an off-road racer: five-time AMA Hare and Hound National Champion, SCORE Baja 1000 and 500 overall winner and more. Between 1977 and 1995, Hamel was the only rider ever named both as the AMA Amateur Athlete of the Year and AMA Amateur Sportsman of the Year in the same year.
Before a crash took his life prematurely in June 1995 during the Baja 500 when a car strayed onto the road that was part of the course, Hamel had earned a reputation as an outgoing rider, a superfast racer, and a master at getting the most out of what many considered to be one of desert racing’s most powerful and impressive-to-ride-to-its-fullest machines: the Kawasaki KX500.
A motorcyclist from an early age, Hamel took to the desert while growing up in Boulder City, Nev., a perfect spot to make the most out of the wide-open terrain. By the time he started racing in earnest, he had learned a lot, said his dad, Roger Hamel.
“I had raced, so I had a little bit of an influence on him, but most of it came from between his own ears,” Roger said. “He had tried other sports, and was good at them, but he didn’t really like it when someone didn’t give 100 percent. With motorcycle racing, I think, he liked that it was just all him.”
Going fast came easy, Danny said in a 1993 interview while he was chasing his third AMA Hare & Hound championship.
“Reading the terrain just comes naturally for me,” Danny said. “A desert racer has to have the ability to recognize and adapt to different situations. Sometimes you’re going 80 or 90 miles an hour across the open desert, and sometimes your going two or three miles per hour through rocks. I live right here in the desert, so every time I go riding, I’m practicing those skills.”
A strong rider, Hamel became synonymous with the KX500, a bike that seemed perfectly made for Hamel and the desert, remembers his mechanic, Mike Hodges.
“It was amazing to watch him ride,” Hodges says. “Hamel was a big guy, and he handled that KX500 like other guys rode 125s. That was his kind of bike.”
Speed just came naturally to him, Hamel’s father said.
“He just had that knack,” Roger Hamel said. “He rode well within his limits, but if someone challenged him, he could always go faster.”
A bit of a prankster in the pits, Hamel was as likeable as he was down-to-Earth, and he made friends throughout the tight-knit desert-racing community. He always seemed to have a smile on his face, and a great outlook on life.
“I know that his parents, Marcia and Roger were and are extremely positive people, and that obviously influenced him,” Hodges says. “He was just the kind of guy who loved life, and enjoyed everything that came along.”
Perhaps because of that easy-going outlook Hamel was able to avoid letting the wins go to his head, he says.
“A lot of times, racers get too wrapped up in the dollar amount, or focus too much on the short career in racing,” Hodges says. “They don’t quite gel with the people paying their salaries, or think they’re above the fans. Danny never was that way. He always just considered himself lucky.”
You could see that, Hodges remembers, in a trademark move that Hamel did on the podium.
“After he’d won, he’d just hand his trophy to a kid, or a fan,” Hodges says. “I think to him the win was the thing—it was there in the books. Having the trophy was less important. It gave him a better feeling about the win to hand it to the kid who wandered up for an autograph.”
Hamel, he says, would be floored by the honor of being in the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame.
“I’m sure he’d be speechless,” he says. “All of us will be so proud to see him inducted. The thing was, he was so young, and he was so good, you legitimately feel that he could have continued to destroy every off-road record out there if he had more time to hang around with us.”