Dave Despain is perhaps the best-known television personality in the history of motorcycling. He started calling local races in and around his home state of Iowa and progressed through the ranks as race announcer, radio disc jockey, television color commentator and, ultimately, host of a nationally broadcast weekly motorcycling program. Besides being the voice of motorcycle racing, Despain also did just about everything else in motorcycling, from being AMA Public Relations Director, racer, motorcycle shop worker, journalist, promoter, AMA Pro Racing board member and founder of the Dirt Track Hall of Fame. From the mid-1970 to the 2000s, there was perhaps no more recognized face and voice in the sport of motorcycling.
Despain was born on May 20, 1946. He grew up in the farming community of Fairfield, Iowa. He loved bikes so much that when, at 18, he was given the ultimatum by his parents to choose between living at home or owning a motorcycle, he did what any true enthusiast would do — he bought the bike. Despain is quick to point out that he later made up with his folks.
A neighbor friend of Despain’s had a home-built scooter that he used to ride around. Even as a youngster, Despain couldn’t get enough of riding that little scooter and he knew riding bikes was something he wanted to pursue.
One summer, Despain’s parents went on vacation and upon their return discovered that their 18-year-old son had a 700cc Enfield motorcycle sitting in the back yard.
"They said either the bike goes or you go, so we both went," Despain recalls. "They were just convinced that motorcycles were death traps and I would be killed on one and they wanted no part of that. This was 1964, I had just gotten out of high school and it was the period of the classic 'Wild One' image of motorcyclists. I was a typical 18-year-old kid. I didn't know what I wanted to do. I had a scholarship, but I didn't want to go to college. All I really cared about was riding motorcycles."
The family dispute eventually blew over and of course Despain ended up spending his life in some capacity or another in the motorcycle business.
"I have ridden motorcycles ever since then, so if nothing else, my folks got accustomed to it."
Despain quickly dispensed with the Enfield because he couldn't keep it running for more than two days in a row. He ended up with a Harley-Davidson Sportster, which at the time was a considered one of the top bikes among high-performance motorcycles. He got into street racing and did a lot of trail riding on a Bultaco Matador.
Despain took a job in a Bultaco shop and became a member of a motorcycle club. A half a dozen or so of the guys in the club were pretty seriously into dirt track and TT racing, so they ended up building a racetrack primarily to give the members a place to race.
"I loved racing but had never seriously considered doing it myself. But we were out there one day building some bleachers. We decided when we were done to all go out and play on the racetrack. I learned how to slide my Bultaco around the TT track and thought 'Wow sliding around corners is the most fun I've ever had, I've got to do this.' "
Despain bought a Bultaco Pursang 250, which was the universal novice dirt track bike at the time. Staying in the novice ranks for a long time, Despain really enjoyed racing, even though at the time he never really took it all that seriously.
The club would travel to watch AMA National road races held at Indianapolis and another one in Greenwood near Des Moines, Iowa, and the dirt track nationals at Santa Fe Speedway in Chicago and other tracks like Peoria, Sedalia, Missouri, and the Indy Mile.
Despain’s last dirt race as a rider was the first race that the AMA allowed novices to run on a mile. It was a non-national race at the Missouri State Fairgrounds in Sedalia. It turned out to be an event that would leave a lasting memory for Despain.
"I actually made the main event. I think I finished thirteenth in a classic multi-bike freight train finish. I remember it was pretty exciting because I heard myself being introduced by Roxy Rockwood. He was the national announcer at the time and I had listened to him for years at all these nationals. That is one of my favorite motorcycle racing memories."
Since Despain and his riding buddies were Harley-Davidson, to them, Bart Markel was "the man." He remembers Gary Nixon was the hated Triumph-riding enemy. "I guess really we considered the whole Harley factory team as pretty cool, but Markel was the biggest hero."
During this period of dirt track racing Despain was working off and on at a low-power local radio station. He decided after getting married that it was time to quit racing and get serious about a job and figuring out what he was going to do with the rest of his life. One idea he had was to put together a radio show about motorcycle racing, even though had no idea how to go about doing so.
"Yamaha at that time was pretty heavily involved in racing and spent a lot money on advertising, so I thought I'd call Yamaha and find out how to go about this," Despain says with a laugh at his own naiveté. "They referred me to their advertising agency. I didn't even know what an advertising agency was. So needless to say, I had some pretty basic gaps in my view of the world of manufacturing, selling, promoting, advertising and all the rest."
Not to be deterred by his lukewarm reception at Yamaha’s advertising agency, he decided talk to the AMA about the possibility of it getting behind a radio show.
"I went to the Grand National dirt track race at Lakewood Speedway near Atlanta with my little tape recorder in hand and a press pass the AMA was nice enough to help me get. I did a demonstration tape of announcing a national race. I ran into J.R. Kelly, who was then president of the AMA, who overheard my imitation race call. He was pretty impressed with what I was doing, I guess. He became a friend and a proponent of my involvement.
"About six months later, I had talked my way into a job with the Association, basically writing press releases. I'm sure J.R. had a lot to do with my hiring. I was a pretty good writer and I knew a lot about motorcycle racing since I followed it so avidly. So I moved to Westerville and started in the racing department as a publicity guy. I spent ten years working for the AMA in various capacities."
During the early 1970s, Despain went to Daytona for Bike Week, and ABC Wide World of Sports showed up at the very last minute.
"The ABC crew came in thinking that they would just pick up some rider who wasn't in the race to be their expert analyst for the 200. But everyone had a ride, so there weren’t good candidates. They needed an analyst, so Russ March (then AMA Chairman) told the producer that the AMA’s new publicity guy had all this 'electronic media' background. Which was true. I’d worked at a 250-watt daytime radio station when I lived in Iowa!" Despain remembers with a chuckle. "ABC bought it! Cook Neilson was the pit reporter and Keith Jackson was the host. So my first television gig was ABC's Wide World of Sports! It was just absolute dumb luck."
From working closely with the people at Daytona, Despain got involved with the Motor Racing Network and became a turn announcer for NASCAR races for the network.
The anchor of the MRN network was Ken Squier. About that same time, Squier was getting involved with CBS hosting their racing shows. They were relying on him for advice on things to cover. He picked up on AMA Supercross as a pretty hot property and made a deal for Despain to do some of those races on CBS during the late '70s.
In 1980, Squier conceived "Motorweek Illustrated." He was convinced that with the growth of cable TV, the world was ready for a half-hour racing highlight show that would be timely and topical and would air early in the week, showing highlights from all the previous weekend's races. But Squier had become more and more involved with CBS and his contract prevented him from hosting a cable show. So he and his partner, Fred Rheinstein, decided to put Motorweek on the air as a business venture. Squier couldn't host it, so they came looking for a host and chose Despain.
By this time, Despain had been with the AMA for 10 years and felt he had accomplished much of what he wanted to do there, so the timing was right. He moved to Atlanta in 1981 with a 13-week contract and has been in Georgia, and full-time in the televison business, ever since.
Motorweek Illustrated was on Saturday afternoons on Ted Turner’s cable super station, TBS. It was the precursor of ESPN's Speedweek and similar shows to follow. Motorweek Illustrated covered all of the major racing sanctioning bodies. One of the reasons Despain wanted to take the job was he knew that he could insist that they cover motorcycle racing.
"We were the first national weekly coverage of motorcycle racing on television. We treated motorcycle racing as a major motor sport right along side stock cars and Indy cars and all the rest. I'm pretty proud of that."
TBS did the 1983 Daytona 200 live on Turner Broadcasting. That was the first time it had ever been done live. Former winner Dale Singleton was the expert analyst. It was landmark for motorcycle racing coverage.
While Despain was working in television, he got back into racing again, this time amateur road racing. He progressed to the point of actually winning a Novice class race before he broke his leg in a crash. The doctors told him his bones were a bit fragile and recommended that he give up racing, which he reluctantly did.
In 1990, Despain was offered a contract with the cable sports giant ESPN to become its primary motorcycle announcer. He agreed on one condition: that the network air a package of AMA Grand National dirt track races as part of the deal. The network agreed, and Despain (who could have simply held out for more money instead) considers that one of the motorcycling accomplishments of which he is most proud.
Despain served on the AMA Pro Racing board during the 1990s and helped make decisions that would guide racing into a new era of popularity.
In 1998, the burgeoning Speedvision Network sought out Despain, who was looking for a change.
"In 1995, I had re-signed with ESPN for five years. In the very first year of the deal, in a situation that involved a lot of unpleasant network politics, they took me off the motorcycle shows and moved me to NASCAR. Given the explosion of NASCAR popularity, a lot of people thought this was a huge career move for me. What they failed to realize is that I had no choice in the matter. I had a contract and had to live up to it, but I never wanted to give up the motorcycle shows."
So at the end of that contract, when Speedvision offered the chance to go back to motorcycle reporting full time, Despain jumped at it. He became host of the weekly motorcycle programs "Bike Week" and "Motorcyclist." Despain also took on the role of promoter in 1998 when he inaugurated the Dirt Track Hall of Fame Race in Springfield, Illinois. With its $100,000 purse, the race became the richest on the AMA Grand National calendar.
When inducted in 1999 Despain lived in a suburb of Athens, Georgia, with his wife, Wendy, and their dogs, cats and various other animals.