The Showdown at Copetown

1984 CMA Motocross National, Copetown Ontario

The Showdown at Copetown By Mike McGill First published in MXP Magazine June 2016

The 1984 Copetown Round of the Canadian National Motocross Championship was the scene of one of the biggest upsets in the history of Canadian moto. Ross Pederson was in the prime of his illustrious career in 1984. He was so dominant during that era that he virtually never lost. He won practically every championship in Canada that he lined up for. Pederson had few serious rivals at the time but Honda Canada rider Mike Harnden was considered to be one of the riders who could give Ross a run for his money on a good day. On a late summer afternoon way back in 1984 in Southwestern Ontario at the legendary Copetown track, Harnden achieved what many considered to be the unthinkable and beat the Rollerball straight up in a four race series for the 500cc National title. This is the story of what went down that day.

Drama was nothing new for Copetown. Prior to the 84 National Copetown had already been the site of many great and defining moto moments during the early years of the sport in Canada. The Hamilton based Steel City Riders organized the first big International Motocross event in this country in the fall of 1970. The Inter-Am or as it later became known as the Trans-Am Series hosted top European and American stars such as Torsten Hallman and Gunner Lindstrom from Sweden and Brad Lackey and Tom Rapp from the US. Perhaps the biggest race to ever take place at Copetown was the 1975 Canadian round of the 500cc World Motocross Championships where a highly anticipated duel between title contenders Heikki Mikkola and Roger DeCoster never materialized. Instead sentimental favorite Pierre Karsmakers rode his factory Honda to his first career GP victory.

Fast forward to 1984 and the CMA National Series. Mike Harnden rolled into the Copetown facility that day with a healthy 16 point lead over Pederson in the series. To the casual fan this may have been surprising but the fact that Harnden was leading the points was really no fluke. “I’d made a conscious decision to concentrate on the 500 series that year as I saw that as my best chance to win a Championship” recalls Harnden. Harnden’s preparations for the series were meticulous and thorough. Instead of heading south to Florida or California for off season training as he had done in previous seasons Mike decided to head to the epicentre of 500cc motocross racing and booked a pre-season training trip to Europe. “I met Hank Tice who was the owner of White Power Suspension at the Canadian 250 GP in Quebec in 1983”, remembers Harnden. “We hit it off and he extended an invitation to me to come over and train the following season. I don’t think he ever thought I would take him up on it but I packed my bags and showed up” he laughs. Good to his word Tice hooked Mike up with a bike and some A-Kit WP suspension.  Perhaps most importantly Tice also introduced Mike to a rider agent who was able to enter Harnden into all kinds of big off-season races that actually paid start money. Harnden’s European vacation ended up yielding all kinds of positive results. “I got to race a bunch of big races and even got into a 500GP” recalls Mike. “And best of all I was able to bring the factory White Power suspension that I got home with me. Forks, shock and even triple clamps. I bolted them right onto my new Honda when I got home. Honda had no problem with me doing that”.

Harnden had signed with Honda Canada in 1983 after previous stints on Can-Am, where he was actually team mates with Pederson, and with Yamaha. “In 82 I finished 2nd overall in the 250 National Series for Yamaha. They wanted to keep me and I liked the Yamaha but Honda was really ramping up their program and the offer from them was just too good to turn down”. Harnden repaid Honda with another 2nd overall placing in 83 and then set his sights on the big prize for 1984.

As the first race of the series in Kelowna, BC approached Harnden loaded up his Dodge Maxi Van and prepared to make the trip west. “I travelled light” he recalls. “Lots of guys were already running the cube vans at that time but for me it was just the cargo van with a small canopy. I had my race bike, a practice bike and usually my buddy Paul Kingsley’s KTM was wedged in there as well. At least I had a mechanic that year though. I was able to finally pry some money out of Honda for a mechanic and it really helped”.

The series started well for Harnden. “I usually didn’t do that well out west but I got two third place finishes for 2nd overall in Kelowna and I was happy with that.” Harnden continued to ride well at the next round in Edmonton where he went 1-4 for a bit of a lucky 1st overall. The next stop for the series was Austin, Manitoba. Home of one of the most notoriously gnarly sand tracks in North America. “Kids these days just wouldn’t be able to comprehend how rough that track was” recalls Harnden when speaking of the Austin circuit. “They didn’t groom it all weekend and the whoops got so deep you could have easily hidden a Volkswagen Beetle down in between them. It was comparable to the roughest sand tracks I had ridden over in Holland, that’s for sure.” Perhaps Harnden’s European training was still paying dividends as he went 2-2 in Austin and took the overall once again. Things were going to plan and it was starting to look like a dream season could be at hand.

Mike Harnden arrived at Copetown that fateful day sporting an impressive 16 point lead in the series over his closest rival Pederson. It was going to be tough for anyone to beat him now thought Harnden confidently. Pederson would have to go 1-1 and Harnden could do no worse than 4-5 in motos and still win the championship. “I hadn’t finished worse than 4th in any moto yet so I was feeling pretty good about it” recalls Harnden. Also feeling pretty confident that day was Honda Canada Team Manager Hank Howard who pulled Mike aside prior to morning practice to show him the, Mike Harnden 1984 500cc National Championship t-shirts that he had already printed up. Looking back on it now Harnden agrees that “maybe he brought those out a bit early”.

Practice did not go well for Harnden. “To be honest I never really liked the new Copetown” he recalls. Harnden refers to the fact that the Steel City Riders were forced to move the track location from its original site in the early 80’s. “I loved the old track but I found the new one to be very fast and not too technical. It basically made it equal for everyone and that didn’t help me. I excelled when the conditions were rougher so I had no real advantage there.” After practice Harnden began to, in his words, think too much. “I started doing the math. I started wondering if I should just take it easy, or if I should go for it. Basically I was psyching myself out is what I was doing” he states and as the gate dropped to start the first moto he found himself mired in the back of the forty rider field.

“I totally screwed it up” laughs Harnden. “I was tense and feeling awkward on the bike and I crashed three times during the moto.” Harnden actually looped out the big CR500 going up one of the Copetown hills and had to ride back to the bottom before he could get going in the right direction again. As if that wasn’t bad enough, in even more embarrassing fashion Harnden executed a text book high-side right in front of his mechanic Ron Fraughts and Honda boss Hank Howard who looked on in disbelief. When he was upright Mike was finding it extremely difficult to make any ground on the leaders. “Everybody was going the same speed. I just couldn’t make up any time.” Harnden was actually able to pull himself together a little bit late in the moto however and battled his way to 8th place at the checkers.

Harnden’s Honda Canada teammate Rudi Zackso Jr. on the other hand was having the race of his life. The eighteen year old rookie pro out of Edmonton who was sitting 3rd in the points coming into the Copetown round was really feeling it that day as he jetted out to a big lead early in the first moto. Zackso would manage to hang onto the lead until the very last lap of the moto when Pederson was able to sneak by him for the win. Still a 2nd in the first moto put him firmly in line for a possible over-all victory for the day which, while it would have been a great accomplishment for the young rider, could possibly have spelled disaster for Harnden and Team Honda in general.

Pederson’s win in moto 1 combined with Harnden’s 8th place finish meant that Mike had to get 1st or 2nd in the final moto to clinch the title. Things were a little tense in Harnden’s pit between motos to say the least. Harnden’s good friend Paul Kingsley remembers the stress that his buddy was feeling going into the final race. “Mike was the type of guy who would get very stressed out when things didn’t go according to plan”, recalls Kingsley. “Usually we would talk between motos on race day as we would generally travel to the races together but on this day I could tell he was very stressed and nervous so there was no talking. I just left him alone”. Someone who was talking however was the Honda Team boss Hank Howard. Howard approached his other Honda sponsored riders, Zackso, Zoli Berenyi jr. and Pierre Couture between motos and issued the dreaded official team orders. They were not to pass Harnden during the race and if they found themselves ahead of Mike they were to slow down and let him by. There was a championship at stake after all. “He hoped that it wouldn’t come to this” remembers Rudi Zackso “but if it did this is what we were expected to do.”

Not surprisingly the team orders did not sit well with Zackso. Beyond the obvious reasons that he was in line to win the overall that day Zackso just didn’t feel right about it. “My father always taught me to do my best” recalls Zackso, and for that reason I didn’t really agree with it.” Surprisingly even though he was officially on Team Honda Zackso also felt a kinship with Pederson and actually might have preferred his fellow Albertan to win the title. “Ross was always my idol,” remembers Rudi. “And we were from the West and there was always an East, West rivalry and there always will be. That’s just the way it was. I had nothing against Mike but Ross was a hero of mine for sure.”

So, whether Zackso and the rest of the Team Honda riders agreed with it or not the team orders were in place as the gate dropped to start the second moto. Harnden, after giving himself a stern talking to between motos was back on form and grabbed the holeshot over a host of his Honda Team mates and of course Pederson. As the moto progressed it was starting to look as though the team orders may not even come into play as Harnden began to stretch out his lead. At one point his margin was up to nearly ten seconds but as the twenty minute mark of the moto approached so did Pederson. “Yeah after about twenty minutes Ross showed up” recalls Harnden. “He showed me a wheel.” These two were of course no strangers to each other. They’d been racing each other for years so Mike knew exactly what was coming next. “Oh yeah he tried to stuff me” laughs Harnden. “I knew it was coming though so I just let him by.”

As the series points sat if Pederson won the moto and Harnden got second then the Championship would go to Harnden. Pederson obviously knew this so what happened next could almost be viewed as comical. Pederson slowed right down but Harnden, afraid of getting taken out by the big Suzuki rider refused to get too close to Ross or to attempt to make the pass. Of course this allowed third place rider Zackso to catch up but he was also under team orders from Honda not to make the pass on Harnden. A real log jam was forming at the front of the field as more Honda riders began catching up to the trio at the front. “It must have looked absolutely ridiculous” laughs Harnden. Finally, being left with basically no other option Zackso passed both Harnden and Pederson which suited Ross fine because this finishing order would give him the title. “I wasn’t sure what was going to happen then” recalls Harnden, “other than I expected that Rudi would follow team orders. And he did.” On the last lap of the race Zackso pulled to the side and let both Ross and Harnden go by.

Pederson, now realizing that both a championship title and a big fat bonus check were slipping through his fingers made one last ditch effort to turn things in his favour. “Right before the finish line there was a little switch back and a big rut had formed in the corner” recalls Harnden. “There was only one line through the corner, and you had to take it”. So when Pederson got into the rut he just stopped and planted both his feet on the ground, determined to keep Harnden behind him. At least until another rider got through. “I wasn’t surprised” recalls Harnden. “That guy would do anything to win. Especially when money was involved.” In somewhat of an ironic maneuver, Harnden rammed the Rollerball from behind moving him a little closer to the line. Then he backed up his bike a few feet while fellow Honda riders Couture and Zackso patiently waited and rammed him again holding it wide open eventually pushing the furious Pederson and himself over the finish line. It was finally over. Harnden had won title if not the race.

There wasn’t nearly as much of a celebration in the Honda pits after the race as many probably would have thought. “It was more of a relief than anything” recalls Harnden. Harnden’s friend and fellow competitor Paul Kingsley, who had been struggling with an arm injury and finished 9th overall that day could not have been happier for his old pal. “It was really cool to see him win it”, recalls Kingsley. “I knew how hard he had worked to get to that point so it was just nice to see him do so well.” While the party wasn’t huge the feeling of pride in achieving his goal was for Harnden. “Hey, he was a hard guy (Pederson) to beat. Very few ever did and I was one of them.” The Championship was monetarily rewarding as well. “I got a nice bonus check from Honda and all kinds of publicity in the form of victory ads in all the magazines” adds Harnden. “It was great but really that’s why Honda hired me. That’s what they expected when I signed with them.”

Mike Harnden never got the chance to really defend his 1984 500cc National Championship. The next April while training in Europe for the upcoming season he shattered his knee cap during the 500cc GP in Austria. While he did try to ride when he got back home he was in no shape and his title defense was in his own words, “a disaster”. By the end of that summer though Harnden had worked himself back into shape and actually got the opportunity to represent Canada, quite successfully I might add, at the Motocross des Nations in Gaildorf, Germany when Pederson was injured. But that’s another story.

Following the 85 season Honda completely dropped out of Pro Motocross Racing in Canada and Harnden was unfortunately left without a ride. Eventually he was able to secure a limited sponsorship deal from Yamaha but the industry on the whole was heading onto a very down period and unless your name was Ross Pederson there was really no money at all to be made during that time. And so, after the 86 season, and a relatively short seven year pro career, Mike retired from motocross in order to pursue a career in real estate.

Today the fifty six year old Harnden works as a Sales Manager for IMSM Canada Ltd. A company based in Toronto that provides ISO consultation services. Up until recently he still got out riding a couple of times a year and likes to keep in shape by running 5kms two or three times a week. The Victory t-shirts have all disappeared long ago but the story of Mike Harnden’s Championship season will always live on as a colorful part of the history of Canadian motocross.

Visit the Canadian Motor Sport Archive. Bill Petro’s images from that day are available to view.