Jeff Stanton was a six-time AMA Motocross and Supercross Champion of the 1980s and 1990s. In all, the quietly determined Michigan rider tallied 37 national wins combining victories in AMA Supercross as well as AMA 250cc and 500cc motocross. He won both AMA 250cc Motocross Championships and AMA Supercross Series titles in 1989, 1990 and 1992.
Stanton rode for Honda for the bulk of his career, and earned all of his titles on Hondas. He became a racing legend overseas by way of his outstanding performances in the Motocross des Nations. He also won the 250cc U.S. Grand Prix of Motocross three years in a row. In just eight seasons, Stanton tallied enough victories to be ranked in the top 10 on the all-time wins list in each of the AMA Supercross, AMA 250cc Motocross and AMA 500cc Motocross categories.
Stanton was born in Coldwater, Michigan, on June 18, 1968. He was raised on a farm in the nearby community of Sherwood. The entire Stanton family rode motorcycles and young Jeff started riding around the farm at 4 years old.
"I started out chasing the cows and riding across fields," Stanton recalled.
At age 5, Stanton began competing for fun at local motocross races with the rest of his family, including his mom.
"There were a ton of tracks in Michigan back then and we raced all of them," he said.
As an amateur, Stanton got good enough to eventually get support from Yamaha. By 1983 Stanton earned his first AMA Amateur Motocross Championship in the 100cc class at the Loretta Lynn Ranch. The next year, Yamaha cut back on support in smaller divisions and he switched to 250cc and 500cc racing machines.
"I sort of skipped the intermediate classes and went straight from racing 100cc bikes all the way to the open class, because that’s where Yamaha was putting its support," Stanton explained.
After winning more amateur titles in 1985 and 1986, Stanton made his professional debut at the end of 1986 and scored a very respectable seventh-place finish in the 500cc national at Washougal, Washington. By 1987, with backing from Yamaha, Stanton hit the pro circuit full time. In one of the more impressive rookie seasons in AMA racing, Stanton finished inside the top 10 in the 1987 AMA 250cc and 500cc National Motocross Championships and the AMA Supercross Series. He was named Rookie of the Year.
Stanton backed up his attention-grabbing rookie campaign with another solid season in 1988, again reaching the top 10 in the same three classes. Honda was impressed and signed the young up-and-comer for 1989. Stanton was slated to learn the ropes while backing up Honda’s star, Rick Johnson, but a twist of fate would result in Honda’s hopes resting on its young first-year factory recruit.
Stanton credits much of his maturation as a rider to Johnson, his first teammate. The two became fast friends and trained together in preparation for the 1989 season. Johnson, the defending AMA Supercross Series champ, started off the ’89 series with a bang, winning the first five races. Stanton stayed in the hunt with a slew of podium finishes. Stanton’s breakthrough came on a cool February night at Fulton Country Stadium in Atlanta. In round six of the series, Stanton battled with and overcame challenges from Guy Cooper, Jeff Ward and Johnson to earn his first national victory.
"After my win in Atlanta, my confidence really grew and things just started to snowball," Stanton said. He would go on to win four more Supercross rounds that year, including the grueling Daytona contest, to win the championship.
Meanwhile, Johnson was injured in the first AMA Motocross National of the year and Stanton responded to the pressure of suddenly being Honda’s number-one rider by winning five of the seven AMA 250 National Motocross Nationals that year and earning his first national motocross title. He capped off the stunning 1989 season by leading the American squad to victory in the prestigious Motocross des Nations at the end of the summer in Germany.
Stanton started 1989 as a first-year factory understudy to Rick Johnson, but by the end of the season he was considered the leading motocross racer in the country.
"That first championship felt like it came easily," Stanton would later say. "After that they just got harder and harder. Everyone was shooting for me and I had to continue to step up my program to stay on top."
And step it up he did. Stanton’s training regime of running, weight training, bicycling and logging countless hours on his home practice tracks made him the fittest rider of his era. The tougher the race, the more he would shine. One needed to look no further than Stanton’s record at Daytona’s brutal Supercross to know just how well conditioned an athlete he was. He would dominate the Daytona Supercross for four years running to become the first to win four straight at the historic venue.
Looking back on his career, Stanton cited Daytona among the victories he most cherished.
"It was a tough race and really showed who was putting in the hours training," Stanton said. "I loved the sand and the idea of racing in front of the entire motorcycling industry. Daytona really fit my style of riding."
In 1990, Stanton defended his titles in both AMA 250cc Motocross and Supercross and was named AMA Pro Athlete of the Year.
Stanton lost both championships to Honda teammate Jean-Michel Bayle in 1991. It was frustrating for Stanton to lose to a rider like Bayle, who was blessed with amazing natural talent, but had little of the work ethic Stanton prided himself on.
In 1992, Stanton prepared with singular focus and triumphantly won back both the AMA 250cc Motocross and Supercross titles. The ’92 AMA Supercross Series title was won against all odds in the final race when he took the victory in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and Damon Bradshaw, who held a commanding lead coming into the final, inexplicably faltered under the pressure.
Another venue where Stanton thrived was the Motocross des Nations, the annual Olympic-like international motocross competition. He was part of the victorious Team USA in 1989 and 1990, but it was his final appearance in the 1991 event held in Valkenswaard, Holland, where his legend in Europe was cemented.
That year’s event was held on exhausting brown Dutch sand. The Netherlands and Belgium had strong teams and 30,000 Lowlanders came in hopes that their home countries would stop the long American winning streak. So close was the competition that year that it all came down to the third and final moto. A few turns into the race Stanton crashed his 500cc Honda. By the time he remounted he was at the back of the field and a half-minute down to the leaders.
"My bike’s handlebars where tweaked," Stanton remembered. "I knew this wasn’t good. I didn’t want to be remembered as the guy who lost the Motocross des Nations for America so I got back up and just started picking off guys one by one."
Stanton made a dramatic charge all the way to the front by the end of the 40-minute moto, much to the chagrin of the legions of European fans. His pass on Dutchman Gert-Jan van Doorn gave the American team its 11th consecutive des Nations victory. It went down in history as one of the most remarkable comebacks in the history of the storied competition.
1993 marked a changing of the guard in AMA Supercross and Motocross. Stanton was teamed with a young rookie named Jeremy McGrath. When McGrath passed Stanton to win his first AMA Supercross race at Anaheim in January of ’93, it marked the beginning of the McGrath Era in AMA Supercross. In the outdoor nationals, Stanton was also being eclipsed by riders such as Mike Kiedrowski and Mike LaRocco.
"By then I was starting to burn out," Stanton explained. "Not only was I racing almost everything in this country, but I also competed in Motocross des Nations, USGPs and a ton of off-season races in Europe that paid a lot of money. My dad always told me to make hay while the sun was shining and that’s what I did.
"Like everything else, racing is a big circle of life. The new era of riders such as McGrath were coming on the scene and taking the spotlight like I had four or five years earlier. I tried to fight it, but ultimately I knew the time was right for me to step aside."
Stanton’s 37th and final AMA national win came in the 500cc national at Millville, Minnesota, in August of 1993. Still one of the top riders Stanton hung up his helmet at the end of the 1994 season. He was just 26 when he retired from racing.
Stanton returned to the family farming business in Michigan that he enjoyed and began raising a family with his wife, Sara. He continued to be highly visible at the races as a consultant for Honda.
Stanton will always be remembered for being one of the hardest working riders in the history of the sport. His success stemmed largely from being the most fit and prepared rider on the line, week in and week out. Considered an underrated champion during his era, Stanton’s place in motocross history grew after his retirement, when motocross publications documented the entirety of his career and a number of the next generation of riders pointed to Stanton as their inspiration.