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MotoGP, Farewell to Pat Hennen: first American to win a Grand Prix in the 500

It happened in 1976, on the difficult and dangerous street circuit in Imatra, Finland. Pat publicly thanked Tepi Lansivuori for helping him learn the track.

MotoGP: Farewell to Pat Hennen: first American to win a Grand Prix in the 500

The sad news of Pat Hennen's passing arrives directly from the U.S., a week before the Texas GP. Pat was the first American rider to win a Grand Prix in the 500 class.

Pat a native Texan, from Phoenix, but he  moved to California and made his debut at Laguna Seca in the 250 with a Suzuki.

His victory at the 1976 Finnish GP paved the way for American riders who would dominate in the World Championship for a decade: from Kenny Roberts, to Kenny Junior, as well as Lawson, Spencer, Rainey, Schwantz, Mamola, and Baldwin. Hennen began his career in 1972, racing in flat track and street. However, his rapidly rising career was prematurely cut short by a crash at the Isle of Man TT in 1978.

The Hall of Fame's description of him reads: The first major victory of Hennen's motorcyle racing career came in 1974, at the Daytona International Speedway, when he set the fastest qualifying time and won the junior event on a Ron Grant-sponsored Yamaha on a field full of talented riders that included Wes Cooley, Pee Wee Gleason, Hank Scott, and Randy Cleek. Hennen went on to win the Junior Races in Loudon (New Hampshire), Monterey (California), and Talladega (Alabama), ending 1974 as the AMA's top junior rider.

Hennen also raced in New Zealand and Australia, where he achieved excellent results, including a podium finish in the Bathurst Grand Prix in Australia. He also won the New Zealand Marlboro championship in both 1974 and 1975.

In 1975, Hennen became an "Expert" - the equivalent of our "Senior" in that period - and his career began to rapidly flourish. He then signed as an official rider with Suzuki. His best finish that season was a 5th place at Laguna Seca. Hennen was also part of the American team for the Trans-Atlantic Match Races. That year, the United States won for the first time over Great Britain.

Hennen shocked many racing fans when he took 3rd  place in the 1976 Daytona 200 on a three-cylinder Suzuki TR-750, behind winner and World Champion Johnny Cecotto and runner-up Gary Nixon, a former AMA national champion. After the race, Hennen stated that he was just honored to be on the same podium as Cecotto and Nixon. Hennen also finished 2nd behind Kenny Roberts in the Lightweight race at Daytona.

As unexpected as Hennen's result at the 1976 Daytona 200-mile race was, it was nothing compared to what he achieved in Imatra, Finland, on August 1st, 1976. Hennen made history that day by winning the Finish Grand Prix and becoming the first American rider to win a 500cc World Championship road race. His victory in Finland was so unexpected that the organizers didn't have the U.S. national anthem ready. He wore a cowboy hat on the podium - a tribute to his father who was once a professional rodeo cowboy - to the delight of the European photographers.

In 1977, Hennen scored a victory in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone riding a Suzuki. He then reached four more podiums, and again finished 3rd in the final world championship standings.

In 1978, Hennen started the season with a dominant performance in the transatlantic races, regularly beating Kenny Roberts and Barry Sheene, and becoming the leader in that prestigious event. He then won the Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama and took the lead in the world championship.

Roberts won the next three races, and the two Americans were separated by only one point in the world championship standings when tragedy struck Hennen at the Isle of Man TT.

Hennen participated in the TT to please his British sponsor. Maurice Knight was Suzuki GB's general manager and, after Barry Sheene's refusal to race for safety reasons, he sort of forced Pat to go, by telling him that, otherwise, he wouldn't provide him with the means to race. A head injury after a crash ended his career. Legend has it that a bird smashed into his helmet. Hennen doesn't remember the accident, but a witness during one of his visits to the TT told him that he was battling against Tom Herron, and he saw him hit a curb. In time, he recovered, but the effects of the injury were lasting, and he never returned to racing. As often occurs in these cases, both his life and character changed. He became a fervent Christian and, for a long time - after the rehab that didn't bring him back to his former level but allowed him to work - he distanced himself from the world of two wheels. He had, however, recently returned, but always with indifference.

Pat Hennen was inducted into the Hall of Fame for his achievements.


Translated by Leila Myftija

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