With Mike Lafferty’s retirement from full time racing, there has been some debate as to who the enduro Greatest of All Time (GOAT) is. If you follow US national enduro at all, than you know that the GOAT debate usually boils down to Dick Burleson (aka King Richard) and Mike Lafferty, as both have earned eight National Enduro Titles. While both riders are tied at eight national titles apiece, their careers started and ended differently. In creating an argument one way or another, it’s important to have a look at the highlights of each man’s career. Here are cliff notes. We’ll start with Dick Burleson.
Unlike almost all of the great riders before and after him, Dick Burleson didn’t begin riding a motorcycle until he was 18 years old, which was in roughly 1966. His first bike was a Honda 90 that he used to get back and forth to a summer job before heading off to the University of Michigan in the fall of 1966. He took the Honda 90 to college with him and began riding it with locals in nearby pits. Turns out he was pretty good at it.
Fast forward to the late 1960’s when Burleson began racing motocross, winning several district and national amateur motocross championships. He soon turned Pro and shortly after began racing Trans-AMA motocross, finishing 4th overall in 1970. Being the top American finisher, he was crowned American Motocross Champion. Shortly thereafter he began competing in AMA National Enduros. In 1971, at the invitation of John Penton, Burleson was asked to compete on the US trophy team at the Isle of Mann ISDT. Despite a mechanical problem that caused a DNF, Burleson was hooked.
He went to the 1972 ISDT in Czechoslovakia and finished on Bronze. In 1973, Burleson was part of the first place U.S. Vase Trophy team at the ISDT. He then closed out the year by winning the final three AMA national enduros. Burleson was setting the stage for string of National Enduro titles that no one could have predicted.
From 1974 to 1981, Dick Burleson went on an unprecedented tear, winning eight consecutive National Enduro titles and breaking Bill Baird’s record of seven. He also earned eight ISDT gold medals. In Burleson’s 11 years as a pro rider he would amass eight National Enduro titles, 60 AMA National Enduro wins and eight ISDT gold medals.
After winning his eighth National Enduro title in 1981, Burleson announced his retirement; he would go out on top. Burleson’s competition was also coming on strong. Young gun Terry Cunningham nearly won the National Enduro championship in 1981, losing to Burleson by two points in the final round of the championship. Burleson did not think he could hold off Terry Cunningham for another year and retired. Being a factory off-road rider isn’t a lucrative career today and was less so back then. And besides, Burleson had a non-racing career with Husqvarna to attend to.
Mike Lafferty began his riding career more traditionally than Dick Burleson. Mike’s first bike was a Suzuki PE 50. His inaugural ride started and ended with him careening into his dad’s garage door. It didn’t dissuade him. After school he and his brother Rich would hang arrows on trees and ride around the yard until it got dark or was time to do school work.
Mike eventually graduated to larger bikes and began following his dad and brothers on trail rides. Being the youngest of the three brothers, and afraid of being left behind in the woods, he had to work extra hard at a young age to keep up. Mike’s first race was the closed-course Greenbrier Enduro aboard a YZ 80. He and Rich were supposed to ride together but Rich suffered a mechanical and had to pull out. Concerned that everyone would be gone at the checkpoints, he pressed on and eventually finished.
Mike won his first ECEA enduro at an age when he was too young to have a driver’s license and was consequently disqualified. However, it was not long before he won his first ECEA Enduro Championship, sharing the podium with his brothers Jack and Rich. In 1995, Mike became a member of the KTM factory squad. Former KTM president Rod Bush, a good friend of Mike’s, told him that it was impossible to earn a living as an off-road rider. Mike would spend 20 years disproving that.
Mike won his first first national championship in 1997, and then won again in 1998. Lafferty spent much of the 1999 season injured, but came back to win the final three races that year. Mike would go on to win four national championships in a row from 2000 to 2003. His seventh and eighth championships would come in 2005 and 2007. He would then lose championships to Russell Bobbitt in 2008 and 2009 by a total of only seven points. Another near miss occurred in 2012 when Lafferty finished second overall behind Steward Baylor.
Lafferty would close out his 20 year career by winning the first three tests in his final professional race and finish second overall behind long time friend and teammate Russell Bobbitt. In Lafferty’s 20 years as a professional rider, he would amass eight national enduro titles, 71 national enduro wins, 14 Alligator Enduro wins and three ISDE gold medals.
So who’s the GOAT?
I am sure that someone smarter than me could develop a statistical model to facilitate determining who the GOAT is (if so, please don’t send it to me). But I believe that many of us think motorcycle racing is more art than science; therefore, determining the GOAT is more of a subjective matter. This allows one to choose what characteristics they value in a champion.
I admit that I have always been a Burleson fan. I grew up watching and admiring his successes. Did you know that he went on to be a world downhill mountain bike champion in the 1990’s in the masters division? I also don’t believe for a second that the enduro competition was weaker back in the 70’s when he was competing. His late start in dirt biking and meteoric rise in such a short period of time is an accomplishment in and of itself, and his eight consecutive championships is something that we may never see again. If those are the characteristics that you rightly value, than Burleson is your GOAT.
In my opinion, most everything gets more difficult in life as you age and off-road racing is no exception. Each new generation of riders elevates the speed required to win a championship to a whole new level. The speeds of today are greater than was imaginable when Lafferty won his first national title in 1997. Throughout his 20 year career, Lafferty has shown the resiliency to meet and beat those speeds, right up to the final race of career. Some champions never make the leap to the new-found speeds that a new generation of riders will achieve. That never really happened to Mike Lafferty. He may have had a streak of bad results, but it was a never lack of speed or talent that was the culprit.
I also think the environment that Lafferty had to work in was more difficult than for any past champion. Complicating Lafferty’s career was the change in rules from traditional timekeeping to no time keeping, which attracted a new generation of talented contenders who hadn’t wanted to deal with time keeping before. Lafferty also switched manufacturers, which initially proved to be a difficult transition.
One has to wonder if Burleson could have matched the speeds of the upstarts if he had extended his professional career to 20 years. I would wager that he could have, but it’s a piece of data that is missing, and it’s the piece of data that I value most. For me, the edge goes to Lafferty and his ability to take on the best of the best over 20 years. However, you too are free to cherry pick the data that resonates most with you.