Pat Hennen, The First American to Win a Grand Prix, Has Died
Hennen suffered a major TBI (traumatic brain injury) in a fast crash on the Island.
John Owens
Pat Hennen, the very first American to win a Grand Prix.
American Pat Hennen has passed away. A talented and resolute California dirt track racer, Hennen switched to roadracing and his success there made him a legend. He became the first American racer to win a Grand Prix race when he won at Imatra in 1976—famously the FIM didn't have a copy of the American national anthem to play on the loudspeakers after Hennen's first win.

When Kenny Roberts went to Europe in 1978, he thought that his main rival for the title would be Barry Sheene. Instead, it was Sheene's "teammate" Hennen that Roberts was racing against most weekends.

"Tragedy" is an over-used word in racing today but Hennen's career-ending crash at the Isle of Man TT can only be viewed as a definite tragedy even without the horrible backstories as to why he was forced to race the TT when he was fully capable of winning the world championship in 1978. In fact, he and Roberts were separated by only a few points in the championship when Hennen was forced to race the ultra-dangerous TT.

Hennen suffered a major TBI (traumatic brain injury) in a fast crash on the Island. Over the years a number of stories circulated as to why Hennen crashed—the most popular story was that he was struck by a bird (taking the blow on his helmet) and fell at high speed. After numerous bird strikes at Phillip Island over the last 20 years it's pretty clear that a bird did not cause Hennen's injury, unless it was a Pterodactyl.

Hennen himself had no memory of the crash. The other person involved, Tom Herron, died in 1979.

Years later an eyewitness came forward and said Herron and Hennen collided forcing Hennen to crash.

Fence Jumper
Hennen racing his Suzuki. In a famous story one of his main mechanics in Europe was a fan who jumped the fence at Monza and volunteered.

Pat Hennen grew up working in bike shops all over the bay area, and then racing dirt track in California. He was motorcyclist and loved motorcycles.

Hennen recovered from the IOM TT crash but never raced again. Like so many he was a very different person after suffering the major TBI. It took three years for him to walk unaided; he had a small group of friends who helped and protected him. In an early 2000s interview, Hennen's brother, Chip, disavowed any of the rumors or well-placed stories regarding why Hennen was forced to race at the Isle of Man, or the inter-team relationship between Pat and Barry Sheene.

Rehabilitated to a degree and with his racing posters still on his boyhood bedroom walls, Hennen went to work for a major airline. After leaving that job, he worked for Motion Pro; MP owner Chris Carter was part of the nucleus of people around Hennen, helping him to navigate life after his life-altering crash. He was able to perform menial tasks and was thankful for the job.

For a time, after his crash, Pat wanted to get away from racing. He said he wasn't bitter, he just didn't want to talk about it.

While at Motion Pro he refused to talk about his racing career. When shown pictures of him racing he would deny that it was him in the photograph. After his crash he became a very devout, if not militant, Christian. Once when I requested an interview with Hennen through intermediaries, Hennen declined after asking if I was a Christian and I didn't give the right answer.

Thankfully he warmed up to racing again later in life, was inducted into several hall of fame organizations and even did a lap (in the back of a truck) on his Suzuki 500. He was able to talk about the politics of the Suzuki team but he never lay blame where most suspected it should be placed when talking about the circumstances of how he was pressured into racing at the IOM TT. (Suzuki UK pulled his GP transporter but said he could have it back if he raced the IOM TT for them. Without a transporter he would not have the support that teammate Barry Sheene had and Hennen's mechanics would be back to working out of a glorified van. So he raced the Isle of Man. )

That Hennen, who was the fastest and most experienced American rider at the time of his crash, ended up disabled and struggling after being forced to race the IOM TT because of dirty team politics ... this, truly, is a tragedy.
— ends —
Share on:
Superbike Planet