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Terry Cunningham


Winner of 1982 AMA Grand National Enduro Championship
Played key role in U.S. team’s second-place finish at 1982 International Six Days Enduro
Winner of 1984 AMA Grand National Enduro Championship
1984 AMA Athlete of the Year

Terry Cunningham is a multi-time champion off-road racer who played a significant role in the development of Husqvarna motorcycles throughout the 1980s.

Terry Cunningham grew up outside of Athens, Ohio. He and his older brother Jerry Cunningham Jr. were introduced to off-road riding by their father, Jerry Cunningham Sr., and uncle, Ken “Bud” Cunningham. The older Cunningham brothers were avid outdoorsmen who “hunted all winter and fished all summer,” Terry remembers. In 1965, Ken purchased a Honda CL90 to haul supplies to their backwoods cabin in Canada. That sparked their itch to race, and Ken and Jerry Sr. both became active in the AMA District 11 enduro scene.

Terry Cunningham started riding for fun, and in 1968, when he turned 10 years old, he rode his first race, a motocross organized by the Athens Motorcycle Club. He competed on a Honda S90 modified with knobby tires, a raised front fender and a high pipe. Cunningham competed in the Junior Class, which allowed riders under 16 years old. He got second.

Cunningham and his brother “motocrossed as much as we could” from 1968 through 1970, Cunningham says. In 1971, his brother won the AMA District 11 MX championship and earned a sponsorship from the local Rickman dealer in 1972. Cunningham then inherited his brother’s old Penton 100 (“a ’68 or ’69 model”), discovered hare scrambles and started racing in the woods as well.

Cunningham credits his brother for “helping establish my early competitive drive for racing,” and when his brother dialed back his racing to focus on football, Cunningham’s drive for motorcycle racing continued, and even kicked into a higher gear.

In 1974, when Cunningham was 14, he got his first taste of enduros (which, Cunningham says, was “admittedly illegal” because enduros make use of public roads). Cunningham, who rode a Yamaha DT175 in the race, says he was hooked.

“You could ride all day for [an entry fee of] like six bucks,” he said. “A motocross race wasn’t like that.”

The following year, Cunningham worked a summer job to buy a Honda MR175. He excelled, winning 10 of the last 12 races and winning the Overall B championship for AMA District 11. The next year, he won the first race in Albany, Ohio.

“I rode everything that year—motocross, enduros, hare scrambles,” he said. “Then in 1977, at a motocross in Coolville, Ohio, a guy came up to me and said he heard Maico was coming out with an enduro bike and that I should Ramsey’s Motorsports in Marietta and check it out.”

Cunningham did. He bought a Maico, started racing it in May 1977 and continued to win. Maico rebuilt the bike for him for the 1978 season, he kept winning, and he was given a new bike for 1979. That year, Cunningham qualified to go to the International Six Days Enduro in Germany.

“On the flight back, a guy by the name of Greg Davis from Husqvarna was sitting in the seat in front of me, and he said, ‘Terry, if you ever decide to change brands, call me first.’”

While Cunningham said he didn’t want to switch brands because “I’m a very loyal person,” Maico struggled to put a deal together for him in 1980. With Maico unable to provide a bike and the season starting, Cunningham called Davis. Although Davis said it was late to put together a complete deal from scratch, Husqvarna was able to provide a motorcycle. Cunningham had to buy his own parts.

At the Georgia national, Cunningham’s first race on the Husqvarna, he finished second to reigning AMA Grand National Enduro Champion Dick Burleson.

“On Monday, I got a call from Greg who said that Dunlop would give me tires, that Husqvarna could do parts and that I could have everything that I couldn’t have the week before,” Cunningham said. “That’s when I learned that when you perform, companies seem to be able to work things out.”

There was more. Due to another employee’s sudden transfer to the California office, Husqvarna asked Cunningham to come to work for the company as the East Coast service representative.

“It all happened in just a few weeks, and from there it was all Husqvarna,” Cunningham says.

The 1981 season was one of the most memorable in enduro history. It was the Burleson’s final full national enduro season. The AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame Legend had tied AMA Motorcycle Hall of Famer Bill Baird’s seemingly insurmountable record of seven AMA National Enduro Championships. Burleson was now going for a record eighth title. The championship came down to the final checkpoint of the final round. Burleson emerged victorious over his younger teammate Cunningham by a mere 2 points.

“It ended up being a very hard season, and the way I mean that is it’s hard when you’re competing against a teammate but also a traveling partner and a mentor in some respects,” Cunningham said. “We never really rode together, and Dick wasn’t someone who would just give up his secrets, but just being in the same workshop and seeing how be prepped his motorcycle, that was a lot.”

Despite a poor finish at the Tennessee round, where Cunningham finished eighth, he would win the title if he won the last race and Burleson finished worse than third. Cunningham did win, but Burleson emerged with the championship.

But what Cunningham did do is send notice that he was the rider to beat going forward.

“Going into 1980, I was nobody,” he said. “I was just a Husky rider, but by the end of that season, I won the last round, so going into ’81, I knew I could ride with the best of them. I wanted to prove I was capable. I did that.”

Cunningham established himself as part of the future of off-road racing in America. It wasn’t long before he made a larger impact.

In 1982, Cunningham won the 1982 AMA Grand National Enduro Championship and played a key role in the U.S. team’s second-place finish at the International Six Days Enduro—one of the most-challenging ISDEs of all time.

In addition that year, Cunningham rode the 430cc Husqvarna Automatic Enduro to the title, winning seven rounds of the 12-round series. It was the first time an automatic would win the national enduro title.

Coming in the wake of 1982’s accomplishments—although Cunningham says missing out on the team overall at the ISDE was a “low point”—the 1983 season was a disappointment. Cunningham lost the title to his Husqvarna teammate Mike Melton and then he shattered his femur while training for that year’s ISDE. Doctors bolted Cunningham’s leg back together, and the plate was to stay there, for a year, while the bone healed.

“I was in the hospital for nine days and was told I may never walk again,” Cunningham said. “The bone was completely shattered. It was just a ball of junk inside there.”

Cunningham was “patched up” on Sept. 29, 1983, and despite doctor’s warnings started riding in December.

That set up Cunningham’s next act as one of redemption, and that came sooner than the off-road world expected. Going into the 1984 campaign, Cunningham had one good leg, but the other one was held together with a metal plate and 14 screws.

“If you’re down, if you’re able to do something, you can’t just stop because somebody tells you to,” Cunningham told American Motorcyclist at the time.

Cunningham did race, of course—beginning the year on a 250cc left-side-kickstart bike because his right leg “didn’t have enough horsepower” to kickstart the right-side-kickstart open-class automatic—and he won the 1984 AMA Grand National Enduro Championship. Cunningham triumphed in one of the most physically demanding motorsports in the world while overcoming the psychological pressure of knowing one freak crash could change his life forever.

Indicative of Cunningham’s mindset is a single race win that season. For the record and the championship, the race was pointless. Despite having already clinched the title, Cunningham lined up for the last round in 1984, and he won that race, too.

“I just like to ride motorcycles,” Cunningham said at the time to explain his decision to race.

The AMA named Cunningham the AMA Athlete of the Year in 1984, recognizing the skill and drive that carried him to the championship.

Cunningham’s love of racing put him back on top, and his abilities kept him there for two more years. He successfully defended his championship in 1985 and again in 1986.

In 1987, Husqvarna was sold to Italian company Cagiva. Cunningham stayed on, but says the philosophy was different. Whereas Husqvarna emphasized “what wins on Sunday, sells on Monday,” Cagiva approached the motorcycle business more like a straight product sale—“like selling washing machines or refrigerators,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham stayed with Cagiva for two years and then signed with Kawasaki.

“They said, ‘we don’t care if you win; we just want your name associated with Kawasaki,’” Cunningham remembered.

Cunningham says the next few years were good, not great, and then in 1993, he won an ISDE qualifier on a KX125 bike, a Grand National Cross Country on a KX250 and a national enduro on a KDX200. After a couple years on Yamahas and “never really adjusting to the Yamaha bikes,” Cunningham went back to Kawasaki through 1998 when the Spanish manufacturer Gas-Gas came on the scene.

“The importer, Don Knight, had a couple sons who were racing, and he wanted me to be somewhat of a player/coach to them,” Cunningham said. “That lasted until 2001 when Gas-Gas did away with their importers.”

After two years with Husaberg, Cunningham stopped racing until 2009 when he started getting involved in vintage competition.

This past summer, he raced a vintage Husqvarna at AMA Vintage Motorcycle Days, winning the Evolution 2 title in the Super Senior 50+ class.

Terry Cunningham, the first rider to win a national enduro title on an automatic motorcycle, will be remembered as the quintessential tough-as-nails enduro racer, driven to perform better when environmental conditions—and even his personal physical obstacles—are at their worst.