I started racing 80s. Actually, I raced 60s first when I was about seven or eight, then I started racing 80s and rode the world mini championships. I won the mini Grand Prix one year, and I won Ponca City one year. They didn’t have Loretta Lynn’s back then, so those were the big ones. I won those races on 80s and got my first factory ride when I was 16 with Yamaha. I rode 125 Nationals in 1981; that was my first year riding Nationals. That’s kinda how I got started.How’d you do your first year out?
I broke my leg really bad on the Yamaha with the old monoshock and funky swingarm; I got my leg stuck in the swingarm when I crashed. I was out the rest of the year.In ’85 and ’86, you finished runner-up in the 125 Outdoor Nationals. Do you think you could’ve done better if you had been on Team Honda, after now being at Team Honda?
Yes. At the time I was racing with Suzuki. Now seeing what’s behind the scenes at Honda, the organization and the resources that are there are tremendous and the bikes are awesome. It’s one of those deals that at the time, I thought I had good bikes, but you never know; things just happened the way they did. Finishing second was probably the highlight there; that was nice, but I also won a 125 U.S. GP world championship race at Steel City. That was a fun race on the Suzukis. That was cool.Who was your biggest rival back then? Someone you didn’t like and always had heavy competition with?
I always had a rivalry throughout my career with George Holland. Not that I didn’t like him, I just think when we were on the track we didn’t like each other. But off the track, George was a nice guy, we got along well and talked and hung out a little bit. But it seemed as if throughout our careers we were always battling and butting heads on the track.Do you ever talk to George?
You know what, I haven’t seen him in a long time. I ran into him one time at a National at Hangtown. Said hello, but it was real brief.At what point in your career did you think about becoming a team manager?
Well, in 1994 I broke my back. That was the last year that I competed, and I was racing for Honda of Troy. When I broke my back, it was a career-ending injury. After I had surgery, I wasn’t able to train the way I could in the past, so I decided it was a good opportunity to learn the business side of the sport. Phil Alderton from Honda of Troy offered me the position to run the Honda of Troy team. The timing was good, and I thought it was a good time to make the move and learn the business side.When the Honda job happened, did it happen pretty fast or was it a long, drawn-out process where you were on pins and needles for a while?
It happened pretty quickly. I had been talking to them for quite a while, and both Cliff White and Chuck Miller came to me toward the end of the ’01 season and said, “Hey, we’ve been looking around trying to find somebody.” I knew that because I had heard they’d been looking around at a lot of people. They said, “What would it take for you to switch?” I said, “Well, let me know a little bit more about the opportunity there.” So we talked for quite a while, and they told me about their program and how it was set up and what the opportunities were. I just thought, “Wow, Chuck Miller’s really enthusiastic,” and he had a really positive approach, and it kinda got me excited about the opportunity. I thought, “This is something good.” It was an opportunity that doesn’t come along very often, and it was a great chance to learn the corporate side at such a big company. It’s a lot bigger than the Honda or Yamaha of Troy teams. It was a tough change, though. I really enjoyed working with Phil Alderton and Scott Paul, and I still am really good friends with those guys. It was tough decision to make, but…?,Mb
The Honda and Yamaha of Troy years definitely prepared me, and my last couple of years as a privateer prepared me for the Yamaha and Honda of Troy race teams because I was running my own little race team. I had a privateer deal, so I had to get all my sponsors, do the contracts, figure out all the travel scheduling — so a lot of the same things, but at a much bigger scale now.Team Honda has always been considered the elite program. Were you a little nervous taking on the responsibility and living up to the expectations everyone had with Ricky and some of the new riders coming to the team?
You know, I never really felt that. I never looked at it that way, because with Cliff White and Chuck Miller there, the whole staff — Honda has a tremendous staff. They have a lot of experts in every field. We could go down the list of guys who specialize in every area — engineering, suspension, frame geometry, motors. Cliff White is our technical director, and he oversees all of that. There are so many good people there. Probably the most difficult part is dealing with all the people and keeping everybody up to speed and going in the right direction. There are so many good people there that everybody shares in the responsibility.What is your schedule like as a team manager?
Normally we fly to the supercross on Thursday. Friday we’ve got practice day, so the guys are testing and practicing on the bikes. We race Saturday, fly home Sunday. Usually Monday we have meetings and go over next week and what’s going on. We go over the weekend and any problems we need to address. [I spend] a couple of days during the week at the office, and I always gotta fit in one day at the track riding.What was the most stressful moment for you this past season?
The single most stressful moment was probably seeing Ricky [Carmichael] go over the bars and face-plant at Anaheim. Not that the expectations were really high, I guess there were some there, but I think everybody was really confident that Ricky was ready, the bike was ready and the team was ready. So to see that happen, I think that was pretty stressful. But at the same time, the good part was that — and I think this is really important for our team — Ernesto [Fonseca] and Nathan [Ramsey] both stepped up and were right there riding really well. Everybody knew that Rick could win and that he was a great rider, but at the same time, those guys took the pressure off by riding so well. Nathan had his first win of the year on the 450, and Ernesto was on the podium a couple of times.I think it was St. Louis where Vuillemin passed Ricky on the last lap; was there some heavy conversation going on after that weekend?
Yeah. We were addressing some issues on the bike. Ricky wanted to make some improvements and change things a little more for him, so we were kind of working through that stuff. I think that his comfort level wasn’t really high right then; he was riding tight and wasn’t really comfortable.Was he the hardest guy to set the bike up for this year?
I think we made quite a few changes. I don’t think he was necessarily the hardest. Each of the guys is a little bit different, but Ricky definitely has his own style.Does having Ricky on the team make your job easier setting a standard for work ethic?
Oh definitely. Ricky’s a true professional. And actually this year with all of our guys, everyone knows Ricky and his work ethic and how much of a professional he is…Nathan Ramsey is the same way. I think that helps Ernesto elevate his schedule, he’s working really hard. And I think people don’t realize Mike LaRocco is also part of the Honda effort, even though he’s under the Factory Connections tent. His work ethic is really good too, so I think that kinda raises the level for everybody.Ernesto looked really good on the 250 at the World Cup. Is there any chance of seeing him on the big bike outdoors next year?
We haven’t made definite plans for that yet. Depending on how he feels this year, that could be a possibility.?? enjoy your current position as team manager as much as you enjoyed being a rider?
Yeah. It’s got its strong points and its weaknesses. Sometimes I still get that feeling at the Nationals Sunday morning — when the 125s start up and go out on the track, my palms start sweating and it’s like, “Where’s my bike?” I still have a little bit of that, but then in the second moto when I see huge ruts everywhere and guys getting beat up, I think hanging out here with the guys watching ain’t so bad.Is being a team manager the end of the road, or do you have other goals as far as stepping up into other positions in the corporate motorcycle world?
The toughest part of the job right now is the traveling. I’ve got a three-year contract with Honda. I don’t know what the next road that’s going to come up is. I know that the traveling is the toughest part of my job right now, so I’ll see where this takes me the next couple of years and go from there.The sport has become really high-profile. Do you think it was more fun when you were racing back in the ’80s or early ’90s?
I think it’s just evolving. It was fun for me then and it’s fun now. I just see it as kind of a different group with a different style. There are a lot of new things happening, and it’s exciting. I think it’s just as exciting as it was.Who did you hang with back then as far as guys you trained with, and your friends who were also racers?
Probably the better part of my career was with Johnny O’Mara. I did some running and cycling with him, some practicing with him. And Mike Kiedrowski. I’d say those were two of my best practice partners that I had.Johnny O is kind of a prankster, did you guys ever get in any trouble together?
There were some good stories, but I have to be a respectable guy now. I always tried to hang back from that.From a rider’s perspective, is it a lot different being a top factory guy now?
I think the true professionals back then were the guys excelling, and it’s the same now. Guys who have a good program put together and are really serious will always rise to the top. So I think it was important then and it’s important now. Just a different time.Some people think the sport’s becoming too commercial and in danger of losing the core audience. Do you feel that way?
I think those might be the people who are afraid of change. I think the riders now are getting paid more money, and coming from being a rider myself, I wanna see that. I wanna see these guys make the big bucks because I know what it takes. I don’t wanna take anything away from any of the other professional sports out there, but motocross and supercross [riders] are among the toughest athletes and I want to see those guys make a ton of money. Our industry — the inside-of-the-industry companies — cannot handle some of the cost and the salaries and where they’re going, so we need that outside-of-the-industry money. And to make that happen, it’s gotta get commercialized, we’ve gotta get a lot of people to know about it and get involved. So I think it’s really important.In the world of racing, there doesn’t really seem to be a middle class as far as riders go. People talk — some say the young guys are getting too much and all they care about is getting free stuff, the big guys seem to be making what they deserve and some of the privateers can barely make it from one round to the next. Do you have any opinion on racing compensation and how things can be improved?
I know that it’s getting better with the privateer money that’s posted out there now. It’s helping those guys. But you know there’s no race without the privateers, you need those guys there to make the field. I don’t think it’s ever going to be able to get to where the privateers can make as much money. And I think that’s what everybody strives to be — that factory rider making that factory salary. I think that motivates them to get to that next level. But I know it’s getting better for them to make a living and get from race to race.Do you think some of the younger guys these days are less tough than the tough guys of your era or before your era?
I think it’s the same. There are guys now who are tough and have a lot of desire and work really hard, and there were back then. I think that now there are more guys who are serious about it, and there are definitely more people out there treating it as a real sport and business. There were a lot of people like that back in my day too, and I think those were the guys who rose to the top.Who do you think is gonna be a threat next year, besides RC?
I know that Ricky is gonna be on top of his game. I know that Nathan and Ernesto, in the off-season, have stepped it up a level. They were podium guys last year, too. And with LaRocco coming off the win at the U.S. Open — and I’ve seen him during testing — he’s going to be a threat too. All of our guys are going to be right there. You know, Chad Reed is riding really well too, he’ll be a top-five guy. I think it’s going to be an exciting year. I think our sport needs it. There’s going to be a lot of guys battling.I know I’m kind of dreaming, but how do you think Stewart would do if he decided to race an East Coast round on a 250?
I think he’s going to be a top-10 guy. I don’t know that he’s strong enough yet to really challenge for the win, but I can’t speculate because I haven’t seen him ride a 250. I know he’s really fast and he’s definitely capable. I guess we’ll have to see.