American Suzuki Racing History - Dirt Rider Magazine Online

The motocross bandwagon is always full, but it has a trapdoor. Jump on while it's hot, but when there's a bump in the road-bam!-that trapdoor opens, dumping out those who were only along for the ride. The most disheartening truth in motocross is that you're only as good as your last race. Just ask any rider in the pits. They are the most familiar with the pressure. In turn the manufacturers and their motorcycles are only as good as the last championship they won. Hey, what wins on Sunday sells on Monday, right? But if you're not winning.Droughts and winless streaks happen in all sports. Golf used to have Phil Mickelson. Baseball had the Red Sox and still has the Cubs. And motocross, until 2005, had Team Suzuki. But now Suzuki is guest-starring Ricky Carmichael.From Domination to Dead LastIn the 1970s Suzuki was hot. It was the first Japanese OEM to enter the FIM World Motocross Championships, and the relentless R&D; paid off with many titles in all three divisions, including the first 10 consecutive seasons of the 125cc class. With Joel Robert, Roger DeCoster, Gaston Rahier and Harry Everts, Suzuki was unstoppable. Not bad for a company that began as a builder of weaving looms for Japan's giant silk industry.Suzuki's success carried overseas to the States in the late '70s. DeCoster was the man in the Trans-AMA series, Tony DiStefano ruled the AMA 250cc motocross crown and Danny LaPorte grabbed the 1979 AMA 500cc title. Times were bliss, and just as the other OEMs were gaining momentum and titles, American Suzuki went on a rampage in the early '80s. Between a guy named Kent Howerton from Texas and a kid called Mark "The Bomber" Barnett from Bridgeview, Illinois, Suzuki won six titles in AMA supercross and motocross from '80 to '82."It was just easy," 1981 Supercross Champion Mark Barnett said of his two-title year. "In '81 I was just on top. I went out and did my riding and went to the race to win. I had to be consistent in supercross, but the 125cc class in motocross was a piece of cake."Barnett's fondest memories of riding during the early "Full Floater" days were the bikes. In his day, factories didn't have to operate under the production rule, and the bikes were full works. "You couldn't wait to go out to California to see your bike because you didn't know what it was going to look like," he said. "You would look at it and say, 'Wow, check out all this magnesium and titanium.' We had hand-made swingarms and aluminum gas tanks."Suzuki had the fastest and lightest bikes. David Bailey, who rode for Honda at the time, still remembers the intimidation tactics the Suzuki team would use to keep things interesting. "I remember one year at Mount Morris they rolled the bikes through tech inspection with blankets covering them and I was thinking, 'Man, these guys are making it seem like it's more than it really is,' because we were going to get to look at them eventually. It was a team that when you cruised the pits you didn't want to miss it, and often you just went there first."In '82, Barnett became the first million-dollar man of motocross in a three-year contract with Suzuki. He deferred the payments over 10 years, then went out and won the 1982 125cc Motocross title but fell 16 points short in supercross. In '83,The Bomber was leading the points until the penultimate round in Foxboro. His transmission failed and he lost the crown by two points to Bailey. After '83 the magic was gone. Suzuki didn't win another supercross race for seven years, and since '82 the team has won only three nationally recognized AMA championships, all in motocross. A little-known award given by the AMA is the Manufacturer's Championship, which American Suzuki hasn't won since '81. That's one hell of a dry spell.Right Place, Wrong TimeEven though American Suzuki won it all in '81, there was trouble in paradise, but it had nothing to do with the team or its riders. The problem was the motorcycle industry. "Our company back then was really struggling because the industry in general had a glut of product out there," said Mel Harris, American Suzuki's executive vice president. "Everybody was discounting and doing whatever they had to do to get rid of it." Management in Japan reorganized the company's structure and more emphasis was put on roadracing and the debut of the GSX-R in '85. The GSX-R went on to win countless AMA Superbike and support-class crowns while the motocross line and team suffered.Suzuki's downward spiral continued through the '80s and into the '90s. In the 22 years leading into 2005, Suzuki won three AMA motocross titles, a handful of supercross races and only got realistically close to the supercross championship once. It became the factory where riders ended up as a last resort. Mike LaRocco and Larry Ward both rode for Suzuki twice in their careers at different stages. Still, Suzuki couldn't put together a good season. Whatever it was Suzuki just didn't have it. "It's the combination of the bike and rider," said "The Professor" Gary Bailey, who competed on a Bultaco when Suzuki brought its bikes over from Japan. "I guess it's just like any team: Whenever they're winning and dominating, you're saying, 'What is it that makes them so dominating and powerful?' It's a combination of so many things-of mechanics and bikes and riders and the whole team effort. If you don't have that entire package, it's not going to work."Enter "The Man"In '95, after 12 years of heartbreak and anguish, Suzuki decided it was time to reinvent its motocross program. The company's first step was hiring Roger DeCoster, who had helped Honda become the most successful OEM in AMA history. DeCoster may be better known for the five FIM 500cc World Motocross titles he won on Suzukis and his role in 16 Motocross and Trophee des Nations teams for Belgium. DeCoster had the knowledge and the experience and knew how to win. But could he do it with Suzuki? "It was rough," DeCoster said. "When I came back, some people told me they wanted to get back on top. They invited me to Japan, and they brought a room of engineers I had worked with in the '70s whom they wanted to get back. I was all excited for the challenge. Then when I started working I realized how far things had declined."DeCoster recalled that Honda, the team he'd managed for nearly 15 years, had amassed so much strength that it discouraged the others. DeCoster's first action in '95 was bringing three-time World Champ Greg Albertyn to the team. After four years of injuries and frightening crashes, Albee delivered Suzuki the 1999 AMA 250cc title, the company's first in the premier class since '81. Albertyn's championship was sweet, but with Ricky Carmichael moving up to the 250cc class in 2000 and the King of Supercross, Jeremy McGrath, reigning overall, the pressure on DeCoster to perform sent him into overtime. Despite the hard times, Harris has never blamed DeCoster."There are a lot of things that people don't know about Roger and the work he's done," Harris said. "I can tell you there are many times when he's called me late at night and he's just leaving one of the shops."All That Talent and No TitleRebuilding a dynasty doesn't happen overnight. How many NBA titles have the Chicago Bulls won since Michael Jordan retired? DeCoster has brought talent to the table, but talent alone doesn't win titles, as evidenced by the one-year stint of McGrath in '97. It doesn't matter which version of the story is told, the bottom line is that neither party was ready coming into the season. McGrath's relationship with Honda came to an abrupt end just two weeks before the season, and American Suzuki wasn't prepared to work with the greatest supercross rider of all time. MC ended up 15th in the first round in Los Angeles, but Suzuki still came away as the point leader: Albertyn won the race. "We hired Jeremy hoping we could go out and capture a championship, and we found out that we were not ready to compete with Honda and Yamaha and Kawasaki at that level," Harris commented. Jeff Emig won the title, but several "what if" stories haunt McGrath from '97. He suffered a cut ankle from a piece of glass in a nonracing accident and then got a flat tire during a main late in the season. McGrath lost the title by 15 points.Suzuki's woes continued into the 21st century despite a top-shelf lineup that included Travis Pastrana, Kevin Windham and Sbastien Tortelli. Between the three riders, Pastrana's 2000 AMA 125cc Motocross title was the only bright spot. Beyond that was a clipboard full of medical charts, especially for Pastrana, whose injuries and extracurricular activities left DeCoster scratching his head. The bad luck continued to the point where Suzuki had no reason to even send a truck to the races because there was nobody left to ride the bikes. "Every year you get excited," Harris said. "We had Windham and Pastrana a couple of years ago, and if the main events had been 10 laps, we would have won three of them right off the get-go. It seemed like during the 11th to the 20th laps they crashed or suffered from arm-pump or fatigue. You name it, we just couldn't put 20 good laps together. I think we were starting to second-guess ourselves."Wasn't April Fool's Yesterday?"When I first heard of RC's signing with Suzuki, I thought it was some kind of joke. I couldn't believe it," 1983 AMA Supercross Champ David Bailey said. That was the perception, that there was no way in hell Carmichael, the all-time race-wins leader, was going to ride a Suzuki. No fooling. On April 2, 2004, that was the truth. Carmichael, who had been out with a knee injury since the previous November, had signed with Suzuki without even riding the bike."The final ingredient was when he came to Daytona in '04 and saw Pastrana and Sean Hamblin get the holeshot and lead for a while," Harris said. "He said, 'If those guys can get the holeshot and lead on that bike, then I will win on that bike.'"The Monday after Daytona the call was made, 'Let's finalize the deal.' He had needed a little reassurance-seeing the bikes at Daytona-and we understood. Not winning a title in 24 years and not really having the bike of choice. There were a couple of other riders who tested the bike and didn't get the offer from us that maybe they were expecting, and I think they would have appreciated riding the bike this year. But we felt that Ricky was the rider that could win the championship for us on our bike.""You can't discount the bike because the rider didn't get on the podium," Carmichael said in December, two weeks before the '05 season started. "You can't draw conclusions. You put Bubba, myself or Reed on any bike, and we're going to win races, especially today because the bikes are so similar." Given the competition he was up against and the supercross track record for Suzuki, the trapdoor to the Carmichael bandwagon was wide open. This time, though, Suzuki came to the table prepared and Harris made sure that DeCoster and the team had every possible resource available to them for a winning season. Suzuki brought in an engineer from Japan to work full-time with the team. Carmichael got his own semi and kept his mechanic, and DeCoster and the team promised to make frequent trips to RC's training facility in southern Georgia to make sure its star had what he needed. Carmichael told DeCoster and Harris that if they gave him 100 percent then he would give 150. "I think RC is very aware of what's going on around him," DeCoster said. "He really studies his competition and the other bikes. He knew the bike was capable; the equipment wasn't the problem. He trusted me. He knew I wasn't trying to give him a sales job, and I think that's why he came our way."Just when they felt as if it was never going to happen, all the ingredients finally coalesced and Harris and DeCoster put together their first supercross title at Suzuki with Carmichael. The long-overdue championship ended what many thought was a curse against Suzuki. "I thought the bike was good, but I didn't think the team structure was good enough to support Ricky," Bailey said. "They proved me wrong. RC has brought Suzuki back to where it was in the early '80s, and it's only going to get stronger from here."Carmichael kept mental notes on those who didn't believe in him and used them as motivation throughout the year. Even though he never rightfully lost the supercross title, he still wanted it back as if it were his first, and he knew he was the underdog in the public eye. "It's funny to look at all the people who thought they knew who was going to win and who they bet on, and a lot of guys came out on the wrong end of the stick," Carmichael said after the supercross season. "It just goes to show you they didn't know as much as they thought they did. It kept me motivated. I know the guys and the people who didn't believe, and I like looking them in the face-it's fun."Before '05 Suzuki was nowhere to be found in the winner's circle. After McGrath began dominating supercross in '93, the only time all four OEM brands won at least one race each was in '98. In motocross it had been three years since any brand other than Honda had won a 250cc race. American Suzuki is back on top. The next task is figuring out how to stay there."One isn't enough," Harris said. "I want to go after that second one next year, and I want to see these young guys we're grooming come up and win also. I'm a sales guy. You make your goal this month and you do it again next month. We're going to be looking for another title."