A CAREER IN PHOTOS: ERIK KEHOE’S RISE THOUGH THE RANKS OF RACING

September 10, 2013
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Erik Kehoe was a budding Amateur star in the late 1970s. The baby-faced kid from Granada Hills, California, was the talk of the motocross industry. He owned the 80cc class when it was considered the hotbed of the sport, and his reign extended as far as Ponca City. Yamaha was quick to notice Kehoe’s talent, and soon the soft-spoken son of a machinist was on the road to a factory ride.

Unfortunately, Kehoe’s professional racing career didn’t start off well. In 1981, shortly after Erik turned Pro, his ankle got sucked into his swingarm. The broken ankle ended his career with Team Yamaha, and no other factory sponsorships were forthcoming. After two years on a privateer Honda (the second year he finished second overall in the 125 Nationals), Kehoe was rewarded with an offer from Suzuki. He repaid their generosity with two wins and a second-place finish overall in the 125 Nationals. In fact, Erik won 125 Nationals for four straight years, beginning in 1985. He had the speed to win but never captured the coveted title.

Kehoe’s career ended just the way it began?with an injury. In 1994, while riding for Honda of Troy, Erik endoed off a jump at Mt. Morris and broke his back. After the injury, he was forced to realize he could no longer continue with the racing grind. Fortunately, a good friend helped Kehoe transition into life as a team manager, first at Honda of Troy and eventually at factory Honda, where he worked until the end of 2012. He spent the last few years before his retirment from the business end of motocross as the Team Honda manager.

MXA watched Erik Kehoe grow up, following him to the far corners of the earth, and documenting his races for the magazine. Feeling nostalgic, we wanted to sit down with Erik, get out the scrapbook, and discuss some of his fondest racing memories.

1978?IN THE GARAGE

 
“This photo was taken in my garage in Granada Hills. That’s my father on the right, and we’re working on my Yamaha YZ80. I was about 14 years old at the time. My dad taught me how to work on bikes. He worked for an aircraft company, and he would make modifications to parts that were failing. I actually had a C.C. Specialty grinding kit, and I was doing some of the porting on my YZ80. It was a very interesting time, because I was learning about motorcycles.

“I actually started working on the neighborhood kids’ mopeds. I would raise the exhaust a couple of millimeters to give the mopeds more top-end power. Once word spread, I soon had a line of guys wanting me to port their moped engines [laughter].”

1979?AMATEUR SENSATION


“I won all three classes at Ponca City in 1979. I raced the 80cc stock and modified classes, as well as the 105cc class. At the time, it was a big deal to win all of those classes at Ponca. Loretta Lynn’s hadn’t been started yet, so Ponca and World Mini were the biggest amateur races of the year. I was a Yamaha-backed rider, and Ed Scheidler gave me support.

 

“Believe it or not, my dad dislocated his shoulder the same day this photo was taken. A rider in my class blew off the side of the track and hit my dad. When I came around the track by the mechanic’s area and saw him sprawled out on the ground with the medical crew all around him, I was leading the race. I didn’t know what was going on. Imagine riding by as your father is down on the ground. It was very strange, but being a kid, I couldn’t help but laugh. Fortunately, he was okay.”

1981?FACTORY YAMAHA

 

“In 1980, I rode a YZ80 for the first half of the year, and then I went to the Houston Astrodome for an Amateur Supercross and rode the 125 Intermediate class. I also raced an Amateur National at Millville that year. In 1981, I moved up to the Pro class and rode for Factory Yamaha.

“Unfortunately, I broke my ankle really badly at Arroyo Cycle Park, which is now Glen Helen. I got my ankle stuck in the swingarm after I dragged my foot back and it got sucked up. The medics had to take the bike apart to free my leg. I ended up losing my factory ride, but Yamaha gave me a support ride in 1982.

“This photo is from 1982, because I’m on the production bike and not on the factory Yamaha. I finished eighth overall in the 125 Nationals. I had some good races, even though it was a privateer effort against full-factory bikes. My results helped me land a good deal with Honda for the following year.”

1983?HONDA SUPPORT

 
“I had a Honda support ride in 1983 and ’84. It looks like I’m battling with Troy Blake at Saddleback in this photo from 1983. The Honda CR125 was a very interesting bike; I thought it was very good. In 1984, I rode for Honda again as a support rider. I led some Nationals and ran up front on production equipment. This was before the production rule. The factory bikes were all pretty gnarly, but I managed to do well and get attention. At the end of 1984, Suzuki contacted me, and then I signed a deal with them for 1985.” 

1986?FACTORY SUZUKI


“This is a classic photo. I believe this is from Hangtown in 1986. That’s George Holland behind me. We were archrivals, and we always seemed to end up around the same spot on the track. He ended up riding for factory Suzuki, and we became teammates. We formed a friendship during the week when we were testing. He was a really good guy. Of course when it came time for the weekend, we became enemies [laughter].

“I have a funny story about George. Before I knew him, I raced Indian Dunes on Friday nights. I would win the 80 Expert class every week. One night, I remember getting the holeshot and leading. All of a sudden, I heard this Honda XR75 four-stroke on my butt the whole race. I won, but as I pulled off the track, I looked to see who the kid was. He had the name Holland on the back of his jersey. That was the first time I had ever seen George Holland. He was riding this fire-breathing XR75, and he stuck with me.”

1986?WORKS MACHINERY


“Look at that bike! Mitch Payton was making exhaust pipes for Suzuki from time to time. The factory had a pipe that everyone called the ?Guppy pipe.’ We would test with Mitch quite a bit, and the whole year he was trying to make a pipe that was better than the Guppy pipe. He never could, and it ate him up. Still, to this day, Mitch bugs me about it. He can’t let it go! He still thinks that he had the Guppy pipe beat and that I just didn’t want to pick his exhaust.

“Note the conventional forks. I still believe that conventional forks work great outdoors. I liked the forks on my Suzuki. Bob Hannah was on the team at the time, and we tested the upside-down forks. They were stiff and precise for Supercross, but they had a harsh feeling for outdoor riding. The conventional forks had really good traction. I liked those forks.”

1989?TOP 10 AGAIN
 


“I always liked to race at Mammoth Mountain [where this photo was taken]. It was great for training, and I had a lot of local friends that would go there and race. Mammoth was an off-weekend on the National schedule, and I’d race in order to stay sharp.

“The 1989 RM125 worked pretty well, but it also had flaws. One of the biggest challenges for me with that bike was getting good starts. I don’t know if it was a horsepower issue or what, but I could never get a start on that bike when the area in front of the gate was disced deep. I still finished ninth overall in the 125 Nationals. I finished inside the top-10 overall point standings from 1982 through 1989.”

1992?MITCH’S GUIDANCE


“This is a shot of me from Washougal. What’s interesting is that my bike had On The Line graphics. I can remember the guy from On The Line Racing. He was connected with Honda a bit. He had a race team for a season or two, and I’m on his bike.

“At the time, I consulted with Mitch Payton quite a bit. Hondas seemed to be the most reliable and best-performing bikes. I was still supporting my racing career mostly by myself, and the bikes were reliable. Mitch started his Peak Honda team in 1991. He had a lot of Honda equipment, and he had good engine packages that I could use.”

1993?BEATING THE KING


“I still vividly remember that race. It was at Gainesville, Florida, in 1993. Jeremy McGrath was just starting to dominate. He won the Supercross title in his rookie 250 season, and we had an epic battle in the second moto at Gainesville. I was riding for Honda of Troy on a CR250. We were running first and second the entire race, and we must have passed one another four times. It came down to the last corner of the last lap. I protected the inside line, but it was slower. Jeremy swept around the outside and kept his speed up. I started grabbing gears out of the corner and I never shut off. I hit the finish-line jump wide open and went 30 feet farther than anyone else had jumped the whole day. I landed in the braking bumps and blew my front wheel out. I didn’t care, because I won! It was one of my last really good memories from the Nationals.

“I always had a lot of fun racing with Jeremy. You could trust him, and his line selection was clean. He never tried to take me out.”  

1994?125 VERSUS 250


“I bounced back and forth between the 125 and 250 classes quite a few times. When I first started racing Supercross, there wasn’t a 125 class. I went from riding 80s in 1980 to a 250 in Supercross in 1981. It was a huge step. Now that I look back on that time, I wish I had remained an Amateur for another season so that I could have gotten stronger. I got hurt right away when I turned Pro, but at the time I thought that I could conquer the world.

“I dabbled in the 250 class throughout my career. I had some top-five finishes, and I won a few events in Europe, but I never won a 250 Supercross in the U.S. I was always more mentally and physically fit for the Nationals, because it was what I preferred.”

1994?END OF A CAREER


“I broke my back at the Mt. Morris National in 1994. I crashed in the first practice session over a jump. There was a big uphill leading to a jump before the finish line. I was cruising around the track, and maybe my bike was running too rich, but I came around to hit the jump and the engine sputtered. I thought I had enough speed, but I went into an endo and landed short. I flipped over the bars and landed on my back.

“I laid in a hospital in Morgantown, West Virginia, for about a week. The doctors went back and forth about whether I should have surgery. While in the hospital, I spoke to Phil Alderton, the owner of Honda of Troy, on the phone and told him that I had to get out of the hospital. Phil was known for extravagant spending sometimes, and he chartered an air ambulance for me from Morgantown to Los Angeles. I think it set him back about $40,000, but he understood my plight. It was very cool of Phil to do that.”

1995?A NEW CAREER


“At that point, I realized that I was done racing professionally. Phil Alderton was a really good friend of mine. He offered me the position of managing and learning the business side of the sport. The partnership seemed natural. I had already been doing some managing for a while when I had support rides, so the transition was fairly smooth. I learned how to put all the pieces together with the Honda of Troy race team.”

2013?STILL RIDING AFTER ALL THESE YEARS


“I still ride. I have a 14-year-old son who loves to ride and race motocross. We try to keep it fun. The Day in the Dirt is a great event, and we try to do it as often as we can. I had to have my hip replaced about three years ago. I missed out on some riding, but I’m feeling good again. I still have fun riding, and that’s what matters.”

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