MXA INTERVIEW: DAVE OSTERMAN ON BELL, BROOKS, BUELL, BURNOUT & MITCH

BY JIM KIMBALL

DAVE, HOW DID YOU FIRST GET INTO MOTOCROSS? I started with Yamaha. I was 19 when I got in there. I had raced myself and worked with some up-and-coming local pro riders like Eddie Cole and Gary Ogden. I was fortunate to be around good people and was lucky to be with riders who were not a waste of my time. Eddie Cole was my ticket into factory Yamaha, because I went to the Florida series with him and met all the team. I did a few things mechanically for the guys, and I think their management said, “Hey, we ought to keep this kid around,” and one thing led to another. Mike Bell was “burning up” in SoCal as they said in those days. He was a DG guy, but Yamaha had their eye on him. They merged the two of us together for a couple races and everything clicked. Jim Felt was with Yamaha at the time and mentored me, along with Al Baker. 

HOW LONG WERE YOU WORKING WITH MIKE BELL? Pretty much his whole career. I worked with him when we won the Supercross title. At the end of 1981, we split for some personal reasons, and I worked for some other guys at Yamaha. I was in charge when the production rule was first announced. There were still some teams running factory works bikes, but Yamaha had been merging production stuff with factory stuff, and I had some good riders there as well. I left Yamaha at the beginning of 1984. I was not told to leave; I just decided that “this is enough of this place.”

“PEOPLE TOLD ME NOT TO HAVE FAMILY OR FRIENDS INVOLVED IN A BUSINESS, AND THAT TURNED OUT TO BE TRUE. ULTIMATELY, I GOT OUT OF IT. I WAS THE HOOD ORNAMENT FOR THE BUSINESS.” 

WHAT CAME NEXT? I was friendly with Roy Turner at Factory Kawasaki, and in 1985 I started there as an in-house testing guy. They had Barnett, O’Mara, Wardy and me helping them during the week. They did not have the budget for me, so Roy was trying to get it to work into a full-time position. The mechanics were busy, so I was the extra guy.

YOU WEREN’T THERE LONG WERE YOU? Like I said, they just did not have the budget, so I rolled out of there. Then, later that year, I started a performance suspension company. I did that for about a year. That was a short-lived venture, but I learned a lot. It was a costly little hiccup that I was in and out of. That ended right towards the end of 1986; then in 1987, I started with Cagiva North America in Gardena. 

Dave (far right) with Chad Reed and the rest of TwoTwo Motorsports team.

I FORGOT ABOUT CAGIVA. Dick Burleson was running the program, but Dick was back on the East Coast where he lived, so they hired me to be the race team manager. We had Doug Dubach, A.J. Whiting, and Mike Healey. At the time, Cagiva was very successful in Europe, but there was not a whole lot of cooperation with the U.S., and there was a huge disconnect. The guy that ran the program in Europe was a bulldog. Nobody talked to him. When I came there, I started talking to the guy on the telephone, and everybody was all uptight because he was “the guy you did not talk to.”

WHY DIDN’T IT WORK AT CAGIVA? Dick Burleson was never on the West Coast. I told him one time, “You need to get out here and slap these people around.” There were too many cooks in the kitchen. Nobody wanted to work together. It was a learning experience. We actually did pretty well with what we had, but it ended up being only a one-year program. The 125s were good for what they were. It was one of the last hurrahs for the Euros, outside of KTM. KTM was around, but they were more of the big-bike class.

WHAT HAPPENED AFTER CAGIVA? I kicked around for a couple of years. I had the birth of my son and daughter and did the “Mr. Mom” thing. Late 1990 I started another performance company—Wide Open Racing—out of my garage. I imported some exhaust systems from Europe, along with seats and graphics. It was really hard to get product from time to time, but we were making some strides. I had a family friend become involved at a certain point. People told me not to have family or friends involved in a business, and that turned out to be true. Ultimately, I got out of it. I was the hood ornament for the business. 

Mike Bell and Dave Osterman. Photo by Jim Gianatsis

WHAT WAS NEXT AFTER WIDE OPEN RACING? I put so much effort into it, the last thing I wanted to see was a dirt bike. I had a bad taste in my mouth. But later I was at Glen Helen for the Grand Prix and, while walking through the pits, I bumped into Ron Heben, who I had been friendly with forever. Ron said, “I am working at KTM now and I need a team coordinator. How would you like to come down and talk to me?” So, in 2002, I started at KTM under Ron Heben as the in-house coordinator for the team. We ended up winning the championship with Grant Langston. We had Langston, Billy Laninovich and Ryan Hughes.

KTM WAS BEGINNING TO BECOME A FORCE IN AMERICAN 125 MOTOCROSS THEN. Yes, but midway through the year, they blew out Ron Heben for whatever reason and brought in Larry Brooks. Larry and I did not see eye to eye. I was not “his guy.” All I will say about Larry is the same thing that I have said for 100 years. If he were hitchhiking in the middle of the desert, I would pull the car over, and right when he was about to grab the door handle, I would just burn rubber. That is how I feel about that guy. Subsequently, I left KTM because of him, and in 2004, I got hired at Pro Circuit. 

PRO CIRCUIT WAS KING IN THE 125 CLASS. That was an interesting time. We were going from 125 two-strokes to 250 four-strokes. I never went to the hospital ER as many times as when the 125 guys jumped on four-strokes. Back then, they were not very good. They were underdeveloped for the Pro ranks, and it showed. The engines had to catch up to the ability of the riders, and the durability had to catch up, so it took a few years for everybody to understand, master them and make enough parts.

“I USED TO SAY, ‘EVERY TV HAS AN OFF SWITCH. EVERY APPLIANCE  HAS AN OFF SWITCH. EVERY CAR HAS AN OFF SWITCH, BUT MITCH HAS NO OFF SWITCH.’”

MITCH PAYTON HAS A REPUTATION FOR BEING A TOUGH TEAM MANAGER. DID YOU THINK THAT? No, not really. Mitch is a tough guy, and he wants things a certain way. I came from the corporate side of a race team, where you show up at 8 a.m., take a break at 10 a.m., you have a proper lunch and go home at 5:00 p.m. At Mitch’s, it was just wide open all the time. A few times I felt really smothered there. I used to say, “Every TV has an off switch. Every appliance has an off switch. Every car has an off switch, but Mitch has no off switch.” I think he is a little mellower now that he is married with kids, but it was just wide open all the time. If we had an off weekend in the schedule, I wanted to go to the beach. Mitch wanted his mechanics in the shop, cleaning up the parts, and doing this and that. That is why if you get a mechanic from Pro Circuit; he is good. 

WHY WAS YOUR TIME THERE SHORT? Mitch wanted me to stay, but the year I was there was like three years everywhere else. He beats the factories because he is relentless. But, working at Pro Circuit Racing is a burnout. The schedule, the flights, the travel and the lifestyle are insane. Everybody needs a little downtime. When Jimmy Perry got hired away from Mitch to go to Yamaha, I asked Perry, “How is it going at Yamaha”? He said, “I don’t understand corporate America. My guys walk in with a coffee in their hand and do 1-1/2 hours of work, then they have a break, they work a little more, then they have a lunch break before returning to work. Half the time when I want to talk to somebody, I have to go in the break room because that is where they are.” The Pro Circuit mentality is you get there when it is dark and you leave when it is dark. But, you cannot argue with all the number ones at his door. He wrote the book on showing people how to get it done. 

I’M EAGER TO HEAR ABOUT YOUR NEXT MOVE WHEN YOU WENT TO MANAGE YAMAHA OF TROY. When the Yamaha of Troy thing landed in my lap in 2005, we had a big meeting at Yamaha with all the brass. I remember leaving that day, and Jimmy Perry putting his hand on my shoulder saying, “All right, Ozzie, I guess we will be seeing you.” I said, “Jimmy, I don’t know if I even want the job.” Phil Alderton put the whole program together. They had some good years, and many great people worked there. But, Yamaha gave me the badge and said I was the sheriff. I was sent there to pull the place out of the gutter. It used to be a place that people wanted to go to. Keith McCarty said the famous words, “We lost our bling over there. Dave, you are going to get us our bling back.”  

WERE YOU THE ONE WHO HIRED JASON LAWRENCE? The icing on the cake was after losing my job and cleaning out my desk at the end of 2006, and in 2007, everything I put into place got them the championship with Jason Lawrence. Yamaha was so angry at me for hiring that guy. They did not want him. Actually, with everyone I sent Yamaha, they did not like anyone. I said, “Look, I am picking out of the ashtray from what is left. No disrespect to any of the riders, but nobody is worth hiring. All these people are a waste of time.” Our bike was the dinosaur of the class back then. Everybody else’s 250Fs were years more advanced. The Yamaha just did not change from the Chad Reed days. When I inherited the team, I had three riders there who were paid way too much, and they probably should have retired two years before I got there, but they were just milking their paycheck. Phil Alderton was out of it then because of his substance abuse.

WAS BUELL NEXT? TELL US ABOUT THAT. I came home from a bicycle ride one day in 2006, and my wife said, “Hey, you have to listen to the answering machine.” There was a message on there from a guy offering me a position on a new project. His name was Erik Buell. I never heard of him before. I thought it was a buddy playing a joke, but the phone number had a Wisconsin area code. I called back and set up an interview. They flew me there, put me up in a hotel, rented me a car, and pitched me on the premise that they had a project up and running that Eric thought I would be interested in. My name came out of a hat of a few guys. They wanted to make a 450 motocross bike and also develop it into an enduro and Supermoto bike.

LET’S HEAR MORE ABOUT THE EARLY DAYS WITH BUELL. It seemed too good to be true. I took the offer and ended up moving to Wisconsin, living with a great guy who was the lead mechanic on the project. He had a beautiful house, literally in a cornfield in Wisconsin. But in the winter, it was the frozen great white north. I did not even know what Wisconsin looked like, because when I got there, everything was white with snow.

“THERE WAS A MESSAGE ON MY ANSWERING MACHINE FROM A GUY OFFERING ME A POSITION ON A NEW PROJECT. HIS NAME WAS ERIK BUELL. I NEVER HEARD OF HIM BEFORE. I THOUGHT IT WAS A BUDDY PLAYING A JOKE.”

The mock-up of the never-released Buell motocross bike — with the gas in the frame and clay sculpting of the proposed plastic pieces.

WHAT WERE THE INITIAL DISCUSSIONS AROUND THE NEW BIKE LIKE? Our design model was to go off a Honda CRF450, the biggest seller at the time. I signed a confidentiality agreement that was about as thick as a small-town phone book. I have been pretty guarded about what I can say, but now that Buell is debunked, I can probably say whatever I want. I was there a year, and every meeting I was in, there were from 10 to 30 engineers in there. I learned a whole new ideology. They had some Japanese parts suppliers, but outside of the tires and plastics, everything was new and proprietary. When Erik Buell hired me, he said, “Look, I want you to be truthful and honest. You are not here for a popularity contest. These guys are all engineers. They might be enthusiasts, riding an ATV or a dirt bike on their property, but they are not like you. You need to just say what you want to say. Don’t be concerned that they like what you say; just be honest.” 

I DOUBT THAT YOU HAD AN ISSUE WITH BEING HONEST. I butted heads with a lot of people. Most of those people did not like me. I found myself starting every meeting with the phrase, “No disrespect, but….” Often, in these big meetings, they would ask, “What is your data source?” or “What gives you the right to have an opinion?” I replied, “Look, I have been doing this for 40 years. While you were in school getting your engineering degree, I was out in the field helping develop water cooling, power valves and disc brakes. I am not better than you guys, but I was shooting the guns that you guys are now trying to make.” Many of the engineering group were overly involved in talking about things like exhaust pipes. They were worried about the end, almost before we had a bike to begin with.

THAT THINKING HAD TO GO AGAINST THE GRAIN OF AN EXPERIENCED FACTORY MECHANIC AND TEAM MANAGER. Absolutely. One of the guys called me “California.” He said “California, I don’t know who you think you are, but that is not the Harley-Davidson way. Do you know anything about us? We developed the Screaming Eagle aftermarket line?” They were still using many of the old-school Harley-Davidson suppliers, which were overpriced. I told them that I had suppliers who worked with Honda and Suzuki and could make samples in half the time at half the price. Dealing with Harley was like dealing with the government. Harley was even more gnarly than Honda, Yamaha, or Kawasaki. It did not matter what you made; they were more worried about getting sued than selling. That was just the climate they were in, and I can applaud them for that. These guys were so disrespectful to me, but I just gave it right back to them and shut them up.

WHAT’S ONE OF THE CRAZIEST INCIDENTS TO HAPPEN THERE? First, my whole goal was not to be another Cannondale. So, it was strange that they had a couple Cannondales there. I had one put on the big oak table in the conference room and pointed at it and said, “You guys can’t lose sight of who came before us, because everything you guys are doing is leading to the same result.” At one point, I called the bike a Christmas tree because they were hanging so much stuff on it, just like the Cannondale. 

“I FELT THAT IF WE RELEASED THE BIKE TO MOTOCROSS ACTION AND IT TESTED POORLY, WE WOULD NEVER RECOVER. I TOLD THEM THAT MY ULTIMATE GOAL WAS TO MAKE THE BUELL GOOD ENOUGH TO HAVE JODY WEISEL RIDE IT.”

WERE YOU EVER CLOSE TO HAVING AN ACTUAL BUELL 450 MOTOCROSS BIKE? We had Kyle Lewis do some testing, but the funny thing was, I would always tell them that I wanted the bike to be thoroughly tested. Quite frankly, I felt that if we released the bike to Motocross Action and the bike tested poorly, we would never recover. I told them that my ultimate goal was to make the Buell good enough to have Jody Weisel ride it. 

WHEN DID YOU FIND OUT THAT BUELL HAD SHELVED THE MOTOCROSS PROGRAM? I drove into work one day in 2007 and all these people were standing outside smoking. I thought it was a fire drill, but someone said, “They are canning the Griffin project.” That is what they called it. It was a shocker, but they took care of me pretty well. I have no complaints. You win some, you lose some, and you recover. I did not like being in Wisconsin in the first place. 

WHAT BROUGHT YOU TO TEAM TWOTWO? I heard Chad Reed was starting a team. One thing led to another and boom, I was the team manager with TwoTwo Motorsports. Chad did not want to hire me at first because he heard more about me than he actually knew about me. Ellie Reed told Chad, “You should give Dave a chance, because the same things people are saying about you they are saying about Dave O.” 

I met Chad in a Newport Beach hotel, and I knew from that day after shaking his hand that we were going to win. I have been fortunate to have been around a slew of great champions, and you can always tell when they are winners. I did not even ask what I was getting paid or how I was getting paid. Once I shook Chad’s hand, we made a pact.

THE TEAM WAS REALLY MAKING A STATEMENT AT THE TIME. We woke up the whole industry. Chad is very similar to Mitch Payton, and that is why we got along so well. Mitch will turn over any stone to win, and so will Chad. Reed will write his own check to get any part that he believes will make a difference. We would probably have won the Supercross title that year, and would probably have won the outdoor title if Chad hadn’t gotten hurt in Arlington. He was out for a year, and he paid all of us our full salary. We still worked hard every day and were marching in there every day with enthusiasm.

WHAT DROVE CHAD’S TEAM FROM HONDA TO KAWASAKI? We jumped to Kawasaki because Honda screwed us. We were promised a budget with Honda that never materialized. Chad was promised a lot, and most of it never came to fruition. Chad carried the flag for that place. When the Brook’s Chaparral team got there, that was our money and our budget. That was supposed to be our second rider. They promised a lot to Reed, and most of it was in writing, but they never did it. Then one day, I got a call from Chad asking, “Dave O, what are you doing?” 

I answered, “Just doing paperwork.” 

It was early in the morning and he asked, “Is everybody there?” How long would it take you to get out of Honda?” 

I am like, “Pardon me? What do you mean, ‘Get out of Honda?’”

JUST LIKE THAT? Yes. We cleaned things out, and that was the end of our Honda relationship. Chad had ridden for Kawasaki previously and had a great relationship with them. Honda had been controlled by three major management guys, and Kawasaki had a different way of doing things. It’s interesting that later these three guys at Honda were removed. When TwoTwo ended, it was in the middle of the year. I had nowhere to go. Mike Gosselaar and I were shown the door first. No hard feelings; that is just the way it works. You have to get rid of the two higher-paid guys first. I walked out of there proudly. It was surreal, like a divorce, but not nasty. For the next couple of years, I had some offers. I was flattered, but they were not really worth my time. My wife and I looked after my folks, literally for the remaining years of their lives.

WHAT IS YOUR BIGGEST ACHIEVEMENT IN YOUR  MOTOCROSS CAREER? My biggest achievement in motocross is still having a wife, two kids and a normal family life. A lot of guys that go through the ringer like I have lose out on life. I could not be happier.

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