BY JIM KIMBALL
GRAHAM, WHAT PROMPTED YOU TO GET INTO MOTOCROSS? My father was very interested in motocross, or scrambling as they initially called it many years ago. One day he said, “They are doing some scramble racing down in the west country, and I am going to check it out.” Later we bought a small dirt bike and off we went. That is how we got started. It was very big here in England, and we had some fantastic riders. The schoolboy scene began and started taking off. You could start racing at 6 years old up to age 16, and then you could apply to go compete in the senior stuff. I actually won the British Schoolboy Championships when I was 14 years old on a Zundapp.
DIDN’T YOU BECOME AN APPRENTICE WITH THE RICKMAN BROTHERS MAKING MOTORCYCLES? Yes, I left school at 15 and went to Rickman Engineering. It was a half-hour from where I lived. I would catch the train every morning at 6:30 a.m. to go there and take the train back home. It was very interesting and very educational. I was in the engineering department to start with, then I worked in the development room with Don Rickman, who was the development designer. There were some really, really good people in there, and we had a good time. The Rickman brothers, Don and Derek, had a very big prestigious name for all the great technology that they had done.
“I GOT INTO THE LEAD, AND THERE WERE 40,000 PEOPLE GOING ABSOLUTELY BANANAS. I WAS A NOBODY;
I HAD A COMPLETELY STANDARD BIKE.”
WHEN DID YOU TRULY START YOUR PROFESSIONAL MOTOCROSS CAREER? I can’t remember when that was actually, but I was jumping feet first into every race that I could. I think it was 1975 in the 500 class, on my Maico 400, when I first raced a World Championship event at Hawkstone Park in England. It was quite funny, as I actually led the first moto, with Heikki Mikkola in second. I had 30,000 people cheering me on and was running on adrenaline. I was riding very well, and it was fantastic. Heikki’s mechanic at the time, Pele, said, “I didn’t know who you were. I had to look at the program.” He did not know who I was. It was quite funny, and we had a good laugh about that. I finished third or fourth in that first race. I had never done a 40-minute moto before that time, so I was very tired near the end.
IT SEEMED LIKE THE BIGGER BIKES OR THE BIGGER, MORE POWERFUL BIKES REALLY SUITED YOU. I did race for Maico in the 125 Schoolboy class, but I didn’t do that well. I did not like the smaller bike at all. I hated the 250 throughout all my racing. The 500 was a lot better for me. I do not know why, but it just suited me much better.
THE BIG BOSSES WERE THERE FROM HONDA. THEY CAME UP AND SAID, “WOULD YOU LIKE TO RIDE FOR HONDA IN 1977?”
I SAID, “NO.”
WHAT WAS THE 1976 SEASON LIKE? That was a silly year. I won the first moto of the British Grand Prix, coming out of nowhere. I remember Pierre Karsmakers was in front of me on the Factory Honda. He went down in the jumps by the finish, and his rear shock spring broke. I got into the lead, and there were 40,000 people going absolutely bananas. I was a nobody; I had a completely standard bike. I went like hell and won the race. In the second moto I got knocked off really bad in the first corner. I did not finish the second race, but the first one was really, really good. It served me well, because the big bosses were there from Honda. They came up and said, “Would you like to ride for Honda in 1977?” I said, “No.”
YOU TURNED DOWN A FACTORY HONDA RIDE? I did not want to do it because the Maico was so good in 1976. The engine on that bike was amazing. We had a completely box-stock bike, because whatever country we raced in, I was allowed to go to all the dealers and get what bits and pieces I wanted. I was not even a Maico factory rider. I was just a rider who was signed by the British Maico importer. Then, the factory started getting a bit more involved, but I said, “Just keep it standard.” We had a couple minor bike problems that caused me to miss a couple GPs, and I believe if not for them I could have won the 1976 World 500 title. Still, I finished fourth in the World Championships that year.
EUROPEAN BRANDS WERE STILL GOOD IN THE 1970s, BUT YOU COULD SEE THE JAPANESE BRANDS COMING. The Japanese are very clever people. The European brands had developed everything. The Japanese just copied, refined and made it a lot better. The Maico was very, very good. The engine and the suspension were incredible, and it rode extremely well. As I said, in 1976 I should have won that Championship, but it did not happen. But, getting back to the bikes, the Bultaco and Montesa were great in the 250 class, while Husqvarna was great in both the 250 and 500 classes. Maico was at the top in the 500 class.
YOU LATER SIGNED WITH HONDA. WHAT CHANGED YOUR MIND? In 1977, at exactly the same track where Honda approached me the year before, Honda Team Manager Steve Whitelock came up and said, “Graham, we would like you to ride for Honda next year.” This time, I truly thought about it. 1977 for me was not a very good year on the Maico. Everybody else was making better stuff. I was still in the top five or six, but not in the top three and not where I wanted to be.
I asked my dad, “What do you think?”
He said, “I don’t think you will get many more chances like this.”
I told Honda, “Okay, I will do it.”
I went to Honda in 1978, and it was the worst year I ever had. 1976 was fantastic, 1977 was mediocre, and then in 1978, on the new factory Honda, it was horrible. I went through four mechanics; they just could not keep the thing together. I don’t think the mechanics I had were up to scratch, so it was not really the bike; it was the people who were working on it. Brad Lackey was there with me in 1978, and there were some good times. Brad was doing very well. Often it could be something as minor as my chain falling off, although that never happened to Brad’s bike.
YOU REALLY REBOUNDED IN 1979 AND WON THE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP. At the end of 1978, I felt good, believe it or not. I felt good all year and was riding well, but the bike would not stay together. At the beginning of 1979, I had another mechanic, and I had been testing a lot in Japan. Coming into February and March, we had the big European pre-season races, and all the other big boys, such as Heikki Mikkola, Roger DeCoster and Gerrit Wolsink, were there. Brad didn’t do the European pre-season races, but I was there, and all was going great. You cannot predict what is going to happen once the World Motocross Championships start. You just keep training and trying to ride a bike as hard as you can. That is all you can do, and that is what I did. Obviously, 1979 was a good year.
WITH ROGER DECOSTER, HEIKKI MIKKOLA, GERRIT WOLSINK AND BRAD LACKEY AS YOUR TOUGHEST COMPETITION, YOU WERE ALSO FRIENDS. Yes. Brad and his wife Lori were great friends to me. I bought Brad’s American-made travel trailer. We traveled together and had some great times. Brad and I trained together. We went running and went to the gym. Heikki was very elusive. So was Roger; you never really knew what he was doing. I never really got to know Roger. Gerrit was okay. He would turn up when he wanted to and was quite funny. We were all good friends, but when we were on the track, we were not friends at all.
“YOU CANNOT PREDICT WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN ONCE THE WORLD MOTOCROSS CHAMPIONSHIPS START. YOU JUST KEEP TRAINING AND TRYING TO RIDE A BIKE AS HARD AS YOU CAN. THAT IS WHAT I DID. OBVIOUSLY, 1979 WAS A GOOD YEAR.”
DIDN’T HONDA ASSIGN AMERICAN MECHANIC BILL BUTCHKA TO WORK ON YOUR BIKES? Yes, it went very well with Bill. He had worked for Bob Hannah for a while, and obviously Bob had done very well. Marty Tripes, Tommy Croft and poor Marty Smith, who is unfortunately gone now, worked with Bill, too. I had some great times with Bill. Honda had poached him from Yamaha, and it worked out well for us.
AFTER YOU WON THE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP IN 1979, WHAT CAME NEXT? In early 1980, I was trying very, very hard. I went to the pre-season races at the beginning of the year, and I was riding fast without even thinking about it. But, I broke my toe, along with some bones in the bottom of my foot. I tried to race with a bigger boot on my injured foot. Then, I dislocated my shoulder. But I came back from that and was still winning some races before breaking my leg. So, I had a horrible time in 1980. I was still hanging in there, but I could not ride with the injuries I had. In 1981, I came back and finished second behind Andre Malherbe. In my head, I felt that I had won three Championships with 1976, 1977 and 1979, but on paper, I only won one in 1979. Then in 1982, I finished fourth on the factory Honda. I won the Swedish GP but had some crashes and injuries.
WHEN DID YOU START TO THINK ABOUT RETIRING FROM MOTOCROSS? In 1983, the big boss came up and said, “Graham, at this time, I don’t have a contract for you for next year.” He said that they were considering hiring Andre Vromans. I started talking to Alec Wright, who was the team manager at Kawasaki, and he was interested. I went to see him, but the deal was not that good at all. So, I went on a nice holiday. Honda was trying to reach me but never could. It was a much different time then. Now you can reach anyone, anyplace. It turns out that the people in Japan really liked the way I helped developed the bike and wanted me on the team. Ultimately, they signed Vromans. I would have signed with them for another year. So, that was the end of that. It was a shame how it turned out.
WHAT CAME NEXT? I spoke with the KTM importer in England who said he would see what factory KTM in Austria would do for me. I went there and rode the bike that they had raced the previous year. It was rubbish. I said, “I don’t want to race that.” It had no kickstart on it. You had to bump-start the bike to get it running, but the engine was very strong. So, I signed for a year. The bike really steered well and felt great, but it still had no kick-starter. They told me that they had made one, but it always broke. It was a big shame, as the bike had such a fantastic powerband and the WP suspension was great. So, the KTM deal folded up halfway through the season.
Later Kurt Nicoll took over the reins and did extremely well on the bike. When I rode the bike, it was not far off from winning a Championship. It was very, very good. The power was good, it steered well and the suspension was brilliant. Unfortunately, we parted ways before we could truly race it.
“I WENT THERE AND RODE THE BIKE THAT THEY HAD RACED THE PREVIOUS YEAR. IT WAS RUBBISH. I SAID, ‘I DON’T WANT TO RACE THAT.’ IT HAD NO KICKSTART ON IT. YOU HAD TO BUMP-START THE BIKE TO GET IT RUNNING.”
WHAT HAPPENED AFTER THE KTM DEAL ENDED? I bought a production Honda CR500 and had help from WP. I rode that for a year, but did not do so well on it. I was still strong, though, and trying as hard as I could. I lost heart a little bit, and it was not so good. I was beginning to think I could not win. I had time to think about it, and I elected to stop racing.
DID YOU STAY INVOLVED OR DID YOU JUST MOVE ON TO SOMETHING DIFFERENT? I started working with a couple of riders, including Mervyn Anstie and Carl Nunn, who was racing for a chap named Steve Dixon who was fantastic at building great motocross bikes. Steve was from England, and we got along well. We were leading the World Championship series and beating everybody. But, I soon learned that you can advise a young rider, but they are still going to do their own thing. You can’t put an “old head” on young shoulders.
Don’t get me wrong, though. Carl Nunn could really ride a bike. Like I said, we were leading the Championship after five rounds. In France, we won both races, and he beat Grant Langston. He was doing very well, but then it fizzled out. Yamaha UK dropped their support for the team. That was the end of that, unfortunately. We had a good relationship, and it went great for a while.
“IN VINTAGE RACING THERE ARE SOME GOOD BIKES AND COMPETITIVE PEOPLE; HOWEVER, PEOPLE LIE ABOUT THEIR AGE ALL THE TIME SO THEY CAN RACE IN THE OLDER CLASSES. AT ONE RACE, THE SECOND-PLACE GUY BEHIND ME WAS 20 YEARS OLD. HE WAS 20 AND I AM 60 YEARS OLD, SO IT WAS PRETTY FUNNY.”
WHAT DID YOU DO AFTER THAT? I started doing the Twin Shock racing in England on a Maico. I did that for a couple years, but just recently bought a Honda CR500 with twin shocks. I also did a bit of road racing.
DO YOU STILL DO VINTAGE RACING? The Twin Shock is big in Holland, Belgium and France, but there are no more good vintage Maicos left; that is the trouble. Still, in vintage racing, there are some good bikes and some very competitive people; however, people lie about their age all the time, so they can race in the older classes. At one race, I came in after the finish flag, and the second-place guy behind me takes his helmet off and he is 20 years old.
I asked, “Why is he in my race?”
They said, “He couldn’t get in his other race, so we put him in yours.”>
He was 20 years old, and I am 60 years old, so it was pretty funny. I can still hold my own pretty well.
WHAT IS YOUR TAKE ON THE MXGP SERIES? The racing level is very high. Jeffrey Herlings can blow the doors off anybody. Jeffrey is at an extremely high standard. Tony Cairoli was two notches above everybody else for years, but Jeffrey popped up and got four notches above Tony. The rest of the riders had to step up to Jeffrey’s speed, and initially they could not do it. But, Tim Gajser rose to the occasion. The speed they are going now is super quick. That is why when they crash, they get hurt.
IS THE MOTOCROSS SCENE IN ENGLAND GOOD? In the UK, it is still going well, but we need a bigger base of riders. Ben Watson is doing extremely well in the GPs, along with Conrad Mewse. For 2021, Ben is moving up from MX2 to MXGP on a Factory Yamaha. If you’ve got countrymen in the top five, you are going to follow the series a bit more. Then the sponsorship comes around, and British motocross could come back very, very big. So, it is okay here in England, but it can be great if Watson does well in MXGP.
DID YOU EVER CONSIDER RACING IN AMERICA? It crossed my mind, although I did not really do enough American Supercross events. I think it could have been feasible. Clement Desalle is looking to go racing in America. He might get an outdoor ride and do very well. But, the Supercross stuff is a completely different-colored fish. If I had moved to America, it would have taken a lot longer to get used to the indoor stuff. I liked going to the USA because America has some lovely tracks, quick tracks and good tracks.
“I CAME IN AFTER THE FINISH FLAG, AND THE SECOND-PLACE GUY BEHIND ME TAKES HIS HELMET OFF AND HE IS 20 YEARS OLD.”
LET’S END THIS WITH WHAT YOUR LIFE IS LIKE NOW, GRAHAM. I drive a lorry for a friend of mine, delivering building materials. I went in there one day just to give him a hand and help him out, and I have been there for 11 years. It is good for me, because I get to use my head and it keeps me sharp. If I am active and working, I am good. If I didn’t have this, I would just be sitting down doing nothing. I don’t want to do that. I want to do something all the time.