INTERVIEW OF THE WEEK: BOB HANNAH
Six-time AMA Champion. 64 total wins in 125, 250 and 500 competition. One of the most influential racers in American motocross. Bob Hannah, or simply “The Hurricane,” was a dynamic force in 1970s and 1980s racing. Now 58 years old, Hannah’s motocross career is well in the past, but he still maintains that fiery attitude. And, as always, Bob Hannah isn’t afraid to tell the truth. Strap on your seatbelt and ride along the Hannah train.
By John Basher
Bob, how did the Yamalube Bad Wolves commercial come about?
I talked with Todd Huffman [the producer of the commercial], and we put it all together over a six month period. It was fun. Did you see any of the out-takes, or just the commercial?
I actually watched the out-takes before the commercial. While the commercial got the point across about buying Yamalube, the out-take video was hilarious.
All the out-takes are way better than the commercial, because the commercial is so short. You don’t use much of the footage for the commercial, and it has to be politically correct.
You’ve never really been politically correct, though. Did your personality ever ruffle feathers at the factories?
I have a tough time with it [laughter]. I’ve never been told to back it down with what I was saying. Yamaha got on me one time for telling the truth. The audience was asking me questions, and I responded with an answer that Yamaha didn’t want me to say. I told Yamaha that if they wanted me to lie to the public, then they better get somebody else to lie. I wouldn’t do it. Yamaha used to have all the dealers in an auditorium and I would talk to all these dealers before every Supercross race. It was held on a Friday night. I got asked a question, and if someone asks me a question then I’ll answer it. I was asked about money, and what the race team really used for oil. I told the truth, and Yamaha got really mad. I told Yamaha that I was going to be truthful, and if they had a problem with it that, then they should exclude me. So I didn’t get invited to the next one. I said, “Good, because I didn’t want to go to them anyway.”
How were your relationships with the Japanese engineers at Yamaha?
I loved the Japanese engineers. In fact, I loved all the engineers from all the factories. I had 18 to 21 Suzuki engineers who were with me when I was testing in Japan. That’s why Suzuki hired me the last few years of my career. I had my own group of engineers, and we would be together for 30 days at a time. I never had a problem with very many engineers. I did have difficulty sometimes in proving myself to the engineers.
What do you mean by that?
They were always doubting me. For example, I went to war with them over the feel of a clutch. The throw of the disengagement and the feel of the clutch meant a lot to me. I was trying to get them a little more disengagement in the clutch, while lighting up the feel at the same time. The engineer didn’t understand me. He thought I was full of it. I said, “I can go faster around the track if we lighten the clutch up and we have more throw. It will disengage faster, and that will help my lap times.” He said that he didn’t understand. I said, “Okay, you come over here. I use one finger on the clutch. I have to hit 30 corners around the track, and I have to use the clutch in every corner. I have to do that 30 times in two minutes. Sit your butt on my bike and pull the clutch in 30 times every two minutes for 30 minutes. Tell me how tired your arm is.” He couldn’t do it. That’s when he realized what I was talking about. Engineers are plenty smart, but they don’t know how to put their brains to use. That’s what I was up against in working with engineers. Many of them don’t know why making a small change will help the rider, because they don’t ride. You have to explain things without completely insulting them.
Switching topics, what was your most difficult title to win?
Every title was hard to win. I realized that winning championships got harder as the years went on. Winning didn’t get easier, either. I have a different mindset than the majority of motocross racers. My mindset is more like a [Ryan] Villopoto or [Ryan] Dungey. I expected to win, and winning was the only thing that made me happy. There are a million motocrossers that don’t really care if they win, and they’re quite content with what they get. They’re just going through life, and my thought is that’s the reason why they’re not winning. They can argue with me if the want. If you get a guy like Ryan Dungey, you know he’s not very happy when he doesn’t win. So, when you have that thought process in racing, then every win is difficult. Every day you’re trying to win. Many motocrossers aren’t trying to win every day. That’s just a fact. They keep their job and get their money. They’re professional motocross racers, so they think they’re amazing. They forget that they’re just a dirt bike rider, just like the rest of us. I was just a dirt bike rider. Some people think they’re special. There are those few guys out there who realize that they’re just dirt bike riders, and we know who they are, because they win 70 races. When you want to win all the time, then it’s very difficult, because you can’t actually do it.
“IF YOU’RE ON THE PODIUM, THEN YOU’RE THE FIRST OR SECOND GUY TO LOSE THAT DAY. YOU FINISHED 30 SECONDS BACK OF THE LEADER IN A NATIONAL AND YOU’RE ON THE PODIUM. WOW, I’M REALLY IMPRESSED [HEAVY SARCASM]. HOW MANY SECONDS WERE YOU BACK? DID ANYBODY MENTION THAT BIT OF INFORMATION TO YOU IN THE PITS?”
What do you have to say to the racers who are, to quote you, “are quite content with what they get?”
I’m so sick of hearing guys who boast about finishing on the podium. I just want to shoot them! Yeah, so you got on the podium. Do you have to tell me again [sarcasm]? If you’re on the podium, then you’re the first or second guy to lose that day. You finished 30 seconds back of the leader in a National and you’re on the podium. Wow, I’m really impressed [heavy sarcasm]. How many seconds were you back? Did anybody mention that bit of information to you in the pits? I think they forget about that detail. The top guys should be mad if they don’t win, because they expect themselves to win. That’s how a guy ought to be. In my business I never liked to lose.
Of all the champions that you’ve met through the years, have any of them impressed you?
I can be impressed with their riding, but very unimpressed with them as people. I was very impressed with Ryan Villopoto’s riding. I thought he was an animal and a machine. He was tough and straight up awesome. Did I want to be around him? No [laughter]. I didn’t want to be around him for five minutes. I’m actually impressed with how some riders are after their careers. Like I said before, these guys are just dirt bike riders. I don’t know a lot of the latest guys racing. I did meet Jeremy Martin and Cooper Webb at a Yamaha function, and I liked listening and talking to them. I did a Yamaha shoot with Jeremy Martin one day, and I really enjoyed the kid. I don’t know if he’s tough enough, but I liked him. He’s pretty dedicated. I would like to go bicycle riding and hang out with him a little bit, just to see if I’m right.
Who stands out to you the most of the current generation?
Of all the guys, Eli Tomac is a ten to me. He’s not only a good rider, but he’s also a good guy. I really like him. If he asked me to come to Colorado and ride mountain bikes with him and his dad, I would fly right on down. Eli is a super special guy. Now just because a guy wins a motocross race doesn’t mean he’s a special guy. It just means he’s a dirt bike rider. You can be a real dumb fool and be a good dirt bike rider. That’s why I watch and see how the riders are after their careers are over.
How are the state of affairs in racing?
It seems like the people aren’t wanting to go to the races. Maybe it’s because the tickets are too expensive? That could be because Supercross attendance has been so poor. I bet it’s probably because of the live television coverage, too. They would rather sit at home on the couch than go to the stadium. Live coverage is a catch-22, huh? I would rather watch racing on TV any day. It’s like watching a bicycle race. You can’t watch a bike race when you’re at the venue, because they’re the worst things in the world to watch. I try to watch all of the European bike races–bicycles or motorcycles–and record them. I watch those races every night.
“THERE WILL ALWAYS BE CHAMPIONS, AND THERE WILL ALWAYS BE MEDIOCRE RACERS. THE GUYS WITH MEDIOCRACY DON’T FEEL DONE, AND THEN RETIRING KILLS THEM. THEY NEVER GOT IT DONE, BUT INSTEAD WENT THROUGH THE MOTIONS. I WOULD RATHER SEE A GUY WITH A THREE-YEAR CAREER WHO GAVE 100 PERCENT THE WHOLE TIME THAN SOME GUY THAT RIDES 25 YEARS AND WAS NEVER WORTH ANYTHING.”
Was it difficult retiring?
Oh my gosh, you’re completely off! When I rode my last lap at Unadilla I was talking to myself. I said, “I have one more lap to go and I never have to ride one of these again.” I’m not your average guy. Here’s the problem with people. A guy like Villopoto might have the same idea as myself. When you give 100 percent for a 15-year career, you’re burned out and beat up. When you do a mediocre 15-year career and you finished tenth, then eighth, then maybe third, and hover around the top ten, then those guys have trouble walking away. There will always be champions, and there will always be mediocre racers. The guys with mediocracy don’t feel done, and then retiring kills them. They never got it done, but instead went through the motions. I would rather see a guy with a three-year career who gave 100 percent the whole time than a guy that rides 25 years and was never worth anything. That’s my opinion. When you give yourself fully for 15 years, then believe me when I say that I was ready to retire. Retirement was a gift. I looked forward to it.
Bob Hannah (100) and Kent Howerton (1) famously exchanged blows at Saddleback in 1981. It was justly coined the “Massacre at Saddleback.” Click here to order the outstanding documentary film about that unbelievable day of racing.
You keep going back to the point that dirt bike racers are nothing more than that, yet history shows quite a few riders who let racing go to their heads.
Absolutely, It drives me nuts. Here’s an example, and I’ll probably tick this guy off. Look at Micky Dymond. I’m going to compare him to David Bailey. In my life, I think of David Bailey three days a week. I’ll tell you why in a minute. Now, when David Bailey figured out what he wanted to do, he went full steam ahead to be the best motocross racer he could possibly be. He actually did it, too, in part because he was smart enough to figure things out. Now Micky Dymond was a natural talent, and he could have been on top of the world if he had David Bailey’s attitude. Instead, he wanted to be a rock and roller. He wanted to play a guitar or something stupid. He wasn’t smart enough to make a million dollars racing motorcycles. While he was racing motorcycles, he was too busy getting tattoos and trying to be a rock and roller. Do you see my point? I hate to bust his chops, because there are a lot of racers like that. They don’t take advantage of what they have. They need to quit dreaming about some other bull crap. How about they just ride their motorcycle and try to win? Do you see that going on in racing?
I see it all the time, especially when racers achieve nominal success and have the spotlight on them. Their egos tend to get inflated, and generally they lose that fire.
That irritates me. Take the God-given gift you have and make something out of it! Quit dreaming about some other crap. All these guys think they have life after death. Here’s another thing; why is it that so many motorcycle racers think they’re going to race cars after they retire? How many have gone into car racing and did anything? Can you name me one? The best one was Eddie Lawson, which correlates better with road racing than it does motocross. Just because you won a motorcycle races doesn’t mean you can win any other type of race.
What about Jeff Ward? He led 52 laps at the Indianapolis 500 and finished second in 1999.
Yes, Jeff Ward was one who managed to do it. There are a few guys, but all of them think they’re going to be stars in car racing. Yeah, right! It doesn’t work that way.
You mentioned about thinking of David Bailey three times a week. Why?
I think of him when I’m lazy. When I’m beat tired and I have to go ride on my bicycle at night, I ask myself, “Would David Bailey go and ride today?” I say the same thing to my guys that I ride with. There might be a 20 mile an hour headwind and everyone is complaining. Would David Bailey ride on those conditions? You bet he would. He would pay $10,000 to go ride with us, and then when we got done he would put a headlight on and ride at night. I feel very lucky that right now I can ride a bicycle. I can’t run any more, but I still ride bikes. I try not to miss those four days a week that I ride, especially if I’m feeling lazy. That’s when I think of David.
It sounds like you and David Bailey were very close.
It’s a shame what happened to David [getting paralyzed]. He’s a tough individual. He would ride that bike with one leg if he could. So I think of David Bailey all of the time. I knew him very well, and being on the same team for a time, he was very fun to be around. It really killed me when he got hurt. You and I, when we think about what we complain about, those issues probably aren’t a big deal compared to others. I’ve thought about David every week for the past 20 years, and I use him as an example for being tough. When David got hurt I was in Florida riding. It killed me. I couldn’t even ride, because I would think about him in every corner of every track I rode on. I had to take ten days off before I could even ride again.
Does David Bailey know how often you think about him?
No. He doesn’t know it. David would probably call me a pervert for thinking about him so much [laughter].
What went through your mind immediately after you shattered your leg in the water skiing accident at the end of 1979?
I didn’t think it was that big of a deal at the time. I was young enough that I didn’t think much about it. I was really just mad that I wasn’t paying attention more. That’s the thing. The water skiing accident seemed like a big deal at the time, but in the grand scheme of things it didn’t mean much. So I would have won more races if I hadn’t gotten hurt. Who cares! If you come out of this sport and you’re walking, then you better shut up. If you can walk away after taking all those stupid chances, then you have no room to complain. Everybody that rides a motorcycle, including amateurs, takes huge risks on a bike. In fact, an amateur takes bigger risks than a professional, because he doesn’t know what the heck he’s doing. You are begging to get hurt riding motorcycles. That’s fine, and I still ride them. Understand that you have to pay attention when you’re riding. If you come out of racing and can walk, then consider yourself lucky. It’s unfortunate that some guys can’t walk away. Don’t get me wrong; you can’t hide in the closet, either.
Thanks for your time, Bob. You always provide a refreshing perspective on all things motocross.
I speak the truth. Thanks, John.