INTERVIEW OF THE WEEK: JOHN DOWD
John Dowd is a once in a generation type of racer. He has gone faster on a motorcycle for longer than any moto head could ever dream of. At 29, he earned his first factory deal. At 32, the “Junkyard Dog” became the oldest racer to win a 125 National. In 2009, John finished third overall at the Southwick National. He was 44 years old. John Dowd was cut from a different cloth. He won 125 and 250 races in Supercross and National overalls, won the 2006 Endurocross title, was on two winning Motocross des Nations teams, and won Arenacross races. It’s unbelievable what the Massachusetts native has done not only in the sport, but also for the sport. He took Kevin Windham under his wing, proved that a racing career doesn’t have to end at 30, and helped resurrect the Southwick National. I caught up with Dowdy this past weekend at the Parts Unlimited Showcase in Madison, Wisconsin, where John was signing autographs and promoting Moose Racing (a brand he’s been with since 2001).
By John Basher
In 1998, you finished second overall in the 125 Nationals to Ricky Carmichael. What do you recall from that season?
I remember those races well, and thinking if it wasn’t for that little Carmichael kid I would have been winning the title [laughter]. Throughout the series it was battles with Carmichael, Steve Lamson, and then a guy like Robbie Reynard. There were days where Reynard was unstoppable. He would kick our butts like nobody’s business, and then other times he was off the pace.
How did you approach that series?
My racing career was always a bit different from everyone else’s, because I was always the old guy. No one ever expected me to do as well as I did. Heck, I didn’t even expect to do that well! I never had more than a one-year contract. In 1998 I volunteered to ride the 125 class. I had ridden the 250 class in 1997, and for whatever reason Yamaha didn’t have room on their 250 squad. I told them that I could ride the 125, and they went along with the idea. I was just happy to be riding at that point, and I loved being with Yamaha. I did my thing, with focusing on training and being prepared physically. I never really had any trouble being in good enough shape. I enjoyed training. I was actually surprised to do what I did with Carmichael, because he was already one of the prospects the year before. Everyone expected him to come in and win. I had a couple surprising races; races where I even surprised myself. I did think I could get him at Southwick. I beat him that year. He’s from Florida, so he was a good sand rider. I went 1-1 on the day. His bike blew up in the first moto, but my claim to fame was that I passed him before his bike blew up [laughter]. We had a lot of fun. I got along well with Ricky, and we were always pretty good friends. I ended up winning Binghamton that year, too, which was kind of cool.
You made a lot of friends during your racing career, one of them being your old teammate at Yamaha, Kevin Windham.
Kevin and I got signed with Yamaha the same year (1995). I think Yamaha looked to me as being Kevin’s babysitter, so to speak. Then again, I felt young at that time. I was living in my own little dream world after getting a factory ride at 29 years old. Kevin and I clicked. We had a lot of fun and hung out together. It was our first year on a factory team, and so there weren’t any preconceived notions on how we were supposed to act. We tried to do what we thought was best. Kevin and I rode a lot together. We also trained on mountain bikes together. It was a fun time for both of us.
“IT WAS A FUN ATMOSPHERE [AT YAMAHA], BUT THERE WERE BETS ON THE TABLE ALL OF THE TIME. SOMETIMES I WOULD TRY AND HIDE IN THE BACKGROUND SO THAT I DIDN’T GET SUCKED IN, BUT INEVITABLY IT WOULD HAPPEN.”
The infamous picture of you and Kevin Windham going through airport security in Japan resurfaced recently. What do you recall of the bet where both of you had to wear your gear on the international flight?
[Laughter] That was Kevin’s fault! He started the bet. It’s unbelievable how often those guys liked making bets. Keith McCarty, the team manager at Yamaha, was famous for making bets. It was a fun atmosphere, but there were bets on the table all of the time. Sometimes I would try and hide in the background so that I didn’t get sucked in, but inevitably it would happen. I don’t remember exactly what Japanese Supercross that was at–Tokyo or Osaka–but Kevin was pretty confident that we would both make the podium. Needless to say, it didn’t happen! I’m pretty sure Kevin was responsible for making the bet, and so I blame him for having to wear my gear all of the way home.
What was it like wearing a complete set of gear for, what, 18 hours?
It was terrible wearing gear for that long! The worst part was that I didn’t have any pockets. I couldn’t do anything with my passport, wallet, or my change. It was horrible, and also not very comfortable. There’s not very much space in an airplane for your feet, and I wear size 12 boots. It was funny, though. Security didn’t say much when we walked up in our gear. It was comical, actually. I said something along the lines of, “Don’t ask, just know that we lost a bet.” That was before security was really uptight like they are these days. I wouldn’t advise anyone to wear their set of gear on an airplane.
Your son, Ryan, is 19 years old now, and he’s trying to make it as a Pro. Do you offer advice or tell stories about your career?
I try to. He’s old enough now to realize that I might know what I’m talking about when I help him with stuff. The bottom line is that it’s still a father/son thing, so he doesn’t always want to listen to me. He’s pretty good for the most part. Half the time he acts like he’s not listening to me, but then I’ll look over and see him do something that I told him to do. Ryan is old enough to know that I was somewhat successful in racing motocross.
John Dowd (16) was chased by James Stewart at the 2011 Unadilla National. Here’s some food for thought. Dowd raced against Jean-Michel Bayle, Jeff Stanton, Jeremy McGrath, Jeff Emig, Doug Henry, Ricky Carmichael, Chad Reed and James Stewart IN THEIR PRIME!
Out of the hundreds of races that you’ve done, which race stands out the most?
That’s a tough question to answer. It’s funny, because most people would think that winning Southwick would be up there for me. That was a big race for me, but I felt like I had a big monkey on my back every time I raced there. Everyone expected me to win, and then I would have weird problems at Southwick. I got a flat tire once, blew a radiator hose another time, and then blew a shock while leading one year on a Yamaha. It was really special once I won at Southwick. Maybe the top race was winning the 125 West Supercross Championship in 1997. It was me and [David] Vuillemin going into the final race, and we were only three points apart. It was a do-or-die situation, and I won the race and title. Talk about all the pressure you could have! I came out on top, and that was really cool. Every race win is pretty special, because I was the old guy and nobody expected me to win.
Do any of your records, such as being the oldest rider to win a 125 National overall, hold special meaning for you?
It’s cool, but it’s also kind of funny. Almost all of my wins are wrapped around the record of being the oldest rider to win this or that [laughter]. I don’t want to say that they’re any less special, but there’s a commonality there.
You’ve raced factory Yamaha YZ125s, as well as big-bore KTM 520SX four-strokes. What bike was most special to you?
I ran through them all. Overall, my years at Yamaha were most special. I was in the prime of my career. It was a great team and atmosphere. The bikes were really good, and everything worked out. It was a fun time in my life. I had a long career and a lot of good times with good people, but the best was while at Yamaha. Even now I feel like a kid. I still love riding. It’s kind of really cool right now, because my son and I are really close in speed. For that reason it keeps me in it. I want to ride as hard as I can in order to push him, because I still feel like I can help him get to that next level.
Does your son have interest in pursuing a professional racing career?
Yes, he does. He’s going to do some more AMA Nationals next year, as well as some Canadian Nationals. I think if I ride and train with him then I can help him. Just a few weeks ago we did a local race. I beat him the first moto, and he beat me the second moto. It’s really funny, actually. We talked smack to each other on the drive home, and then my wife will pick on us. I’m 51 years old, so he gets really mad when I beat him.
“I’M NOT SAYING THAT I AM GOING TO RACE THE SOUTHWICK NATIONAL IN 2017, BUT I’M ALSO NOT SAYING THAT I WON’T RACE IT. WHO KNOWS? IF I FEEL IT, THEN I MIGHT TRY TO JUMP OUT THERE AND RIDE IT. I STILL FEEL LIKE A LITTLE KID, AND I LOVE RIDING.”
Let’s get this straight. You and your son race together, and your times are pretty close. Ryan put it in the show this year at Southwick. Will we see John Dowd line up at Southwick in 2017 as a 52-year-old?
It’s funny you ask that, because at the beginning of this year my plan was to race Southwick. I was training and started riding in the Spring. I was going to do all of the local races with my son, and we were going to hammer down. The very first race of the year I broke my hand. That took me out for about eight weeks. It was kind of a bummer. Between that, and as Southwick came closer, the realization hit me that I was going to be working on the track. I knew at that point that I was out for this year. I was trying to keep it under wraps, but it would have been cool. My son and I were going to be in the same race, and also both in the 450 class. Next year? There should be a little bit less work involved. I’m not saying that I am going to race the Southwick National in 2017, but I’m also not saying that I won’t race it. Who knows? If I feel it, then I might try to jump out there and ride it. I still feel like a little kid, and I love riding. It’s better than therapy. In fact, motocross is my therapy.”
Have you thought about racing some of the Over-50 races, like the Vet World Championships at Glen Helen or Loretta Lynn’s?
I’m racing in England this weekend for the Vet Motocross des Nations. That’s a really fun event. I don’t know, otherwise. I don’t have much interest in going to Loretta’s, and I don’t want to go all of the way out to California to race the World Vet Championship. It’s not easy for me to do those things. If they had a race at Southwick, then sure. At this point in my career, to do a Vet race won’t fit into my schedule. I’m busy these days at home with my business, and I take care of the Southwick track.
How challenging was it getting Southwick back on the AMA National schedule?
It was a lot of work. The time went by so quickly. In the beginning of the season we thought we had all kinds of time, so we pushed certain things off. Then all of a sudden it was three weeks before the National. I spent the last few weeks there every day. I had five of my own machines there, and we busted our butts. I was real happy the race went down the way it did, and we had cooperation from Mother Nature, too. The track was beautiful on Saturday. I’ll tell you what; I think I stressed out more about that race this year than all of the years I raced the dang thing [laughter]. I’ve heard horror stories about MX Sports and John Ayers breathing down your neck and looking over your shoulder. We wanted everything to be perfect, and we were on the spotlight. The track was off the schedule, and then it came back under new promoters. To make it worse, Southwick was one of the live television rounds. The timing throughout the day had to be perfect. That made everything really stressful. We couldn’t get off-schedule. We got lucky, everything went well, and we’re looking forward to having Nationals there for years to come.
Everyone is making a big deal out of Alex Martin winning races and finishing second overall in the 250 National final standings at 26 years old. What are your thoughts on Alex’s summer, and if age should be considered a hindrance for an older racer?
I didn’t feel like I was any less strong as a rider into my 30s. I was around 32 years old when I reached the peak of my career. I honestly believe that, physically, you can be even better than when you were 20. It’s a bit of a mental game, too. I don’t know the full extent of Alex Martin’s career up until this year, but it seems often times like the younger brother was always chasing the older brother. Jeremy maybe had to work harder, and then at some point he surpassed Alex. I’m not sure if that’s what happened there, but I like to see Alex doing well. He seems like a good kid. Hopefully it makes him hungry. He knows that he’s right there [for the title], so we’ll see how he does next year. He’s definitely not too old. I think Alex has ten good years left in him [laughter].