MXA INTERVIEW: THE FINAL SEASON OF A SUZUKI LIFER—LEE McCOLLUM

BY JIM KIMBALL

HOW DID YOU END UP AT SUZUKI 30 YEARS AGO? Previous to Suzuki, I worked in Europe for two years in Grand Prix Road Racing, which they call Moto GP nowadays. I was working for Dunlop when they asked me if I wanted to go to Europe to work. I did that for two years, and when I came home after the second year, my plan was to go back for a third year, but I got a call from Pat Alexander at Suzuki asking me if I wanted a job. Initially I said no, but he called back a few times until I finally gave in and said yes. They had a box van on the East Coast and a box van on the West Coast for their Amateur support program. I wanted to do the East Coast job because that was where I was from, but they had already promised it to someone else, so I had to take the West Coast position. That was actually the reason that I first told Pat no. I did not want to move to the West Coast, but I ended up doing it. I am glad I did, as it turned out.

WHAT DID YOU DO AT SUZUKI? I started in Amateur support in 1993. The job entailed going to the Amateur races and helping anybody who rode a Suzuki. If you were riding a Suzuki and had any kind of trouble, I would either repair it, or I could give you the parts to get you through the race.

Lee with Travis Pastrana on his factory RM125.

HOW LONG DID YOU DO THAT? Halfway through the year, the head guy from Suzuki’s Racing Department saw me working in the parking lot one day. He asked me, “Do you want to change to the race team?” I said, “Yes, of course.” That would be what everybody would aspire to. He simply said, “Okay, you will be on a race team next year.” So, that is how that happened. I finished out that year with the support job, and then at the end of the season they moved me to the race team.

“THE BOX VANS WERE COOL. WE WERE LIKE A TWO-MAN TEAM (EVEN THOUGH SUZUKI HAD SIX RIDERS). IT WAS YOU AND YOUR RIDER VERSUS EVERYBODY ELSE.”

WHAT WAS BEING ON A FACTORY TEAM LIKE IN 1994? We drove box vans and did everything on our own. It was you and your rider in a box van. Roger DeCoster came to Suzuki in 1995. Roger would split his time between all the box vans. 

WHAT WAS WORKING OUT OF A BOX VAN LIKE? The box vans were cool. Most modern riders and mechanics never had that experience. We were like a two-man team (even though Suzuki had six riders). It was you and your rider versus everybody else. All the Suzuki trucks would line up in the pit area on race day, but during the week, we all went our separate ways. Some mechanics traveled together, but when we were in our box van, we could work on the bike anywhere we wanted to. You could work at your girlfriend’s house, a truck stop, a friendly local dealership…we didn’t fly home to a big race shop back in those days.

Lee standing with Nico Izzi’s factory RM-Z250.

WHO WERE THE RIDERS YOU WORKED WITH IN THE BOX VAN DAYS? My first year on the race team I worked with Phil Lawrence. In 1995, 1996 and 1997, I worked with Tim Ferry (when he won the 1997 125 East Coast Supercross Championship). In 1998 and 1999, I worked for Larry Ward. That was when we made the transition from box van to semi, right between working for Timmy Ferry and Larry Ward. 

“ROGER DECOSTER IS A VERY SMART GUY AND KNOWS EVERYTHING ABOUT RACING. I DON’T THINK THAT THERE IS ANYTHING HE DOES NOT KNOW ABOUT MOTOCROSS.”

HOW WAS THE TRANSITION FROM THE BOX VANS TO THE SEMI? It was a big change. With the box vans, we had to drive them from race to race. We had to prep the motorcycle each week. We had to do the grocery shopping and even the laundry. We had to wash the truck before each race. We did all the things our semi driver does while still being the mechanics.

WHAT WAS THE BIGGEST CHANGE? The biggest impact of switching over to the race hauler was that the team said, “You guys have to come to the race shop every day now.” In the box vans, we had our freedom. Monday through Thursday, we could go wherever we wanted to. You could prep your bike on Monday and go fishing on Tuesday. All that stopped when we got the semis. Everybody had to go to the race shop and work Monday through Thursday, then fly to the race and work some more. Then we’d fly home, go back to the race shop Monday morning and start again. I think that is the biggest change from the box van to the race hauler.

WAS IT BETTER OR WORSE? It changed our lives. All the teams wanted the riders and mechanics to be closer to the race shop. So, instead of living anywhere in the country, the teams said, “You have to live in California now.” You would find yourself working on practice bikes and then going to the test tracks with the riders. So, instead of being busy three or four days, we were busy seven days a week.

WHAT ABOUT ALL THE RIDERS LIVING IN FLORIDA NOW? I can still recall Roger DeCoster telling Tim Ferry, “You have to live in California.” Timmy and I rented a condo in Corona, California, and that is where we lived. Nathan Ramsey and his mechanic Bundy rented a room from us. Now all the guys live in Florida where the training camps are. It is a lot more expensive for the teams because they are shipping practice bikes back and forth across the country every few weeks. The riders now have practice bike mechanics to change engines and do this and that, but when the bike is “houred-out,” it comes back to the California shop to get re-built like new again. 

Roger DeCoster (left) and Lee (right) holding a Tim Ferry jersey.

WHAT WAS IT LIKE WORKING FOR ROGER DECOSTER? It was good. Roger DeCoster is a very smart guy and knows everything about racing. I don’t think that there is anything he does not know about motocross. Roger is very hands-on. He doesn’t just sit in an office. He is down in the race shop working. He always has his hands on the motorcycle or is making some parts. He really enjoys that. I even had him make me some parts for my vintage bikes. He is a great guy to work with, and I enjoyed all the years I spent with him. 

“JOHNNY O’MARA WAS JAMES’ TRAINER AND I REMEMBER HIM SAYING, ‘WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T LET JAMES START CHANGING THE BIKE AROUND.’ BUT, THAT WAS WHAT JAMES WANTED TO DO.”

DOES IT HURT TO SEE HIS NAME CLOSELY CONNECTED TO KTM? Yes, it does. For me growing up, he was the face of Suzuki motocross. He was “The Man.” A lot of people still think of him as being with Suzuki because he won a lot of championships on Suzukis.

HOW DID THE FOUR-STROKE DEVELOPMENT PROGRESS AT SUZUKI? The first year of the four-stroke was 2004, and that was the year that Suzuki and Kawasaki had an agreement and they made the bike together. We did not have a 450 four-stroke bike that year. When we got the first RM-Z250 in the race shop, I told Roger, “I don’t have any interest in working on a four-stroke.” We were die-hard two-stroke guys, and a four-stroke was some street bike or trail bike. But as fate would have it, I ended up working for Broc Hepler in 2004. Davi Millsaps was also on the team, so we gave the riders a choice between the two-stroke RM125 and the four-stroke RM-Z250. We took both bikes to the Supercross test track; those kids rode them both. Millsaps picked the two-stroke, and Hepler picked the four-stroke. Later, Davi switched to the four-stroke for the outdoors. I was the first guy to work on that bike at Suzuki. 

THE SUZUKI WAS THE FIRST PRODUCTION MOTOCROSS BIKE WITH FUEL INJECTION. WAS IT A LOT BETTER THAN CARBS? With carburetors on the 450s and 250s, when the guys would do on/off sections in Supercross, the engines would bog on landing because of the carb. The riders did not like that at all. Fuel injection was a huge improvement. Each year, fuel injection gets better and better. It also cuts down on the work time for a mechanic. Back in the carb days, I could spend two hours working on a carburetor. Now we wash the throttle body with soap and water, blow dry it, put it back on and it is ready. There is hardly anything to it, so it is a pretty big improvement. When Chad Reed came to Suzuki, he was pumped on it and, of course, he ended up winning that year in 2009, so he had some good memories of it.

Lee and Larry Ward.

LET’S TALK ABOUT WHEN RICKY CARMICHAEL JOINED SUZUKI. We were at the Pontiac Supercross the prior year, and Roger said, “I want to tell you guys that we are going to hire Ricky for next year.” I thought he was joking. I said, “Really, no way, come on.” But, it was true. Ricky would not settle for anything less than winning. Unfortunately, at his very first race at the U.S. Open in Vegas, it did not go well. He was on an RM250 two-stroke, and he ran it so hard that the clutch basket splines sheared off. We were all standing around looking at it like, “What the heck happened?” Suzuki of Japan made changes, and it really worked fine after that. Ricky was a winning machine. He would not take no for an answer. He was like, “I am winning today. I don’t care what anybody else is doing.”

AND THEN YOU HAD RYAN DUNGEY TO PICK UP WHERE RICKY LEFT OFF. I never worked directly with Ryan. He was handpicked by DeCoster. Ryan made his Pro debut at Millville in 2006. We had a double win that day with RC and Hepler, whom I was working for, winning both their motos. Ryan was just a good kid who was very smart and wanted to learn. He certainly came into his own and would become one of the sport’s best 450 riders.

AFTER ROGER LEFT, THE SUZUKI IMAGE SEEMED TO SUFFER. There was a big recession, and bike sales were incredibly low. The motorcycle manufacturers thought that they had to pull back, and that is basically what they did. They just put everything on hold. It was frustrating, but I think the days of making a whole new model every three years like they used to are over. There are just not enough dirt bike sales. When we were young kids growing up, you could get a minibike for a few hundred bucks and ride in the field down the street from your house. I don’t know if kids are able to do that anymore.

WHAT ABOUT WHEN JAMES STEWART CAME TO SUZUKI? That was a crazy deal. I was driving in the rental car coming back from Unadilla, and Mike Webb, who was the team manager after Roger left, said, “I don’t know if you heard or not, but I am going to hire James Stewart.” Again, like the Carmichael deal, I said, “You’re joking, right?” He replied, “No, for real.”  

I was thinking about the structure of the team at that time. I was doing other jobs at the shop, and we did not really have another mechanic available to be a race guy. I asked Mike, “Who are you going to have work for him?” 

“He said, ‘You,’” and laughed. 

I didn’t really want to go back on the road, but there was no choice. I went back to the shop and built a race bike, practice bike, test bike and four race engines. When James came to California, we took him riding for three or four days and James said, “Wow, let’s do some of the Nationals.” That is how that happened.

Lee with Craig Decker back in 1989.

HOW WERE THOSE FIRST RACES WITH JAMES? He won both motos at Hangtown, and then again at Freestone. We were all thinking, “This is great!” As a team, we needed that shot in the arm.

WHAT HAPPENED AFTER THAT GREAT START? Johnny O’Mara was James’ trainer at the time, and I remember him saying, “Whatever you do, don’t let James start changing the bike around.” But, of course, that was what James wanted to do. I asked, “Why change the bike? You just won four straight motos.” It went downhill. I recall being at Thunder Valley in 2013 when that photographer ran out in front of him and James ended up crashing. Now, whether or not the photographer caused him to crash, who is to say? But he hurt his wrist, and I remember sitting in his bus, trying to figure out if he was going to be able to ride or not. At that time, James’ dad was really involved—getting in the middle of things here and there along the way. I guess it is not really any different from some of the other parents that I have seen over the years. I could name several who did the same thing, but I don’t want to do that.

Lee at work.

SUZUKI GETS CRITICIZED FOR NOT HAVING KEPT UP WITH THE TIMES. WHAT IS YOUR OPINION? The bike is solid. The funny thing that you will read in the magazines is that they have not changed the bike in 10 years. But even though the bikes looked the same, there were always updates every year. Maybe a frame, an engine change, but there was always some change, even if it was just “bold new graphics.” Maybe it was not a lot, but I just don’t think that the industry is going to be building whole new bikes every three years like we used to—other than the orange one.

BUT, YOU DO ADMIT THAT DEVELOPMENT HAS LAGGED BEHIND THE ORANGE ONE? The Suzuki is a good bike. Okay, it does not have an electric start, but it is not hard to start; it starts right up. My friends who ride the Vet class always ask, “When will we have electric start?” I simply tell them, “We will have to wait and see.” To me, not having electric start is not the end of the world. 

HOW HAS FACTORY SUZUKI CHANGED SINCE CHANGE TO JGR? What changed is that I am working in North Carolina instead of California. We still deal with the same engineers, the same people, the same money, the same everything. We can make parts and do things at JGR that we actually could not do in our old race shop in Chino, California. Having the bikes, parts and team structure is not the hard part. Beating the other team’s riders is the hard part.

WHY ISN’T SUZUKI WINNING ANYMORE? First of all, the riders have to be healthy. The JGR team has had a lot of injuries. Other than that, it is just a matter of the guys getting out there and doing what they are paid to do. They are top-level athletes, and they have to perform. That is the bottom line. But, it is not easy. I worked in the 250 class with Alex Martin. When I went to the start line, there were four Yamaha guys, four Kawasaki guys, four KTM guys, four Honda guys and so on. Then, there is Alex all by himself on an RM-Z250. It often seemed like it was one guy fighting against a whole field of guys. 

Lee and Roger with Broc Hepler’s bike.

“THERE WAS ALWAYS SOME CHANGE, EVEN IF IT WAS JUST “BOLD NEW GRAPHICS.” MAYBE IT WAS NOT A LOT, BUT I DON’T THINK THAT THE INDUSTRY IS GOING TO BE BUILDING WHOLE NEW BIKES LIKE WE USED TO—OTHER THAN THE ORANGE ONE.”

WHAT WENT WRONG WITH THE PROMISING START OF JUSTIN HILL IN THE 450 CLASS? Justin is great. I love the kid. He marches to the beat of his own drum. He has so much talent it is unbelievable. He can be a second faster than the good guys. It is like magic to watch him ride, but getting it to happen on race day with 20 other guys on the track is something different. He really wanted to be on a 450, and he was given one—and a year to prove himself. The results were not there. 

FROM YOUR PERSPECTIVE, WHAT IS THE FUTURE OF SUZUKI’S RACE TEAM? We would have liked to have gotten some outside funding. We had Auto Trader as a sponsor the last few years, but something in their management changed, so we lost that. As far as Toyota goes, they help us, but I don’t believe it is a big financial benefit. It is not like they are writing a check for $2 million, but they do help us. I believe we needed to find a sponsor to take the spot that Auto Trader had. It would have definitely helped things out. Right now, the sport is all energy drinks. A couple decades ago, it was tobacco companies. What would have happened if Kawasaki hadn’t gotten Monster as a sponsor? What would happen to KTM if they lost Red Bull? Where would Husky be without Rockstar? Take the energy-drink money out of those teams and see where they are at. 

DO YOU BELIEVE THAT IF THE ENERGY DRINKS PULLED OUT THE SPORT WOULD STOP? It could. Who would shell out a few million to go racing? My Suzuki contract is year to year, as it has been for 25 years. I believe that there will always be racing. I just don’t know what it will be like. We might go back to having four 250 bikes and a couple of 450s for Supercross. As for the outdoor series, I don’t know. There is a big difference between Supercross and outdoors. Supercross pays the bills. 

YES, BUT IT IS LOCAL MOTOCROSSERS WHO BUY THE BIKES. We all love motocross. It is what we grew up doing, but we need to stand back and see what the return is. I wonder what it will be like in another five years. Can you imagine bringing your mom, who is maybe in her 50s or 60s, to a motocross race and having her walk around on all the rocks and have to use a port-a-can. But, that’s the way it is outdoors, and it shouldn’t be that way after 50 years. I don’t know how the sport is going to grow. How are we going to make it grow? What is the formula to get it growing again? It aggravates me to think about all the things I just mentioned. I love the sport, and even when I’m done, I will be watching it from home on the couch.

LEE, HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT JGR CLOSING ITS DOORS? I admire Suzuki. Even though we had to drop out. We were still doing it without energy-drink money. We were making it on our own. We remained relevant when other manufacturers would have folded up if their energy drink money went away. I feel lucky to have been at Suzuki for all these years. I would not trade it for anything.

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