Long-time Racer X contributor Eric Johnson takes you back to some of his favorite stories throughout the years.
To this day I’ve never worked as hard on a story as I did on this. Initially, I don’t think John Gregory, founder of JT Racing, wanted his story told, but when we told him we wanted to put it in the premier issue of Racer X, he liked the idea. It came with a catch though: John wanted to see everything before it was printed. It took me a month to write the first draft. Before Christmas ‘97, I drove down to Chula Vista (right on the Mexican border) and met John at JT. He sat me in a chair, took the draft and said, “I’ll be back in a little while.” Three hours later he came back. He didn’t say anything. He put his hand on my shoulder and I could tell his eyes were welling up. He read the piece and all the nice things people had said about how revolutionary his company was, and it all came flooding back to him. JT Racing didn’t last much longer after that story, but to this day, John still checks in on us. He’s an A+ guy and I’m proud I was able to tell his tale. A folk hero of NESC motocross who went on to make a name for himself on the AMA National scene, Keller fell on hard times after leaving the sport, dealing with alcohol and gambling addiction, and a series of jobs—from fisherman to furrier—that left him down and out. Jo Jo didn’t want to be found, but with the urging of longtime NESC photographer and friend Paul Buckley, the burly man from New England reached out and found me. I was in an office in Carlsbad, California when the phone rang. Jo Jo was in a truck, driving on the outskirts of Boston when he began telling me his tale. Incredibly kind and candid, Keller was brutally honest about the time he spent in the sport and the darkness that followed. What struck me about Jo Jo was that he sounded so apologetic abut everything. He wore his heart on his sleeve and in some ways, felt he had let the sport, the fans and himself down. I first got to know Greg and Pete Fox while driving up to Lake Tahoe in the back of a van with Davey for a guy named Mike Taylor’s bachelor party in 1994. Even though I was a nobody, they couldn’t have been cooler to me. A few years later we started Racer X magazine, and a few issues in we wanted to write about the 25th Anniversary of Fox Racing. Pete and Greg wanted me to write the piece and I was genuinely flattered. I sat in an office with Pete, Greg, and their father and the founder of Fox, Geoff Fox. Mr. Fox was remarkably modest and pragmatic, even though he had built the most recognized and admired motocross brand in the world. In fact, while we spoke, Mr. Fox seemed to be keener on looking towards the future. “It’s been great fun,” he smiled. “I’m very proud of where we are and where we came from. I can’t wait to see what this company and this sport will do in the future.” As we all know now, Fox has been at the very vanguard of taking motocross to places no one has before. When it comes to motocross or any other sort of racing, I’ll sit there and study, absorb and dissect as many facets of it as I possibly can. “That 70’s Show” is a perfect example. When I went to do that story, I simply wouldn’t stop digging for dates, tracks, personalities, and historical facts. It went on for months! In the autumn of 1978, my friend Greg King invited me to Mid-Ohio to see the opening round of this thing called the Trans-AMA Series. We were both huge Bob Hannah and Roger DeCoster fans, yet we had never seen them race. On the first lap, DeCoster and Hannah came around to where we were standing on the big uphill and it was simply brilliant. Man, you talk about seeing your heroes in the flesh for the first time…. I’ll never forget that moment in time and that’s what I really attempted to capture in this piece. In the spring of 1984 I drove from Ohio to High Point. A few weeks earlier, Alan King had won the Hangtown National with a privateer team called Team Tamm, and when I arrived at the track, the first thing I saw was the line of Tamm box vans and bikes and the riders dressed in red, white and blue gear. I was totally blown away by the coolness just oozing out of their setup. When we started Racer X, I always bugged Davey about doing a story on the team, and we eventually decided to pull the trigger. When I went looking for all those who had been involved, I heard all kinds of crazy things, and I knew the story would live or die depending on finding Bob Tamm. I remember being in a hotel room in Palm Springs, making phone calls for upwards of four hours before I tracked down his wife, Julie. She then put me in touch with Bob. In speaking with them, I found it was all a bittersweet memory for them, and I think they meant well, but got in way over their heads. The first time I saw Shaun Palmer in action was at the 1998 LA Coliseum. At the time he was the most recognized alternative sports athlete in the world, and that night, he managed to qualify for the 125cc main event. He was so happy, he went back to the Pro Circuit truck, got drunk, and blew his motorcycle up. That kind of frightened me. In any event, Davey and I got to know him well, and we worked collectively on this piece. I still think this opening spread is the best idea we have ever come up with. It was inspired by an issue of Sports Illustrated from the early-1970s that featured Steve McQueen on the cover. While putting gas in my car, it hit me like a ton of bricks: We needed to recreate that cover with Palmer! I called DC from a pay phone and he went right to work on it. Rick Doughty of Vintage Iron got involved, found us a Husky identical to the bike McQueen rode, and Frank Hoppen shot the amazing photos. This story is the one of which I am most proud. In the early winter of 1982, I came home from school and saw the new issue of Motocross Action on the table. On the cover was Johnny O’Mara blowing up a berm in Lommel, Belgium, on his way to a Team USA win the Trophee des Nations. At that very instant, Johnny O’Mara became my motocross hero. When I started to write this I didn’t really know Johnny that well, but he, along with Chuck Sun, Danny LaPorte, Donnie Hansen, Roger DeCoster, Dave Arnold – those who played the main roles in the greatest single moment in U.S. motocross history – could not have been more helpful. A few years later, I was in Belgium with Johnny, and the two of us were riding along with Stefan Everts’ in his Mercedes station wagon. Stefan was driving well over 100 miles per hour down a small country road when we flashed by a small sign that simply read “LOMMEL”. “Go back!” I yelled. I wanted to see that sand box if it was the last thing I ever did. I carry a torch for racing history, and to me, no single company on Earth has a greater racing history than Honda. It seemed like fate to me that I lived in Torrance, California (home of American Honda) when we started the magazine. Soichiro Honda first took Honda racing at the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy in 1959, and in 1965, Honda won it’s first Formula 1 race. The rest is, as they say, history. The hardest part about writing “A Wing and a Prayer” was deciding where to start! I didn’t have to look far, though—Cliff White invited me down to the Honda race shop. Less than three weeks prior to the season-opening Anaheim Supercross. Cliff, who had been with Honda for 21 year at that time, sat with me in the “Hall of Fame” room, and with number one plates earned by Marty Smith, Freddie Spencer, Jeremy McGrath, David Bailey and countless others serving as a backdrop, took me through Honda’s incredible history in motocross. I first met Bob Moore while I was working at a place called Chiat/Day Advertising in Venice, CA. A friend of mine had become friends with Bob through cycling, and knowing that I was a fan of Bob’s, he took me up to his house on a hill that overlooked Phoenix. In the living room was the Chesterfield Yamaha on which Bob had won the 1994 125cc World Championship. I struck up an immediate rapport with Bob, and to this day, I think his story is one of the most unique in all of American motocross. Bob won the very first 125cc West Region Supercross Championship in 1985. Not one year later, he was in Europe riding for Robert Gallina and Team HB Suzuki. Bob always dreamed of winning a world title, so at 17, that’s what he set off to do, and he didn’t leave Europe until he finally won it in 1994. Bob saw it all, and in the story we did together, his tales of racing and traveling the world were just awesome.