Between the Motos: Brad Lackey

February 25, 2009 3:47pm | by:

The word “legend” is thrown around a lot these days by a great many people looking to grab a headline or try to artificially pump someone up. This time I think I would be in correct in saying this week’s Between the Motos guest is truly a legend of our sport. Brad Lackey was an early hero to many over here in America and he won the 1972 500cc National Championship, but the man from Norcal wanted more, and he didn’t want to be the best in America. He wanted to be the best in the world, and that meant one thing back in those days. He would have to contest the Grand Prix circuit, and not in the piddley 125 or 250cc class. Back then the best in the world rode the mighty 500. That was where Brad went to chase his dream.

It took him nine long years of heartbreak and close calls, but in 1982 he finally achieved his goal. The 500cc World Championship was his and he would go down in history as the first American to win it. “Bad” Brad was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999 and is now settled into a quiet life in California. He’s always been a guy that I wanted to call up (thanks BobbyM) and now he’s off my bucket list of MX celebrities.

  • Brad Lackey
Racer X: Brad, what are you up to these days?
Brad Lackey: I’ve got a T-shirt business; we do all kinds of motorcycle events, rallies, motorcycle shops and things like that. That’s most of my business, the motorcycle T-shirt business. I’m also promoting an AHRMA vintage national March 28th and 29th in Northern California at Sand Hill. It’s cool because we’re having a Euro vs. USA thing. I’m bringing over Graham Noyce, Herbert Smith and Zdenek Velky, he was the 1974 Inter-Am champ on a CZ. Lars Larson is also on the European team. The American team is Danny LaPorte, Gary Jones, Chuck Sun and Gary Silverthorne. We’re having like a mini Trans-Am race at halftime. So we put on a couple of races a year and all that stuff keeps me busy.

I saw you were at the San Francisco Supercross, what are your thoughts about how the sport has grown since you retired?
Well you know, Supercross has been around a long time and I used to ride them when they were around the first few years before I was committed to Europe all the time. It hasn’t changed that much from back then as far as the tracks are. Of course there are bigger jumps now but back then we were riding stock bikes that were the same as our outdoor bikes, there was no supercross set-up. I don’t think that’s the same any longer! We had big crowds and spectacular crashes so nothing has changed as far as that is concerned.

I guess I want to say belated congratulations on your World Title, looking back on your career you certainly earned that championship. What was it like for you when you finally won it?
I started full time in 1973 in the GP’s so it was basically ten years for me to win that class. There were a couple of close calls where something would happen and we had some bad luck, but as early as ’79 I knew I was capable of winning the title. We had some bike problems one year and some problems with a rider the next year. Then I had a bad year with some injuries and it just took that long to get it done. I guess it would have been nice to get it done faster or maybe do it again but my goal was always to win the 500cc World Title and become the first American, and it happened, so I’m happy with that.

It’s admirable that you won the 500cc National title in America and probably could have stayed home and been one of the top riders, but you chose to go over there, in totally different conditions, and try to win the GPs. What made you decide to pack up and go over there?
Well I got to see the Europeans come over here when I was young and race the Inter-Am’s and even got to race in those with some of them. Just the talent that they had compared to what we were doing over here was amazing. I figured that if I was ever be as fast as them… in the beginning it was just to be as fast as them for when I was over here, but then after a while it was, hey let’s stay over there. I won the title in ’72 pretty easily and I won almost every national I rode in. The competition over here was kind of slacking so I thought I would just stay and set my goal as being a world champion. It just kind of evolved as I went along.

I have to ask you because I always wondered if Danny Laporte winning the 250 World Title a week later took some of the shine off you being the first American to win one? I felt bad for you a bit.
No, of course not. The American MXDN team had won in ’81 and kind of brought the spotlight on the American riders coming over to Europe and doing well. Everybody knew that we were pretty capable of winning. The 500 class was always a little more executive than the other classes, the bigger stars were in the 500s. The 250 class wasn’t as prestigious to win and rider-wise, wasn’t as deep as the 500s. The riders in the 500 were a little more determined as well, when Danny won it was great because [Bruce] Penhall won the World Speedway championship plus the American team won the MXDN so it was a good year for American motorcyclists. I think it worked perfectly actually.

What was the deal with you not defending that number one in 1983? What happened with Suzuki and how close were you to signing with someone else?
Well you know, every ten years or so we have these recessions like we have now and that was the case back then. Suzuki got first and second in the 500 Championships after sitting out for five years and watching Honda dominate. They also won the 125 championship with [Sylvain] Geboers so they had the manufacturer’s title in the 500 and probably the 125 class as well as two World titles. They just bowed out and that is sometimes what they do, the world economy took a dive and they dropped out the world championships in all classes.

The Yamaha team had one rider and that was Carlqvist and the Honda team was still going strong and they had [Graham] Noyce and [Andre] Malherbe and a couple other guys. So that took care of all the teams because we lost Suzuki and I had already ridden for the other teams (laughs). There wasn’t a lot there really. Maico and Husky weren’t real big players in the 500 class, Cagiva was coming up and they offered me some good money but I was pretty sure I couldn’t win while developing a bike for the Italians. I would’ve been paid a lot of money but didn’t think I could win so I just decided to go out on top, nobody really does that either.

Who was the toughest rider you faced all those years that you were there?
I had the most fights with Malherbe I think. He won a couple of titles and took me out in 1980 in the first turn which caused me to lose the title that year. He was pretty strong, he was a big guy and rode the 500 real well. He came up through the ranks from the 125s and was from Belgium where there are a lot of champions and a lot of pressure on those guys to do well. Of course, Heikki [Mikkola] in the early years was tough, he was the same but a different type of rider on the track. We just were similar speed and whoever was faster would win that day. I think if you eliminate that bike to bike combat, when you add in the extra stuff that Malherbe would do, he was tougher.

Did you have a favorite track over in Europe all those years you were there?
I always liked the grass tracks over there, I usually did really well on those. Farleigh Castle was always good for me, Sittendorf was a grass track and I went fast there. Luxembourg, although I had my ups and downs there, I liked and I went fast there. I would have the fastest lap there quite a few times. Then there was the track in Namur, it was hard packed and went through the trees and wasn’t my style really, I liked the grass tracks. The final race in Luxembourg, the first race at Sittendorf and Farleigh Castle was in the middle so I knew that I had a good start, a good race in the middle and one in the end as well to help me.

Did you make a lot of friends among the other riders or conversely were there some riders you didn’t get along with?
I trained with Noyce a lot and Heikki and Roger [DeCoster] a lot over my ten years over there. They were my buddies at different times when I was there. We really didn’t have any trouble with anyone while we were there. This was serious business for sure but we knew the rough and tumble riders and you knew that was their style. They would take you out or whatever and then were the other guys that you didn’t have to worry about. We knew each guy and knew their styles, my trainer and I would time every single lap of every single guy in the top ten. We knew how fast they would be going at the end of a 45 minute moto and how fast they would be going at the end. We had lap time charts for all the guys and we knew who we were playing with.

I recently watched the 1983 Carlsbad USGP where you raced with the number one on a Yamaha. How did that whole deal come together for you?  You went 5-6 for fifth overall which wasn’t too bad.
We were testing a four-stroke for that race and came into a money issue. We needed to do some drastic changes to the bike and the guy really didn’t have the money for it. In the meantime I was riding a stock Yamaha that Yamaha had given me to R&D, to compare it to the four-stroke but in the end we went with that bike because I had a lot of time on it. It was basically just a stock bike with very minimal changes, it wasn’t a factory bike by any means. We dialed it in really good at Carlsbad and Yamaha gave me a bit of money and that was it. The fifth wasn’t anything wonderful but against the top factory guys and their bikes, it was ok and we were happy with it.

  • Brad Lackey
What do you remember from that day? To me it looked like the fans were really on your side and cheering you on quite a bit.
Yeah, they were. They probably knew it was the last time they would see the number one and the only time it would be used. I always got a lot of support at Carlsbad and was like Roger in that I never won there and something would always happen. I’ve had broken wheels, broken bikes and fallen off quite a bit to keep me from winning. It was just one of those hard tracks for me, I was never that good on the hard pack tracks. They probably wanted a better result but fifth was okay.

Did you ever have a chance to race in America in 1983? Did that ever cross your mind?
We talked about it a bit but nothing really happened. I came back from Europe in ’75 and there wasn’t really a 500 national class, they were kind of phasing it out. I had missed the first two races because of the GP’s but there had been different winners at each round, so if I won the remaining races, I could be the champion again. I won the first race and the second moto I got a flat and got second or something like that. I had to win all the races to get the title so that was that. The last race, the last moto my bike broke and I came close to winning another title that year on a Husky, which would’ve been cool because they were at the end of the European bike run by then. It was all Hondas and bikes like that. So I tried it that year and in ‘83 I wasn’t really excited to go and try again. The support wasn’t really there to make a full scale attack on the nationals either.

Financially for you, did you make the most money the year you won the title?
Yeah, it was pretty good for me. I had some big bonuses from Suzuki and at that time, my salary was pretty good because I had a draw on both sides of the world. It’s nothing at all like the guys are getting these days. The guy you don’t even know that gets twentieth at the supercross makes as much as I did back then.

I saw your RM500 at the World Vet’s this year and from what I know, it’ll never be considered as the bike to beat that year. You had the factory Honda’s and all that back then so I want to know how your bike was against those guys.
Well I had a really good team back then. My mechanic was Stig Peterson from the factory and I hired Steve Stefcheski for my engine and suspension guy. I also hired Steve Simons who made those upside down forks on my bike. The front end we had was way better than anyone else over there so we had an advantage. Especially with the European tracks and their rocks and ruts and things like that, the bike just worked really good in those conditions. Steve was a great guy that could make the motor just the way I wanted it, we had a really good package that year. It was totally different then [Andre] Vromans bike by the time we got to the first races. His was like a stock factory bike and was like a highly modified factory bike! They didn’t sound alike, they didn’t look alike but I changed mine to suit my style and he was more into DeCoster’s style of bike. The ’75 bike that Roger had ridden hadn’t changed very much and when we got them in ’81, they needed a lot of work.

I know after you retired you came to my hometown in Canada and put on a riding school. What were those like for you to do?
I did those for a while but I wasn’t too into them. I didn’t do a career of them by any means. Sometimes I would get invited to a race and would just throw a school in there to help pay some expenses or whatever. Sometimes people would request just a school we would do that. I’m not that good at them as I should be I guess. It really depended on the conditions of the tracks as to what you could teach them. Most of the guys knew the basics and all that so what was I going to teach them? If we got to a track that had some challenging things then I could really teach them to have a quicker lap time but sometimes the track wasn’t very good so I could only teach them the basic things and they already knew that.  So I kind of felt that the guys weren’t getting their money’s worth or they weren’t really learning that much. If I could take them to Lommel or somewhere like that, I could take them for a couple of days and really teach them how to go fast.

I have to let you know that when I was a kid, you really scared me in those Leader goggle ads where you just stared out with your beard, those kind of freaked me out.
(Laughs)It was a Canadian company, Leader.

I Googled you and found out you were also a stuntman in a lot of movies, what was that like?
Yeah, I worked in the industry for about ten years or more. I worked with a lot of guys, Schwarzenegger, Russell Crowe, Michael Douglas, Kurt Russell. I did stuff with all those guys. Those guys are funny y’know, they don’t mind killing the stunt guy! “Ok do it again”, “But I almost died”, “That’s okay, do it again” (laughs). I did okay and made okay money at the time. A good friend of mine got me into all the gigs and we had a good time and got to meet a bunch of crazy people.

Any of those stars talk to you?
Kurt Russell is the coolest dude. He’s been around a long time and done everything in the movie industry. He’s just a regular guy like us.

Thanks Bad Brad.
Thank you.