Where Are They  Now? Eric Eaton

Where Are They Now? Eric Eaton

July 20, 2012 12:10pm
Hailing from Tacoma, Washington, Eric Eaton was raised in a motorcycling family. His father, Marshall Eaton, opened a small dealership in Tacoma in 1973 and started selling European dirt bikes. Eric showed some early promise with his racing, and together, they started to hit the Nationals in 1980. Eaton enjoyed a strong career as a privateer, and is perhaps most recognized for winning the 1985 Washougal National in the 500cc class. We found Eric late in the afternoon and just getting ready to close up his family run dealership, where he is general manager, and making plans to attend the 2012 Washougal event as a fan.

Racer X: Eric, what's happening?
Eric Eaton: Hey, thanks for the call. This means a lot to me. I am basically working full time at Northwest European Cycles, which is my family’s dealership here in Tacoma, Washington. We started way back in the day with Husky and Maico, and now we are pretty much a KTM exclusive dealer. Our shop has always been small, which is good and bad. But I see it as my job to take the dealership to the next level and grow the business. But really, the last four years, and with the drop in the economy have made it really hard. We are all working super hard to make things, and the coolest part is that I just took full ownership of the shop. We have a small crew, but its my life. But you know, right now, things are much better in the market and it seems like things are turning around. It was a tough four years though.


Tell me some more about your shop?
Well, my father was the founder. We were one of the first KTM dealers in the whole state, so we have a lot of history with KTM. We have always had a great reputation though. I do have a partner at the shop, my old friend Kenny. We have been buddies from way back, he was actually my mechanic at the Nationals, and we have done a lot of different things over the years.

When did you stop racing?
I got hurt real bad in 1987 and that was pretty much it. I had broken my neck and had some healing to do, both physically and mentally. I was pretty well cooked though with motocross and was burned out. But you know, looking back on it, I kinda felt like I was a bit of a victim of racing. I did as much as I could as a privateer, and just could not break into that next level. Between the travel, the costs, and the injuries I was just done by 1987. By the time I was done healing, I was ready to jump into a job. But the family shop had a manager back then (and through 2006), so I started my own retail store selling mountain bikes.  I had seen the mountain bike potential and we jumped on it with both feet. This was back in 1988 when that sport was just taking off. The store was called Northwest Mountain Bikes.

You seemed to be an open bike specialist. Would you say that riding the big bikes was your strength?
No, I wouldn’t say it was my top strength. It just kinda happened that way. My first National in 1980 was on a 500cc Maico, and I did decent and got a 16th. But because of our family shop, I always had support from Maico. In 1981, Maico signed me to a support ride, and I did the whole series. In 1982 I broke my leg real bad, but I came back and got tenth at Washougal. Then in 1983 I did the whole series, and ran up front quite few times. But things really started to click in 1983. I spent a lot of time just watching Hannah and it all come together in my head. Binghamton 1983 was the day I felt a made a big improvement. But I was still on the Maico’s, and they were just not quite as good as the Japanese bikes, so I knew I had to make a change if I wanted to improve my results, as they just were not quite at the level of the Japanese.


What triggered the breakthrough for you?
It was totally mental. Early in my career I was really nervous. When you put so much importance on things, it is hard to be your best.  I would just psyche myself out, basically. But in 1984, I got a Honda and went about getting that bike sorted. It was awesome, and things were looking up.

You rode for the infamous Team Tamm in 1984 didn’t you?
(Laughs) Yeah. In 1984, I was on my own at the start of the season. Things started off well for me. A few races into the season, I got picked up my Tamm because they saw I was getting results. I finally had a ride, which included a van, a mechanic and a lot of other stuff I used to do on my own. But then we had some issues. The bikes would break, and the progress that I made early in the season on my own quickly went away. Then the team folded later in the year and I was left without a ride. It sucked.

So once you finally made it, the rug was quickly pulled out from under you?
That is correct. I was kinda burned out and was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with myself. An offer came in, and through Larry Maiers to go race in Europe for a few months. So I went over there and really kind of found myself. I calmed down. I came back calm and confident, and when I got back, I was running top ten in Supercross, nice and easy. I was back on my Honda’s and feeling good. I then went down to Trans Cal races and started beating Omara, Hollley and some of the top normal top dogs and was really feeling good.

So what about the following season? Did anyone come calling?
Well, yeah. Honda started talking to me. Greg Arnet, the sunglasses guy, was the assistant manager of Team Honda back then. He brought me down to HQ and they threw some numbers on the board and said they wanted to make me an offer. At the same time, Suzuki made me an offer for a good support ride. It had a small salary but all the perks. I told Suzuki I was going with Honda and that was that.  But I felt like it was coming together. But then with Honda, nothing happened. Days turned into weeks and weeks turned to months. I didn’t have a manager or anything back then, and didn’t really know how the game worked. But Honda never called back.


So with the 1985 season quickly approaching, you had no ride. What did you do?
Well, Yamaha had posted some really good contingency money. And once again, Larry Maiers helped me out. He was always really good to me. I wore his High Point gear and it was good stuff. Maiers called Yamaha at the beginning of 1985 and suggested they give me whatever support they could. So they gave me two bikes and $2000 in parts. I then came out and got second in the 500cc championship that year, running my whole program out of a pickup truck and small trailer, and doing pretty much everything myself. I beat Bailey that year in the points, but it was pretty much just a survival race. You had to survive or the bike would hurt you.

How was the money for you back then?
What money! I rode the Open Class in the outdoors, and it was easier to make a few bucks. But in Supercross, I was often the top privateer. I made enough to get to the next race, but that’s about it. But you know back then, Supercross, it was really sketchy. Those tracks were really not that safe. Nowadays, the tracks are much more planned out and safe. We were the guinea pigs, every weekend it seemed the jumps were bigger, more peaky, and sometimes built really badly. We just ran it, and often times a lot of us got hurt. The early to mid 1980’s was an era where tracks were changing by the week, and jumps were growing in height and distance with the increased suspension capabilities.

How do you compare the recent spat of injuries to the ones from your era?
Well, I think there is more publicity now about being injured. The media is now so much more complete - at least in the privateer ranks. Back then, if I was hurt, no one really cared. No one cared unless you were a top factory guy. Now everyone knows, and with the internet and injury reports, etc. But also back then, if you were not physically broken, you kept racing, no matter what. You just taped it up and ran it.  I think we used to be more of just dare devils, where as now the riders are more of pro athletes.


So, in 1985 you won the 500 class at Washougal. What do you recall about that day?
Well, I recall a couple things. I know that Bailey and Glover were on a different level than me that year. But I was the third best guy. The win at Washougal, well, it was my home track and those guys (Bailey and Glover) were not in my class that day. I had several podium rides that season and I was always in or near the top three, so that day I knew I had to win no matter what. And I did. But you know, I finished second in the championship as a complete privateer.  That was my best achievement really. I was consistent and built momentum through the season and riding an old air cooled 490 Yamaha, which was not as competitive as the Kawasaki and factory Honda that we were racing against.

So you finished second in the 1985 500cc outdoor class as a total privateer. What exactly was it like riding the series as a privateer?
Man, it was really tough. I was a total privateer and working out of my pickup truck. Back then, the series used to zig-zag all across the country. The driving time used to kill me, and it was hard to be my best at a race after a 2500 mile drive.  But I was maybe getting tired of being the chump, and just wanted to do my job – which was to race and to win, or at least try and win. Mitch Payton always helped me, as did Bruce Porter at Arai. Also, Bob Hannah was the coolest guy to the privateers, he was just a good dude. He was angry and fought the causes he believed in. But yea, I was doing everything, laundry, finding a campground, looking for motels, whatever. We had no trainers, no managers and no coaches. It was just me and whomever I had to help. When I was running top five, I would still change my own tires still. The year I got second, I was doing everything. Rebuilding bikes, buying groceries, whatever needed to be done. I don’t think its like that nowadays.

What about your personal life?
I am engaged to my wonderful fiancé, Brianna. She works at the shop with me as well. I also have a son who is 22, and his name is Grayson. He is really into drift cars, which is super cool. He rides really well, and we have ridden together quite a bit, but he just was not much for the racing. I did some rally car racing in the late 1990’s and Grayson just got into that, and into the drift scene from the rally.


Wait, you used to race rally cars as well?
Yup. I had an old 1988 Mazda 323GTX that I bought for $3000 in 1998. I rolled the car a few times, won some stages in it, and had a lot of fun. I stopped in maybe 2001 or so, as I just had a lot going on. But Motocross guys are the best at transferring skills to rally I think. That is why you see Travis doing so well with it. It was fun.

Do you still ride today?
Yes, for sure. I kind of got out of it and took a break for a long time. But now I come a full circle. I do a lot of dual sporting, and we have some great trails up here in Washington. I went to Millville and Hangtown over the past few years and had fun at those events. But with Washougal coming up this weekend, I am just pumped to go watch the race, hang out, and spread out the chairs and the cooler and just be a fan.

Thanks for the time. One last question, who was the gnarliest dude from your era?
The baddest racer of the time was Hannah. No question about it. Daryl Shultz and Magoo were also just insane but for different reasons. But speaking for the old privateers, really I appreciate the interest in my career.