Ukaih, California is located 120 miles north of San Francisco. While not exactly a mecca of motocross, it was the childhood home to a kid named Michael Brandes.
Brandes was a rising star in the late 1990s and grabbed some top finishes at the highest level of the sport—including a win at the 2000 Indy 125 Supercross. Brandes enjoyed the perks of being a star, and when things were going well, he was getting paid six figures to race dirt bikes and travel the world. But like many before him, Mike learned that as quickly as the success comes in, it also goes out.
Brandes has been retired from racing for nearly ten years now, and is a self-proclaimed “everyday corporate working stiff.” We chased him down after a long day at the office and listened to what he had to say about his time as a professional racer.
Never one to mince his words, Brandes had plenty to say.
Racer X: Mike, thanks for doing this, what’s going on with you?
Michael Brandes: Well, I’m just a regular corporate stiff, working hard at my day job and trying to get ahead in the world of business. I’m living in the Bay Area of San Francisco, in the town San Ramon. It’s a small little community, and it’s a neat place to live. I don’t ride moto at all anymore, but I do ride a bicycle as much as I can. San Ramon is cool because we have a ton of hills.
Oh, you’re a roadie now? How many miles a week?
Well, lately it’s been limited, but last year I was racing and doing about 20 hours a week on the bike. It was almost every day; it was an obsession of mine. But currently I’ve turned into a lazy desk job dude and I’m not getting out as much as I want to. The bikes replaced the motorcycles, and now that I’m working so much, I still ride [the bicycle], but not enough, and I kind of feel like a human donut. Working this much, you know, it just lacks any sort of excitement. But it’s all good, I make good money. The fun is over with. It’s all work now!
Where exactly are you working?
I work for a company called Solar Universe. We’re one of the top five solar companies in the nation. Basically, we sell solar installations—solar systems that use the sunlight to replace or make up for electrical energy. We do the installation process—be it a residential house, a commercial building, a barn, or even ground mounts out in the hills in the middle of nowhere. It’s a big company, and I work in the operations department. I review all the (installation) jobs that come through and basically work closely with those guys that do the install. I create the material lists, I review the plans and make sure the install will go smoothly. And then after the job is complete, I basically do quality control. I sometimes have to be the bad guy who reviews the work to make sure our contractor does things to spec. My office is based at our corporate headquarters in Livermore, California, which is about 35 minutes east of San Francisco. But we have something like 40 franchises all over the country.
It sounds like you have landed on your feet after racing. How was that transition?
I’ll tell you this, there are some people that think they have it all planned out, but when you go from a professional athlete to something else, it’s not that easy. It’s a different world going from being a paid professional racer to getting being paid $25 an hour. I remember my first paycheck after I quit racing like it was yesterday—I wanted to cry when I saw what it was. That was really an eye opener. You take for granted the amount of money you can make racing. But you know, for me, I wasn’t making even $300k per year, but I was making a decent paycheck for some kid from the middle of nowhere. But then when you make $25 an hour, it sucks. It’s really hard. You have to adjust your lifestyle, like big time.
It sounds like you struggled a bit after leaving the sport?
It wasn’t easy. I had a hard time the first two years. I thought I could stay home and make some money. I did some racing in NorCal, and realized you can’t race locally and make money like I did when I was 15-years-old and it was 1991. I’d make $500 or something, and for me [that] was a waste of time. It was the same as making $20 per hour. I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do, but I knew the racing part was done. I started teaching lessons, but that’s only fun when riders are motivated to learn. I found I was spending more time with the parents than the kids. The parents wanted each kid to be the next champion, and I felt that in most cases the parents were trying to live their dreams through the kids. The parents kind of ruined the teaching thing, so I didn’t stick with it.
What happened after that?
I got a job working with Scott Davis, he was running a local track in NorCal called E-Street. That was actually the first track I ever raced at, and I ended up running the dozer and taking care of the tracks. I had a good time with that, running the place and the equipment. But I knew it wasn’t a job where I was going to get a 401k, so it was just fun for that moment. After that, I transferred over to the solar business and that’s where I am today.
Tell me about your personal life. I understand you have plans to get married?
Yup! My fiancée is Kathleen Wade and she is from Vacavillle [California]. She’s amazing; we’ve been attached since the first day we met. [Laughs] Believe it or not, we met on eHarmony! We both tried it out, and it totally worked. There is a system behind it, that algorithm or whatever, but it worked for us. We are working on the wedding date and have only been engaged for a month or so, so it’s still pretty new right now.
Let’s talk a little more about your career and some of your memories, good or bad, as well as how long you raced at the top.
Well, I turned professional in 1991 when I was still just 15-years-old. My first pro race was at Argyle Cycle Park here in Northern California. It’s not exactly the best track in the world, but it was cool. My last full season was 2002. In 2003 I did the outdoor series only and skipped supercross.
Wait, you willingly skipped a supercross season? Isn’t that kind of career killer?
Pretty much. But by 2003 I was winging it, just riding some local races or whatever. I didn’t want to ride supercross, I was tired of getting hurt and I considered myself an outdoor only kind of guy. I didn’t have a team lined up until a month before Glen Helen. Bobby Regan and his team [Star Racing] gave me a shot. He gave me a one-race deal that year. Also, I think that was the first, maybe second, year that he was racing with his team. But Bobby made it a great time for me. I got Paul Currie’s old supercross bike to ride at Glen Helen. I was so motivated to do well, I got fifth overall on the day. So I got a ride for the rest of the season. I had some really good races that year. But I was at that point where I wasn’t willing to really hang it out anymore. I got to the point where I got scared, and at that point, I knew it was time to get out. And I hated supercross—man I hated that shit. But you needed to race it if you wanted a contract. I knew I was screwed once I got scared. But that year, I did pretty good, I rode that beat, used up supercross bike all year long and it did good for me.
What about 2004? The record books show your name for a few events.
I raced a few races in 2004, but it was for this movie, a documentary on being a privateer. But I had no ambition to race, I was just along for the fun of riding along in the motorhome and hanging out. That was just one more road trip for me—I knew it was all over.
How was the money for you?
I had a couple of years where I made good money, but it was nothing crazy. You know, it was a couple years after my time when the contracts stated getting bigger and better for a guy like me. But in 1999 and 2000, when I was on the podium on a regular basis, I could make some money. But I was 18-years-old, maybe 19 or whatever, I didn’t care [about the money]—all I cared about was racing and having fun. If I got bikes and parts and didn’t have to work on my stuff, I was stoked!
Did you make it to your closest race, the Oakland supercross?
No! Oakland is the one race I go, but I didn’t make it this year. My fiancé got really sick this past weekend, so we didn’t go. It was a bummer. I still love to watch the sport and I still follow it closely. She was never involved in the sport, and while she has seen the races on TV, I wanted to take her to the real deal. It’s different to go in person and see the opening ceremonies, the fireworks and all that stuff. We’ll go next year; I can’t wait to take her! It’s fun to see the new guys and the new generation, and man, I’m glued to the TV every Saturday night. I was looking forward to showing her what I used to do and seeing some old friends.
What was your best or most favorite race?
People always think it was winning the 2000 Indy supercross race, but honestly, it wasn’t. That was awesome, but it wasn’t the best. I never loved supercross, it just wasn’t my deal. I would honestly say my best memory was in 1999, at the High Point National, I got third overall—I think that was my best race ever. I was so stoked to get on that podium. That meant a lot more to me than any supercross podium. I always felt that if you can get on the podium outdoors, you’re a badass. That was my only podium finish. I had plenty of second and third place moto finishes, but that little red headed kid [Ricky Carmichael] spoiled my fun. There were quite a few where I got a second in the first moto, then a pile up in the second and I would finish eighth or something stupid and it messed up my overall scores. But that race was awesome.
When you think about your career as a racer what sticks out in your mind?
The fun! The experiences you get to have at such a young age, it’s amazing. Most people work their asses off and then retire. But I was 18, 19-years-old making money and traveling around the world and signing autographs. It kind of spoiled the rest of my life—the lifestyle was awesome. I was riding different tracks every day, and just everything I did was a competition. It was me, Casey Johnson, Travis Preston, David Pingree, Jiri Dostal, Chad Pederson, Randy and Phil Lawrence, we all hung out. And everything we did was just one big competition. We did cycling, tennis, golf … whatever it was, it was a race. Even going out to dinner, it was competition. I guess now looking back on it, that’s who we were—we were competitors. It’s hard to replace that.
I can only imagine. No wonder some guys find trouble after racing is over.
Yeah, totally. I can understand the riders who get in trouble. You have everything in front of you—you want this, you get it, you want that, you get it, you get a paycheck, and you have everything in your control. Then you go out in the world after it’s over, and it’s hard. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t end up in any real trouble, but it was a real slap in the face once I stopped racing. I struggled to grasp that my racing was done and what I had to do to get to that next step.
What does the future hold for Michael Brandes, and is there anyone you want to thank?
Well, the next step for me is getting married and to keep my career in the solar business moving forward. That’s it for now. Kathleen is a wonderful woman in my life, and obviously, that’s a new deal for us. I’m really looking forward to that!
I do want to say thank you to my parents, no one can make it in this sport without them. Every rider has had different experiences with their own parents, but I was lucky to always have a good [experience] and we’re all still really close. I would never have been there without them; they let me pursue my dream.
Well, any closing words? Sounds like things are pretty much in order for you.
Racing was a part of my life that was a stage and now I’m going onto another stage of my life. Instead of thinking how cruel the world is, I embrace it for what it was—going around the world, meeting people. When my career was winding down, I talked to Tallon Vohland, and he said to apply the same mentality that you have in racing to whatever you do after racing. So now instead of choosing the best lines or the best starting gate, I studied my industry—the solar business. It’s the same as being hired by a race team, you have to work hard, make sacrifices, but it landed me a good job.