Mike Fisher was the quintessential motocross “industry guy.” A successful pro for nearly ten seasons, he went onto testing, R&D and then team management with Monster Energy Kawasaki. But that changed suddenly in 2011 when Kawasaki decided to go in a different direction, leaving Fisher jobless after a strong season with Ryan Villopoto.
Fisher came of age in Santee, California, just a few miles from the famed motocross real estate of El Cajon. He grew up in the shadows of riders such as Ricky Johnson, Broc Glover, Ron Lechien and Scott Burnworth, among others.
His racing career was successful, with third in the final standings of the 1987 500 MX Nationals, and his best individual result was a second overall at the Kenworthy’s national that same year. He was a Kawasaki guy for most of his career, as well as his transition to development and team management.
At a recent Monster Energy Supercross, we found Fisher sitting in the press box with his son Max. We took the time to speak with him about his racing career and to find out what he has been up to since leaving the paddock.
Racer X: Mike, thanks for chatting. You had a successful run as a racer in the 1980s and ‘90s. Tell us a little about that.
Mike Fisher: Thanks. My first real contract was with Honda, for 1984 and 1985. At that time, I was sixteen years old, and I was a racer, that’s all I knew. But they asked me if I could help them with testing, and from my first day doing that, I loved it. [Roger] DeCoster was there running the show, and I couldn’t believe that I was riding for him, and then he was asking me what I thought about the bike! He asked me simple things, but instrumentally it was really important and helped shape me as a racer.
You moved to Kawasaki pretty quickly after that Honda deal?
Yes I did. From early on, I decided testing was my thing. I actually think it hurt me. I knew I could get paid for a few days worth of riding doing testing, where racing only paid if you finished well. So I was really focused on testing, and I don’t think I was hungry enough with my race results. I worked with Kawi doing a lot of testing for them, and that was working good, but my results were about the same. At the time, I thought riding all the time helped me, but in hindsight, I think it was a mistake. I was too focused on the technical aspects of the bike and not so much on my results. I was too analytical.
In 1991 you moved to KTM and scored some amazing results (at the time) for that brand. How did that come about?
Well I had been at Kawasaki since 1986, and I felt like my results in 1989 and 1990 had improved to the point where I could ask for more money. I was still testing all the time, and I think our results were going the right way and I hadn’t gotten a raise in a long tome. So I asked for a little more money in my contract—not a ton a more—but they basically said no. So I was friendly with Sel (KTM’s Selvaraj Narayana) and we put together a program. I asked Kawasaki to match the offer, and they said no. So I went with KTM for 1991.
KTM was totally unproven at the time, but you gave them their best ever results, with several fourth place finishes in supercross. That’s no easy task.
No it wasn’t. But leaving Kawasaki really motivated me to get results. I did my own testing on the bike and I was much more focused and more consistent on getting results. The KTM was a pretty good—we fixed some issues with suspension, but we certainly didn’t have a supercross test track. We just went to Palm Avenue and I would just go hit some crazy jumps and figure out our suspension that way. Back then, the tracks were really inconsistent, the faces were all over the place, some were steep, some were gradual. The rigidity of parts was really important, and WP and KTM figured it out, and along with Bridgestone, we had a great package. Basically I had the confidence I needed and I got some results.
As a professional racer, how was the money?
When I first started with Honda, it was good money. The market was still strong, and the OEM’s were selling tons of units. But then it tanked in the late ‘80s and early 1990s. Some guys, like Ricky [Johnson] and Broc [Glover] were making good money, but the rest of us were just getting by. But I started making good money with KTM. I put some money away—I bought a house and put some cash away. But that’s not what it was about. I got to travel all over the world doing what I did, racing motorcycles. I loved traveling and meeting everyone that I did—it was an amazing time.
You had a long relationship at Kawasaki, tell me about your time with them?
Well, KTM was great, and in 1991 they were really happy with my results. But then that fall, the parent company in Austria went bankrupt, and I had just signed a contract for 1992. They didn’t have any support from the factory at all. I also hurt my shoulder, and things weren’t falling into place. So I went back to Kawasaki for ’93 and the pay was good.
You quit racing around 1994 or so. Tell me about that decision?
When I first decided to quit racing, I took a full time position testing products. Mike Preston was in charge of the department, and he hired me. I was told I had to work every day or be in the office, and it was quite a change for me. One day we would be riding dirt bikes and the next we were testing Jet Ski’s. Then about two years into the work, I was testing a Mule out at Gorman. I had to have it at on a certain hill and stuck at a certain RPM. I was sitting there doing 15 mph for like 20 minutes, and I thought, “What I am doing with myself?” It was one of those things, was my glass half full or half empty? From that point on, I put a full effort into every testing exercise, regardless of what it was. I realized I loved what I did. That attitude helped me stay positive and move up in the company.
So how did you make the move from test rider to team manager?
Well, I knew some of the Japanese, and I told them I wanted to be in racing. They didn’t ask about it much, but they knew. Then one day Bruce Stjernstrom came to me in R&D, took me up to his office, and they said that I was the new team manager. It was really funny how it went down. I didn’t go back to my R&D office until later that day, and it was hectic. That was June of 2005 on a Monday, and the next race was in Denver. We had just gotten nailed for leaded fuel, [James] Stewart had landed on Carmichael at Unadilla, and we were still racing a two-stroke. So it was a hard time. But we got things worked out and started going the right way.
How many championships did you oversee and manage?
I honestly don’t know—maybe five? James and Ryan [Villopoto] were our big guys, but I also was very involved with signing some of Mitch’s [Payton, Pro Circuit] riders as well. James went undefeated in 2008 and Ryan won several championships while I was team manager.
So the big question: what happened with your team manager position in 2011?
The easy way to say it is Kawasaki wanted to go in a different direction. The bottom line is they wanted to go away from the way I managed it, and they changed it up quite a bit. There’s no bad blood on my end at all, and I’m proud of what we accomplished during my time.
Did you think about trying to manage your own team with an outside sponsor?
I did, and I tried during 2012. I spent quite a bit of time putting together a plan. That included the riders I wanted, staffing, everything. I spoke to a few OEM’s, one of which had interest, but I couldn’t get the money I need to be comfortable, so I didn’t do it. I wanted a three-year funding commitment, but I could only get one. I wasn’t going to do it without having it fully funded. At Kawasaki, if we ran over on our budgets, we had KHI [parent company, Kawasaki Heavy Industries] as a safety net. KHI allowed us to go over if it was explainable, and normally that was because we won too much and paid too many race bonuses. If I was on my own, that is a different deal.
So, what are you up to now?
Well, I’ve moved on from the racing world. I’m now the sales manager for the Costco Powersports program, and I oversee the entire deal across all of the Costco stores.
Wow, that’s totally different. I have seen some bikes on display at my local store and wondered what the deal is. How does it work?
Well, our single focus is on driving traffic to the local dealers. Every Costco has an average of 120,000 members per warehouse. The numbers of people passing through our doors every day is huge. So the powersports program, it’s basically a member benefit to help membership retention. Members are able to purchase a product, be it a bike, ATV or side by side though our program. The member gets referred to and connected with a local participating dealer, and it’s exclusive to that local dealer. It is a pre-negotiated price, and the customer will get a strong price without any freight or set up charges. What we’re really focused on is the new buyer and new riders who might not otherwise think about buying a bike. The bikes in the stores catch everyone’s eyes. Over 4500 people walk through our doors at every club store every day. Where else can a motorcycle dealer get that type of impression?
So lets make this clear: Costco is not actually selling the bikes right?
Correct. Absolutely not. It’s a referral program that drives traffic to local dealers who are equipped to handle the customers. Some folks might think of us the wrong way—but we do NOT sell the bikes at the stores. Some of the OEM’s have the wrong impression of us, they think we’re selling bikes, but it’s not true. We do not put a price on it at the store. We just want member savings and a bike in the store. So it’s basically a marketing program, and it’s my job to educate the dealers and the industry how it all works.
I think attracting new riders to the sport is very important. It seems that kids have more and more digital distractions.
That’s what hooked me—the challenge of getting new people to come into the sport of motorcycling and off road. The platform we have is amazing. I want to see as many people as possible riding bikes and taking part of our programs. It’s my first taste of this type of sales work but I would love to see the OEM’s get together to do something where we can all get new riders out there enjoying the sport.
What about your personal life?
I’m happily married to my wife Kelli, and we are raising two kids and live in Mission Viejo. I have a stepdaughter and my son, Max, they are both 11. It’s all good on that front. I actually met Kelli through Max’s school, and it was the kids who set us up!
That’s funny! Let’s wrap this up. Any closing words?
I still love the sport, I spent seven years on the road doing the racing thing every weekend, and it’s a big change to be off the road. Regardless of the job, I really enjoy working with the people and tackling things as a group. In racing, we were all working together for a goal, and everyone had a piece of it. So I miss that, but what I’m doing now is also rewarding, but outside the world of racing. So it’s good. I enjoyed my time at the races, now it is time to broaden my horizons.