It was only a matter of time before former Team Honda Muscle Milk manager Erik Kehoe resurfaced on a professional level at the races. The man is a competitor through and through, loves the sport and is back at it managing the Yamaha-backed factory effort of Valli Motorsports Yamaha and Christophe Pourcel. We got in touch with Kehoe to learn more about his latest gig.
Racer X: Tell us about your new gig with Valli Motorsports and how you got hooked up with them.
Erik Kehoe: Yeah, it’s pretty exciting. I had taken some time off and was helping my family. My mother was battling cancer, and she kind of lost that battle here on her eightieth birthday in January. She was living in the house that she and my dad had built together in the Tehachapi area and didn’t want to go into the hospital or anything. I wasn’t working at the time and I told the family I’d help out. So when I was at the house cleaning up, getting things situated and getting the estate in order I got a call from Keith McCarty at Yamaha. He asked what I was up to and I didn’t have much going on, and he mentioned that they had a fun project going on with Christophe Pourcel that they wanted me to be a part of it.
We went back and forth for a while and I went out and watched Christophe ride, had a look at all the details of the program and met team owner Chad Lanza. I’ve known Keith, Jimmy Perry, Bob Oliver, Mike Guerra, Dan Rambert, all those Yamaha guys, for a long time. Bob Oliver was my mechanic in 1981 when I signed with Yamaha for my first pro year! To me it just sounded like a really fun project with a lot of longtime friends, and I’ve always been intrigued with Christophe’s talent. He’s a great, smart racer.
Is it weird for you to be with Yamaha after being a Honda guy for so long?
It’s different, for sure. Every program is a little bit different, and they obviously have their own staff. I wouldn’t say it’s weird; it’s different. I was involved with the Yamaha of Troy team for a long time—it was my first real big managing gig—and I developed a great relationship with those guys so when I was hired on at Honda it was a big change in that direction too. Getting involved with the Yamaha guys now is just like another part of an extended family, really. In our sport you develop relationships, and a lot of those friendships never go away even though a lot of the time you’re competing against each other.
What are some of those differences you mentioned?
Personnel is different, the location is different, the race shop is set up different and they have a different way of doing things. I can’t get into too much detail there, but it’s a different organization with different resources. They have a lot of smart people there. Bob Oliver has been working on engines there for a long time and has a lot of experience. Between Dan Rambert, Bob Oliver, Keith McCarty, Jimmy Perry and Mike Guerra, all those guys, think about the years of experience those guys have! I remember when I was first on the team with Yamaha in 1981 Keith was wrenching for Bob Hannah! I learned a lot from those guys back at that time and carried that experience through my career. I’m looking forward to learning more from those guys now, too. Everywhere you go you have different experiences. You’re carrying this toolbox around and everywhere you go pick up a few new tools and hopefully you’re able to make a difference somewhere with all of the different tools you’ve accumulated. We all have the same goal, and that’s to win. Being part of a winning organization is pretty cool.
How has Pourcel’s prep been going? Was he rusty at all?
We’re taking it one step at a time. He had a couple injuries the last few years and he took some time off, but he’s never lost that racer inside of him. That never really goes away. I still have it myself when I go to the Nationals. On a crisp morning out in Pennsylvania, or wherever you are, and the bikes all fire up for that first practice and they go out on the track, my palms still start sweating. I think Chris has been the same way over the last couple years. He’s got that burning desire. He was so close to that National Championship those two times and had a couple events happen that kept it from him. He didn’t get the ultimate goal of winning the championship. He was very close, and it’s still burning in him. He wants that championship.
Is Pourcel’s speed championship caliber right now, or does he still have some work to do?
I believe that his speed right now is right on par with contending for a championship. There’s probably about ten pieces to the puzzle that all have to come together to win a championship. It goes from your preparation, your physical conditioning, your mental aspect, your team, your equipment, there’s so many pieces to the puzzle. At any given time there are competitors who have seven or eight of those pieces together and they’re really close, and every once in a while there’s a guy who’s out there and dominating, and all of his pieces have come together. We haven’t totally worked through everything yet, but I think right now things are coming together for Christophe. All of the pieces are here. We’ve got the equipment, the staff, the personnel, the experience, etc., and there’s no doubting his ability to go fast on a motorcycle. That’s a huge part of putting something like this together.
How happy is Yamaha to have Pourcel on board?
In the past I think Christophe was a little misunderstood. So far he’s been a real professional. He shows up on time and he does what’s expected of him. I think what any organization looks at is, “How serious is this competitor in putting together all of these pieces?” It might sound funny sometimes, but just putting out the effort, showing up on time, giving feedback and testing is a big deal. Christophe has been able to give us some really valuable feedback, which will help in improving Yamaha’s equipment now and in the future. They’re really happy with that, and his ability to help with all the different aspects on the technical side. He’s putting out a lot of effort and he’s shown that the equipment is good and they’re happy with that. If a rider is working hard and giving 100 percent effort, that’s what everybody wants.
Did your time away from the industry make you miss it?
I’m a competitor at heart, I always have been. I have a friend that owns one of those electric go kart places and sometimes my 15-year-old and I will go down there and race. When I get in that go kart, man, I get mad if he beats me! I remember one time I came around the corner and he’d beaten my time by a few tenths and he was all ecstatic and happy. I just drove right by him and didn’t even look at him. I needed a cool down lap! [Laughs] Then afterword it was like, ‘Okay, good job, dude.’ I don’t care if I’m in the grocery store racing a shopping cart around, whatever it is, I’m a competitor. So being away from the sport kind of recharged my batteries. I needed some family time; my mom was battling for her life. I learned a lot about breast cancer in the last year-and-a-half; it’s really opened my eyes to that. You don’t pay attention to those things, and I was so busy with racing things I didn’t have time to think about anything else.
With racing, it’s kind of like you’re on this merry-go-round that’s going and going and going, and it doesn’t stop. Every once in a while you glance away and you’re like, ‘What’s that over there? I guess I’ll have to look at it later.’ You just never have time to deal with that stuff. I had a tough decision at the end of 2012 when my contract was up and I decided I needed to step off the merry-go-round for a little while and help my family and my mom. I jokingly tell people that all of the vacation time I missed in all my years of traveling and racing, I just pieced it all together and took a year-and-a-half of vacation!
Anyway, after my mom’s funeral we were working on things and I was wondering what my next chapter was going to be, and that’s when I got a call from Keith. Things just fell into place.
Let’s close this out with your expectations for the summer.
I think that Christophe has the talent to compete for this championship. We’ve got the equipment, the backing from Yamaha and we’ve put together a solid team. Our expectations are to go out there and be competitive. It’s not realistic to think we can go out and win every race, those times don’t come along very often, but I think that we’ve got all the pieces and Christophe is capable of winning. He’s shown that he’s able to compete for championships, be it a national championship, a world championship or a supercross championship. The goal is to go out and be competitive and go after wins, and in the end if the championship comes, that’s great.