Last weekend we posted a controversial Where Are They Now interview with former factory Suzuki prospect Ben Riddle. He opened up about his failed pro career and subsequent struggles, which included time in jail. As expected, our comment section under the article lit up.
For a little more perspective on life after racing, we chatted with Jeff Emig. No doubt ‘Fro has built a great post-pro life for himself, but even he admits the challenge of starting over can be a tough one.
Racer X: Last weekend we had an interview with Ben Riddle, who’s had some rough times since his racing career ended. Everybody’s going to have a different opinion on that, but I just want to talk to guys like you who have obviously been racers then retired, and just talk about how difficult that transition can be. You obviously landed on your feet well, but what is it like when you’re not a racer for the first time in twenty-five years or whatever it would be?
Jeff Emig: First off, I did enjoy the interview with Ben. I read everything that Nick McCabe writes. I’m really into all of his work, so that was a standout interview there. Ben’s scenario is not the norm, but the struggle is normal, and I don’t think that in any transition for anyone—whether it be Ben Riddle or a former champion—there are different challenges, but the issue is that you’ve been so focused on one thing your entire life that you don’t know anything different. As hard as it is, like in Ben’s interview, he talked about the stress of constantly having to perform and his dad being on his ass all the time or sponsors or this or that. I don’t know if, looking back on it, if I would say that it was more difficult than what “real life” is.
You mean the racing part? You don’t know if racing was harder than real life?
Providing for your family or providing a life for yourself and the challenges. A rider like Ben who was exceptional at his sport, at his craft, very rarely do you switch jobs, let’s say, retire from racing and go into another thing and are you exceptional at that, because you have done nothing but motocross your whole life. Now you have to learn a new craft, a new skill, a new job, a new career in the blink of an eye. So I don’t think that it’s easy for anyone.
I know in your situation it would be easier for people to say a guy like you, he’s got so much money, he never has to work a day in his life. But if you’re motivated enough to get where you got, I don’t think you could turn lazy enough to just not work for the next forty years, no matter how much money you have.
Obviously, having the finances to support living, and like I said, most of the time there’s a wife or children that come along; that’s one thing. But finding something that you can be passionate about and work towards and be able to set goals and achieve those goals and reset your goals and do it all over again is the difficult part. I retired at the age of 29, a bit premature. And I thought, “Okay, I’m good.” And my wife’s grandmother chewed me out one day. She’s like, “You better get yourself busy.” I’m like, “What do you mean? I’m good, everything’s fine.” I’m playing golf and going to the river and flying to races and riding dirt bikes. She’s all, “There’s so much more life to live. You think that it’s over.” And consequently she was right. Then I had these really interesting conversations once the fear of complacency started setting in. I had these great conversations with my business manager Dave Stephenson and his son Ryan, who I still work with to this day. Dave was like, “You have to become productive because you don’t want your kids just thinking that life is easy. You have all these material things. You have this wonderful life of flying around, being an ex-supercross, motocross champion, and then you don’t have to work. It’s just the wrong message.”
Jason, you and I both know that the work that we do on the weekends, let’s say with broadcasting, is extremely fun. We’re talking about stuff that we love to talk about. We’re hanging out with our friends. We stay in nice hotels, get to eat nice meals. But it really is a glamorous job, but I tell my kids I’m going to work. Everything that I do for an income now, I’m really grateful that I have these opportunities in my life. But it’s not like, “Hey, I’m going to hang out with the guys and ride motocross.” I tell my kids I’ve got to go to work. What is work? Well, I’m not telling them that. So, what you constantly battle is trying to find something that is fulfilling, goal-oriented, and challenging, and gives you that feeling that you had when you were racing. And the problem is it really doesn’t exist.
So at some point you have to just make a transition in yourself, like I’m going to have to live with that? I’m never going to find that exactly again; I’ve got to be okay with this “normal” life?
You have to recalibrate. I think that that’s probably why individuals that work in “entertainment”—you can throw sports in there, acting, musicians, you name it—that when the lights go down and they close the curtain, is that you’re trying to find that sort of fix that you get from performing. For us, performing was supercross and motocross. I was just looking at a Fox racing ad. It’s Dungey and Roczen, and it’s a Simon Cudby shot. He’s on the podium looking down at Dungey and Roczen as they’re spraying champagne on the fans. I was just looking at it yesterday. And the fans are going absolutely mad. It’s like, when does that ever happen again? Contrary to what people believe, Carmichael doesn’t walk out of his house to an autograph line. That’s not how it works. That adrenaline and that feeling that you get of success as a racer, as an amateur, as a professional, it’s hard to duplicate other places. And that’s why I think family is so important. I think what I took out of the Ben Riddle interview also was how important his new wife is to him. He says, “She is my rock.” So that’s why that’s really important, so that void can be filled by something.
So that first year or so where you really were just hanging out, was that weird or were you cool with that? Were you waking up in the morning like, “Oh my God, I don’t even have a goal?” I’m sure you used to wake up and say I got to run this many miles, or I’ve got to ride, or something’s coming up at some point. Was it weird?
[Laughs] I didn’t feel that way when I was racing…maybe Ricky Carmichael and Mike LaRocco did! I’m kidding, I actually found that I learned more about training after I was done racing. I was interested in it. But if you remember the first year and a half [after I retired], I still had the race team. Still living in the dream world—fat contract with the EdgeSports.com. Had a race team, eight or ten employees. Man, life was great. Money just grew on trees.
And you liked that? You could have been doing nothing but you were glad to work?
I wasn’t mature enough to be in the position I was with the race team. I certainly would treat it differently now than I did then. But if the money had kept going… The sponsorships that we had in place, I was so close to signing a deal that would be a killer deal nowadays. I had Steve Astephen and his group, we had a deal in place that was 99 percent ready to go, and if that had happened the whole facade of just how easy was, it would have been even easier. We would have had more money for a race team than what we knew what to do with. But that’s life. It didn’t happen, so I shut the race team down then tried to somewhat settle into reality.
But the transition, did it drive you nuts at one point, not having something to do? Or were you okay with it?
No, I was fine with it for a while. Then I really got worried. I started doing things to challenge myself, things that people just wouldn’t normally think that I would do. Like when I started working with Brian Jennings and Associates, helping to educate riders on the type of insurance coverage that they need and how important it is. I have my own connection and my own experience. So then it becomes a “leading by example” and using your experience to help somebody who’s not that far along. Things like that. I’ve always had a position with Shift, so that’s always been there to occupy some time and allow me to give my ideas and my time and effort to that company, to that brand. But the broadcasting job as the color analyst of supercross and motocross was, and has been, and still is just so important to me in so many ways. I’m really fortunate that that opportunity was presented and I put the effort into it that I have, because it’s really given me a small percentage of that feeling that I was talking about that you lose when you retire from racing.
What’s cool is you didn’t step right into that. There was a pretty good gap, a couple years, between you racing and then getting that.
Once again, I did a little stint with the TV crew. I think it was 2002 or 2003. I wasn’t ready for the position that I hold now. I look back on it, I wanted it then, but I wasn’t nearly ready. I wouldn’t have handled it the same as I do now. There’s a funny way that things happen in life and sometimes it’s just kind of meant to be.
Did you need that time in between to be ready for it?
Yeah, most professional athletes, especially in our sport where we’re really a professional at such a young age, without any education like finishing high school or going through three, four, five years of college, having that type of guidance around you… Let’s face it; most of our parents are blue-collar type parents, maybe they own a farm. They’re not sports agents with all of the experience and knowledge of what to do once your child makes their first million. The motocross riders that are successful for the most part come from some vey hardworking, blue-collar type families. So that transition is challenging for everyone. It takes a lot of ability and a lot of character to make sure that things happen as best as they can.