Spud Walters grew up racing in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, and as a NorCal kid, he banged bars with riders like Steve Lamson and the Vohland brothers. Walters won a highly competitive 85cc (14-15) championship at Loretta Lynn’s in 1989 and was well on his way to career as a professional racer.
But he took a different path as a pro—chasing contingency money and racing up and down the West Coast, going anywhere that had a big purse and good turnout. He made a name for himself as a respected journeyman racer, and with the growth of the four-stroke segment in the late 1990s, Walters found a niche that gave him a respectable income and allowed him to pursue his dreams.
Walters is still involved in motorcycles today, just not in the traditional sense of sport.
Racer X: You were always a racer that did things a little differently, and when I hear your name, I think of the early days of four strokes and that White Brothers racing team. How did you make such a unique place for yourself in the sport?
Spud Walters: Well, when I first turned pro in 1991, I also graduated high school that same year. My parents wanted me to go to college, and they said they would pay. They said I could race, but they wouldn’t pay for that. I decided to race, but I had to do it on my own, so I focused on making a living, chasing a lot of contingency. By 1994, I was the highest earning contingency rider on a Suzuki. I raced The Golden States, the Trans Cal’s, all of them. They all paid really well back then.
You’re a NorCal guy then? Back then, that was sort of viewed as a negative to getting factory support, right?
Yes. I grew up in Folsom, California, racing at tracks Marysville, Dixon and Sandhill Ranch. When I got older, I would travel on the weekends down south, as the kids were faster down there and the field was deeper. My dad and I made that eight-hour drive every other weekend. Steve Lamson was a little bit older than me, he was my role model. But my main competition was Brian Roth, Craig Decker and Damon Huffman.
How was your career as an amateur?
It was really good. I won the 1989 80cc (14-15) class at Loretta’s, and to this day, that stands out as one of my major wins. One of the things that came with that win was a trip to Japan, through Yokohama, the tire company who was a sponsor of the race and of mine. That was really cool! But then in 1990 I broke my leg really bad and it ruined my whole year. I had to have surgery, and that took a toll on me. Also, I had grown so much, and it was time to move up.
Your first national was in 1991 at Washougal. How was the transition from mini hotshoe to pro?
It was humbling. I turned pro after Loretta’s in 1991, and I was still a Team Green guy. I finished just around the top twenty in those two motos. I didn’t have the funds to really follow the rest of the series, but the following year, I raced some more West Coast nationals. Back then, local races paid good contingency. From 1992 through 1995 I just raced the whole West Coast local stuff. I raced in Montana, Colorado, Arizona and was just always traveling. The competition was good, and the money was good. I was doing it 100 percent on my own, as my parents were back in NorCal and had signed off. I traveled a lot with Jake Windham, he and his dad would help me out a lot.
He was one of the early freestyle guys, right?
Yeah, he was! By the late 1990s, Jake went out and did some freestyle stuff. He was in on it early and did pretty good for himself. But back then, we were chasing $2000-$3000 per weekend, sometimes more. So it was pretty good money for local stuff.
You had a long-term relationship with White Brothers, which ended up as a quasi factory Honda backed program after a few years. How did that come about?
Well, in 1995, David Barrett was supposed to ride for them, they had the Four-Stroke World Championships at Glen Helen and there was a magazine article planned around David and a bike they [White Brothers] had built. But David got hurt just before the race and they were in a jam. So Tom White asked me to come out and ride it. It was an XR400 and really was not that competitive, but we did really well on it. It was super modded. I got third behind Lance Smail and Mike Young. But we found that our personalities really matched. Tom offered me a deal to run the four-stroke nationals for them the next year.
Those were the really the early days of four strokes and I don’t think anyone at that time saw them replacing two strokes. You were really a pioneer.
For sure. The technology was changing really fast, then Yamaha came out with the YZ400. They wanted to promote the bike, so they signed us up with some factory support. Also at that time PACE [now Feld Motorsports] was running the Thunder Bike series. It was the replacement for the old Mickey Thompson indoor events. They had trophy trucks, bikes and buggies. So we raced for Yamaha in that series and I won a few championships, and also kept doing the four-stroke nationals.
You guys eventually switched over to Hondas, right?
Yes. I won the 2001 four-stroke series championship, then in 2002 Honda came into the picture. They were developing the bike and gave us some factory support. We [White Brothers] had a two-man team with me and Paul Carpenter in 2002 and 2003. That was a really good program, and we did what we were hired to do. The four-stroke nationals were split up with an East Coast series and the West Coast series, but we raced both and we won both. The money was pretty good for me, too. White Brothers was giving me a salary, bikes, parts, and a mechanic. Shift was also a major sponsor, they got us quite a bit of publicity. It was really pretty good, looking back on it.
By that point, you had been racing pro for 11 seasons. When did you start thinking about moving on?
Well, in 2002, my second child was born, I was 30 and I was starting to get burned out on the travel. I wanted something more secure and stable for myself. White Brothers had made some changes, and we knew the race program was going away for the following season. Because I had a good relationship with them, Honda offered me an in-house job as a test rider. That led to the spot where I’m at now.
What exactly are you doing now?
I work in the testing department at American Honda. I started as a full Honda Associate working on the off road and motocross group. I helped to develop the 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008 motocross bikes. In 2007, my wife and I made a switch and moved to Ohio, and I transferred to the ATV/UTV department.
That’s a big move. You left behind your sport and moved to ATVs?
[Laughs] Yeah! I was driving the 91 freeway every day from Temecula to Torrance, and with two young kids at home, it was just a rat race. I took the chance to move to Ohio and move up in the company. I knew nothing about Ohio, and had no family here, but we just made the jump. It was a great decision. We really enjoy it here, and it’s certainly a slower pace of life. We live in Delaware, which is just north of Columbus, and I work in Raymond, Ohio, which is right next to Marysville. I think most people know Marysville as where the Honda auto plant is.
So do you ride quads every day? What exactly do you do?
Oh, there’s much more to it than that. I’m a Project Manager for ATVs and Side by Sides. So we oversee all the test functions, and make sure the vehicles meet the long-term performance criteria and durability testing.
So you’re not involved in the dirt bike or motocross stuff at all?
Nope. Most of that stuff is handled by Japan directly now. I wish I was still involved, but this job was well worth it for me and my family.
Did you ever ride some cool pre-production works bikes?
Yes. I was a test consultant for Cycle World and Dirt Rider, and I got to the ride almost all of the works Honda bikes, including Ryan Hughes’ and Nate Ramsey’s works CRFs. Those were really trick back then and had some really special parts.
Do you still ride today?
I do a little bit of riding now, but not much at all. I ride maybe four or five times a year, that’s it. It’s all about my kids right now. My daughter is 15 and my son is 12, and spending time with them is my focus. My daughter is in competitive cheerleading, and my son is big into lacrosse and soccer, so most of my weekends are spent at those events. I’ve been married for 16 years to my wife Allyson. She was around for a lot of my racing career and was a big part of my success. My daughter’s name is Lauren, and my son is Garrett.
Do you guys do any riding as a family?
Well, Garret has a little 80, but he really has no interest in the sport. He’s more of a stick and ball guy, and I totally support that. If he wanted to race, I would support that as well, but I’m letting him pursue whatever he wants.
Thanks for chatting, Spud. Sounds like you continue to find unique places in the sport.
Thanks. Racing is in my blood and I have so many great memories. My mom and dad really took the time and money to get me where I got. As a punk kid, you don’t realize how much your parents give, especially now that I have my own kids. Also, Tom White, I really can’t thank him enough. He rejuvenated my career along with John Anderson, who owns Dubya wheels. I don’t think I would have lasted as long as I did without Tom coming in and hiring me for the four-stroke national series. That really gave me a second start and a few more years of racing.