One of the many cool things that will happen this year at the Motocross of Nations will be the return of Kevin Windham. K-Dub is back in action for Team Puerto Rico and is training hard. With the MXoN approaching and Lucas Oil Pro Motocross wrapped up, we decided to re-run this great interview Eric Johnson did with Windham back in 2013. Enjoy!
Despite finishing runner-up in the AMA Supercross and National Motocross Championships on ten separate occasions and experiencing a number of emotional highs and lows during his 19-year career, Kevin Windham firmly remains the most beloved racer in American motocross.
Note: This interview originally ran in 2013.
Racer X: On his start in racing at age three, his family, and onto Loretta Lynn’s….
Kevin Windham: “For me and my family, racing wasn’t taken seriously at all. I was born, literally, going to the racetrack where my brother—who was 12 years older than me—was riding and racing at the time I was born. When I finally figured out that I wanted to ride and was riding a two-wheel bicycle—when I was three years old, when they first put me on a motorcycle. We took it from that point on as having fun as a family, and it was that way even through all the amateur championships. And even the later championships when I was an amateur at Loretta Lynn’s, and even when Yamaha was coming to scout for riders and we had a conversation there—which would be the first team I would ride for professionally—it never really sunk in to me what was going on around me and that I had a potential career in what I was doing. For us, it was all about having a great time on a motorcycle.”
On amateur kids in 2012 betting their futures on making it as a professional….
“I think trying to bank on making a living and a future out of racing motocross is risky business. I think that it is probably one of the riskiest businesses alive. I think the value in what comes from motocross for 99.9 percent of the population is that valuable, and the sport needs to be appreciated for what the other .1 percent do, which is to turn it into a money-making business as a profession and career. You know, I feel insanely blessed with my professional career, but at the same time, had it not gone that far, I think the values and lessons I was learning pre-professional career were valuable—as valuable what I have post[-racing].
“It’s hard to say that because you can’t buy anything with it and you can’t buy material things with it, but the family structure and the life that we were living was storybook, and I’m thankful for those life lessons that motocross has taught to me. But I think to have what it takes to make it through the sport, and also be able to obtain it and continue to stay focused at an age when it’s easy to get derailed and lose focus on the goal, is tough. You also have to avoid injuries. I think you really have the cards stacked against you. It’s a wise plan to have an insurance program and put a little bit of thought into education and other things as well.”
As a 17-year-old in 1994 and leading the opening 125cc moto on the Kawasaki at Mount Morris…
“You know, at Mount Morris I really had no clue of what I was capable of doing or how that day would unfold. I didn’t know it would become one of those historic days and one of many memories that I have from my professional career. However, that was not my first professional race. My first professional race was quite forgettable. It happened to be at Gatorback in Gainesville, Florida. I don’t know where I finished, but I know it was definitely forgettable. So to go to that race at Mount Morris, it almost had taken the pressure off. I had completely dropped the ball at the first race and came out winning at Mount Morris. I just sort of ran out of gas a little bit there during the final laps of that race. But yeah, it was a real eye-opener for me to be able to experience that and know from that point on that, ‘Hey, I didn’t win and was missing a few pieces of the puzzle, obviously with stamina and stuff, but the foundation was there.’ It was a real eye-opener for us and a great experience.”
On coming from such a laid-back family and his rookie year with Yamaha in 1995….
“It was sobering. It really was, from so many aspects. With the success of the team at that time, the riders I had been introduced to, the age difference between myself and those riders, all that stuff, created a perfect-storm situation where it was just sobering. It was a very surreal feeling, but at the same time, one that I truly wasn’t prepared for. It turned out being a really good experience for me. Those days and that part of my career was really good when I look back, but those teammates and that team was a good place to start.”
On his breakthrough year in 1996, when he won the AMA West Region 125cc Supercross Championship, and placed second to Steve Lamson in the 125cc National Championship…
“That was the breakthrough. The rookie year I made some crucial rookie mistakes, but 1996 was kind of the year where I kind of came into my own and was able to win the championship in the supercross class. I had some decent rides against Lamson, who at the time was dominating the outdoor nationals. That was good times. It was like we had made it. They were good years. They were almost too good at times.”
On people immediately beginning to rave about his natural talent and being a future “sure-thing”….
“It was weird to be in that position where people were starting to talk about not only what I was doing, but also what they thought I should be doing. Even at that early age—obviously way pre-21—the rollercoaster ride already had started. There was intoxication off the track. It was just like I said—I felt like I had gotten shoved into a big-boy situation where I really felt very kidlike at that time, and it was the start of some of the battles that have sort of followed me my entire career.”
May 17, 1997: The East/West Shootout at the Sam Boyd Silver Bowl in Las Vegas….
“I had always heard about Ricky Carmichael my entire life. The majority of my amateur career had been spent up and down Florida, as well as in Texas. Ricky was obviously that shining star over there from that area. It became very obvious that we were going to face each other as professionals. That race in Vegas was one of my most heated battles, even up to this very day. With all the competition I’ve ever come across—including Ricky Carmichael in his later years—that East/West Shootout in 1997 was the most intense race that I think I’ve ever raced in my entire life. Even races where like I felt like I’ve had far more to gain or lose, that particular race was very, very intense.
“It was a very emotional race. In fact, right after the race, I threw up. I don’t know if it was combination of the air, the humidity, the dust, the dirt in my throat, the pressure or the anxiety or what. I recall me and Carmichael sitting right next to one another and one of us physically coming to tears and the other one of us throwing up and one of us being victorious and one of us not. I guess I should be boastful about that one victory over Ricky because it was obviously short-lived. I mean, I raced the majority of my career being runner-up to him, so I should bask in the glory of the victory I had on him there. It was just one of those riders where it became very obvious of what he was, what he stood for, and the battles to come between us and others.
On winning the Charlotte 250cc main event on Saturday, April 19, 1997 as a full-time 125cc rider. A feat that has never been repeated…
“Those years riding the 250 class—the big bike class—was something that I just really enjoyed. The power-to-weight ratio and not having to work the bike like we were having to work the 125 at the time was just a situation I really enjoyed. I was riding against guys like [Jeff] Emig, who I believe that year rode for Kawasaki, and [Jeremy] McGrath, who was also riding Yamahas at the time. I was riding on a daily basis with the best people. I was fairly confident at that point in my career and I was full of piss and vinegar and young and probably, at times, overly overconfident. So I went into Charlotte with a good mindset and stumbled upon a situation where I was able to ride my race. With the good start that I had and everything, I was able to win that race. It was such a big deal. After I had won it, I was like, ‘Man, I can do this!’ Then it was boom: ‘Now you have pressure. Here comes the fact that, hey, you know you can do it and you have to do it.’”
On transitioning to the 250cc class full-time in 1998 and the pressure that came with it….
“I think one of my weaknesses through my career was my mental toughness. I’m constantly creating mental battles for myself to attempt to overcome. It ultimately ended up stacking cards against me and creating pressures that I really didn’t need to have to deal with. I think all that all came directly from success. Mental toughness was going to be dealt with my entire career. The mental games I would play with myself were very bizarre, but troubling at the same time because I know that my skills and my talent have not been completely reached because of my lack of mental ability to overcome something.”
Did he “think” too much during his career?
“I definitely think too much. I don’t turn my brain off—I don’t allow it to turn off. I think that can potentially be a downfall. It’s tough. From jumping ahead in this interview to where we are today, I’m happy with my life and where I’m at in my career. It’s truly been like second to none. In saying that, knowing the fact that I was never the winningest rider or not winning a supercross championship, I’m still happy. It’s not the happiness that Ricky Carmichael feels; it’s not the happiness that Chad [Reed] or any of the past champions, or [Ryan] Villopoto or [James] Stewart or [Ryan] Dungey or whoever, you know? But it’s happiness for different reasons and different situations. I may not have met my own expectations or the expectations of hundreds of thousands of fans of supercross, whether they be mine specifically, or fans of the sport, but I’m happy. I feel like through my life, I’ve been able to accomplish good things. Had there been room for improvement? Yeah, for sure. I can’t look back on what’s happened or where I’m and who I am and be disappointed in that.”
On being the full-on fan favorite, yet not having won any premier class championships. Does he ever think about the “love over gold” aspect of having the biggest fan base, but perhaps not the biggest trophy room?
“I have a lot of trophies, and in having those trophies, I feel that I’ve done my racing against—and not to discredit past racers—but I feel like I’ve done my racing against the best of all time. You know we’ve got McGrath, the winningest; we’ve got Carmichael, the GOAT; we’ve got Stewart. I feel like I’ve done my winning against some of the best racers to ever race motorcycles, and they’ve created some of the best experiences and memories of my life. But with all that said, they wouldn’t mean that much without the support system I have. When I say that, I mean my sponsors and my team and my family and my friends. And topping the list on all that would be the fans and the experiences that they help me achieve and embrace. It’s a very honorable situation to ride out in front of these guys who work their asses off to make it to these races with their hard-earned money and hear them cheer for you at the top of their lungs and connect with you on levels that are just unbelievable. It’s unbelievable the connection you can have with them for simply racing motorcycles and letting your story be known. I think that the connection with the fans takes the cake on any of the trophies in my house collecting dust, to be honest with you.”
On breaking his femur at Atlanta on Suzuki in 2002 and basically disappearing from the sport….
“In 2002, with my departure and injuries from Suzuki and stuff, that was honestly something that was dating back into 1999 and into 2000. I was having some struggles during that time and that part of my life. When you’re struggling and facing your own demons and stuff and at that age and making that kind of money and dealing with some of the demons I was being faced with, it’s easy to assume that the problem is coming from elsewhere and place blame somewhere. I left Honda and moved to Suzuki thinking, ‘Okay, this is going to solve the world.’ My own issues somehow magically followed me to Suzuki. My problems had nothing to do with Honda, and they followed me to Suzuki. I tried to make it work there. To this day, I’ve actually called Roger DeCoster over to the side and said, ‘You know what? Your program was good and you’re an amazing person, and I’m sorry that I’m such a piece of shit that I never gave you what you deserved and what you guys were paying me for.’ That’s one huge regret for me in my life—to put that company through that time, as well. That’s something even to this day.
“When I broke my leg, I think I was a death spiral that was going to hit the ground eventually. Whether it be in a car or in a hotel room or on a supercross track or whatever, I was on a spiral that was out of control and I needed some grounding. When I busted my butt in Atlanta, it truly proved to best situation that could have ever happened me, and one that I’m thankful for for no other reason that it just gave me the time what I was doing and the mistakes that were being made and ultimately where I wanted to end up.”
On winning the 1999 USGP at Budds Creek and Stefan Everts calling the American riders who did not race “cowards”….
“That was a very important race to me. I was shocked when Everts said that. In hindsight, I have incredible respect for him. He is one of the best riders in the entire world and is ultimately a good person. He’s a great guy. So when he stepped up and called Americans, as a whole, cowards and called us out, that was the motivation for me to kind of get up and do one more race, despite all the racing and testing I had already done that year. I just took it as a real personal attack on me. I went to that race knowing that if I didn’t win, I was basically going to look like a fool for even attempting and participating.
“Luckily for us and for me that day, we came out victorious. That race took a toll on me as a person as far as preparing and doing that race. I’m glad that I did it for the fact of winning and the accomplishment and the support. Everts’ words had been let out of the bag, and the American fans knew. Those guys weren’t going to come over here on American soil and mess with us. I think that the American pride was all over that track, and I think it all kind of landed on the shoulders of me. The horns and the flags and the waves and the support of that crowd that day was kind of like me against the world. It was kind of cool. It was great how everybody made me feel, and to come out victorious was a good feeling.”
On his comeback in the 2003 AMA Nationals aboard a Factory Connection Honda CRF450R and his battles with Ricky Carmichael….
“I started to race at age three. I turned pro at 16 and [started] making crazy money at 16 years old and only getting better as you get into your twenties. You get more reckless and you go through separation from parents and losing control of reality. I think through all that, I had developed a huge hole in my heart and my soul and in my system with everything that was going on. It all kind of directly related to motocross. That was the root of what was going bad in my life. Motocross was just something I truly loved and cherished. I had let the negative things that can take hold of a person, and racing was not it. Racing was not my problem. When I came back, it just felt so much more pure than it was when I made it the first round. It really felt like a rebirth and a second chance at a career and a life. I was bound and determined to not let things affect me like they had before. Not racing had left a bigger hole in me than any of that stuff. I needed to get back on the track, because that’s who I am and what I do.”
On winning the Unadilla and Washougal Nationals that summer….
“It was great. I came into that season just thinking to myself, ‘I can beat this guy. I’ve beaten him before. I can beat this guy.’ And I did beat him, and that made it feel so unbelievable. It was such a great feeling, because this was a guy that was dominating and who was on an unbelievable streak. To win those races really kind of validated my belief in what I felt I could do at that time, only to be shut back by the most determined son of a bitch on the planet—Carmichael—who followed up with another season full of victories. It was short-lived, but I was going to take pride at least in that year of coming back. Unfortunately, I fueled a fire in RC and he ultimately had the last laugh.”
On finishing a close second to Chad Reed in the 2004 AMA Supercross Championship….
“That’s the story of my career and something that I’ve always had to deal with: being statistically and factually the most winningest rider to not ever not win a championship. That’s kind of where I’ve been. I’ve been second to the best in the world. To win championships, you have to gave everything. You can’t leave one piece of the puzzle out and be the supercross champion. I’ve had a lot of what it takes, but I haven’t had all of what it takes, and that’s something that’s difficult to come to terms with at this point in my career. Winning now is harder than it’s ever been with my age and the level of competition that’s out there. I have to be happy and content with the fact that I’ve beaten these people at times, but just not enough to be champion.”
On racing in Las Vegas….
“If I just ride remotely well in Vegas, it’s a memorable experience. I love the finale. When I ride into that stadium, man, it just feels so good. Then there are my gambling habits in Vegas [laughs]. That’s one of those races where it’s like my home away from hometown race.”
On winning the rain-ravaged 2005 AMA Supercross Championship season-opening round at Anaheim over Chad Reed, James Stewart, Ricky Carmichael, Jeremy McGrath, and Travis Pastrana….
“I remember that race quite well. It really seems like last year, honestly, instead of way back then. It was an interesting start to a series, where we all of a sudden found ourselves in the points lead after one race. That was a great race and a great win for me.”
On being on the American team that won the 2005 Motocross des Nations in Ernee, France….
“Oh man! I have the des Nations team a few times here, and to lose is the worst feeling in the world, but to win is just a feeling on the other side of the spectrum. It’s just as far of a good feeling as it is to lose. When we won that race…it’s just different—it’s just a different race. To be a part of Team USA and to represent the country and to have all that support to go up against the rest of the world, it really is an amazing feeling to come out victorious. And to celebrate with guys like Carmichael or Ivan Tedesco as partners and as a team was really, really awesome, and really one of the first times in my career where I’ve been able to come together with those guys where we were acting as one.”
Was the 2008 Daytona Supercross the gnarliest race he had ever ridden?
“That was, by far, the gnarliest race ever. I’ve said this a lot in interviews—you come to expect that at Daytona. Daytona is the gnarliest race of our supercross season. The environment and the track conditions and the struggles of Daytona are all completely unique to that racetrack only. But that year with Mother Nature, it didn’t really change the complexity of the race. It was still the gnarliest race. Yeah, it was the gnarliest race for different reasons, but still you just come to expect that from Daytona. I mean, on the line was blubbering because it had already started to suck water. I looked at my mechanic and said, ‘Dude, what am I supposed to do?’ He just said, ‘Good luck!’ That was a survival race, but still, it took strategy, it was still fun, and it was still one of those things where you still had to battle and overcome.”
On racing his 19th season and getting on the podium at both Daytona and Toronto in 2012….
“It’s been a long run, man. I’ve made a big spiel about riding through my 20th year and through the end of 2014. At times, I think that maybe I should step away, and other times, I feel like it’s just a numbers game and I’m going to stick around and stay competitive. And to do it in 2012 and be up on the podium—I know a lot of guys are out right now—but saying that doesn’t give credit to the guys that are out there right now. There are a lot of really good, talented riders on the track right now. To be able to land on the podium is always a good thing. I wish they were wins, and I wish I could win again, and maybe I will. Who knows? The day is going to come where people say, ‘Come on, K-Dub, it’s probably time to hang the boots up.’ But to have yet another season where you can land on the podium and be a threat at certain rounds, it’s a good feeling. As long as I can achieve that, I’m going to stick around. I really, really love what I’m doing, and I’m fearful of the days when I’m forced to give it up.”