As part of Daytona International Speedway’s celebration of 50 years of supercross, past race winners Rick Johnson, Gunnar Lindstrom, Rex Staten, and Jeff Emig were on hand throughout the weekend, and also on press day. We grabbed ‘em to talk about some memories of winning at the World Center of Racing.
Racer X: This is cool. Fifty years of Daytona, and we have some of the legends here, including Gunnar Lindstrom. Your name still reverberates through the pits. You son Lars is still a big part of the program over there at Honda. Obviously, I see by the Husqvarna colors you’re wearing, you’re not too far away from the sport either. So, you’ve probably seen how much things have evolved in the 50 years they’ve had this.
Gunnar Lindstrom: I have. It’s scary in many ways and satisfying in many other ways. As a sport, it’s gone up tremendously. Now it’s the family entertainment you’ll see here. Back then, you park out back somewhere and go walk through the mud. Not anymore.
What years were you racing at this track?
’70 and ’71.
So, was that anything like this at all? Was it in the infield or in the back?
We were all in the infield, and then in ’70 I think we crossed over the barrier and went outside of this somewhere once. It was all flat jumps and flat landings. None of this fancy stuff here. It was just good fun, and everybody of course had the same obstacles to clear.
Coming from Europe, where was Daytona on the list?
At that point there wasn’t even a supercross championship, per se. So was it just, “I’ve got to go to some race at Daytona,” or was it like, “Wow, Daytona! I’ve heard of Daytona. I know about the car racing side.”
Where was Daytona on the radar at that time?
Practically nowhere. The first race in 1970, we were invited here by a small group of people. As a result of my win in 1971, Mr. France [Bill France, NASCAR and Daytona International Speedway founder] invited me to the bike week where all the road racing guys were getting their awards. I guess he figured he would give this dirt bike guy something… So, he invited me up on the stage. Then he put his microphone in my face and I said, “In 20 years maybe we’ll have the motocross on Sunday and the road race will race on Saturday.” They all laughed and thought it was incredibly stupid and funny, arrogant, European! But look how it turned out!
Racer X: Now let’s turn to Rocket Rex. As I told you this morning, I just know one thing and one thing only: you’re gnarly. Are you going to be nice this weekend, or are you going to bring some gnarliness?
Rex Staten: Oh, yes.
Your story of the win that you got here, was it 1980? Was that when you won it?
Yeah. I won the hare in ’74 on the Honda, and then I came back in 1983 on the Yamaha.
What was the track like, especially on those older bikes, especially in ’74? How gnarly was it then?
Back then we had to go through the pavement a couple times, go through the guard rail, go through the chain-link fence, and then back across. You had to be careful coming across the pavement because it gets a little bit of sand and was pretty slippery. You’d go down real easy. Then ’80, we just basically rode out here on the infield. Maybe we went down and kind of went across and then back, but we didn’t go through rails or nothing like that. But it started getting whoops and big pits and big holes, put a little jump in. We’d clear the whole thing. I remember one time popped out of fifth gear and I got out of shape; my bike ended up on the road race track up there.
That was not one of the years you won?
No, that was the Harley Davidson years. That was ’76 and ’77.
Where is it for you to be able to say you’ve won this race twice? Where is that on your career accomplishment ranks?
First, I signed with Honda when I was 19. I had just got out of high school. I had a ride before that, but my dad wouldn’t let me go. Honda picked me up and said, we’re going to fly you here. We don’t make a 500, but we have a 380. They let me ride it for 20 minutes at Indian Dunes. They flew it here and they worked on it all Friday night getting ready because they didn’t know if it was going to make it on time. I went out and rode at 19 years old. I look over and I had three mechanics, Dave Arnold, John Rosenthiel, Roy Turner. They were my mechanics. They turned my bike upside down between motos. What are you guys doing? Well, it’s only a 30-minute race. Back then we went for 30 minutes, but we had like three motos. The bikes would get beat up and so would the track. Today, they’re like, the track is too rough, go groom it. Really, we were pioneers. We rode in shit, to be honest with you. It was rough and rugged, and we didn’t have jumps built the right way for us. Our foot pegs were dragging through the jumps. We just manned it up and went for it.
And you were able to beat Roger De Coster.
So that one feels good. That’s some legends you named as far as working on the bike with Honda, so this is a good memory all around.
Yes. It was really good. I enjoyed it. After that, I went to South Africa and became South African champion.
Racer X: We are pumped. The Magic Man, RJ, Rick “Hammer” Johnson here. You took the long route just to come to Daytona and really soak this in. Tell us about that story.
Rick Johnson: Well, my old man passed away last year at Anaheim. He was very adamant about not wanting a funeral, so I had his ashes for a year and I’m like, I need to do something. He did this ride twice on a Harley. He did the trek by himself, from California to Daytona. So, I thought, “You know what? I’m going to do an honor to my old man. I’m going to get on a bike and come across.” Thank God for the guys at Honda. I was out at King of the Hammer doing a little announcing. I was going to take my Africa Twin. They said, no, we’ll give you a Goldwing. Then you can leave it there, and then you can fly home. I’m like, “Whoo!” My dad was working some angles. So, I was able to get on that. Then my ride got shortened because I had the pleasure of driving the pace car for Jimmie Johnson’s last race in Fontana [California] last weekend, but I had to get up the next morning, 12-hour first day, fourteen-hour second day, 11-hour third day, and six hours from Tallahassee to come into here. So, it was a long way to get here. A lot of soul searching, a lot of thinking. I think I’m going to write a manifesto on why men need to ride motorcycles.
Yeah. It can change your life in so many ways. That’s awesome. We go back to two wins here at Daytona. It seems like there would have been 10 or something because you won so many races in that span. This race is unique. You were racing when Rick Ryan won, the only real privateer win. It just gives an example of no matter how strong and ready; you never know what was going to happen at this track.
Ricky Ryan, I think it was a 20-man gate. Before that it was a 40-man gate. The race was like a hybrid motocross versus a really fast supercross. So, it was always something different here. Setup was not a supercross setup, it wasn’t an outdoors setup. What I also loved about this is the way the track changed all the time. Every lap was different. You start off riding one lap, then you switch to the outside, then you switch to the inside, go back and forth. At the end of the night you got to watch guys going all different directions. I think it’s the guy that’s strong and the guy that can deal with adversity is the guy that’s going to win here.
You’re a motorsports guy all around. You had your forays in NASCAR after your motocross and supercross days. So, for you now looking back at your career, to be able to say, “Yeah, I won at Daytona a couple times,” what does that mean to you?
I love Daytona for a lot of reasons. The main thing is that it’s an international crowd, and it’s a moto crowd. You don’t have to be Ricky Carmichael and winning supercross and stuff like that to really appreciate riding motorcycles. It’s like me. I’m 55 years old, on a Goldwing going across Texas, dealing with the wind, dealing with trucks and all this stuff. So, I put myself out there. I think everybody here is an enthusiast. You go up and down Main Street, there’s guys on adventure bikes, Harleys, Ducatis, everything’s out there. These are our people. They ride motorcycles. They appreciate motorcycles. When you win a pro event, it means the world. Also, we’re in Daytona, the racing hub of the world, so it’s special for a lot of reasons.
Racer X: We are here with Jeff Emig who won at Daytona in ’97. It changed a lot in the years after that. What was it like in ’97 as far as the motocross/supercross mix? Did it feel more like a national, or was it still its own unique animal at that point?
Jeff Emig: Well, it obviously has always been unique, but for sure, it was in what I would say that it had that sort of classic Daytona build; Gary Bailey would have still been building the track. Certainly, as modernized as the track is now where there’s a lot of elements with the design that Ricky Carmichael has brought in where it’s certainly closer to your standard Monster Energy Supercross track, just built with a little Daytona flair. But in ’97 it was actually closer to a motocross track. When we would always come here, in the early ‘90s we’d come down to Florida and stay for a week or so to get ready for this race. We’d do all these special suspension and chassis setups and all this. In ’97, I had been with Kawasaki. I had won the motocross championship the year before. I said, I’m not going to Florida. We’re not doing anything. We’re staying on our regular schedule. I want you to get the suspension spec off of my motocross championship bike that I would have won back in what would have been September. There was no need to test anything. Throw that on the bike. I’ll run that at Daytona. I guarantee it’s going to be great. It might have been a little bit soft, but the track really got rough and nasty and had less of that supercross vibe to it and it was more motocross. It was brilliant. I think that was the decision that really helped me win in ’97.
You were in the middle of a title fight that year, so winning Daytona kind of stands out on its own, but how big was that on the march to that championship that year as well?
I actually seen an Instagram post a couple days ago and it said that Ricky Carmichael and I are the only two riders to come to Daytona, take the championship lead at Daytona, and then go on to actually win the title. But for me in ’97, the early part of that championship had multiple riders winning. Obviously, Jeremy McGrath had just come off of four championships in a row. So, there were a lot of us who really felt like we were knocking on the door. Jeremy was struggling with his new team. So, we were all trying to take advantage of that. But when you win Daytona, it really is just such a symbol. It’s like a gauge for you to know that you’re on the right track. Most of the time the most physically fit, best guy wins Daytona.
For you, all the titles, all the race wins you have, where is Daytona in your mind as one of your career accomplishments?
It’s so unique because here we are inside of the World Center of Racing, especially a few years back when they had the Daytona museum. So, there’s this big wall with all these placards and names and years of Daytona 500 winners, Daytona 200, superbike racing and sports car racing and all of these things. Then here’s the area with supercross. To have your name on that plaque with all of the former supercross champions here at Daytona was really special. Then you get added to a wall of champions and winners for the whole history of this cathedral, if you will, and it kind of gives you goosebumps thinking, I was fortunate enough to be part of that group and recognized that way. That’s why it really just has such a special place in your heart.