Photo by: Brian Robinette
There is only a short list of riders throughout motocross history that have won both World Motocross Championships and U.S. AMA National Championships, but even fewer have had to overcome the adversity that Greg Albertyn did to get it done. Greg left South Africa with a head full of dreams at seventeen years old, and before he was done chasing those dreams, he had won the ultimate prize on every continent he set foot on.
Greg shared his whole story—the triumphs, the struggles, the culture shock, the missteps—from the early days in South Africa through retirement in what may be one of the most extensive interviews with the legend known as “Albee “to date.
This is not a short story, though. It is a three hour long trip down memory lane with three time Motocross World Champion and one time AMA Motocross Champion Greg Albertyn. We released back when nobody really knew what MotoXAddicts.com was and thought we’d rerelease it for any Greg Albertyn fans that missed it.
Thanks for doing this, Greg. I wanted to talk about your career as a whole, starting back in South Africa where you really paved the way for South Africans like Tyla Rattray and Grant Langston. What was it like in the beginning racing in South Africa?
Well, you know, growing up in South Africa, motocross was definitely small compared to the international scene, but it was a pretty decent-sized sport in South Africa, and we got into it purely because we just loved riding motor bikes. Within a few weeks, we were racing, and it actually grew considerably in the ‘80s. It was rather big, and we had quite a few Americans come over and race over there like Rex Staten and Jim Tarantino—who is actually still down there—and Larry Wasick and Brian Myerscough Each of the manufacturers had to have one representative, so it got very competitive and definitely raised the level of the sport in South Africa.
What was the racing like? Was it a national level?
Well, we didn’t really have—it wasn’t segregated into amateurs and pros. There were probably a handful of guys that were actually making money as a pro, but we would do the whole national series, the 80ccs that I was racing at the time and the 100s. There was a 12-race series all throughout South Africa, and everybody would go. Everybody would compete from whatever age they were all the way through the quote “pros.” It was definitely the four Americans that were making money and maybe there were one or two South Africans that were making money and getting paid to race.
Who were the South African guys that you looked up to that you raced with back then?
I’m not sure of many of them that you’ve heard of, but there was Brett Redman; I know he came and did quite a few races over here, maybe even tried to race Anaheim once or twice. Then there were guys like Karl Prestwood who went to Europe, Colin Dugmore who is still in Europe and, then, Robbie Herring who’s probably one of the fastest guys. He ended up in England.
At what point did you think that you could get out of South Africa and actually make a living racing motocross internationally?
You know, it was probably when I was—I’d have to say—13 or 14. That’s when it really started to hit me that if I carried on on the path that I was going on that I may have the speed and the ability to compete and to compete internationally. You know, Mark Johnson, who was the Team Green guy, he came over in ’85 with a bunch of riders. That’s when Jeff Matiasevich came over, Tyson Vohland, who else? There were a few of them, and he actually watched me ride and was like, “Yeah, you definitely have some talent.” So it was at that period where I realized that potentially something could happen, but you know, it’s a big jump between potentially and making it happen.
So what was it that finally got you to make the big move?
Well, at that point, I turned pro, so my folks had a tough decision. Do they let me finish my very last year of high school and wait till I’m 18 to go over, or do we go pro at 17? We went to just test the waters out. I went over at the end of 1989 and did a few supercross races in Europe: Maastricht in Holland, Paris, Bercy, Geneva Supercross—things like that. And I did pretty well. You know, nobody knew who the heck I was, and everybody was asking who this South Africa kid was. We’d come to realize that wow, we may be on to something here. Then there was the local bike dealership in Belgium that supported me for those four races. They said they would like to help me out with some of the GPs and stuff like that. So that’s when I went back for my first full season in Europe. I was 17, and I moved there in 1990.
That had to have been a huge deal. Did your folks go with you or any family, or did you just grab gear bag and go?
My folks weren’t with me for a while and, to be honest, that was probably the toughest two years of my life that I’ve ever experienced. It was very, very hard. You know, getting on a plane in Johannesburg and saying goodbye to family, friends, not knowing what lay out there, not knowing when I’m going to see them again, and then all of the sudden you get to Europe and there’s this massive culture shock, weather shock—I mean, just everything. It was very, very tough to get the cream to rise to the top.
So when did you start doing really well in Europe? I mean, at what point did you realize, “Wow, I can do this?”
Well, I got over there in 1990 which was a rude awakening being the best in South Africa. You know, I’m winning consistently every week and then all of the sudden now I’m one of 25 guys that can go just as fast. And the first GP I ever entered, I think I finished like 20th or something overall. The second one was in Holland, and Bobby Moore and I were actually battling and I think I got 4th or 5th overall in my second GP. Then in the third Grand Prix, I broke my navicular and missed the whole rest of the season. So at the end of 1990, I actually went back to South Africa humiliated, tail between my legs, coming back with nothing. I mean, I had nothing. And man, we just came back. It was December in South Africa, and I was just going, “Lord, what the heck do you have for me? I don’t know what the plan is.” And the next minute, this fax comes through. It was from Jan De Groot, the owner of the JHK team in Holland, and he liked what he saw in Holland because it was a sand track and, you know, I was this young kid that he’d never seen before and I ended up getting 5th at the GP. He needed somebody to come and compete in the Dutch National Championship. Being a Dutch-based team, he wanted somebody to win the Dutch Championship and give all the Dutch sponsors what they were looking for.
That had to be huge for you.
Yeah, so from having nothing, nothing, nothing to all of the sudden having a mechanic, a truck paid for, actually a ten-thousand Dutch guilder salary. I mean, I just thought I’d died and gone to Heaven. From having nothing and all of your dreams shattered to, wow, you’ve been given a breath of fresh air and a fresh opportunity.
So did you win the Dutch national title on that first attempt?
You know, I’d have to—maybe you can do this—go back and look at the storybooks. I don’t remember. I may have, but typical Dutch, we had some conflict, and because I was not a Dutch citizen the first year I won it, the Dutch challenged it maybe two or three times. I can’t remember. But the first year that I won it, they didn’t actually award me with the title because I wasn’t Dutch, which is kind of weird, but then after the next couple of years, they did. I think I may have won it in ’91, but I can’t remember.
How many national titles did you win in South Africa before you left?
5 National titles there—you know, all sort of amateur type stuff all the way from 80ccs.
Yeah. Is there a lot of sand in South Africa?
You know, we definitely had some sand tracks. There weren’t a ton, but there were some sand tracks. I enjoyed sand, and we had some sand quarries I used to go play riding in and stuff like that. But yeah, once you get to Belgium and Holland, that’s all there is. You get a baptism by fire where that’s all there is to ride; it’s just sand.
So you go on and you win the 125 World Championship in ’92. Was that a surprise for you, or at that point, were you just rolling in confidence and thought you could do it?
No, not at all. I mean, I got my first GP podium ever in ’91, and I think I podiumed like three or four times. And then, it was actually the last race of the year in Japan at Suzuka circuit, I was leading and actually pulling away. I ended up crashing, but for the first time ever, I realized, “Wow, I actually have what it takes.” So for the very first GP of ’92, I was racing with John Vanderburg and Dave Strijbos—and these guys were both World Champions—and I ended up going and winning the overall at the first GP of ’92. And at that point, I knew, “Okay, now I know I can do it.”
Yeah, I mean you beat some huge competition in Dave Strijbos and Pedro Tragter. They were no slouches, so you had to kind of take them by surprise.
Yeah, I mean, absolutely. Both Strijbos and Vanderburg were world champions, and obviously, Tragter was very solid. So yeah, there was some serious competition. The only guy that wasn’t there was [Stefan] Everts; he had moved up to 250s at that point.
What was the decision-maker to move up to 250s so quickly after winning your first world title? Was that Honda?
No, not at all. Ironically for me, I’ve always—once I’ve accomplished one thing—I want to move on to the next. I admire and respect these guys that can go year after year after year wanting to win the same title over and over again. For me personally, that’s just not my character. Once I’ve achieved something, I’m looking for the next thing. I don’t know why. That’s just me. So once I was World Champion on the 125s—the 250s for that following year became the premier class. Before that it was always the 500s and the FIM took a change of direction because, I think, they had stopped or were slowing down on making 500cc bikes, so they then made the 250s the premier class, and I wanted that challenge. A lot of the 500 guys were coming down, a lot of the 125 guys were going up.
How were you received in the 250 class? This South African kid coming in and taking it to Donnie Schmidt and Stefan Everts and the boys?
Well, I don’t think anybody thought I was a threat at all. Nobody thought I would jump straight from the 125s and dominate the 250s. I mean, they just didn’t. In the ’92/’93 era, there were three motos, 25 minutes plus two laps giving us three races over thirty minutes. You had to be extremely fit. The very first moto of the year, I ended up finishing third or fourth. I came in to Ian [Harrison]—at this point, Ian was working for me. I had no front brake the whole race; the mounting was mounting wrong so it kept hitting the bolt. I told Ian, “If you fix this thing, I know I can win it.” And the rest is history. ’93 was by far my most dominant, best season of my career. I mean, I just killed it.
What was that feeling like—I mean, if you can give it to me—winning the premier World Championship in your rookie year? If you could bottle that feeling, I’m sure I would buy a case.
I mean, there are very few words that can describe it, but you are on top of the world; there’s no better feeling. I could look left and look right down the starting line and just know that I was going to kick everybody’s ass, and it was more a mental thing than a physical thing. I mean, it’s funny, I’m not a head games player, but I had those guys so wound up that I just dominated them after the first two races. Mentally, they were worked.
Yeah, I could imagine how they felt. I couldn’t imagine being an outsider in a level like the World Championships and having that kind of feeling of knowing that I’m the best in the world today. It had to be intense.
Yeah, you know, it’s a feeling that I’ve never experienced in anything else in life. I mean, I’ve made real estate deals where I’ve taken a check to the bank for a million and a half dollars in one check, and let me tell you, it does not compare to standing on top of the podium and knowing that you’ve kicked everybody’s butt. You’re on top of the world. There are very few feelings in the world that also match that.
You were the very first South African champion, correct?
Yeah, I was the first from the African continent ever to win a World Championship, totally. And you know, I think that’s part of why I was so hated in Europe. I mean, Everts came from this motocross pedigree. His dad raced, five-time world champion. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, full factory ride by the time he was seventeen. I mean, he was just expected to dominate. And then this young punk from another country with a massive, cocky little attitude comes and smokes him. I mean, they hated me. They absolutely hated me.
(Laughs) I can imagine. Going back a little bit, how did you and Ian Harrison, your mechanic, hook up in South Africa?
Well, Ian used to race. Ian and his brother raced in South Africa, and we actually became friends in ’87. You know, he used to ask my dad for some jetting advice and stuff like that, and we became friends and started hanging out. He had graduated high school and was actually working for one of the local municipalities becoming a diesel mechanic. And just being as lonely as I was in Europe and as hard as it was, I longed for some friendship. At that point, I was like “Hey”—I mean, he always worked on his own bikes so I was like, “Hey, do you want to come over with me?” After two years in Europe, he came over with me in ’92, and I think within ten days of being there, he was ready to pack his bags and head back. I mean, his eyes were just wide open, and he couldn’t believe how miserable and tough it was.
Do you think having the comfort of a good friend from back home was a big catalyst to what you accomplished in ’92 and ’93?
It certainly helped, but I was so focused on the mission and the goal that, Lord willing, I think I would have accomplished it anyway because there was no turning back for me. I was on a mission, but I mean, it certainly helped. And, you know, to this day, he’s still my best friend. We’ve forged such a huge bond and relationship. He’s been a big blessing in my life.
He’s got to owe you a debt of gratitude big time. He has earned it all, obviously, from when he got here, but his individual accomplishments since leaving South Africa—to work with you and then continuing on with Roger DeCoster and Team Suzuki and now with Red Bull/KTM—is an incredible story in itself.
Yeah, I’m very, very proud of him. You know, he’s always behind the scenes and never really gets the credit that he deserves, but yeah, starting out as a diesel mechanic in a local little municipality to becoming almost the right-hand man to one of the top teams in the world. Trust me, he deserves every bit of credit he gets and then some because he’s so diligent and works so hard.
Yeah. And that Honda you rode in ’93—you weren’t a full factory-backed team at that time, correct?
Not at all. We were just a little Dutch-based team, and the owner of the team was a great engine tuner. I mean, he was very, very good at that, but I think we got one crank or maybe two cranks and a little bit of suspension, but that was it. That was all we got from Honda.
(Laughs) Here’s a crank and some forks. Now go win a World Championship, kid.
So you were about twenty at that point, correct?
Correct. Yeah, exactly.
What brought you to Suzuki in ’94? Was that a precursor to your trip to America, go to Suzuki and then they’ll bring you here?
No, I actually ended up on Suzuki by default. I had just won the ’93 World Championship. I had been in negotiations with Dave Arnold from Honda to come over to the race in the States for the ’94 season, and he had actually sent me a preliminary contract at the time for about—I actually still have it—$350,000 for the ’94 season for Supercross and motocross. It was very good money. We actually agreed to meet at Suzuka circuit, the last GP of the year, to go sign the agreement, make it all formal and everything else. So I started telling my team manager, “Listen, I’m heading to the States. It’s a done deal. I’ve got an offer,” and everything else. In Europe, the protocol used to be different than the way it is now. You always waited for the top rider sign his agreement, and then the next guys—the second guy—would sign and then the third guy, and it kind of went on down the list. There wasn’t as much chopping and changing. Anyway, before I even knew what happened, we go to Suzuka circuit and Dave Arnold comes up to me white-faced, and he says, “I’ve just been told by the Honda execs that I’m not allowed to sign you. You guys are racing in Europe. They’re not putting any money into the program, and you guys are winning World Championships. Why would they now pay you to come and race with [Jeremy] McGrath who’s already winning in the States when you guys are winning World Championships for them there? So I cannot do it.” And obviously at that point, I was just like, “Holy smokes.” I went back to Jan [De Groot] and I said, “Well, it looks like I’m going to be staying in Europe another year. Let’s get this thing figured out.” And he said, “Oh well, I’m sorry. I’ve just signed Everts. It’s a done deal.” So at that point, I was left without a ride. Now, of course, I’ve got to figure something out. We had two absolute gentlemen of the sport—Michele Rinaldi and Sylvan Geboers—both presented me with offers. They obviously collaborated beforehand and both came in with the exact same offer: whole gear, whole bike, whole package deal. Unfortunately, it was with that crappy Bieffe gear, but I had no choice; that was the deal. So for ’94, I was stuck and ended up racing, really in essence, on Everts’ bike in ’94. It certainly took me a while to get it adjusted to my style.
Yeah, I was on Suzukis in ’94, so I definitely know what you were dealing with, and I didn’t have the factory-backing to make the thing work right. (Laughs)
Well, you probably were better off because they were going in such the wrong direction that it was frightening. I mean, it was really bad. (Laughs)
So you win the World title in ’94. When Sylvan signed you to the Suzuki deal, was part of the deal that you would head to the States in ’95?
That was not necessarily part of the deal. He knew where I wanted to go, obviously, and we would then try to start negotiating, but at that time, Suzuki’s program in the States was a total disaster. I mean, they really didn’t have any sort of anything solid. So part of my stipulation was that Roger DeCoster had to become team manager. In July of ’94, Roger came to my apartment in Belgium. He was doing some freelance stuff for some European teams. I said, “Listen, I want to go to Suzuki, but their program’s junk. Part of the thing is you need to be there, and we need to have Ian as well.” At that point, Roger’s deal got accepted, my deal got accepted, and Ian came along. We made it happen.
And the rest is history. I had no idea that you had a big part in Roger coming to Suzuki. What was your main reason—I know Roger has done it all—but what was your draw to him as a team manager? Was it his R&D work, just his guidance?
Well, I’d known his reputation from Honda and what he had done there. A man of his stature and caliber—he sure knew what he was doing. Again, we sort of collaborated, and at that point, I was like, “I need you guys. I need you there because from what I hear and what I see, they really don’t have a professional operation.”
That was probably true—and why they hadn’t won a 250cc national title since Kent Howerton in 1981.
I know it’s a little off track, but I always wanted to ask you about hitting the deer at Des Nations. Wasn’t that at the 1994 Motocross des Nation?
Yeah, so I have three incredible years. Before I’m 21, I win three World Championships back to back, and then, it was like the pendulum swung the other way right after I won the World Championship. Leading Des Nations in ’94, I hit the deer. About a week later, riding in South Africa, I break my navicular, and literally from hitting that deer for almost about a year and a half solid, I was injured. It was just unbelievable. The pendulum just swung exactly the other way.
At any point in ’94 were you like, “Man, maybe I could just stay in Europe and been the man,” or was it always, “I’m going to America and going to test myself against the best?”
No, it was always that I was going. Again, it comes back to never being content with repeating the same victory over and over. For me, that just wasn’t an option. In hindsight, looking back at my career, would it have been a smarter option? Possibly. (Laughs) I know for a fact that at that point I had Everts totally, totally demoralized and dominated. To trade teams with him and then still beat him—I mean, he was just ruined, ruined. So in hindsight, who knows what it would have done or anything, but do I have any regrets? Absolutely not. My goal was always to come over and be a national supercross champion. Unfortunately, the only thing that’s ever eluded me in my whole life is the supercross championship.
I’m surprised to hear that the supercross championship was your ultimate goal. Was it just the prestige of it all?
Well, all of it. You know, the prestige and everything that surrounds it. Unfortunately for me, it just never came naturally; it just was never easy, whereas outdoors just suited me better.
So the navicular you broke in ’94, was that the same navicular you had broken a couple of years earlier?
No, it was actually the other one. So then, I actually got back on the bike about two weeks before the Orlando Supercross and had some weird little crash and dislocated my shoulder—but in the opposite direction: downwards. Then, I separated the other shoulder about six weeks later. Then, a hard ankle sprain here and there. (Laughs) At Troy, Ohio I didn’t even crash and broke my other navicular. That one was broken and didn’t heal, so I had to have a bone graph. I was in a cast for six months. Now, it’s El Niño, and Suzuki didn’t have a supercross track at that point, so I’m riding in the hills trying to practice for supercross, the muddy sloppy hills. And I dislocate the same shoulder exactly a year to the day later in the same unique way, upwards instead of downwards. Then I pulled all the ligaments in my ankle about three weeks later in the San Diego Supercross. It was just a never ending string of injuries. It was incredible.
Yeah, I agree. It was hard to watch at times. Some thought that maybe your drive to succeed hurt you because you would return too fast from some of the injuries. Do you think there may have been some truth to that?
I think definitely. My personality is “lay it all on the line.” If you’re in fifth place and you want to get to first, just do it. But yeah, it was unwise and over eagerness in a lot of ways. I always made sure I was healthy before I came back, but I would simply ride over my head, simple as that.
Well, other than the injuries when you first got into AMA Supercross, you definitely showed you had the speed to compete at the front in motocross. In your first AMA Motocross at Gatorback, you went right to the front, won a moto and, if not for a mechanical, would have probably had the overall.
Yeah, I would have won the O/A, but my wheel collapsed. Exactly.
That was probably one of 10,000 wheels that have collapsed at that track. That place was brutal on wheels back then, but right off the bat, you showed you would be a contender outdoors. How were you received by the riders when you first got here?
Well, everyone was looking at me in my day-glo Bieffe gear, and they were laughing, and then they got pissed when they saw me in front of them. (Laughs) I think nobody really thought I was a serious threat. Unfortunately, nobody in the States ever saw me at my best. I only really had one good year out of five or six. So yeah, nobody here saw me at my best.
You don’t give yourself enough credit. (Laughs) 1998 was a good year too, if only you could have gotten in front of Henry off the line.
Yeah, in ‘98 I won the 250cc Championship, and Doug Henry won Championship for the 400’s. (Laughs)
(Laughs) He must have holeshotted twelve, maybe fifteen motos on that beast in ‘98.
96% of the motos. You’re right. (Laughs) Nah, but he deserved it. He rode very well, but that was definitely a good bike.
Let’s go back a little bit to 1996 and your first-ever AMA National win at Unadilla. How was that? Was that a top of the mountain feeling or a just a big step on the way to the top?
No, that was just one of those little spurts of hope where you’re like, “I think I can still do it. Maybe I can still do it.” I mean, after a year and a half of injuries—people don’t realize that as a professional athlete, when you’re injured it is way more mentally demoralizing than physically. You can come back from any physical injury, but mentally it’s tough. Your competition is charging forward confidence-wise, ability-wise and everything, and you’ve gone backwards. And your mind plays games on you. For me to come back and pull myself out of that downward spiral was probably the greatest challenge I’ve ever faced.
And that came on what was arguably the worst bike on the track: the 1996 RM 250. I’m not sure I can say arguably; there is probably at least one guy somewhere that loved it. (Laughs)
The ‘96 bike was probably the worst bike I ever rode. I’m not kidding you. Ian and those guys laugh about that bike. That thing was pushing out 41 to 43 horsepower. Now, the 250Fs are pushing out way more than that. We were racing against [Jeff] Emig and them on their Kawis, and they were pushing out 50 plus horsepower. It was so far off, it was ridiculous.
So in the end—in comparison to most of your early years in the U.S. at least—you were relatively injury-free for 1996, right?
Well, in supercross I was injured and then relatively well, I think, compared to other years, but I came into the outdoor season hurt. I definitely had some issues. The only season in my whole U.S. career that I was actually healthy going into the Nationals was 1999.
In 1997, you ended up with Jeremy McGrath on your team when he went to Suzuki. I know MC was a fierce competitor, but what was it like to be on the same team?
It was great, excellent! He definitely elevated my supercross riding skills. I think that was the best supercross season I ever had. I won once, had five podiums and ended up finishing fifth in the series.
That was fifth in a very stacked class, as well.
Yeah, there was a lot of talent. I think even [Damon] Bradshaw was back then. Then you had [Mike] Kiedrowski, [Mike] Larocco, Jimmy Button, Michel Pichon; it was stacked alright. That’s for sure. It was good, though. He brought so much press and notoriety to the team. I definitely benefited from it, no negatives.
Yeah, you mentioned that you won a supercross in 1998. What was it like to win the Los Angeles Supercross after all you had gone through to get there?
Incredible, especially with coming through the period I just had. It was just mind blowing. (Laughs) I think if people had to put odds on that race, I probably would have been a hundred to one against winning it. But no, it was absolutely mind blowing. To have that monkey off my back, as they say, was just huge, huge, huge.
Yeah, it was fun to watch, and looking back, if any supercross—other than Daytona—suited you, it was Los Angeles that year.
Yeah, I look back at videos now, and I think, “My gosh, how slow are we going?” It’s just crazy, but it was absolutely epic. No question about it.
Let’s move on to your year: 1999. We talked earlier about how bad 1996 was, but in contrast, the 1999 RM 250 was their best bike, to me at least. I really liked the ‘99.
I wouldn’t go that far, but I think it was a steady progress. From Roger and Ian getting there in ‘95, it was a big step backwards in ‘96 and, then, slowly built forward and forward. I would say the ‘99 bike was just good enough to win the Championship. When you look back at how many times [Kevin] Windham holeshotted, he should have won that Championship without question. I would say the best bike Suzuki ever made was 2002–03. That bike was just incredible.
So you win the 1999 250cc AMA National Championship with pure consistency. You only won three overalls, correct?
Yeah, I think it was three overalls, but I missed the overall like three or four times by one point. I’d go 3-1 and somebody else would go 2-1, or something like that. I missed it so many times, but yeah, it was definitely consistency that paid off.
How were you able to overcome the four stroke advantage that year?
I think, thankfully, that Henry was sort of in retirement mode at that point. He wasn’t as hot and focused as he was previously. If you remember, his results were definitely not as solid as they were the year before. Windham, Lusk and Tortelli, I mean, we battled in I don’t know how many races. It was tough.
After only winning two overalls throughout the year, you went out at and smoked everyone for the overall at the final round at Steel City. Was it a big deal to win the last one and show you were the Champ?
No, not at all. No, I’ve never been like that where you have to win the race to show your dominance. You win the Championship, and that’s what goes down in the history books. I’ve always done the best that I can on any given day and moto. When things click, they click, and that was one of those days that things clicked.
It’s all about the Championship, baby! (Laughs)
That’s what matters. (Laughs)
So you got it done. How did the 1999 AMA 250cc National Championship compare to all your World Championships and other accomplishments?
It was! Oh, man! It was a much, much deeper satisfaction. 1992 was probably the highest of the high. To be a total unknown entity and to go over and actually win the World Championship… unbelievable, the first person out of South Africa in I don’t know how many that had tried. That was probably the highest of the high that I could ever experience. To know that I could go back to Johannesburg airport and see all my friends and bring the title back was the most exhilarating, euphoric feeling you can imagine. 1999 was much more of a deep satisfaction like, “Man, I knew I could do it. I knew I could.” Everybody had written me off at that point. They thought, “He’s never going to do it.” So to do it with all the work at reversing that downward spiral, it was tough. Don’t get me wrong; to win a championship anywhere is difficult, but Americans mostly win championships in America. It’s their home country and what they’ve grown up with. You try to go from one continent to another and win a championship. Then go to another continent and win a national championship on a continent that is not your home. You have no family supporting you, no country support; you’re always an outsider. To try and overcome that is much harder than most people can imagine.
I cannot even imagine. You have won it all and won it all over the world. Was winning the AMA Championship the top of the mountain and time to start looking towards retirement, or were you ready for more championships when the femur break started pushing you that way?
No, I was 110% ready to defend my title. I absolutely wanted to do that. I came into the 1999 U.S. open and almost won that, but Emig won it. I went over to Japan, and I won the Tokyo Supercross. Things started coming together. I was like, “Alright, 2000 is my year for supercross.” I was going to do my absolute best to win the Championship in supercross and then defend the title outdoors. Then, I broke my femur, but I was still ready to defend my outdoor title. I was back on the bike after seven weeks. Then at Glen Helen, in eleven weeks, I finished fourth. Then at Hangtown, I tore my ACL without crashing, hyper extended my knee. Then I get to Mount Morris and it’s a mud bath. I get a bad start and crash about four times. With such slop, it was a total disaster out there. But then I pull off the track. My mechanic is like, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong? Why are you pulling off?” For the first time in my entire life, I couldn’t say what was wrong and why I’d pulled off. I just kind of looked at him and said, “I’m over it.” There was nothing wrong with my bike, I mean, other than grips full of mud and everything else, but I’d never pulled off the track ever unless there was either something physically wrong with me or with my bike. And that was the starting point. I just realized that I’d put in such a huge effort—I mean, everything I ever had—to come back from that downward spiral to actually win the Championship and now that I’d won it, you know, now still to break my femur, tear my ACL—it’s like, “I’m over it. I don’t think I can give it 100% anymore. I’m tired,” you know. I was still willing to give it 80%, but for me, why give anything 80%? If you’re going to do it, do it properly.
Yeah. I still can’t believe that you tore your ACL and decided to go race a mud race, but with your mentality, I can see how pulling off was a huge blow.
Yeah, I’d never done that in, you know, twenty something years of racing. I’d never done that. So for me it was like, wow. That just got the ball rolling, and it was a very difficult, but quick downward spiral from then. I just realized I was over it.
How pumped was Suzuki on winning a national championship after, wasn’t it, twenty years?
Yeah, it was 18 years since Barnett had won it. I mean, they were super, super pumped. And you know one of the things that I’m proud of is as soon as I’d made my decision, I let Suzuki know. You know, I’d just signed a two year deal with them for the 2000-01 season. I was making more money than I’d ever made in my whole career. I mean, all in it was probably about a million-five per year. And I just wanted to make sure they weren’t left without a solid rider. In a way, if you can’t give it 100%, you’re robbing your sponsors. And I’d never be willing to race for 80%. So I let them know early on, “I need you to release me out of my contract because I just think it’s not fair on you guys.” So they were then able to get Windham for 2001.
That’s incredible. Your million-five was guaranteed, I assume too. In hindsight, you could have just ridden around in 2001 and made your money.
Yeah, I mean some of it was maybe performance-based, but certainly a million-two of it was guaranteed.
Yeah, that’s integrity that you don’t see much anymore. Impressive.
I appreciate it.
You retired in 2001. How was that? Was the transition tough?
Also probably one of the toughest things in my life. You see it over and over and over again when athletes retire. They have such a hard time, you know, figuring out what they’re going to do. I mean, you lose your identity. Since you were a kid, that’s all you’ve ever done, and now all of the sudden, that’s not you anymore. You’re only as good as your last race, and now your last race was two weeks ago, a month ago, six weeks ago. People quickly forget you. So no, it was a very, very difficult transition, and thankfully, you know, God has been my rock and that’s where my foundation is as opposed to fame and fortune and stardom. That’s definitely helped me get through. There’s no question about it.
Yeah, it’s got to be rough. You did make a couple of appearances after that. I think it was ’03; didn’t you do a Glen Helen national, or did you do anything before that?
Yeah, you’re right. It was just total one-off stuff, but nothing in a large scale way like “I’m back!” Nothing like that. It was purely one-off stuff.
When did you have your first kid? Was that while you were still racing or after retirement?
No, it was long after retirement. I had my first kid in 2006.
In ’04, you went back to South Africa and were awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award? That had to be a big deal.
It was awesome, I mean, definitely very gratifying. It certainly felt really good.
Did you ever think of going back to South Africa, or was your plan always to remain in the States?
You know, I always thought before I got married that I’d definitely go back to South Africa. I have a very close family, and everybody’s back there. I thought, yeah for sure. But you know, you get involved, and my wife’s American. And then next minute you’re in business and you’ve got all these things going on. So no, I’ve never actually gone back.
This was recorded back in 2012. Thank you to Greg for giving us the whole story.