By Jack Martin
Birthplace: Wichita, Kansas
Birthdate: July 11, 1954
Racing weight: 155
Parents: Allen & Peggy
Wife/Children: Lisa/Sean (16) & Derek (13)
Current Occupation: Owner – San Antonio Masonry & Tool Supply
1973 7th Place Rio Bravo Trans-AMA (GP Class as privateer)
1974 Trans-AMA 250 Support Class Champion (5 overall wins in 8 race series)
1975 2nd Place – AMA 250 Motocross Championship (3 overall wins in 5 race series)
Team USA - Motocross and Trophee des Nations
1976 AMA 500 Motocross Champion (2 overall wins in 7 race series)
Team USA - Motocross and Trophee des Nations
1977 Motorcycle Olympiad Champion
Team USA - Motocross and Trophee des Nations
1979 2nd Place – AMA 250 Motocross Championship
250 USGP Winner
Trans-USA Champion (1overall win in 4 race series)
ABC Superbikers Champion
1980 AMA 250 Motocross Champion (6 overall wins in 7 race series)
250 USGP Winner
Trans-USA Champion (2 overall wins in 4 race series)
1981 AMA 250 Motocross Champion (5 overall wins in 8 race series; 13 of 16 motos won)
3rd Place – AMA Supercross Championship (1 win in 12 race series)
1983 2nd Place – AMA 500 Motocross Championship (1 win in 11 race series)
1984 ABC Superbikers Champion
Guild d’Or (Paris Supermotard)
1974-77 Husqvarna (Mechanic – Eric Crippa)
1977-82 Suzuki (Mechanic –Steve Bradshaw; Greg Arnett)
1983-84 Kawasaki (Mechanic –Steve Pollos; Rick Asch)
Current Sponsors: Scott, Silkolene, MSR, Pro Circuit, Tucker Rocky, Works Connection, VP Racing Fuels and V Force Reeds
Kent Howerton has always been the lone Texan. He was the lone standout for the Husqvarna factory and it’s only American Champion when he won the AMA 1976 500 MX Championship. There have been only three non Japanese bikes that have won an AMA MX Championship with Gary Jones on the 250 Can-Am in 1974, Grant Langston on the 125 KTM in 2003 and Howerton on the Husky in 1976. Every other championship has been on a Japanese bike. Later he switched bikes to Suzuki and classes and won two straight AMA 250 MX Championships. He represented the U.S. in three straight Motocross des Nations where the team finished 2nd in 1977. He is also the only one out of a great group of riders from Texas including Wyman Priddy, Steve Wise, Steve Stackable the only AMA Champion ever from the state of Texas. They should be putting statues of him on the county court house lawns across the state. He has been the thinking man’s racer in that he is always finding a better way to ride or to develop the bike.
Bench Racer: Tell me about what some have described as the best motocross race they ever saw in the AMA 250 National at Saddleback in 1981 against Bob Hannah?
Kent Howerton: Well, Hannah thought I was playing around with him because I’d beaten him so much at the first race in Hangtown. I had gotten the flu and was sick as a dog that day at Saddleback. So when I got around him, I couldn’t pull away and that’s where he thought I was playing with him. There’s a lot more to this because he thought that I had been saying that he was never as fast as I was. I never said that. In fact, I had been asked in an interview what I thought about Hannah’s riding now that he’d come back from his injury and I said, “Well, I think he’s riding faster now than he ever has.”Because he was. He was riding really good. Another part of this story is that Mark Barnett and I had this little friendly wager going on where there was a competition between us to try to win all of our races. He was in the 125 class and I was in the 250, with both of us on factory Suzukis. When I won the U.S. 250 GP at Unadilla, he’d hear about it. Barnett goes “God dang it, now I’ve gotta go out and win the 125 USGP too.” It was a friendly competition between us – we were trying to out do each other. So that’s another factor that had nothing to do with Hannah. I HAD to get around Hannah to stay up with Barnett. EDITOR’S NOTE: Barnett won the first 7 races of the 8 race 125 National series in 1981. Only a broken collarbone stopped him from sweeping the series. Well, Barnett won the first 125 moto at Saddleback. So, I had to do the same thing. I forced myself to drive like that. When I got around Hannah I didn’t have any strength left, I couldn’t do anything. The place that he passed me back is what in my mind keyed everything off. There’s a part of the track that goes down right where the pits were, a real tight 180 that went back up hill. There was about a 2’ deep, sticky berm in it. Now, on the left, it’s not even on the track, he passed me coming down off of this bank and for him to get in the corner, he had to hit it at 180 degrees. So he almost stopped. He was stuck in the turn and had to turn his bike to get out of the turn. I didn’t appreciate it. The next lap I did the same thing back to him. So from that point it just escalated, and neither one of us would back off.
BR: Was that about the hardest race you’d ever run?
KH: It was the most aggressive race I’ve ever been in. I’ve never seen anything like that out of any motocross race I’ve ever seen. We did things that were literally impossible to do. We were going down these long downhills at 70 mph or more, our handlebars locked. One person seeing the good part of the track, the other person’s in the ditch flying along with him. Neither one of us would shut off. The only thing that would separate us was when we hit a bump and it broke the handle bars apart. It was literally a knock down drag out battle to each corner. I’d gotten around him and after numerous. . . I mean almost to the point where we almost killed ourselves. Going over that Magoo jump in the back, I thought it was over with and I just let my guard down, turned inside after the jump and he t-boned me. I reached for him as he went by. I grabbed a piece of his jersey and gave it my best, but I just couldn’t drag him off the bike. It would have been a real interesting story from that point on if I’d been successful. EDITOR’S NOTE: Howerton got up and repassed Hannah to win the moto. For the second moto, I was so tired after all that first moto stuff and suffering from the flu, I didn’t even think I was racing. I was just shot. I had no energy at all.
BR: One thing that Hannah has said about that season is that you had a bike that weighed 195 pounds while he was riding a 230 pound pig. You had said in an interview about supercross in 1979 that Hannah was just flying through the whoops like no one else at that time and you were asked “How does Hannah do this?.” You answered that he had a super light bike and he was able to just fly across the top of the whoops, so may be there is some truth to his contention.
KH: Well, I don’t know what his bike weighed. I don’t remember what the weight really was of my Suzuki then, probably around a couple hundred pounds. I think you have to realize, too, that there’s never a year when every bike out there is equal. Somebody’s bike is always better than the other guys’ for some reason or another. In ’81, the Suzukis didn’t work well as a package; the bikes were light and the back end was good, but the front end was horrible, way too harsh. Like at Saddleback, I remember coming in there and trying to turn and the thing was bouncing so bad you almost couldn’t get any grip. But, the back end was great. Keep in mind, in ’78 Hannah had gone out on a stock bike and won races. Back then, there were guys on works bikes and he’s beating them on a stock bike. So I might have had a bit of an advantage, but the world had changed from ’78. EDITOR’S NOTE: Hannah won 6 of 11 supercrosses in 1978 and won the championship with 272 points, Marty Tripes on a Honda with 220 points finished 2nd. In the 250 National Series, Hannah won 8 of 10 races and took the championship with 410 points. Jimmy Ellis amassed 351 points on his Honda to finish second.
BR: People said that in 1980 you won everything because Hannah was injured.
KH: Well, people were saying that, but that didn’t really bother me. I had raced Bob before and he was sort of my gauge to try and see where I could go. I wanted to beat him and then when he was coming back, you know he was obviously going to be my main competition. So I was running. That was the first year I really took training seriously. I’d sometimes at night have nightmares about hearing his bike catching me and then passing me. So it just motivated me more to go out the next day and work harder. EDITOR’S NOTE: Howerton won 6 of 7 250 Nationals and won the championship with 336 points. Mike Bell on a Yamaha was 2nd with 259 points and fellow Texan Steve Wise finished 3rd with 222 points.
BR: You had won came within a whisker of being 250cc champ in ’75 and had won the 500cc championship in ’76, and yet you had never trained seriously?
KH: Early on, I didn’t train, but I tried to understand what was going on. A lot of people didn’t know back then. All of the guys that had been racing before us wouldn’t share their information because we’d become a threat to them. It wasn’t until after those guys retired that they started revealing some of the information. I had trained at the Tibblin School when I started with Husky. But, if you have never trained before, the first time you start training you notice you’re tired all the time and it takes a while to get over that period and start getting the benefits from it. I started running. I almost gave up. I said “God, I’m so tired.” You should do all that stuff in the off season, not when you’re racing. But I noticed that with Hannah, I would get out in front and pull away. Then about half way through the race, here he comes. He had that endurance that most guys didn’t have. Well, as I started training and got my endurance up, it wasn’t that hard to beat him then ‘cause I had a little bit more speed. Bob didn’t have a lot of natural talent to ride the bike. He wasn’t technically the best rider, but he made up for that because of his tremendous desire to compete and his physical conditioning. He also had excellent reflexes. I remember following him at Southwick and being dumbfounded when I saw the lines that he was taking because it didn’t take that much effort just to go a few feet out of the way and miss all the bumps. Bob was just point and shoot, one corner to the next corner, no matter what was there. But he was so strong that he could just hang onto the bike. I mean, there’s not many people who have that kind of desire. You know, that’s the difference that makes one rider reach beyond another because you can give that other person the best bike, he can be in the best shape in the world, he can have everything going his way, but if he doesn’t want to win and the guy next to him does, he’s gonna beat him. He’ll find a way. Bob’s natural ability and speed weren’t that great, but he overcame it because of his good endurance and his determination.
BR: It seems that Hannah could not accept that you were faster than he was – that you were beating him.
KH: I don’t know what it was. At Mt. Morris, it was kind of an interesting deal. We had a pretty good first part of the race, battling. He was riding pretty good, and I was riding pretty hard. I was thinking, “You know, to ride at this speed is gonna be pretty intense for 40 minutes.” Then Bob backed off and I took off. Then something happened and he caught up to me and we started racing all over again. Below the scoring tower there was this drop off in to a left handed berm. I had the good line where you could rail around the berm. Bob tried to pass me on the inside. I said, “This ain’t gonna work.” I wasn’t gonna back off. I wasn’t gonna give him my line. So we hit. Knocked both of us down and I was looking at him, shaking my head, “What is wrong with you?” He was all panicked, trying to get on his bike and get it started. He took off. Everybody was yelling at me “Get him, get him, get him” and I was just real calm. I picked up my bike. I walked around and looked at it. I got to the front, straightened the handlebars out. I took the time to look around to make sure everything was all right. Then I took off, reeled him in and won the race. I could do that then. I had that much confidence in myself. I was in good shape. My bike was working good. There was no way I was going to let him win. EDITOR’S NOTE: Counting Supercross, Trans-AM, Trans-USA, 125-250-500 National MX wins the total is Kent Howerton with 32 wins and Bob Hannah with 70.
BR: In fact, you only lost 3 motos out of 16 that year.
KH: Yeah, Bob got really pissed off at me in Colorado at the last national race. All I wanted to do was secure the championship. I didn’t really care. I let Donnie Hansen by in the first moto. Then Hannah caught up to me and I just waved him by at the mechanics’ area. That pissed Bob off so bad he flipped me the bird. I did it in front of the mechanics so that there would be witnesses that I let him go. I just wanted him to know "I’m not racing, I don’t want to race with you." We’d done that deal once, I wasn’t gonna do it again. EDITORS NOTE: Howerton won 5 of 8 Nationals overall and compiled 389 points for the championship. Hannah won the other 3 Nationals and finished second overall with 345 points.
BR: What do you think that made you a champion?
KH: I had a strong desire to compete, to not give up. I had a certain amount of natural ability, the physical ability. I think I had a good combination. Early on, I didn’t have the experience or the people to tell me how to do it. Once I figured out the formula of winning there was nobody that could even come close.
BR: How did you figure out the formula?
KH: The first championship is the hardest one to win. First of all, just to win a national is very hard because if you haven’t done it, you don’t know what to do or what to expect. When you’re winning it, you think everything’s gonna happen. You think all kinds of things are gonna break on the bike or whatever. Until you get that one out of the way, it’s really tough. Winning that first championship is really nice and once you get that off your chest you can just relax and savor that feeling for a while and then you gotta say, “Okay, what am I gonna do now? Go out and win another one? Why am I gonna win another one?” So as I stepped back and kind of looked at things, I could see how hard and how much work everybody around me had put into winning a championship. So it gave me just as much pleasure in winning the race to see all the engineers, the mechanics and everybody else involved in the race, to see them get something from it besides just what I got out of it.
BR: Did you take a lot of satisfaction then in developing bikes, too?
KH: I did, I enjoyed it. I always had this curiosity of how things work. When I rode at Husky that’s something that they didn’t really want their riders doing. They relied on their engineers. They told me, “You just ride the bike and leave that to us.”
BR: Is that why you left them after the ’77 season?
KH: Well, the reason I ended up leaving was that they couldn’t make the bike stay together. There were a lot of problems with the design. They had problems with metal fatiguing and I couldn’t finish races. I’d get in a race and lead and then the bike would break. So I just told them, “I can’t ride for you guys again, I don’t have confidence in the bike. That’s it.” I started looking and talking to other teams and initially nothing came of it because nobody really understood why I was finishing the way I was. The fact was, I wasn’t getting much support from Husqvarna.
BR: In fact, you left Husqvarna before you had another ride.
KH: I was confident that no matter what, I was gonna find something. If I had to go buy a bike and go race it myself, I would do it. I’ve always been a person that wants to prove himself. Even with my contracts, I was reluctant to have 2 or 3 year contracts because I said “If I’m good enough, I’m gonna get it.”
BR: You only sought short term contracts as a way of keeping yourself motivated?
KH: Not really. I just felt that if I deserved to be there, then the offers would be there and if I didn’t, then I shouldn’t be doing that any more. In fact, when I finally retired from riding for Kawasaki, they had a contract for me. But I was hurt, I had bad knees and I was losing a little bit of interest. I still enjoyed doing the development work and I still helped Kawasaki a little bit after I quit. But I remember where I decided to retire. It was at Washougal, I was sitting in a lawn chair between motos and just thinking, “Man, I really don’t want to get up.” I was just sitting there in my old dirty motocross clothes thinking “I’ve been this way for such a long time. I want to do something different.” I didn’t know what it was, but I knew I needed a change.
BR: It probably never entered your mind to just ride the motocross season like McGrath did in reverse later with his supercross career.
KH: I probably could have. I talked to Kawasaki a little bit about that and they were kind of leaning towards letting me ride more of what I wanted to ride in ‘85. In the end, I just wanted to do something different. Around that time, Steve Burns approached me about buying into VP Racing Fuels. I did that with the idea that it would give me time to decide what I really wanted to do. I did that for a while and then sold my interest in VP and did a bunch of different things.
BR: I’m interested in knowing what you did after you retired.
KH: I tested tires, both for cars and motorcycles, for a friend of mine, Brian Long. He asked me if I’d be interested in doing tire testing and I just really enjoyed it. Brian and I were independent so we would test the tires for all different kinds of tire manufacturers. I did the high performance part. I had some qualifications for doing that because I had my car racing license. The first thing that we did was working with Cooper Tire & Rubber. That was kinda neat to be able to do a job and have them teach me how to do it. Most people want to hire you for what you know. With my motorcycling experience, I had the ability to feel things out and then to translate that into words. What they were really looking for was somebody that could be an evaluator; take a product out, try it and say what was wrong with it or what was good about it.
BR: I heard that you hit a turkey at speed once.
KH: That was testing for Standard Rubber Products, which Cooper ended up buying. We were testing wind seals like around your doors. Anything that would transmit noise – they would instrument a vehicle for sound, go out and make runs in it at different speeds. That creates your baseline. Then, they fully taped the vehicle, all the seams, and would have us make a run. They would then analyze that data, modify the vehicle, then send us out to test each modification. What had happened was, when you start a run you can’t change the speed because you’ve got all your instrumentation on, to lift off the throttle would ruin a run. It was an 8 ½ mile oval and it takes a while to get around it to start another run. I had come around a tight part of a turn and saw the turkey take off. It looked like he was gonna fly to the left. At the last second, he changed and went to the right. At 100 miles per hour, I didn’t have a lot of time to react. I just lifted my foot off the pedal and the turkey hit the windshield – went through the windshield and hit me in the face. The windshield wiper was flapping and the turkey was flapping. I closed my eyes, but was able to grab the bird with one hand. I shoved it down between the front seat and the dash and pulled the car slowly to the inside ‘til I got it stopped. It was kinda intense ‘cause, you know, I’m going 100 mph and suddenly I have to close my eyes and go through a turn while hanging on to a wild animal.
BR: What are you doing for a living now?
KH: Rick Bostic, a friend of mine, and I recently started a business, San Antonio Masonry & Tool Supply, offering masonry and tool supplies based on his background in that business. What we offer is our service for our customers. They call and tell us what they need at different job sites. We then have our trucks loaded up and we drop those materials off all over the San Antonio area. It has grown tremendously, to the point that we are now seeing monthly sales of over a million dollars. So it’s just grown and we’ve gone through all the growing pains that a company has when it grows that fast.
BR: Let’s talk about how you got started racing motorcycles. I’d be real interested in knowing what racing was like in Texas when you started.
KH: When I was fifteen or so, my dad was a salesman in Colorado. One of his customers had a motorcycle, a little Suzuki dual purpose bike, and asked me if I wanted to try it. He taught me how to ride it on the Platte River. So he let me use it, but it wasn’t mine. That was the bad thing, because then I was trying to figure out, you know, how could I keep on riding. For my 16th birthday, I had worked cutting grass and other jobs. My parents bought me a Kawasaki 100 Trail Boss. So I started riding and that thing just fell apart. So I learned how to work on bikes just to try to keep it running. When we moved to Texas there was a guy named Jimmy Dubose that saw me riding out at this place called 700 Acres. He had a brand new Yamaha 125cc AT-1. Jimmy kinda liked tinkering with his bike, so he would work on it and then bring it down to 700 Acres. He asked me to take his bike out and tell me what I thought about it. I mean, compared to mine, which was a pile of crap, it was wonderful! He came back a week later and he had a 21” front wheel on it. “Go try this, see if that’s any better.” So that went on for a little while, with him improving his bike with an expansion chamber or a new set of pegs and me testing it for him. So he asked me one day, he said, “You wanna race it?” I said “Sure, why not?” I didn’t even know what races were.
BR: You’d never been to one?
KH: I’d never been to one. We went to Sayers Motorsport Park. I rode in practice and planned to ride amateur. But Jimmy said, “You know, I’ve been watching you out there and you’re going pretty good. You might want to ride the expert class. You get money for that.” I said to him, “Hey, that sounds good, I don’t have no money.” I finished third. I was a pretty distant third, got pretty tired and had cramps.
BR: Who finished in front of you?
KH: A guy named Steve Stackable. I think second was Gary Bigley out of Austin. After that, we ran two more races with me finishing second in the next one and then winning the third. So my way of understanding that was, if you win, you must be better than everybody else. There was a real rude awakening when I couldn’t win the next one.
BR: Was there anyone else then in Texas that was real competition for you and Stackable?
KH: Well, there was Wyman Priddy. I didn’t like to travel so I didn’t see him much, but when I did race against Wyman he was difficult to beat. He was always first off the start. He just had a really strong desire to win. I raced against him at a race in Dallas one time and I mean it was almost like a knock down drag out fight. I went over to him afterward and said “Wyman, why are you trying so darn hard?” Wyman says, “Because my wife needs a new pair of tennis shoes.” Wyman was one of the nicest guys I ever met. Steve Wise would also come up from the Rio Grande Valley and race with us. He was quick! He had a lot of speed and was smooth.
BR: How’d you come to ride the Nationals. I know that you rode the old Tex-AMA series here at Rio.
KH: I went out to Hang Town and Baymare in California in 1974 on my Husky. I did pretty decent finishing in the top five in my first race. I actually ended up winning the last National in Louisiana that season as a privateer. I remember it was really a strange feeling out in California for that first race because I went out there with a guy named Bill Davis. I’m walking around in the pits and all these people are wanting my autograph. I’m thinking to myself, “Why do they want my autograph?” When you’re just a fast local in Texas, people don’t ask for your autograph. When I asked, they said “Oh we’ve been reading all kinds of things about you.” It turns out that Davis had been talking to Cycle News and Pete Szylagyi at Motocross Action magazine. So we had some pretty good coverage and people were reading about it, so they were real excited to see me. Everybody in Texas was used to me.
BR: That first year when you won the New Orleans National, that was on a bike that you built from Marty Tripes’ old frame after he left for Can Am, right?
KH: Husky threw that frame away! We got it out of the trash.
BR: Well, what happened? In ’74, Tripes was right in the thick of the championship on a Husky and Can Am hired him away for the last race or two. It seemed to me that Can Am was trying to buy a championship or insurance for a championship.
KH: Right. If Can Am had all of the top guys that had a chance of winning, they were a shoe in. EDITOR’S NOTE: Gary Jones won with 600 points, Marty Tripes finished 2nd with 576 points and Jimmy Ellis finished 3rd with 430 points. All of them finished the year racing the Can-Am motorcycles, which made for good advertising. Jeff Smith, Can-Am Racing Director and two time World 500cc MX Champion, learned from Billy 'The Pig' Nilsson that you don't play 'Ping Pong' in winning championships.
BR: Gary Jones was leading the points towards the end of the season, but he hadn’t won any races that year. He was staying on top of the points, but he wasn’t winning. I think Tripes was probably winning more. He wasn’t as consistent, but was a threat for the championship.
KH: All Marty had to do was decide “ I think I feel like winning” and he could go out and win.
BR: Was Tripes the best American talent that you’ve ever seen.
KH: I really haven’t seen that much natural talent in anybody else. You know, Ron Lechien had a lot of natural ability. There have been other guys out there with natural talent, too, but Marty was just unbelievably talented. I remember one race, in Ohio on a hard dusty track. I finished 11th in the first moto and Marty finished behind me. After the moto, we were just kinda sitting there talking about the race. I said to him, “Marty, you know, I don’t know why you are back sliding around with me back here. All you gotta do is just go ride up to the front. Marty says, “Really?” I blurted back to him, “Man, you can win any race you want.” He had so much natural talent, it’s not even funny. And so I just kinda forgot about it. I came in after the last moto I said, “Well how’d you do?" “Oh I won.”
BR: With all that talent, I wonder what it was about Tripes that wouldn’t let him put it all together for a championship?
KH: The thing I’ve noticed with people that have a lot of natural ability is they have a hard time focusing. I think people that have had the worst of things tend to stay more focused.
BR: That’s one thing Hannah said in a recent interview. He said “If I’d had a rich dad, I never would have become what I did. I had to work.”
KH: Some of his motivation came from that and some of my motivation came from that, too. I was very poor growing up and it’s very difficult, you know, just to keep a bike going. I was very fortunate that I had dealers that liked me. I was really a shy kid. I didn’t like to talk, but people liked me anyway. When I worked for the Yamaha shop, the owner's wife told me, “Whatever you do, don’t change”. I said “Well, I don’t know, I don’t think I’m gonna change. At least I’ll try not to.”
BR: That reminds me of an interesting thing you said back in ’77 after you had left Husky, but didn’t have another ride yet. You said “You know what, it’s not the money. I’ve got just about everything I ever really thought I needed materially As long as I can pay for the house and give my wife the things we need, that’s really all I’m worried about.” Have you been able to maintain pretty much that same perspective for the last 30 years?
KH: I think so. I’m not materialistic. I buy things for Lisa and myself. I bought me a new Honda 450 because I enjoy the technology and the freshness of the bike. I don’t go and buy a car to impress the people in the neighborhood. And luckily my wife, Lisa, is a lot like I am. We’re very happy. We’ve got a very good family, we’ve got good kids and that’s all we want. Just to be happy. Being materialistic like having a lot of money doesn’t make you happy. It can create so many problems. What we’re trying to do is encourage and support our two boys. They’re both interested in different things now. Our older son, Sean, is interested in music. He enjoys school. He’s very smart. The younger one, Derek, is interested in motorcycles. We’ve really enforced school on him. It’s really important to get a good education. Now, both of them are making straight A’s. It’s the first time Derek’s ever made straight A’s. I tell him, “Now you can see, you can do anything you want. You do motorcycles because you want to. Enjoy it. But you have that education as a back up.” We just try to teach them to be fair and honest, to treat other people as they want to be treated. It seems to be working. They’re pretty good. Oh, Derek’s a little bit of a ham – he likes people to watch him.
BR: Is it difficult to coach your son?
KH: He’s been pretty good because everybody’s told him, “Listen to your dad, he knows what he’s talking about.” Whereas, there’s a lot of dads that may know good technique, but they don’t have the past to show their kids that they really do know what they’re talking about. So he knows that I’m pretty much right. Cause I’ve been there and I’ve done it. He’ll get a little frustrated and a little cocky sometimes and I’ll just say, “That’s fine, you can figure it out”. He’ll come back a little later and say, “Now, how did you do that?”.
BR: Will you do the full NMA, Loretta Lynn stuff yet?
KH: We went to a qualifier last year and I think that he was a little disappointed because he didn’t realize that there are so many fast kids. He thought he was gonna do better. Then this year, we went to the first regional at Whitney. He did pretty good there, but he broke his wrist a week or two after that. We ran a qualifier at Cycle Ranch, but that’s about it. So we decided to just take the year off and just ride to have fun. I watch him and I can see how he’s progressing. I don’t want him to progress too quickly. I want him to have a little bit of time between those experiences to really understand them and to let it settle into his system. I could have him go a lot faster and I could have him working a lot harder. But if he’s gonna make it a profession, he’s young, he’s got a long road ahead. I don’t want him to get burned out. He’s progressing at a faster pace and he’s faster than anybody that he started with riding with. I don’t want him to go out there and train and don’t want him to go practice 3 times a week right after he comes home from school. If he wants to ride the TTR, fine we’ll ride the TTR. But if he doesn’t want to ride, we don’t ride. I watched Danny Storbeck and his younger brother grow up at the races around here. Danny’s dad had a lot of money. So he would buy the box van, hire the mechanic… everything. The whole nine yards to go out there and compete. But, you know, it was too hard on Danny and I think that’s why Danny doesn’t have any desire to ride now. EDITOR’S NOTE: Storbeck won 5 amateur championships at Loretta Lynn’s in ’82 and ‘83. He did not make much of an impact at the National level though, with his best finish being a 7th in the 250 series in ’86. He would later become infamous for landing on Rick Johnson at the Gainesville National in 1989, which resulted in the wrist injury that ultimately ended Johnson’s career.
BR: You work with Heath Voss the current World SUpercross Champion?
KH: Heath is from Minnesota. He was coming down and Rusty built him a supercross track to ride on. The Yamaha shop here kinda got me hooked up with him. They asked me to go out and talk to him, try and work with him a bit. He’s a really nice kid. So I went out and met him – he hardly rode at all, he ended up talking most of the time. Heath can talk. Heath doesn’t necessarily have great natural ability, but he’s got very good timing. I think that’s why he’s better at supercross because it is more timing, where outdoor racing is more momentum. I was always better outdoors because every time I got on a track I wanted to get the bike up to speed. When the bike started slowing down is when I didn’t like it. I love having that bike dancing around at high speed. That’s where I’m happy. When I’d go to supercross races, it’s like I’d just get going and…there’s a jump … I’d get it going again … ah, there’s a turn … I’d think “They need to straighten this thing out!”
BR: What psychologically do you think you had that allowed you to become a champion?
KH: I don’t know how to describe it. Steve Burns, my ex-partner with VP Racing Fuels, told me one time, “You’re abnormal”. I always tried to be normal because, you know, when you’re a young kid going through school, you’re always trying to fit in with everybody. So when he told me I was abnormal, I took it kind of as an insult. But Steve said “No, no, no. You don’t understand. You’re abnormal in that what you do is so different than anybody else. Not many people have that ability to do what you do. ”I started thinking about it. “Why does that make me different than everybody else?” I don’t why. I think you see that in all the champions once they quit racing, whether it’s Marty Smith or anyone that won a national championship, you can still see it.
BR: Can you teach the championship secret?
KH: Mark Barnett used to always ask me “What’s it like to win a championship?” “Mark, I can’t tell you, but you will know when you win it.” That’s the best advice I could give him. When he finally won his first championship in 1980, he comes bouncing over to me all excited and said, “Man, I know what you mean now. You can’t tell nobody.” When I would do my motocross schools, there was an interesting problem there because you have so many different people, from kids to older people, of different types of backgrounds. Some are very well educated, some are not. So when you’re trying to teach them something, you first have to make ‘em understand what it is they’re trying to learn. Then you have to try to figure a way that they can understand that dynamically so that they can apply it. What I found was that you really have to watch ‘em and you can kind of tell when one is hanging in there with you and one is drifting off. You just try to say things to trick ‘em, make ‘em think about it in a different way because what one person understands, another person may not be able to understand it that way.
BR: Do you still teach school schools?
KH: I haven’t had the time. I don’t want to do it unless I can do it right. I started out doing that in the Husky school with World Champion Rolf Tibblin. I learned from him. I thought, “He wants me to go teach with him? I don’t know how to teach. I’m not too sure what I’m doing myself.” But then listening to Rolf, listening to other people teach and taking driving classes it taught me a lot about the dynamics of riding a motorcycle and how to teach them Riding a motorcycle is so different than any other thing that you do because it’s so dynamic. There are so many forces in combination happening at a certain time. When you really realize that, you start breaking the forces down, you realize that it’s amazing.
BR: In 1980 every 250 National was won by a Texan with you winning all the races but the one Steve Wise won at Red Bud. It has been over 20 years since you, Stackable and Wise were at the top and no Texan has gotten there since. Why do you think that is?
KH: I don't know the answer to that. We went through an economic depression and lost a lot of tracks locally. Without the tracks there won't be as many riders to challenge each other and rise to the top.
BR: Do you think it has made any difference that there hasn’t been a significant outdoor race in Texas in over 15 years?
KH: I think it has. When I was growing up here we had some stuff going on. We had Nationals here at Rio, at Whitney and in San Antonio. We had the Tex-AMA warm up series in the spring and Trans-AMs in the fall.
BR: Weinert was the first American to win a Trans AM right here at Rio Bravo.
KH: Yeah, I finished seventh. I was just dumbfounded. I did it on a Husky that I bought with money I won from the TLC at Whitney. That was an interesting race.
BR: It was all mud. I remember helping Sylvain Geboers over the fence when his Suzuki drowned out.
KH: Before the race, Gunnar Lindstrom came over and talked to me because apparently they’d gotten some news of me just riding locally that I was pretty good. Gunnar was a neat guy. He came over and said, “Now look, you know, this is your first big race. I want to give you a little bit of advice. These guys, this is what they do. They’re fast.” He says “When they start lapping ya, don’t let that bother you. You just hold your line, race your line and you race your race. Don’t let that worry ya.” So I ended up finishing 7th”.
BR: No one lapped you?
KH: Well, I got lapped. I remember when Weinert and a couple other guys went by me, but it was so muddy that you could hardly tell who was who. I was a good mud rider. I have some kind of natural rhythm for riding in the mud. Early in my career, the equalizer was to have a mud race. I just prayed every time I was at a race for it to rain. It wasn’t my favorite conditions, but that’s where I would do the best.
BR: Speaking of favorites, what was your favorite track.
KH: There were some good tracks back then. My best track – I liked Unadilla. To me that was the essence of motocross. Where you had natural terrain, grass growing on the hills . . . I got a chance to race in Europe a little bit, got to ride in Japan and Costa Rica. Got some world experience.
BR: When you were at your peak in ’80, ‘81, no American had won a world championship in Europe. Was that ever a goal for you?
KH: To me, most of the emphasis was to be a national champion. I did want to be world champion, but there was always a conflict for me because I hated to travel. So any time off, I wanted to stay home. Riding the Grand Prix series would have been a huge commitment for me. I was not the kind of outgoing person that could adapt to big a difference in customs.
Part two of the interview with Kent Howerton. When we last left Kent he was just about to talk about................
By Jack Martin
Jack Martin, Bench Racer: At a point in time, you were probably the best 250 rider in the world. You beat the 250 World Champion Georges Jobe at the USGP.
Kent Howerton: Oh, I beat him hands down. Suzuki had talked to me about the Grand Prix's and I was gonna go do it in 1982. But then that’s when I had my wrist broke and then I just never did pursue it anymore.
BR: How did you break your wrist?
KH: I was out at my property practicing, getting ready to defend my Trans-USA title in ’81. A friend of mine let somebody I didn’t know practice there. The person that I was riding with had crashed on the back side of a jump. I was off the side of the jump, getting him up and had just gotten on my bike. This other rider went off the jump and flew off the side of the track. He landed right on my back and elbow which jammed my hand into the handlebars – snapped the handlebar off. It took my navicular and broke it in half. The doctor guessed that it shoved my wrist about 2 ½ inches up my arm. So it was pretty messed up.
BR: I didn’t realize you had a navicular injury. That’s what did Rick Johnson in. That’s a very difficult injury to heal.
KH: It was a very tough injury because mine was displaced and torn completely out of the socket. It was even worse than his. So I went through the operation and it went really well. But after about 6 months, they did an x-ray and the radiologist said he saw no signs of healing. So here, Suzuki is asking me what class am I gonna ride and I don’t even know if I’m gonna be able to race. The real bad thing about it was that my doctor was on vacation, so I went to another person I knew, a hand specialist, and he said what they would have to do was to take a piece of bone out of my hip and fuse the wrist. I said, “Well, what does that mean? He said, “Well, you’re not gonna use your wrist any more.” I said, “Oh, great”. So I went through some major depression for about 2 weeks. I was finally able to talk to my doctor and he told me, “No, it’s too early. You’ll just have to let that thing sit there for a while longer.” So it took 9 months in a cast and it finally started bridging across. I raced the first supercross race in Anaheim and qualified. I had a molded plastic splint on and finished about 17th or so. It's a miracle that I could even ride like that. Then we had to decide what national series. We opted to ride the 500 Championships since it started six weeks after the 250s. The problem was, since I had not ridden the 500 class in ’81, I had no classification. I now had to qualify for all the races. So at the first national at Southwick – and Southwick is a rough sand track - I went out in my qualifier and crashed. I had to work my way back up. I won the qualifier, and the first moto. After that first moto, I was just laying in the back of the truck like this (arms splayed out, head rolled back). I didn’t have enough energy in my arms to pick one up and scratch my face. Then I heard the most dreaded words you’ll ever hear in your life - “First call, 500 class” – I will never forget that. It sends chills through my body. I just thought “How am I gonna race? I can’t even get up.” But, I started getting up, moving around, things started working again and I won. I don’t know if I won the moto, but I won the race.
BR: You won that race, but that was the only race you won in the series. What happened?
KH: Well, at the next race at Mt. Morris, I wasn’t feeling good and just had an off day. At the third race in Atlanta, I had some problems with Jeff Hicks. There’s this big off-camber. I was trying to get around Hicks so I just squared off the corner and went high, and he just dropped all the way down to the bottom of the berm. So, I’m accelerating across the top. Of course, it’s loose and you can’t accelerate too hard. Hicks hit that berm and gassed it never looking up. I’m looking at him out of the corner of my eye and thinking “He’s gonna hit me!” The Suzuki open class motors had these real radical cylinders where there was no finning around the transfer port, but a lot of finning around the top where the head was. So Hicks hit me sideways on my tibia and that bone had nothing to support it. No frame, no engine, no nothing. I just went “Aaaaargh!!!!”. It snapped it clean. If I’d had any support behind the bone, it wouldn’t have moved. Neither one of us went down, but I knew it was broken instantly. I said “God dang that hurts!” Then I picked my foot up off the peg and had to ride …that’s so scary. It felt like my leg was made out of glass. I had to ride down this choppy hill, off the course to the mechanic’s area. I rode as slow as I could, found my mechanic and I said “My leg’s broke, just don’t let me fall.” It was just so painful, getting all the way back to this place where they had the medic area set up. The guy looked at my leg and said, “Oh, it’s not broken.” “Trust me, it’s broke” I told him. He waits about 5 minutes and the leg is just swelling like crazy. Then he knew for sure. The sad thing for me is that, if I wouldn’t have been out, I would have won the 500 class fairly easy. I mean, we don’t know for sure, but that was the year Darrell Schultz won. He had a knee injury and was in bad shape. Man, it’s a miracle he won that championship.
BR: So you had a serious injury, came back and immediately had another serious injury. Did you lose your ride at Suzuki because of that?
KH: No, I had a multi year contract. I had three years and that was my second year. Suzuki was going through some changes. They were having difficulties getting money for their racing department.
BR: ’82 was the year that Brad Lackey won the 500 world championship, but then didn’t defend his championship on the Suzuki.
KH: Well, this is just what Suzuki told me. Suzuki said that Brad’s relationship with them had soured badly. They said that Brad didn’t have the communication skills or the understanding of the mechanical parts to communicate with the engineers. Well, he didn’t feel like he was getting what he needed, and he let them know it. They went their separate ways with bad feelings. My deal was, I could see the writing on the wall where things were not going well in the racing department. They were cutting back. I didn’t want to leave, but I had a clause in my contract that I could renegotiate for the third year, I asked for a 1.5 million.
BR: You weren’t actually working from strength then after 2 injuries either.
KH: No, I just wanted out. I wasn’t really trying to get the money. I used it as an out. I’d done some talking with Roy Turner, the Kawasaki team manager, so we went out and did some riding on the bike at Indian Dunes. Roy was really proud of their bike, but it was pretty bad. He’s saying “What do you think? What do you think?” I asked Roy, “How much will you let me change this?” He just kind of looked down and said “Well, I guess you can change it as much as you want.”
BR: Lackey has said that his favorite factory ride was with Kawasaki because they would listen to the rider, take his input and try to make it work. Was that your experience?
KH: I’d agree with Lackey on that. Suzuki had a far greater ability to build a bike than Kawasaki, but Suzuki would go off lap times and not use their experience with the person riding it. I went through this with Suzuki, too – when my wrist was broke, they had me doing development work on the bike. Before a supercross race I told them, “This bike is too slow. Everything else is fine, but the bike is too slow.” They said, “Well, how do you know? Your lap times are so slow compared to these guys. They say it’s good. I told them, “You gotta trust someone that knows how to do development work. How did your bike perform last year when I was completely in charge of telling you what to do then?” “Oh, well, we won everything.” EDITOR’S NOTE: Suzuki won 10 of 12 supercross races in 1981, with Barnett taking the championship and Howerton third. In ’82, Suzuki won only 4 races. “Well . . . I think some of that was experience.” But they just wouldn’t listen to me. At the first supercross race, we didn’t do anything. I remember that Monday we’re all sitting around this big round table and they’re asking everybody, “Okay, what’s the problem?" The team just said, "It's too slow. It’s too slow." They get to me and I just shook my head, “I’ve been tellin’ you, but you don’t listen to me because my lap times aren’t fast enough.” But Suzuki, with Mark Blackwell, was really good having come from the Husqvarna team. Mark is the one that got me a ride on the Suzuki. He came down to my house and we went out riding at 700 Acres. I had this little berm in this creek bed where it was all real tight trees. You’d turn, accelerate, hit a little hump, then a big peak between 2 trees, then down across another hump into the creek bed. You had to hit it really perfect. I would come around there, hit that berm, sail through those trees and then park it. Blackwell said, “Anybody who can do that has got the ability to ride.” He goes, “I’m gonna find a way to hire you.” I told him, “Great, I need a job.”
BR: Your first year at Suzuki didn't start off with a bang. Was it hard to adapt to the new bike?
KH: No. I had a couple of injuries that slowed my progress. I almost tore my Achilles tendon. It might have actually been torn. So for about a year, I almost couldn’t even use my foot. I had a bad sprained ankle on the other foot. So, I had lots of little nagging injuries.
BR: Were there problems with the Suzuki’s at that time, too? I’ve read that throttles were sticking a lot.
KH: They didn’t have any problems that were abnormal for motorcycles at that time. The bike was really a good bike. We had some issues where the sand would get into the carb and stick using the aluminum hard-anodized bodies. We started using the brass slides with the chrome and that problem went away. The whole problem was we just couldn’t get good air cleaners with good oil to keep the sand out. But coming from the Husky team, those Suzuki's were really neat bikes. They were better in every way. When I went over there, it did take me a little while to get used to the bike, but they were actually asking me questions. “What about this? What about that?” So that was really neat because I got to ask a lot of things that I had been wondering about for a long time. We spent a lot of time testing steering geometry to make the bikes turn better. So I learned a lot. When they stopped listening to me towards the end of my contract, then I knew that it was time to change. I knew that the Racing Department was going to suffer in the future. I knew the Kawasaki was not nearly the bike the Suzuki was, but they seemed like they would be willing to work with me. I was getting tired of the racing at that point and wanted to be more involved in the development of the bike. So that’s what I did with Kawasaki. We made up a lot of ground. We went from trying different frames, trying to get some idea of good frame geometry. Then, as we got that down, trying to make the suspension work and then trying to make the motor work. I mean, we had a lot of work to do.
BR: What would you do as far as frames? Did someone build frames for you in California?
KH: Well, Kawasaki had a bunch of different models laying around there. We took whatever we could find. I can’t mathematically design a frame, but from hands on experience I can look at things and visualize what needs to be done to improve it. So we just did a lot of testing. I would say, "You know, this is a decent chassis. Now let’s send this to Japan and get it upgraded and then go from there." The great thing was they listened. They were just the easiest people to work with. They really cared. I really got a kick working for those guys. It took a while, but we started getting the bike pretty decent. I left before I could really take advantage of the bike, but Wardy got the benefit of it.
BR: The Kawasaki had a good engine, right? Wasn’t the rear suspension the primary problem?
KH: No. It was everything. The front suspension, the rear suspension. I’d go testing with Roy and we’d make the thing better than it was before and he’d go “Well how do you like it, how do you like it?” “It’s not bad” I told him. Roy goes, “Man I’m, excited! Why aren’t you excited?” I said, “Well, because I know it could be so much better. I just don’t know how to make it better.” I’d get frustrated with myself. There were times when I knew where the bike should be and that we were close, but I didn’t know what to do next to make it that much better.
BR: During your career, there were incredible changes in motocross technology. Were there any of those changes that just blew you away?
KH: No, I don’t think so. I mean, actually, when I think back things happened kinda slow. You lose the feeling that you had from the earlier bikes. You don’t remember how bad they are until you really jump on one and ride it again. The thing with the older guys that sticks in my mind more than anything, and this may have been a limiting factor, is that we had this deep seated fear of something unknown happening at high speed. Because those bikes flexed so much – they didn’t have good suspension, the power bands were awkward, so if you hit something you didn’t know – “Am I going too fast. Am I gonna survive this impact?” Where on a modern bike, everything is so good – the chassis is so rigid, the suspension is so reactive to everything, the power on the bike is so easy to control, you know? The package is just incredible. It does things that are mind boggling. In my day, you couldn’t be abusive to your bike. We had to learn to be very gentle and conserve it to the finish. Now you can do so much – they’re so much lighter, they’re just whippin’ these things. . .things that we could never do. I had triple clamps crack on me. At the Mount Morris National, I was sitting on the line and the mechanic tapped me on the shoulder and said “We’re done – you can’t ride.” I was pumped, ready to go. I said “What do you mean? Don’t do this crap to me.” He points down at the triple clamp. You’ve got the split in the clamp and the bolt that goes through to tighten it. The clamp was broken right behind the bolt. So it’s not clamping anything. But I said, “Don’t worry about it. I know it’s there. I’ll be easy.” So I take off. I can’t remember exactly if I’d won that day, but I made the bike survive. Editor’s Note: There’s a good chance Kent won the race since he won the 250 National at Mount Morris three times in a row, ’79-’81. Then that same thing happened to me one time at the Seattle supercross. I was sitting on the starting line and Roy Turner tapped me on the shoulder right before the gate drops. “You can’t race, you can’t race.” Well, what can go through your mind? “Why the heck are you telling me I can’t race? What are you trying to do to me? I’m gonna kill ya in a minute here.” I’m ready to go and he points down at the triple clamp and all the bolts were just spinning with the vibration of the motor. The gate dropped, I took off and I didn’t know if the front end was gonna stay on or not. I got a good start. The first time I hit the ruts in a turn, the bars turned, but the front end didn’t. I said “Holy crap!!! and did this big paddle. So then I realized I needed to get lined up for the berm and then LEAN HARD NOW! I physically turned the bike with my knees on the gas tank. I could feel the forks moving up and down. They were bouncing on the handle bars. While I was riding I was trying to remember “Now, how is the front brake cable held on? There’s a guide on the triple clamp . . . I don’t think it’ll come off.” I was trying to just put the bike down as gently as possible, without getting any air time. I think I got third. Mike Bell finished behind me and afterwards he came up to me and said, “Man, I was trying to figure out what in the world you were doing out there.”
BR: During your career, you were known for several things; early on you were known for your stamina, for being able to charge at the end of a 40 minute moto.
KH: Yeah, it was. I don’t know. It’s just that towards the end of the race, I just felt strong. There is something else that’s really strange about the way my body works. In the real hot races, I would get to a certain point where I’d start tingling. I’d get kind of a little bit of a light headed feeling at first and I’d start to tingle and get this cold feeling.
BR: Sounds like heat stroke.
KH: But I never got heat stroke. I got right to that point and then I would feel great. I told that to a friend of mine, Mike Bradshaw, who’s a doctor. He said, “Man, I think you’re gonna have heat stroke.” For some reason, I could push it way beyond that point and feel strong when most people would shut down, but I paid the price afterwards. When I would do that, my internal thermostat would be all out of whack. I would just start burning up with fever. So I called Mike one time and he instructed me, “Man, get some ice and pack yourself in it.” I got in the bed at the hotel and we piled ice all over me and I got the temperature back down and made it through the night. But that was a weird sensation.
BR: Another thing you were known for was your ability to work the clutch to drive out of corners. No one was really doing that before you came along.
KH: Back when I had that Kawasaki Trail Boss, I would go riding out at 700 Acres. I didn’t have enough power in that engine to spin the rear tire and make a roost ‘cause it was worn out. I love roosting. I love that. I found this little hump on this trail and, if I went over that hump and pulled the clutch in and revved it up in a taller gear, I could make this big roost. I remember one time trying to keep up with Tony DiStefano on his works Suzuki. My 250 Husky was no where near as powerful as his bike and the biggest problem I was having was having the correct gearing for corners. Second was too low and third was too tall. I thought, “Okay if I’m gonna go faster . . . I’ve got to be in third gear.” So I left it in third gear and came into the corner as fast as I could. I remembered what I used to do on the Trail Boss. I just pulled in the clutch and it went Wheeeerr. I thought, “Okay, this is interesting.” So I started playing around with that and it wasn’t long before I was passing Tony down this long straightaway in practice. It blew his mind. “How is he passing me on that slow Husky down the straight away?” Tony came over to me and asked me what I was doing. So then he went out there and tried it and he burned his clutch up. His mechanic, Keith McCarty, came over to me and said, “What did you tell Tony to do?" I said, “Well, slip the clutch." McCarty said, “Well, he’s burning up everything. Don’t tell him nothing!”
BR: If you’d thought about it, you probably didn’t want to teach him anyway.
KH: Tony didn’t understand what I was doing. Luckily, he didn’t. Most people didn’t. Hannah was the only other person I always thought figured it out and he did it more to show off, where he’d throw the roost. But he was totally missing the point. You’re trying to keep the engine in its peak power, until you can get the transmission ratios to match RPM. But you don’t just slip it. You have to feel that point of where to slip it, how much to slip and to lock it up. Because if you don’t, you put too much heat in the fiber plates and then you lose your clutch.
BR: The other thing I want to discuss was your ability to lay the bike over in the corners. Everyone seemed to be in awe of how you laid that handle bar over into the dirt.
KH: My son Derek still can’t believe how fast I can corner. He says “How in the world did you do that Dad?”
BR: Does that come from the clutching technique, or somewhere else?
KH: I think where it came from was learning to build berms. Derek is a pretty good at corners, too. What I’ve told him is that you build berms, “You go out on flat ground and you start building a berm, trying to make a berm.” Because it teaches you what a berm is. It teaches you how to do it, what’s happening from the very beginning. How the berm develops. When you blow it out a couple times, then you realize that there’s only a very small meaty part of that berm. When you learn that by doing that over, and over, and over, and over again then you develop that entry point and learn how to balance the bike during the corner. I don’t know if you ever sat down and really thought about how a bike makes a corner, but you have to threshold brake in a straight line, you have to trail brake as you corner and then you have to get the bike up and driving out of the turn. You’ve got a lot of things going on. You've got weight on the front end, you've got decreased steering geometry so you are in a braking state, you've got more weight on the front end, the back end is lighter and to keep that back end from breaking loose, you've gotta go through a transition. So you go from a braking state, to a neutral state, to an accelerating state. Once you start mastering all these things, you become very fluid. I was able to hit berms really fast because I had good entry, I had good transition and good exit speed. I had a really good compliment one time. It was at the Trans-Am in Road Atlanta while I was still on the Husky. They had this long down hill and this really fast right hand sweeping turn that then headed back up this hill. It was third gear wide open on a 500.
BR: Wide open?
KH: Yeah, to me it was. Apparently, it wasn’t to everybody. At the rider’s meeting, Roger DeCoster came over and complimented me on how fast I came around that turn.
BR: That speaks to why you were so good at the Super Bikers.
KH: Yeah, pretty much. I think for a motocrosser I had a pretty good understanding of the physics of cornering. A lot of it’s just natural decisions to know where you should be on the track. It’s so key to know how deep into the corner you can go, and brake, then feel when the bike is loose and drifting. The one in ‘84 that I won on a Kawasaki I had to work for to win because I wasn’t the fastest person there. There was this section with a real fast left hand corner where you came off the dirt and hit the asphalt. Then a chicane where we went right by the guard rail. It felt like that hole by the guard rail was only 3 feet wide and it felt like we were going a hundred through there. That was my weakness. Roy Turner came over to me and said “You know, that’s the only place you’re slow on the track. If you don’t get that figured out, you’re not gonna win the race.” I said, “I know. I’m working on it, but I’m scared of that guard rail.” I noticed a hay bale there. I was trying to get as close to that hay bale as I could. I thought, “I can’t get any closer to that hay bale, I’m gonna hit it.” I finally realized that when I flicked the bike, for the first few seconds it was actually sliding. So when I thought I was aiming at the hay bale, I was missing it by 2 or 3 feet. So I said, “Okay. I’m gonna try something. I might go down, but I’m aiming for the hay bale.” I missed it. My exit point was way away from the guard rail. I said, “That’s it, you got it.” I kept moving that point further, further, further and further until it was about midway. When you’re going left and then you’ve got to make that transition to the right, your natural tendency is to shut the throttle off, flip the bike and get back on the throttle. I got to where I could do that and never shut the throttle off. So the momentum I would carry through that corner was so much faster than anybody else. I knew that I could win the race if I was behind because I could pass ‘em before the finish line. That’s where they thought I had so much horsepower on everybody because I’d pass ‘em down the straight away.
BR: It wasn’t horsepower at all.
KH: It wasn’t horsepower, it was momentum. You find ways to use what you have.
BR: It sounds to me like you’re analytical.
KH: Well, it’s like driving race cars. A race car is a lot different than a motorcycle. You can’t drive by the seat of your pants. In a car, although you may feel fast, you may be going slow. A car is so much different than a motorcycle. On a motorcycle you have got a big advantage because you can change your weight bias and make things happen. In a car, the geometry doesn’t change much with your weight. It’s just understanding what all your controls do and learning how to use each one to the fullest ability and learning how and when to integrate between them. When you’re able to do that, you’re able to drive smooth and fast.
BR: Speaking of cars, after you retired from motocross you tried to get into car racing. What happened there?
KH: It was always money. I took the Skip Barber school. They ranted and raved about how good I was, you know, with no experience. I went back and did some of their Formula Ford races. I did really well. I mean I won – got first, seconds, thirds. With the more experience I got, the easier it was and then I stopped because I was running out of money. I rented some cars and did some local races here, but the cars weren’t that good and I didn’t do well. I rented the Barber Saab turbo car at Tampa. The worst place to try and drive a car you’re unfamiliar with is on a street course. I qualified 12th because I was afraid of this one turn. Somebody had thrown some gravel up on it and a bunch of cars were crashing. I just didn’t push it because I didn’t have the money to pay for the damage if I wrecked the car. But taking the way I felt, I probably would have finished 3rd in the race if I could have stayed in it. The problem with starting in 12th place is that you’re back there with the less talented drivers. I was going into one of the corners, about the 3rd or 4th corner on the track, got rear-ended, which broke the toe-link on the right rear wheel. That was the end of that. Then I tried the best I could by talking to people and going to some races and being seen. Car racing is just a whole different deal than motorcycling. With bikes, if you’re good, you can get help. Car racing is so much politics. People used to tell me that and I didn’t understand what it was. It’s who can bring the sponsorship money. My wallet was only about that big and it had big teeth on it that said, “Don’t go any faster or I will bite you! Because I’m not paying for the damages.” I gave myself until I was 40 years old. I figured if I didn’t get anything by then, I was gonna give up on cars. It was like an emotional roller coaster. I thought I had this guy lined up from Mexico to do the whole Barber class series. I mean it was a done deal. That fell through and I had some other deals done. It was just one thing after another and it was just like, this just isn’t worth it.
BR: With your success at the Super Bikers and with what Jeff Ward is doing in Supermoto, do you ever think about trying to get out there and riding that? Do you feel like you’re too old?
KH: For something like that, I know I’m not too old. I’ve got the experience to run that, and the skill to do it. But I’m not gonna do it unless I’ve got a competitive bike and there you have to have a competitive bike. It’s more important than a motocross bike. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to do the traveling anymore. If somebody gave me a competitive bike, I’d probably do it. But, I’m not gonna go out of my way. I’m having a lot of fun working with Derek, watching him ride. He just started riding my 250F and I like watching him go out there and beat my friends. They’re saying “No, I wasn’t pushing him very hard because I didn’t want to pressure him and make him fall down.” I’m saying, “OK. That’s why your feet were coming off the pegs in every corner.” Hey, it’s fun. I had my time – let him have his time.
BR: Out of all the guys that you raced against, who did you respect the most?
KH: Well, a lot of ‘em I respected. As far looking up to the riders, I think Roger is probably my favorite rider of his time. He was very consistent in his career. I met him here at Rio for the first Trans AM. I didn’t actually talk to him. I had read about the Grand Prix riders, the World Championships and had blown these guys up to be super heroes. When they didn’t jump everything I thought they were gonna jump. I thought “They’re just like I am.” What impressed me about Roger was the way he dealt with the fans. All the Husky guys were parked right by the fence. I was riding a Husky at the time and I was interested in them. Roger wasn’t pitted near the fence, but he would walk across to where the kids were leaning over the fence and sign all of their autographs. The Husky guys were like too busy, you know, trying to get ready for the race. They didn't have all the mechanics that Suzuki had. Roger kept looking around, signing autographs and looking at the start. He goes in his Belgian accent, “Excuse me, but I have to go now. I have to go race.” That impressed me that he took the time to go over there, talk to the people, and sign autographs. He was polite about when he left. That always stuck in my mind. I could see watching him race that he was intelligent about his method, the way he attacked the track. I liked his style. I also liked Arne Kring and Heikki Mikkola. Heikki was kinda quiet, but Arne was a neat guy.
BR: The first motocross I ever saw was a 1971 Inter-AM where Husky rider Arne Kring got the hole shot in both races. Sylvain Geboers on the Suzuki RN 370 chased Kring down and passed him to win both motos.
KH: Arne knew I was just a rookie, a young kid and he’d always come over there, pat me on the back and ask me, “How are things going?” He was real encouraging. He’s a big coffee drinker. He’d always go like this to his coffee cup, “It’s empty, gotta have coffee.” Heikki, he was quiet. But he was a Hell of a rider because he was so focused. He didn’t look like it, physically, when you looked at him because he was real pale. He never got out in the sun much. It made him look a little soft. He didn’t look like a physical specimen. But that guy was tough as a rock. I mean he impressed me so much the way he’d go and practice. He rode a little like Mark Barnett. Just really hammered it and just charged really hard. He was good.
BR: Who of the US riders did you look up to?
KH: It’s so different because when you’re racing with everybody, you put up this wall.
BR: You said you put ‘em on a pedestal to begin with.
KH: Well, that was because I didn’t know any of ‘em. Then I started racing with ‘em. My first encounter with Jimmy Weinert was here at Rio, he tried to knock me down. When he went by me, he kicked me. I thought, “What did I do?” Then I realized that he’s just trying to intimidate me because I’m an unknown kid with #257 and I’m challenging him for 3rd place. I had just as much right to be here as him, so I pushed him back. We had our differences, but we laughed about ‘em later on. I’d knock him down and he’d say “Hey, you did a Jimmy Weinert to me, you can’t do that.” I liked Marty Smith a lot. He was always a happy guy to be around. I liked Danny LaPorte. Most all my teammates I liked pretty much. I didn’t really look up to anybody, though. They were my competitors.
BR: You came up not at the very start of motocross in the U.S., but very close to it.
KH: Oh, yeah. I was in the first Trans-AM an American ever won . It was a lot of different back then. That’s something the guys now don’t get a chance to really feel because the Europeans were the Gods. We were the kids. We raced our series over here and in the fall the Europeans would come over and race us. Everything was so different. The stuff they brought over here – the bikes. They were so different – they created this whole atmosphere. The Trans AM was real special.
BR: Even though the American and Europeans teams both rode for the same manufacturer, the teams didn’t mix together at International events.
KH: Right, they had their own teams. They were separate. They were Team Europe and we were Team USA. I don’t think they were even concerned with us. They didn’t even think we were a threat until later on. Once the Americans were getting faster, the Europeans didn’t want to come over and have to work. The European riders, at least the way that I remember it, they left for a while and then they started coming back when we were getting in to Supercross. They were realizing that, to get fast, they were gonna have to adapt to that style of riding. So some of them would come over here to race Supercross just for the experience.
BR: You were able to come back and compete successfully after two significant injuries. Were there other obstacles that you faced in your career?
KH: Well, I’ve got a bad knee. I don’t have the anterior cruciate ligament in it, so it’s real loose. I don’t have any cartilage in it. That was done real early in my career out at Cycle Bowl. The front brake of my Yamaha locked up, the cable got caught on the fork tube. I landed straight legged and it just buckled backward, tore it on both sides. Just smashed it up good. I remember, at a Trans-AM in St. Louis, it was a mud race and I was doing pretty good. DeCoster was behind me. I went around a corner and my foot got caught on a rut, and popped my knee out of joint. That was pretty common. So I picked my leg up and put it on the seat and I was bouncing on it. And after the race, Roger goes, “What were you doing bouncing on your seat going down the straightway?” I was trying to pop my knee back in place. Probably my biggest problem was arm pump. If I didn’t have arm pump, you weren’t going to beat me. When I was relaxed on the bike, I could ride the way I wanted to ride, I was gone. The biggest mistake for me was that practice was the funniest part of the day. I could go out, go anywhere on the track, ride anyway I wanted. I didn’t have to worry about it and sometimes I pushed too hard having fun. That’s one thing that Hannah noticed about me. We used to be friends, actually, a long time ago. He came up to me one time and said, “You have fun out there, don’t ya.” I said “Yeah, I love it.”
BR: Were you experimenting or just messing around in practice?
KH: I was just playing. I’d see something and think, “Oh that looks neat” and run over there. Hannah was a lot different person when he first started riding, too. I mean, when he started winning . . .
BR: He got a pretty big head?
KH: I don’t know if he got a big head. This is my personal opinion, but I don’t think he was used to all that attention. I think there were so many people giving him so much attention and pulling on him so hard in so many different directions that he withdrew and just became arrogant. Bob would go to the races, get in his van and Keith McCarty would keep him isolated from everybody. It doesn’t matter who you are, what kind of personality you have, or what kind of bike you ride. If you’re winning races, you’ll have a big fan group because people like to be associated with winners. You know, that’s just the way we are. You can ask Mike Bell. We did an interview at a supercross race here in Texas. I don’t remember how many stations we were interviewed by, but one of the people who did the interview came up to Mike and me and said, “What’s wrong with that guy? I can’t use any of that.” Bob just changed so much. He used to not be like that. When we first started racing and riding together he was just a happy go lucky kid. We took M80s in the back of my creek and were blowing up fish. He was stuffing fish in his pockets. He was just bouncing around. We rode and had fun. I mean if somebody beat him, they beat him. He wasn’t jealous. He wasn’t vengeful about it. But he went through such a big change. He became a person that I didn’t want to be associated with anymore.
BR: What was the biggest disappointment in your career?
KH: Probably my most discouraging point was losing that ’75 250 championship to DiStefano. There was one race in particular where I know that I lost all the points. It was at Appalachia Lake in West Virginia. I always ran that two ply motocross Trelleborg. It was a muddy race. Somewhere in that first corner there’s a rock. I hit that rock in the first moto and popped that front tire. You can’t ride with a flat front tire. Second moto, the same thing. I thought, “What kind of luck is this?” Tony had better equipment and I beat him. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Howerton won 3 races in the 5 race series. DiStefano won one national, with Weinert winning the other. DiStefano won the championship with 570 points to Howerton's 540.) Probably that and then getting hurt in ‘82 with the broken leg because I really should have won that championship, too. You know, it is what is, though. I’m not complaining about anything. I’m very fortunate to have done what I’ve done. But I would have really liked to have seen, when I reached my peak, if I could have continued winning. There was nobody in the world at that time that was competitive with me.
BR: Back then, at least in Europe, the 500 was the elite class. Would you have liked to have ridden the 500s with DeCoster, Malherbe and Carlqvist when you were at your peak?
KH: I got to ride with those guys in some races. I even t-boned Roger when we both were on Suzuki’s. It was an accident at Lake Whitney. We were kinda stuck in traffic. Whitney was kinda mushy and had all these little bogs and holes. There was this wide open line on the right and I had to do it. If I wouldn’t have hit this bog, I would have had a really clean pass on Roger, but I hit it. It sucked me up and picked the back end up in the air. I thought “This is not gonna be good!” Roger is setting up for the turn and I’m just rolling on the front end and just as he enters the turn – bam! But I couldn’t do nothing. I knocked him down and I knew I hit him right in the leg. He wasn’t in the race anymore and I was still in the race. I was going, “Oh, this is not gonna be a good. How do I . . .?” So I just walked up to him after the race and I said, “I am so sorry. Trust me, I did not do that on purpose.” He understood, but he was in pain. He wasn’t happy, but he was understanding and I appreciate that. It was just a racing accident.
BR: Unfortunately, some accidents are worse than others. There’s been a number of riders who have been paralyzed racing.
KH: Yeah, like David Bailey. I knew David from when he was just a little kid. Once, we were all out riding down at 700 Acres right by my house. I knew that place like the back of my hand. Gary Bailey and I were out riding with David and we were going pretty good. There was this big rain rut, about 2 feet across and about 3 or 4 feet deep – I bunny hopped across it; Gary got across it. I looked back and there’s David just crashing his brains out.
BR: Seems like you helped his Dad give him a bit of an education.
KH: When he started racing nationals on a Kawasaki, he came up to me when I was riding for Suzuki and he asked me, “Man, how do you do it? How do you go so fast?” I just said, “Man, I can’t tell you that. Just don’t give up and keep trying. If it’s meant to be then it’ll happen.” I don’t think David had a lot of natural talent, but I think he was very good at analyzing things and learning. He perfected a very good style and was very consistent.
BR: He was one of the smoothest riders there ever was.
KH: Yeah, and he made it work. That’s what I like about motocross. I don’t think you have to be one particular make up, you know. It’s a combination of things. If you can figure out how to put what you have together, you’ll succeed. I think if you want to win bad enough, you’ll find a way.