Ricky Johnson interview – MXoN

There is no denying, Ricky Johnson is without question one of the biggest stars in American motocross history. Seven AMA titles in motocross and supercross, and selection in the American motocross of Nations team on four occasions, with victory in 1984, 1986, 1987 and 1988. Known as RJ or bad boy, Johnson dominated the sport in the mid-1980’s and was without question the best rider in the world in that era.

Now 53 years old, and a veteran of the sport, Johnson still has the passion for his country, and nothing disappoints him more than when his country is struggling in the biggest motocross event in the world, the Motocross of Nations.

We caught up with RJ and asked him about his experiences in the MXoN, and his opinion on Team USA and their performances recently.

MXLarge: Firstly, it’s a tough sport, long seasons and stuff, but what is your opinion of Eli not wanting to race the event?

Johnson: Extremely disappointed. His father represented America when he rode mountain biking, and the thing that lasts with you forever, is when you represent something other than your manufacture, or yourself. We never got paid, I mean I had it set-up I got bonuses from a lot of my sponsors, we didn’t get money, and we didn’t go there for money, we went there for our country and to represent our sport. I am just very disappointed.

MXlarge: When Eli mentioned the tough schedule, I get that, but I don’t think you guys had it any easier than they do now? I am also guessing the bikes were harder to ride back then, as despite you guys being fit, the modern technology probably has these athlete’s fitter now than ever?

Johnson: I raced all the time. I loved racing, I argued with teams and companies for the money, because that was the prize for winning, but you race for money in a series, but I liked racing all the time, because I loved the feeling when I beat everybody. One of the races where I really was hurt was when I was beaten at the USGP by Eric Geboers. He went 1-2 and I went 3-1 and he looked at me with the first-place trophy and said, “you are only as good as your last ride, and I just beat you.” I had beaten his ass so many times, but in our last race together, he beat me. I was so angry. So, I understand the schedule and I understand where he is making his money, I understand all that, but when you are the guy who can make the whole country stand up and be proud, and you choose not to, I can’t side with you.

MXLarge: I remember you raced a pretty long schedule, sometimes starting in January and ending in October, then you would do two classes, plus SX, and a bunch of International races after all that. Did you ever have a year when you were too burnt out, and didn’t want to go, but went anyway?

Johnson: I never felt that way for des Nations. I used to do the Golden State series to warm up, then we would intermingle the 250cc championship and the supercross series, so you were always swapping bikes and your style. Then we had all the European races, like the Masters of Motocross, the Fastcross, I used to race in Holland, Belgium, Bercy, we were all over the place and part of it was we loved doing it also a couple of USGPs. We didn’t really have an off-season, just weekends off. The one year I declined was when I had my broken wrist, I think in 1990. They had me on a 125, and I was going to do it and I was testing and I felt fast on it, but my wrist wasn’t holding out. I remember thinking, if I go, and I am a big guy on a 125 and I lose for the team, that was why I passed and they took Kiedrowski in my place.

MXlarge: Mind you, back in the 80s and 90s you could have picked three or four A-team for America. It isn’t like that anymore. I mean in your era you had multiple AMA champions all in the same class, this year’s 450 class doesn’t have a single AMA 450 champion in it.

Johnson: What I would do, I could be pitching for Ryan Dungey. Tell him to blow the dust off his riding boots and have Osborne and if he was fit Anderson. Or maybe Thomas Covington on the MX2 bike. I think Ryan Dungey would kill it. What do I think that, because look at him in that last race in Las Vegas this year, when everything was on the line, and he gets the holeshot, he couldn’t afford a second-place start. When it comes to crunch time, there is nobody as good as Ryan Dungey. I don’t care if he is eating hot dogs and drinking beer, he would still be strong enough to do well there. I am not saying he would win everything, because Cairoli and Herlings and those guys, they are fast over there.

MXlarge: You were in an era where you dominated everything. Do you think these guys are struggling because they have been beaten and they go there now knowing that is a possibility? You guys went to the MXoN knowing you were the best team and had a big shot at winning it.

Johnson: I don’t think so, I think it’s just self-preservation and they have big contracts and don’t want to get hurt and lose out on that. I think that is what it is.

MXLarge: I was reading an interview on racerxonline with the HRC team-manager in America and he mentioned Ken Roczen wants to race the USGP and the MXoN. What is your opinion on that?

Johnson: Oh man. I hope he doesn’t make the same mistake I made. I reached out to Kenny, because I have experience career ending injuries. I made some big mistakes in my career and one of them was coming back too soon from injury. You need to go through a routine before you are allowed to race after injury. As soon as I could grab a handlebar I wanted to race. When you come up short and mis-time a whoop, you can damage everything again. I think it’s a mistake. He needs to not be in a rush and get himself healthy.

MXLarge: What moments in your career stood out?

Johnson: For me winning the first championship, even though Mark Barnett wasn’t there, he was injured, but in my rookie year I won the last race in Carlsbad and got the title, then also winning my 1984 250 National championship with my mechanic (Brian Lunniss), because he was the first guy who believed in me. We came down to the last moto and I pulled it off. Also, my win at Unadilla at the Motocross of Nations, because we were behind the eight ball. I remember sitting watching the start of the 125cc/500cc race (in pouring rain) and I remember seeing Jeff Wards goggles get blown off in the first turn and he was back struggling in seventh place and Bob Hannah was stuck in the screw you (a section of the track) for like a bunch of laps. I looked over at the team and said, I need to win both races if we have a shot here. That feeling, even when I talk about it, I want to throw up. It was a feeling of what men are made of, and this is when you are scared, you go and fight. You know what, the Europeans were known as mud racers, and I was from California, where it doesn’t rain, and I beat them and we won the MXoN. Saw Jimmy Weinert (AMA legend) crying and Tony Distefano (another AMA legend) was there, and all these people, and the only one who was a dick was Bob Hannah (laughing). That was the one I will take to the grave with me.

MXlarge: Was 1987 your best year? You won two motocross championships that year, and the MXoN.

Johnson: I think 1988 I was a better all-round rider I was in better shape. We won the 500 Outdoors and the supercross title and we were leading the 250 championship and my bike blew up. I was emotionally and mentally very strong in 1988.

MXlarge: Will we see you at the des Nations this year?

Johnson: I want to go, I mean what the hell, it’s been 30 years since I won that one (1987 in the mud at Unadilla). I want to ride the train, you know what I am saying. I don’t want to wait until its 40 years, I might not be around then.