An hour with…
‘Bad Brad’ burst onto the European MX scene like a breath of fresh air and the fans loved him for it. We caught up with him at Drumlanrig.
… Brad Lackey the American superstar, all-round great guy and guest of honour at Drumlanrig.
The UK can sometimes experience interesting weather during July and for the Scottish Grand National Scramble at Drumlanrig Castle it proved distinctly uncalifornian-like for guest of honour Brad Lackey. Not that it was a problem for him though: “Hey I was based in Europe for a while and experienced the Brit weather…” his face creased in a wide grin as he and I hurried to the marquee, set up for the evening entertainment. Inside and out of the weather, Brad flopped into a couch and said: “Okay, the guys putting this together tell me you do ‘an hour with…’ so, ask me what you want.”
So, I began with something simple… “How old are you?” “I’m 65,” he replied. “We’re off to a flying start,” I joked, thinking on my feet. Then I noticed the crowd of fellow racers, former racers, and enthusiasts wanting a few moments of the man’s time. In some interviews this can be a problem but for an informal chat such as this it can actually work in both parties’ favour as recollections start flowing and things are more relaxed.
The conversation dotted about from 1966, when Brad began MX aged 13, to 1982 when he retired on top of the MX world.
“There were no deals going at the end of the 1982 season, or at least not deals I felt were worth it, so I retired, though I did race once more, at Carlsbad in 1983. I suppose you could say it was my home GP circuit even though it’s south of Los Angeles and I’m from San Francisco area, and I wanted to ride at least one time with the ‘No 1’ plate on, think I finished fourth or something,” Brad explained.
Not a bad result given he was retired. On with the questions... Looking back at your earlier years how did you come to be a motorcyclist? “My dad was a keen rider. Though he never competed he did do a lot of dirt riding and that’s how I began, just riding until I was 13 or 14 when I began MX.” Given your home area I’d have thought flat tracking would have been more your style? “I did look at flat track, even went to Ascot park in LA and saw the likes of Dick Mann racing and Kenny Roberts when he was starting, but y’know, the new riders there were getting maybe one race a night and it was over in no time at all but at a motocross you’d be guaranteed three races of a decent length, it was all about the riding.”
In his early years, Brad did ride with a lot of flat track racers as the bikes they rode and what he was riding were similar: “I did have a 200 Bultaco flat tracker which I also motocrossed with but still all I wanted to do was ride.” Presumably your family were supportive? “Oh, yeah, lots of encouragement and maybe off-thewall advice, like when I started doing well and was away in the east racing when I was a teenager, I got an offer to
race professionally. I didn’t know what to do, I was still officially at school, so I rang my dad ‘hey dad, what do I do? Take the offer or finish school?’ Dad replied ‘take the race offer, finish school later’ – my jaw was on the floor and I’m like okay…and that’s been it ever since.”
‘It’ is a life devoted to the MX world as a place to earn a living and Brad has come a long way since the first steps. I was going to say tentative but I get the impression there’s never been anything tentative about Brad, certainly reading the reports about him in the back issues of Motorcycle here at CDB it’s life lived full on.
“Oh yeah, the factories often thought I was a pain in the ass but I just wanted the best and to do the best, so we rubbed each other up a little but they were still great times with great bikes, still have my 1982 Suzuki and a few others,” he muses.
While desperate to know what other bikes he has, I try to steer the chat towards the early days.
“You want to know what I’ve ridden? What haven’t I ridden?” he thinks for a second or two. “To start with I rode for a dealer then a distributor and I rode Montesa Cappras, 250 and 360, then some Sachs engined bikes, then Montesa again, American Eagle – you heard of them? You have? Wow! Even in the states people go
‘what?’ – then I was on CZ, Kawasaki, Husqvarna, Honda, back to Kawasaki then Suzuki for the world championship. That do?”
I’m out of breath just trying to keep up with him and I’m only writing.
The CZ connection was one that brought you to Europe in the first place wasn’t it?
“It was, I went to the factory and their training camp, I was so determined to be world champion that I knew I had to do something. Oh I could have stayed in the States and raced quite happily and earned a decent pay check but I knew I’d have to learn from the guys in Europe and it paid off.”
Brad was AMA number one in 1972 and depending on the viewpoint – he says ‘made a decision to become world champ’ others say ‘threw it all in’ – gave it all up or started a learning curve by moving to Europe for a year.
“No it wasn’t easy, but I was determined to be world champ. The guys I raced against in the USA were quick on quick tracks but slowing at the end, in Europe the guys were quicker at the end of a race than at the start and that’s what I needed.”
In his first season Brad was 13th. “Kawasaki weren’t happy really, they wanted me more in the USA so I got a chance to race for Husqvarna for three seasons and my positions went up but they were kind of tailing off and Honda America made an offer so I went with them for 1977 and 1978, got 4th and 2nd in the world but I wanted to do things my own way again, I seem to have this reputation ,” he laughs, “so Kawasaki Japan came up with a deal and I went green again with the new Uni-trak which gave Graham Noyce a way in to Honda and look how that turned out.”
His association with Kawasaki was to mirror his one with Honda as far as positions went… 4th in the first season and then second in the second season. That there were tensions in the team is documented in the press of the day and not really for here but it ended up with Brad changing camps again and team Green went in favour of Suzuki Yellow.
It was with the yellow perils Brad would finally achieve his dream of a world championship win. “The thing was, Suzuki hadn’t developed much since 1975, they’d been top dogs then and rested on their laurels a bit, oh they still wanted to win but I don’t know, maybe they needed a kick-start. So, for 1981 it was a development season when things were tried and things
improved, the result wasn’t as important as the progress but I felt confident and for 1982 things looked good.”
As it turned out, things looked very good, as Brad dominated the series and brought the championship to Suzuki and the USA to become the first American 500cc World MX Champion.
Right after the success though, Suzuki quit top line MX and left Brad without a viable ride. “I didn’t want to just head on and be chasing number one again, been there and won that, so I retired too. I did ride one time at Carlsbad for the US GP with the number one plate on though.”
Steering the conversation towards some of the more sensitive areas of his race career, I hedged round a few spicy areas which caused another of those big grins, “Yeah, you mean about ‘Bad Brad’…” well yes. “Maybe I should have been more discrete, maybe I should have made the requests for machine mods in private but y’know, I tried that and things didn’t happen as fast as they should. Say it to a reporter, it gets in the press and all of a sudden things happened. To say I didn’t care about the upset isn’t accurate, would I have preferred not to have the hassle? Of course I would but as long as the improvements meant the team could win then I felt that was a good thing.”
Does that mean you’re a technically-minded guy who will wield the spanners and head for the machine shop to fashion up a new component?
“I’m technically-minded in the respect I can ride a bike and know what’s wrong or what needs to be done to put it right but no, I’m not technical in the respect that I could do it. In many ways I’ve not needed to do such things, as long as I was able to say what the bike was doing and what I wanted it to do then that was enough. Looking back at how intense it was on the GP circuit I don’t think any riders could have been mechanics as well even if they had the skills.”
Something all us club riders wonder is whether factory riders enjoy the sport. Asking Brad what it was like to be a racer then brought some interesting answers. Looking at him interacting with the people at Drumlanrig it is clear Brad Lackey enjoys mingling with fans, enthusiasts and racers, maybe this is because his top line career is over and he can relax a bit.
“The racing was fun, none of us would do it if it wasn’t, winning is even more fun. Let’s face it, there’s not a racer who doesn’t like to win at whatever level. But there’s the local guy, does some winning, maybe gets a buck or two but still goes in to work on Monday through Friday, it’s a hobby. If, say, one weekend he breaks down or doesn’t win, it’s no big deal, the pay check still comes in from the day job. Once the professional racer has to perform and the pressure is on to win then a little of the fun goes out of it and it becomes a job. Yes you still love it but there’s that extra bit of pressure to bring in the results, so maybe a little of the fun goes out of it.”
He adds the camaraderie of his fellow racers at that time was good and he found it possible to be friendly with guys he was racing with, without it interfering with racing on the track.
The club committee then made signs Brad was needed elsewhere so I quickly concluded by asking if he still rode? “Oh yeah, I’ve a bunch of guys I ride with and I’ve different bikes for different groups. The Brit bike guys I have a Brit bike to ride, the guys who ride the older Jap bikes I’ve got something suitable there too.”
Obviously there’s a bike or two in the Lackey garage?
“Oh yeah, I’ve a lot of bikes, the 1982 Suzuki for instance, then there’s the Kawasaki I did some winning on, I’ve an American Eagle too and Vic Eastwood’s 1973 CCM… They’ve got a CZ for me to ride here in the parade lap too.”
Left: Flying high on a Husqvarna.
Right: Honda was the right move for Lackey.
Above: Brad didn't often have to play catch-up...
1: Kawasaki mounted for the 1973 Belgian GP. 2: Sometimes it's just black and white at the 1981 British GP...3: Brad claims to be okay on sandy tracks. Hawkstone was okay in 1975. 4: Brad's switch to Suzuki was to be fruitful.
Above: 1982 was the year it all came together for Mr Lackey.