In this installment, we are going to look at the years between his parting with Yamaha and his eventual career resurrection with Factory Connection Honda.
In this installment, we are going to look at the years between his parting with Yamaha and his eventual career resurrection with Factory Connection Honda.
In the first part of this retrospective, we looked at the early years of Kevin’s career. From his origins as a Team Green rider, to his ascension as one of the premier riders in the sport, Windham was always one or two breaks away from greatness. There was no doubt that he had the talent, but many questioned if he had the drive and focus to be truly special.
In this installment, we are going to look at the years between his parting with Yamaha and his eventual career resurrection with Factory Connection Honda. During those five years, Windham went from one of the hottest properties in the sport, to perhaps its biggest enigma. He was a man who had everything, yet seemed to appreciate nothing. In the end, it would take the shock of a major injury and the perspective born of fatherhood, to bring Kevin back from the brink.
Chapter 2-Into the Wilderness
In the fall of 1998, Yamaha came out with this ad campaign for their ’99 YZ lineup. The piece featured all of Yamaha’s Factory riders next to their perspective mounts, in an Old West motif. Unfortunately, by the time most readers saw the ad, the word was out that Windham was headed to Honda for ’99. At the end of the year, Yamaha would sue Kevin for breach of contract and sight damages tied to the embarrassment of including him in the ads.
In the spring of 1998, things were looking very good for Team Yamaha and Kevin Windham. He was coming off two wins in his rookie 250 SX campaign and looked well positioned to give series champ Jeremy McGrath a run for his money in ’99. With that in mind, the two parties made verbal agreements and signed a letter of intent for the 1999 and 2000 seasons. For Yamaha, the Windham gamble had paid off with two 125 SX titles and several 250 wins. For Kevin, a new contract promised a substantial raise and one of the best bikes on the track in ’99.
During the summer of ’98, however, cracks began to surface between Yamaha and Windham. Troubles on the track spilled over into the Yamaha semi and made the working environment unpleasant. Fights between Windham and team manager Keith McCarty over Kevin’s girlfriend, made a difficult season nearly unbearable for all involved. As Windham left the series due to injury in August, the two had yet to actually sign a contract for ’99.
According to legal documents later filed, Kevin was originally promised a new contract by no later than June 30th, 1998. When this deadline passed, Windham contacted McCarty and was told he would have the contract to him by July 20th, 1998. As this deadline came and went, tensions continued to rise under the Yamaha tent. By the time the third deadline passed in August, Windham was beginning to be concerned that his run-ins with McCarty could be causing issues with the new contract.
After the last deadline on August 7th, Windham began pursuing other options. In mid-August he contacted Honda about the possibility of riding for them in ’99. Honda made Kevin an offer (reportedly significantly less than what he had originally been offered by Yamaha) and on August 16th, 1998 Windham signed with Honda for the ’99 and ’00 seasons. In late August, the promised Yamaha contract arrived, but the new deal had been greatly restructured from the original letter of intent. There were changes to Kevin’s earning potential that had not been discussed and restrictions on his ability to solicit outside sponsors. At this point, Kevin declined to sign the new agreement and went forward with plans to ride red in ’99.
In ’99, K-Dub would get off to a slow start on the Honda’s. He would struggle through the early rounds, before righting the ship late in year. By series’ end, he would claim two victories and end up seventh in overall points.
To say this change did not go over well with Yamaha would be a major understatement. Over the winter, Yamaha filed a lawsuit against Windham for breach of contract. They claimed that they had followed through with their original agreement and endured lost revenue due to the negative publicity of featuring Windham in promotional ads for their ’99 lineup.
The lawsuit would drag on for months, with Windham petitioning for a change of venue to Mississippi (where Kevin lived and had signed his agreements). The litigation would be a hot topic of conversation throughout the ’99 Supercross season and not be settled until the summer of ’99. Eventually, Yamaha and Windham would agree to settle out of court (the details of the settlement were never made public) and end their rather public feud.
On the track, there is little doubt that the ongoing litigation made for an unwanted distraction for Windham. In Supercross, Kevin’s results would only improve slightly on his new Honda’s. He would once again suffer from arm pump and fading while up front, causing many to question his fitness. During the ’99 season, Kevin would claim two main event wins and better his overall standings by one position to seventh. The championship would of course go to his old employer Yamaha, who would back Jeremy McGrath to his seventh Supercross title.
In the Outdoor Nationals, things would get off to a rough start for Windham. In the first moto of the year, he would crash on one of the massive Glen Helen downhills and badly bruise his thigh. As a result, the #14 would pull out of the moto and start off the season with a DNF. In the second moto, Kevin would fare better with a fourteenth, ending the day in seventeenth overall. This would be a difficult way to start the season for the Honda rider.
After a rough start at round one, the season would get better for Windham. He would win four 250 Nationals and end up being the fastest rider in the series. Unfortunately, he would never quite recover from his pull-off in California and finish the season in second behind Suzuki’s Greg Albertyn. For Windham, the highlight of the ’99 season would come at an event that he was not even supposed to race.
In Kevin’s first year at Factory Honda, he would win a total of four Outdoor Nationals and just miss out on the 250 title. Although Windham was often the fastest rider in the class, a DNF at the opening round would be too much for him to overcome. RacerX photo
In the fall of ’99, the 250 United States Motocross Grand Prix was set to make its first appearance in the US in five years. After successful running’s in 92, 93 and 94, the event had been taken off the schedule in the mid-nineties. The ’99 USGP would mark the return of international motocross to Budds Creek, and an opportunity to avenge two stinging losses at the ’97 and ‘98 Motocross des Nations.
Coming into the event, the majority of American stars had declined to even participate in the race. After a grueling SX and MX season (which consisted of double the races of the GP calendar), most US based riders were more interested in going to the lake than eating roost all day. When you added in the fact than most of them were not contractually obligated to attend, you can see the problem.
This was a far cry from the heyday of the seventies and eighties, when the USGP was the most prestigious event on the whole calendar. In those days the Euro’s were King and we were mostly back markers. As the pendulum of power began to swing, however, the race began to lose its prestige. By the time 1999 rolled around, the USGP had become an afterthought to US riders and fans alike. Interestingly, it would take a taunt from the GOAT of Europe to coax the Americans into action.
Only two weeks before the event, three time World Motocross Champion Stefan Everts would publicly challenge the American riders and call them cowards for not coming out to race. This questioning of American honor would hit a cord with Honda team advisor Jeff Stanton (a three time USGP champion in his own right) and his rider Kevin Windham. The two would make inquiries to Honda about arranging a last minute appearance in the race, and within days be packing their bags for Maryland.
I have no idea…
Even though many of the top Americans declined to race, the Budds Creek event certainly did not lack for excitement. In addition to all the Everts vs. USA talk, you had the high drama of a nail-biting finish in the 250 GP class. With Budds being the final round of the series, either Germany’s Pit Beirer (who had surrendered the points lead at the previous round) or France’s Frédéric Bolley, would be crowned champ (Everts was out of contention after missing most of the series with a wrist injury). With all this drama, the USGP promised to be a barnburner.
In the first moto, it would be the trash-talking Belgian with the holeshot. He would pull out a substantial lead and ride away to an uncontested victory in the Maryland sun. For Windham, the first moto would be a frustrating slog through the pack. He would start in tenth and have trouble making passes on the overly smooth FIM prepped track. At the checkers, it would be a flawless Everts, followed by the expatriate Ryan Hughes and Windham.
In the second moto, the roles would be reversed. Grabbing the holeshot would be the #99 of David Vuillemin, followed by the #214 of Windham. This time, it would be Everts who was mired in the pack. Out front, DV would set the pace early, with Kevin in tow. Near the halfway point, K-Dub would push past Le Cobra in one of the many tricky off-camber turns and take over the lead. From there, the Team Honda rider would not be challenged and roost away to the second moto victory.
Everts would back up his first moto win with a hard earned third in the second heat. That would be enough to give Windham the overall victory on the basis of his second moto win. In the title fight, it would be the Honda of Bolley who would spray the champagne of victory and take the 1999 250 World Motocross title over Beirer. On the podium, Windham would soak in the victory wrapped in Old Glory. When asked, the ever-gracious Everts would concede that Kevin had gotten the better of him on this day. For Windham, the USGP victory would be sweet redemption for a season of turmoil and lost opportunities.
At the end of the ’99 season, Windham would be picked for his first Motocross des Nations team. The race would be held in Indaiatuba, Brazil and team Windham with Ricky Carmichael and Mike LaRocco. In the race, RC would experience DNF’s in both moto’s and America would go down to its third MXDN defeat in a row.
The year 2000 would prove to be a solid, if unspectacular year for Windham. He would again struggle with the mental part of his game and look very much like a guy who was coasting on his talent at times. All year, he would be just off the pace of eventual champ McGrath and finish the season in fourth place. Outdoors would prove more of the same, as Kevin claimed several podiums, but lacked the raw speed and focus to run with RC. For Kevin, 2000 would be his worst season since his rookie year, with his only victory coming at the Dallas Supercross. At the end of the year, Honda and Kevin would agree to part company after their two year relationship. For Windham, who had continued to struggle with arm pump and fading on the CR’s, a change of scenery seemed in order. Unfortunately, the problem would prove to be more within, than without, and the new bikes would change little for the incredibly gifted rider.
At the end of the 2000 season, Windham would make the jump to Roger DeCoster’s Factory Suzuki team for 2001(for a reported $825,000 per year). He would be pared with the reigning 125 National Champion Travis Pastrana and be riding Suzuki’s all-new RM250. In Supercross, the 23-year-old would struggle to keep pace with Kawasaki’s Ricky Carmichael (who had finally figured Supercross out after two years of drilling himself into the turf). His best finishes would be seconds at New Orleans and St. Louis. By the end of the series, he would claim four podiums and once again finish in fourth overall.
In the outdoors, things would go better for the #14 Suzuki. Windham would prove far more competitive and garner a total of six moto victories. At Washougal, Windham and Carmichael would engage in a titanic dual that would have the 10,000 Washington fans lining the scenic track in an absolute frenzy. In both motos, Windham would run down the #4 from behind (something NO ONE did at the time) and blast away to uncontested victories. It was just the kind of performance that had become the hallmark of Kevin’s career. When the stars aligned and he felt “on”, no rider in the world could touch him. More often than not, however, the Cajun could not pull it together when it mattered.
On the Suzuki’s, Kevin was still the same smooth and stylish rider that had captured the industries imagination seven years before. In the light of day, the incredibly talented 23-year-old was nearly untouchable. Under the stadium lights at night, however, he was a mere shell of his Superman self. Joe Bonnello photo.
By 2001, tales of Windham’s practicing prowess had become legendary in the pro pits. When the lights were not on, he could nail the same line for 20 laps straight, never varying his time more than a tenth of a second. When the pressure was on, however, Kevin would fall to pieces. The worst part of all this, was of course, the fact that Windham obviously had the speed to make it happen. If he had been a perennial back marker, no one would have cared. The fact, however, that at any time he could pull out a performance like Washougal, made team after team want to take a gamble on him. Speed, as they say, covers up a multitude of sins.
In a sport like motocross, teams have always been ready to overlook a lot of nonsense for a guy who could lay down a searing lap. It doesn’t matter if your Ron Lechien or Jason Lawrence, if you have raw, blistering speed, you are going to get a lot more rope than a solid journeyman. In those cases, the hard part is making sure the riders do not use that extra rope to hang themselves.
The highlight of Kevin’s stint at Suzuki would come at the Washougal round of the 2001 Outdoor season. In one of the all-time head scratching performances, Windham would come from behind in both moto’s and check out on the nearly unbeatable Ricky Carmichael. It was a ride that would only make Kevin’s usual uninspired performances all the more puzzling.
For teams, the question has always been, “what do you do”? While it is not always apparent from the tenth row of the stands, personnel in and around a team can see very clearly when a guy is getting off-track. Sometimes, it is a 17-year-old kid being consumed by the crazy Southern California lifestyle, and sometimes it is a long-time veteran loosing himself to drugs and alcohol. No matter the circumstances, it can be very hard for a team to right that ship. The sport is littered with tails of these downward spirals, and in 2002, Kevin Windham was knee deep into one of his own.
Early in 2002, it was pretty obvious something was not right in the Windham camp. He was seen partying to excess regularly and spending huge sums of money on all sorts of frivolous expenses. Before the start of the season, Kevin had fired his trainer, but the change did nothing for his results on the track. In ’01, he had been off the lead pace, but solid most weeks. In 2002, however, Kevin was a mess come main event time. In Anaheim, Kevin went from leading the main early to fading back to tenth at the finish, all without a crash. His arm pump issues were back even worse than ever, as his finishes continued to deteriorate every week. By round six, the situation was bad enough that DeCoster benched Windham for the evening. For all those involved, it was pretty obvious that something was going to have to give.
After the ’01 season, Kevin would be picked for his second Motocross des Nations team. Unfortunately, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 would preclude America’s participation in the event. For Windham, the terrorist attacks would have far reaching repercussions. He would develop a phobia of flying commercial and spend the next six years of his career paying astronomical sums to fly privately.
For Windham, that breaking point would come at round eight in the Georgia Dome. In practice during the afternoon, Travis Pastrana and a few other riders were stretching the tricky rhythm section that crossed over the start straight into a quad. The jump was sketchy to be sure, and not everyone was even attempting the massive leap. At the end of practice, Windham would decide to take one more circuit around the track and on his final attempt, clip the landing of the quad. The mistake would send Kevin sprawling into the red Georgia clay with a snapped femur.
Thus would end Kevin’s career with Suzuki. The crash would put an end to Windham’s year, and in many minds, his career. After being one of the hottest young properties in motocross, Kevin had become synonymous with missed opportunities and wasted talent. For Windham, the crash would be the catalyst for a career renaissance that would see him reinvent his image on and off the track. After years of stumbling in the dark, the kid from Baton Rouge would finally find his direction and come back better than ever.
Next Up- Part 3 – Family, Fans and Transfers