Mike LaRocco Looks Back on 16 Years of Racing

By Donn Maeda

There’s a saying that goes, “The only things you can count on in life are death and taxes.” We’d like to add a third sure thing to that cliché, though: the only things you can count on in life are death, taxes, and Mike LaRocco. It’s been over 15 years since the quiet kid from Indiana threw his hat into the professional motocross ring, and in that time he’s won races, championships, and countless fans around the globe. Many great riders have come and gone during LaRocco’s time, and he’s seen the sport change drastically during his years on the road. In 2004, LaRocco makes more from his clothing sponsor than he did from Yamaha, his first manufacturer sponsor.

Now in the twilight years of his career, LaRocco finds himself still very competitive and more popular than ever with the fans. Just before this issue went to press, LaRocco scored a hometown win at the Indianapolis SX that had all 47,000 fans on hand screaming their heads off for the Indiana native. It seems almost ironic that “Iron Mike,” the strongest, hardest-charging rider on the circuit, is opting to finish out his final two seasons as a Supercross-only rider. Though one would assume that the brutal, strength-sapping world of the outdoor Nationals would be LaRocco’s forte, he is quick to admit that he just can’t hold the pace required to be a front-runner anymore.We sat down with the 33-year-old rider in his new Corona, California, home to reflect upon each of the 16 seasons of his glorious career, and here’s what we learned…

1988
3rd Eastern Region 125cc Supercross Championship
7th 125cc National Championship

After competing in a handful of 125cc Nationals the previous year, LaRocco landed a Yamaha support ride and jumped headfirst into life on the road as a professional motocross racer. At the time, he was still getting his feet wet and didn’t know quite what to expect from himself.

“At that point in my career, I had done all of the big amateur Nationals and won a couple of championships, but I didn’t think that my career potential was as good as it has turned out to be. I remember finishing third overall in the 125cc Supercross series behind Todd DeHoop and Mike Jones, the freestyle rider.”I think I got on the podium in one of the Supercrosses, and I won a 125cc National moto. I got the holeshot… How funny is that? I traveled in a motor home to all of the races because a support ride then wasn’t like it is nowadays!”

1989
2nd Western Region 125cc Supercross Championship
14th 250cc Supercross Championship
5th 125cc National Championship

Following his great rookie season, LaRocco enjoyed more support from Yamaha and was considered one of Yamaha’s official 125-class riders. Riding a factory bike and decked out in Yamaha’s official YZR race gear, Mike also got his feet wet in 250cc Supercross at the East Coast events, and even scored a podium finish at the New Jersey SX. In the 125cc Nationals, LaRocco earned a moto win at his home track: Red Bud.

“My confidence came up a little bit at this point, and I expected to do well. School was getting really hard because I missed so much due to travel. I remember it being a big struggle trying to graduate, but I took some home classes and I got my diploma. Looking back, I’m glad I finished, but I don’t think I missed out on any of the high school experience or anything. I was the mysterious kid in high school because I was never there. I spent the winters in Florida so I could ride, so I was a half—timer at the two schools I attended. Everyone thought I raced BMX, because I had these big calluses on my hands!” 1990
7th 250cc Supercross Championship
3rd 250cc National Championship
8th 125cc National Championship

LaRocco accepted a full factory offer from Team Suzuki to contest the 250cc class full time, and he hit the road in his own factory box van with his father as his mechanic. At the end of the outdoor season, Mike scored his first-ever National wiin the 125cc class at Millville.

“I didn’t do that well in Supercross, but the 250cc Nationals went better. Back then, the 125cc Nationals went all season long, but the 250s and 500s were split in half. Because Suzuki didn’t make a 500, I spent the rest of the season on a 125. That year, I won the Millville 125cc National and got my first taste of victory.”I remember wondering what the Suzuki guys were thinking that year with those spotted seat covers, but looking at this photo I can see that I was wearing pink, so I wasn’t exactly straight-up, either! Larry Ward and I both signed with Suzuki that year, and that was when I gave him his nickname. We were doing our handout photos and he was wearing all yellow gear with his big blonde mullet, so I branded him Big Bird.”

1991
9th 250cc Supercross Championship
5th 250cc National Championship
12th 125cc National Championship

LaRocco’s overall rankings dropped a bit in ’91, but he also celebrated his first 250cc Supercross win in Las Vegas. Known by then as a poor starter who put on one hell of a charge through the pack, LaRocco scored an uncharacteristic holeshot and ran away with his first win. Later that year, he picked up two more 125cc National wins when the 250cc series ended.

“I haven’t ever told anyone this before, but at Las Vegas I lined up next to the starter’s doghouse. There was a little gap in the wood, and I could see the guy in there dropping the gate. I saw him move, so I took off and I got the holeshot. Everything went my way that night and I got my first win. That gap in the box was on the down-low, though!

“My speed was coming up that year. My results went down overall, but I was getting quicker. I was taking more chances and crashing out, but I was really coming into my own. I would have won more races than it shows, but I helped Guy Cooper win the championship that year. It was a little bit of friendship and a little bit of team orders, but I pulled over on several occasions and let Guy pass me. I look back now when everyone starts counting race wins and sometimes I think, ‘Hey, hey! I could have had more!'”

1992
6th 250cc Supercross Championship
2nd 125cc National Championship

Kawasaki made Mike an offer he couldn’t refuse for 1992 and he switched. Slated as the team’s number-one rider, LaRocco felt that he was ready to carry the weight of an entire team on his shoulders. His season started off with a bang as he won the Orlando Supercross series opener, but injury cut his SX series short. His main focus that year, however, was to win the 125cc National Championship. As a 250 rider for the previous three seasons, everyone, including Mike himself, expected him to win the 125cc title outdoors.

“I battled in the 125cc Nationals with Jeff Emig that year. I would win one moto and he would win the other. I was leading by 60 points going into the last two races, but then the bottom fell out. I crashed in the first moto at Steel City, caught up all the way into second, then on the last lap my clutch basket broke and I DNFed. Then in the second moto, I crashed in the first turn again, and my carburetor got knocked out of the airbox boot. The bike would bog when I landed from jumps, and eventually it quit and I got no points again. At the series finale at Budds Creek, I clipped a tire on the side of the track and busted my shifter off. I was stuck in second gear through the whole race and I got a miserable finish. By the second moto, I had a 13-point deficit and I didn’t even want to be out there. At that time, I hadn’t won a title yet, so I didn’t really understand what it felt like to lose it.

“I was picked for the Motocross des Nations team for the first time that year, and Emig, Billy Liles, and I were kind of the ‘B’ team. We ended up winning and surprising a lot of people. That was also the year that Kawasaki busted out with the first motocross semi. It was me, Jeff Ward, Mike Kiedrowski, and Jeff Matiasevich in there. It was pretty neat.”

1993
12th 250cc Supercross Championship
2nd 250cc National Championship
1st 500cc National Championship
LaRocco started off the ’93 Supercross season with another win at Orlando, but again, injury struck and he was sidelined with a busted wrist through the rest of the indoor series. LaRocco scored his second 250cc National win towards the end of that series when his health and speed began to return, and he capped off the year with the 500cc National Championship. It was the first and last time LaRocco contested that series, as it was dropped by the AMA in ’94.

“I started off with a bang in Orlando, but I broke my wrist again at the third or fourth Supercross. I battled with Kiedrowski in the 250cc Nationals, and as I got healthier I found my pace and really started to battle with him. It was awkward being in the same semi after a hard race; I couldn’t come back and bitch and moan about what went on out on the track because he was sitting right across from me.

“I rode a 500 for the first time that year and I really liked the big power. It was only a four-race series and I won two of the Nationals, so I got the title. Jeff Stanton and Jeff Ward won the other two. I miss the Open class; those bikes were a lot of fun. I could actually get some holeshots on those bikes!”At this point in my career, I had that ‘expect to win’ feeling, and that is the best feeling for a racer to have. This is when the ball really started to roll for me.”

1994
2nd 250cc Supercross Championship
1st 250cc National Championship
Armed with a ton of confidence, LaRocco came out swinging in ’94, earning three Supercross wins and finishing second overall behind Jeremy McGrath indoors. With a return to the 250cc class in the Nationals, Mike crushed the competition by winning seven Nationals and earning the championship with a 150-point margin. Until RC’s perfect season in ’02, LaRocco held the record for the most dominating performance.

“Jeremy had it all together in Supercross, but most of the time I felt like I could beat him on speed, but I got horrible starts. Imagine that! In the Nationals, I remember pushing extra hard, thinking, ‘I am not gonna let this kid get his first National win; he kicked my butt in Supercross all season long!'”I won seven out of 12 250cc Nationals that year. My teammate Kiedrowski won the other five, and we had a big rivalry within the team. He was the defending champion and he didn’t like me bumping, rubbing, and beating him.”

1995
6th 250cc Supercross Championship
7th 250cc National Championship
Injury haunted LaRocco again in ’95 as he rebroke his wrist four races into the Supercross series. He returned in time for the Nationals to run the number-one plate and defend his title, but he suffered a horrible injury in a first-turn crash at Millville.

“That was a terrible year for me. Supercross was a wash because I broke my wrist. I came back for the Nationals and won Unadilla, but I got in a first-turn crash at Millville and totally blew my knee out. It was ugly; there were these big tractor tires on the outside of the turn, and I got pinched in between my bike and one of those tires. I tore all but one ligament in my knee. I had two big injuries that year and the bottom just fell out of my season. I’ve always struggled with starts because I am scared of getting into a big first-turn crash, and that had a lot to do with it afterwards.”

1996
6th 250cc Supercross Championship
3rd 250cc National Championship
When Roger DeCoster left Honda to captain the factory Suzuki squadron, he solicited LaRocco to head up his all-new team. Excited to be a part of a big, new effort, Mike made the switch but spent his whole tenure at Suzuki unhappy with the machinery.

“When you are winning, you believe that you can win on anything. At this point, I had won, gotten hurt, won again, then gotte, and Jeff Matiasevich in there. It was pretty neat.”

1993
12th 250cc Supercross Championship
2nd 250cc National Championship
1st 500cc National Championship
LaRocco started off the ’93 Supercross season with another win at Orlando, but again, injury struck and he was sidelined with a busted wrist through the rest of the indoor series. LaRocco scored his second 250cc National win towards the end of that series when his health and speed began to return, and he capped off the year with the 500cc National Championship. It was the first and last time LaRocco contested that series, as it was dropped by the AMA in ’94.

“I started off with a bang in Orlando, but I broke my wrist again at the third or fourth Supercross. I battled with Kiedrowski in the 250cc Nationals, and as I got healthier I found my pace and really started to battle with him. It was awkward being in the same semi after a hard race; I couldn’t come back and bitch and moan about what went on out on the track because he was sitting right across from me.

“I rode a 500 for the first time that year and I really liked the big power. It was only a four-race series and I won two of the Nationals, so I got the title. Jeff Stanton and Jeff Ward won the other two. I miss the Open class; those bikes were a lot of fun. I could actually get some holeshots on those bikes!”At this point in my career, I had that ‘expect to win’ feeling, and that is the best feeling for a racer to have. This is when the ball really started to roll for me.”

1994
2nd 250cc Supercross Championship
1st 250cc National Championship
Armed with a ton of confidence, LaRocco came out swinging in ’94, earning three Supercross wins and finishing second overall behind Jeremy McGrath indoors. With a return to the 250cc class in the Nationals, Mike crushed the competition by winning seven Nationals and earning the championship with a 150-point margin. Until RC’s perfect season in ’02, LaRocco held the record for the most dominating performance.

“Jeremy had it all together in Supercross, but most of the time I felt like I could beat him on speed, but I got horrible starts. Imagine that! In the Nationals, I remember pushing extra hard, thinking, ‘I am not gonna let this kid get his first National win; he kicked my butt in Supercross all season long!'”I won seven out of 12 250cc Nationals that year. My teammate Kiedrowski won the other five, and we had a big rivalry within the team. He was the defending champion and he didn’t like me bumping, rubbing, and beating him.”

1995
6th 250cc Supercross Championship
7th 250cc National Championship
Injury haunted LaRocco again in ’95 as he rebroke his wrist four races into the Supercross series. He returned in time for the Nationals to run the number-one plate and defend his title, but he suffered a horrible injury in a first-turn crash at Millville.

“That was a terrible year for me. Supercross was a wash because I broke my wrist. I came back for the Nationals and won Unadilla, but I got in a first-turn crash at Millville and totally blew my knee out. It was ugly; there were these big tractor tires on the outside of the turn, and I got pinched in between my bike and one of those tires. I tore all but one ligament in my knee. I had two big injuries that year and the bottom just fell out of my season. I’ve always struggled with starts because I am scared of getting into a big first-turn crash, and that had a lot to do with it afterwards.”

1996
6th 250cc Supercross Championship
3rd 250cc National Championship
When Roger DeCoster left Honda to captain the factory Suzuki squadron, he solicited LaRocco to head up his all-new team. Excited to be a part of a big, new effort, Mike made the switch but spent his whole tenure at Suzuki unhappy with the machinery.

“When you are winning, you believe that you can win on anything. At this point, I had won, gotten hurt, won again, then gotten hurt again, so I still believed that I could come back and win after my knee injury. When I came back, my speed wasn’t there and there were some big issues with the bike. My results were bad; even though I won the Washougal National, I started to doubt myself deep down inside and thought that I had lost it. I never really got comfortable with the bike. We were breaking linkage bolts almost every time I rode it, and the power valves were sticking. The bike was slow… I don’t remember too much that I liked about that race bike. I was scared of it and that year ruined my confidence.”

1997
6th 250cc Supercross Championship
5th 250cc National Championship
LaRocco’s nemesis in Supercross, Jeremy McGrath, joined the Suzuki squadron in ’97. Having spent a miserable year on machinery he was unhappy with, LaRocco hoped that Jeremy’s presence on the team would light a spark under the team’s engineers and result in better machinery for everyone.

“The team put all of their emphasis on Jeremy and fixed a lot of things on the bike, and I would say that it helped me overall. Still, I was now the second-tier guy and I continued to struggle with the bike. I had no confidence and I didn’t ever really feel like I could win. At that point, I thought it was all over for me.”

1998
5th 250cc Supercross Championship
3rd 250cc National Championship

Looking for a change, LaRocco hooked up with Rick Zielfelder of reknowned suspension-tuning shop Factory Connection and formed the Factory Connection Honda team. Honda supplied the bikes, but LaRocco received no special parts and was essentially a privateer. Mounted aboard the first-generation aluminum-framed Honda, LaRocco proved that he still had it by moving up in the season standings.”I was at the crossroads, for sure. After two bad seasons on Suzuki I was feeling like I was done, but I was fortunate to hook up with Ziggy. He had watched me throughout his career and thought that I still had it in me, so we hooked up and started that team. I was happy with the new arrangement. I don’t think I even made any salary money that year from anyone; I took what I could get and I just rode because I wanted to. That’s the year that it started coming back. I thought, ‘I can still do this,’ and my confidence ramped up.

“Jack in the Box sponsored our team that year. It was cool because it gave our team some flash, but it wasn’t as glorious as people think. It wasn’t like I could roll into any Jack in the Box and order all the Chicken Whoppers and Turkey Burgers I wanted. (Laughs)”

1999
3rd 250cc Supercross Championship
3rd 250cc National Championship

Honda stepped it up and began to help out the Factory Connection Honda team with better parts and more support, and LaRocco’s results continued to improve. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when he won the Unadilla 250cc National and ended a four-year dry spell.

“Everything was pretty comfortable for me at this point. I liked the bike, I liked the environment I was in, and I liked the people at Honda. At the time, I thought the bike was pretty good, but now that I look back on things, we have come so far with the aluminum chassis that I can’t believe it. ’99 was the year that I started to run the 20″ front tire because I felt that I needed more front-end traction. I stayed with that set up until ’02.”

2000
1st Supercross World Championship
3rd 250cc Supercross Championship
5th 250cc National Championship

During the off-season, LaRocco contested a handful of European Supercross events in an effort to gain some extra bike time before the start of the stateside Supercross season. As it turned out, he earned the FIM Supercross World Championship. The 2000 season marked the arrival of the second-generation aluminum CR frame, and he adapted to it quickly.

“That series (World Championship Supercross) was pretty lame and winning that title was no big deal at all. I’m pretty