Second Coming: Kevin Windham is the TransWorld Motocross Racer of the Year

By Donn Maeda

They say that everyone loves an underdog, but Kevin Windham’s popularity runs much, much deeper than that. Having spent the previous year-and-a-half in a semi-retired state with a broken femur and a serious case of burnout, K-Dub was warmly welcomed back into the racing community when he began his parade lap at the Glen Helen National last May.

“It was amazing,” remembers Windham. “There wasn’t a single section of the track that didn’t have some fans leaning over the fence, screaming for me or swinging their shirts above their heads. I knew that I was happy to be back, but I never expected the fans to be so thrilled.”

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In the September issue of TransWorld Motocross we asked readers to submit their votes for their favorite rider, using official ballots that were bound into each magazine. Unlike other rider awards which are decided by a committee, race results alone, or in some cases, an editor, the TWMX Racer of the Year Award is decided by the fans exclusively. Thousands of ballots flooded our editorial offices and in the end it was Kevin Windham who stood head-and-shoulders above the rest…

February 23, 2002, Atlanta, Georgia

During practice at the Georgia Dome, Windham attempted to quadruple a tricky jump section aboard his factory Suzuki RM250, but came up short and suffered a horrendous crash in which he snapped his femur, one of the most dreaded injuries in all of motocross. As he lay on the track waiting for the medics, an unexpected emotion came over him.

“When I crashed and broke my femur, I realized that it was almost a sort of relief,” said Windham. “Up until that point I had been having a terrible season, and if that injury hadn’t taken me out, I firmly believe that I would have taken myself out of the season before it was through.”

In the seven races that preceded Atlanta, K-Dub showed blazing speed during practice and in his heat races but failed to deliver in any of the main events. In fact, his best result was a sixth at round two, well below the expectations placed on him by not only his employers and fans, but himself, as well.

“Racing requires a lot of confidence, and that season I could pretty much coast through the heat races because they are only 10 laps,” said Windham. “But when I was sitting there on the starting line for the main event, I knew that I didn’t have it in me to run 20 laps strong. I knew that I hadn’t put in the preparation during the week to deliver.”

With those days well behind him, Windham can now look back and openly admit that he was not training. Personal demons, a lack of motivation, and an ever-growing distaste for the week-in, week-out rigors of professional racing left Windham distracted and unhappy at the track. So bad was his personal funk that his Suzuki bosses even grounded him for a race. “They told me to take a weekend off to get my head straight,” remembers Windham. “Looking back, I can understand why they did that. Everyone around me was putting in 100%, but I wasn’t living up to my end of the bargain. They benched me to show me that they were not happy with the effort I was putting in.”

Two weeks later, Windham benched himself for good at Atlanta and retreated to his Centerville, Mississippi, home. While he healed, K-Dub spent his time enjoying some of the things that he largely missed out on while growing up. “I didn’t train, I ate what I wanted, and I got drunk a hell of a lot,” he said. “I got big, never thought about racing, and pretty much decided that I wasn’t coming back for the 250cc Nationals. I never officially announced my retirement, though, because I was never really 100% sure deep down inside.”

It was strange how Windham’s absence fm the ’02 250cc Nationals went largely unnoticed, most likely because of Ricky Carmichael’s mythical perfect season, but the sport was simply not the same without his graceful, effortless style on the track and his warm personality in the pits. Windham proved unreachable by the media during his reclusion from the moto society, but rumors of a potential return began to surface in early ’03.

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“I realized that I need competition in my life,” said Windham, who also became a father during his temporary stint with retirement. “Lots of things changed for me when I was away, and when my head was clear I decided that returning to racing was what I really and truly wanted to do. When I finally announced my return, I was recharged and excited to get back on the track. In a way, that broken femur was a blessing in disguise.”

May 12, 2003, San Bernardino, CA

As Windham circulated the Glen Helen track aboard his shiny new Factory Connection/Lee Dungarees/Honda CRF450R, it was crystal clear that he was the darling of the record crowd on hand for the series kickoff. As the last rider to beat Carmichael in a 250cc National–at Washougal in 2001–Windham was considered by many to be the rider to prevent another RC sweep. Though he failed to win at Glen Helen, he did show flashes of speed–RC-caliber speed, at that–and served notice that Kevin Windham was, indeed, back and ready for action. Only one week later, Windham won the first moto at Hangtown in runaway fashion, book-ending Carmichael’s incredible 27-moto win streak.

“It felt great to be the last and first rider to beat Ricky,” said Windham. “But in the second moto I made another rusty mistake and threw away my chances of the overall.”

Though his moto win at Hangtown was proof that he still had it, five long races passed before Windham again defeated Ricky. “Some people might have thought that I lost my confidence during that time, but I actually did have some confidence boosters in there,” said Windham. “I kept RC honest at Mt. Morris, and I finished third at Southwick which for me is great, because I am no good in the sand.”

When the tour rolled into the rough, hilly Unadilla circuit in upstate New York, though, Windham knew from the moment he woke up that that would be his day. “On practice day I was consistently faster than Ricky, and that was something I had never done before,” he said. “Going into that race, I felt as if things were going to happen.”

And happen they did. Windham scored a runaway win in the first moto, leaving RC in his dust, just like he did a couple of months earlier at Hangtown. “To win by such a large margin felt great, my times were all faster than Ricky’s, and I was riding really smooth,” said Windham. “I don’t know what that kid does in between motos, but he came back like a bulldog in the second race and I had to ride at 110% the whole time. He’s the toughest competitor around, that’s for sure.”

In the second moto, K-Dub and RC were never separated by more than a few bike-lengths as the Honda duo pulled well away from the rest of the field. When the checkers flew, however, it was again Windham with the moto and overall wins. RC’s remarkable win streak had finally been stopped, some 103 weekends after Windham last beat him at Washougal ’01.

Gracious in defeat, RC commented, “Kevin rode fantastic. If anything, I’m pumped by the way I rode! I’d have liked to have won, but it was so much fun to be behind Kevin and watch him ride. He is so smooth and graceful on the bike…”

Rolling into the beautiful Washougal MX Park in the Pacific Northwest, the pressure on Windham to repeat his ’01 win was at an all-time high, especially considering the way in which he had defeated Ricky at Unadilla the previous weekend. “Everyone was expecting Washougal to be the race at which I stopped Ricky,” said Windham. “It just so happened that I did it one weekend early, but that made me feel like I absolutely had to win at Washougal!”

Windham fulfilled the expectations placed on him, and then some, by dominating both motos in runaway fashion, making it look like child’s play as he inched farther and farther away from Carmichael and the rest of the pack on his thundering CRF450R.

Though he didn’t taste victory again in 2003, Windham ended the season ranked second in the 250cc Nationals and was the only man besides Carmichael to win an overall. Ironically enough, it was this season that K-Dub regards as the best of his career.

“The 2003 season was, for sure, the best year of my racing career; better even than the years I won my 125cc Supercross titles, better than the years I won a bunch more races,” he said. “To come back with a clear head and the desire to actually be out there doing what I was doing was like getting a new lease on life. I had a blast and I am looking forward to more of the same in 2004. Right now, my whole life is geared towards January.”

Remember the rabid fans that we mentioned at the start of this article? Well, race after race in State after State, Windham was greeted with the same warm welcome at each passing National. “When I was riding my parade lap at Glen Helen, I was thinking to myself, ‘Man, this is great! I hope it isn’t just like this at the first race!’” said Windham. “I was happy to see that there were lots of fans just like that at every race. People would come up to me in the pits and tell me how glad they were to see me racing again, and I would tell them that they had no idea how good it felt to be racing again! I know that I’ve always had some awesome fans, but it seems that nowadays I have more than ever. For a racer who devotes his entire life to this sport, I can tell you that being a fan favorite sure means a lot.”

Congratulations, Kevin. It’s good to have you back.

 

How the Votes Stacked Up

Kevin Windham 29%

James Stewart 18.2%

Ricky Carmichael 16.8%

Chad Reed 8%

Ryan Hughes 7%

Travis Pastrana 6.4%

Grant Langston 2.2%

Mike LaRocco 1.8%

Tim Ferry 1%

Mike Brown .8%

Others 8.8%

Ricky at Unadilla the previous weekend. “Everyone was expecting Washougal to be the race at which I stopped Ricky,” said Windham. “It just so happened that I did it one weekend early, but that made me feel like I absolutely had to win at Washougal!”

Windham fulfilled the expectations placed on him, and then some, by dominating both motos in runaway fashion, making it look like child’s play as he inched farther and farther away from Carmichael and the rest of the pack on his thundering CRF450R.

Though he didn’t taste victory again in 2003, Windham ended the season ranked second in the 250cc Nationals and was the only man besides Carmichael to win an overall. Ironically enough, it was this season that K-Dub regards as the best of his career.

“The 2003 season was, for sure, the best year of my racing career; better even than the years I won my 125cc Supercross titles, better than the years I won a bunch more races,” he said. “To come back with a clear head and the desire to actually be out there doing what I was doing was like getting a new lease on life. I had a blast and I am looking forward to more of the same in 2004. Right now, my whole life is geared towards January.”

Remember the rabid fans that we mentioned at the start of this article? Well, race after race in State after State, Windham was greeted with the same warm welcome at each passing National. “When I was riding my parade lap at Glen Helen, I was thinking to myself, ‘Man, this is great! I hope it isn’t just like this at the first race!’” said Windham. “I was happy to see that there were lots of fans just like that at every race. People would come up to me in the pits and tell me how glad they were to see me racing again, and I would tell them that they had no idea how good it felt to be racing again! I know that I’ve always had some awesome fans, but it seems that nowadays I have more than ever. For a racer who devotes his entire life to this sport, I can tell you that being a fan favorite sure means a lot.”

Congratulations, Kevin. It’s good to have you back.

 

How the Votes Stacked Up

Kevin Windham 29%

James Stewart 18.2%

Ricky Carmichael 16.8%

Chad Reed 8%

Ryan Hughes 7%

Travis Pastrana 6.4%

Grant Langston 2.2%

Mike LaRocco 1.8%

Tim Ferry 1%

Mike Brown .8%

Others 8.8%