Year of the Cobra: The David Vuillemin Interview

David Vuillemin first landed on U.S. shores back in ’96 as a guest of FMF Racing. Having seen the kid in action in Europe, Don Emler and crew imported the French teenager to contest a few rounds of the 125cc West SX Series. As it turns out, that taste of American racing helped shape the teenager’s goals and future aspirations.

“America is known for having the best, most prestigious racing,” says Vuillemin. “I knew very early that my goal was to compete against the best riders in the world, and America is where they are.”

[IMAGE 3]

Now in his second full-time U.S. season, Vuillemin is one of several foreign riders chasing after a coveted AMA number-one plate. Quiet and a little bit shy, Vuillemin has an intensity about him that sometimes comes off as arrogance. Ironically, quite the opposite holds true, and the factory Yamaha rider wants nothing more than to be more popular with American race fans.

“I don’t want to be looked upon as the French rider who wants to beat the Americans,” he says. “I am just another racer who loves riding motorcycles. I am happy to be in America.”

With his unorthodox riding style and tall, lanky build, Vuillemin is quite a sight on the track. The way he crawls all over his bike in an effort to scrub speed over jumps and gain extra traction in corners has earned Vuillemin the nickname “Cobra,” and entering the ’01 season, Vuillemin is certainly one to watch. TransWorld Motocross caught up with Vuillemin at his Corona, California, home to see what he had to say.

TWMX: Was coming to America something you always knew you wanted to do?

DV: Yes, I’ve always wanted to come here, because as a motocross athlete, America is where the most prestigious and famous championships are. Before I decided to come here full-time, I spent one year on the 250cc Grand Prix circuit because I wanted to be fast in the premier class in America. I did not want to come to America full-time to race in the 125cc class. Although I was successful in the World Championships, I never won a 250cc World Championship like some of the other European riders over here, but I still felt that it was the right time to go. I did win four 125cc races and three 250cc races before I left the World Championships.

[IMAGE 2]

TWMX: Why didn’t you want to come and ride the 125cc class here?

DV: Well, again, the 250cc class is the premier class, and I wanted to be competitive from the beginning, so I turned down several 125cc offers in America in ’99 to get some experience on the 250 G.P. circuit. I also wanted to be a little more mature as a person before moving to a new country.

TWMX: Was it easy to go from the 250cc World Championships to the 250cc Nationals here?

DV: No, I think the Nationals are way tougher. Motos are 10 minutes shorter, but the tracks are really rough and more technical here, and the pace is way more intense for the entire time. Everyone is racing each other, rather than a few guys at the top battling.

TWMX: So was it pretty hard to adapt?

DV: Yes, especially the tracks. During practice, it is easy to go really fast, but during the race the tracks get so rough because they prep it by digging deep into the soil, whereas in Europe they just drag the dirt until it’s flat. I had to learn how to set up the bikes correctly.

TWMX: I think that a lot of people don’t realize that last year was your first time riding the National tracks, so every track was new for you…

DV: Yeah, they were all new. I had to learn the tracks in about 10 or 15 minutes during the Saturday practice, but in Europe we had two or three hours on Saturday to learn, so that was tough to get used to. Here, everyone goes wide open from the beginning of practice because most of the riders know the track already, so I had to ride wide open and I got very tight.

TWMX: Everyone assumes that because you’re French, the other French riders like Tortelli and Roncada give you advice about adapting to American tracks. Is that true?

DV: No, don’t think so! We are not riding for the same factories, so there is not as much camaraderie as people assume. We always practice and test at different tracks, so we don’t even see each other that much.

TWMX: How much do your teammates help?

DV: They do help out a bit. When we were testing for Supercross last year, we talked about the tracks and how to set the bikes up for them, but for the majority of things, I learned myself. Jimmy Button and Ernesto Fonseca also helped me out a bit by telling me about the tracks we were going to that weekend or whatever.

TWMX: How did you and Jimmy Button get along?

DV: Jimmy and I were pretty close, and he’s a great guy.

TWMX: Did his injury have any affect on you?

DV: I think it had some affect on everyone. It just shows how dangerous the sport really is, and you can get hurt pretty bad like he did.

TWMX: This year you have Tim Ferry as a teammate. Is it strange having a teammate again after you spent last year mostly alone in the semi?

DV: I think it’s good to have a teammate, so we can talk about the track and our bikes, and also represent our sponsors better.

TWMX: How is your relationship with Jeremy McGrath now? Last year, an interview in a French magazine quoted you as saying that MC is motivated only by money…

DV: It was a little rough after that story came out, but now we are getting close again. We practice together nearly everyday, and when we are out riding we make modifications to the track together and things like that. We discuss bike settings and things, and our relationship is pretty good now.

TWMX: What was the story behind that French interview?

DV: Someone made a translation to him about an interview I did over there, and it became a big story over here. After the French races, when I came back to America, I went to see him and explained what I was saying. We talked about it and I think he understood what I was trying to say in the interview.

TWMX: Was it a bad translation that changed the meaning of what you originally said?

DV: Yes, some of the language I used does not even translate into English, so much of the gossip was incorrect.

TWMX: Do you learn a lot from Jeremy, or does he hold things back from you because he sees you as a big threat to the SX championship?

DV: I don’t know. I think we are both riding pretty good now, and always trying to find new jumps and things. We test together everyday, too, so we are always around each other doing motos. We ride separately on the track and don’t get in each other’s way, but gauge each other’s speed while riding by looking to other sections of the track.

TWMX: What do you expect from yourself in the ’01 Supercross season?

DV: I just want to do better than last year. Last year I did well, but I want to win more races and be closer to fighting for the title.

TWMX: What was your weakness last year?

DV: I don’t know. I think it was a good year in general, but you can always improve. I guess I could be in better shape physically. I also didn’t get to test much prior to the season last year; I got here late and couldn’t test much.

TWMX: Do you think Jeremy has been lucky thus far in his career? He never gets hurt, never gets caught up in crashes…

DV: No, I don’t think that luck has anything to do with it. It’s not about luck, but about skills. MC is always the guy who wants to go faster and improve, which is a very good thing. Every time we ride, he gets his skills and confidence down more and more.

TWMX: You rode well in last year’s 250cc Nationals, but what kept you from doing better?

DV: I don’t know. I had some problems, like some mechanical things that went wrong. At one point, my bike was set up the wrong way, and during the end of the season I also started to get tired. I could not last at 100% for the whole moto.

TWMX: With what you learned last year, what are you doing differently to prepare for 2001?

DV: After the last National, I went back home and stopped practicing and training for a month. I went play riding and bicycling, but just for fun. After that, I raced some French races and saw some friends. I started training hard again around the time of Bercy, which is my home track. It is important for me to race in France, and also important for me to relax.

TWMX: Do you think that 2001 will be the toughest season in a long time?

DV: Yes, I think so. It seems like everyone is healthy, and there are a lot of good guys right now.

TWMX: Who would you name as the biggest threat next season?

DV: I think that Jeremy will be tough, and so will Ricky and Windham. I also think that people have sort of forgotten about Ezra Lusk, too. He’s has some physical trouble, but I think he has the speed to do well.

TWMX: What about Pastrana?

DV: I think he will be very exciting to watch, and if he wants to race hard, he’ll race hard. He’s pretty creative, but also pretty wild, so it will be interesting. I think he brings new blood to the sport, and that’s very good.

TWMX: Do you think that the American riders open up to fans more than the visiting Europeans?

DV: Yes. When I first started to race in America some people told me I was mean, but I am not! It is just different here than it is in Europe. The “American way” to interact with fans is a lot different, and I learned that last year by watching guys like Pastrana.

TWMX: How important is it for you to be popular with the U.S. fans?

DV: It is very important. I don’t know how to get more fans, but I will definitely try. I will be more friendly and expressive with the fans, and hopefully that will help me out. I am also a little shy, so I need to open up a bit more.

TWMX: You live in Corona near many other top pros. What do you think of the lifestyle of the pro racers around you?

DV: Many of them are very flashy people who drive fancy cars and things, but I am not really like that. I don’t have the time! If I had all of the cool toys, I wouldn’t have the time to use them. I want to work hard now and enjoy the lifestyle later in my career.

TWMX: How is your relationship with Craig Monty, your mechanic? Is he just a mechanic, or does he coach and motivate you?

DV: It is pretty good. I don’t see him during the week much, but during testing he sometimes goes to help. He seems really positive, and is good for me. I am really closer to my father, though, when it comes to coaching, and Craig understands that and allows my dad and I to have some space to work together. He is young and sort of a new mechanic, which is good because I am new here, too.

TWMX: Does your family go to all of your races?

DV: Yes, my parents live with me and go to every single race. My dad works with me on my training, the bike, and just gives me advice on everything I have to do. It also makes it nice to be in a new country and not be alone. It would be tough to be here on my own.

TWMX: What do you think of freestyle motocross?

DV: Freestyle is good. Everyone who rides dirt bikes has a passion for riding, and those guys have just as big of a passion as we do. Most of them are ex-racers, and I guess they just lost their love for the racing side and found a new passion on a bike. They still work really hard to be the best. Some of the more extreme guys I don’t like too much, but the clean-cut guys are great. I like Pastrana, Clowers, Metzger, and other guys like that who are good for the sport.

TWMX: Can you do any of the tricks?

DV: No, I’m not very good at it. I can do heel-clickers and stuff, but I don’t really try the other stuff. Maybe if I had the right track, I could, but I just don’t practice it. It takes a whole different skill; different than racing. You must overcome your fear on those big jumps, which is pretty crazy.

[IMAGE 1]TWMX: How do you want to be perceived by an American race fan?

DV: I don’t want to be perceived as the French guy who wants to beat the Americans, I just want to be perceived as a French rider who wants ticing and training for a month. I went play riding and bicycling, but just for fun. After that, I raced some French races and saw some friends. I started training hard again around the time of Bercy, which is my home track. It is important for me to race in France, and also important for me to relax.

TWMX: Do you think that 2001 will be the toughest season in a long time?

DV: Yes, I think so. It seems like everyone is healthy, and there are a lot of good guys right now.

TWMX: Who would you name as the biggest threat next season?

DV: I think that Jeremy will be tough, and so will Ricky and Windham. I also think that people have sort of forgotten about Ezra Lusk, too. He’s has some physical trouble, but I think he has the speed to do well.

TWMX: What about Pastrana?

DV: I think he will be very exciting to watch, and if he wants to race hard, he’ll race hard. He’s pretty creative, but also pretty wild, so it will be interesting. I think he brings new blood to the sport, and that’s very good.

TWMX: Do you think that the American riders open up to fans more than the visiting Europeans?

DV: Yes. When I first started to race in America some people told me I was mean, but I am not! It is just different here than it is in Europe. The “American way” to interact with fans is a lot different, and I learned that last year by watching guys like Pastrana.

TWMX: How important is it for you to be popular with the U.S. fans?

DV: It is very important. I don’t know how to get more fans, but I will definitely try. I will be more friendly and expressive with the fans, and hopefully that will help me out. I am also a little shy, so I need to open up a bit more.

TWMX: You live in Corona near many other top pros. What do you think of the lifestyle of the pro racers around you?

DV: Many of them are very flashy people who drive fancy cars and things, but I am not really like that. I don’t have the time! If I had all of the cool toys, I wouldn’t have the time to use them. I want to work hard now and enjoy the lifestyle later in my career.

TWMX: How is your relationship with Craig Monty, your mechanic? Is he just a mechanic, or does he coach and motivate you?

DV: It is pretty good. I don’t see him during the week much, but during testing he sometimes goes to help. He seems really positive, and is good for me. I am really closer to my father, though, when it comes to coaching, and Craig understands that and allows my dad and I to have some space to work together. He is young and sort of a new mechanic, which is good because I am new here, too.

TWMX: Does your family go to all of your races?

DV: Yes, my parents live with me and go to every single race. My dad works with me on my training, the bike, and just gives me advice on everything I have to do. It also makes it nice to be in a new country and not be alone. It would be tough to be here on my own.

TWMX: What do you think of freestyle motocross?

DV: Freestyle is good. Everyone who rides dirt bikes has a passion for riding, and those guys have just as big of a passion as we do. Most of them are ex-racers, and I guess they just lost their love for the racing side and found a new passion on a bike. They still work really hard to be the best. Some of the more extreme guys I don’t like too much, but the clean-cut guys are great. I like Pastrana, Clowers, Metzger, and other guys like that who are good for the sport.

TWMX: Can you do any of the tricks?

DV: No, I’m not very good at it. I can do heel-clickers and stuff, but I don’t really try the other stuff. Maybe if I had the right track, I could, but I just don’t practice it. It takes a whole different skill; different than racing. You must overcome your fear on those big jumps, which is pretty crazy.

[IMAGE 1]TWMX: How do you want to be perceived by an American race fan?

DV: I don’t want to be perceived as the French guy who wants to beat the Americans, I just want to be perceived as a French rider who wants to race with the best guys in the world. My goal is to race here and do well, but I don’t want to be seen as the guy who just wants to beat the Americans.

TWMX: Does the American media make too big of a deal about nationality?

DV: Maybe a little. Again, I just want to be a guy who races and lives here and loves motocross. Americans must be proud that their riders are the best, and that is why motocross is so big here. The bottom line is that we are all racers, and we love to ride motorcycles.

TWMX: What is more important to you, a motocross title or a Supercross title?

DV: I think that Supercross is more important to most people, including the media, so I’d probably rather win that title. Even the best riders like Ricky Carmichael say that they love winning outdoors, but they want to win Supercross really badly. It is a little more glamorous to win indoors.

TWMX: What are you better at?

DV: Probably Supercross, because I grew up riding Supercross tracks, but I just want my skills to be even at both events. When I was younger, I was not too good at Supercross, but then I started riding more and catching up.

TWMX: What do you think of the racers like Jeremy who only ride Supercross, or Steve Lamson and Ryan Hughes who concentrate on the outdoor races?

DV: I think that Jeremy is in a good place. He likes to only ride indoors, and he has already proven that he can go fast outdoors by winning a championship early in his career, so now he can do what he wants and what makes him happy.

TWMX: Is money a big motivator for you, or is it the sport of it that you like?

DV: Money is part of it, but I have been very loyal to sponsors and have not been greedy. I like to ride motocross, and as long as I am making some money and being paid my value, it is fine. Racing and winning is the most important thing.

TWMX: What do you do with your money?

DV: I am mostly just saving it. I haven’t really bought any toys or anything yet. I’d like to have a big, nice car, but I know that I don’t have time for that sort of stuff. I don’t need additional distractions.

TWMX: Where did you get the nickname “The Cobra?”

DV: It came from the announcer at the Bercy Supercross in France. I used to get very bad starts and was forced to come from behind, like a cobra that attacks from behind. Also, I think it is because I have a unique riding style. I move around on the bike a lot and use lots of body English, so they said I look like a Cobra.

TWMX: Did you know that, according to the Chinese calendar, 2001 is the Year of the Snake?

DV: I didn’t know that. I hope it will be the Year of the Cobra!nts to race with the best guys in the world. My goal is to race here and do well, but I don’t want to be seen as the guy who just wants to beat the Americans.

TWMX: Does the American media make too big of a deal about nationality?

DV: Maybe a little. Again, I just want to be a guy who races and lives here and loves motocross. Americans must be proud that their riders are the best, and that is why motocross is so big here. The bottom line is that we are all racers, and we love to ride motorcycles.

TWMX: What is more important to you, a motocross title or a Supercross title?

DV: I think that Supercross is more important to most people, including the media, so I’d probably rather win that title. Even the best riders like Ricky Carmichael say that they love winning outdoors, but they want to win Supercross really badly. It is a little more glamorous to win indoors.

TWMX: What are you better at?

DV: Probably Supercross, because I grew up riding Supercross tracks, but I just want my skills to be even at both events. When I was younger, I was not too good at Supercross, but then I started riding more and catching up.

TWMX: What do you think of the racers like Jeremy who only ride Supercross, or Steve Lamson and Ryan Hughes who concentrate on the outdoor races?

DV: I think that Jeremy is in a good place. He likes to only ride indoors, andd he has already proven that he can go fast outdoors by winning a championship early in his career, so now he can do what he wants and what makes him happy.

TWMX: Is money a big motivator for you, or is it the sport of it that you like?

DV: Money is part of it, but I have been very loyal to sponsors and have not been greedy. I like to ride motocross, and as long as I am making some money and being paid my value, it is fine. Racing and winning is the most important thing.

TWMX: What do you do with your money?

DV: I am mostly just saving it. I haven’t really bought any toys or anything yet. I’d like to have a big, nice car, but I know that I don’t have time for that sort of stuff. I don’t need additional distractions.

TWMX: Where did you get the nickname “The Cobra?”

DV: It came from the announcer at the Bercy Supercross in France. I used to get very bad starts and was forced to come from behind, like a cobra that attacks from behind. Also, I think it is because I have a unique riding style. I move around on the bike a lot and use lots of body English, so they said I look like a Cobra.

TWMX: Did you know that, according to the Chinese calendar, 2001 is the Year of the Snake?

DV: I didn’t know that. I hope it will be the Year of the Cobra!