To those of you with decades of motorcycle experience, Bill Cervera is no stranger. You have seen his products on everything from the dirt track monsters of the 80s to the factory Hondas, Suzukis, and Yamahas of the 90s, and maybe even had a product bearing his name bolted onto your bike. For the others with less time invested in moto, here is your history lesson on one of the men that was deeply involved during the sport’s fastest growing time.
Since his graduation from high school until present day, Cervera has learned everything there is to know about motorcycles exhaust systems. He built his own dynometer to accurately chart the power his welded pipes created, mapped said charts by hand, worked in a number of disciplines of off-road racing, and fielded a factory supported race team, which would ultimately become the setback to his years of progress. The financial burden of investing in a team and then having it fold without warning essentially made the company disappear from the motocross market place, but Cervera has continued on and is now on the verge of launching a comeback of sorts.
Where did you get your start making exhaust systems?
When I was right out of high school, I started working for a company called J&R Exhaust Systems. They were back in the DG days, and when two-strokes were still on the street and they were doing a lot of that stuff. I worked there for a couple of years and was riding motorcycles at the same time, and I liked what I was doing and got so involved that I learned everything I could. Pretty soon, I was showing them how to do things. Then the company was bought out and I had to split off and do things on my own in the garage. At the time, I was really interested in dirt track racing and I built exhaust systems for my friends in that. My first employee was a kid named Wayne Rainey, and we started to go to races together, along with our first test rider, Eddie Lawson. We all got together and it allowed us to progress quickly with product, because I was testing with quality guys and working in my garage. We were approached by some of the bigger guys at the time and as it came along, we were approached by some of the factories, such as American Honda. They were in dirt track racing and I was invited to go to their facility in Oakdale, which was by Kenny Robert's place. It went on and on like that, doing dirt track stuff for a long time, and then I was able worked in Honda's facility doing development. This was quite a while ago, when Chuck Sun was riding one of their bikes. They had me build pipes for their motocross bikes, which went to Anaheim, and I learned a lot then. There were no computers or Internet, so I'd go to the library to read on how things work.
Your history in dirt track racing is extremely impressive, as you worked with a number of world champions and icons in that time. Who are some of the others that you worked for?
We did a lot of work with Jerry Branch and Harley Davidson; two of our big riders were Hank Scott and Gary Scott in those days. We did a lot of Harley things and then moved from four-strokes into two-strokes. We would go to all of the big events, and at that time I had already met my wife and my stepson, Jeff Springman, who was another dirt track racer at the time, and we went on to win a lot of amateur championships. Dirt track was a lot of fun and I was able to work with a lot of the big guys. At one time we had Kenny Roberts on a Yamaha, Factory Honda, and Factory Kawasaki, and we dominated the two-stroke classes. It got me more involved and I started doing things with Shell Thuet. It went on like that for a while and started to be killed when the 500s came along, but we began to do a lot of ATV things and three-wheelers until they got killed, too.
In the garage, I was doing a lot of ATV stuff and this kid I was seeing around town came in, and his name was Mitch Payton. He came over one day and said, "I'm just starting Pro Circuit and I need to build some pipes. Can you guys do it?" We got together and I built some two-stroke things for him, and that is how he got started in pipes. He told me that he had a friend that needed a job and asked if I could hire him in the garage, and that turned out to be Troy Lee. We became really good friends, and still are. My stepson, Troy, and Mitch became best friends and were getting in trouble all of the time together.
We were racing quads and doing the Mickey Thompson races by building motors and exhausts for the Superlites and the quads for a company called Nature's Recipe. They were the big guys in the series and they hired a kid from El Cajon named Jimmie Johnson and another named Casey Mears to drive for them. Those two were coming out of the 16 and 17 year old class. It was pretty neat to be involved with it and at the time you didn't know what would happen, because he was a kid.
What happened to dirt track racing that killed it off?
When dirt track changed to 500cc single-cylinder bikes, it killed the sport. You could buy a motocross bike and convert it with store bought products, wheel changes, and suspension and go racing. Honda had me make kits that consisted of a motor, ignition, a pipe, and a carb for under a thousand dollars that they stocked in dealers. We were making all of the pipes for that and Honda was stocking them for us in all of the dealers, and that really accelerated the sport until the change. Now it is so expensive with four-stroke engines that it killed it again.
You mentioned you worked with Honda in dirt track racing and started into motocross with Chuck Sun. What were the next steps in motocross after that?
Chuck Sun and Jimmy Ellis were on the Honda team at the time, and that was our starting point. We began to do things for the Honda team and I got my name involved there.
In 1990, Yamaha was looking for someone to build pipes for their new kid coming out of the 125 class named Damon Bradshaw. They gave bikes to Pro Circuit and gave me the motor because I had a motor dyno, and to make a long story short, they used a Bill's Pipe on Damon Bradshaw's bike that year. That was my first big "hit," of being on the factory bike of a star. Yamaha has GTY-R now, but they wanted to build some YZ-R parts and I did that for them. We moved from the garage into a small building and Troy was working part-time for us, but he wanted to start painting helmets. In 1992, Yamaha came along and asked if I would be interested in doing a project with another kid, Doug Henry. We worked every day, Saturdays and Sundays, and we were on it because we had team trucks out in front of our shop. It went from there when we started winning races. It (the success) didn't really dawn on me until just recently, when people started saying, "Oh, I remember you when you built that!" I was just going along and building things I enjoyed.
Steve Lamson came along and we worked on that project for five years and won a lot of 125 championships. Mitch and I were good friends and we'd call each other up, "Mitch, congratulations!" "Bill, congratulations!" We kept it in the family and had a really good time. It was motivating and I couldn't wait to get to work to build new things.
Honda asked if I knew someone who could get a sponsor. I said that I could and I talked to a friend of mine, and we made Primal Impulse. We got in with Honda and ran the satellite team for three years. Then they decided that they were going to go with FMF because they had a bigger presence in racing, and that was fine. They told me this on a Thursday, and on Friday, my phone rang. It was Roger DeCoster on a plane. He told me, "I need to talk to you Monday morning. Don't talk to anybody. I'm on my way to the races, but when I get back I need to come to your shop." He told me Monday that they wanted to do a support team and take what I had over and support it, which made the Primal Impulse Suzuki team. We started to do a lot of Suzuki stuff, like their 125, thanks to Roger. We moved into another building and in 2000, we had the factory with Pastrana and the satellite team running Bill's Pipe. Suzuki in Japan was running them, and it went on and on. We did that for eight years, but then in 2008, two-strokes started to go away. Sales started to drop a bit and after 2005, they dropped drastically. We weren't geared up to change as fast as we needed to change.
It's around that time that Bill's Pipes began to fade. What was the reason?
Suzuki came to us and said that Rockstar would be supplying money and asked if we would like to do a team. I figured this was our way to move on into the four-stroke market, so we took it. The team shop was in our building and we put all of our money into building a nice race shop and semi, just having everything ready. It was a lot of funds paid upfront. They said that they would stay for a couple of years and we didn't sign anything. In 2007, they said they were going with Yoshimura and we were stuck with everything. It left a sour taste in my mouth and everything started to diminish really quickly. Beside that, the economy was taking a hit and two-strokes were going away, so I decided that I needed to do something. We went along for a few years and didn't go to any races because I was tired of it. I was just going to build pipes for other people.
Last year I went to Anaheim One and by going back, I saw my friends. People that were walking along with me said, "Gosh Bill, you know everyone here. You can go in to anywhere." And I said, "Yeah, these are my friends. I was in this arena for years." It was really neat to see all of the people, and I could have cared if I even saw this race event. When you have a team at the races, you run to the truck between motos and see what happens, going back in forth. But when you are not involved and are in the stands, you don't see what happens or what is going on.
Over the past few years, you have had a resurgence of sorts by partnering with Big Gun. How did that come about?
A couple of years ago, a guy named Larry Riggs purchased Big Gun, and he was sharp enough to put it in with the right people of the bat. We were building some pipes for them and they had someone else building others. The quality of pipes they were getting from us were better and we could fit their fill rate better, so we told them to move into our building here in Corona. They brought in the marketing and sales guys in and we set up house. We had gotten it to where we can build all of their ATV, sport utility, and side-by-side while we rebuild the Bill's Pipes line with all of the new models. We are building a new exhaust with a new muffler design that should be out in a few weeks.
We were financially in a hole because we spent all of our money staying alive for a few years. I just had to figure out what I was going to do, and finally things are turning around. I don't think it is as fun yet going to work as it used to be, but it is motivating as Bill's gets stronger. And that is because people say, "I used to run a Bill's Pipe on my bike and I think I should get one for my son to try." I hear it all of the time. Not too many kids know about the history of Bill's Pipes, but their fathers do. As far as going forward, we will be pushing to get a team in Supercross for 2014 and in that direction. Joining up with the Big Gun guys has taken a financial burden off of us and helped both of us move along in different markets. We build everything in-house with our two benders and we have all of the modern equipment.
You have been involved in the sport for such a long period of time. In your opinion, what has been the biggest technological advance: the works bikes of the previous era or the modern four-stroke?
That is a good question. At the time, the two-stroke bikes had magnesium everything and when I worked at Honda, Japan sent us ignitions that were programmable. Unfortunately, they were in Japanese, so we had to learn what they were doing, but the next generation that came over was in English. We were programming ignitions, and that was when Factory Honda was really strong and making anything they wanted. It is now digital again, and I knew that fuel injection would come along eventually. They both have their characteristics. From the works bikes back then to now, you don't see the full "factory" bike like you saw in Jeremy McGrath's two-strokes. I remember one time when we were the support team on Honda and Jeremy's bike was in front of us getting weighed in. His 250 weighed 10 pounds less than our 125. Figure that one out (Laughs). It was bizarre stuff that they had on the bikes, like thin plastics and seats with light foam, and it was really neat to look at because a lot of it was handmade.
After everything that happened with the Rockstar/Bill's Pipes team, you could have turned your back on the sport and stepped away. What kept you making exhausts systems?
It was pretty much all that I knew how to do. I started making exhausts for other people people, because I knew that the quality needed to be there. I don't know what kept me into it, other than that it is all that I know. I thought about selling the building and holing up and working for Dubach maybe, and it crossed my mind a lot of times. I'd be money ahead if I sold the building and the equipment or moved, but I know by looking at my stuff, I could be back. It'll just take a bit of work. Don't get me wrong, I have my moments where I get tired of working everyday, because from the beginning to right there at the top with everyone, but you don't see it at the time because you are working to escalate where you are going.