Mat Mladin's Yoshimura Suzuki...
Mat Mladin's Yoshimura Suzuki crew, from left to right: Dennis Ackland, Herschel Auxier, Johnny Asher, Mladin, Reg O'Rourke, Peter Doyle
They gathered in the team trailer for the last time within hours of their final race as a team: Peter Doyle, Reg O'Rourke, Herschel Auxier, Johnny Asher, and Dennis "Mega" Ackland. The mostly Australian crew-Auxier is from the U.S., Asher from New Zealand-behind the remarkable success of seven-time AMA Superbike Champion Mat Mladin.
Of the five, O'Rourke has been the longest-serving. The chief mechanic, who worked with Mladin in Australia, came with him to the U.S. in '96 for his first year on the Yoshimura Suzuki. He's been here ever since. Crew chief Doyle, who served on the Muzzy Kawasaki World Superbike title team of Scott Russell, also worked with Mladin when he rode for Kawasaki Australia. Doyle took over as crew chief in '00. Auxier is the self-taught computer and electronics whiz, while Asher started working with Yoshimura in '02; Ackland has been with the team four years.
The discussion was meant to be a retrospective of Mladin's career, but it continued to veer back to the present, which won't go down as the team's favorite year. The Superstock-oriented '09 technical rules were a source of frustration to the team, making the superbike feel less so. Mladin's frustration reached a peak in August when he announced his decision to retire upon returning to his home in Chino, California, after withdrawing from a race for the first time in his career. It came after he rode just a few laps at Heartland Park Topeka, a track whose safety margins in his opinion were well below par.
The transcript that follows isn't complete or entirely faithful to the conversation. Many of the answers were drowned out by laughter or good-natured ribbing. The crew works so well together that their communication is often non-verbal. They know what has to get done and they do it, without fanfare and out of the limelight. The results speak for themselves.
Question: Reg, 14 years ago you came over. What did you expect?
Reg O'Rourke is the veteran...
Reg O'Rourke is the veteran of the Mladin Yoshimura crew. He came over with Mladin in '96 for the pair's first year at Yoshimura Suzuki, after having worked with him back in Australia. He'll be leaving with Mladin as well, returning to Australia.
What did I expect? Jeez. I knew it was going to be tough when we first got over here. Having a little bit of experience of working with some Americans in the World Superbike and stuff. There's lot of good riders over here, so I knew it was going to be a little bit tough. But, in the end, once we got here for a little while and people knew that Mat had an idea of what he was doing and we started building on it and getting a few results.
Q: Mat, what did you expect?
Mat Mladin: I expected to win, really, as soon as I got over here, until I got here and realized how out of whack the whole (Suzuki) setup was. Then just made a change for '97 and won pretty quickly, then realized that I didn't want to stay there. So I went back and started putting a few things together.
Q: When you came back to Yosh, were things a lot better?
RO: Anything we tried to change in '96 sort of went back to the way it was after we left. Then we started leaning on them pretty heavily and turned it around again.
Peter Doyle: Everything always has to change, but it was fairly good when I got here. There were still some big problems. There were some people who were trying to make decisions and do things that weren't in the best interest of anybody of maybe just themselves or just their rider. Yeah, there were some problems, but most of that got sorted out over the next three or four years.re.
Q: When did you start to get more help from Japan?
Yoshimura team manager Don...
Yoshimura team manager Don Sakakura (left), Ackland, Mladin, and Doyle check out the race monitors during the New Jersey Motorsports Park event.
Realistically, in the late '90s it got a little bit better after we won one championship, but then progressively in the early 2000's and mid-2000's it got a lot better for sure. And now it's disappeared again.
Johnny Asher: It's been progressive. We've seen the peak of the factory support and now, as Mat says, it's gone the other way. We're back to nothing. There was a climb, an increase in it, and now, yeah, it's back to zero.
Q: What makes the team work?
The Mladin Yoshimura crew...
The Mladin Yoshimura crew was like a well-oiled machine, in need of very little maintenance. As Mladin dismounts after practice, Asher and Doyle discuss rear tire options, while Ackland and O'Rourke quickly mount up the front end stand.
I think communication. Everyone communicates quite well and everyone understands each other without saying too many words and everyone has a common interest. That's about it.
MM: Everyone has their job and realistically nobody has a title, unlike most of the race teams over here and you can do what you go to do. But, you know, as we speak, that's definitely now changing as of a few hours from now. A lot of things are changing. I think just a lot of the decisions being made for a lot of people as to what they're going to be doing next year. Reg and I are pretty set about what we're going to be doing. Reg is going to be on the internet checking out what's going on over here (laughing) and missing it like anything and I'll be ringing him for results.
JA: As far as the approach to every weekend, it's like Mat said; take one race at a time and give it 100 percent. He rides 100 percent and we give our job 100 percent and if we come out on top at the end of the weekend, then it's great. And if we don't, we don't cry about it. We carry on and give 100 percent the next weekend.
Q: From the outside it looks like the team never panics.
It's called everything's under control. We all know that every weekend anything can happen and we've still managed to win. We've seen bike issues and you guys have seen a couple little problems, like clutch things. You don't realize how many times we've had something thrown at us and then in the end, those are the things that add up to championship wins or race wins. It happens regularly. The crew have done their job the same every year and the same as anything, you win enough and you become complacent. Then you take a little bit of time off and you try and come back again. In the end the bike and the crew have been a constant the whole time. The difference between whether a decent motorbike wins the race or not is the rider and when he wins, it's because of the rider and when he loses it's because of the rider. It's that simple. And, in the end, we let three championships go in the last three years. And do I think it was possible to win them? Sure I did, if I would have approached it differently it would've been possible to win those championships and maybe we would've won a couple. But I had my way that I wanted to approach those years and it was that way that allowed me to continue to race. If I had to think about championships for a couple of years back then, then I wouldn't be racing now.
PD: Winning championships over here also, I think, changed a little bit...I think you had pretty strong competition, I think some of the strongest competition on the same equipment. Because back in the day on the 750, riding a 750 against those factory V-twins and winning championships, you had to play the year out. you couldn't afford to screw it up. When you got two guys racing so far ahead of the field, one guy had a problem the other guy was going to win. Even down to the fact if you got a bad start, you're going to get second. You're not going to win and you're not going to finish worse. So I think the attitude of winning races, if you're winning races and you're not a crasher, the championships will come.
Q: Do this year's technical rules make it any harder or easier to work on the bikes?
JA: It's production, almost, for us. From the pinnacle of factory Superbikes, now we're looking at stock forks and stock swinging arms and a lot of stock parts. And as much as we still give 100%, it's far removed from the racing that we're all used to and have been doing for a very long time. In that respect it's disappointing.
Although they admit it's the...
Although they admit it's the same for all teams, Mladin and his crew aren't fans of the more production-based rules formula for AMA superbikes. Suspension and chassis adjustments that used to only require less than a minute now take 15 minutes or more, robbing the increasingly precious time that could be used out on the racetrack.
I think this country is wealthy enough to afford the right equipment and be at least on the same level of equipment as World Superbike, which in turn would give everybody a chance when those guys come over here to get the locals in there, help make that race bigger, as they try to do in most countries in the world that have the right bikes, that's the whole idea. Put the locals up against the world guys and they'd obviously fit right and it's happened forever. It just doesn't happen now. It's a bit weird, because it's the biggest motorcycle market in the world. If the manufacturers want to spend $30 million a year to go racing, why can't they?
PD: The bikes now they're very fragmented. You've got modified street bikes, in our case, versus hand-built factory bikes in Pegram's case in the same class.
MM: And a purpose-built race bike in the Buell. I think what people ought to know in the motorcycle side of things, if the Buell right now at this race, three months into their racing development, if the Buell had as much motor as what we had, it'd win the race by probably 15 seconds. So, I don't know. Is that because Buell builds a better motorcycle than Suzuki or Honda or anybody else or is that because they're allowed to do whatever they want? Good on Buell. They've taken advantage of the situation, but the situation shouldn't be there for them to take advantage of. So, you can't complain about Buell. It's open for them to do whatever they want. Right now if they got down the front straight as good as us, we wouldn't see them.
Q: How hard is it going to be to go to work for a guy who isn't Mat, where every race you know you might win?
Mladin describes the bike's...
Mladin describes the bike's handling from the rider's point of view to crew chief Doyle, while Auxier checks out the data from the machine's point of view.
It's about doing your job to the best of your ability. If you win some, that's good. But a 17-year-old kid riding the bike gets exactly the same effort that you'd give to Mat. I guess there's more pressure if you've got a winning rider, but you still do your job the same.
Q: Do you have a favorite moment from your career? Favorite year, favorite bike?
MM: Favorite bike, maybe the '05-06 Superbike is probably my favorite bike. Yeah, it was good; '07-'08 was OK as well, except we started getting hand me down parts of things that we had to use that I really didn't want to use, suspension-wise and stuff like that. Over there in Europe, I guess those guys knew better and all the rest of it, even though the results didn't say so. Things in the next couple years got a little bit tougher for sure.
DA: I'd have to go with the '06. I had one of them myself. Best one I had. The difference for us, I think is, listening to the bike that we have in '09 that the rules allow us to have, just sounds like a street bike with a pipe on it, whereas the other ones...
MM: It goes like a street bike with a pipe on it too. The thing about the old 1000s, before they tightened up on cams real bad and all that, they just had some sack, you know? That's what we should be riding. Those bikes were superbikes, you could open them up. They were World Superbike-spec superbikes. But in the end, things are changing over here and as much as you look back and see all the bikes that you prefer to ride, over here in the not too distant future motorcycle racing is going to be the same as car racing in America, it's going to be a circus rather than a race. Eventually that's what will happen.
Q: Do you regret not going to Europe?
In honor of his record seventh...
In honor of his record seventh AMA Superbike championship (as well as his impending retirement), Mladin was given the opportunity to run the number one plate at the final event at New Jersey Motorsports Park.
No, not for the last half dozen years at least. I'd already made the decision it's not going to happen. Leading up to probably '00, I definitely considered it, but at the same time I was getting paid contract fees over that were four or five times what I could get from the teams in Europe. So that sort of helped cement what I wanted to do over here. Because when the racing's all said and done, you have to live the rest of your life. And unfortunately all these clowns now that are riding for free, all they're doing is taking it down for everybody-and putting their life on the line for free. And unfortunately, I've always seen it as a profession and believed I should be paid to race a motorcycle because I'm out there trying to market a product for a company. Unfortunately, those days are well and truly on the way out. No doubt about it.
Q: You said that Kansas solidified your decision to retire, but it was a good bit before then that you made up your mind to quit?
Mladin will now be looking...
Mladin will now be looking forward to spending more time with wife Janine and daughters Emily and Jessica-as well as numerous business ventures-back in Australia.
Yeah, I think so, yeah a couple months before then I really started thinking about it. Even leading up to Kansas, I was in some pretty serious talks with people about next year and with the debacle at Laguna and a bunch of the stuff that happened there with the pace car and with all the blame going everywhere else but where the blame deserved to be and then I was thinking about that. Then what happened at Topeka, that was that. And in the end, everybody can talk about safety as much as they like, but I [saw something] that was written yesterday and released from the AMA talking about safety and how they're going to make things safer with no rolling starts and they're going to make people wear headsets and blah, blah, blah, but the biggest thing that needs changing in regards to safety is not even mentioned in there and that's moving concrete walls to make the race tracks safer. So, it's not on their agenda. If you think taking a rolling start out and putting headsets on teams and riders is [going to make the racing safer], then I've definitely made the right decision.
Q: What are you going to miss about racing?
Just the racing. But I won't miss it, because I'm over it. I'm ready to go. Actually the best years I've had in racing from a personal standpoint have been the last three years when we haven't won the championship, but we've won lots of races. They've been the best three years I've had and I wouldn't trade them in for any championship. Made me really get more out of myself, which I really needed to do. So it's been good. But at the same time you've got to move on and I'm happy to move on and do different things and reinvigorate myself. But as far as the racing goes, no, I won't miss it. I might miss the clowns that I have to race now, like Johnny Rock Page, [Larry] Pegram and all those clowns. Won't miss them at all.