“There are no second acts in American lives.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald
John Hopkins swings open the door of a very modest motorhome and invites me in. The first thing I notice are the tattoos, of which there are many. Hopkins has long been a fan of skin art, but the one across his chest is the one with the most meaning. Inked in a plunging neckline from shoulder to shoulder is the word “Forgotten.”
Sport Rider first interviewed John Hopkins back in 2002. Hopkins was something of a prodigy, winning the 2001 Formula Xtreme Championship for the Valvoline Suzuki team. That earned him a ride on the Red Bull Yamaha WCM YZR500 in the 2002 MotoGP World Championship, starting a Grand Prix career that stalled at the end of 2008 when Kawasaki pulled out of MotoGP.
Hopkins managed to catch on with Stiggy Honda, a second-tier World Superbike team. Injuries consumed his season however, and soon he was in a tailspin. The bottom would come at the Portimao round where he made a fool of himself, drinking heavily and acting unprofessionally while attending the race during his recovery from previous injuries. His behavior was so upsetting that he swore off drinking and began the resurgence that would bring him to the point where he’s being seriously considered for a MotoGP ride in 2012. Hopkins is well on his way back and convinced that nothing is going to stop him.
How did he get here? The story begins at the end of 2007, his best MotoGP season. Hopkins had been with Suzuki for his entire four-stroke MotoGP career and had four podium finishes (including second at Brno) to finish fourth for the year, but it was time for a change. Hopkins had been in MotoGP for six years. He was getting complacent and needed a change of scenery. “I felt like how cool would it be to take a bike that isn’t proven to be that great at the moment, how cool would it be to take that bike and put it at the front right away?” said Hopkins of his move to Kawasaki for the 2008 season.
“We had loads of meetings all through ’07. They said ‘You’re going to be the main guy. We’re going to do all the winter tests. We’re going to have you in Japan, we’re going to do all the aerodynamics.’ And when they’re throwing that kind of money around and they offer that kind of salary, they didn’t seem to be screwing around.”
Unfortunately it never turned out that way. “We never got one new part. Whether Kawasaki knew they were pulling out at the end of the year or not, we never got one new part throughout the year.” I reminded Hopkins of being told about a new chassis at the 2008 Sachsenring event. “It ended up being a chassis that (Alex) Hoffman had used from ’06,” he revealed. Kawasaki brought an engine with a revised firing order, but “it felt just horrible, it just didn’t work. [It was like going from] the highest point in my career to the lowest point in my career.”
The strain wasn’t only mental. “I tore all the muscle off the bone in my groin to start off the year, and then I broke my back, completely fractured my L4,” he said of his physically torturous Kawasaki year.
Then the worldwide financial crisis forced Kawasaki out of MotoGP at the end of the season as a factory entity. Hopkins was paid his full year’s salary and they split on good terms — except that Kawasaki held him to the contract well into the 2009 season, by which time all the good rides in the major championships were taken.
From the start of the Stiggy Honda WSBK ride, Hopkins knew it was a mistake. “I probably should’ve never been on a bike,” he said. “My personal life was bad. I was drinking all the time. I had no control over alcohol.” He’d drink all night, then train all day on long bicycle rides “and think you were sweating it out when you’re just wearing your body down and not recovering.”