Kevin Windham- The People’s Champion Part 1
By:
Tony Blazier

On January 19th, 2013, one of the most fascinating professional careers in motocross history came to an end. After riding the first practice at Anaheim 2, Centreville, Mississippi’s Kevin Windham decided it was time to pack it in. After nineteen years as a professional motocross racer, the Geico Honda rider rode is last rodeo. It was the end of a remarkable journey.

The story of Kevin Windham is one of meteoric success, self-destructive depression, and ultimately, redemption. It is a cautionary tale about the pressures of untapped potential, and the pitfalls of a sport that makes you a star before you are a senior in high school. Most of all, it is a celebration of one man’s triumph over his inner demons, and his reemergence as one of the most popular athletes in his sport.  

When you talk about Kevin’s nineteen-year odyssey in pro motocross, you are really talking about two very separate careers. Kevin version 1.0 was a sometimes-troubled young man who struggled with the trappings and demands of success. Kevin version 2.0 is a father, who has become comfortable in his own skin and learned to appreciate the gifts that he has been given. One career was a spiral downward into the depths of burnout and depression, while the other has turned out to be one of the best second acts in all of sports.

Along the way, the man they call K-Dub has played second fiddle to some of the greatest riders in the sport. He has raced McGrath, Carmichael, Reed and Stewart all at their peak and lived to tell the tale. He has often been “next year’s champion” only to crumble under the weight of expectation. He has fought with injury and self-doubt, team turmoil and terrorist attacks. All the while, however, he has remained open, honest, approachable and relatable. Because of this, he has become one of the most popular riders the sport has ever known. Title or not, Kevin Windham is a champion.

This is the story of Kevin Windham, the people’s champion.

Chapter 1-The Kid Makes A Splash

As an amateur, Windham was successful, but not a superstar. Over the course of his career, he captured eight Loretta Lynn’s titles riding for Team Green.

As hard as it may be to believe now, Kevin Windham was not always the fan favorite and media darling he is today. There was actually a time when Windham was a little-known 16-year-old Kawasaki support rider hailing from the bayous of Louisiana. Unlike amateur superstars like Adam Cianciarulo, James Stewart and Ricky Carmichael, Kevin Windham was not crowned the “Next Big Thing” at the age of ten. He had done well as an amateur, winning titles (a total of eight at Loretta’s) and receiving his first Team Green ride at the age of five, but somehow, he had escaped the intense pressure and expectations placed on other amateur phenom’s such as Damon Bradshaw. Because of this fact, when Windham made his professional debut at the Gainesville National in March of ’94, it was without the fanfare that usually accompanied such high profile unveilings. In truth, few people even remember that he rode there at all.

In most fans’ memories, it is Windham’s second race that truly resonates. His first race at Gainesville has become one of those events that slip through the cracks into history. At Gatorback, Kevin actually rode to a seventeenth in his professional debut. While this was far from abysmal, it was certainly not the kind of performance that was going to get him noticed on the national stage. For Kevin, his true coming out party would have to wait a few months for the rolling hills of Western Pennsylvania.

After his inauspicious debut, Windham would skip the next two rounds at Hangtown and Budds Creek to regroup.  For his second pro event, Kevin would choose the High Point National in Mount Morris, Pennsylvania. At this race, he would make the splash that would turn him into one of the hottest properties in motocross.

At Mount Morris, Kevin would holeshot the first moto and absolutely check out on the best 125cc riders in the world. Windham would lead for thirty-four minutes, before being passed by Doug Henry with half a lap to go. With this amazing ride, Windham would open the eyes of team managers everywhere and thrust his name into the motocross mainstream. Kevin would not be able to duplicate his amazing performance in the other two events he would ride in ’94, but that flash of brilliance would be enough to propel him to a full Factory ride with Team Yamaha in 1995.

Kevin’s breakthrough ride at the High Point round of the 1994 125 National’s landed the Louisiana rider on the cover of MXA and in the catbird seat for a prime ride in ’95.

In 1995, Kevin would join a diverse Yamaha squad consisting of 1992 125 National Champion Jeff Emig, journeyman John Dowd and mercurial star Damon Bradshaw (who would come out of retirement mid-year). Aiding Windham (or more accurately butting heads with Windham), would be Yamaha legend Bob “Hurricane” Hannah, who would serve as mentor and coach for the team in ’95.

From the beginning, Windham would be fast on his works Yamaha, leading races and showing the speed that had caught the industry’s imagination. Unfortunately, he would also show a tendency to fade that would follow him throughout much of his career. In ’95, Windham would suffer from nerves and arm pump while leading. Towards the end of races, as he tightened up (read-got tired) he would invariably be passed by the more established riders in the class. Still, he would show blazing speed at times and capture five Supercross podiums. By the end of his first full season, Windham would finish the Supercross series in fifth overall, but be forced to miss the majority of the Outdoors with an illness.

Coming into ’96, the Louisiana native would be considered one of the heavy favorites for the 125 West Supercross title. With one full year already under his belt, Kevin looked to be one of the heavy hitters in ’96. Aiding Windham would be one of the most potent and hugely improved 125’s on the track. The all-new ‘96 YZ125 would end more than a decade of Honda dominance of the 125 class and give the Cajun the power he would need to compete with his larger than typical build. On the new YZ, Windham would not disappoint. He would dominate the ’96 season, often jumping rhythms and obstacles that the larger 250’s could barely conquer. By season’s end, K-Dub would capture six of seven main events on his way to the Supercross title. As an exclamation point on his incredible season, he would even score a podium at Charlotte while riding in the 250 class part-time.

In 95, Windham would show the speed to lead races, but not the conditioning to hold on for the win. Several times during the year, the super-smooth Cajun would burst into the lead, only to be gobbled up in the waning laps. It would unfortunately be a pattern that would follow Kevin throughout his career.

In the outdoors, Windham would be just as impressive. He would claim four overall victories in the Nationals and finish the season second in points behind Honda ace Steve Lamson. After a rocky rookie season, Windham had firmly established himself as one of the top up-and-coming stars of the sport.  As the ’97 season approached, Kevin looked to be on the fast track to superstardom.

In 1997, Kevin would back up his ’96 campaign with another 125 West Supercross title.  Windham would win all but two rounds in the series and capture the title with a 22-point cushion. In addition to dominating the 125’s, Kevin would open eyes everywhere with a dominating win in the 250 class at the Charlotte round. He would lead from wire-to-wire and seem to serve notice that there could well be a new sheriff in town come 1998.

By the end of the ’97 Supercross series, many pit punditswere beginning to think Kevin Windham was indeed going to be the next Jeremy McGrath. Like the multi-time champ, Kevin’s skill on a Supercross track seemed to know no bounds. He could jump anything and often top the times of the 250 guys on his YZ125. He really looked to be the real deal indoors and out. Unfortunately for Kevin, a little (if you will pardon the pun) thing happened to derail his date with greatness. The sport welcomed in a chubby little red headfrom Clearwater, Florida that would change the face of Motocross forever.

In 1996, Yamaha would totally revamp their YZ line up and transform the lowly YZ125 into the powerhouse of the class. In Supercross, K-Dub would put the new machine to good use and dominate the ’96 West 125 SX Championship.

Saying the name Ricky Carmichael now brings up very different connotations than it did in 1997. Now we all know him as far and away the greatest motocross racer of all time, but in ’97, he was a baby-faced kid who looked two sizes too small for his KX125. Coming out of the amateurs, RC had been a winning machine, dominating at every stage of his career. While this was remarkable, it was no guarantee of pro success. Since the beginning of sports, all sorts of “can’t miss” athletes have made the jump to the pros, only to be chewed up and spit out by the pressures and increased competition inherent to life at the top. While some thought Ricky was that one-in-a-million, it was by no means the slam-dunk it seems now.

From the start, it was apparent RC had blazing speed. Every time the kid hit the track, he had his Splitfire Pro Circuit KX125 pinned to the stops. What he lacked in stature, he made up for in pure burning desire to win. He attacked the track like it had stolen his lunch money and rode the absolute wheels off his bike. Unfortunately for RC, this pin-it-and-pray style of racing is often not the most successful technique on the tight and tricky Supercross courses. In ’97, RC would often win, but he would just as often pound himself into the first base line. Although he would be the winningest rider in the series with four victories, RC would loose the title to the superior consistency of Suzuki’s Tim Ferry.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Carmichael’s wild-child approach would be Windham. Where RC just grabbed a handful and held on for dear life, the effortlessly smooth Cajun would glide around the track, never setting a knobby out of place. He made going fast look effortless and reminded many of a young Ron Lechien (a comparison that was prophetic indeed). Going into the season ending East/West shootout in Vegas, fans everywhere wanted to see just who really was the fastest 125 Supercross rider in the land.

In Vegas, the anticipated dual would be short lived. After pulling out to an early lead, RC would be reeled in by the ultra-smooth Windham and passed up the inside of a left hander. Carmichael (who seemed to feel K-Dub’s pass was a bit “aggressive”) would retaliate in the next turn and actually collide mid-air with Windham. Shortly after, however, Ricky would bobble in the whoops and hand a lead to Kevin that he would never relinquish. For RC, his night would end with a series of crashes and a bitter defeat.

In the ’96 Nationals, Windham would claim four overall victories and finish second to the returning champ Steve Lamson.

In the Outdoors, things would be very different. After Kevin’s second place in ’96, he seemed the odds on favorite to dethrone the reigning champion in ’97. From the start, however, it was obvious that things were not going to go as planned. K-Dub would struggle to keep the #70 of Ricky Carmichael in sight on the fast outdoor tracks. He would win a total of three events in ’97, but at no point was the series truly in doubt. The go-for-broke riding style that had bit RC in Supercross, was perfect for the fast and gnarly outdoor circuits. Once the racing went outside, the calculating and smooth Cajun had a hard time matching the raw intensity and drive of the kid from Clearwater.

For Windham, ’97 was supposed to be his year; he did dominate in Supercross, but lost out to RC by an astounding 95 points outdoors. On his best day, he could beat RC, but he lacked the burning desire to win at any cost that made Ricky so formidable.  Like his ultra-smooth predecessor Lechien, Windham would soon learn that raw talent could be both a blessing and a curse. To those who much is given, much is expected, and that burden can often lead down a very dark and lonely road.

In 1997, Kevin would back up his 125 SX title with another dominating victory in the West series. Outdoors, however, things would be less easy for the Cajun.  He would run into the buzz saw known as Ricky Carmichael and spend the summer watching the #70 roosting off into the distance.

In 1998, Windham made the jump up to the 250 class indoors and out. This got him out of the way of the Carmichael juggernaut (at least for a while), but put him smack dab in the middle of the McGrath meat grinder. In ’98 MC was coming off his worst year since 1990 and was looking to get his career back on track.  Riding a Factory Yamaha out of the Chaparral rig, MC would be teamed with Windham, Henry and Dowd for the ’98 season.

Early on in the series, Kevin struggled on the 250 machines. By the latter part of the series, however, Windham would start to get things figured out. He would capture wins at his hometown race in New Orleans and in St Louis. Coming into the Charlotte round, it looked like we might actually have a fight for the title. At Pontiac the week before, MC had suffered a rare crash and DNF when he broke his works triple clamps (and as it turned out, his wrist). This opened the door for a surging Windham, who had won and podiumed the two previous years in Charlotte. During the main all appeared to be going to plan as Kevin ripped the holeshot while McGrath started in last (after being landed on by Mike LaRocco). Once again, however, it was not to be for the talented 250 rookie. Way out front and on cruise control, Windham would miss-time a double and go head first into the muddy Charlotte track. The crash would break Windham’s collarbone (an injury that haunted him early in his career) and end his bid for a Supercross title.

The outdoors would be more of a struggle for Windham. He would get off to a slow start, with an eighth and tenth in the opening rounds. Unlike in Supercross, Windham would never really catch fire outdoors. He would continue to struggle and fail to win an overall victory, before once again bowing out with an injury. Adding to Windham’s problems would be internal friction within the team. In the end, this infighting would have a major hand in the direction of Kevin’s career moving forward.

In ’98, Windham would move up to the 250’s full time and take victories at New Orleans and St. Louis. Outdoors things would be less rosy, with Kevin struggling to run the lead pace. By season’s end, internal disputes within Team Yamaha would have the 20-year-old looking for greener pastures in ’99.

During the Nationals, problems began arising between Yamaha team manager Keith McCarty and Kevin’s long-time girlfriend Dottie. McCarty apparently requested that Windham not bring her to the races at some point, which caused massive tension within the team. With Kevin’s contract up at the end of the season and his relationship with McCarty souring, 1999 looked to be a major question mark.

Windham’s decisions over the next few months would have far reaching effects on his career. He would burn several bridges in the industry and become embroiled in a bitter contract dispute that would stain his reputation. These events would start his career on a trajectory that would lead to disillusionment, and eventually self-imposed exile.

Next up-      Part 2-Into The Wilderness