Interview: Erik Kehoe – Honda US team manager
A top rider in the US in the 80s and early 90s, Erik Kehoe transitioned careers to become a leading team manager in the mid to late 90s with Honda and subsequently Yamaha of Troy.
He then moved to team Honda and, after a sabbatical from the sport, is now back in charge at Honda as he looks to help guide Ken Roczen to his first 450 supercross title.
Tom Jacobs caught up with a very open and hospitable Kehoe to get his thoughts on a wide range of topics.
What is the moment that stands out in your career when everything went perfect?
Probably 1986 and 87, in 87 I won the USGP at Steel City, that was probably the pinnacle of when I had things go really good and I was really strong. In 1988 I fractured my back and it took me a while to come back from that. so that was kind of a turning point in my career.
In that GP win can you describe what it was like?
It was a funny story because I went back early to get used to the humidity, because I was from California. We were supposed to test some works bikes for that event, there was no production rule (like the AMA had brought in) so my tram manager at the time, Pat Alexander and I would check in with him because the bikes were late arriving from Japan. I played gold every day that week and finally by Friday, late Thursday or Friday the bikes showed up. I rode the bike once and it felt good so I said, “hey, lets go for it!” It was one of those races where I was used to the humidity everything seemed to go pretty good.
Have you been able to replicate that feeling as the team manager?
When I was manager of Yamaha of Troy (late 90s) Ernesto Fonseca came on the team and he was supposed to be the back-up guy to Stephane Roncada, who was our main guy to win the championship. Fonseca was supposed to just get some experience. I think Fonseca won every race that season except maybe one and won the championship in his first year. It was huge, things were just clicking for him.
Ricky Carmichael, when he had his perfect seasons (outdoors), there are so many things that can go wrong, for him to win every moto, that was a standout season too.
What’s been the biggest change since coming back as team manager?
The names and faces have changed a little bit ad the riders evolve, their riding techniques, they take it to another level. Look at Tim Gajser, he is an extraordinary rider, he’s evolving as a rider won the MXGP world championship then comes over to race the MEC supercross. it’s constantly evolution, I see that over time, the racer and competitor in me, loves that side of it and I love helping these guys with anything I can see and can try to help with.
What does Ken Roczen need to make it happen in 2020?
Right now, Ken, his biggest strength is his mind, he know he can win in his head and he believes that. we know he has the speed and talent, we have seen that many, many times. I think this year was a breakthrough year for him because obviously his previous two seasons were plagued by injury. He needed some time to get consistent again and build confidence and get healthy. This year was exactly that, I think he gained confidence, in his mind he knows he can win and that’s what he is pushing for. I think this is just another step in the comeback story for Ken, and I think we will see another step ahead for this next season. His biggest strength is he knows he can win, so when it comes time and his body is 100% healthy and he is feeling it, he will be ready.
Is that what impresses you most about Ken, his mental strength?
Yes I think so, he is very mentally tough, he wants it bad and I think he expects that from himself. He knows that he can win so that’s what he expects. there have been times with some very close seconds or thirds, that could have been a win and I can just see him getting very mad and frustrated because he believes he can win.
Can you talk about the decision to have a kind of hybrid team next year with Justin Brayton for supercross and Chase Sexton replacing him for outdoors?
It was an interesting situation we found ourselves in. We have tried to establish a development path of riders through the Geico Honda team and through our support for Motoconcepts. We have Chase Sexton coming to the 450, so we wanted to formulate a plan that was a good stepping stone for him to make that transition to a 450 and, as it worked out, Justin Brayton is a very experienced and talented rider and we felt this plan that we laid out can bring some experience to the team, a good teammate for Ken to be able to train and test with and help with the transition for Chase to riding a 450 down the road.
How is it working with Justin who is experienced and knows the Honda? Does that make it easier?
It’s huge, he understands our sport is so tough with the two series we have, he understands at his age, he really wants to focus on supercross then take time to recharge the batteries during the summer. I think his experience and that toughness about training smarter not necessarily hard when you are getting older, he can help with that.
How do you guys work with Honda Japan and Europe?
It’s interesting because there is a lot of development going on with Europe and Japan, our main focus is developing the bike here for supercross which is very much a different style. We have quite a bit of our unique strategies as well with our staff here in developing the bike for supercross so we communicate very well with Japan and we try to include them in everything that we are doing and they help us out quite a bit with understanding the differences in the bike for supercross versus the outdoor. I think that’s a constant evolution of getting the bike the best it can be specially for each individual rider. We share specs with Japan and don’t do anything without their knowledge and their blessing.
With Ken coming to the team and doing races like the Red Bull Straight Rhythm did that take some arm-twisting to allow that to happen?
Yes, from the outside that might have looked very easy but it was not! I think this shows a lot that we support Ken and believe in Ken. Our management at Honda decided yes, we will support this but if we do it, we have to do it right. Our staff did and excellent job at bringing out the equipment and we did a lot of testing, I have to say Trey Canard was a huge part of that success. I think he was a little nervous because he hadn’t raced much on a two-stroke but he helped us dial in the bike, jetting, suspension and so by the time Kenny came in to test the bike we already had a week of experience on it and worked out all the bugs. The carburation on those two-strokes can be very finicky and our guys did a good job at getting that handled.
What’s maybe the toughest part of your job that people don’t see?
The hardest part of my job is dealing with so many different people and personalities. When I first got into management I felt things had to be a certain way all the time, but over years of understanding Kevin Windham does it a different way to Ricky Carmichael and Ken Roczen does things a different way to Ricky Carmichael. I understand now that you can be successful in their own way but there are certain traits that are consistent between all of them. One of the things I see with Ken as I mentioned before is his mental strength and his ability to know you can win. That’s a huge thing, you cannot teach someone that or give that to somebody, that’s all experience and talent.
How would you describe talent?
I would describe talent as first of all being able to get on the motorcycle and navigate the track at that speed, raw speed. But there is a lot of guys that have that, the second part is being able to do that when it counts and that is when the gate drops and you are in the main event and you have 19 other guys of that same level – can you rise to the occasion at that point? Handling pressure, knowing you can win and having the raw speed. That’s what I would say is raw talent.
That’s why it’s important to deal with these guys, (Geico Honda) we can see the young guys coming through. Some of them might have raw speed but constantly make mistakes under pressure and you can’t have that. You have to be able to have a strong mind, believe in yourself and when it really counts you have to be able to perform. The raw speed is also important, some guys can be consistently fifth or eighth but if you don’t have that raw speed you are not going to win a championship. It’s very rare to have someone come in that has all of the pieces of the puzzle but that is what we are looking for.
Who are some of the guys that impressed you most during your career that you have worked with?
Kevin Windham is one that stands out. I just think that technically on the bike, he had one of the most incredible talents. He was very smart but almost too smart at times because he would not push beyond his limits. whereas as Ricky, he had raw speed and ability on the bike but his determination would make up for when his speed was not quite there, he had a never die attitude. He would give it everything, there was times when I was at the test track and I would be watching him and he would nearly have a high speed get-off and he would come in and I would be like, ‘man that was gnarly, I can’t believe you saved that!’ And he would be like, “what?” to operate at that level and in that zone – it was impressive.
A guy like Ernesto Fonseca was very impressive, he was like a surgeon, he was very technically accurate. all these different guys, they all have different pieces of the puzzle but when it all comes together – that’s where the greats come from, right?
You have gone through some difficult times privately, taking care of your mum and all that. has it changed the way you do your job?
It has actually, I went through a divorce and my son was going through high school at the time. I put a lot of emphasis on family now, whereas in my selfish years of just travelling and racing, this sport, it just sucks all your time up and to be successful at it, it takes a lot of effort. And even some of the riders I have been really close with that have had some injuries, that’s helped evolve my way of thinking a little bit too, so it’s definitely changed.
If you were head of motocross and supercross in the US, what would you change?
I would probably work closely with the other organisation outdoors and really look at the longevity of our athletes. there are too many races right now between both series. I don’t know the full answer to that but I do know it has to be looked at. There is no time for a guy to even twist is ankle or have a small injury to still be competitive in the championship, there is no rest for these guys.
Interview: Tom Jacobs Images: Honda