Interview: Michael Leib discusses his Grand Prix days

After having a good youth career in America and winning the 250B Stock class at Lorretta Lynn’s, Michael Leib ended up leaving America to take up the opportunity of racing the MX2 World Championship and travel all around the world. Initially, Leib signed as a fill in rider for the BUD Kawasaki racing team but would go on to race for a number of teams and manufacturers in the Grand Prix paddock.

Considering Leib had to adjust from short sprint races in America to racing long moto’s at very rough tracks, the American after recovering from a wrist injury started to post some pretty good results and can look back at his GP career with fond memories.

We caught up with Leib to reflect on his GP career and much more.

Gatedrop: Michael, your GP career started in 2010 when you signed with the BUD Kawasaki racing team, how did the opportunity come about for you to race in the MX2 World Championship?

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Leib: It’s a bit hard to remember exactly how it came about. I had just won Lorretta’s a few months before and we were looking to go ahead and do Supercross the following year. If I remember correctly, Aubin and Aranda were out here in California testing with Jacky Vimond. There was a small Supercross race at Lake Elsinore, I believe I beat them that weekend and that is where things kind of started. Got a phone call from Stephan, and off I was to Europe not long after!

Gatedrop: Your first GP was in Spain, what do you remember from that particular race?

Leib: First GP in Spain was one of my roughest weekends. Unfortunately, my very first day in Europe we ended up going straight to the track and I hit a rock on a jump and fractured my wrist. The Spanish GP was only 11 days later. Couldn’t tell you what I ended up, but it wasn’t anything worth writing home about (laughs).

Gatedrop: The first three GP’s you did, you didn’t score any points. Was that tough at the time?

Leib:  Yeah, going back to the broken wrist it lingered for a while longer than we had anticipated. I think that was a direct result in not taking the time to let the wrist heal up. It was a tough situation. I was an unproven American that the team wanted to see what I could do while on the other hand I had an opportunity I couldn’t let slip through my hands. I think we sat out Portugal and maybe another race as well to let things heal up. It wasn’t fun getting over there and having my first memory be something quite stupid, I was young and impatient I guess. Just really wanted to get things going!

Leib on the BUD Kawasaki. Pic: MXJuly

Gatedrop: As you got more and more GP experience, you did better and better, you must have been happy with the progress you made that year?

Leib: I wouldn’t say happy by any means. We had a lot of mechanical issues that year and I felt it really hindered my confidence in the bike and my momentum to gain experience with a different racing tempo in Europe than what we experience here in the States. I knew Europe would be difficult with the culture shock alone, all of the other things that you can’t plan for made things almost impossible for me to push through. Ending the year in 2010 at the GP of Fermo with a 7-7 was a small sigh of relief.

Gatedrop: Of course during the first year you worked with Jacky Vimond. What was it like working with him and what sort of things did you pick up on?

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Leib: Jacky is one of the people throughout my life that I look up to the most. He is a very pure, honest and an intelligent person. More importantly I look up to him off of the track. Jacky showed me some technique on the track and made me feel like family off the track. I even got to witness Jacky throw on a helmet while in t shirts and tennis shoes and do things far better than I had done on certain days (laughs).

Leib with the coach – Jacky Vimond. Pic: MXJuly

Gatedrop: For 2011, you signed with the Factory Ricci Husqvarna team, looking back do you think that was a mistake or was it the only offer you had?

Leib: This question has a few different parts to it. Was it a mistake? For my career, yeah, maybe. I was 19, had at the time a big dollar amount on paper in front of me and I signed it. I knew if I wanted to continue racing GP’s, this was what I had to do. I knew the bike would be slow although what we were told was the bikes by the 3rd or 4th race would be far better. I think we only had 34-36hp while other teams were around 45-47.

I managed a 6th in Germany that year, which also felt like a win compared to what we were up against. Although my results were bad and the bike was slow, this was the biggest learning year of my life. I learnt at a young age that money can not buy happiness. I learned how to spend time alone and in many ways found myself through a pretty rough experience. If I could do it over, I’d do it again and wouldn’t change a thing from a personal stand point. In regards to racing, that year practically shot my GP career in the foot. Thought the trip home after that race was going to be it for me and honestly, I was okay with it.

The Ricci Racing Husqvarna line up in 2011. Pic: Ricci Racing

Gatedrop:  You went from the Husqvarna to Dixon Yamaha in 2012, just how good and fast was that bike?

Leib: I wasn’t going to race GP’s in 2012. I had wrote Europe off. Went home and raced West Coast Supercross here at home. Had some success with 4 top 10’s my rookie year with my best finish being a 6th. On the break I got a fill in offer to replace Osborne on the Dixon Yamaha team. Was ready to go put my foot down for 2 races and never go back. Two prior years for me were hell and I wasn’t about to miss out on this opportunity.

I rode the bike on a Saturday at the Bulgarian GP for first free practice. Bike had 3 gears, rev limiters like I never experienced before and had a slight learning curve ahead. Ended up 10-10 that day. Wasn’t happy with it but we headed to Fermo the next weekend. Did some testing with Ohlins on Thursday in Italy and fell in love with the bike. In the first moto I went from 33rd – 3rd, man that felt good. In the second moto pulled out a 27 second lead over guys like Searle, Herlings, Tonus and a few others. Lost it by the end to go 3-3 on the day but I hadn’t trained on outdoors in 4 months so I was to upset. Still to this day, it’s hands down the fastest 250f I have rode. The only bummer about it is I was offered the bonus structure Zach was on that year and I thought I made some good money for my 2nd overall. Bummer was I got about 10% of it (laughs).

That podium scored me a contract with CLS Kawasaki the next year that many people didn’t know about. Bob Moore became my agent and four months after it was signed I got a letter of termination from the team and replaced by Tonus. This was heart breaking for me. I also felt that the people representing me didn’t fight as hard as they could have to help me save the deal. This was my first experience of politics in the motocross industry. My two first years in Europe (2010-2011) were extremely crushing, go back to Europe for this fill in to put it all behind me, crushed it with a 2nd overall, get a big break with a offer from CLS, sign it, then get terminated. It took a lot for me to accept the deal from Yamaha for this fill in ride. When CLS terminated my contract later that year I had a lot of anger inside with my GP experience.

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Gatedrop: The Beursfoon Suzuki was the beginning of the end for you in terms of your GP career. There were a lot of rumours at the time but what’s your side of that story?

Leib: I was under the impression that we were going to have USA motors shipped to the team. I rode their bike and thought it was slow to be honest. We had access to some of the best Suzuki motors at home and I wasn’t going to go racing in Europe without them. I had a big chip on my shoulder and wasn’t going to relive 2010-2011 again. I had been there, done that and wasn’t willing to do it again.

If the circumstances were right, I was all in. We prepared for the first Arco Di Trento and on the way there I literally found out it wasn’t the case and the team and I decided to part ways and took a flight home. At the Airport I got a call from Gariboldi and went and rode the Honda at Maggiora. I dislocated a shoulder on Saturday and from there I just wanted to get back home. I was burnt out at that point.

Pic: Beursfoon Rockstar Suzuki Team

Gatedrop: From your time in the GP paddock, what races stick out the most for you and why?

Leib: Standouts would obviously be a 2nd overall in Fermo, that race means the most to me in life. I showed up ready that weekend and put my best foot forward. The french GP’s were always insane. The atmosphere those guys create is something else. Sweden was always an entertaining one with fans drinking beer at 7am while having breakfast at the hotel and I liked that track a lot. I had my first top 10 finish there in 2010.

Gatedrop: I have to ask you about Lommel, the first time you went to that track, what were you thinking? Also, in general how would you compare the tracks in the World Championship to USA?

Leib: Leading up to Lommel I was about 2-3 seconds off most GP tracks to the top guys. Jacky Vimond kept telling me just wait, Lommel is special (laughs). Timed Practice I came in after a (HEATER) and looked at the board, I was 9+ seconds off the pace. It was the first time I questioned if I was in the right profession (laughs). GP tracks to me have a lot more demand for technique. I would consider the tracks to be far more raw in the series than anything here in the States.

Leib on the Ricci Husqvarna at Lommel. Pic: Benjamin Ricard

Gatedrop: When you see the American’s lately that have come to the GP paddock, you done pretty well! What’s so hard when you come and race the GP’s?

Leib: I think the culture change is rough. I think that teams have less connection with the riders due to language barriers and different methods of a work place. I think this created a barrier between the teams and riders. I dealt with some of this, sure others have as well. A lot of the time I felt judged and questioned by teams and people and at the beginning I cared a lot, towards the end I was there for myself. I honestly think that’s why Fermo in 2012 went so well, I kind of went there to say a big goodbye to the people that doubted me and didn’t believe in me.

Gatedrop: Ryan Villopoto came and raced MXGP, you know him, did you give him any advice for the GP’s and were you surprised with how he performed before his injury?

Leib: I don’t think Ryan Villopoto needs any advice in life besides telling him to not loop out on a track built on rocks (laughs). I figured some of the tracks wouldn’t suit his bike setup. I think he struggled with that for a round or two and started to sort things out from there. Never really talked to him much about the GP stuff but I don’t think for a second that he would have had trouble being dominate in Europe a round or two after he crashed in Arco.

Gatedrop: What would your advice be to any young American coming to race the World Championship?

Leib: Be ready for a wake up call. In many ways we have it easy here at home compared to the GP’s, my time over there almost broke me, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world and I am thankful for the time I got to spend there and the people I met along the way. If young guys have the chance to go, I wouldn’t pass it up!

Interview: Andy McKinstry

Main pic: Benjamin Ricard