Originally Published In The June 2017 Issue Of TransWorld Motocross
Few in professional motorcycle racing have the same experiences as David Vuillemin. Born and raised on the GP circuits of Europe, the French rider came to the United States in the mid-1990s and achieved success first as a privateer and then as a full factory rider for a few of the sport’s top teams. In the 20 years since his arrival in the US, Vuillemin has become an icon thanks to an effortless riding style and honest, even bold remarks on every detail of the sport. Although he’s been retired from racing for nearly a decade, DV maintains a deep knowledge and outlook in regards to the technique needed to go fast on two-wheels, and he’s more than willing to share his thoughts with those who care enough to listen. The following feature came from an hour long conversation we shared with Vuillemin at a café in Southern California, during which we discussed his long career as a racer, life after the final flag, and what he what he feels could benefit the current generation.
I never wanted to be a rider. I was riding because my dad was riding. He was a road racer, so I would go to the races with him and would ride in the pits on an Italjet 50. He got me a dirt bike and it was fun, something I would do on the afternoons and weekends. But I wanted to play soccer; I liked it more than motocross. I was a decent soccer player and an okay rider, not very good, but I had to choose because a coach said that I couldn’t come to practice during the week and on the weekends go to a motocross race. My dad said the choice was made that I was going to ride. I had to go with the flow and it snowballed to where I had to quit school to go racing. At one point you know that you have no school education or degree, that you are going with one thing in motocross, and that it has to work. It’s what happens when you are poor and have no money or other options, and you get it done somehow.
There were a lot of people that wanted to help with programs, but I stayed with my dad because I thought even though he was a tyrant, he was who helped me get to that point. I used him as much as I could because he knew how to motivate me and to get me to work. I was scared of him.
When you were a kid racing in France in the 1980s, you always looked up to Ricky Johnson, Jeff Ward, and all of those guys. You wanted to race in the US. Then Jean Michel Bayle came up. He came to US in 1989 and won Gainesville. I used to ride with JMB back in the day, in 1989 when he was racing the GPs on 250s. I went to his private track to ride with him; I was invited as an 80 rider at 12 years old. It’s not like I was a huge fan, but he was more like a model because he was so good. He made the path for us. He showed us that French people could race here and maybe if he didn’t come here, no one would have come.
When I came here, I was 18 years old and was a full privateer with my parents and the help of FMF. It was only me speaking English, with my high school English. When I showed up in January, I knocked on the door at FMF and said that I was the French kid that was supposed to get a bike. That was it and that was enough [Laughs]. It was tough but we made it work. We were here alone, had a bike from FMF, and a few addresses of where to go. We used to stay in Harbor City [Los Angeles], where FMF was back then. Thinking about it 20 years later, I lived basically in Torrance and we would go to ride Glen Helen, Perris, and LACR. There were no Supercross tracks, and it was tough because we came here to race Supercross.
So those first few weeks I raced the GFI races, which were the most insane things I ever experienced in my life. We’d get in line at five o’clock in the morning to get in and practice was when the opened the gate to ride. There were people cutting the track everywhere and I was so surprised. I think I won my third race, I raced the 125 and 250 classes that day. But at the first couple I wasn’t a great outdoor rider then and there were guys that I didn’t know killing me, like Michael Brandes and Casey Johnson, and even Mike Metzger was fast at those back in the day. It was a brand new experience.
The French guys now don’t know this. They have no idea what we went through. We had a pick-up truck, a stock bike with a pipe and suspension with heavier oil in it.
We showed up at Anaheim in 1996 to see huge 80-foot triples. On a KX125 that was pretty much bone stock but with a pipe, we knew that if I couldn’t shift to third before the jump that I shouldn’t go for it. We had a pick-up truck, a stock bike with a pipe, and suspension with heavier oil in it. I got fourth in the main event. I didn’t even know if I was going to make the main event.
People don’t understand what we went through, me especially. I think I’m one of the guys that struggled the most because I wasn’t good when I came here. I wasn’t known and I didn’t win GPs. Even we Stephen Roncada came a year later, he was at Honda of Troy and had a team with a good bike. I showed up with some bars.
I came with my parents, so for four years I came before the GPs started. We had an apartment or something and my mom cooked. We would go to the grocery store and would find stuff, so we didn’t have a problem. The thing with Euros is that they see the big sign like McDonald’s or Burger King and that’s where they go. They don’t make the effort to do research or find something that is good. I like to eat here better than I do in France now because I can find places that aren’t chains. We didn’t have the internet or a cell phone then, just a paper map that took us to the track. We had a rental car paper map that someone would put a dot on and said, “The track should be around here.”
We would go to the Lucky grocery store, would buy the food, my mom cooked at night, and we made sandwiches for when I went riding. I never had any problems because we didn’t go to stuff that we knew from Europe, like fast food.
I never wanted to come here as a full-time 125 guy. I talked with my parents and my dad said, “We need to improve and be good on the 250 two-stroke in Europe before we come here.” We made a plan and I signed a two-year deal with an option in France for 1998 and 1999, and the third year was an option for Yamaha of France and the owner, Jean Claude Olivier. He was the importer and had a lot of pull with Yamaha in Japan, so we made a deal that in the third year he would push to get me somewhere in the US.
I turned down a Factory Honda ride before Factory Yamaha. I was racing against Dowd for the West Coast championship in 1998 and I won three races, and American Honda came to see me. Wes McCoy and JMB’s old mechanic were in charge then. With my Yamaha contract then, every year I could go get out of it or renegotiate. Honda made me an offer to race for the factory team on a 125 in 1999. We thought about it, went back to France, and I had to show it to Yamaha of France. Jean Claude Olivier went through the pages right to the money part, saw the salary which was 125,000-dollars and the bonuses, and then told his secretary to draw a new contract up for me that was exactly the same. Yamaha of France paid me exactly the same to race GPs on 250s as what Factory Honda offered me for Supercross. I didn’t want to ride a Honda because I didn’t want to ride a full-time 125. I wanted to get as good as I could at my house in France, where I could train and get ready, and then show up ready to race the 250 class.
My breakout ride was San Diego in 1999 as a privateer. I was pitted with the Yamaha semi only on the weekends, they would bring my bike because I was a factory rider in Europe, and I led 14 laps in the main event ahead of [Jeremy] McGrath and [Ezra] Lusk. At that point, it was early in January and I didn’t know what I was doing for 2000. That ride was with stock suspension and an FMF pipe. After the main event Keith McCarty and his boss at the time, Larry Griffiths, called me and said they wanted to see me at Yamaha on Monday morning. They didn’t really say anything but that I had to be at headquarters in Cypress. They were impressed with the equipment that I had and the very little preparation because I was a GP guy. They said that they wanted me for the next year, that they didn’t have a budget or anything to offer yet, but that I had a spot. At that point, I knew I was going to race in the US.
I was going to retire after my Suzuki deal at the end of 2008. I shouldn’t have signed that deal with Suzuki because I had to get out of my deal with MDK, which was a great time. I was the top privateer in Supercross in 2007, there was no pressure, and that CRF450R was good even though it was close to stock but with suspension. I got hurt in Millville, but at that point I was already out of my deal because Suzuki wanted me to come be the test rider for their new EFI bike. It cost me some money and then I got hurt really badly in Millville. I was never the same then.
I was going to retire and at the end of Supercross in Las Vegas, I celebrated with friends but I talked to the BUD Racing guys and they wanted me to come back to Europe for a last season. I thought, “Why not finish in the GPs?” But the equipment was nothing compared to a factory bike. I think I should have retired when I got hurt really badly and I ended up racing too much. It would have been good to end with a good Supercross season at MDK.
I was a teammate with Gautier Paulin in 2009, and when I retired he was looking for someone to coach him in 2010. We came to California to ride at places like Yucca Valley, and I killed him every day. He would sleep in the truck on the way home and I knew it was important to him. We went to Belgium to train in the sand and he won the opening round of the Dutch championship, which was great, but he broke his leg before the first GP. When he was off for those few months we called it, because I couldn’t do anything with a broken leg. Erica wanted to move back to the US, so in 2010 we moved back to the same house and everything we kept here. The MotoConcepts job showed up at the end of that year. Mike Genova is great and I love the guy, but the job is very hard. When you are a privateer team, you have to do everything. There were the mechanics, the truck driver, and the team manager. I was doing everything but being the mechanic and the truck driver.
When you do this, you are pro when you are 10 years old. You go to school but the rest of the time you are either training or riding. You are a pro. From 10 years old to 30 years old, that’s 20 years of doing the same thing. The older you get the tougher it is to stay on top physically, and then there are a few bad injuries. I just rode the wave the last two years, because I was going to make good money. If I didn’t have those last two years, it may be a little tougher for me right now.
The first few years after I retired, I thought my speed was good. I went to a track and my speed was fine, but after that I only rode once a year. Every time I rode after that I was tired, I had arm pump, and I sucked. I’m trying to get into better shape and maybe eventually I will get a bike to have fun. Sadly, I don’t have fun riding. Maybe I would like trail riding with Gothic Jay [Jason Haines, Honda technician], but going to Perris or Pala to ride is not fun.
I was burnt out. A few times I rode for 15 minutes and was over it. Why have a bike to do that? I haven’t had a bike in years now. I haven’t ridden in almost two years and don’t really miss it.
I’m self-taught from watching videos every day as a kid, from all the Supercross races of Bradshaw, Johnson, JMB and the GPs. I was always trying to figure out how JMB blitzed the whoops or how MC stayed low. If you see Stanton and JMB in 1991, JMB is two bikes lower in the air. I analyzed everything. And then I tried it.
That’s what I don’t like about right now. I don’t see riders trying stuff. If you go to watch at a track, they do the 25 laps and stay in the six-inch line all the way around. They don’t do new lines and don’t work on technique. They always sit and gas the bike in the same spot, seat bounce in the same spot for 25 laps. I was never like that. I always moved around and learned, which I think is how I got that way. I could analyze the riding part.
I have a tough time passing it on to someone else for some reason. The turn techniques and things I want to do, riders just have to try. I don’t care if you mess up or go over the berm in practice, but at least try to figure out the technique I want to use and see if it will work. If you try it once and say it sucks, we can’t do that. You have to try it and keep doing it. I’m a believer that to improve you have to change, and you have to have a lot of repetition. Practice is repetition and evolving all of the time. If you do something that worked three years ago that you still use today, it will not work. You have to always change. If there is no change, there is no improvement.
When you hear guys say that they know what works for them, remember there are only a few guys that have a program that is working. And that’s the champions. If you do your program and are a sixth place guy, your program does not work and you need to change it so that you can improve. People don’t understand that and it’s insane. Do you think Usain Bolt trains the same way he did 10 years ago? No, because you have to change to improve.
In Supercross everyone does 25 laps a few times a day. There are some guys that will do sprints or whatever. But a soccer player or a basketball player doesn’t do a full scrimmage during their practice all of the time. They do other stuff! They do different kicks, dribbling, and play with the ball. Why don’t we do that in motocross? This is basically like if a soccer player did a game every day for their practice. Instead, they work on their technique.
That’s what I’m trying to explain to people, that you don’t need to do motos every day. You need to improve skills to improve in a moto. Riders in this sport, if you say that you want to work on technique in sections, they don’t believe in it. They want to do their motos and go home.
The state of mind with the way training is, the way Ricky and Aldon killed it at that point with a lot of riding and a lot of training, overdoing shit all of the time. And it seems like everyone is on that bandwagon instead of thinking out of the box. These days I think racing is so boring. During the 1990s, it was more about skills and technique. If you could do certain things, go through the whoops and do all of the jumps every lap, you could get on the podium. And when I was there it was the same thing. Now it’s a little different, with speed and fitness more.
It’s almost boring. You don’t see top guys go free ride or having fun. They just pound laps, hate what they’re doing, and when they win they still don’t look pumped.
A lot of people think I’m a clown, but I worked hard. To win races in the best class that there is, you have to work. You cannot come off the couch and go win. There is only one Ron Lechien. I liked trail riding with Gothic Jay because it helped my riding and I played with the bike. I wish people would do more of this. I wish guys would ride outdoors more during the season. I used to have a stock bike in my garage for when I was over Supercross and would instead go to Perris and just pin it to have fun. I used to change my tires and clutch by myself. I only had a practice bike mechanic at Suzuki and that’s because Roger said I had to and that they would pay for it. I would work on my stuff because it was fun.
I got hooked with a good CPA and set up a corporation, retirement accounts, and a pension. I always stay conservative and put money away each year. Now I just collect the money that I made a long time ago, and that money makes money. When I take from the pension, it’s just a little bit instead of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
I live very modestly, I drive a Volkswagen I paid 15,000-dollars for, and I’m buying a house that after I sell mine won’t cost much. I don’t need to impress anyone. I bought a few cars here and there, but I never lost money on them. I bought watches because I liked them, but those were small expenses compared to some people. I never bought a house in a private community that I couldn’t pay the mortgage on.
I don’t think you have to be a professional athlete and retire in your early 30s to be happy.
I never push my kids. When my son was small, he wanted to play soccer so we played rec soccer and he liked it, so he played for clubs and was the captain of the teams. A bunch of teams wanted him because he was good, but one day he said he didn’t want to play soccer anymore and wanted to play basketball. I thought it was fine, he needed to do what he wanted.
I don’t want him to do individual sports because it’s so tough. When he was over soccer, I think that he was a better soccer player than basketball player, but I thought it was fine. If tomorrow he said he didn’t want to play basketball anymore and wanted to play baseball, I’d think it was fine. The only thing I ask the kids is to behave and to be good at school.
I didn’t make my own choices as a kid. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t be here. I see my situation today and don’t know if it worked out for the best. I have a good life and don’t complain, but maybe it could have been better if I did something else or was a normal guy with a 9-5 job, a 30-year loan on my house, and vacations with my family. Would I be more happy then? I don’t know. I have cousins that are the same age as me, were better soccer players than me but didn’t want to pursue it, and they went to school to get good jobs.
I still spend money but I wish I could spend less. It makes me feel good when I’m frugal. I still do stuff. I see basketball games and go to concerts like Coachella, but you have to remember that I don’t have a car payment or mortgage. What I make is pocket money to pay the bills, to eat, and to have fun. That’s why I worked so hard.