Remembering R.G. - 20 Years Later
Ricky Graham celebrates with tuner Johnny Goad during his magical 1993 season.
Sitting here today, looking through the photos I’ve collected over the years, it’s hard to believe it’s been exactly twenty years since my buddy Ricky Graham died in a fire at his Salinas, California residence.
The date was January 22, 1998. Ricky was just 39. My son was just one and a half. He’s 21 now. Wow. Time does fly.
Seems like just yesterday RG and I were riding dirt bikes at a place called Clear Creek, just south of Salinas. Seem like yesterday that we first met, in the middle ’80s when he was a member of Team Honda’s dirt track squad and I was but a junior scribe at Motorcyclist. Seems like just yesterday we’d hung out at various industry functions, or spent time talking in person and on the phone while I was putting together a feature story on his comeback for Cycle World as its Managing Editor in ’93.
Recalling all that, the thing that sticks out the most about RG wasn’t his natural talent, his let-’er-eat riding style, or his absolute command of whatever motorcycle he was on. Nope. It was his quiet, well-mannered and good-natured demeanor. Hands down. The guy was, very simply, a nice guy. Humble. Pleasant. Honest. And earnest. And anyone who knew him would say the same. They still do.
Number two on that list, however, would of course be the Skill Thing – and RG’s dramatic racing comeback during ’92 and ’93 with Team Undo Racing and Johnny Goad. All that excitement, as most folks know, followed several years erratic and inconsistent flat track performances, which had in turn followed a pair of exciting Grand National Championships in the early ’80s, one on a Tex Peel XR750 in ’82, and a second on the RS750 for Team Honda in ’84.
The reasons for RG’s late ’80s collapse weren’t much of a secret, at least to those in the know. Too much partying. And the irresponsibility, depression and self-doubt that comes with that. Ricky Graham had flashed to the pinnacle of our sport, only to be body slammed by alcohol and its associated demons.
But of course, that’s what made his comeback in ’93 so wonderful. Watching him that year, we all discovered that this really nice and really fast guy who had some demons in his closet – shock! horror! – had enough will and fortitude to beat the demons back, at least for a while. Somehow, we knew Graham had it in him. And when he won the Grand National Championship for the third time in ’93, our faith was restored.
I remember talking to him in early ’93 about his slow descent into hell.
“After I won my first title,” he told me on his front porch after we’d gone riding at Clear Creek earlier that day, “people started treating me differently. Like I was on some sort of pedestal or something. I felt uncomfortable with that. I’d always enjoyed drinking a beer or three, and so having beers after the races was a way I could blend in, be part of the group, and not feel like I was standing out because of my success. There was always a party in the pits after the races.
“I was totally surprised when Honda dropped me prior to ’86,” he added. “Considering my ’84 championship on a Honda, and the success I’d had late in the [’85] season after getting badly hurt early on at the Houston Astrodome [four national wins, 5th overall in the ’85 championship], I didn’t think I’d have any problems with Honda. But I felt I could carry on anyway. I figured we’d get a big sponsor, so I bought a motorhome and a big trailer. But nothing happened. It was bad. I was worrying so much about getting to the races, keeping the bikes in shape and paying expenses that I couldn’t keep my mind on racing. I got the point where I hated going to the races.”
But as the wins came less often, just three in ’86, and none from ’87 to ’90, the depression deepened, and the drinking increased. “It was a viscous cycle,” he told me. “The worse I did, the more I drank. And the more I drank, the worse I did!”
When legendary tuner Skip Eaken took Graham under his wing in ’91, things improved. “It was a glimmer of hope,” Graham told me that evening. “It was exciting. I really wanted to win the championship, and figured I could. I thought we had a shot. When I won at Springfield on May 26, 1991, I knew I could do it.”
But Graham was still drinking. And trouble was just around the next turn. He missed the third race of the season at Pomona, too hung over to ride. And coming home from Bubba Shobert’s bachelor party in Carmel, CA, he was arrested for DUI. Eaken had shown understanding over Pomona, but upon hearing of the DUI arrest, promptly kicked Graham off the team.
“At that point,” RG told me, “I was at the end of my rope. I remember telling myself, ‘Ricky, you’re blowing your whole career. You’re blowing your whole life.’”
And then, as most of us know, a certain Mr. Johnny Goad (and a Mr. Jim Landes) picked Graham up off the floor and gave him new life. “I’d seen Ricky ride that massive Harley to victory at the Houston Astrodome in ’82,” Goad told me back in ’93, “and I couldn’t believe it. He was amazing. I’d been working with another rider at the time, but it wasn’t working out. I needed a change, and felt Ricky could win the championship.”
“Suddenly, I had this second chance with Johnny,” Graham told me with obvious enthusiasm. “Pretty quickly, everything became clear and fell into place for me.” There was newfound enthusiasm all around Graham; good friend Danny Malfatti helped with diet and exercise, while fiance Leeza helped keep him focused.
But the big break was personal. Internal. And it had to come. “I realized I was sick and tired of being sick and tired,” he told me. So Graham quit drinking. And that, along with a solid diet and the many workouts, paid off. While he only won a single National in ’92, Graham had his most consistent year ever, finishing third in the championship. “I felt better on the bike in ’92 than I ever have,” he said, “even in my championship years.”
The effort netted him more than a third overall trophy, too. There was self confidence. And self worth. “I’d felt so bad about myself during those years,” he told me that night. “Like everyone was staring at me and talking behind my back. These days, I feel so much better.”
Of course, we all know about Ricky Graham’s 1993 dream season on the Johnny Goad-tuned Hondas: 12 National wins, with six of them coming all in a row. And his third Grand National title. For many it may have been a shock to see Graham rise again to the pinnacle of our sport. But I think for many others, folks who knew RG really well and who knew that the will to win and the work-till-you-drop ethos was still in that body somewhere… Well, they probably expected it.
I didn’t know Ricky Graham quite well enough to predict that. But when I’d go riding with him at Clear Creek, and watch him slide that Honda CR250 motocrosser masterfully through every corner we took, with precise throttle control and body-English perfection on display at all times (though I did see him bail off hilariously a few times!), maybe I should have known after all.
All I know today is that he was one joyous soul after that '93 championship, and that I miss that guy a lot. And I know the vast majority of you flat track fans do, too.
Godspeed again, RG. I hope the TT track up yonder is freshly dragged, loamy and has a nice, thick cushion up top, just the way you always liked it. – Mitch Boehm