(originally published August 2001)
He went from junior mechanic to struggling privateer to full fledged factory rider to the pinnacle of the sport – AMA Supercross Champion.
We asked David to comment on a variety of topics, and here’s what he had to say:
Privateer Days – Back in those days I always went to the races with my mom and dad. I had one trip that I wanted to make to the National just outside of Denver, Colorado in 1981. At first they weren’t going to let me go, but finally they decided I was old enough to make the drive from our home in Virginia to Colorado and race that National by myself. Our family was not well-off in terms of finances, so getting to that event was difficult. I ended up driving my mom’s car – a Toyota Celica. And we had no trailer to tow the bike with.
So, the bright idea was to take the front wheel off of my bike and bolt the front forks to the hitch on the back of the car. My Kawasaki Uni-Trak rode in a constant wheelie all the way on the rear wheel! I drove the 1000 miles with a little brake light hanging off the rear fender of my bike. And I had everything packed solid into that car. My clothes, riding gear, tools, bike stand, cooler, gas can, … all kinds of stuff. It was a classic sight!
It was early in the morning when I pulled into the track after that long drive. I saw all the factory mechanics. I parked off to the side away from them over in the grass. Then I saw all the factory riders come into the track in their rental cars. All the big names were coming in: Chuck Sun, Kent Howerton, Warren Reid, and more. As they got out of their cars I could see they were professionally dressed with their respective team shirts. I thought “Man, that is the life!”
In my qualifier for the National some guy center-punched me while I was leading. I broke a rib, and I wasn’t able to qualify for the National. I drove all that way for three laps. I put my bike back on the hitch, packed up the car with all my stuff, and became a spectator for the rest of the day.
As I was driving home all I thought about was what it would be like to be a factory rider.
Three years later I flew to that same race. I drove into the same track in a rental car. I didn’t have to qualify because I was the points leader. And I won both motos.
It was so very important to have that experience as a privateer to appreciate what I would later have.
Factory Rider – For the 1982 season I signed with Honda. I really didn’t know what to expect. It ended up being more overwhelming and more special than I ever dreamed. That was the year that Roger DeCoster and Dave Arnold really got permission from Japanese management to take control of the team and the bikes. And we had a huge team: Chuck Sun, Darrell Schultz, Danny ‘Magoo’ Chandler, Jim Gibson, Johnny O’Mara, Donnie Hansen, and myself. And we had Jeff Spencer as our trainer.
Honda came out with an incredible bike. It was the first time the entire rear section of the bikes could come undone. It was one piece and made out of aluminum. The bike had an aluminum gas tank that came all the way down to the engine cases. It had a fuel pump to pump the gas back up to the carb. The bikes were red, but they had a blue seat that ran all the way up to the gas cap. I was in dreamland.
At the end of that year came another defining moment for many of us. Donnie Hansen got hurt in Europe while on the des Nations team. He had won everything in America that year. That ended up being the end of his professional racing career. I didn’t fully know what was going on, except Honda called and said “We need you in Europe”.
I flew over, joined the team, and we won the 250 Trophee and 500 Motocross des Nations. For me to be so young, along with being my first year as a factory rider, it gave me such a concentrated dose of experience. Those two weeks in Europe with the team and DeCoster and the foreign press and the different tracks and culture and money and food and languages was such a wonderful experience.
After I came back from Europe and started preparing for the 1983 season, Honda signed Bob Hannah. Bob was a hero to me. Lining up next to him on the starting line was great, but for him to now be my team-mate was tremendous.
I ended up winning the supercross and national championship in 1983. Possibly it should of been Donnie Hansen’s.
I look at what’s happening today with all the money and exposure the sport is getting. That’s great. Sometimes I miss it. But I wouldn’t trade my time for anyone else’s. As an example, today we have the “production” rule in place. Back in my time we had true “factory” bikes.
Nothing can beat the feeling of flying to the factory in Japan, seeing the design of the new bikes on an office chalkboard, and then walk around the corner and see the actual bike in the race shop. To see it in real life …. to start it for the first time …. not knowing what it would sound like …. works bikes back then were to motorcycles what Formula 1 is to autos.
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To see a 33 second video of David at the 1985 San Diego supercross, click on the photo of him here. It’s a 1.4 meg QuickTime file. If you don’t have QuickTime, you can get it here – http://www.apple.com/quicktime
1986 was the final year I was able to race. The rivalry and competitiveness and battles with my team-mate Rick Johnson … I’ll remember those forever. I finally was able to beat Rick and win the 500 series after he won the supercross and 250 nationals. That was incredibly tough. Rick pushed me so much. It came down to the final moto and the final laps to actually win that title. Rick and I were the two best guys. It seemed like everyone else was racing for third.
We capped off the year by winning the Motocross des Nations in Italy. It was Rick, Johnny O’Mara and me. We had a perfect score at that event.
I went into the 1987 season with the wrong attitude. I was obsessed with beating Rick. My dad was telling me “You need to be more aggressive. You need to be more like Rick. You need to be willing to ride more over your head if you plan on beating Rick.” At the same time Rick’s dad was telling him “You need to be smoother like Bailey.” Instead of being who I am and riding to my own potential, I changed and tried to ride different. I rode over my head. I took more chances.
I had domination on my mind. I wanted to beat Rick every time out. And that’s ego. All racers have it. But it came back to bite me. I couldn’t handle being second. It wasn’t enough for me to beat all the other guys. I had to beat Rick. That’s what I loved most about racing with Rick – no one ever pushed me like that.
The crash – I crashed at a preseason race in 1987. I broke my back. I became paralyzed from the chest down.
The darkest times for me came about a year and a half later. I was still so worried about getting out of the situation I was in. I couldn’t do ANY of the stuff I did since I was a kid. I was devastated.
It wasn’t like I worked at a desk, got hurt, went thru rehab and I was still able to go back to my desk again. I didn’t have a desk. I had a motorcycle I couldn’t ride anymore. I had a mountain bike I couldn’t ride. I had running trails I couldn’t run on any more. Everything was gone.
I was so focused on all my friends that were still out there racing. I felt as though they were making money and traveling the world. I was bitter. Then some one said to me “It doesn’t matter what they are doing. It matters what you are going to do. So the sooner you quit comparing yourself and start worrying about your potential the better.” That had a positive effect on me right away.
Many people thought I could win in 1987. I thought I had a good chance. Regardless, I always wanted to go out on top. And I did! Of course it’s not the way that I wanted to go out, but I went out on top. No one ever said “how”. I tried to look at that as a plus. I tried to look at the positive things. My wife was still with me. My son was still with me. I moved on.
As I started to become a bit more confident in my life a friend of mine named Scott McLemore called. He was in charge of putting supercross on TV. Bob Hannah was the color commentator at the time. They looked at a lot of different people to replace him. Scott told me later that he wouldn’t of called me to help with the TV programs if I hadn’t gotten my life back together. Scott gave me the shot at doing television.
I figured TV would be easy. I said “Yes” right away. But it’s much harder! It takes a lot of work, and it’s a big responsibility. If you say something you didn’t mean, or it came out wrong – tough. You just have to live with it. And it’s not like you had a bad race and maybe 40,000 people saw it. If you have a bad show quite possibly a million people saw it.
I took TV seriously, just like racing. I felt it was a unique opportunity. The sport took me out, but it also took me back in now. I looked at it as a second chance. My first show was the Gainesville national in 1993. I was teamed with Dave Despain. At that time Art Eckmann was the pit reporter.
Look for part 2 of David Bailey Speaks coming online soon. He’ll cover Television, Family, Competitors, Ironman, and the Future.
(originally published August 2001)