Lee McCollum Interview
Lee: Officially, I’m Travis Pastrana’s race technician. That’s what it would say on a business card. On my contract it says I work for Travis Pastrana, but I am employed by Suzuki.
How did you get started being a technician?
It’s kinda’ a long story (laughs). I started like everyone else by working on my own bikes. Then I worked in a bike shop. A guy who worked for Dunlop stopped in one time, and saw me change some tires. He said ‘Hey, would you be interested in doing that at the races?’ That’s how I got from the motorcycle shop to the races.
I worked with Dunlop tires for three years at road racing, and then a couple years in motocross. I stopped working with them in 1989. And then I switched to working on bikes again. I started working at KTM. Keith Johnson from Massachusetts was their lone rider back at that time. I worked with him in 1990, and the beginning of 1991. Dunlop called and had a deal working with tires on the Grand Prix road racing series, which is primarily in Europe. I was based in Birmingham, England, which is where Dunlop is too.
I took that opportunity, leaving KTM midway thru 1991, and went to Europe. I finished 1991 there, and started 1992 there as well. After the season was over, and I came back home to the US, and I was contacted by someone at Suzuki.
I’ve been with Suzuki since the fall of 1992.
Who are some of the people you’ve worked with in the past?
In 1993 at Suzuki I worked with the amateur sports program. I went to a lot of races in a box van, and my main focus was to help any Suzuki riders at the amateur races. In 1994 I moved to the race team, and I worked with Phil Lawrence. Me and Phil pretty much had a disastrous season in ’94. Phil got hurt at the second supercross of the year. He went over the bars and hurt his knee on press day. And then he broke his collarbone. In 1995 Suzuki hired Tim Ferry. I worked with Timmy in ’95, ’96, and ’97. Tim left Suzuki, and in 1998 I started working with Larry Ward. I worked with Larry in ’98 and ’99, and then Larry left Suzuki. And then I started working with Travis in 2000.
Are there differences in working with different riders?
There are differences in personalities. And I have my own personality too. There are definitely two sides.
My goal is to do the very best job I can do. I’ll put in as much time as it takes. Makes no difference what it is either. If I have to go practice with the rider, I’ll do it. If I have to work on his practice bikes, I’ll do it. If I have to live with him, I’ll do it. Whatever it takes … we just want to get the job done.
There are always ups and downs with any rider. But if you always do 100%, and your rider knows you’ll do 100%, that’s all anyone can ask. He knows in his mind you’ll do whatever it takes, and that you don’t take any shortcuts, and the rider will know he doesn’t have to worry about those things.
You’ve won races and championships, and you’ve DNF’ed. How do you deal with that? How do you keep an even keel?
Sometimes it can be difficult. But you have to know going in that there will be ups and downs.
I remember at High Point in 2000. Travis was all set to win that race. And then his spark plug cap came off in the mud. Days like that are hard.
But it all comes back to if Travis knows that I gave it 100%, then it’s hard to criticize. We all have bad times. Riders have bad times. They can go out and win, and then go out and crash. And no technician can be upset with a rider if he knows the rider gave 100%.
It always keeps coming back full circle to if someone is giving it 100%. If you have a problem, and you get disappointed, you get over it and move on. We did our best, but maybe today wasn’t our day. Let’s start working on next week.
|Lee assisting Sean Hamblin at the World Cup|
Any advice for people that want to get in the same line of work as you?
For me, the main thing I learned was thru working on my own bikes. As a kid, I raced, and I didn’t have a lot of money. I didn’t have any support. I was on my own. I bought my first dirt bike with money I saved from a newspaper route. That’s how I started.
Today there are motorcycle mechanic schools, and those are great. You can get a lot of good experience there.
But with a race team, and in the racing environment, there are a lot more things that go on that you can’t learn in a class room. The big thing in the racing environment is time. You are always working against the clock. It is very important – there isn’t any substitute for time.
If you are working on your bike, and the sound goes off for first call to the starting line, and you are not prepared, your day is done. Your whole week is over.
Preparation is key. Having everything in order beforehand. Even with good preparation, things won’t always go right.
When you are working and learning about motorcycles in a class room, you have time to complete your project such as building a motor. It’s not like that in the racing environment.
We have two days each week to complete rebuild the motorcycles. Take it all apart, check everything, service what needs to be serviced, and put it completely back together. It’s all measured against time. That clock is always there.
There are so many things that culminate on race day. All the preparation behind the scenes comes together on that day. All the people at the factory in Japan that help in making the bikes better, all the people here in the States that work on various components. All the work during the week shows on that one day each week.
What happens after the end of the season?
Right after the Steel City race we started testing for supercross. We do ‘early season’ testing with our Japanese counterparts and technicians. The technicians bring over parts from Japan that we test on the Suzuki supercross track.
This year, we had to get ready for the World Cup Motocross at Glen Helen. I was just going to help out, but then at the last minute Sean Hamblin was selected to ride, and we went to work getting a bike ready for him on short notice. After that, it’s more time in the race shop, and testing for supercross.
In testing for the new year, we compare parts, motors, motor settings, new suspension and settings, see what we like, and what we don’t like. We don’t really have an ‘off-season’ anymore. I think it’s become a thing of the past (laughs).
Our goal in 2003 is to win a supercross title. Our expectations are to win some races, and be in the hunt all the way until the end of the series.
I want to see all the Suzuki guys do good. But all my hopes are with Travis. I work for Travis, and I want to see him win. I’ll do everything I can to help make that happen.