Erik Buell Unplugged, Part 3: What's It Like Being E.B. Anyway?

The man who made Buell Buell has been knocked down before - and gotten right back up. A few months after the Harley-Davidson axe fell seemed like a good time for an Erik Buell interview.

Cycle World Racing Articles: What

Cycle World Racing Articles: What

Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all. —Dale Carnegie

I think I'm finally getting old enough to understand a few things I never did before, things like the long trajectory of a person's life. Things like, the reason I have always liked motorcycles is that they're not just motorcycles: They're symbols and metaphors for bigger things and ideas, projections of character and creativity. When I was younger, I'd look at someone's success and think, "Yeah, I could've done that, given different circumstances," before I realized successful people create their own circumstances. When I first heard of Erik Buell and rode a couple of his early motorcycles, I didn't laugh, but I did assume this guy must be some sort of crackpot Harley reactionary. Later I learned nothing could be farther from the truth, and when Buell's XB line of fuel-in-frame bikes arrived not so many years later, I was able to appreciate what a lot of work and perseverance must've gone into putting such a machine together, what a long time some embers have to be banked, and maybe even more importantly, that the mechanical aspects were probably the easier ones. Dealing with slippery people, fickle organizations and byzantine corporations, having the red carpet rolled out, having the rug yanked out from under... why do some people give up early on while others just keep plugging away? It's fun to try to find out. And Erik Buell's a great person to ask.

CW: Erik, do you ever get depressed? All these years of beating your head against walls? Do you have a religion or philosophy you ascribe to that helps you through it all?

EB: I get depressed, but I've dealt with it as much or more than anybody. I've had a lot of things go wrong, a lot of things in my life. I've developed the ability to know you can't give up. It makes no sense to go back and do it again , but I can't imagine doing anything else.

CW: There's such a big difference between people who try a thing once or twice and give up and get a job, and people like you. What is that?

EB: I've had some things happen in my life that are pretty amazing. I think those things have had an influence on me. Believe it or not, I had an out-of-body experience and was dead for awhile and was brought back to life... I was sent back, told "There's more to do down there." I absolutely do believe, I know, there's something after this. On the other hand, I believe what we're doing here is important. Or you wouldn't get sent back for it. And it doesn't mean that it's the most important thing in the world; it just is like, if your time isn't done here, you should be enjoying it because it will be done. You won't get to do it again. You might as well do the best you can. The other place I went to was wonderful, spectacular, it was ecstasy and freedom and release—and to be sent back from there into this busted-up body was agony! Why come back? What's the reason to experience this temporary time in these fragile bodies of ours?

CW: What? When did all this happen? You crash a bike into a tree or what?

EB: I hit a wall at Charlotte. I should write a book about this. I was there with a girl I was dating at the time who I was very much in love with. She was a teacher just graduating college. I was in night school and working and she came to the races with me and was there in the hospital after the crash. She was the one who ran out of the room when I stopped breathing and got the doctors to come back in. She was pretty shaken up about the whole thing, and about six months later, when I finally healed and was going back to racing, she told me we couldn't be together, that she couldn't deal with me racing and wasn't going to discuss it, because she knew how important it was to me, that I was obsessed with it. So she went her way and I went mine. I was pretty devastated by that. I loved her very much.What's bizarre about it, is when I had the out-of-body experience, the voice told me you have to go back for her, she needs you. And I could never tell her that. It's like my tongue was tied—like it wouldn't be right to tell her about that. So I was doubly angry when she split from me; it was like, what the hell was that about?

And now I'm married to her! She was married to a really nice man, had two boys—and the husband died when the boys were young. After I'd been married a couple times and divorced and completely dedicated to never, ever having anything to do with anyone ever again... I ran into her and, ahh, married her. So I'm taking care of her and the boys and it's a wonderful relationship. And she takes great care of my kids, and it's an absolutely wonderful marriage. And you sit there and go, holy crap... maybe sometimes patience is a good thing. Sometimes you wait.

CW: Being in a great relationship makes everything else seem a little bit small.

EB: A good relationship is a huge bonus. It gets you through so many things. And this one was such an exceptional situation, for me, the history...

CW: Did you bump into her in the grocery store?

EB: A brother-in-law of hers, who's a pilot, read an article about me winning an entrepreneur of the year award in a magazine in some airport during a layover. Then her family was having some dinner—it's a really tight, fun family—and they were going around the table telling their secrets, some kind of game they play. And she says, "Before I married John, I almost married this guy who was a motorcycle racer." And they dragged my name out of her, and the brother-in-law says, "That's funny, I just read an article about him." And he sent her the article, and she wrote me and said, "I'm happy it all worked out for you, and you didn't die..."

We exchanged some notes after that, and finally when I was home alone at Christmas I decided to call her. And when she picked up the phone, it was like, fantastic, her voice brought it all back. But maybe it wouldn't have gone anywhere from there. But then, the next day, she got a phone call from her husband's godmother, who she'd never talked to in her life...and this woman out of the blue tells her, "You know, I've been thinking about you since John passed away some time ago. My husband died when I was young and I never remarried, and now I wish I had. If you get the chance to remarry, you should do it."

Isn't it amazing how things like that can happen? I don't know what part of my attitude comes from that, but I think a part of my being able to stay positive comes from things like that, like something, somebody, reaching out from some unknown place at complete random, at just the right time. It makes me want to battle through. And this has given me a lot of strength now.

I'm very sad the business stopped. The worst thing for me was people losing their jobs; that was just devastating for me. I couldn't believe it was happening. I was desperate to find a way to save them, and the people who bought the bikes: Oh my God, how are they gonna get parts?

I was overwhelmed at first. Then people started helping people find jobs. It was a real close family. People started calling, sending e-mails when they heard somebody got a job—then I got this little job , which is employing seven people from Buell out of the 200-and-some we had. But it's a start. We got every piece of information buttoned up so Harley can keep making parts. A couple of people went to Harley to take care of service issues.

You know, I got the thing going with the racing to keep people positive. I found that was the only thing I was thinking about. I don't think, through that whole period, that I was ever sorry for me, and I don't think I ever will be. It was much bigger than me and much bigger than the name: It was the philosophy, it was what we were doing, it was the people who were working there that made the place work, and it was an amazing little place. Not a lot of people understood, we did it all. It wasn't like all the engineering took place at Harley and we put the Buell name on it, not at all. It was that little team at Buell. And I think they did a great job. And the racing, that's what I was really looking forward to. I had great people on board who could do a lot with a really small team. And that knowledge didn't evaporate; it's still there. And who knows when or how at this point, but I feel like we'll be back. Who knows what form that takes, but we're still here, we're still standing—and I want it just as much as I ever did. More than I ever did.

JB: Amen!

Tish and Erik then (with a kid who's now an attorney)...

Not bad for 1985, eh? Just in time for the AMA to replace Formula 1 with Superbike in 1986, leaving Buell's RW750 a bike without a class.

One big happy family.

A good snow car. Buell's barn-built 'Vette was packin' a Chrysler Hemi.

...Tish and Erik now (after having put several attorneys' kids through school).

This is the kind of hair we all used to have.

Riding a Velocette in the snow is less surprising than that EB was able to get it to start. Kudos...