WHERE ARE THEY NOW? Bob “Hurricane” Hannah

An interview with the outspoken American motocross legend.

Bob Hannah and his Yamaha motocrosser

It's easy to answer the question above: Bob Hannah—a California kid with surfer looks who had the grit, determination, and talent to win seven AMA National motocross titles—is at Yamaha Headquarters in Cypress, California. He and nine other Yamaha moto legends (Wayne Rainey, Eddie Lawson, Rich Oliver, Broc Glover, Rick Burgett, Mike Bell, Jason Raines, Ty Davis, and Bill Ballance) are being enshrined into the company's Wall of Champions as part of an employee-focused 60th Anniversary festivity. Fortunately for me, a big fan of motocross in the 1970s and early 80s, I get the chance to interview the Hurricane before the party begins, just as the In N Out Burger food truck is setting up shop for the day.

What have you been doing since your retirement in 1989?

“I quit racing in 1989, but I did some testing for another seven years. I worked with some riders and I quit around 1996. I was working with riders and testing bikes. At that time, I raced some airplanes and I was in the warbird business. I was flying them all the time so I started buying, selling, and trading them. Then I got a partner, and we got a new business. We’ve got three dealerships and we sell airplanes. It’s in Boise, Idaho.”

Is it true that you raced P-51 Mustangs?

“Yeah. That was a lot of fun. Until 2000 I did. We still deal in an occasional P-51. Actually, the last warbird I bought was a Japanese Zero, which is kind of funny.”

That’s pretty rare, right?

“Yeah, they are. It was a real one. Made by Mitsubishi. It had been crashed in New Guinea and rebuilt in Russia. One of three. We bought and resold it. And now I sell more mainstream airplanes, anything from a two-seater to a jet.”

Yamaha Wall of Fame enshrinees

Honored Yamaha motocrossers: Hannah, Broc Glover, Mike "Too Tall" Bell, Rick "the Lumberjack" Burgett, Keith McCarty.

Describe your typical workweek.

“Let’s say this. My dog wakes me up at 5, I hot tub, I drink some hot tea, I get on the Internet and at 9 o’clock I go to the office. My first phone call to my partner is at 9 sharp. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, I work out in the gym. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday I ride a bicycle. We shoot on Thursday afternoons, we fly on Saturday in the backcountry with customers or friends, and any other time is mine. For some people, that would be pretty boring. For some people, it would be exciting. I don’t know.”

Do you miss motocross?

“No. It’s too hard. It beats the crap out of you. I like what I do now.”

Growing up in Lancaster, California, in the High Desert, did that help you?

“Absolutely. If you want to ride motorcycles and get a lot of experience, living out there was awesome. It would be like living in Hollywood, I guess, if you wanted to be an actor. I literally had thousands of hours of riding before I ever raced. I’d go buy five gallons of gas, mix it up, and ride right out of my yard. I could ride anywhere.”

Your first race was at age 18. By today’s standards, you were an old man.

“It’s late. But I really don’t think it couldn’t be done again. I think a kid nowadays, if he rides, gets a lot of experience. But on the other hand, he gets burned out. I was not burned out. At 18, racing was brand new to me. Now these poor kids, if they have been racing since the age of 8, they have had 10 years of their daddy whipping on them to win races. You’re strongest when you’re 27. Why do you have to start when you’re 8? I think it’s a bunch of bullshit. I know that’s the way it is, and I know that’s the way it’s going, but I don’t think that’s the way it has to be.”

Bob Hannah vintage motocross racing action

Hannah dominated the 1977 Supercross series.

What was your secret? Why were you so fast?

“It was a lot mental, and it was a lot physical. I wasn’t always the fastest. When I first started racing, if you had time qualifications in 1976 or even 1977, I would be 10th. Jimmy Weinert, Tony Distefano and a lot of other riders could outride me and were faster. How I won those races in the early days was because of conditioning. I knew that. I learned that young. I had always been a bicycle rider, a runner. I ran track. That helped me a lot. Hanging onto the bike is one funny thing I learned at a young age. My father would really get pissed if I crashed a motorcycle. So I hung on until the last second.

“Another thing: Every new factory rider out there now has never had a job in his life. I did. I loaded chickens. I washed dishes. I washed pots. I was a welder. And I was deathly afraid of that. I loved working… when it’s my job. I have two partners in developing land, I have an airplane partner, and I can’t wait to talk to them in the morning. I love working. I have to do something. But I do not want to have to go to McDonald’s and flip burgers. If I wouldn’t have ridden like I did, I might have been there. And that scared the shit out of me. New guys aren’t scared of work because they’ve never worked. That is a serious disadvantage for them.”

Did you bridge the gap between old-school motocross and the current sport?

“I guess I was right there. But I don’t know if I brought anything that Roger DeCoster didn’t have. They named him “The Man” for a reason. He had a business mind, he had the same ethics that I had. He didn’t want to work either, and he knew what it took to put it together and he did it. He didn’t get to be 5-time world champion because he was stupid. I got into it in an era when I might have changed the money around a bit. I was instrumental in getting rider contracts beefed up. Did I change the style of riding? No. I don’t think so. I stole everything I knew from Roger DeCoster.

“I helped with contracts and I helped riders make more money. I said, ‘Why are we doing this for free?’ Or, ‘Hey, I’m not showing up unless you pay me. If you really want me there, pay me.’ That changed a lot. Now there’s so much money in it. And now I think the more money that gets into it, the more it ruins it.”

Roger DeCoster 1976 Saddleback race action

Roger DeCoster 1976 Saddleback.

Why did you never chase the world championship in Europe?

The real problem? The French don’t use deodorant and neither do the Belgians (laughing). I’ve got an issue with that. That’s the first problem. Food is the second problem. And it’s a long way away. The fourth problem? In those days, those guys who rode in Europe were a bunch of badasses and probably would have kicked my ass. Okay?”

Who was your most formidable foe?

"Roger DeCoster. I mean, he was 'The Man.' I wanted to model myself after him. I studied his riding and his attitude. You asked me why I was so good. It's because I wanted it. People say they want shit, but I wanted it really bad. I wanted all of it. When Roger DeCoster walks onto a premises today, he walks up, he has a presence. People look at him and go, 'Wow, that's Roger DeCoster!' I wanted that. I won't beat around the bush. I wanted the money. I wanted the prestige. When Roger walked into U.S. Suzuki one day in 1975, I couldn't believe what I saw: People stood up quietly and stared. And I go, 'Now, that is the man.' I wanted all of that, and I wanted to work for it. I don't know if that makes you bad, but that's the truth."

What is your favorite motocross track?

“Unadilla in the old days.”

Why?

“It was nasty, rugged, natural. European style.”

Bob Hannah vintage headshot

What did you think of Saddleback Park in Southern California?

“I loved Saddleback. Saddleback was a different kind of place than Unadilla, but that’s the kind of crap I grew up in. Saddleback on a good day was bitchin’. Big monorail berms four feet high! Saddleback is its own place. Not on Wednesday. But on Sunday when it was prepared, it was a wonderful track. Different, but wonderful.”

Who do you admire in motocross today?

The two young Yamaha riders, Martin and Webb. They are a couple of kids that I really love. I watch them all the time and I just did a little piece with Yamaha with Jeremy Martin and he’s a super cat. You know in the 1990s, we had a bad batch of riders and I just hated it. I didn’t want to be around them and I didn’t want to work with them.

Bad in what way?

“Bad in being lazy, worthless. I hate to say it, but that’s what I say of most of them. I couldn’t stand it. The attitude now of these two kids is back where it should be and they’re wonderful. When you have a kid with an attitude like that, you love to be around them. I hope they both go right to the top.”

Do you prefer natural terrain courses or stadium tracks?

“I would rather ride natural terrain, although during the days I raced supercross, I loved supercross. Today, I wouldn’t want to be caught dead on one. My ankles wouldn’t take it. I liked both in the day. They’re both different and I liked them both.”

Yamaha Motorcycles Wall of Champions

Have supercross tracks changed?

“Yes. Here’s the difference between the old days and now. Nobody even puts this into perspective. The riders nowadays can go out on the first lap and jump 90 percent of the jumps there. With just a look, they look at the track for a second then they go jump the jump. When I rode supercross, if you did that, you were dead. None of the jumps were the same. They were pointed. They were squared. They were nasty. The whoops weren’t as nasty in our day but the jumps were way more dangerous than these jumps today. These jumps are premade to the inch and they know what they are. And they know third gear with a little blip goes right over that jump, and second gear goes over that jump. When supercross started, it was pretty dangerous. We didn’t know what the track was going to be like. Mike Goodwin would put a big mud hole in the middle of the straightaway. They were crazy.”

How often do you get recognized in public?

“Daily. Even in Idaho.”

You okay with that?

“I enjoy it most of the time. If a guy recognizes me and he wants to talk, I don’t mind. I flew into an airport yesterday for breakfast in Sacramento. I landed and had breakfast there at a place I do all the time, because I wanted to look at an airplane. There was a guy sitting there at breakfast who recognized me. It’s every day.”

What are you most proud of in MX?

“Not really the championships. I don’t look at championships or overall wins. I’m proud that I just got off my dead ass and really did it. You mentioned Saddleback. There’s a friend of mine who’s very rich. He had a very rich father. At that time, I looked and said, ‘Man, I wish my dad was rich like that, and had all that stuff, too.’ But if I would have had a millionaire father, I would have been a lazy bastard. And that’s a fact. I would have been ruined. It wasn’t like that. My father didn’t have any money.”

2015 Yamaha Wall of Champions inductees

All the riders who were just added to Yamaha's Wall of Champions.

Married? Any kids?

“Married. Four Golden Retrievers.”

Two-stroke or four-stroke?

“Both. I like them both. Doesn’t matter to me.”

How did you get your Hurricane nickname?

"It was at a local race. At Saddleback. A few people take credit for it. An announcer said it there before I was ever known. That's where it got started. Jim Gianatsis made it famous in Cycle News in 1976. But somebody first said it in 1975."

Hannah and Keith McCarty

Hannah and Keith McCarty, still enjoying themselves so many years later.

How’s your relationship with Yamaha?

“Yamaha is a different deal. I tell the new riders that Yamaha is way more of a family than the other companies. I’ve been around the other companies, and it’s different. This place is more like a family. I come around here, and I know everybody. There has always been that feeling, and it has been that way since 1976 when I signed with them. In those days, we hung around the factory more. We hung with the mechanics more. We lived with the guys. When I was with Keith McCarty, I was with McCarty . We lived with each other. We didn’t just see each other. I know Keith way better than Jeremy Martin knows his mechanic. I can guarantee that. It’s a family deal. McCarty is family to me. Like Bob Starr . Yamaha is a different place.”

Any regrets?

“I don’t have any. I could have kept my mouth shut a few times. But that’s a hard thing to say. If I didn’t open my mouth and say what I said, I wouldn’t have been me. And some days I’m gonna piss people off. I always say there are eight guys who are going to like you, and two who are going to hate you. It doesn’t matter what they say. You can kiss their ass all day long and they are still gonna hate you. So I don’t try to make people like me. I don’t give a shit. Never did. I don’t try to make people hate me. I treat them like I like to be treated.”

Bob Hannah.

Honored Yamaha motocrossers: Hannah, Broc Glover, Mike "Too Tall" Bell, Rick "the Lumberjack" Burgett, Keith McCarty.

Hannah dominated the 1977 Supercross series.

Jim Gianatsis

Roger DeCoster 1976 Saddleback.

Hannah.

Marty Smith and Bob Hannah, at the Unadilla start line.

Jim Gianatsis

Hannah, in early 1978.

Think this guy's serious? Look at Hannah's determination in 1978.

Jim Gianatsis

Vintage Hannah.

Bronze sculpture of Hannah flying at Unadilla, alone in the lead.

Bronze sculpture of Hannah flying at Unadilla, alone in the lead.

All the riders who were just added to Yamaha's Wall of Champions.

Yamaha Wall of Champions.

Hannah and Keith McCarty, still enjoying themselves so many years later.

Keith McCarty and Hannah.

Hannah speaking.

1979 OW40 Hannah.

1979 OW40 Hannah.

1979 OW40 Hannah.

1979 OW40 Hannah.

Hannah.

Hannah.