Merlyn Plumlee - The Quiet Genius

Merlyn Plumlee's Incredible Career Included Numerous Championships Over 25 Years, But Everyone Remembers Him For His Humanity

"There's one thing I want to say, and I'm sure you've already heard this: The most important thing about Merlyn Plumlee is that he was a good man; he was a good person," Rob Muzzy says. And he is right. I had already heard that from everyone who knew Plumlee, saddened by his passing at the age of 55 after a two-year battle with lung cancer. "Forget that he ever had anything to do with racing or how successful he might have been," Muzzy continues. "That's not really important. Merlyn was truly a good man. He had compassion; he cared about people. And I think that's why you probably are going to hear nothing but positive stuff about him. Had he been a banjo maker, it wouldn't have mattered. He would have been accepted by people and liked by people the same as he is now. So the most important thing as far as I'm concerned about Merlyn Plumlee is he was truly a nice, good man."

If you've never heard of Merlyn Plumlee, it's not surprising. Plumlee wanted it that way. He didn't seek publicity and it didn't seek him, despite a record of technical excellence that spanned 25 years and numerous championships (both on the World Superbike stage and in the AMA Superbike arena) as a mechanic, crew chief, mentor and friend to some very lucky riders at Honda and Kawasaki. What concerned Plumlee was very simple: that his rider and his team be given the best chance to win. And to that he dedicated his life. Yet all who came within his orbit felt privileged to know him.

Plumlee worked with a number of stars. Some were well-known when they met him, but most became famous under his guidance. The list includes Nicky Hayden, Doug Chandler, Scott Russell, Fred Merkel, Freddie Spencer and Ben Bostrom. The last rider fortunate enough to work with Plumlee was Jake Zemke.

"I'm really happy that I got to work with [Plumlee] that one year," Zemke says. The Californian was with Plumlee during the very difficult '05 season when American Honda decided to forego using fully developed but very expensive Honda Racing Corporation (HRC) superbikes from Japan and just build its own from scratch. Zemke remembers Plumlee being nonplussed by the task's immensity.

"It was always, 'We're going to get this bike to win races. We're going to get this bike to be as good as what you were on and better. The problems we had with the HRC bike, we're going to fix those.' I was never rattled by anything because Merlyn wouldn't let me get rattled by it."

Just as the team was making progress at the end of the year, Plumlee's cancer was diagnosed, and his medical treatments severely limited his ability to travel to races. He continued to work at the shop, however, and he would attend the occasional race in California. "I'd say 95 percent of the people in this world, if they found out they had cancer—he and [his wife] Marta owned property in Colorado—they would have moved, left everything behind and said, 'Let's go and do this,'" Zemke relates. "But Merlyn was a racer himself and spent all those years around the racetrack. That's what he did; that's who he was. That's what he wanted to do. That's how he wanted to spend his time, continuing to improve things and make things better. And it just says an awful lot about the guy right there."

Even though he didn't see him as often, Zemke remained close to Plumlee. "Merlyn was a special guy. He was only the second person I ever met in my life that had the kind of impact on people that he did. You meet people all the time, but you rarely meet a person that no one has a bad word to say about, that every person the guy meets considers him their friend. As much as he meant to me and what he did on the racing side of things, I think the impact he had on people's lives-whether it was racing people or nonracing people-was way bigger than anything he ever accomplished in the racing arena."

Plumlee accomplished a thing or two on the racetrack himself. His early racing talents earned him an AMA National number on the dirttrack circuit before he started roadracing. That knowledge is what made him a much better crew chief, according to his former riders.

"[He knows] what it's like to be in the saddle," former MotoGP World Champion Nicky Hayden says when asked what made Plumlee so special as a tuner. "I heard from other people he was a pretty handy dirttracker. When you hear him tell the story, he couldn't get out of second gear. He always knew how tough it was and had been in that position. I think that was one reason I liked working with him—he got it. Some people sitting there watching racing, until they've been in that saddle, until they've been on that grid, they really don't know. Even though they act like they know what it's like, they don't. Merlyn really did."

Zemke agrees, describing Plumlee's approach as "'If the data says this but the racer says this, well, I'm going to go with the racer. I've got to believe his feeling over what the computer says.' That's where having a crew chief who's been a racer is invaluable, because they've been there and they know what you're talking about. And they're going to trust the riders' instincts rather than just what they're reading on squiggly lines."

Plumlee was born in Colorado and had the good luck to meet Bill Brokaw, a motorcycle dealership owner in Colorado Springs who recognized the talent of the teenager as both a rider and mechanic. Plumlee went to work for Brokaw and eventually started racing.

After a referral to American Honda by a former colleague at Brokaw's shop, Plumlee's debut with the team as a crew chief came in 1982 at Daytona with motocrosser-turned-roadracer Steve Wise. The team had moderate success, but the following year Wise was badly hurt in a crash at Road America. He was replaced by Fred Merkel, a flamboyant Californian who was in the Honda support program.

The pairing was immediately successful. Merkel won the AMA Superbike Championship three years running, from 1984 to 1986. But the following spring Plumlee decided he'd had enough and moved back to Colorado to work for his friend Brokaw.

In the fall of 1989 Plumlee went to work for Rob Muzzy, who ran Kawasaki's AMA Superbike effort. Muzzy had teamed with him during Plumlee's first tenure at American Honda. While Plumlee was winning with Merkel, Muzzy was paired with future champion Wayne Rainey.

"There was a lot of friction [in the Honda camp]," Muzzy remembers, "but not between Merlyn and I, at least not in my opinion. If I could help Merlyn in some way, I would. And Merlyn would certainly help me in any way that he could. When I say 'me,' I mean our team. But Honda's way has always been to divide people, pit people against each other. Although all the rest of the crew pretty much had that attitude, Merlyn and I never did."

The first year with Muzzy Kawasaki in 1990 produced another Superbike Championship, this time with Doug Chandler. Then Plumlee was gone, off to Europe to work with Merkel on the Rumi Honda World Superbike team. Although Merkel had won the World Superbike Championship in 1988-89, in 1990 he dropped to sixth with the Ducatis in the ascendant. It was even worse in 1991, when Doug Polen routed the field and Merkel was eighth on the increasingly noncompetitive Honda RC30.

Plumlee returned to Muzzy in 1992 and won another AMA Superbike Championship, this time with Scott Russell. But then the Rumi WSB team enticed Plumlee to return to Italy as its manager for two years. The project soon became something that Plumlee didn't enjoy. What he liked was working on motorcycles, working with riders and winning races and titles, not the time-consuming administrative side of racing.

Plumlee often disagreed with Muzzy on how he ran the race team. "He would express his views of my management skills, those that he didn't agree with," Muzzy says. "There was never any kind of heated argument—or I don't think either of us ever took it personally. He basically felt that some of the decisions I made were not in the best interest of, let's say, the team."

Late one night on the weekend of the '94 WSB season finale in Sugo, Japan, Muzzy got a knock on his hotel door. He remembers the conversation. "He said, 'I've just got to tell you, remember those discussions we used to have? I now understand. I can't tell you how many times problems would come up and I'd say to myself, What would Rob do?' I said, 'Well, hey, that's OK, Merlyn, I told you that before. We just see things differently.'" When Plumlee left at the end of 1994 and returned to American Honda, "it was easy for me to understand," Muzzy says.

Gary Mathers, who ran Honda's race teams during their most successful years, remembers the day Plumlee decided to return. "He phoned me up one day and said, 'Hi, boss, I'm thinking of coming back to the States. Can I come work for you?' My reply was, 'When do you want to start?' After I hung up the phone, I kicked back at my desk and said 'Yesss!' So he came back and worked there from then on."

Mathers didn't ask him why he wanted to return. "I was just happy to get him back. He'd said that he'd had enough over there. I think it was a pretty tough deal. The bikes weren't that competitive." The American Hondas were.

Plumlee won yet another title in 1998 with Ben Bostrom, but his enduring legend came with Nicky Hayden. Mathers put Plumlee with Hayden for the '00 season, and the pairing was brilliant. They nearly won the title on their first try and did win it in 2002. What very few people know is that it almost didn't happen.

Senior Honda management wanted Mathers to hire Kurtis Roberts over Nicky Hayden. Mathers knew that would be a mistake. And he also knew that Plumlee wouldn't work with Roberts. "I wanted to keep Merlyn, and I knew that I wanted Nicky. But I also knew that if I hired Roberts, Merlyn would quit. One day when I was fighting for Nicky, Merlyn came up and he said, 'You know, I'm not working for Roberts.' Merlyn very seldom ever said anything negative, ever. But if he ever said [he was going to do] something, you'd better believe him."

Plumlee was almost like a father figure to Hayden. Their personalities were different—Hayden is more outgoing, Plumlee was more circumspect—but both had the same work ethic and desire to win.

"Some of my mechanics in the past, it's business; you want to have a good relationship with them and be on the same page, and sometimes you don't necessarily want to be buddies with them," Hayden says. "You're there doing the job. I think me and Merlyn had that relationship a bit. At the track, we were always business. It wasn't just buddy-buddy. It went deeper than just working together. He meant more to me than that."

On the night of August 25, 2001, AMA National dirttrack racer Will Davis was killed at an event in Sedalia, Missouri. Davis was first a hero and then a teammate of Hayden's during the latter's dirttrack days. Hayden got the news of Davis' death on the morning of the AMA Superbike final at Pikes Peak International Raceway in Colorado. Initially he was devastated, but Plumlee calmed him down and enabled him to focus on the positive aspects.

"I remember Merlyn coming in that morning, almost like a dad, you know. I remember the quote word for word. He said, 'No shame in getting killed doing something you love to do.' Not really a pep talk, but we just had a little talk. Won the race that day. So, I mean, that was a pretty special thing.

"I loved riding for the guy. It was a sense of pride. When you won, it just made you feel extra proud, like you did him justice. I was lucky to get to ride for him at that time. I was 18, and those are such important years. I'd just moved up to Superbike, and he helped to make sure I learned; he didn't just do stuff for me. He made sure I understood how and why he did things under the team and how they went about things. Just taught me a lot.

"I'd like to say I just caught on quickly as an 18-year-old rookie, and I think we got within a handful of points beating Mat [Mladin] that year. Really, truth is, that was luckily just having a good team. Mathers knew how to build a team there. I definitely think [Plumlee] was the perfect guy at the perfect time for me." Hayden lobbied HRC to hire Plumlee as his crew chief after his second season in MotoGP, but Honda refused. Still they remained close.

Hayden had one last conversation with Plumlee. He was driving from Phillip Island to Melbourne, Australia, after a devastating mechanical DNF in the Australian GP in October 2007.

"Obviously, I just had a miserable day, and here I was thinking things were so rough. And he's like just typical Merlyn, no problem too big or too small. He said, 'Well, yeah, I got a little funky patch myself going here. No biggie.' Wasn't quite ready to give up yet. Fight that one out a little bit longer. You thought he was talking about a virus in his computer, not about to die of cancer. He didn't want to talk about it. He wanted to talk to me about how I was going to turn things around, what Michelin was doing, what about next year's bike, if I heard anything on it. It was nothing about him."

The final testament comes from Rob Muzzy: "Merlyn loved what he was doing. He was a true racer, and all that mattered to him was that he did the best that he could do to support his rider, his team. And the self-satisfaction, that was what he needed. He didn't need the glory. He was a very humble man."