SR Archive: 1999 Interview With Rob Muzzy

Despite the odds, Rob Muzzy rose above it all

This article was originally published in the June 1999 issue of Sport Rider.

Rob Muzzy interview
Rob Muzzy has seen many triumphs and many tribulations, but he always rose above it all.Photography by Fran Kuhn

Rob Muzzy tells a story few others can tell. Not because he is a compelling raconteur, which he is, but because few people survive what he went through to tell the tale. After all, how many people do you know who have survived a midair collision?

If nothing else, Rob Muzzy is a survivor. His racing career began on a dragstrip in the late ’50s, moved to the desert in the early ’60s, then to the dirttracks in the mid-’60s, and on to speedway in the late ’60s. “Somewhere in [there] I figured out I always had the fastest bike but I couldn’t necessarily ride it the fastest—so I started doing work for other guys,” he says. This is how, in due time, Rob Muzzy became one of the most successful roadrace team owners ever.

Muzzy’s defining characteristic has always been his handlebar mustache, but the indelible stamp of his career has been a velocity-fueled alchemy. Al­though he’s not known for having the best-funded team, Muzzy has still managed to attract many of the best racers America has produced to ride his machinery to a number of titles, often defeating better-financed efforts. Those who quibble with Muzzy feel he doesn’t spend enough on machinery or me­chanics, but his riders are well compensated with some of the best incentive packages in racing. And you can’t argue with his results.

Rob Muzzy's successful career
Muzzy’s defining characteristic has always been his handlebar mustache, but the indelible stamp of his career has been a velocity-fueled alchemy.Photography by Fran Kuhn

The list of titles is long and impressive: Eddie Lawson, AMA Superbike Championship 1981 and 1982; Wayne Rainey, AMA Superbike Championship 1983; Kawasaki quit racing then, so Muzzy went to work at Honda building dirttrack engines for Ricky Graham, who won the AMA Grand National Championship in 1984; Wayne Rainey again—this time on a Muzzy-tuned Honda—AMA Superbike Championship 1987. And then Honda, like Kawasaki in '83, quit racing. "At that time I decided, oh the hell with it," Muzzy remembers. "Actually, my wife decided for me that I should go back into business."

Once he got the job of handling Kawasaki's resurrected U.S. roadracing effort in 1989, Muzzy made a more concerted effort to make the business successful. Results came slowly at first, but the titles soon began to mount. Shall we ring off another list then? Doug Chandler, AMA Superbike Championship 1990; Scott Russell, AMA 750 Supersport Championship 1990 and 1991; Scott Russell, AMA Superbike Championship 1992; Scott Russell, World Superbike Championship 1993; Miguel DuHamel, AMA 600 Supersport Championship 1993.

But 1995 turned out to be a pivotal season for Muzzy. Anthony Gobert, who Muzzy signed up for the '95 WSB team alongside Russell, proved to be a difficult and unappreciative rider, and then Russell broke his contract midyear to race the Lucky Strike Suzuki in the 500cc World Championship.

Things were better in America. Doug Chandler came back to Muzzy’s camp and took his second AMA Superbike title. (An achievement he would repeat in 1997.) This past year Chandler was in the hunt right down to the final race in Las Vegas where a motor problem took him out, forcing him to accept second to American Honda’s Ben Bostrom.

A dry recitation of Muzzy’s accomplish­ments doesn’t illuminate the achievements or the men who have earned them. “Every rider is an individual and no two guys are alike,” Muzzy believes.

“Of course, Eddie—there was nothing acceptable to Eddie except first place. He was a very determined rider. The one thing I remember the most about Eddie is something very similar [to] Doug. Eddie had the ability to know exactly what his equipment could do and not go beyond that. And he could ride right at that point, so he always got the best out of the thing. Maybe he didn’t win the race, [but] somebody else might have pitched it away trying to go faster and he ultimately won championships because of that. And frankly, Doug’s the same way.

“Eddie and Doug were exceptional at helping to set the bike up, [they] knew if it was better or if it was worse if you did something. Gobert, at least when he was with us, had tremendous talent, tremendous energy but almost no savvy on what the bike’s supposed to do. Many times it’d be doing something horrible but he just figured, ‘They all do that—I’ll just ride around it.’ Which is maybe why he’s learned to ride at the level he can because he’s tried to ride around every problem instead of fix it. That’s the other side of the extreme. Gobert can do stuff I’ve never seen people do on a motorcycle.”

Gobert proved to be difficult, a trend which has crept into racing lately; one which Muzzy finds discouraging. “He was hard to work with because he wasn’t appreciative of the effort that people put in and he was vocal about that. It’s always hard to work for a guy who’s telling you that you’re a stupid ass.”

Wayne Rainey, who went on to win three 500cc World Championships, was the complete opposite. “Wayne was a lot like Bubba Shobert in the fact that he was tenacious. They just never gave up. In my opinion, that was those guys’ strongest point. They might not have had the talent level of Lawson or Chandler, but they were just bulldogs. Those guys would be in the middle of the pack, and the next thing you know at the end of the race they’re right there. Where another guy might have gone, ‘S—t, I just can’t—I’m not going to catch these guys. I’ll cruise around in third.’

“Russell was a guy that, probably…had the biggest fire burning in his belly of anybody. He just wanted to win, really really bad. When he won the World Superbike championship it wasn’t easy—it was hard. He had to ride over and above every time he rode. I think it took a toll on him ultimately. You can only go beyond so many times before you kind of got to lose some of the flicker. I think that I was able to be involved with him differently than any of the others. When [Russell] came to us, he was just a club racer out here. And when he left us he was a world champion. I kind of saw him from the beginning to the end.”

Muzzy remembers Russell’s sudden departure as “one of the most painful things I endured in racing. There was a lot of emotion there, we’d been together for a long time. And I can’t take it any other way than, to some degree, as a personal thing. Now, I think I have a little different viewpoint on all that stuff…and I think if a guy’s been somewhere, I don’t care how much success he’s had, it’s like marriage. You work so hard to have success, that you just get tired after a while and maybe you forget that everybody was involved in that success. I’m not sure what happens. He worked so hard for so long that he just believed some place else had to be better.

I still say to this day that if Scott [had] come to us and discussed it and gone through it, it really wouldn’t have needed to be the big thing it was. That wasn’t what he chose to do.”

The turbulent 1996 season had caused Muzzy to wonder how much longer he’d stay in the racing business, but the past two years had rejuvenated him. Then, this off-season, there was another bullet to dodge. Doug Chandler was unhappy and wanted to leave. Ducati tried to court him but Muzzy and Kawasaki made it right, allowing Chandler to forego the 600cc Supersport class and hiring a crew chief to replace Gary Medley, Chandler’s long-time tuner who had left.

For Muzzy, it was another bump in the road but not one he couldn’t handle—not after his experience on December 26, 1986. Muzzy was flying his four-passenger Mooney 231 airplane over Southern California with his instructor, simulating instrument conditions by flying “under the hood” (wearing glasses that prevent you from looking forward, but give a clear view of the navigational instruments). He’d take the exam for his pilot’s license the next day. While performing a missed-approach drill, Muzzy’s plane collided in midair with another aircraft that was being piloted by another student who was also flying maneuvers under the hood.

“In my case I was flying straight into the sun and it’s entirely possible the glare kept my instructor from seeing. It took a large portion of the wing of [the other student’s] airplane and put a large hole in mine.” Muzzy radioed in a mayday to the Long Beach Airport. The airport closed down to all flights and gave him the main runway. He guided the plane to a safe landing, as did the other pilot.

“It was exciting and it was scary, but the reality of it all wasn’t that big of a deal.” Much of Muzzy’s career parallels this incident, with near disaster followed by a phoenix-like rise—and Muzzy soaring above the clouds.