MotoOnline.com.au goes one-on-one with AMA Superbike king Mat Mladin about his history, the present, and the future.
With six championships, 81 victories, and 61 pole positions to his name, Australian Mat Mladin is statistically the greatest AMA Superbike Championship rider that there has ever been.
At 37 years of age, Mladin moved to the United States in 1996 and has never looked back, setting himself up as one of the richest motorcycle racers in the world – earning even more than our latest world champions Casey Stoner and Troy Bayliss, according to the annual Business Review Weekly top 50 sports earners list.
Last year Mladin reportedly pulled in a massive $6.5 million for his efforts, only topped in motorsport by fellow American Suzuki rider Chad Reed and Formula One star Mark Webber.
But it’s not the money that drives the determined Mladin, who has a perfect record to date this year after arch-rival Ben Spies left the AMA Superbikes to go and chase his world championship aspirations.
In a no holds barred interview, we catch up with Mladin to catch his thoughts on his success, Spies, business, and find out why he never did make the step to the world championship once he won a few titles in the USA.
Note: This interview was conducted in April directly after the Road Atlanta round while Mladin was on a short visit back to Australia, and he has since announced that he will be opening the Bike Gear Warehouse – selling the apparel that is currently imported through Mat Mladin Imports direct to the public at wholesale prices.
Firstly Mat, the bikes are a lot more standard now that the series is run by Daytona Motorsports Group – what are they like compared to the real Superbikes that you are used to competing on?
The engine’s softer, there’s no doubt about that. We are probably down around 12-14 horsepower, and on a percentage basis with torque we are down further than horsepower, so they’re soft to ride. To me it almost feels 600-ish, or like a Superbike when you ride at a high altitude. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s still got 190 horsepower, but overall it’s softer. The power’s softer, the chassis’ softer, the swingarm’s softer – it’s a street bike, everything’s production. It’s certainly not something that I’d ask for if I was asking for a race bike [laughs].
Is it a disappointment to you that such a strong series that you have been the leader of for many years has been clouded by a lot of political things this year?
Well, the people who run DMG are not silly people and they’ve been around a long time. They’ve obviously had some success in their lives and some failures the same as all of us. Frankly I see some of the things that they are doing make sense, but I see a lot of the things they are doing are from completely left field. They obviously have a reason for why they are doing it and not everybody agrees on everything all the time, but I understand what they are trying to do.
The fundamental problem in motorcycle racing is that you will never keep a motorcycle race close while there are corners. It’s that simple. Because in any series around the world there are always only two, maybe three, guys who can run at the front.
People talk about close racing in 600s or whatever, but in the end, it doesn’t matter whether you’re playing marbles or racing grand prix bikes, there’s always going to be the guys who are at the front every weekend and there’s a reason for that. It’s because they’re the best riders. That’s the reason.
What they’re trying to achieve isn’t achievable without handicap racing, and then it becomes achievable. But then the results will be different every weekend. All as I know is that if that’s what the goal is I’m glad that I’m near the end of my career because that’s not why I started motorcycle racing.
The other thing is that the motorcycle crowd is different from the NASCAR crowd. DMG have a lot of good ideas, there’s no doubt about it, and some of the things that we see at the races actually makes sense, but their ultimate goal is to make motorcycle racing close and unless we go around in circles at Daytona on 100 horsepower motorcycles then it’s never going to be close. That’s just the way it is. The same guys will be at the front all the time.
What handicaps do you think would allow somebody like a Jake Holden or a Geoff May to beat Mat Mladin?
[Laughs] honestly, the problem that you see is that where a world championship is strong is that the depth of good riders is deeper than what it is in a national championship. It’s not that their best riders are better than some of the national champions, as is proven quite often, it’s that the field is deeper.
The problem that we see, and America is no different, is that you have one guy who is 15 seconds in front and the gap back to the next guy is so far that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to a motorcycle to make a second a lap [laughs].
Short of us riding a Superstock bike and everyone else riding a full World Superbike spec motorbike, the gap won’t get closed by doing anything realistically that they can do. I mean, a lot of the factory teams over there are two seconds off the pace. You could give them Valentino Rossi’s bike and they’re not going to make up two seconds.
It’s a case of trying to find enough talented guys who are going to run up the front all the time, and that’s just never going to happen. Never. Unless they change it to NASCAR style racing where we go around in circles, and then you’re going to get something different.
We’ve all seen your former arch rival Ben Spies and his form in World Superbike. Do you miss the competition with him in the AMA?
I do, yeah. I knew that when I turned up at the race track and had to race Ben that both of us had to get everything out of ourselves and out of the bike to run at the front. In the four years that we raced Superbike together he won three championships and we won one, but we won a lot more races than Ben in those years that he won championships.
Most years we won 12 races to his six or seven, but most of those years we jumped off a couple just for the sake of having a bit of fun I suppose [laughs]. But yeah, I do miss the pressure of having to perform at a level that if you give it up a little bit you’re going to struggle. I miss the competition for sure – to the point that I’d go to Europe [laughs].
Does watching Ben take victory in Europe make you feel any regret for not taking up the challenge of WSBK so far in your career?
No, not at all. For me to have world champion next to my name when I retire isn’t going to make any difference, but I should add to that by saying that a number of years ago when I was quite a bit younger I would have killed for the chance to race in the world championship.
But certainly over the past decade it’s been something that I haven’t cared to do simply because I enjoy my life in America, and I have almost a six-year-old daughter now. To read about someone like Ben going great in Europe, from a personal standpoint, I get enough satisfaction knowing that I pushed the kid hard for four years and that I helped him become the rider that he became. And that’s great.
I’ve already fielded a couple of calls from World Superbike teams about going over there for next year, so maybe they’re already a bit worried that there’s no stopping him. Maybe they’re looking for somebody to stop him. All I can say is that they are lucky that he’s not on the Ducati, because if he was they’d have no chance – that motorcycle he’s riding isn’t even close to what the Ducati is [laughs].
What if Davide Tardozzi called you up and offered you a factory Ducati ride for good money?
We’ll have to see won’t we? Good money in World Superbike isn’t good money in the AMA. The AMA has been a good place for us and it’s set us up for life, but right now money’s certainly not as high on the priority list as what it used to be, so who knows? I don’t suspect that Ben will be in World Superbike next year anyway. If I knew that he was going to be there and the right deal came up, then who knows?
Why did you always stay in America? Is it the lifestyle, the money, or the success that you’ve had in that series?
The lifestyle encompasses so many things like where you enjoy to be, the money, the lot of it. You know, it’s a bit different now, but a decade ago when you get offered X amount of money to live in America, which is somewhere you really like to live and you have other things on the go like flying and that sort of stuff, and someone offers you 1/6th of the money to go and race in Europe, at the time it didn’t appeal to me at all.
It appeals to me now for completely different reasons, but in the end I think that a lot of motorcycle riders around the world are being underpaid. For the amount of motorcycles that are being sold, I think that a lot of riders around the world are very underpaid, and I think that everybody who races the Superbike World Championship comes under that category.
Not only yourself, but even 600 riders in America are paid well. Why do you think that the AMA series is so lucrative for riders?
America believes, well from Suzuki’s point of view, that the results on the race track have a lot to do with the amount of sportsbikes that they end up selling. I think in 2007 the Suzuki sportsbike range, including the Hayabusa, sold something like 45,000 units, and that’s a lot of money. And they believe that it’s a direct result of the racing, so they don’t mind paying the right riders to do the right job.
You went to 500GP at a very young age back in 1993 with Cagiva. Did that experience turn you off Europe?
Ah, yes, it did. Basically the naivety of being young and being someone who enjoyed being at home is what ultimately turned me off Europe. The experience of being over there racing and seeing how it worked at a professional level is something that I wasn’t prepared for. I said it back then 15 or 16 years ago, or whatever it was, and I’ll say it again now, but two years before I went grand prix racing I was still riding dirt bikes.
I had posters on my wall with guys like [Kevin] Schwantz and [Wayne] Gardner and those guys, and then the next minute I was lining up on the grid with them in the Australian Grand Prix – it was just a blowout.
But we had some decent results that year too, even though it was only my third year of road racing. My best result was a sixth place in Spain, and we had some decent results, but I didn’t want to go back to the same thing and I ended up coming back to Australia.
Would I change it now as to how my life’s turned out? No way, I’d do exactly the same thing again.
What was it like racing against the likes of Mick Doohan and Wayne Rainey?
I don’t know, I didn’t race them [laughs]! I wasn’t in their race, mate. I quoted the other day that Ben Spies is the best racer that I’ve ever raced against, and somebody said to me, “god, you’ve raced against Mick Doohan and those guys”, and I said “I’ve been in the same race as Mick Doohan, but I’ve never raced Mick Doohan” [laughs].
It’s a question of how long’s a piece of string. When I raced Mick he was well and truly in his prime, and to see the way he went about his business and to see how hard he worked certainly helped me to realise that it’s a bunch of hard work to be successful in any form of racing. I don’t know Mick Doohan that well personally, I know him to say hi, but the respect I have for seeing how he could ride a motorbike is obviously very high.
But yeah, so in the end, I never raced those guys. I had the privilege to see those guys in qualifying or something and to try get behind them to learn as any young kid does, but when it came time to race I didn’t race those guys.
I remember as a young kid you shocked everybody in Australian Superbikes and showed the world how good you were, which was what took you straight to 500s, but before you got there did you think you had a shot at podiums?
Oh god yeah, I thought I was going to win! But no, listen, I’ve always respected a good motorcycle racer, but when I was younger I was totally cocky in thinking that if I won the Australian Superbike Championship then I was in with a shot at doing the business over there for sure, there’s no doubt about it.
But I quickly realised once I got over there that I was in a whole different ball game, and it was good. It taught me a lot of lessons in life being over there and seeing those guys and how they went about their business.
So yeah, did I think I was going to go over there and do well? Bloody oath I did. I thought I was going to go over there and clean up, but I soon realised that wasn’t going to happen [laughs].
How long can you honestly see yourself racing for? Are you enjoying it as much as ever?
Yeah, I mean, the last few years racing with Ben I was enjoying it as much as ever. People ask how could I enjoy coming second in the championship, but for me it’s not about winning championships anymore. It’s about getting out there and seeing what I can do and how hard I can ride.
At 37 I’ve obviously been around for a little while and it takes a lot hard work to continue to stay in decent shape to be able to keep doing it, so am I enjoying it this year as much as I have in the last few years? No, but I’ve made up for it by going out there and pushing as hard as I can and if I crash while being out there 15 seconds ahead of the rest of the field then so be it.
So, I’m still pushing as hard as I can. How much longer am I going to go for? I don’t know yet, we’ll just have to wait and see.
You’re not only a racer, but also a successful and intelligent businessman, how is Mat Mladin Imports going now that you are well established?
It’s an interesting question to ask right now because obviously times are tough and motorcycle sales are going downhill in a hurry. It’s an interesting time to be involved in business and right now you can continue to do things the same as what you’ve always done and struggle through, or you can change the way that you go about things.
And right now with Mat Mladin Imports we are in the process of changing a lot of things. We’re looking forward to seeing where we end up. It’s all good to sit here and say we’re doing this and doing that, but in 12 months time I’ll sit down with you and tell you how things are going [laughs].
Business is no different to racing as in you have competition and you have a challenge, and if you’re willing to meet that challenge then you have a chance, but if you’re not then you’ll go away.
But obviously when I started in business I didn’t know even close to what I know now about how to go about things, but it’s certainly an interesting industry and yeah, all I will say is that we are looking forward to the future. I think it’s going to be good fun.
How hands on with the company are you considering you’re based in the USA?
It depends what you call hands on. Am I here every day of the week? Of course not, but do I talk to my manager and team every day of the week? Yes, I do. In the off-season I’m here all the time. I mean, I did a lot of seven day weeks in the last off-season and did a number of 25-hour weekends, just on my own in here because you get a lot done.
Like I said, business is an interesting challenge. I wasn’t sure a couple of years ago if I wanted to be a part of the industry, but over the last six months I’ve realised how much I really do want to be a part of doing what we do and turning this into a very successful company. We are certainly on the way there and yeah, I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be good.
So you’re satisfied with where the business is at this stage?
Well if you’re ever satisfied then you fall behind. Could we have done things better in the past? Yeah, sure. But life’s not about the past. Life’s about trying to figure out how to do things better when you do them next time and we are certainly on our way to doing that.
You came on the scene as a very talented young kid in a hurry for GP racing and are now a many times champion in both Australia and America with a family life. How much have you changed as a person during that time?
In a hurry, that’s an understatement [laughs]. But, that’s a good question. Listen mate, there’s no doubt that with time and age there’s a maturity and a lot of different things that come into your life. Those kids certainly know how to sort you out in a hurry, and it’s a blast.
It’s a hard question to answer how much I’ve changed, but has my life changed? 100 percent. But to do with racing I’m more motivated and determined than ever to try race the motorcycle as fast as I possibly can. So yeah, that’s where we’re at right now.
Well thanks a lot and good luck for the remainder of the season.