Interview: John Hopkins gets real

Interview: John Hopkins gets real

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Interview: John Hopkins gets real

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Seventeen years removed from his rookie season in the 500cc world championship, John Hopkins walks down the sun-bleached grid of the Circuit of The Americas a few minutes before the start of the 2019 Red Bull Grand Prix of The Americas and just quietly looks around. Present to perform work duties for series promoter Dorna Sports, Hopkins, limping visibly from a career full of spectacular crashes and the injuries that came with them, smiles as he trades handshakes with luminaries such as Kenny Roberts, Kevin Schwantz, Wayne Rainey, Freddie Spencer and countless other industry representatives.

“Yeah, I still get the rush of being out here just before a race,” says Hopkins, squinting from the fierce Texas sun and trying to look up at the tens of thousands of fans up in the grandstands towering over the front straight at COTA. And Hopkins certainly knows what he’s talking about; an Anglo-American rider, who after two short and incandescent winning seasons in the American-based AMA Formula Extreme and AMA 750 Supersport series, threw caution to the win, gambled, and with the help of American Suzuki, decided to look to 500cc.

“Before my dad passed away from lung cancer, he made it up to watch me at Willow Springs,” reflects Hopkins. “It was there that I got my first chance to ride an RS125. I was 12 years old. That was the decider in my mind. I knew from that point that I was more into road racing. I was doing over 110 miles per hour on that 125, and at 12 years old I thought that was the coolest thing in the world. From the adrenaline and the enjoyment I got from riding that bike, I would say that mentally that was the deciding factor.

“I started riding at Willow Springs a lot because I was too young to race, because there were no organizations that would let me race,” he continues. “From age 12 to 14, every week I was out doing track days and riding Willow Springs on 125s. At age 14 we got Willow Springs to change the rulebook so that I could start racing. At age 15, John Ulrich took me on and I started racing for his team and the Valvoline/EMGO/Suzuki team. In 2000 I raced the AMA 750cc Supersport class for John and won that championship. The following year, I raced and won the Formula Extreme Championship.

The eclectic schedule of racing and machinery allowed the Californian to flourish. During the 2000 season, while Hopkins was competing on the 750, Peter Clifford of the WCM MotoGP team started expressing interest in Hopkins and had him fly over to test the 500.

“The WCM team was looking for a young American rider,” says Hopkins. “The team and the sponsor, Red Bull, wanted it. Peter Clifford also wanted it. American team owner John Ulrich was Peter’s good friend, and John told him about me. John was like, “I have a rider right here if you want to try him out and see how it goes.” I had just learned to ride a 750, and here I was on my way to the Czech Republic to test a 500cc Grand Prix bike!”

While in the Czech Republic, Hopkins shook down the 500cc race bike. He got off of the thing with cramped fingers and an ashen white face. “Besides the bike being like a switch – the stopping power, the turning power, the engine power were just unbelievable – the first test didn’t go too bad,” explains Hopkins. “I rode the bike and didn’t crash it.”

Committed, undaunted and out to be all he could absolutely be, Hopkins held steady at Suzuki, a member of Suzuki’s MotoGP effort from 2002 all the way through 2007. “I always grew up riding and racing Suzuki bikes,” says Hopkins. “Suzuki was always my favorite brand of motorcycles. No question. When I went into road racing to begin with, my first ride was with Suzuki. The second I had that opportunity to race at the pinnacle of road racing with the factory Suzuki team, that in itself was a dream come true for me.

The early opportunity with Suzuki was a “dream come true”. Image by Wood/LAT

“Over those years, it was a just a lot of development. The four-stoked had just come into the GPs and it was a development stage for all the manufacturers. Unfortunately Suzuki, at least in those beginning years, didn’t have, even remotely, the same kind of budget as Honda and Yamaha and some of the factories had. There was a lot of struggle during the beginning years, for sure. A lot of those years I ended up overriding the machines as I wanted to be ahead of everyone on a Yamaha and everybody on a Honda when it just wasn’t feasible at the time. That led to a lot of injuries, and I ended up crashing a lot do to overriding the bike. But it is what it is, and that’s always been my nature: to go out and give it 110 percent.

Then came the 2007 season and the potent Rizla Suzuki Grand Prix bike. A fast, dynamic and well-designed motorcycle, it powered Hopkins to four podiums that spring and summer.

“Suzuki had designed a really good 800 that year,” offers Hopkins. “We were so used to, in all the years prior, having to raise our corner speed because out bike wasn’t nearly as quick top speed-wise or acceleration-wise as the other machines. When we went into 2007 our engine was a bit less strong compared to some of the other manufacturers, but the chassis was actually really, really good. We were so used to getting the most out of the bike in the corners and that’s how the 800s were, you know? It wasn’t a point-and-shoot bike anymore. You really had to hold corner speed. We ended up being really, really strong with the bike right out of the box. We ended up getting our first podium in China, and it ended up being a really, really good season. It was a good year.”

For the 2008 FIM MotoGP season, Hopkins made an on-the-fly decision to clear his desk out, pack up his belonging and make the move over to Kawasaki to be front and center on their new MotoGP effort. Truth be told, it was an ill-fated exercise that ultimately left Hopkins reeling.

“I left Suzuki due to loads of stuff,” he says. “ I got to this stage in my career where I needed a change and I needed to freshen things up. Suzuki, at the time, at least in my head, had gotten to a place where it seemed like we had leveled off. We had the performance at the beginning of the season and we had a great bike right out of the box, but then it seemed like things had evened up and the other people had started to open up the gap again, as far as development.

“I felt like we were going to unfortunately stay at the same performance while everyone was getting better and better. At the same time, Kawasaki was saying that they were going to come in and throw everything and every bit of money that they had at the new MotoGP project. They told me that if I was to ride for them that I’d be the number one rider, and that they’d build the bike entirely around me. It was a lot of promises.”

Right from the onset, the Kawasaki project was a disaster and Hopkins can swing a lamp over the reality of that situation via an incredibly wicked crash he suffered on the Ninja ZX-RR at the Dutch TT.

“I’d actually crashed earlier in that session that day at Assen,” he says. “I laid it down and threw it into the gravel. It wasn’t a big crash, but I wasn’t able to ride the bike back into to the pits. The mechanics got the bike back into the garage and started to work on it. There was loads of gravel all over the bike, and in the fairings and stuff like that. The boys cleaned it out as good as possible and did everything that they could. They got the bike ready and I went out on it.

The move to Kawasaki promised much, but delivered little. Image by Heath/LAT

“I went for my first flying lap and the front end felt a little bit weird. Mentally, I wasn’t in a good place at all and I just said, “Screw it. I’m either going to crash or I’m going to get a decent lap time.” I ended up throwing it away in the fastest corner there. From the data off the bike we found out that when I was turning into the corner I was going 168mph. What we believed was the cause of it was that the front end of the bike actually never compressed. What people believed was that somehow a rock had gotten wedged into one of the front forks. Before I knew anything the front end was gone, and I was sliding on my back. I didn’t even touch the gravel because I was floating through there so hard. I ended up hitting a solid Armco barrier that was unprotected. The only thing between the steel and my body was a six-inch wooden Cinzano billboard. I hit the Armco barrier and bounced 20 feet back into the gravel trap. Out of that, the only thing that happened was that I broke my ankle and blew out my left knee. All things considered, I definitely got lucky, that’s for sure.”

Besieged by injuries, bad luck and well, at times, bad decisions, Hopkins’ tenure at Kawasaki was out of sorts from the get-go. Recently, this writer reminded Hopkins of an interview they’d done together at Laguna Seca in 2008, when he’d talked about wanting to be more like Barry Sheen and show more personality both on and off the track. It did not go well at all.

“Yeah, well, the GP paddock at that time, man…” sighs Hopkins. “I was partying and drinking harder than anyone out there. I ended up burning out my body both mentally and physically. In 2008, when things got sour, I was still partying but the party was long gone. I was more drinking away my pain. At the time I didn’t want to take any painkillers, so I ended up using alcohol as a pain reliever throughout that entire year, and I was basically living on it in 2008. On top of using it as a pain killer, I was also doing it to drink away my emotional pain of moving to Kawasaki and things being sour and poor race weekend.

Towards the end of his career, Hopkins was locked in a battle with alcohol abuse. Now a broadcaster and podcaster, he’s proud of what he’s overcome.

“I just started abusing alcohol like crazy. I was using it to take away my anguish and pain and sorrow and so forth. That carried on into 2008 and into 2009. I ended up racking up more injuries, and then it all just got to be a little bit too much. My whole personal life had pretty much gone to **** and my career was basically going to ****. I figured that it was time that I had to get sober or else I was going to f****** lose everything. That was a big turning point in my life. There’s things that happened and I could say, “Oh, I wish this didn’t happen” or “I wish I hadn’t done that.” To be honest, I don’t regret anything. I don’t regret anything at all because all of that led because all of that led to the person I am today.

“To be honest, I’m really, really happy and content who I am today and happy with what I have. I just don’t think that would have happened with things carrying on with being on a high. It was my downfall. My downfall with my alcoholism was always going to come down to it as I was always abusing alcohol. I don’t regret anything to say the least.”

But that was then and this is now, and Hopkins has taken all that he has learned from racing and competing at the very highest level of the sport and applied that to a TV and media career with Dorna that provides one hell of a nice backdrop to the current reality of the MotoGP surroundings.

“For 2019, Dorma is having me do a MotoGP podcast throughout the season,” smiles Hopkins. “It’s going really well! Also, when I do live TV as a broadcaster, I get a big buzz and a lot of adrenaline from it. I think that comes out when I’m doing TV and I really enjoy it. Looking back at it now and of course times progress, but in 2007 I was on the podium and finished fourth overall in the world championship. In 2008 and 2009 everything came to a head with injuries. Still, I was proud of what I accomplished with Suzuki in MotoGP. I felt like we all worked together to make Suzuki very competitive.

“You know, it just all happened the way it did. To look back, riding a full season on the 500cc two-stroke was also a huge accomplishment for me. I don’t regret any of it. I love the sport and I’m proud of what I’ve done.”

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