Interviews

Select year

1

2

3

4

5

 On the Wednesday preceding the Carlsbad Grand Prix, two inconspicuous looking vans rolled into the pits at. 'Saddleback Park. The first van, a large yellow box van usually in service to Broc Glover and tuner Jim Felt, had been lent to Heikki Penttilä, factory Yamaha mechanic. Riding shotgun was his Finnish girlfriend Tina, on her first trip to the United States (funded, incidentally, by working the past two years in a Finland bank). Inside the van was a brand new white and red Yamaha bearing the #1 plate on all three black ovals. Just recently shipped to the United States from Yamaha in Japan, it was the machine that Heikki Mikkola would ride in both the Carlsbad and Canadian GP events—to be later shipped back to Amsterdam and retrieved by Heikki Penttilä and used by Heikki Mikkola as a "spare" race bike. Mere motocross mortals would have killed for the machine—trickery from the hand-lathed billeted chain roller mount to the progressive damping monoshock unit ensured that the machine would draw crowds as soon as it was unloaded (it did—when it was).
    In the other van were three people—riding gear sponsor and importer of motocross attire trickery John Gregory of JT Racing was piloting; Heikki Mikkola sat shotgun, exchanging banter in his native Finnish tongue with his personal professional masseuse, Viejo Namarijuo, who had come here at Mikkola's expense (the factory didn't pick up the tab) to tend to the World Champ's still-healing right knee. As it turned out, Viejo was priceless and a major point of Mikkola's second moto finish later on Sunday.
 Mikkola started the tedious job of wrapping his knee, using elastic bandages, gauze, some glue to hold the smear together, and tape to top it off. He has apparently been doing this for a while--his expertise at wrapping the injured knee was evident. "Don't let it fool you," said John Gregory while we were watching his progress, "I went jogging with Heikki yesterday morning on the beach. He starts out at a slightly fast pace and disappears into the sunset. The man can apparently run until there is no ground left to cover."
    While Mikkola was working on his knee, his mechanic was busy fidgeting with the bike. Although this machine was absolutely identical to the bike used in Europe (right down to the stickers and tire pressure), Heikki the mechanic was busy fiddling, doing what mechanics love to do. We asked a few questions about the machine, and although he wasn't a fountain of information (factory bikes, after all, are built to have an advantage and you don't go giving out your secret racing recipe to just anybody) we did manage to find out quite a bit about the machine. It weighs in at, the FIM minimum-98 kilos, or in pounds, a mere 215.6 pounds without gasoline in the tank.
     We were surprised at the light weight, and asked if we could pick up the rear of the bike. The mechanic obliged, and smiled when we grinned at the lightness and ease at which we could get the rear Pirelli tire to come off the ground. "And no gas in tank, right?" we asked. The mechanic. smiled: "No, no petrol in tank. 'Look for yourself." He unscrewed the gas tank cap and showed us. There was no gas in the tank—only sponges, of very porous material, which were stuffed in the tank to eliminate the problem of fuel sloshing around while riding (we didn't know it was a problem). "We stuff sponges in the tank," explained Penttilä, "it doesn't take up any fuel space and works like a baffle to keep fuel from sloshing from one side of the hump to the other." We
   shook our heads in amazement—not as much impressed by the sponges as we were by Mikkola's ability to feel gas sloshing around in the tank while he rides. Hell we have a hard time knowing if the tank is completely full or darn near empty—sloshing never even entered our minds!
   The bike sports 12 inches of travel front and rear—but can be easily increased to a full 13 inches at each end if the track requires it. As it turned out, the 12-inch set-up proved adequate in travel length, but was too soft for the Saddleback course. After a quick few laps, Mikkola returned to the pits, and Penttilä started flinging wrenches. John Gregory and I had stood at the bottom of a jump and watched the World Champ drag the frame rails and exhaust pipe in the ground lap after lap.
   Up in the front the machine sports springs and air back-up. Very light weight fork oil (about 3.5 weight) is used and the forks are filled to approximately 5 inches from the top of the tube when the springs are removed. In the rear a straight rate spring is used (in comparison, the American Factory bikes use two springs-- one progressive wound unit, and a smaller straight rate). The shock is not a DeCarbon, but rather a different unit, that has progressive compression and rebound damping through the use of different valving and waffle washers. A remote reservoir is mounted on the right frame cradle, and holds oil—no piston. "We used to mount the reservoir on the rear swingarm," Penttilä said" but we like it up front better".
   Inside the motor you'll find different gear rations than what we're used to in production machinery. First, second and third are rather close together, but tall from the onset. It is possible to come off the line in first gear, although Mikkola uses second. A long wide fourth gear leads to the top fifth and sixth gears, very close together in ratios and designed for fast boogeying in the roudy rough stuff found at many of the high speed GP courses in Europe.
   The powerband of the machine comes on, rather tamely at 4,000 RPM and climbs on up to the 8,500 point, although it can be raised or lowered through the use of porting trickery or cylinder height. We asked how much horsepower it made. “More than 50 horsepower, less than 60" explained Penttilä.
   Trickery abounds. The front brake has dual actuating shafts to independently assure that both brake shoes are contacting the brake drum when Mikkola pulls on the lever. Apparently good brakes are important to winning World Championships.
   The forks are turned down to the minimum thickness without flexing too much. The seat has extra padding, the footpegs are built up higher to accomodate Mikkola's short legs that comprise much of his 5'8" height. Grips looked to be stock Yamaha soft MX grips. The air filter is a Phase 2, made in the USA. Tires are standard Pirelli "Penta-cross" models. The bike is tall, squatty and stubby—translated to nasty, serious and nothing to take half-heartedly if it pulls up next to you on the starting line.
   With Mikkola all taped and riding-gear installed, a small crate was set next to the bike so he could better kick-start the machine, taking some of the pressure off the right knee. It fired on the first kick—a good omen. The mechanic didn't seem surprised apparently this is how it should be, and obviously, this is the way it is. You expect the world champ's bike to start on the first kick and it does.
   Mikkola went out for a few laps, leaving us in the pits to inhale the sweet aroma of Castrol oil (standard oil, just like you and I can buy, mixed at a 40:1 ratio). One thing was evident right away—Mikkola likes to bog the motor around,
    riding the majority of the time between 5,000 and 7,000, rpm. Max horsepower is at 7,500 rpm. Mikkola short shifts the bike a lot, allowing the suspension and his natural abilities to get through corners rather than relying on the machine's power to guide him around. After the first riding session, we asked Mikkola about his distinctly smooth, almost constant sit-down riding style. "I ride with the bike, not on it. It is quicker this way. For sure, it looks maybe slower, but if you take lap times, you will find that it is very fast and not tiring. I know what the bike can do and I ride with it, together, so we both go fast."
   We asked if the bike was indeed faster this year than the machine that he won the World Championship aboard last year. "The bike is a little bit different than last year. The suspension is a little better, but the motor is not really faster than last year's motor. This year though, maybe I have to go a little bit faster to keep the nice number on my bike," Mikkola laughed.
    We asked about the knee, a result of torn ligaments from a fall before the GP season. The real problem isn't the ligaments at all, but the muscles which laid dormant while the ligaments healed. These muscles, which run up from the knee cap and up each side of the thigh, have been giving him trouble ever since the knee surgery was completed. "I have been working the muscles very hard," said Mikkola, "A little running, and some special exercises that my doctor gave me to do. The leg is now maybe up to 80% of what it should be."
   Mentioning the jogging session that John Gregory had described earlier, he said "I ran yesterday morning, a little easy and not so fast, but it felt good. I still have a slight headache from the flying, and I hope it doesn't get hot." The temperature at that time was 70 degrees. We wouldn't know about the impending 106 degree heatwave until the following day.
   His knee is progressing to the point where it should be in top shape in a few more weeks. "At the first race I went to I had just been walking for five days," said Mikkola almost apologetically, “but the leg hurt so much that I could not ride—I could only walk and not very good at all. The second time I rode one moto and had to stop because it hurt so much. But it is getting better and I am riding faster each time we go out."
   We couldn't think of any easy way to move into our next question, but Mikkola, judging from the smile he gave when we asked, was anticipating our curiosity. Last year in only one moto, for only a few minutes, he was involved in a heads-up race with Bob Hannah. During the Motocross Des Nations, Mikkola and Hannah finally got to see who was the fastest—at least on that day. We asked Heikki about it.
   "I race with Hannah last year, but only for a little while. He is very good—very fast—but maybe a little bit crazy, yes?" Now he was asking us the questions. We counter-attacked with a "Why do you say that? What happened?"
   "Well it was very exciting," Heikki explained, "I passed him on a downhill and in the next corner I took a wide outside line that is very good and very fast. But he came right down the middle and passed me by going right in front of me on the berm. I very near exited the course because I now had no place to go."
   He got quiet again. We wondered what happened next and sat waiting for him to continue. "Oh, well I did pass him back," he explained, "on the same lap, but then Bob broke his front brake and we couldn't race anymore. I would like to race with him again soon." We asked about the Trans-USA series in the fall. "Well maybe I will take a little time off," he said, "You know
   we race about 45 times a year and adding the Trans-USA would be hard. I need time off to go elk hunting, to go cross country skiing, to get completely away from motorcycles. If I don't take that time off I get very tired and do not want to be around motorcycles that much." During the season however, Heikki does get along with motorcycles very well, thank you. We asked about his favorite track during the GP season. Mikkola, apparently thinking about the up-coming GP at Carlsbad, laughed and said, "Well, it's not the Carlsbad track. It is a very fast track with only one really good line around it and everybody knows the line and uses it. So to go really fast at Carlsbad you have to know how to go around the only line very fast. This I think doesn't take much thinking many times on a course. It's less than 10 meters wide and doesn't have much room to pass in. It's slightly like Italy, the dirt and all are the same."
  "I think that maybe Payerne Switzerland is a very good place that I like to ride at. The track is all grass and-very up and down and very very wide. There are sections with downhill jumps, a .corner at the bottom, and you go right back up again. It's a good course to make you think about what you are doing and make it so that the fastest throttle doesn't win. You have to race more with this (pointing at his head) than this (pointing at his right wrist)."
   For a man who started riding in his early twenties (he's now 33) by accompanying a friend and later buying the friend's practice bike and racing it, Heikki Mikkola has come a long way—as far as you can go. Proving himself by winning not only the 250cc World Championship, but also nailing down the 500cc World Championship—twice—so far...
    From this point Heikki went back to-riding his bike more, as his mechanic adjusted carb jetting. Two more practice sessions ans we were off to eat—an early dinner at 4:00 pm, only to find out that there were no restaurants open for an hour. Heikki took the time to get a massage in the JT van for his leg (he would later have his masseuse help his injured neck from a first moto crash at Carlsbad so that he could return to finish second in the final moto).
    We finally got in for dinner, and before we ordered, a cocktail waitress came in to ask for rounds. When she rapped off the beer selection, it included Michelob. "Mikkola! Mikkola Beer" said the world Champ, "I have to try this out and drink me from a bottle, yes?" If he was serious at all, his mischievous grin gave him away—his English is much better than what many people credit him for—he knew the difference, but decided to give the racer's "traditional waitress ribbing". Mikkola is very funny at times. Earlier in the day, he toyed with another editor who came to talk with him by making believe that he couldn't speak English. In very poor, very abnormally broken English, Mikkola told the gentleman: "You say to John in English. He tell me what you say okay?" Naturally the guy assumed John knew Finnish. He didn't. Mikkola knew it, we knew it—but he was having a little fun. Again, the grin couldn't hide his fun.
   After he consumed his beer ("One of the few that I get to drink") he dove into a crab and steak dinner, talked of Disneyland, interpreted for two of our party who were non-English speaking, and in general relaxed, enjoyed the valley lights below the restaurant and rarely talked of motorcycles. It was Heikki Mikkola relaxing—until three days later when he would again defending his 500cc World Championship, hopefully to retain the #1 plate for the fourth time in his successful career.