Catching Up with Motorcycle Racer Doug Chandler: The Three-Time AMA Superbike Champ Talks about his Lifelong Love of Leaning

 

This article was originally published on Motorcycle.comPhotos by Randy Wilder.

Forty sweaty high school kids are on a group mountain bike ride in the Fort Ord National Monument, outside Salinas, California. They don’t seem to know, or care, about the identity of the tall guy in their midst. To them, he’s just another well-meaning adult along for the ride—probably somebody’s dad.

But anyone in the sport of motorcycling would know who it is, in a heartbeat: three-time AMA Superbike champ and Hall-of-Famer Doug Chandler. The soft-spoken Chandler, 51, is one of only four motorcycle riders to achieve the AMA Grand Slam, with national wins at a mile, half-mile, short track, TT and road race. He won World Superbike races in the ‘90s, and competed in the 500cc Grand Prix World Championships (now MotoGP), placing as high as fifth overall.

But life is different now. These days, Chandler runs a bicycle and motorcycle shop in Salinas called DC-10 (his initials and race number). He serves as race director for the burgeoning MotoAmerica series alongside his friend and neighbor, three-time world champ Wayne Rainey. He rides motorcycles, but never on the street. He also rides bicycles—sometimes more than 250 miles a week—and usually with testosterone-infused teenagers from the neighborhoods around rough-and-tumble Salinas.

“They’re good kids,” he says, leaning over the counter of DC-10 and stuffing a bit more chaw behind his lip. “But most have no idea about my racing. To me, it doesn’t matter. I want to be recognized for what I do now.”

Chandler spends six days a week at DC-10, a nondescript building next to a Honda motorcycle shop, on a stretch of road dominated by used car dealerships. The workshop area is, well, a mess. But it’s a functional mess. Bicycles and motorcycles are everywhere. There’s a well-used dyno. Dirt bikes lean against each other in an angry pile—one is missing an engine. There’s a well-fettled Yamaha dirt tracker. In one corner, a big Honda XR 650 collects dust, awaiting the next trip to Death Valley.

It’s a happy jumble of two-wheel heaven. And that’s where Chandler just might be: heaven. While some MotoGP stars spend their retirements on the Riviera, Chandler plies his trade in an unassuming bicycle shop, on a strip in gritty Salinas. But it’s possible he has something they don’t have: a full, happy life on two wheels.

“I’m passionate about both [motorcycles and bicycles],” he says. “When you’ve been involved in motorcycle racing as long as I have, it’s something you just can’t turn off. If I could ride everyday, that’s what I’d rather do: motocross, flat track, supermoto—if I’m on a motorcycle, I’m happy. I’m still in the same situation, but it includes bicycles now.”

That’s not to say life is easy. Chandler opened DC-10 in ‘09—a tough time to be starting a business of any kind. His wife, Sherry, helps run the shop, and is a bit less sanguine than her husband. “I kind of feel like we did it backward,” she laments. “When the whole racing thing was done, I thought we might be on vacation. But now we’re working harder than ever.”

Still, she admits that her husband is happy–“except when he has to work on Harleys.” They live just a few miles away, off River Road, a scenic byway flush with high-end wineries and housing developments. They have three children: Jett, Rainee, and Quincee. Jett was a pro mountain biker for several years. They’re a close family.

Chandler speaks quietly, but confidently. Running a shop is not a glorious existence, or even highly profitable. But his enthusiasm hasn’t waned. His life is a montage of two-wheeled vocations with one common thread: a love of leaning.

 

Look upon Chandler long and hard, for you may not see his like again. He hails from a time when riders wore steel shoes and sliding sideways on a filthy dirt track was the One True Path to road racing success. Go sideways, young man.

To watch Chandler was to watch smooth, in a way that it’s just not done anymore. This isn’t to say that today’s riders aren’t great; it’s just that the steel-shoe gang rides differently. And Chandler just may have been the pinnacle of this style, scorching ovals from Sante Fe to San Jose, with the back wheel gleefully stepping out.

He won his first race in ‘72, when he was five, just a few miles away at the Monterey County Fairgrounds. He was the second youngest motorcycle rider to win a national, in ’83, when he was 17, earning him Rookie of the Year honors. “That felt pretty good,” he reflects. “But I wasn’t going to sit on it. This was what I wanted to do all my life. When I finally got up to that level, I thought, great—now I want more. I didn’t back down. I proved I could do it, and now I just had to do it week in and week out.”

That, it turns out, was exactly what he would do. He turned pro the same year, becoming part of Honda’s Grand National team. In the coming years he’d win numerous flat track races, finishing as high as third overall in the Grand National Championship, in both ’86 and ‘87.

 

Having achieved success on the ovals, Chandler began looking to the far horizon. He could see the sport was pivoting from dirt track to road—and he pivoted with it. There was also a practical reason for the switch: “I needed points for the Grand National Championship, and at that time, the points [for dirt track and road] were combined. So I decided to give road racing a try, starting in ’83.”

He started winning almost immediately. Suddenly, Chandler saw doors opening in his life, and career. “Road racing was a lot bigger at that time…there were just more opportunities. And from there, I could go to Europe. I was always looking to get to the next level, and move on.”

In ‘90, he won the first of three AMA Superbike titles, on the Muzzy Kawasaki. That same year, another goal beckoned: Europe. He tested the waters during a World Superbike round in Brainerd, Minnesota—and won. “They said it was because I was an American rider, on a home track. They wanted to see me ride outside the U.S. So Kawasaki put me in the World Superbike round at Sugo [Japan]. I’d never been there or even saw videos. I got a day of testing before the race, qualified second, then won one of the legs. That proved we could compete with the best.”

His success on the international stage quickly led to talk of the big show: the 500cc Grand Prix World Championships (now known as MotoGP). “Kenny [Roberts] gave me the opportunity to ride one of Yamahas on the ‘B’ team,” he says. “To me it was no choice; I’d been on the superbike, and I thought: I’ve got to try it.”

Eventually, he would score six podium finishes and finish in the top 10 all four seasons. “It was tough, but great,” says Chandler of his years traveling the world racing at the sport’s highest level. “My last year was ‘94 with Cagiva. I was a little disappointed that they just quit. I thought we had a few more years.”

For perhaps the first time in his remarkable career, Chandler hit a dry spell. “That was a tough time,” he says. “I didn’t get an offer for anything, even World Superbike, for ‘95.” (He spent the season racing AMA Superbike and helping develop the Harley-Davidson VR1000.) “In my first race I broke my collarbone, at Daytona. It was tough, and I started to question myself: Why was I still doing this?”

The answer wasn’t hard to find: Chandler refocused on U.S. racing, and won his second and third AMA Superbike titles in ’96 and ’97, riding for Muzzy Kawasaki—making it one of the most successful relationships in U.S. road racing. His last full season was 2002.

“I’m just thankful that I was able to do all things I could do,” he reflects. “You can’t be bitter about anything. I look at the positive side. I was given a lot of great opportunities, and rode some really cool bikes.”

Some retired motorcycle champions seek the limelight, or to constantly relive the past—but not Chandler. You have to search hard to find evidence of his storied career. There is no vaunted trophy room. A few helmets from the old days hang on one wall at DC-10. There’s a Kawasaki publicity poster, autographed by the champ. Just inside the front door is a bulletin board, mostly obscured by a sunglasses display, with a bunch of yellowing photos: there’s Doug on a minibike, Doug as a teenager sliding around a dirt track at improbable speeds, Doug graduating from high school. You could buy a mountain bike from the guy and never know that you just flirted with stardom. And chances are, he’d just as soon keep it that way.

Pressed for some memorabilia to mark his incredible career, Chandler defers. But from the other end of the counter, his wife, Sherry, pipes up: “What about that box?”

Turns out there’s an old cardboard box of patches, stickers, and other knick-knacks from back in the day. We spend a few minutes trolling through the amazing cache, which includes photos and promotional materials chronicling the always-sliding-sideways careers of Shobert, Spencer, and others. If not for Sherry’s mom, who “likes to collect stuff,” the entire box probably would have been in the landfill by now. But once the contents come spilling out, his face lights up, and he seems to actually be enjoying himself.

It’s not the Chandler doesn’t care. It’s that he’s moving on, to the other things in his life. And you can’t really begrudge him. This is a guy who’s happy to be sweating, hammering the trails on his mountain bike, occasionally falling down in the midst of a couple dozen school kids, working the counter at his bicycle shop, or helping a young dirt tracker learn the nuances of a good line.

Come to think of it, it’s hard to imagine a better life for a retired racer. Good on ya, Doug.

I ask him how he keeps going, staying involved in the sport that’s been his life for more than four decades. “It’s never been hard,” he says. “The hardest part was when I was 13 or 14. I was wondering how I was going to move forward. Then I got on a 250, and a 500, and there was always something to shoot for. That’s never stopped, to this day.”

Regrets? Maybe, this one: Chandler longs to have a team of his own, which would benefit from his years in the sport. It might still happen.

“It’s been my goal forever to have my own team,” he says. “I work with kids a lot. I have a lot to give. If we could ever land a sponsor, I could put it together, no problem. We’ve been trying for a number years, but it’s always fallen apart.”

Overall, you get the impression it’s been a good run for the Hall-of-Famer. “I knew I wouldn’t race my whole life,” he says. “But I knew I would continue to be involved one way or another. I had my turn. I’m where I grew up, I’m where I want to be.

“My whole goal right now is to enjoy what I’m doing.”

 

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