The following is the 17th of our “21 In ‘21” series that highlights one of the 21 AMA Superbike Champions as we move through the 2021 MotoAmerica season – the 45th year of the premier class championship.
If motorcycle racers are judged as much by who they beat as to how often they won, then Ben Spies is a shoo-in as a legend of the AMA Superbike Championship. After all, he not only won 28 Superbike races during his AMA career, but he also won all 28 against Mat Mladin – the winningest Superbike racer in AMA history – in his prime.
In addition to his 28 AMA Superbike wins, a number that ranks him sixth all-time, Spies also won 17 support class races in Supersport, 750 Supersport, Superstock and Formula Xtreme. And that’s only his AMA career.
Spies won his three AMA Superbike Championships for Yoshimura Suzuki from 2006 to 2008 before taking on World Championship racing. First it was the World Superbike Championship, which he won with Yamaha in his rookie year in 2009, and then MotoGP where he raced until officially announcing his retirement from the sport in 2013 after suffering career-ending shoulder injuries.
So, what were the best years of his racing life? The AMA Superbike Series, of course.
“It was great,” Spies said of those AMA years. “Those were my favorite years racing a motorcycle. I always say that to people. Some of the hardest racing that I ever had, on the same bikes, everything was just so tight. Really hard to win those races and those championships. Then I had such a good team with me. Kind of got to hand-pick a couple of the guys over the years and had Tom Houseworth, obviously, as my crew chief then. I just got to say, it was like a family. It was. I loved it. I didn’t really want to ever leave. I kind of went over to Europe for a lot of reasons that were going on, but those years racing AMA, I’ll never trade them. They were family guys. When I catch up with them at the races, it’s awesome to see them with the new guys they’re working with. It’s hard to go back because the times are a little bit different too and things always change, but it was good to be a part of it and get to see it and have those few titles, for sure.”
Everything changed for Spies in 2009 when he flew to foreign lands to try to win the World Superbike Championship in his rookie season.
“In 2009 it was getting off a plane and everything was new,” Spies recalls. “The tires were a different company, suspension, electronics, the motorcycle… I had Tom (Houseworth, his crew chief) as a familiar face. Had a really good suspension guy that year too with us. Got to bring Woody (Greg Wood, his chassis technician) over, who was with my Yoshimura crew for those few years midway through the season. So, a couple familiarities, but it was a lot of different stuff and a lot of stuff to overcome. There were so many things and so much stuff going on that it was pretty much just head down every lap. We couldn’t waste any time because we had a couple little things go wrong that year. Then we won the world title. It happened in a blur, but it was awesome. It was a big feat, and something even still now today I get more used to or understand how big it was. Back then, I was a racer, and nothing was really big at the time to me because I was always looking to the next thing. Some people could take that in the wrong way I think sometimes, but I just was that focused. Nowadays it’s even more sweet, for sure.”
From World Superbike it was straight off to MotoGP, the biggest motorcycle racing stage in the world. It all happened quickly. Perhaps too quickly.
“It was just quick,” Spies said. “Straight to GP. It was a pretty hard decision to make in that year to go to GP because Yamaha wanted me to go there. It was also right in the time when I wasn’t for sure if I was going to win the world title or not. There were three races left. I was kind of having to make that decision. I wanted to win the title, and it would have been one of those things if I went over there and didn’t win the title, things wouldn’t have gone the way I wanted to, for sure. So, now that I went over there, GP was tough.
“We had a couple really good years, and then the last year it wasn’t that great. Had some bad luck with it. It’s one of those things I tell people that we did have bad luck in our last year. I had to retire through an injury with GP, but I look at all the years I had with racing, and we had a lot of good years, and I wouldn’t even say just good luck, but we were on top of things, and we had a lot of things go for us. We had one bad year. I don’t look back at it now and that just ruined everything. It just happened like that. It was unfortunate that’s the way it ended. I was pissed off for a little bit about it, but in the same time you start looking back and you were able to accomplish this much with this many people with this group of people and made all the friendships and everything and it’s all good. It was a long, hard one and a lot of years that were pretty fast together, but we enjoyed all of it.”
Looking back at his AMA Superbike titles in 2006, 2007 and 2008, two things stand out for Spies. Both involve races against his rival Mladin.
“Yeah, two for sure,” Spies said. “Laguna Seca 2007. It came down to whoever won the race. It was a tough race. It was the only race really that year that me and him (Mat Mladin) kind of were together from lap one. It was tough. He led the whole thing and almost cracked me at one point, with about 10 laps to go. He had about a second on me and I just said in my head, ‘We’ve raced this many laps, this many races this year. I’m crashing or I’m winning. I’m not finishing second. I’m not going to do it.’ That was the only time I really ever said that, but I did. I marched him down and passed him going into the Corkscrew. It was a big pass. Everybody kind of remembers it. It was something I loved doing on him. To win the title, that was super, super special because pretty much everybody in the paddock, or 95 percent of them, wanted me to win it, I think, and really were pulling for me. So, it gave that satisfaction. Then basically in 2008, one of the last times we got to race was in Atlanta. It was one of those where he (Mladin) made a comment. “I wish we would have had the showdown here in Atlanta, back like we did in 2007.” That was the last time we ever raced there. I marched him down and set some lap records and passed him on that one. So, those two kinds of concrete moments were big for me racing against him, for sure.”
Now retired from racing and living comfortably with his family in Texas, Spies doesn’t take any of it for granted and he knows what motorcycle racing brought to his life.
“It’s made the life I have, just everything I have with my family,” Spies said. “You see what your kids are able to have, and it’s just because of racing. It did everything. It’s definitely taught me how hard things can be and how normal life isn’t that tough, and things like that. It’s not always easy. When you retire and you’re a motorcycle racer at that level, when it all stops, it’s not easy for a little bit. Everybody has to find their way and figure out what they’re doing. Luckily, I had kids and got into their stuff and then kind of slowly started into some other business now. I just think that kind of work ethic, from racing, kind of goes towards whatever else you kind of get into after racing.”
In addition to being a family man, Spies is also a successful businessman.
“Just playing with the girls,” Spies said of how he spends his free time. “She’s going to her horse class now and kind of seeing how she’s getting right at that moment kind of where I was when I was about motorcycles at five years old and seeing that stuff. I started a couple companies a few years ago. One is a small oil service company, and then one I just started two months ago. It’s an excavation, dirt company, construction company. That’s fun for me because the guy that helped me my whole racing career, which was my left-hand man, was Jeffrey Lemons, and we started this company together. I told him, ‘You worked for me for 15 years doing this stuff. I’m retired now and let’s run it back and I’ll work for you now.’ So, I’ve been running a dozer and a dump truck and stuff like that getting this business off the ground and having fun. So, it’s been a full circle on that. Like I said, it’s been a blast the last few months.”
Obviously, if there was anything Spies could change it would be the shoulder injury that cut his career short.
“Like I said, I wish we could have gone three, four more years, but it’s the way it is,” Spies said. “We always had to take the GP step. We had to try. I think I would have maybe ended up back in World Superbike a couple years trying to finish it out. That was kind of the plan, but it’s not always meant to be in working out in the picture-perfect world. Thanks to everybody for always being behind me and being fans. I had a good run. Thank you.”