Interview with Varner

 
 

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Terry Varner Interview

By Doug Shultz

DS: How did you get into spinning wrenches and tuning motors - how did it all begin?

Terry: I was a racer when I lived back in Illinois. I started off racing motocross in 1975 and eventually raced a few supercrosses in the 250 A class until 1980 when I was involved in a head-on car accident with a drunk - that ended my riding career. From that point on I focused a hundred percent on just doing the engine building.

DS: At what point did you think hey, I'm pretty good at this and this is what I want to do?

Terry: I would say back in 1980 when I was doing a lot of grinding for LOP that I decided that this is what I wanted to do and that I wanted to stick with it. It's a passion and it's always done well for me.

DS: You have acquired a large flock of amateur riders that you support, Bob Kiniry, Jimmy Nelson and of course Billy Laninovich top that list. How did you get involved with all of these kids? Was it through your involvement with FMF?

Terry: Yes, that is part of the arrangement we have with FMF where I take care of these key support riders. If they choose to use Varner Motorsports then I'm there for them, they are not contractually bound to use my motors but, I'm the guy that's going to be there trackside to help them if they have any issues. Like Billy Laninovich, we have been helping him since he was on 80cc's, a kid like Bobby Bonds when he was riding little YZ80's I was doing his motors - and Travis Pastrana, when he was twelve years old he stayed at my house. I spent time with these kids as they were coming up and certainly I feel that not only horsepower wise, but on an overall basis I have a lot to offer these kids and their families with regards to improving their race results, having a safer racing program and just ultimately doing better. I'm their friend as well, it's not just hey, they need a cylinder ported you know? I'm a guy that my riders can count on at a lot of different levels.

DS: Regarding the different abilities of riders that you do attend to - do you tune your motors for each rider, or do you just have a set spec for each brand and model of bike?

Terry: Basically we have several options with most motors, although with most motors it's pretty obvious what they need and we would tend to go in one direction. But yeah, we do custom stuff whether it's for desert racers or weekend warriors versus somebody that maybe needs to go to the next level for lets say, AMA Amateur competition. If they want to go and spend the extra money to have a bigger displacement motor, or they need a stroker or a supermini then yeah, we've got the different combinations available.

DS: You have a great rapport with your riders; you seem to always be available for them...

Terry: It's a personal touch, when these people call I'm an easy guy to get a hold of. We have circulated close to six thousand business cards and it has my cell phone number on it, my cell phone is never turned off, it's always with me so yeah, we do give the personal touch whether it's the way we build our motors or after we build the motor and they need to get in touch with me - I'm there. I believe that separates me from other companies where you don't get that kind of service.

DS: When you’re at one of the larger amateur events such as the World Mini Grand Prix you are by far one of the busiest guys there. How do you find time to tend to all of your riders?

Terry: Preparation. That's one of the things that we stress to our support riders whether they're the Amateur Elite or not, and that is get yourself ready ahead of time. We make a lot of phone calls and network with team managers like Cole Gress with Suzuki to make sure they are prepared – such as, what’s the next upcoming event, does he have spares, does he have a spare motor, is he happy with his combination - it's constant preparation. Invariably, your going to have issues like altitude issues or just mistakes - air filters don't get put on properly or an air boot is pulled off when somebody brakes a frame or whatever it might be. It's a big undertaking, when you show up and you've got anywhere from fifty to a hundred riders who are using your stuff and counting on you for support, it sometimes gets tough. Like I said before, I've been doing this my entire life. Back when I was at LOP we had fifty amateur support riders and ten pros in ten box vans going to every event so, that's really all that I have ever known is working with riders on a support level and a customer level.

DS: You have experienced working out of the FMF semi - compare the old days if you will, of working out of the old box vans versus the big haulers - are the new semi's better for you as an engine builder?

Terry: It's all part of the evolution of the sport. The semis bring big signage capabilities to outside sponsors and we are starting to see more and more of those big rigs at the amateur level as well. Donnie Hansen has got one now, FMF has stepped up and they bring one out to the events as well as SPY and Honda of Houston. I think it's great - it's a signpost of the growth of the sport.

DS: With all of the riders that you have dealt with, past and present, is there any one guy that sticks out as being really picky or difficult to deal with as far as set-up goes?

Terry: (Laughing) Wow - that's a tough one! Every rider has a little bit of that in him - I really couldn't pick one out!

DS: How do you communicate with your riders to get the proper set-up for each individual?

Terry: You just start eliminating variables and sit down with the mechanic or Dad and find out what their combination consists of - their fuels, their reeds etc, how old the motor is and just start going from there. One thing that I find helps a lot is when your in a situation where the rider is having difficulty with the bike set up, is getting down there trackside and listening to the bike. I've got a great ear for what that thing does when he grabs the next gear on the face of a jump, or he lands off a jump, or trying to get himself out of a corner. It's just asking the right questions you know? What the bike was doing and how we can improve on it, unfortunately with motors you are somewhat limited to what you can do at the track. You can do pipe changes and this and that but, unlike suspension where you can pop it apart and move shims around and springs and oils etc, you cannot do that with motors - you don't have as much of a luxury trackside. You can mess with pipes and carbs and jetting changes but that’s about as far as that goes at the track.

Anyway, there are some really, really, good riders out there as far as being able to come in off the track and communicate with you testing wise, and most riders really are good at testing. But sometimes you have to work a little bit to get that out of them. Sometimes they don’t have the right words so you have to help them communicate the right words or kind of nurture it out of them. Also, ninety-nine point nine percent of the time, the rider is always right. As much as you would like to say as a tuner, “Ah no, I know that thing runs good – I’ve seen it on the dyno!” it doesn’t matter. If the rider comes off the track and says it’s not doing this or it’s not doing that, the rider is right and it’s up to me as a tuner to find out what is missing in the combination.

Very rarely is the rider ever wrong, but he also has to understand what the tuners capabilities are when your there trackside. Then there is always the odd rider that’s a head-case you know? Like everything’s fine as long as he’s winning his local race, but as soon as Bobby Bonds or somebody rolls into town and just cleans his clock – then suddenly the bike doesn’t pull, or it’s doing this and it’s bogging and everything thing else is wrong. And maybe that rider has never had to ride that fast before. But now he is riding faster and he’s getting more symptoms that weren’t there the weekend before with the same bike riding against the local riders. These things are all factors that you have to be able to weed through.

DS: What rider over the years has been a standout for you as far as testing goes for you?

Terry: Three riders come directly to mind, and probably the best test rider I have ever worked with without a doubt is Bobby Moore. He knows what a bike needs - he knows when a bike needs more or when it’s time for the rider to take over and make up for the difference. Bobby is an incredibly smart rider and knows a whole lot about bikes and how to set them up. Rodney Smith is an incredible test rider also and I’d have to say Danny Smith. Danny is another really talented test rider as far as feeling the bike and knowing what the bike is doing and how to massage it to get exactly what he wants out of it. Those are probably three of the best guys I have ever worked with. All three of these guy’s will work all day long, especially Danny Smith. He’ll test until the sun goes down – he’ll be out there when he can’t see what he’s hitting and the track will be just ruined, and Danny Smith will continue to test-not thinking about hookin’ up with his girlfriend or going home to watch a movie or something – Danny won’t quit.

DS: Obviously the bikes have gotten a lot better, but what about the racers? Do the new riders of today train and work harder than the guys of yesterday like Bailey, Ward, Glover and O’Mara?

Terry: No, I wouldn’t say that they rain harder but some of the key riders, the ones that are going to the top are guys that train like they did back in the old days. Back then, riders would train and work way harder than today’s riders. Most of these riders that don’t train today are the ones that are gonna be making excuses about the bike this, or the bike that, when really, they need to be digging harder during the week to get into better shape and be stronger. Bobby Bonds – there is no word like fatigue in his vocabulary or getting tired or even arm pump. I worked with him for a number of years and never once did I ever hear the words arm pump or fatigue out of him – it’s just not in his vocabulary because he trains so hard.

DS: Speaking of Bobby, you were around him when he made the jump from FMF to Team Splitfire/Pro Circuit – do you feel he did the right thing and did he handle that situation properly?

Terry: Yes, he did a great job. Bobby was offered what he was worth by another Team and he took the offer – that’s all there is to it. He was offered a huge chunk of money and they felt that he was worth it and based on his ride at Hangtown he obviously was worth every penny of it.

DS: Has Bobby’s deal upped the ante for the guys following behind him?

Terry: Oh, certainly, certainly. It does a lot I think, for riders like Billy Laninovich when they’re sitting down to negotiate and there is a success story like Bobby Bonds it’s definitely better for Billy and better for the riders coming up.

DS: Mitch Payton told me that there is a real lack of talent in the amateur ranks right now, that he doesn’t see anyone really stepping it up behind James Stewart with the exception of Mike Alessi and Davi Milsaps – how do you feel about that?

Terry: I would have to disagree with him. All you have to do is take a look at the Ryan Morais’s, the Jesse Casillas’s, and the Bob Kiniry’s. Maybe he needs to look a little closer, I haven’t seen him at an amateur event in over a year so, I don’t agree with that. The talent pool is as good as it has ever been and the proofs in the pudding – look how deep the talent is in the 125cc National class. You have guys in thirtieth place running lap times within a half second or so of the guys that are in fourth. That talent is getting deeper not shallower and as far as the amateur ranks are concerned, if you only look at the A Class, maybe there wasn’t as much depth last year – everybody wanted Bonds but that was last year and each year is a different story. I wouldn’t agree with him on that.

DS: You’ve got a new building and you have been here for six months now – how is everything going for you?

Terry: It’s great! I’ve got four employees and a new secretary, and I’ve got some really talented people working with me. James Standardy has been grinding with me at FMF and has worked for me for like six years – he’s an extremely talented grinder and I have a lot of faith in him. I work real close with Wayne Hinson at Hinson Clutch Components; we currently have some projects going on as we speak. Things are going really well, I’m excited about being out on my own again and having the freedom to develop and capitalize on the opportunities that come my way.

DS: You’ve been doing quite a bit of development with the four-strokes as of late – how do you like them?

Terry: Oh, they’re awesome – it creates an even bigger demand for a good engine builder because they are more complicated and it’s harder to extract more horsepower out of them. Most people would be scared to work on them you know, springs and valves and clips and retainers flying everywhere! And they’re right, they are absolutely right! The new four-strokes are complicated, five valves, electronic carburetors and such – it’s a challenge, but we are able to pull more power out of them and are really successful with them. I have some really talented cam people, and I have a background in four-strokes, I worked with four-strokes long before I got involved in two-strokes. I worked at Cycle Dynamics back in Waukegan before I went to work at LOP, they were right there with Vance and Hines when the raced AMA Pro Stock.

DS: I would like to get your take on the 125cc versus the controversial YZ250F – do you feel it is a fair match-up on the track?

Terry: Yes, it’s fair. They made a rule (The AMA), and they need to stick with it. I really don’t have much more to say, I mean the 250F has like thirty-four horsepower; it’s really wide though you know? As far as peak horsepower goes, a two-stroke will put out more peak power but its narrower – it’s harder to ride. In slick situations a four-stroke really shines. Maybe in some supercross situations the four-strokes had an advantage where they could just take the inside lines and still get over the triples. This is how the sport is developing – I think it’s fair.

DS: With all of the motors you have built over the years, is there one special motor you have built that sticks out above the rest?

Terry: Not really – we build them every week! (laughing) But I would have to say that my fiancé, Bonnie Warch, she’s ranked seventh Women’s Pro in the country, I would have to say it would be her YZ250 cylinder that Jeff Emig tried, tested, and loved. Actually he hung onto it and went to the US Open and won it with my fiancé’s cylinder. That one sticks out in my mind because it was such an exceptional motor. Yamaha’s are a great motor to begin with but, this thing had it all – it had everything that my fiancé or Jeff Emig would want, so I would have to say it was that cylinder.

DS: Is one brand of bike more difficult to tune than another?

Terry: I would say no as far as tuning. Most of the bikes switched over to the Mikuni carburetor and I think they work really well. I wouldn’t say that one is worse to work on than the other.

DS: What has been your worse road trip so far?

Terry: Coming back from an ATV National back in the eighties, I got off the plane and had left my plane ticket in the pocket in front of my seat. I couldn’t get any of the attendants to go back and get it for me. I had to buy another ticket the next morning after sleeping in the airport.

DS: Where do you see our sport heading in the next couple of years?

Terry: Well, we’re going to be smelling a lot more four-stroke exhaust than two-stroke, other than that hopefully the promoters will do more to bring some new people into the sport, people that maybe wouldn’t normally go out and buy a motorcycle. Make it more accessible for these people to go down to their local dealership to buy a bike and start racing – anything that we can do to kindle that I think, is better for the sport. To bring more people in that normally wouldn’t race or they have the money but spend it on other things like horses or whatever, get them to spend the money on our sport, try to cater to them a bit more. I think it’s really good that sanctions like CMC and Glen Helen are starting to cater more to quad racers. All you have to do is go to Pismo, or Dumont or Glamis and there’s just millions of people out there on quads! We just need to cater to those people more and bring their dollars over to the motocross side of it - they’d love to go race on a Friday or a Saturday night with their quads. I just think that there are things that we can do on a grassroots level to bring more money and more people out to the track.

DS: How about Varner Motorsports, what’s coming up for you?

Terry: We’re going to continue to work with FMF and they’re amateur support program. I have some new products that I’m coming out with, like our own cams for the four-strokes. We are constantly working on new engine kits and packages that are affordable and reliable, and we’ll go to Loretta Lynn’s this year and win some championships.

DS: Any last thoughts before I let you go?

Terry: Never rider faster than your Angel can fly.

Extracted from an Interview by Doug Shultz for Motocross West

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