In this week's Industry Insights we talk to the US Sales Manager for Acerbis USA Tallon Vohland about his career racing Supercross, motocross, and MXGPs. He discusses how when what he believed was his lowest moment he made a decision that changed his career and led him to where he is today. He also explains how he feels about being a moto dad to Maximus Vohland and helping him in his career.
For the full interview, check out the Vital MX podcast right here. If you're interested in the condensed written version, scroll down just a bit further.
Jamie Guida – Vital MX: How are you, Tallon? Glad to talk to you.
Tallon Vohland: How are you, man? It's good to talk with you, and I appreciate the opportunity to share my story.
Vital MX: We get to see each other at the races, but you are usually running around working with Maximus.
Tallon: Yeah. I've had a few races when friends come out to California, and they get mad because I get them in, but then I don't get to spend time with them. They don't realize that it's so busy between videoing starts for him, making sure his food is good, and things are popping up during the day. It's wide open and like a full-time job when you're at the races.
Vital MX: You're the US Sales Manager for Acerbis USA, but you also had a very successful motocross and Supercross career. I know you grew up in a racing family. Your dad, your brother, and your grandfather all raced.
Tallon: Yep. It started with my dad racing, and my grandpa went and watched him and said, "I don't think you're very good." He's like, "Well, you should buy a bike and race too." So, he did, and they were racing together, having fun, and sometimes even racing each other. Then, when my brother was born, my dad said, "We can't afford for all of us to do this. Let's sell our stuff and go all in with Tyson." That's how it all started, and then, of course, being the younger brother, you always get the hand-me-downs. The funny thing is sometimes the second brother becomes better due to not having as much. You have to deal with the blown-up fork seals or whatever it is and still get good, you know?
Vital MX: How old were you when you started racing?
Tallon: I started at four, but I don't recall until I started getting on 80s. I remember small pieces where I didn't want to go down this hill or something like that, but my earliest memories of racing were on 85s. Then to make a conscious decision that I would really work at this was even later when I started to become a teenager.
Vital MX: Talk about your amateur career a bit. I know you won a 125 stock championship in '87; in '89, your last amateur year, you were third overall in the 250 A class. There were some big names in that class.
Tallon: That last year was tough. You don't know at the time because you're racing guys just coming up like you. I was racing (Jeff) Emig and (Jeremy) McGrath. Mostly, it was Emig. He was the dominant guy, and I remember going into the World Mini's that year. We were all Team Green riders. It was tough because he was dominating that year. I also ran into (Damon) Bradshaw, so Bradshaw ran into him in an amateur class. It's so amazing because this guy goes pro the next year, and he's racing Rick Johnson in Japan. It was pretty gnarly. When you come up, everybody has their little group of guys, and those were the guys I was with. You don't think much about them at the time because they're just kids coming up as well. When you look back at how their careers went, you know, these are all the top riders in the world.
Vital MX: During those years, did you believe, "I have a shot at going pro? This could be a career?"
Tallon: Yeah, I was thinking about it a little, but it's not until you turn pro and set your mind. I think you get a little older, and you get more goal-oriented. In 1989, I did a few pro races to get my feet wet, and then in 1990, I went all in. Our grandpa got Tyson and me a box van. Then, I think Tyson went to Europe that year because he'd lost his opportunity here. So, in '90, I was kind of on my own in the box van. I was 20 years old, and my mechanic was 21, and we were out on the road with no cell phones, just doing the Nationals. It was crazy.
Vital MX: Can you imagine sending Maximus to do that now at that age? I mean, that would never happen.
Tallon: I can't understand how the parents did things like that because the only phone you had was a payphone or a landline phone. So, they'd just wait for you to call. I can track my kids now, where they're at, and all that stuff. I couldn't imagine. You don't even know if they're alive. Like, what happened?
Vital MX: I feel you had a fairly unique career. You were racing in the United States and then went to Europe after an injury kept you from securing a ride. Going to Europe changed your whole path. Do you think about how that decision affected what comes years later?
Tallon: Sure. I'll go through it a bit. Going back to '88 and '89, I was a Team Green rider coming up through the amateurs. At that time, Tyson struggled a little because he almost peaked in his career too early. He had a factory ride coming out in '86. He was out doing the nationals, and they threw Bader Manneh, Rodney Barr, I believe, Ronnie Tichenor, and Tyson all in one box van. So, it was a struggle that year. None of them did great. Long story short, we jumped into Ultracross (Mickey Thompson Off-Road Series), so we were the Ultracross guys. Tyson, I think, won eight or nine rounds of those things. We have the Coliseum coming up this weekend, and in one of the coolest races we ever did, Tyson and I got first and second at an Ultracross in '88 there at the Coliseum. I will throw up a video later this week on Maximus's Instagram. Reflecting on that, it's so cool to go to the Coliseum this weekend.
Vital MX: Didn't you guys high-five together over the finish?
Tallon: Yeah! Yeah! Going back to your question, 1990 was my first year out, and we had Paul Thede as a mechanic. He runs Race Tech suspension, but he built my engines. He was good at building engines, and he had built Mike Beyers engines a year before on the Cagivas, and he really liked me. He got certain people he liked, supported me, and built a great engine. I was running third in the nationals in 1990. It was my rookie year, but I got a second at Millville. I almost won, but (Jean-Michel) Bayle passed me with a lap to go to get that. I ended up getting third at Hangtown. I got a fifth at Axton, a second at Mt. Morris, and after about 8 or 9 rounds, I was sitting third in the championship behind (Mike) Kiedrowski and Guy Cooper, and I ended up signing a factory ride with Suzuki. I think I was 20 and had a full factory ride with a box van and mechanic, Pete Steinbrecher. He ended up being the mechanic for Doug Henry when he won his titles. So, the way it worked, I had a one-year deal, and back then, there were no 'B' teams to go on. The dream was to get a factory ride, which I achieved quickly. Then, I dislocated my shoulder in New York, and I believe I did it one more time. I knew I needed surgery on it, and we were just getting into the outdoor season. The outdoor season at that time was when the decisions were made for the next year. If you're not racing, you're not in front of the managers, and they forget about you quickly, and that's what happened. I didn't get a ride. (Steve) Lamson was doing pretty well in the Open class on the Yamaha, and they hired him on Suzuki the next year, so I was out of a ride. So, it wasn't a choice. It wasn't, "I have some choices here in the US, and maybe I'll go to Europe because I could make more money there" or something. I really just didn't have a choice. I'd lost my ride, and there were no other rides. At that time, because there was no internet, the only way to follow Europe was from Cycle News, and you knew a couple of random names. You'd say, "Oh, I'll go over there and smoke those guys, become the world champion, and come back. That's the only way to get a factory ride back in America." I thought I would just go to Europe, beat these Euro guys in black helmets and shitty-looking gear, and then come back. It took me about eight years, and I still never won the title. Was it as easy? No, it was a lot of hard work and a lot a lot of pain, let me tell you.
Vital MX: In 1990, you also won your first Supercross race in Tampa and were rookie of the year. So yeah, a very successful first year.
Tallon: Yeah, it was crazy. One of the cool things about the Tampa win was that I went to Gary Bailey the two weeks before that, and at that time, he was the only one in our industry who was shooting and studying video like the kids all get to do now on YouTube every day with their GoPros. At that time, he was the only guy, and I had to pay him a large amount of money, but I could ride David Bailey's personal track. When you were a rookie or an amateur coming up, you had no supercross track to practice on. I rode at Prairie City, which is Hangtown, but over on the side, they had big mounds of rocks, and we would just build rocks to jump across and make doubles. That was our supercross practice, and then you go down inside the stadium, and Jeff 'Chicken' Matiasevich or Bradshaw had the private tracks that Kawi had given him. Those guys were so sick, and you're going down that tunnel and shaking in your boots. It was horrible at that time. Now, it's such a different deal. I see these SX Futures they're having now, and it's just a huge advantage for all these new kids coming in. It's amazing. I just remember being so scared. I'm still shaking when I go to Anaheim 1. I was so nervous for Max because I had such fearful memories. They just don't go away, but the kids nowadays do it so often they can ride these tracks. They get to do these night races, even on Saturdays, before they get there. So, I think it's more my perception than it is for the kids nowadays.
Vital MX: Before we touch on Europe, I want to hit the '91 Houston SX. I would think that was a highlight for you. You win, beating Jeremy McGrath and Tyson's third. Both of you are on the podium. What a night.
Tallon: I think that was probably the highlight of our career as far as a brother duo. We were running first and second for almost the whole race. I think Jeremy passed Tyson with two laps to go. Tyson was injured and was struggling in the qualifier. I was fast in the whoops that night and felt comfortable on the track, and everything clicked. I got to the front and bumped him out of the way. He was a little mad about that, but yeah, because we practiced so much together, it just worked out right. He was in second, doing our thing, clicking off the laps. I believe it was McGrath's first year on Team Peak, so you don't know that Jeremy McGrath is the real Jeremy McGrath. I mean, we were racing him in Ultracross as well. He was still kind of coming up at that time. Now that you look back and see that photo, and he becomes the legend that he is, it even makes it slightly cooler.
Vital MX: You mentioned there not being 'B' teams back then. Team Peak was something new that year and somewhat of a 'B' team, and you got an offer to ride for them, if I'm not mistaken. No one knew what that team was going to become.
Tallon: That's for sure. In 1990, coming off that Kawasaki ride, I was probably the most wanted rider and had offers from Yamaha, Team Peak Honda, which was through Mitch (Payton), and then the full factory Suzuki ride. When you're coming up as a young guy, you see Mark Barnett and John O'Mara, and they had their own box van and mechanic. That was the dream. This Peak thing was brand new. So, it was like subsidized. They had some money, and then it was through Mitch, who had a shop, but he had a box van, and then they would pay you. As I remember, I think the offer was like 30K, and I needed to give 15 to a mechanic, and 15 was my salary. It didn't feel right. Whereas you go to the other, I finally had the real offer from Suzuki. It was a box van, mechanic, per diem, flights paid for, and a salary. It was a full factory. So, I automatically went there, not knowing how dedicated Mitch was and how good those bikes were. I remember we had this titanium carburetor and some cool factory parts that year. If our bike was spot on, we were about as good as the Peak bikes, but if there was a little air change or something changed in the stadium, they weren't as good. You're right on target in qualifying or in the morning practice, but things change, and you just didn't have that. You had a tight window to have the bike be good. If it fell off or the jetting was a little off, it was much slower than those guys. The Peak bikes had such a broad power that even if they were a little off or the temperatures a little off, they could still do everything they needed in second gear. They had a lot more flexibility in their engine. We'd be good some nights, but we'd be way off if we didn't hit it.
Vital MX: So, you go to Europe for seven or eight years. I feel that's where you develop some skill sets that eventually lead you to Acerbis. You learned the Italian language and built relationships. Talk about that period.
Tallon: It was weird because my brother had been over there about two years riding for these Italian importers for Suzuki. At the end of 1990, I was able to go to an international race called the Saporiti Fastcross. Next to MXdN, this was probably the biggest race in Europe. It was cool, and they'd always have the very top riders. They paid well, and everybody had their own personal trailers with food inside. The fans were amazing. I went over and got third behind (Rick) Johnson and Alex Puzar. Rick Johnson was the most badass in America, and Puzar had just won the world championship in Europe. I got a holeshot and was battling with both of those guys. I faded back a little, but doing that well over many other world-class riders impressed those importers who knew Tyson and were all about me going there. I think that year, I signed for $40,000. That was huge because I got double what I first signed with Suzuki. My first full factory deal was $20,000 in 1990. That's it. It's unbelievable. The next year to Europe, I got double that and thought, "Oh, I'm going to make a ton of money. I'm going to be rich."
Vital MX: Your time in Europe was instrumental in what you would do post-race career.
Tallon: It just comes through pain and suffering because it's not what I wanted to do. It was very difficult the first couple of years, even for a rider such as (Tom) Vialle. He's going to keep getting better because it's just a challenge to get used to the environment, the language, the people, and the way the systems work. I believe it's a little easier for a European to come to the US, but it was very difficult at that time for an American to go to Europe. They have schedules, right? You don't even go to the dirt bike track until 1:00. Here, we're done riding by 1:00, but their tracks don't open. Gas stations are closed. They have the siesta time from 12 to 3. So, everybody takes a nap, basically. It took me a few years to get used to it, and over time, from my girlfriend and her parents and different things, I learned to be like an Italian. I speak the language and understand the mentality. It took me about two and a half to three years to get mentally where I needed to be, to focus on my job the way I used to. It was such a mental thing. Then I had a bit of luck coming into '95 and '96, where I was eighth in the world, kind of struggling and making mistakes, but I got on as a second rider to Stefan Everts. I was on Stefan Everts's team, and from that time, my career took some big steps forward. I led the world championship for eight rounds in '95, battled for the championship again in '96, ended up third, and signed with the Chesterfield Yamaha factory. That was a big deal at that time in '97. We had big budgets and went to Japan to test the bike, and that year, we were leading the championship for two or three rounds. I broke my shoulder, but people didn't realize that because there was no Internet or social media then.
Vital MX: As I said, it was a unique and successful career. You must look back with very little regrets.
Tallon: If you give it everything you have, it's easy not to regret it. That's one thing I tell Max, "I don't know how it's going to go, but give it everything you have. Then if you don't make it, you don't have to look back and go, 'Well, shit, I wish I would have done this or that'." That wasn't me. You give everything you have and finally get to the point where you realize, "Something's missing for me not to finish and get that championship." Then you have to accept that, and after a year or two, you say, "This is too risky to be out here doing this if I'm not going to win." When I exited my career, what I felt was a failure or maybe difficult enabled me to have the job I had when I retired in 2003. I started with Acerbis because I spoke Italian. I understood the mentality and was a good person for the liaison between the Americans working here and for them. I took the environment that I got into, which seemed terrible at the time, but in the end, I used that to my advantage, which got me the job that I'm still at after 20 years of being retired from racing.
Vital MX: As your racing career is winding down, how do you get started at Acerbis?
Tallon: I started in '97 and was one of their first factory riders when they started doing gear. I rode for them in '97 and '98 and then came to the US and rode for the FMF Honda team. That's when I was racing Carmichael in '99. I signed for two years with Mitch. The first year went pretty well, and we won some nationals. Unfortunately, Travis Pastrana came in, and who knew that guy would be that fast? (Stephane) Roncada was good that year, also. So, we three were battling, but I just didn't get the job done. I mean, I was paid to win. The next year, I got a double concussion and was struggling. You get to the point where you know you won't get that good of an offer or money here, but I had a good perception in Europe. I signed with a much smaller team, but they still paid me quite well, and you still think that you can do it even with a lesser program, but they don't have all the factory parts. It's more challenging, and you get to the point where you realize, "I'm working hard, but I can't get half the results I used because there are a lot of variables in the program." All the pieces have to be right, and they're just not. You also get too smart. You just have too much knowledge. I've been on factory teams and know what it takes. I just couldn't do it anymore. I was on the back side of my career, and you realize it. I made that decision halfway through that season. "Hey, this is it. I'm going to be done." I knew that Acerbis had opened a building here and felt there could be a way I could help them. Tyson and I drove the van down, met with Mr. Franco Acerbis, and went to dinner with them. We pitched what we thought we could do to help, and he thought it was a great idea. So, as soon as the career was over, we started there. Tyson struggled with different issues and stopped after about six months. I ran the racing division for three years until it moved to the Scott Company. Then, I started running the racing division for both Scott and Acerbis. I was running the Scott USA truck and all the logistics of that until about 2010. As the Scott company changed and changed its people, they hired Bob Maynard to come over from Parts Unlimited and got into gear, and they wanted me to be a rep. Some things happened then, but going into 2010, I flew to Italy on my dime and talked to Franco. I said, "I think I can work directly for you and help you." We ended up doing that deal, and I started to run or work in sales. I've been running sales since the last recession in 2010.
Vital MX: What are your day-to-day roles?
Tallon: First, I would say thank you, Mr. Franco, because he had built such a great brand. Now, I've been able to do many different things, from having the flags up at Supercross, being involved with the nationals for many, many years, and sponsoring many top teams. Those are the relationships that are easy for me after being around racing and continuing to drive our brand at the highest level. We're the number one plastic brand in the world. My day-to-day is generally with my guys working on purchasing orders, talking with our distributors and reps, setting up programs for our reps, and managing inventory. It's kind of a story of how our company works, but we pay the Scott Company on the side for their warehouse, logistics, and inside human resources, but I have a real team that focuses only on attributes. The team is Brian (Fullerton), Adam (Quarles), Dien (Toussaint), and me. Dien is my marketing guy, Adam's customer service, as well as helping with purchasing, and Brian's full-on purchasing, and I work with him on that. We have a great team, and when you have a good team, and everything is working, I can't even explain how good my guys are. We're all up at 5 a.m. even though we aren't supposed to start till seven or even eight on their time. We're all competitive and work hard to keep our company in front of everybody else.
Vital MX: Has much changed in the production of the product over the years?
Tallon: I think more on the design side. We have these X-Grip frame guards and these new skid plates, and if you see our current ones, due to 3D printing, it has become so easy. You can make samples super easy and say, "Let's change this or change that." When I first started, they were building it out of wood and building the mold around the wood. It was a big old process. Now, they can do everything on the computer, print this thing out, and have a perfectly designed sample, and then they can modify it from there. That's some of the more current things that are making it easier and quicker to make a cool-looking but also nice-fitting product.
Vital MX: Let's shift gears to your second job. As you mentioned, you're helping your son Maximus week on and week off. Is that difficult? He's your son, and you want the best for him, but sometimes there are struggles and ups and downs.
Tallon: As a dad, you're two sides, right? You are still competitive, so by his racing, it feels like you're doing a little bit yourself. Then there's the other side that you are the dad, and I'm scared as hell that they have him out there on the track. You're kind of torn, and it's been a process. We're in the third year now with the team, and it looks like we are changing, and that happens. That's typical in our industry, but he's done well. I would like to see him do a little bit better in certain areas here and there. Everybody's looking for the next young, perfect guy like Jett, or it looks like Deegan is one of those kids, too, but they're pretty rare to find. I feel Max is just behind those guys, but his trajectory is good. You know, I'm his dad, but I see him improving. He's got a lot of top fives this year, and I think he's on the right way. It's just taking him a little bit longer. Everybody develops at a different pace, you know?
Vital MX: There's always one or two guys doing most of the winning, and he's just outside that right now. There's nothing wrong with finishing fifth or sixth. He's still one of the best riders in the series.
Tallon: He's really young. There are other kids like Levi (Kitchen) and even (Seth) Hammaker, whom I feel Max battles with. He's very close to these guys and many times beats them. They also entered when they were 20 or 21, even 22. Max has just turned 20. I feel Max is an in-between guy. Max should be a podium guy all year long next year. With the change, I won't say the change is good or bad, but sometimes it's nice to have a change. I'm not saying the other team is better or this team's worse or anything like that. I'm just saying that sometimes the change is better.
Vital MX: Let's wrap up with what you feel was your biggest failure in your career or just in your past. What did you learn from that?
Tallon: Losing your factory ride when you dream about that. At that moment, it felt like my biggest failure. Even going to Europe and not being successful initially felt like my lowest point. At the end of '93, going into '94, I had no ride. I'm in Europe by myself, and it was terrible. I got that Pepsi Honda ride, but it was almost no money. It got me through that year, and it's the craziest thing. I'm talking to you about an interview because I'm successful in the industry, you know what I mean? Here's what I want to say. What feels like your biggest failure may be the biggest benefit to you in the long run. You just don't know. You don't know. I'm just saying this in general: don't get down in certain situations because what you think is a failure now may also turn around and be what makes you great.