The One And Only
Kendall Norman reveals the lost years and talks long-term goals.
Desert racing in general—and the AMA Hare & Hound National Championship Series in particular—seems to be a sport that favors the younger, often braver rider. Most of its champions, after all, have been ineligible to race the Vet class.
But there are exceptions.
Racing over unknown terrain and taking big chances can bite you—hard—and those who push the limits can find those limits pushing back without warning. Therefore, desert racing also rewards the prudent, the more calculating and experienced rider who can avoid big crashes and serious injury.
Kendall Norman has seen both sides of this coin. When he first won the AMA title in 2010, he had a bit of a reputation for a flat-out style bordering on reckless. But as with many, he appeared to have adopted a smarter, safer approach in his 30s that earned him his second crown after the 2018 season ended, having amassed two wins in the seven-round chase and finishing off the podium only once—at the final round where he placed a safe fifth to lock the championship up.
But many wondered was where he’d been during those years in between? There were rumors that he’d moved to Baja and was just riding and surfing. Some said he’d become a hermit and would probably never race again.
In truth, he’d taken a sabbatical, dropping out of the public eye and growing as a person, though the racer in him felt he had unfinished business.
So, when he received an offer of proper but private support to go racing in 2018, he agreed and rewarded his backers with the championship before jetting off to Chile to represent the U.S. on the SRT Racing team in the Club category, earning a gold medal for 12th in the C2 class (250cc two-stroke/450cc four-stroke) aboard his trusty CRF450X.
There’s still unfinished business for Norman, though. Ultimately, he’d like to give rally racing a go, Dakar being the goal.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARK KARIYA
You won the 2010 AMA Hare & Hound National Championship on the Johnny Campbell Racing (JCR) Honda team, which was Honda’s satellite team for off-road racing. This year, you came back and won again but as a privateer. Did that surprise you?
My goal at the beginning of the year was to podium every race. We planned on winning the championship because I wanted to build on each race, like build on the podium finishes. Obviously we were given some gifts with riders getting injured and other stuff, and we had some good luck. There were a lot of days when I wasn’t the fastest guy, but at the end, consistency pays dividends so I feel like definitely I had the odds stacked against me and I had some tough times just with having to do a lot of things like build the bike and different aspects of running my program. But I think in the end, just consistency and being smooth and being smart really paid off.
Would you say your riding style or your approach to racing changed or evolved from your first championship to this one?
Definitely! I remember back in the day, I would just go as hard as I could. I would just want to win so badly. Only having one bike for the whole 2018 season, I worried about mechanical failures—not really like mechanical failures, but the bike was just more tired, I’d say, so I didn’t have as fresh of equipment this year. The chassis gets tired over time and it doesn’t handle as good.
My dream since I came back and since before has always been the same: it’s to go to Dakar. So every time I line up, it’s like, “If you’re going to go to Dakar, you’ve got to finish 16 days.” If you can’t get through the day, then you’re not going to make it to the finish [there].
So every time, I just think of that and it’s just another day. Also, I’ve got to go to work on Monday so I don’t want to really get hurt!
There were days this season when I wasn’t really feeling it and I just took it easy—not take it easy but be patient with the day—and there were days when I was feeling it and went for it and maybe took a couple chances, but in the end it worked out. If you kind of go with your gut out there, it pays dividends.
Readers will wonder what you did during the eight years between your championships. Where were you? What did you do?
After I stopped riding with JCR, I tried to race some [SCORE] Baja and stuff on my own. I never really got a full series of hare and hound nationals since the first championship I had. I was signed up in 2011 to do the whole series, but I had some injuries that held me back from a couple rounds.
After that I just went out in ’13 and raced two races and won both of those. I haven’t been back since, really.
I just feel like after ’13 and the Baja 1000 when Kurt Caselli was killed, I wanted to get back into it, but I just had to take a break. I think my head wasn’t in the right place. I don’t know; it’s hard to explain.
I just took a break, stopped riding as much and kind of like—I think the more you don’t do something, you kind of get your mind away from it and it kind of fizzles out.
But if you stay on top of something, obviously you’re going to keep on it.
I kind of let that desire to race go away for a while and I wasn’t really happy with that whole thing. Obviously I still had goals to do Dakar and Six Days; I would think about that almost every day, but it’s hard to go from not riding every day and not racing all the time to get back into it.
Finally, I just got to the point where I wanted to be back racing. I missed it too much to not be out there.
How did you approach getting the support needed to race an entire hare & hound season, much less finish off the year by racing Six Days?
I work and that supported some of my racing. The place I work [Chocolate Mountain Ranch east of San Diego], my boss Kevin McCarthy provided a bike that they had bought and he allowed me to race the bike so that was a huge help. Then I had Brett Saunders [retired hare & hound racer] help me out with some sponsorship stuff and get me some products and things like that and some discounts on some things. Also, his dad [Glen] and him helped get me to the first few races, probably like the first half of the season. [Former Honda pit captain] Chris Boesen helped get me to the rest of the season this year.
It was full shoestring budget, one bike; just make the best of the situation.
You used the same bike to practice during the week and raced nationals on it too?
That was the thing. I wanted to do more races and stuff, but I used it for qualifying for Six Days, too, and I didn’t practice on it because I had to keep it fresh. I had a 2012 CRF450R that I bought back in the day so I used that bike when I went to practice.
That was the thing. If I had races that were back to back to back, then I would feel way more comfortable than if I came out after a month or two-month break and had to ride that bike that I hadn’t ridden since the last race.
There were some challenges and struggles that I encountered that I didn’t use to encounter when I had more support, which made it tough. I think just sticking to my plan—be smooth, be consistent. The bigger picture is trying to get to Dakar some day and how I would approach that race and how I would do good there, and I had the same strategy for the nationals. Each day would be another day.
Have you done much practice with a road book to prepare for rallies?
No, not in a long time; just a couple times. That’s something I want to get more into next year.
So next year, are you going to be doing more rally-type training or are you going to race nationals again?
I plan to do the hare and hounds, but there’s nothing set in stone [as of the middle of November]. Getting ready for Six Days was like a full-time job or it’s just like owning your own business. It’s something that’s hard to describe, but there’s so many little things and so much stuff to do—raising money, saving money, selling things, all kinds of different stuff to make this happen. At the moment, I don’t have a firm plan for next year. I want to keep the long-term plan the same and try to get to Dakar.
Do you have any idea when that might happen?
I have no idea.
Dakar takes a huge amount of money just for the entry fee.
Like I said earlier, I’m way more stoked racing dirt bikes than not. Obviously, I’m just going to stay on it. Hare and hounds are something I’m comfortable with, something that I’ve had fun doing with my family over the years. It’s kind of grass roots; like going out to the desert is what I’ve always done. I just enjoy it and it’s easy—I mean not easy, but it’s familiar so it’s an easy series for me to do, especially based in Southern California. And it’s fun!
What does your job entail? Describe your job.
I’m a laborer. We farm avocados, citrus, and there’re other tasks to do like work in the greenhouse. There’re some cattle to take care of, as well.
Are you allowed to ride or train or work on your bike during the week?
I haven’t honestly done too much training this year. I just try to stay on the riding, but it’s just a couple hours a day on the job if you’re lucky. But the boss Kevin is super-cool. He gives us the opportunity to come to the ISDE and do the hare and hounds. There’d be days when I’d have to take a half-day or take a day off to prep the motorcycle and things like that so he’s been super-cool with that. The McCarthy’s have been a big supporter of mine for the series and have helped me, definitely—the most help I’ve gotten, probably, with helping me with the bike and little things here and there.
Late in the season, Johnny Campbell started helping me with some parts so that’s been helpful, not having to go to the motorcycle shop and spend $100 on brake pads or oil filters or things like that. He gave me some assistance for Six Days, too; he pretty much gave me the most assistance of anyone if count up the dollars for parts and all that stuff.
Your dad, Morris, rode Six Days back in the 1980s. What kinds of advice did he share with you or what kinds of things have you guys talked about?
He just talks about changing tires.
Did he ride Six Days once or more?
Like I said, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. That’s how I’m treating it. He got the chance to do it once; he went to Italy in ’81.CN