Colton Haaker talks highs and lows of 2019, leaving the Hacienda and the worst possible way to clinch a world championship.
Photography by Husqvarna Motorcycles and AMA EnduroCross/Jack Jackson
It started out as a great year for Colton Haaker. The Rockstar Energy Husqvarna racer was defending his FIM SuperEnduro World Championship in Europe, which came down to the last race of the final round in Bilbao, Spain with his archrival, Cody Webb, also in a position to nab the title. But in the last race of the night, where Haaker had to finish fourth or better to claim the championship, his race suddenly unraveled in the final laps. Webb ran off with the lead as Colton slipped back in the field to fifth, and after Webb took the checkers and saw Haaker was still struggling on the track, he began celebrating what he thought was his world championship. But thanks to Haaker’s Husqvarna teammate Alfredo Gomez, who pulled to the side in the last turn allowing Haaker to pass, the defending champion was able to regain enough ground to clinch the title.
Haaker was crowned, and Webb was incensed.
The video footage of the last lap went viral and spurred a social media outcry that went on for weeks, accusing Haaker of team tactics. The backlash effectively upended Haaker’s engagement with fans, and saw the once outgoing and uninhibited athlete withdraw from his social feeds and stop producing his famous vlogs.
Haaker stayed quiet about the incident and carried on with his season, but more drama was ahead, this time with the demise (albeit temporary) of the AMA EnduroCross Series.
Extreme off-road arena racing is Haaker’s specialty, and EnduroCross has been the core of his career. Without it, he faced the possibility of losing a big chunk of his livelihood. But the series was resurrected in the 11th hour for a three-race championship for 2019, which Haaker once again claimed.
Despite winning a third world championship and a third national championship, totaling six major titles in four years, 2019 was a rather tumultuous year for Haaker, not the way any racer envisions their season unfolding.
Haaker talked to Cycle News about the ups and downs of a wild season. He opens up for the first time about the infamous SuperEnduro finale in Spain, the AMA EnduroCross Series, the release of his movie Rare Exception and also explains why he sold his landmark “Haaker Hacienda” in Southern California and is now headed for a new home in Idaho.
Let’s get right into it and talk about the 2019 SuperEnduro World Championship. It was a great series up until the last round, and the ending that no one wanted.
Obviously, the series itself was good battles all year. We found ourselves in the position where the final moto, I had to finish fourth if Webb won. I had just won the race before straight up, in the three-moto format that night.
It was just a weird thing where, when my back was against the wall and I needed to win, I could. But when I had to finish fourth, it almost became harder. Because it was like a mental thing in your head that said, ‘there’s no way you should even finish fourth. You’re good enough, fast enough, strong enough to win.’ So, that mental switch, I was not able to handle that pressure well, or switch that over in my mindset as well as I would have liked.
I found myself, I think in fifth, going into the second half of the last lap. I had gotten such bad arm-pump and pretty much caved under pressure. Creating it in my own mind, not really anything else. I got passed and I was also kinda fumbling at the same time, sped up, got going and at that point the arm-pump went away completely and I just went wide open and pretty much blacked out. I didn’t see what happened going into the final turn or anything, I just knew there were riders ahead of me and I just went for it.
I obviously crashed off the finish line when I bee-lined it to the corner of the tires. And in bee-lining it, if you watch the finish, obviously I could have just cruised in. Because my teammate had pulled over for me.
In hindsight, it’s like, I didn’t want to win that way, but it was an awkward situation. I don’t think the team wanted to win that way either. Alfredo probably didn’t really want to do what he did. But if there were any team tactics going into it, then we should have [discussed] it before, and we shouldn’t have done team tactics at the final turn, you know? If you’re going to play team tactics, then be tactical! And say, ‘Alfredo, stay behind [Colton].’ That wasn’t discussed.
We raced and that’s how it went down. For me, that was a bummer. Well, it wasn’t a bummer; it was just bittersweet. I had a good season. We all battled really hard and I don’t want to take anything away from my competitors at all. You live and you learn and you move on. You can’t change it and you can’t control what other people do. I raced as hard as I could and that’s how it went. It is what it is.
You faced a pretty severe backlash on social media, but you stayed completely quiet through all that. Talk about what that was like.
Obviously, people are going to blame the one who came out on top. The one who got the benefit of the situation is going to be the one with the most backlash, and that is to be expected, right? Well, he got something and this guy didn’t. Well, I didn’t ask for that to happen. I raced as hard as I could. If I could redo it, I would.
Over the years, I’ve been super open. I’ve vlogged like 80-something vlogs and pretty much let anybody see my faults or my weaknesses or give them an option to judge me or be negative toward me. So I’ve been able to handle criticism well, and I feel like people appreciate honesty. I was pretty honest my entire career until I got to that point. After that, I got so much backlash, I just kinda realized that these people don’t really know me. They’re angry, but if they knew me, they would probably think twice about what they said or what they wrote. And they would know that I wouldn’t want to win that way.
After that it made me realize that social media is like the devil’s advocate. It can be used really well for good things and it can really tear you down for something you feel like you didn’t have control over. For me, social media just became less interesting to me. I was just like, ‘Well, none of these people know me, and they’re faulting me for something I had no control over.’ I basically had to say, ‘I don’t care what these people that don’t know me think.’ Because at the end of the day, I can’t help a half million people that follow me on social media. I can’t control what they do and I can’t change their minds. I can’t touch them. I can’t really enhance their life, truly, no matter what. But I can enhance the life of the people around me. And I can motivate the people that are in my corner, and if I give them 100% effort, like my wife and my family and my friends that are close to me, then I’m doing my part. If I’m focusing my energy on the 490,000 people I don’t know, what am I doing? I’m giving less time to people that essentially mean the most to me. I was just like, whatever. You can think whatever you want of me. But I’d rather focus my energy on the people whose lives I can touch and be motivating for and enhance their life. I would rather spend my entirety doing that than try to impress all these other people that are going to fault me for one thing. I might give them entertainment for 364 of 365 days but then I do one thing that I didn’t even do! And now I’m the worst person in the world.
It’s like, alright, I don’t know you, you don’t know me. It doesn’t give you the right to talk to me that way just because you can say it on a message board.
I’ve been doing that lately as much as I can. I have social obligations for my Facebook and my Instagram, but I do that and then I try to not be involved as much as I used to. It’s just become unimportant, honestly.
I’m paid to race motorcycles so I’m focusing on that, and I’m focusing on my family and friends as much as I can.
So there was a lot of backlash online, but was there any from sponsors, or any professional consequences? It was a very vocal conflict and you’re both under the same parent company. What was that like?
From a managerial point of view, they didn’t feel like I did anything wrong because I just raced. I don’t know what goes on behind closed doors so I’m not too sure if there were any internal conflicts. But on my end, they just said, ‘You raced as hard as I could and the cards fell where they did. You didn’t have control of that and you’re the champion.’
There was even more drama earlier this year with the downfall of the AMA EnduroCross Series. That must have been disconcerting.
Yeah. Obviously with EnduroCross not being around it would be a bummer because indoor enduro racing is my main thing. Not having it would leave me in an awkward situation. Luckily, they were able to pull together enough of a series, and it went off actually really well. The series had packed arenas. They changed the format. I kinda begged them to change it years ago when I started racing SuperEnduro, and they finally did it. They decided this was the most exciting racing they’ve watched in the last five-10 years. And I think they got a handle on it now.
Is the format you’re talking about the three-moto main events with the middle moto having the inverted gate picks?
Speaking of SuperEnduro, you just announced that you’re not going to be competing this year. What was behind that decision?
Basically I wasn’t offered to go. My contract offer was to race EnduroCross and then miscellaneous events in the U.S. and Erzberg. That was my contract offer and there wasn’t any other opportunity to do SuperEnduro.
I looked at it from both sides, which I do all the time, and it makes sense. On one side, I would love to go back and try to defend that title, or make right from last year. That, for me, would be the best-case scenario. But also, on the flip-side, for the corporation I ride for, it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense as a company to send me, a U.S.-based rider, all the way to Europe to race a championship when they already contract riders in Europe who are capable of winning that championship.
It’s not ideal to not be able to go, but there’s nothing wrong with a new challenge. It is what it is. You gotta look at both sides of the coin and be able to move forward.
I get paid to ride a motorcycle, so I think that’s pretty cool. Whether I’m racing in Europe or in the States, I’m still racing a motorcycle for a living and enjoying what I do and getting to hang out with awesome people and do what I love. How much more could you ask for?
Speaking of new goals and moving on, you sold the Haaker Hacienda this year! That’s a pretty big move for you.
Yeah, the Hacienda, as most people know, is my house, my home in Southern California for the past seven years, and it’s kinda like it was a staple of mine and who I was. I built my career off of the track in the back yard with all the stuff I did there, the videos I did.
It was the dream, right? To have your own piece of property in Southern California, your own track in your back yard and your workshop, and basically I was able to ride my dirt bike in any direction as far as I want. It was a dream situation. And it was a dream, for about six years of the seven. [laughs]
As much as it was convenient, it started to become a hinderance. I had the track in my back yard and I had a skidsteer and my own tractor and I could do whatever I wanted to do. That was the convenience part. But the hindrance part was I could never get away from it in my mind. I never had a reset button. I never could, say, get away from that line in the back yard, the track, that mistake or whatever it was that day, I was thinking about it. And not just that, but I also just stayed there all the time. I didn’t leave. Because I was like, ‘Well I have everything here, why would I go anywhere?’ But you need to have diversity in your riding, in your life. I didn’t have that.
It was also becoming difficult for us to do what we needed to do as a family. We have to drive an hour plus to San Diego to go do stuff as a family, to go to the museum, or go to a park or go to the beach. It’s just a long ways to go do things. The daycare we wanted to bring our daughter to was, like, 30 minutes away. It was like we were running around and spending more time driving rather than just having time to do things.
And you’re now heading to Idaho?
Yeah. I visited Idaho this summer—I already have a house there and I spent a month there riding—and when I was there I spent time at the gym, I spent time at the lake, I spent time at the park playing basketball, and downtown eating good food, stuff like that. It was the convenience factor of all the other stuff that I was missing in Southern California.
Moving to that a place that is more family oriented, hopefully it’s going to give us more time to focus on our growing family. It’s going to give me more time to focus on the things I need to continue racing a motorcycle at a high level. And hopefully focus on living in the moment and being happy.
You mentioned your growing family. I hear you have another baby on the way.
Bang, bang! Just get it done!
Your movie Rare Exception came out this year. How has that been for you?