Q&A with legendary motorcycle racer and SC Sports Wall of Fame inductee Johnny Campbell

By Steve Breazeale

In the history of the infamous SCORE Baja 1000 off-road race, there is no motorcycle rider with more success than San Clemente native Johnny Campbell.

The veteran racer was born with an affinity for everything on two wheels, and after years of honing his craft down to a science, he went on to become one of the biggest names in the sport, propelled into the spotlight by a stretch of dominance at the famous desert race south of the border.

On May 20, Campbell will be one of three local icons inducted into the Friends of San Clemente Foundation’s Sports Wall of Fame. The ceremony will take place at the Vista Hermosa Aquatics Center at 6 p.m.

Campbell has won just about everything there is to win in the sport of off-road racing, but his success at the Baja 1000, where riders navigate their way across 1,000 miles of rugged Mexican terrain, is unparalleled.

Campbell won the event a record 11 times, a feat many in the sport consider to be untouchable. From 1997 to 2005, Campbell and his American Honda Racing team rattled off a streak of nine consecutive Baja 1000 wins. After missing out on a 10th consecutive win in 2006, Campbell returned to the winner’s podium in 2007 and 2008.

After decades of dominance, Campbell decided to step off the bike and transition into the role of team manager for the American Honda racing team. Campbell now has four riders racing under his name in 40 to 50 events across the country every season.

The San Clemente Times caught up with Campbell this week to reflect on his life, career, and his love of the Baja 1000.

Johnny Campbell will be inducted into the Friends of San Clemente Foundation's Sports Wall of Fame Saturday. Photo: JCR/Honda
Johnny Campbell will be inducted into the Friends of San Clemente Foundation’s Sports Wall of Fame Saturday. Photo: JCR/Honda

San Clemente Times: How did you get started in off-road racing?

Johnny Campbell: I grew up surfing and biking in San Clemente, and what catapulted me was my dad, who rode and raced motorcycles. I loved two wheels and had a passion for dirt bike riding as a young boy. I got my first (motorbike) when I was 13 and went from there.

SCT: What drew you to the sport?

JC: Racing is like a sense of freedom. It’s a sense of adventure. You get on your bike and go where you want to go. I loved riding in the dirt, of course, and making dirt jumps at San Clemente State Beach. It was a natural transition from jumping bikes in the dirt to riding motorcycles in the dirt.

SCT: When did you decide you wanted to race for a living?

JC: I had it in me to be an athlete. I wanted to be good at this. My dad suddenly passed away when I was 16, so my mom supported myself and my brother in our racing. We really focused on the sport; that was our outlet for adrenaline and energy. Everything that we could do we poured into the sport.

SCT: You have such a storied history with the Baja 1000. What does that event mean to you?  

JC: When I first went down there with my wife’s uncle, Craig Adams, I said, “This is amazing. This is the adventure that I want to pursue.” As you know, in San Clemente there was a little off-road culture. Guys like Cameron Steele … all those guys were from town and raced off-road in Mexico. It was such a cool deal that I was really drawn to it. Once I got a taste of Baja, I got bit by the Baja bug. That’s what I wanted to do with my life, to go down there to ride and race.

SCT: It took you a while to break through for a win at Baja. What clicked for you the year of your first win?

JC: It took me several years between broken bones and broken bikes and figuring out how to win that race strategically and ability- and experience-wise. I spent 1991 through 1996 being schooled and it wasn’t until 1997 when it all came together. (The 1997 win) was a big step in my confidence. As a team and a family, we were able to achieve that goal we put out there. That just created a string of focus and maturity. We went on from winning that first Baja 1000 in 1997 to a string of nine in a row, which was a record that was unheard of.

SCT: What do you attribute your success to at the Baja 1000?

JC: You cannot win the Baja 1000 or a race like that by yourself. It really takes a big effort on all. You have co-riders, planning and management putting together a strong tactical effort. You don’t have be the fastest person to win the Baja 1000. You have to have all the puzzle pieces fitting together. You make a plan and try to stick to it, but it doesn’t always go that way. So it’s really how you react to a certain obstacle or flat tire along the way.  

SCT: What is your life like now that you are a team manager and responsible for mentoring a new generation of racers?

JC: My dad was really good about having a strong work ethic. He made us work for what we had. Going from him to Craig Adams to Bruce Ogilvie, running with the work ethic that was instilled in me at a young age and knowing what a real job was start to finish, that’s something that I want to carry to the guys that run underneath me. It’s not easy, because everybody has a different personality and different ambitions. It’s really easy for an athlete to get sidetracked and it becomes all about them. You’re trying to mature these guys in the right way and take the high road and build them into true champions.

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