News | SINISALO

Interview with Heikki Mikkola

03.05.2012

MEET HEIKKI MIKKOLA: MOTOCROSS LEGEND


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HEIKKI MIKKOLA - SINISALO LEGEND




This story takes us back 35 years to some of the heroic moments in motocross. One of the hard men to beat in those days was Heikki Mikkola. Heikki is -with Roger DeCoster- one of the multi champions who have commercialized the sport. These stars of the Seventies paved the way for the next generations of motocross millionaires.

For Heikki Mikkola there is an extra dimension to his fame; this fierce determined racer put the Sinisalo brand name in the spotlight.

After his racing days he stayed around for only a few years until Heikki said goodbye for good in 1982. During this last year he trained and coached Danny Laporte to become the first American motocross World Champion.


FOUR TIMES WORLD CHAMPION

Flying Finn Mikkola was the first rider to win both the 250cc and 500cc World Championship, the only two classes in those good old days. His trophy list includes 32 victories in World Championship races that led to a total of four World motocross titles: 3 in the 500cc (’74-’77-’78) and 1 in the 250cc (’76). In his last 10 years of racing World Championship Mikkola never finished outside the top 5.

While main competitor DeCoster is still involved in motocross running the USA KTM team, the Flying Finn has long ago said farewell to the sport and lives a quiet life in Finland. But Mikkola’s name is still well-known among the people interested in the roots of motocross, in fact up till today Heikki is the hero of many followers.

“I have invested a lot in my motocross career and it brought me success and all that I wanted. When my racing career was over it was really over. I retired from racing in 1980 and started farming. The first years in combination with a consulting job for Yamaha and Sinisalo, two of my loyal sponsors.”


FIRST HEIKKI TRIED SEVERAL OTHER SPORTS

Having tried different sports like cross country skiing and ski jumping, basketball, athletics, weight lifting Mikkola (born 6 July 1945, Mikkeli Finland) had decided in 1964 that motocross was his love. After a few years of racing in Finland he moved to Belgium, the center of the mx world in those days and still today. He hardly owned more than an old car and a caravan he lived in without any heating.

Mikkola found his way the hard way and that made him a tough competitor nicknamed the Lone Wolf. “There was nobody to help us in those days”. Later in his career the results brought the money so he could afford a house in Beringen, Belgium and Heikki became a respected citizen.

Mikkola was one of the first ‘sponsored’ Sinisalo riders, in fact Heikki Mikkola was the man who –with Reijo Sinisalo- introduced  the brand to the motocross world. Heikki had a huge influence on how Sinisalo became the world’s market leader. The way he did it was in the “never give in” Mikkola style.

“We were using heavy leather pants until the nylon pants were introduced by mid Seventies. At a race in Belgium they tried to stop me using them, they were called to be “not fireproof” or some kind of other excuse that they used. Probably a competitor had pointed this out to the organizer. But I went out and while leading the race I got black flagged but could not figure out why so I ignored that flag, I had done nothing wrong.”


IN HIS FIRST RACE FOR SINISALO HE WAS BLACK FLAGGED

The organizer put a rope across the track to force Mikkola off the track and stop his race. That became a big story; what a great introduction of the new nylon motocross pants it was.

In the 1960’s Husqvarna was the leading brand with CZ. For most of his years the cool Finn rode for Husqvarna before making a switch to Yamaha in 1977. On a Husqvarna he had won the 500cc title beating DeCoster in 1974, then switched back and won the 250cc title in 1976, a double that none of his competitors had ever achieved.

All four Japanese brands had made an introduction at 250cc World Championship level in the first half of the 70’s. Yamaha hired Mikkola’s services in 1977 to race 500cc and his start for the Japanese company ended in disaster. Our hero fell in his first Yamaha race at the deep sand track of Hechtel, Belgium and his arm popped out of the shoulder.

Not to lose any time Heikki walked over to a big guy telling him to push his arm back into the joint. Not able to ride a bike for some weeks he quickly went back to Finland to prepare himself for the  Grand Prix season. With that arm strapped to his body Mikkola did his physical training to get in shape for the GP series. Heikki Mikkola was not only a dedicated racer but also a very hard working athlete.

The bike was new and not yet in top shape but Hessu Penttila -his mechanic- found some solutions. In my opinion the bike still was not perfect at Sittendorf for the 1977 opening GP. Heikki expresses a different explanation for a poor start of the World Championship. “I had the flu, it was so bad I had lost 6 kilos going to Austria.”


MIKKOLA ON A ROLL

Then after winning the second GP in Norg, Holland, on a bike with improved suspension Mikkola was on a roll! He was unstoppable in 1977 and 1978 thus adding two more 500 cc World titles to his list.

One of the biggest fights was Heikki Mikkola against Bob Hannah in 1978 at the Motocross des Nations, both racing for Yamaha. The whole motocross scene was on their toes to see the battle between the world’s best GP racer Mikkola against America’s Superstar at that time Hannah. Heikki had already built a reputation in the USA and was a well respected racer on both sides of the pond; in 2006 Heikki was inducted to the prestigious AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame.

“Sure that was the big test and guess who won, me of course! At breakfast I saw Hannah eat bad stuff, I told him to eat better food. Then on the track with the way he had set up his suspension he stood no chance against me. Gaildorf is a fast circuit, there was a long and high speed downhill where I had a better line and his bike was all over the place, that’s how I beat Hannah.”

The following year Mikkola was struggling in hospital with a broken knee from the opening race of that year 1979. Nevertheless Heikki stayed in the hunt for the 500cc title. But the year passed with too many injuries crossing his path and he finished fourth. A stone that hit him in Canada breaking a rib, it all had an impact.

And then Heikki had a freak incident in Namur on the Citadel, missing a corner to slide under the fence. “Don’t ask me why but we used a new front suspension that I had not even tested and it was a disaster making me crash on the first lap. Before the year was over I had decided to quit racing. Yamaha had my new contract ready to sign for 1980 but I told them I would retire.”


SPEAKING MOTOCROSS ENGLISH

Having known Heikki Mikkola since the mid 70’s I was keen to meet him again at his own place. I was not a bit worried would he recognize me as we had a very good relationship in those days. I was right, yet I was a bit worried about his English as he spoke what we called the “motocross English” in his racing days.

I remember the 70’s working with Nick Harris, one of the friendliest guys reporting for the English weekly newspaper Motor Cycle News and I use to shoot their mx pictures. Nick wanted to do an interview with Mikkola at the German Grand Prix of Bielstein in 1977. It became a day to remember. Harris asked Mikkola a question in proper English, then Heikki looked at me like what’s he talking about? I rephrased the question into what we called ‘motocross English’ so the Fin would understand.

We hardly see Mikkola at the races anymore although in 2009 Heikki came to support Antti Pyrhönen at the Vantaa MX3. Many recognized him and stopped to have a look at Mikkola and the brave ones asked him some questions or wanted an autograph.

Antti Pyrhönen drove me to meet Mikkola on a rainy day while Finland should be covered in snow. The Mikkola’s had just returned from a skiing trip to Lapland where he has a house; Heikki likes to stay in shape.

He is waiting for me and Antti in his shop where he sells vegetables, potatoes and self baked bread to the local shops and to tourists in the summertime. No surprise some tourists pass by especially to meet Heikki, some come from far away countries.

The man looks fit and in shape. He hardly has changed although now a bit older since the last time I met him when he turned 50. With his great sense of humor we are soon back in time .. and hey the man speaks almost fluent English. What has happened?

“Haha I had to learn to speak better English because I do a lot of hunting and thus I needed to improve my speaking. Oh well maybe in my racing days I did not always want to understand English haha,“ says Heikki with that special grin that his fans will remember.


HEIKKI THE HUNTER

“I have been hunting in many countries, of course at many occasions in my home country Finland but also at more far away places like South Africa, Poland, Estonia and Switzerland.”  Life is good for Heikki Mikkola and so is his health.

Some ten years ago Mikkola got a visit from an American reporter keen to interview Mikkola better and it made a good story. One quote from Mikkola went worldwide over the internet. When the reporter asked about US motocross and what Heikki thought of Jeremy McGrath, the big star in those days, his reply was:  Jeremy who?

“I had seen modern motocross in America when I visited Roger DeCoster but the Supercross scene didn’t attract me. Since I retired from motocross I don’t follow the sport any longer, I just know a few riders in Europe and Finland.”

The Yamaha people were like family to Mikkola. “I never really spoke with Honda, Yamaha treated me well. In 1977 they had no plans to race 500cc, they had the idea to continue in 250cc when I contacted them. Mister Tanaka, boss of the Yamaha Europe racing team, was a fantastic person and so they changed plans. We created a good atmosphere and won two world titles.”


YAMAHA GAVE HIM A BOAT

“I remember that I went testing in Japan and met the higher bosses. They said mister Mikkola your country has so many lakes, are you keen on boats? I said sure and paid no further notice to the subject. Months later I had a call from Yamaha saying your boat is ready for you in Helsinki, I’ve still got it. I mean a serious boat with 2 Volvo engines and 100 horsepower. I gave it all I had and motocross gave me a lot in return.”

Heikki and his wife Kaija moved back to Finland with their 3 kids when racing was done, starting a farm and shop in Läyliäinen (west of Hyvinkää between Helsinki and Tampere).

Without a doubt Heikki Mikkola is one of motocross’ true heroes and a legend with great importance for Sinisalo!  

(This interview was done by Harry van Hemmen, GP reporter in the 70’s and 80’s)



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HEIKKI MIKKOLA AND ROGER DECOSTER
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HEIKKI MIKKOLA AT BIELSTEIN GERMANY

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HEIKKI MIKKOLA HOLDING OFF GERRIT WOLSINK AT THE NAMUR CITADEL

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HEIKKI MIKKOLA SHOP IN FINLAND

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HEIKKI MIKKOLA WITH KNEE INJURY

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HEIKKI MIKKOLA WORLD CHAMPION ON HUSQVARNA

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HEIKKI MIKKOLA WORLD CHAMPION ON YAMAHA

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HEIKKI MIKKOLA'S EARLY DAYS AT FINNISH ENDURO RACE

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HEIKKI MIKKOLA YOUNG AND NOT SO YOUNG