Inherit the Wind
The intervening years have not dulled the details one iota. Recalled with indelible lucidity by professional motorcycle racer Miguel Duhamel, it was a deeply cathartic moment that defined just how cogent his desire to win was. He refers to it as “the throttle incident.”
It was 1991, and the 23-year-old Canadian was competing in his first Daytona 200—a rookie in the world’s most prestigious motorcycle race. The Speedway’s renowned, foreboding high banks are imbued with a rich history reaching back to its pre-pavement days when the race was run on the sand of nearby Daytona Beach. The list of winners is a who’s who of racing legends. A victory here carries as much cache as a championship title.
Behind every championship is an indispensable team: Duhamel with crew chief Al Ludington (top), and fiancée Linnea Deguzman. (Click images to enlarge)
On that particular Sunday, after 68 arduous laps, approaching the end of the torturous 200-mile race, the rookie found himself in the lead. With one lap remaining, young Duhamel was being hounded by an imposing horde of unsentimental racers, with no qualms about derailing a fairytale ending for the Daytona virgin. He might as well have had a bull’s-eye emblazoned on the back of his leathers. But, after enduring 200 grueling miles of the tumultuous, high-speed asphalt ballet, Duhamel had no intention of relinquishing his lead—rookie status or not.
With the pack hot on his heels, Duhamel needed a solid run out of the last corner onto the high banking for that final, all-out dash to the checkered flag. Adrenaline flowing, he twisted the throttle. The spent rear tire started to spin and stepped out in a slide, threatening to high-side him out of the seat and toss his Daytona dream down the pavement. In that millisecond, Duhamel’s experience told him one thing, while his subconscious argued another. As his mind told him to roll off and let the bike settle, an alter ego took over and kept the throttle pinned. The rookie won the Daytona 200. In that watershed moment, Duhamel realized he possessed a deeply embedded, immensely powerful will to win.
Since that day, Duhamel has racked up an astonishing five Daytona 200 victories (going into the 2007 edition). He is king of the draft on the high banks, having mastered the delicately timed nuances of capitalizing on competitors’ slipstreams to deliver his patented slingshot pass. Duhamel has earned an amazing eight AMA Championships—five in Supersport, two in Formula Extreme, and one in Superbike. He enjoys one of the longest racing careers on record, staying consistently at the top, for 15 seasons. He has witnessed an impressive string of talented riders come up through the ranks— blossom, race, fade, retire—while his own career continues unabated. In a profession as dicey, demanding, and unpredictable as roadracing—where ability and staying power tend to be ephemeral commodities—Duhamel, at 38, is in his prime.
Perhaps it was all preordained. Before Miguel Duhamel was born, the blood that would flow through his veins was being modified with the enzyme of speed by his father, legendary Kawasaki roadracer Yvon Duhamel. The elder Duhamel obviously passed along a powerful go-fast gene to his son, who started riding at age three and by six, was pleading with his parents to let him race. As the wife of a famous racer, mom knew all too well the risks of racing and put the kibosh on the matter. This is when another, equally poignant incident changed Duhamel’s destiny.
The winning combination—the #17 Honda with the throttle wide open, and a determined gaze. (Click image to enlarge)
The Duhamel family was on a ski holiday in St. Lucie, Quebec. Young Miguel went off to clear the snow that had gathered on the chalet’s roof. Later, as the family packed into the car, they realized Miguel was missing. To their horror, they discovered he had been swept off the roof as he was clearing it, then buried under several feet of snow. By the time they pulled him out of the icy tomb, Miguel was blue, unconscious, and close to death. Fortunately, he was revived without any lasting harm.
However, the experience had a profound impact on Miguel’s mother. She came to the realization that life, not just racing, held a myriad of dangers that could harm her children, so why not let them do what they wanted. The imposed racing ban was lifted. As a caring, worrisome mother, she hoped in earnest her son would not like it, but that would not be the case.
Duhamel immediately fell in love with the challenges of competition and began his steady climb through the ranks. Duhamel is quick to credit his father as his hero—not only for his exploits on the racetrack, but for his poise and dignity as a self-made man, father, and husband.Nevertheless, having a racing legend for a dad caused its share of problems. He had to work harder for respect and acceptance. In the early amateur years, competitors suspected he was using his father’s influence to obtain modified parts (in actuality, he was riding a 1984 machine during the 1986 season).
Turning pro in 1989, Duhamel quickly established a promising career completely independent from the immense shadow of his father. The emerging prodigy delivered the ultimate homage by deliberately acquiring national number 17—the number made famous by his father during his own illustrious career—and has worn it ever since.
Duhamel at the office. (Click image to enlarge)
As a professional racer, Duhamel’s talent extends beyond the magical touch and physical artistry he brings to riding a motorcycle. He approaches motorcycle racing as a many-faceted, calculated industry of speed. There are the demands on his body, which require a carefully crafted, intense workout regimen of weightlifting, bicycling, and cardiovascular exercises, in addition to strict dietary considerations. Duhamel has to understand the complexities of cutting edge technology in order to work with his crew to extract the highest performance out of chassis, suspension, engine, and tires.
Perhaps most important is the mental preparedness vital to maintaining a calm presence of mind when the world is blurring past at 180 mph. Despite what it might look like to the observer, beneath his helmet, Duhamel is a study in stead composure on the track.
As one of the top motorcycle racers in the country, Duhamel enjoys the spoils of a devoted fan base and earns a good living. His loyalty and dedication to Honda has been rewarded with a 12-year association—an eternity in a sport where riders tend to jump ship from one season to the next. An articulate, polite man with a legendary sense of humor, he is an invaluable spokes-person for the manufacturer and has become synonymous with the company’s racing red livery.
Duhamel contemplating future Daytona victories. (Click image to enlarge)
But it isn’t all celebrity and success. In 1998, Duhamel suffered a horrific crash at the Loudon circuit in New Hampshire, shattering his left femur and kneecap. Testament to his willpower and determination, just nine months after what would have been a career-ending injury for most, he showed up for the season opener at Daytona. His leg was so stiff, his mechanics had to lift him onto his bike. The fact that Duhamel was even going to attempt to ride was astonishing, given that he was unable to train in the off-season due to his injuries.
To everyone’s amazement, he won the race. Once again, his alter ego emerged to quell the immense pain and discomfort, allowing him to focus on the job at hand. The victory, given the seemingly insurmountable odds, escalated him to mythic proportions.
Miguel Duhamel has been at the vanguard of professional roadracing for 15 years. He was racing before some of his present competition was born and, as a result, endures nicknames referencing his longevity. Duhamel doesn’t mind. He is a man at peace with his abilities, proud of his achievements, and happy with his illustrious career. But he’s far from finished, or from slowing down. Instead, he’s focused on all that lies ahead with that signature Duhamel intensity.