Nobody who worked with him would ever say that Merlyn Plumlee didn’t do his job.
As a mechanic for Honda’s roadrace team here in the US, then later for Fred Merkel in WSBK and then back to the US for Kawasaki and Honda, Plumlee was a consummate professional. Typically he was the first one at work, and usually the last one to leave. When at the racetrack, he stayed at the track working on the bike or the computer well into the night. After being diagnosed with cancer he worked through his treatments, never taking a single day off until he entered hospice. And even when confined to his bed in hospice, he was still working on his laptop, looking at engineering drawings for new Superbike parts and examining data reports from the most recent race.
Superbike wrench Al Ludington tells a funny but “very Merlyn” story of arriving at the Honda race shop in Torrance early one morning and encountering Plumlee already at his desk, as usual. “You have no idea how early I have to get up every day to beat you in here,” Plumlee wryly said to his counterpart Ludington.
Current Honda MotoGP technician Yuji Kikuchi, who now works as Cal Crutchlow’s HRC seamless transmission technician, worked at American Honda in the early 2000s and while not on Plumlee’s side of the team, he did work daily with him in the Honda race shop. “Merlyn was a real soft-spoken and wise crewchief. Kind of an old school crewchief in some ways, but when he got sick he worked as much as he could; he never left because the chemo made him sick or anything like that. He had a team to run.”
He did not talk about his own racing career much, but Merlyn moved into the technical side of racing after being a rider himself. He’d dirt tracked and roadraced, did it it well enough to enjoy some renown, but he’d also been hurt while racing and thus he knew the inherent risks in this particular activity. He fully owned a dirt track limp for a while, and there’s an impressive if not frightening photo somewhere of him high-siding a Yamaha SRX-6 at a club race in Colorado. Afterward one of his friends joked that the Merlyn’s SRX-6 had not been that high in the air since it was loaded on a container ship in Japan, bound for America.
After he decided just to race his bicycle and work on racing motorcycles rather than race them, Merlyn worked with some of the top riders in motorbike racing. Over a 30 year career “MP” worked with: Fred Merkel, Doug Chandler, Scott Russell, Nicky Hayden, Steve Crevier, Freddie Spencer, Steve Wise, Mike Baldwin, Ben Bostrom, Tripp Nobles, Jake Zemke, Eric Bostrom, Mike Hale and many more. Nearly unanimously his riders and his technician peers said that Merlyn was the best mechanic and crewchief in Superbike racing. He was thorough and dedicated; for example, if a rider wanted to build a new bike on race day morning and for it to be 180 degrees different than the one he qualified on pole and rode in morning warm up Merlyn was ready to go. Need test notes –tonight– from a Laguna Seca test back two years ago when the track was a little like it is today?–Merlyn had them. He was regarded as one of the best motorcycle crewchiefs in racing.
But he was not a coach.
“Merlyn, when I worked with him, was pretty clear on not getting real close to your riders,” recalls Jon Ethell (http://www.jetttuning.com) who worked with Plumlee while at Honda. “I think it came from his general awareness that on a team everybody has a job to do. Our job was to give the rider the best bike that we could, one that was everything we could do to give him a bike to win on. But Merlyn was not a ‘I know you can do this’ kind of crewchief, at all.”
Plumlee returned from the WSBK series in the early 1990s and initially accepted a job working for Rob Muzzy’s Kawasaki team. The strong-willed Muzzy and the methodical and pragmatic Plumlee did not hit it off. Not, at all.
Easy-going Plumlee left Muzzy after one season. But one thing the pair seemed to have in common was believing that their role on a team was not as a motivational speaker for riders. “Yeah, I don’t believe in blowing up a rider’s skirt, telling him how great he is and how I know he can do this,” said Muzzy. “Maybe that came from being a rider myself in my early days. I basically knew that most really good riders don’t need a cheerleader to do their job. And if you open that door with a rider it’s not easy to go back.”
This was something that Plumlee himself admitted, that it was not really in his make-up to help bolster a rider’s confidence with empty words.
In 1998 Eric Bostrom was given a stand in factory Honda ride when Miguel DuHamel crashed and broke his leg. Basically from nowhere the youngest Bostrom won almost everything in sight, three Superbike races and the Formula Extreme championship. Honda were very impressed and signed Bostrom to the factory US Superbike team in 1999, with Plumlee as his crewchief. Honda was clearly expecting his trajectory to continue upwards. Unfortunately that successful arc ended at the first race of the 1999 season when Bostrom highsided the RC45 at Daytona in practice and broke his ankle. He returned to racing that season and showed hints of the rider he was in 1998 but it wasn’t really ever the same at Honda.
After Bostrom left Honda for Kawasaki, Plumlee was frank with his own assessment of what may have gone wrong. “I think that I failed him,” he confessed of the younger Bostrom. “I think that he needed some help getting his confidence back and … I’m not really that kind of crewchief.”
Merlyn’s professionalism was always there, but where, when and how did his non-emotional preparation to riders begin, what sparked it? Who can truly know? Maybe it was always there and just became more refined the older Merlyn became. Or, maybe it was The Couch Story. AKA “Just kids”.
In the 1990s, Nicky and Roger Lee Hayden were due to join a test at Willow Springs. They were quite young, Nicky maybe 14-15 and Roger of course even younger. Father Earl didn’t want two teenagers from Kentucky loose in Southern California but he could not come to this test, thus he asked Merlyn and his wife Marta to watch over the boys. They stayed at the Plumlee home and Merlyn would take them to the test.
Merlyn arrived home from work on the day before the test and found Nicky and Roger Lee laying on each other on his couch watching cartoons on the living room TV. It’s a scene anyone who has had young sons has probably seen–their closeness and inherent familiarity with each other made it natural that they’d just pile on each other and watch TV. All the better to give your younger/older brother a “snake bite” or shake off unfamiliar surroundings by literally leaning on one another.
Merlyn told it better than I can, but he said upon seeing that, he had to go out in the garage and steel himself. These were little more than boys. They were laying on each other watching cartoons and arguing between themselves–sometimes vehemently–over which one Marta’s cat liked best. And those bickering cartoon-heads were due to be testing at Willow Springs the next day; hurtling through Willow’s wicked turn eight and all, 170 mph in the desert with plenty of danger. “They’re just kids” Merlyn kept repeating when he told me the story.
Twenty years later, Nick and Merlyn are gone to the ages and Roger Lee has announced that he will retire from racing at the end of the season. This announcement will officially close the Hayden brothers era in racing. I think Merlyn would be very happy for Roger, that he’s off to start a new life. He’d also be a little relieved: because to him Roger was always that boy on his couch, laying on his big brother while they watched TV.