Introducing 2004 World Superbike Champion Neil Hodgson
When you look at AMA Superbike competition it usually starts and ends with the Suzuki team as Mat Mladin and Ben Spies have ruled the series the past few seasons. There is little doubt that unless you are on the factory Suzuki team you are just racing for third.
That may be a little overstated, but the fact is that any rider not named Spies or Mladin has little chance of standing on the top step at any round. Despite Suzuki’s dominance, there is plenty of talent throughout the grid and one rider is now making a name for himself in the United States. Introducing 2004 World Superbike champion Neil Hodgson.
Technically, this is Hodgson’s third full season of AMA Superbike competition, but his first two seasons were overshadowed by the story of Suzuki and in 2007 he only raced one round after Ducati left the series and he was unable to find the right ride in time.
After a long summer in 2007, Hodgson was quick to sign on as Canadian Miguel Duhamel’s teammate with the factory Honda team and half-way through the year, the 34-year-old Briton has shown that he is among the best non-Suzuki riders on the grid. After 12 races he was fourth in points, just two back of Kawasaki’s Jamie Hacking. While Spies and Mladin are already out of sight in the championship, it should be a great duel between Hacking and Hodgson to determine the best of the rest.
Hodgson first threw a leg over a bike back in 1982 as he began his two-wheel career in motocross, earning the Rider-of-the-Year award in 1986-87. He didn’t make the jump to road racing until 1990, but once he did the kid from England quickly established himself as a rising star.
In 1992 he became a household name in England with a championship run in the 125cc class, which propelled him into MotoGP competition as he entered the 125cc ranks. He continued in the series until 1995 when he made the move to 500cc competition with WCM. There he developed a reputation as a smooth and fast rider who needed to temper his impetuous style to avoid crashing. Still, an 11th-place showing proved he was a rider to watch, and that’s exactly what Ducati was thinking when it signed him for World Superbike in 1996.
Things started somewhat well for Hodgson as he secured his only podium of the year at Laguna Seca. But trying times developed over the next two seasons as he shuffled between teams. By 1999, he was missing solid results as well as his home, so Hodgson returned to British Superbike racing in an effort to show it was the equipment and not his talent that had been the problem during his World Superbike days. En route to the title in 2000, he had a spectacular season-long battle with Chris Walker that impressed his GSE team owners, not to mention a pair of wins at the Donington and Brands Hatch rounds of the World Superbike Championship.
GSE made the move to World Superbike in 2001, where Hodgson was teamed with the next rising British star, James Toseland. His debut season was a success as Hodgson stood on the top step and came home with a fifth-place championship standing. The following year he was third to teammate Troy Bayliss and Colin Edwards. When those two riders left for MotoGP in 2003, that meant Hodgson was now the top gun for Ducati and he did not disappoint, beating teammate Ruben Xaus to the title.
By 2004, Hodgson was ready for a new challenge and that’s when Ducati moved him to their satellite MotoGP team, but things didn’t go according to plan for the rider or team. Without a big enough budget to test like the top teams, Hodgson struggled with set-up all year and never felt comfortable on the bike. A 17th-place finish in the standings soured Hodgson on the MotoGP scene and he has vowed never to return to the series unless the right situation develops. Of course, at 34, he doesn’t expect that opportunity to come so he has eliminated it from his goal list.
Crossing the Ocean
With MotoGP out of the question and a World Superbike ride unavailable as Ducati had already signed Regis Laconi for its program, Hodgson was left looking for a place to ride. Fortunately, Ducati expanded it support for an AMA Superbike squad and Hodgson ventured to the United States. Hodgson hoped that the AMA would put the final feather in his cap as he looked to become the first rider to win the three biggest Superbike crowns on the planet — World, AMA and British.
Those first two campaigns produced plenty of drama and excitement, but the attention for many was riveted to the two blue bikes at the front. He grabbed his first AMA victory in the first race at Road America that year and went on to a fifth-place championship result as a rookie. Things were much the same in 2006 for the Ducati squad, but this time Hodgson could only muster a few podium finishes and no victories en route to a sixth-place result.
But the worst was yet to come for Hodgson as Ducati delayed its decision on its 2007 program. By the time they decided to leave AMA racing, Hodgson had watched all the top rides get snatched up and he was left on the sidelines. He did test a lot and raced a couple of AMA rounds, but he was an afterthought on most weekends and many weren’t sure what kind of future he had.
Well, by the fall Honda decided it needed a teammate for Duhamel and just as the season ended Honda announced its line-up for the 2009 AMA Superbike Championship. Right from the drop of the green at Daytona, Hodgson has been on the gas. Obviously, he is still stuck watching the Suzuki boys run away at the front, but he has had battles with every rider in the top 10 and emerged as the clear favourite to take that number three spot in the standings.
The veteran from Britain has found his American groove and as his history shows once he has things figured out championships usually follow. If Honda can close the performance gap on the blue bikes there’s little doubt that Hodgson can give the likes of Mladin and Spies a run for their money. There’s still a lot left in the veteran rider’s tank.
“You know what, it’s really strange because I’ve got some great results in my career and now I’m going through a period where the results are not so great,” he said. “You just want to relive those memories so I just want to win again. You don’t lose the hunger for it. It actually makes you more hungry once you have won. If you’ve never won you don’t know what you’re missing but I know what I’m missing. When I’m away from the track I know how good I feel about myself as a person and when I’m not winning I don’t feel like the same person. My goals are still really high and I still want to win.”