The cheers, the applause, the adoration, the stories of how he inspired people and the autograph line that circled his truck; those are the reasons why, since 1994, Kevin Windham kept racing. "It's a huge part of why I'm still around," Windham told ESPN in a 2012 article.
On Jan. 12, if the fans at round two of the Monster Energy Supercross series in Phoenix had known that they would be the last crowd to see Windham compete professionally, they would have cheered a little louder. Windham, after 207 career starts, 18 wins and three runner-up finishes overall in Supercross, showed up to Round 3 in Anaheim on Saturday night and unexpectedly announced his retirement during the opening ceremonies. He did not compete.
"To the fans of Supercross, this might seem to be a hasty decision, but I've been talking to a lot of people for a lot of months," Windham said. "I thought I would be able to come into the season and ride myself out of that funk and that mental hurdle I was having to overcome. With every passing lap -- be it at the test track, my home track, or the stadium -- it became more and more difficult to ride with the clarity I needed to be safe, fast, and successful."
One year ago, Windham told ESPN, "I'm pretty much going to stay here and race these motorcycles until something just thumps me upside the head and says, 'It's time for you to get out.' Our sport is great when you're competitive, and when you're not, it's not so great."
That "thump" began when he crashed last April in Houston, and suffered injuries that took him out for the season. He also crashed in practice at the Monster Energy Cup in October and hit his head hard enough to bow out of the event.
In a Jan. 9 Cycle News article, Windham hinted at retirement but said, "I'm stubborn and I don't want to quit yet."
Windham explained his recent change of heart in a statement released by American Honda on Sunday: "The common comment from the people I've spoken to was that if you aren't riding with clarity, you are asking your fears to come upon you. It wasn't the storyline I wanted to write or the final chapter I envisioned, but it became obvious, and we'll try and figure out what's next."
Windham's career is absent of major championship wins but it will be most remembered by his calculated and flawless riding style, which was on display during the opening ceremony of every Supercross race: Windham would pick two sections of the course and connect them in what became known as transfer jumps, some close to 100 feet in length.
In addition to his 18 450 SX victories, Windham won two 250 SX East Regional titles. He also finished runner-up in the overall standings of the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship seven times, twice in the 250 class and five times in the 450 division with ten career wins.
Windham had wanted to stretch his career through the 2014 season and try to overtake Mike LaRocco as the all-time Supercross main event starts leader. LaRocco has 228 starts. Windham has the second-highest total with 207 and holds a sport record with 102 consecutive main event starts, from 2006-2012.
"I would love nothing more than to ride forever," Windham said before making his retirement official at rider introductions on Saturday night. "The choice was going to be hard no matter when I did it."
LaRocco, who is also Windham's team manager at Geico Honda, said he saw the first signs that Windham seriously mulling retirement starting at the first race of the season.
"He was kind of coming to the races stressing about things that guys don't normally stress about," LaRocco said. "I knew at that time that when you think that way, it's the beginning of the end. Having been there [myself], you just can't get it out of your head. So when you are comfortable with what you've done and what you have, it's hard taking that risk."
Windham said he plans on spending time with his wife, Dottie, and children, Madelyn, Annabelle, Elizabeth, and Kevin Jr.
"I've been racing motorcycles for 31 years now, and I expect I'll keep riding on some level," Windham said. "I'll ride with my son, who wants to start to ride right now. I want to help all my kids do everything they want to do. I don't know what I'm going to do next. We'll find that next chapter, and I don't think it will be too far away from where I'm at right now."