GT TONGLET INTERVIEW He can't help it. But it's true. GT Tonglet is a walking contradiction. The blue-eyed boy from the Bayou likely doesn't even realize it, no less. When the rider of the Screamin' Eagle/Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson V-Rod...
GT TONGLET INTERVIEW
He can't help it. But it's true. GT Tonglet is a walking contradiction. The blue-eyed boy from the Bayou likely doesn't even realize it, no less. When the rider of the Screamin' Eagle/Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson V-Rod walks around the pits of an NHRA POWERade Drag Racing event, including next weekend's 52nd annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis Raceway Park, you might not even notice at first. But take a deeper look and you will see it. The 23-year-old racer looks even younger than he is. He has the face of a teenager but he has the wisdom and riding experience of his veteran peers. After all, Tonglet has been riding motorcycles for more than a decade now, so he's had more than his fair share of time on two-wheels. The New Orleans native walks a different story too. He saunters with a good-natured, Louisiana approach to life. Tonglet will talk to anyone, making strangers feel like old friends before too long. But when Tonglet throws his leg over the Screamin' Eagle V-Rod, he has no friends. Tonglet can instantly be the most focused, calm, cool and collected competitor in the bunch. Want proof? How about in 2005 when he was forced to evacuate his home just outside the New Orleans city limits because of Hurricane Katrina. Tonglet couldn't communicate with most of his friends and family for more than two days. He didn't know what his house would look like when he drove home a week later -- following the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis -- but he drove directly to the race nonetheless. While the world watched in horror as one of the most celebrated cities in the United States was brought to its knees by the floods, Tonglet got on his bike, qualified third in the biggest field of the season and won the bonus event for two-wheeled entries. That's the definition of cool. In this Q&A session Tonglet talks about what it's like to be the first factory-backed drag racer in Harley-Davidson history, what his weakness as a rider is and how his life changed forever when New Orleans lost its Superman status.
Q: What makes you GT Tonglet?
TONGLET: Focus. When I am up there racing I leave everything else behind. I don't think about what's going on at home or my family, just how to get the bike down the track as quickly as possible. But when I leave the race track I'm just a normal person. I don't need to wear the racing clothes at home to remind myself or other people what I do. I like to take a clean, fresh approach to each event. If we have a bad weekend, I can clear my head that way and not let it affect the next race. I do whatever it takes to clear the mind. If you spend too much energy on great or poor results, it will hurt you. I think my mental approach to my job as a rider has improved over the past couple of seasons and I do whatever I can to make sure I'm ready to race.
Q: Why did you choose racing as a career?
TONGLET: My dad has been doing it for more than 30 years. He asked me one day if I wanted to start riding. I didn't want to do it at first; I don't think I was even 14 years old. But once I made the first pass I couldn't stop. Before that day I had never ridden anything so I didn't run the first pass at full power. I basically idled it down the track. I don't think I even shifted and I'm actually embarrassed to say that I think that first pass was about 27 seconds. I got right back on and the next pass was 21 seconds which sounds funny now, but those were the first two times I was on a motorcycle. The next weekend my dad and I went back out and the pass dropped to 16 seconds. That setup eventually took me down to nine seconds and I loved it a little more every time I went down the track.
Q: Why have you stayed with motorcycle racing in particular?
TONGLET: My dad has always loved motorcycles and my first opportunity with racing was with a motorcycle. If he had been in love with Pro Stock cars and would have given me the opportunity to try cars, I would have tried that too. But he loved motorcycles and when he asked if I wanted to go pro racing after we practiced after more than a year, I jumped at the chance.
I love riding. I love racing in the stock motorcycle class. It's the elite class of all motorcycle racing. Every bike out here is capable of finishing in the top five and to be able to compete in that level of NHRA competition is a big pat on your back. The competition is so tough that if you can finish in the top five and even in the top 10, that's a big accomplishment. I keep coming back out here because I love the sport and I have a big love of motorcycles.
Q: Who encouraged you to start a racing career?
TONGLET: When I signed the deal to be the Screamin' Eagle Harley-Davidson rider, it became a career. That's when I went from being an amateur to being a pro. Otherwise, I was so young that I really had not thought about what I wanted to do forever. I just knew that it would always include motorcycle racing in some way. My dad has always raced. He won a race the day after I was born. On my 16th birthday, I won that exact same race and that was my first win. Those are the events that keep you going back to the track for fun every weekend.
In 2001 my dad and I went to all of the NHRA races. I was just 17 and 18 years old; we went to three final rounds and won one of them. We were just out there to have fun. We weren't trying to make money off of it, but we did what we could to avoid spending a ton of money. It was just something fun we did part-time. Then Terry Vance and the Screamin' Eagle deal came knocking.
Q: Who were your role models growing up?
TONGLET: My dad certainly. I also really admired John Myers and Dave Schultz. They were always winning, always in the spot light but still always down to earth. I remember when I went dirt bike riding with Myers when I was 15 years old. Away from the race track, you would not even know they had all the fame and glory on the race track. I knew I wanted to run my life the same way. I don't think about it anymore, but when I walk into a restaurant, I'm not GT Tonglet, Pro Stock Motorcycle Racer. I'm just another guy walking in to a place trying to get something to eat. Myers and Schultz were like that.
Q: Your dad has raced in motorcycle competition off and on for more than 30 years, including several years of NHRA competition. What does he do better than you as a racer? What do you do better than him?
TONGLET: My dad was always good on the tree. When they had the .400 pro tree, he was always in the 0s to 20s. That's something I have always wanted to do, be consistent on the tree. I think I am a little bit smoother on the bike than he is. He was always good at shifting and looking at the lights.
Q: What is the best thing about your hometown?
TONGLET: Bourbon Street. The bars. It's a party city and I love parties. I have always loved being around people and having fun but I really like going out now. I think I appreciate the city more. I like to see local bands play and just take advantage of what a great city we have. I love the city.
Q: What did last year's Hurricane Katrina teach you?
TONGLET: It taught me our city is not invincible. We've been through hurricanes before and I really thought we could withstand anything. Katrina taught me that we really can't. Right now we are building the city stronger because of it and that's a good thing. It's unfortunate it took such a devastating event to bring about those changes. We are still struggling to return to normal, but it's getting there. When you drive through what used to be the poorer parts of town, it's still pretty nasty and looks just like it did right after the hurricane. But we're all trying to get everything back to normal and hopefully we'll get everything together soon.
Q: Would you ever consider living anywhere else?
TONGLET: No. I have to stay here, I love it down here. It's a little warm, but this is where I want to be. All my friends and family are here and that's more important to me than anything. I can't imagine living anywhere else.
Q: What does the Screamin' Eagle division of Harley-Davidson do well?
TONGLET: They have technology to do anything they want. The resources they have to build engines and motorcycles are just phenomenal. They have worked with our team to make exhaust pipes and other things. They have great people and great resources. It's been fascinating to see them operate a division that caters to high performance.
Q: What other jobs have you had in your lifetime?
TONGLET: I worked at my dad's hydraulic shop for about three years. All I did was rebuild hydraulics. Having a job taught me how to save money to get what I wanted. It also taught me that everything had to be precise. My dad and I work really well together. I love being around my dad. He's hilarious. I've also worked at a couple of motorcycle shops.
Q: What would you be doing for a living if you weren't a professional racer?
TONGLET: I almost became a firefighter. So I would probably do that. When I signed this deal with Harley-Davidson, I stopped going forward with the plans to be a firefighter. My great grandpa, my grandpa and my uncle all did it. It seemed like a natural fit for me, but I have to say I'm very happy I went this way. I love racing.
Q: What are your career goals and how can you ensure they will be accomplished?
TONGLET: I would like to win a championship. For that to happen it's going to take a lot of hard work and dedication. It's going to take an extreme amount of work. It's so tough out here and it's going to take a lot of effort from a lot of people.
Q: What do you do well as a rider?
TONGLET: I'm consistent with my lights and shift points. I try to get every little bit out of the run that I can. I think I'm calm and cool under pressure.
Q: What is your weakness as a rider?
TONGLET: It seems like when I get behind in points I get discouraged. Right now I am not in the top 10 and it's upsetting. I think it's starting to get to me. It doesn't affect me on the motorcycle, but everywhere else it makes me feel a little overwhelmed. I keep thinking about it and that goes against my goal of leaving racing at the track. Hopefully we can figure something out soon and get back in the top 10. If anyone can do it, it's our Screamin' Eagle team.
Q: Why is it so tough to win in NHRA right now?
TONGLET: The field is full of talent. There are four bikes in six-second club. That takes up half of the top qualifying spots right there. The top five or six bikes have a big gap on everyone else right now. Everyone cuts decent lights. You have to be able to back the reaction time up with a good E.T. and that's happening too. From the riders to the tuners, there is just a lot of talent in NHRA competition.
Q: You were the first factory-backed Harley-Davidson rider in NHRA history, does that mean something to you now or will it be something you look back on when you've retired from racing?
TONGLET: It means a lot to me now but it might mean even more when I have retired and decide to take a look back at my career. It was so flattering being the first rider in the program but I wish I could have been first factory-backed rider to win a race. I think that would have been amazing and would have meant more than anything else. But it's still a great honor to be part of this Screamin' Eagle program from the beginning.
Q: Your first season as a pro was in 2001 and you won one race in three final rounds. Did you think winning was easy and you would have collected a lot more wins by now?
TONGLET: Definitely. Not many people win in their first year. My dad tuned the bike and we won our seventh or eighth start and had been in a final before that. I was young and looking up from that and if you would have asked me how many wins I would have by the time I was 23, I would have said at least 15.
Q: If you could win any race, your dream race, what race would it be and who would you face in the final?
TONGLET: My dream race would be going to Pomona second or third in the points chase with a shot at winning the championship. I would like to race whoever was the points leader and win the race and championship with a six-second pass. If I could claim a race win and championship all under seven seconds, that would be the ultimate dream-come-true. Otherwise, I like to turn in great performances with my friends and family in the stands. Memphis is a place that I would like to win because all of the friends and family from Louisiana all show up.