Interview with Jamie Hyneman from Mythbusters: The Long Version

Nov 11, 2013 View Comments by

Interview with Jamie Hyneman: The Long VersionEditor’s note: This interview was featured in the Nov/Dec ’13 issue of RoadRUNNER. To make the text fit within the space constraints of the magazine we had to cut it down quite a bit. Here is the full-length text from the interview.

Jamie Hyneman is the epitome of a modern day Renaissance man. His list of interests and skills is as long as it is diverse. After earning a degree in Russian linguistics from Indiana University, he went on to become a boat captain and dive master in the Virgin Islands before entering the world of special effects and working on movies like Star Wars Episodes I and II and the Matrix Trilogy. Jamie has also been an animal wrangler, robot builder, chef, and building inspector. But for all this, Jamie is best known as the mustachioed co-host of the Discovery Channel series Mythbusters. In addition to his other interests, Jamie is an avid motorcyclist, a fact that has surfaced several times on the show.

RR: Let’s begin with your motorcycling history. When did you first learn to ride, and what was your first bike?

Interview with Jamie Hyneman: The Long VersionJamie: I was riding minibikes from maybe 12 years old or so. I lived on an orchard and had lots of room to ride. I eventually moved up to dirt bikes, like a Super Rat, and some others. My first road legal bike was a 250 BSA. Then I had a Triumph Bonneville. I totaled the Triumph when a car pulled out of a driveway in front of me when I was going about 60 on a highway. I just sailed right over top of it and landed quite a distance away. It was winter and I was heavily clothed and was wearing a helmet so I was not hurt at all. After mopping up all the oil leaks on the garage floor and struggling to keep those old British bikes running, I got a Yamaha XT 500T ‘thumper’ which I loved. I rode that thing all over the country. It was light enough to take off road some, but heavy enough to move down the highway without struggling. It was a very reliable bike and had a nice feel to it.

RR: What’s the most memorable motorcycle trip (if you can name one) that you’ve ever taken?

Jamie: I was in Seattle when Mount St. Helens erupted, and as soon as it

calmed down some I hopped on the thumper and rode to the mountain. I worked my way down a bunch of dirt roads—most of which were closed off to normal traffic because of the eruption—and tried to ride on top of the mud flows. I got fairly close to the mountain, but the mudflows were problematic. You could stay on top for a while and then hit a soft spot and drop in to the axle. It was ominous back there, kind of scary. No one was around, and the mountain was kind of sitting there smoking.

RR: Many people would say that yours is one of the all-time greatest dream jobs. How did you come to be on Mythbusters?

Jamie: Well, I had been running my FX business for a number of years and had become successful over time by diversifying into work like prototyping that would pay the bills in between the movie and commercial work that was the mainstay. Such FX work is very intermittent and hard to rely on. So when an offer to do a pilot for a TV show came along I did it as a matter of policy—even though I felt it was virtually impossible that it would turn into anything. Just goes to show, you have to try things. You never know what will happen.

RR: In the Mythbusters episode entitled “Tablecloth Chaos,” you used your Buell 1125R to bust a myth in which a BMW S 1000 RR pulls a tablecloth out from under a fully loaded banquet table. What did you learn from that experiment?

Jamie: That I could actually get tired of going flat out on a really fast bike with no speed limit over and over again. The runway we use is a mile and a quarter long, and in between takes I was getting that Buell up to about 180. The thing is, it ends at the bay, and at that speed, if you wait until you see the end of the runway before you start to brake, it would be too late. So I kept doing it over and over, starting at about 130 and adding about five or ten miles per hour until 180, which was a nice round number and didn’t make me feel like I would end up in the bay.

RR: In addition to the 1125R do you have any other bikes in your stable?

Jamie: No, I don’t have any other bikes. And I am thinking about selling the Buell before I kill myself on it. It has been modified by Erik Buell Racing with the racing ECM, muffler, a different wishbone with a chain instead of the belt, and fiberglass body work, as well as having the cooling fans taken off of it. So it is not road legal, and will overheat in traffic. I haven’t taken it on the road since that episode because it would be a shame to undo the mods. But I don’t have time to race—and as host for Mythbusters I am a ‘commodity’ and they won’t allow me to because of the risk. So if any of your readers wants to make an offer, let me know! It only has a few hundred miles on it. It’s a great bike.

RR: In the midst of your busy filming schedule, how often are you able to escape for a ride?

Jamie: That is one reason I haven’t put many miles on the bike—I don’t have much free time.

RR: You live in the San Francisco area. Do you have any favorite routes there?

Jamie: There are a lot of routes that go to or follow Highway One along the coast. In northern California there are hundreds of miles of hairpin turns and with a bike like the Buell you can just whip it through those like barrel racing a horse. 128 up toward Mendocino is a good one.

RR: As a motorcyclist and mythbuster, do you get especially excited about motorcycle-related myths? Do you have any that you’ve been hoping to get a chance to bust?

Jamie: As it happens, there is a new episode premiering soon where I try to ride a dirt bike at high speed across a reservoir. There are videos you can bring up on YouTube that show people doing this, but they can be faked, and many of them are shot in such a way that you can’t tell for sure if the water is actually just very shallow or not. So we got a dirt bike from Service Powersports in Indiana, where they take light weight aluminum frame dirt bikes intended to have a 250cc four-stroke engine and put 500cc two-strokes in them. They pioneered doing this and make more or less the fastest dirt bikes you can get—pretty much anything you want to do with a bike, they can give you more than you can handle. Since major manufacturers don’t make two-strokes any more, these guys make them to order, and pound for pound you can’t beat them. The torque on those engines is instantaneous and explosive, and on those light frames they are almost too hot to handle. I can’t tell you how the episode turned out, as it has not aired yet, but I can tell you in the episode I end up riding one of those bikes flat out onto a reservoir. It was the craziest thing I have ever done with a bike, and it turned out pretty amazing.

RR: In a segment of the show entitled “Bike vs. Car,” you conclude that cars are actually a “greener” form of transportation than motorcycles, a claim that is somewhat controversial. How did you arrive at this outcome? Is there anything you’d do differently if you were to redo the segment?

Jamie: I have to say, I don’t really agree with the conclusion we came up with. We had to say that, because that is what the data was that we got and so that is what we put out there. But I think that 250 Yamaha we used for the final test was not functioning properly or there was some other problem with how we were testing it. I have spoken with Erik Buell about it, for example, and he says the 1125R has numbers as good as a car. Keep in mind that proper science usually involves more than one test and while we probably do as good of a job as anyone could given the constraints of shooting a TV show, we like to think of what we do as more thought provoking than definitive. There is no reason a motorcycle can’t be as clean as an automobile—we just showed what we got with what we tested. I do think that manufacturers could do much better in attempting to minimize the amount of pollution and fuel consumption on bikes though.

RR: On the show you are frequently inventing and fabricating. Have you ever invented or built anything for a motorcycle?

Jamie: Not really. I probably will some day. If I had the time and end up keeping the Buell, it would be fun to strip it down and mod it with a bicycle seat and a long wishbone. That big engine with nothing else that is not needed around it would be cool looking. It has a quality to it not unlike the look of the latest version of the bat mobile.

RR: If the opportunity to do Mythbusters hadn’t come along, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Jamie: I would be engineering things. Before Mythbusters I was notorious for making a robot for Robot Wars named Blendo that was the most dangerous robot around at that time. The matches lasted a few seconds, just long enough for the opponent to explode from the impact. Engineering is what I do for fun.

RR: How long have you known your co-host, Adam Savage? What is it that makes your relationship work so well (at least on-screen)?

Jamie: I’ve known Adam for going on 20 years. What makes it work is respect. We don’t even like each other, but we have respect for what we bring to the table. Sometimes the best people to be around are not exactly like you—because if they were, what is the point? If they contribute something different than you can, that is when they are valuable.

RR: Aside from your work on Mythbusters, you also run M5 Industries, a visual effects company. Can you share any projects you’re currently working on?

Jamie: There are several projects I have running, but most are in development and I can’t talk about them until they are on the market. What I can discuss is that I have been working on new types of armor specifically aimed at mitigating blasts from IEDs and such for the military. The designs aim to try to shed or redirect blast waves rather than absorbing them or overcoming them with brute force. Armor on Humvees and other military vehicles can be so heavy that it is impractical, and at the same time may deflect shrapnel but not blast pressures. You might be intact after a blast, but there is no point if you are jelly.

RR: How many patents do you hold and what are they for?

Jamie: I have a couple; one is for a gyroscopically stabilized device—which you could ride in like a motorcycle. But it is a sphere, with a large gyro on a vertical axis. You steer by accelerating or decelerating the gyro. You can also burn rubber taking off with it, because of the gyroscopic stabilization—where without it you would just flip over inside. Another one is for a tiny electromechanical actuator about the size of an aspirin. There are also several that are patent pending.

RR: What thoughts do you have on electric bikes and the technological future of motorcycling?

Jamie: There are a couple of things about electric bikes: one is that biking seems to me to be more about the experience than practicality—except for short trips in a congested area. And if your idea of the experience involves a noisy motor, then you will probably stay with those. The other is that most trips on motorcycles are probably relatively short, and so the limitations of batteries are not as pronounced. The power and performance you can get from an electric bike is very competitive to internal combustion engines now, and so I am sure they will become much more prominent in the near future as manufacturers catch up. And I personally like the fact that they are quiet.

RR: What skills do you still wish to add to your impressive repertoire?

Jamie: Anything I can find time to. It all adds to a foundation of knowledge that allows you to extrapolate answers to things or solve problems in areas you have no direct experience with. I am spending a lot of time learning CAD these days as it is extending my reach as a designer and builder. I would like to take up flying at some point.

RR: Are there any big ambitions still sitting on Jamie Hyneman’s backburner?

Jamie: There are all sorts of crazy machines percolating there. I would love to have access to a company like Caterpillar. I would make all their stuff remote controlled and work ten times as fast.

RR: How long do you see yourself hosting Mythbusters? What is your idea of retirement?

Jamie: We are still going strong on the show, and are starting to produce new, unrelated series for Discovery. At some point I would like to just design and build things though. Filming what you build, like we do on Mythbusters, makes it take five times longer than it otherwise would. So that is what I would do, just make whatever I want, instead of having to collaborate every minute.

Photos courtesy of Jamie Hyneman


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About the author

There’s something relentlessly romantic about riding a motorcycle. I’m blessed to know that feeling. With a background in photography and a love for motorcycles, I’m interested in the beauty and honesty of the open road. You’ll find me riding Carolina’s roads on my Suzuki SV650.