5 Minutes with... Cole Gress

As families were heading home from the recent Mini Os in Florida, a rumor was swirling around the industry that Suzuki had drastically cut its vaunted amateur support program down to almost nothing. Next, a letter went out from the program’s well-liked manager, Cole Gress, to sponsors and interested parties that this was indeed the case – the program was drawing down and he wanted to thank everyone who helped make it so successful. Unfortunately, the rumors were true.

Adding to Cole’s bad week was the fact that parts of his letter were posted on this website, and pretty soon everyone knew the situation with Suzuki. The letter unfortunately led to Cole’s dismissal, much to our regret, as with the economy already in shambles, you hate to hear about anyone losing their job.

In the hopes of setting the record straight, we spoke with Cole about the team, the sport and his future.

  • Cole was as caught off guard as the rest of us about Suzuki
Racer X: I guess the first question I have is, what happened at Suzuki, Cole?
Cole Gress: I think that things are tough all over. I was just trying to get everything together and get my programs going – the usual stuff. I think Suzuki, budgetwise, from September really until now was in a budget crisis, and they were having constant budget revisions. I was privy to a lot of those budget meetings and I was trying to put together my program like I had always done in the past. I knew that I had to be budget-conscious – there was no way I could spend as much as I did before. I was trying to maintain a good program and work with the dealers and work on their support programs as well. I really had no clear direction. Nobody told me not to do things or to be mindful of anything. I just wanted to keep the ball rolling.

Long story short, I was at Mini Os and I got the word there from the corporate office that it was done. There was no motorcycle support anymore. It didn’t make the final round of budget cuts. It was over. The gig was up. There was no motorcycle contingency – no support for anyone. I was given this news while I was out in the field, and it was tough.

How was that for you when you were at one of the biggest amateur races and working with people that you knew you wouldn’t be able to anymore?
I was in shock and I asked what was going to happen from here on out, and I was told that I would be moved to other areas. I would still have a job, and the guy that worked with me, Joe DeCosta, would still have a job, just in a different area. We would have to regroup in a different area and get started over there. I was a little hesitant to let the riders know at the event because they have enough to worry about with racing. I really didn’t want to tell these people that their history with Suzuki is done. You deal with these families for a long time and you get close to them... It wasn’t going to be an easy thing to do, especially at a major race. So I let Joe know that I enjoyed working with him and let him know the deal right there. He said that he started working for Suzuki at that event in 1994, so it was fitting for him to wrap it up at the same event. We had a little man-moment there: We talked about how good the program was and everything. He asked if he could tell anyone and Pat [Alexander] had told me that I could tell anyone there as they didn’t want any rider to lose an opportunity to go elsewhere for support if they could’ve gotten it. So I said that he could, and if he wanted to let some dealers know, like Cernic’s, then he could.

He called Jeff Cernic, one of the best dealers out there, and let him know. Of course, Jeff was upset – the heartbeat of any dealer is the amateurs and everything they pump into a shop. Suzuki does very, very well in Western Pennsylvania where they are. I think we have something like 35 percent of the market up there. I think Jeff called Suzuki and said it was a mistake and they need to rethink their strategy on this. So I get back to the office Monday and write my report on the event, just like I would normally do and, as usual, we did very, very well there. We had some survey that one out of every four amateur racers would buy a Suzuki, while out in the world I think it’s something like one out of ten. We have made good inroads with the amateurs.

So word came back that they were going to give me a little bit of budget, but the number they gave me to work with wouldn’t cover a bad contingency program! I was like, “Let’s not fool ourselves, here, we’re going to get our doors stormed, here. We may as well not even do anything.” I knew I couldn’t issue any contracts or anything and went to work on damage-control. I started calling the riders and letting them know I couldn’t present them with a contract. There was nothing I could give them at that moment. They, in turn, called our sponsors that helped them out and said that Suzuki can’t help us out, but can you still help? None of these sponsors knew anything about Suzuki and their cutbacks, and they put money into our program. Guys like Maxima, Dunlop, and more wanted to know what was up. So, I wrote them an email thanking them for their support and letting them know that we’re not going to have an amateur motorcycle program in 2009. It was a quick email letting them know we’re starting from ground zero again. Nothing was communicated to me on what we could do.

Well, that email sent out to sponsors ended up on Racer X somehow and everybody thought that was an official statement from Suzuki when it was meant to be for sponsors only. That was the final nail in my coffin – they thought I issued an official press release to the media and they weren’t ready for that. I explained it was to the sponsors only but they didn’t want to hear that. It was a huge mistake, and at the end of the day that was it. It came to an impasse where management felt I wasn’t doing the job that they hired me for, I felt they weren’t doing what I thought they should, and that was it.

  • Suzuki's amateur program churned out a long line of champions
You told me yesterday that you thought this actually might be for the best for you?

It might be. It was nine years for me in that position. I felt like I did a good job. I felt like I helped out Suzuki and that I had good kids come through our program. I also feel like our program caused others to change their programs, and as of today we’re competing with some high-end programs. That wasn’t always the case. When I started, it was just Team Green. That was it. Pat Alexander had a few stars that he helped, but if they got hurt, that was it. There were guys like Travis Pastrana and Branden Jesseman that had rides, but that was about it. There was no official team – no powerhouse. And then we put it together for Suzuki.    

Now, KTM has a program, Honda has one with Honda of Houston and Factory Connection, Team Green has more programs – though they also went from 70 riders to 30 just to put an emphasis on the high-end guys, which was what I was doing. Honda of Houston was doing that also. It was a good transition for the sport. Amateur racing grew to astronomical numbers, and there are four magazines just devoted to amateur-motocross coverage. It was a good time for the sport. It was a lot of fun. It was great, but I was really getting tired of guys from my program getting cherry-picked and me not having the budget to help them. The only thing that was satisfying was that my high-end guys were getting a shot. Roger [DeCoster] was giving them a shot. Guys like Nico Izzi, Ryan Dungey , Brian Gray, they all got shots. Then guys like Davi Millsaps and Jason Lawrence had success elsewhere, but they were part of the program.

I definitely started to feel a real lack of commitment from management to the program. They started to see some sales decline and, in my opinion, it was that we had some product that was sub-standard. Like that whole debacle with sharing bikes with Kawasaki, that wasn’t good for us. Those were things that set us back and we had to rebuild. Suzuki had a great 85, the 450 was a good bike, and the 250F was a good, solid, reliable bike for guys. I was trying to explain that because you did the orders in June, the dealers were stuck with a lot of red and blue products and they had great financing programs for people. We are like Kawi: We had great support to offer. There was a reason there were low orders – to me, anyway. It was time for a change for everybody, and that’s what happened.

What’s your take on amateur racing right now?
I think it’s great right now, as the numbers are going through the roof. I do worry about these kids being a bit young, though. Right now, we have them from age 12 to 16, and then preparing them for pro racing, and I’m not sure that we need to push them away so young. I was the first to bring it up that I think we need to get these kids closer to 18 before they turn pro and go to Anaheim Stadium. It’s no joke at that level. Roger DeCoster doesn’t want to hear your problems as to why you can’t perform. He doesn’t want to hear from some mini dad on such-and-such. Amateur racing is the farm leagues to get the kids ready to turn pro, but we have to get them older first.

People do get ahead of themselves at that level, and you’re going to have that at any level of sport. There’s potential for lots of people to get into amateur racing. There were new people coming in every year, and it seemed like it was growing. The manufacturers all offered great incentives to go racing.

So what’s next for you Cole?
I’m not sure... I would like to go to the sales side, maybe. I can move anywhere in the USA, and I would like to maybe be a sales rep for a company. I am ready for a change and I have my bachelor’s degree in business administration with a concentration on finance. I’d like to work on my masters as well. Maybe I can come back in ten years and help out the industry. I love it, I live it, and it’s about relationships, and I think that’s great. My phone was ringing off the hook with people calling me offering me any kind of help. It’s not one of those things where they feel sorry for me, but they understand that it’s just what happens. I wish it ended differently, but it can’t always end nicely, you know? It’s not a good feeling to end in that manner, but it’s a reality and there are lots of good opportunities out there for me. If anyone is interested in contacting me, it’s colegress@aol.com.

Who do you want to thank?
Just the families that I worked with over the years – all the people that I associated with over the years. The original mentors at Suzuki were Joe Colombero and Mike Webb – they were always great to work with. The Izzi family and the Dungey family were great. Just all the families, really. It’s what kind of kept me sucked in. There were so many families that I wanted to see through the program that I stayed to make sure they got through.

All the people that I worked with, like the Coombs family, Tim Cotter, Ron Hendrickson at the NMA... I’ve always enjoyed talking to those people and having fun with them.

Good luck, Cole.