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5 Minutes With... Jason Thomas

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Jason Thomas, of the Butler Brothers/DNA Energy team, had a pretty rough year in 2009, but he hasn’t let it ruin his fun. He’s switching bikes, staying with the same team, and taking on the world over the next few months leading up to Anaheim I. We caught up to him recently for this opus of an interview.

Racer X: Talk us through your season. You had a pretty tough time of it this year.
Jason Thomas: Obviously, the season didn’t go real well. I crashed, I think, both motos at Glen Helen, and then broke some ribs in practice at Hangtown, so it was kind of a struggle. Two races in, I hadn’t even gotten a point, and I hadn’t been in a moto, as far as being in the race. It was kind of a frustrating year. I felt like I was making progress at times, and I got some good starts at times, and I was able to ride with the group I thought I could ride with, and other times I would get bad starts and find myself riding in a pack that I felt like I should be ahead of. Overall, it was a struggle, and there were a lot of factors that contributed to it. It’s just kind of the way it goes sometimes, I guess.

From the sidelines, it seemed like nearly every time I saw you on the first lap, you were coming around in last.
I couldn’t tell you how many times I would come around at the end of the first lap and not even be able to see the next guy in front of me because I was so far behind. It felt like that all year. I felt like I would shoot myself in the foot and make little, stupid mistakes that would cost me the whole moto. Then there were other times where I just never felt comfortable. We’re going to Suzuki now, and I think that’s going to help a lot. I wasn’t ever really comfortable on the bike this year. Honda made a lot of changes and I’m sure some people liked it, but it didn’t really work for me. Unfortunately, I’ve been on Honda for a long time, and I always felt like I was on the best bike possible, but this year I didn’t feel that way. That was tough to deal with. I just felt like I was always behind the eight ball with bike setup, and there wasn’t really anything anybody could do. I think the factory guys were in the same boat. I don’t think they were real happy with their bikes, either. But with a new bike, that happens, and I’m sure they’ll get it way better in the next couple years, but the guys struggled with it this year.

You rode that 450 since almost no one else was even racing four-strokes in that class. That’s a long time on that layout.
They made subtle changes to it over the years, but nothing revolutionary like this year. And I’m sure the ideas that they have for it going forward are going to be awesome, but I think it’s kind of a work in progress, and this year was a struggle for everybody. The Honda guys were awesome to me as far as trying to help us with setup, but I think they were scratching their heads a little bit trying to satisfy their riders, too. But they’ll get it straightened out. It was tough for everone.

The reason I brought that up is that the Suzuki is more along the lines of the 2008 Honda design, so it’s more what you’re used to. I think they basically just copied the design from Honda, actually.
Yeah, the ’09 RM-Z450 that I have now, it feels a whole like an ’08 or previous year Honda. I don’t know if they mimicked designs or not, but it feels really similar. It’s really close, and it actually even turns a little better than any Honda I’ve ever had. So I’m excited. Sometimes it takes a change to kind of rejuvenate yourself and get excited. That’s happened for me. It’s only been a week or two, but I’ve been really excited about the bike, and I think it’s going to make a big difference as far as the next year and all-around.

So the rumors are true, both that you’re staying with Butler Brothers, and that the team is switching to Suzuki in 2010.
Yeah, I’ll be on Butler Brothers... Unless the team goes away, I don’t ever see myself not being on the team until I quit, or retire, or whatever you want to call it. And we’ll definitely be on Suzukis. I know everybody on the team’s excited. They’ve been on Hondas for a long time, too, so it’s kind of like starting over. Everything we have is Honda-based, and all our resources are all Honda, so we’re learning, too. Luckily, I have some great people around me that can help me with setup, but it’s going to be fun. It’s going to be different. Not that it was monotonous before, but it’s going to bring some excitement to it, and I’ve learned something about the bike every day.

Did you run into a bit of burnout this year? Was that part of the issue? Because I know burnout is a very real thing, and I’m struggling with it a bit myself right now...
In supercross, no, for sure I wasn’t. I was doing those Lites races, and it was cool, and that was exciting and I was off for like four months, but I think outdoors, maybe a little bit. Maybe not even so much “burnout” as just having a lot of frustration. I felt like I wasn’t able to ride to my potential on the bike, and I’m not a big crasher – it’s never really been my thing, because I’m more of a controlled rider – but I found myself crashing this year more than ever. It was really uncharacteristic for me, and I think it was just kind of due to the bike. So even just to try to go the speed I know I can ride, I was kind of on edge all the time, and it’s just not really a fun way to go racing – doing it scared.

I know that sometimes in testing it’s pretty easy to get lost because you change one thing, and you think that helps, but then you change something else, and before you know it you end up in some sort of no-man’s land of settings where you don’t even know how you got there, or why, but you’re there.
Yeah, for sure, you can get way off baseline in a hurry. You can be feeling different things and changing things that are off-setting each other. That’s totally true. For us, we don’t have as many resources to change as many subtle things as the factory teams do, so it’s probably even worse for them because they can get really crazy, but it happens, and it was frustrating because I’ve always been, and I still am, a huge Honda fan, and I never wanted to ride anything else the rest of my career, but this year was a struggle, and it just bummed me out. And obviously they’re working toward having a great, innovative product for the future, so I understand where they’re going with it. It’s just kind of a frustrating year as far as that stuff went, and not just for me, but for my sponsors, for my team, and everybody.

Riders tend to be so mental that sometimes just a change is good. It doesn’t have to be a good change, necessarily, but sometimes just changing bike manufacturers does something. It’s almost like just seeing a different-color front fender does something. You know what I’m talking about?
Yeah, I think a lot of it is just enthusiasm, and it can just snap you out of the monotony of it all. I mean, we ride every day. Every day, all year. And it’s the same deal every time, because usually it’s the same tracks, the same program, and you get in such a routine with racing because you go to the races, you come home and practice all week on the same track, then go back to the races, and that’s something where having a big change, like changing your bike completely, it adds a lot of excitement because you’re excited to go to the track, and you’re excited to test because the bike turns better, or it doesn’t do something that you didn’t like before, so there’s a lot to be said for that.

Yeah, it’s like a total mental thing.
Yeah, absolutely, and especially in my situation, because I felt like I wasn’t riding anywhere near what I was capable of, and then I got on the new bike, and I felt like I was on top of the world, because it was like, “This is how I know how to ride. This is me again.” That was really exciting.

Did you go through a period of time where you started to wonder if you’d lost it?
Yeah, for sure, especially coming off of an injury like that. I mean, anybody that’s been at a certain level, and then has a hard time getting back to that level, you start to wonder, “Is it me? Am I just old? Have I just forgotten how to ride?” Then, at times, I’d come home and the track’s just right or something, and I’d feel comfortable, and I would go really fast. So I knew I still had the ability and all that. I don’t know, it’s just got to be the right situation, and I think it’ll come around. I’ll hopefully be healthy this whole off-season, and I’ll be ready to come out swinging for Anaheim, for sure.

But you’re really old now!
[Laughs] Yeah, I know, I’m definitely getting up there. It kind of sucks, man. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I think the level of ability has risen so much just in the 12 or 13 years that I’ve been around that it’s crazy. I remember my first few years, specifically like 2000, I wasn’t very good. I can say that straight up. I know how I rode, and my ability in certain situations, and I couldn’t blitz whoops at all, so it’s stuff like that. I wasn’t that good, technically, but the level wasn’t that high, so I did pretty well. I could consistently get eighth through 12th in supercross in the big-bike class. I wish I had the ability that I have now back then because I would’ve been killing it. It’s just kind of the evolution of the sport. I don’t think people realize how much the talent level and the ability level have risen just in the last 10 or 15 years. I will argue to the death with anyone about that because I know first-hand that guys now go so fast, and there are a lot of them that go really, really fast, especially in timed qualifying and stuff.

I’ve talked to Timmy Ferry and Mike LaRocco both about that stuff a while back, and they have both had long careers and saw a lot. I told LaRocco that if he had been riding at the speed he was riding at the end of his career, but like five years before that, he would’ve been winning a bunch. He just made the comment that the way it seems to work is that he was always reacting to what everyone else was doing, and since he really wasn’t innovating the new techniques, he was sort of late to the scene every time, although he was always on scene no matter what.
There’s a lot of truth to that, because I was making really good money for myself at the time, and I didn’t have to get my bike better, and I didn’t have to learn how to blitz whoops, and I didn’t have to do a lot of things that you have to do now just to qualify or even think about qualifying – and I’m talking about the night show, not even the main events, you know? So there wasn’t a huge incentive to go out there and take big risks to improve your abilities. But now, it’s like, if you even want to line up for the heat race at night, you’d better be able to lay it down.

Speaking of laying it down, you’ve got an RM-Z under you now, and you’re riding with a team you’re happy and familiar with, so talk about what’s coming up for you. Are you doing the U.S. Open? What are you looking forward to in supercross? All that kind of stuff.
Well, I’m actually going to race Montreal next weekend – I actually leave on Thursday and fly up there – and that’s a big race for me because I’ve been on the podium there four years in a row. So I feel a little bit of pressure. I’m excited about it, but obviously it’s a new bike, and I want to do well, so I put pressure on myself to perform there. The U.S. Open, I don’t really know if we’re doing that yet, because with the new bike, we haven’t really tested it much yet or anything, so I don’t know there, but I always do a ton of overseas stuff, and I’m going to start those in November and pretty much ride all winter overseas somewhere. I should get a lot of race laps in on the bike, and it’s kind of cool because you can go to those things and see how the bike reacts in race conditions – just little stuff, like start buttons, and where the position is, and if you fall you see how it works when you’re in a hurry, or if you need to change the position. You get so much real-time experience that a lot of people don’t get in the off-season like that.

And you’ve always been that guy who has raced overseas constantly. When I asked you about burnout earlier, you’re the guy who, when the tour isn’t on, and when the 29 races of the regular season aren’t going on, you’re probably off racing somewhere. As someone who travels the whole circuit myself, I can say I really value my couple of months at the end of the year before it starts back up again, where I can hang around home and not do anything. But you don’t do that at all.
Yeah, me and Steve Matthes, and Red Dog, too, we’ve talked about it, and I think I’ve probably raced more professional races every year for most of the last 10 years than anybody in racing. I do every race we have here, which is pretty gnarly, and then I do eight or 10 races every year overseas, too, not even counting the U.S. Open, Montreal, the X Games, or things like that. It’s pretty crazy. I’m not married, I don’t have kids, I don’t have a lot of stuff that I need to be at home for and be responsible for, so it’s kind of just in how you look at it. I’ve always looked at it like I’ve got this great opportunity, and I can make really good money, see the world, and get paid to do it. I’m only going to have this window for a little while, so I need to do it, no matter what. Whatever it takes, make it happen. Just do it. It may seem like a hassle at the time, and you may not feel like going, and trust me there have been lots of times that I’ve woken up in the morning when I had to fly somewhere that day, and I was so bummed that I had to go and make a crazy amount of money to fly to Switzerland [laughs]. I mean, you look back on it now, and I feel like I was an idiot to be bummed out about that. But at the time, it just seemed like a drag, so I just try to keep that mindset, because I know I’m going to look back years from now and be really happy that I went to all these places and got to see all this stuff.

It’s nice to have that perspective, but it’s obviously not easy to keep that frame of mind when it’s actually happening!
Absolutely, like I said, every year I get bummed out, and I’m sure I will again this year once I get four or five races deep going back and forth on that plane. I’m going to be over it, but I’ve got to suck it up. I’m not going to have the chance to make that kind of money to go do those races once I’m done racing, so I need to seize every opportunity I have.

So what about actual supercross next year?
I’ll obviously be on the Suzuki 450, and I’m excited about it. I know, just from being around Chad [Reed] this year – and obviously I won’t have his bike – but I’ve seen what this bike is capable of, and that’s a really, really good bike. I think it’s going to be good. I’m excited. The class is going to be stacked with all these guys moving up, and it’s going to be crazy as far as that stuff goes, but as long as my bike is good, and I feel confident in it, and I’m happy with it going into the season, that’s all I really ask for. I want the pressure to be on me. I don’t want to go into the first race with a bunch of excuses in the back of my mind, because that’s not fun. That sucks. No matter what, everyone thinks it’s the rider who is at fault when they do bad, so I would rather it actually be me if I’m going to do bad. If I can’t hack it, fine, I’ll take the blame for it, but I don’t want to not be able to hack it and then be blaming my bike, even if it really is the issue. Nobody wants to hear that. They all think it’s a copout.

On the message boards and stuff, Chad has developed a reputation of making excuses all the time, but when you’re on the inside and you see him every week and you see when he’s sick, or whatever, it’s easy to see that he’s just being honest. It’s not an excuse if it’s for real, it’s a reason.
That’s kind of a catch-22 because the sport is so secretive, and nobody wants to tell when somebody’s hurt or sick or going through something or whatever, so when somebody actually comes out and says that they’re going through it, everyone’s so used to the status quo of everything being perfect and everyone’s life being amazing that they call it an excuse, you know? Chad’s famous for telling it like it is. He does it to me whether I want to hear it or not. He’s brutally honest about stuff, and that’s just his personality. I think people don’t like it just because they’re so used to the same old, “I want to thank all my sponsors, and everything’s great, and I’m happy.” I don’t think he’s going to change, but it might bum him out sometimes because stuff’s for real and nobody believes him. He could just show up and not tell anybody anything, but he’s trying to fill people in on what’s really going on, and they don’t want to hear it.

So this was kind of a long interview. Did we miss anything?
No, not really, I’m just happy we did this because I like to stay on the radar and I want people to know all of these races I’m doing. I’m going to be everywhere trying to light it up. I’ve got a full schedule going here in a month or so, and I’ll be wide-open.

Can you tell us what races, specifically, that you’ll be doing?
Yeah, I know I’ll be at Stuttgart, Germany, I think November seventh or eighth, and then there’s another one in Chemnitz, Germany, the 28th and 29th, and then hopefully Geneva, Switzerland, which is one of Eric Perronard’s races, which I’m trying to get done, and that’s like December 5th. Then there’s Munich, Germany, on the 17th or something like that. It’s a three-day one. Then I come home for a couple days for Christmas, then go right back to Sweden, and that race is on like a Monday and a Tuesday, which is kind of weird. Then there are some more sprinkled in there that I haven’t finalized yet, too.

So you’re racing right into the season, then!
Yeah, I’m racing the Monday and Tuesday before New Year’s, then we come home for New Year’s, and then we go right out to Anaheim. So, whatever. I’m getting after it. I’m not scared. I need as much time on the Suzuki as I can get, and we literally have no knowledge of the bike yet, so the more I can learn in that situation, the better off we’ll be once it’s serious-race time.

Right on, thanks for the interview.
Yes sir!
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