Wednesday afternoon around 5:00 p.m., Mike Fisher and a group of mechanics stand outside the Kawasaki race shop in Irvine, California, and listen in on the #2 bike Ryan Villopoto will ride Saturday night in the opening round of the 2011 Monster Energy AMA Supercross series. A mechanic deftly revs the engine and all sounds well. The bike is warmed for a few minutes and then shut off. The bike, the end result of well over 60 solid days of testing has been painstakingly and meticulously attended to. This is the finished product. This IS the bike Ryan Villopoto will attempt to win his first Supercross championship on. He came close last year. After something of a slow start, Villopoto hit his stride, winning at round four at San Francisco. Onward and upward, he would win six of the next ten main events and close in on point leader Ryan Dungey like an angry steamroller. Then, at Round 14 at St. Louis – and while he was about to zap Dungey for the lead – Ryan crashed heavily over a very unforgiving jump and was gravely injured. His season over, he could only look to 2011 and redemption. 2011 is here. On Wednesday afternoon, Team Monster Energy Kawasaki began loading its ordinance for its first attack on the title, set for Saturday night at Angel Stadium in nearby Anaheim, California. Overseeing it all was Mike Fisher. Perhaps more so than any one individual, Fisher has been the man behind the scenes, steadfast in his resolve to help lead Villopoto and Monster Kawasaki the most sought after title in motorcycle racing. With a few minutes on hands (the ones that held stopwatches all winter long), he provided us with the back story of what’s about to go down for the next five months.
Editor's Note: EJ asked Fisher if he could comment on the situation with Pro Circuit and FMF and he declined to discuss the matter at this point. DC
Eric Johnson talks with Mike Fisher at the Kawasaki team shop.
Photo Courtesy of Monster Energy
Racer X: Mike, how did you end up being the Team Manager of the Monster Energy Kawasaki team?
Mike Fisher: In 1987, I raced for Kawasaki and Mike Preston asked me if I was interested in testing. I was. I really liked it. I did that for four years. I tested and raced through 1990. As time went by, I became more of a test guy and less of a racer. I started testing jet skis and all kinds of other products we had and I really enjoyed doing that work. It’s weird because there are no people around who liked doing what I was doing. It’s very boring if you think about it, but I was enjoying the process of improvement. I was happy to do that. So I still raced in 1993, 1994 and 1995 and I started working at Kawasaki – full-time – in ’95. I was working as a test rider for all products – cruisers, Mules and everything. I did that until 2005. At that point there was some talk of a change at some point, but we didn’t know when and really for sure if it would it happen. One day I came to work and Stanly Takagi, a Japanese guy, our boss, said, “Mike, I need to speak with you in my office.” So I went upstairs and Bruce Stjernstrom was in there. So Stanley goes, ”Bruce, you should tell him.” Bruce said: “Well, I guess I’m being switched to marketing and you’re going to be switched to the motocross team.” I was really happy and I said, when are we going to do all this? The end of the year?” and they said, “No, today. Right now. You should probably go into their staff meeting. They just started it.” So I walk down there and nobody knew. I walked down there and walked in and said, “Well, guys. I guess I’m your new team manager.” It was really sudden. That was it.
Who were the riders then?
[James] Stewart and Michael Byrne.
So you were thrown right into the deep end?
Luckily, I had Bruce to talk to because he was still with the company. He loved to still be involved and still really liked it so it wasn’t hard for me to get information. He would tell me the way he liked it or would have done it or do it, but I always looked up to him anyways, so it wasn’t anything like I thought, “Well, that’s stupid.” I always felt it was good to get his input.
Okay, press day is tomorrow and all the beautiful race bikes are down in the shop and ready to go and the 18-wheelers are waxed and loaded and ready to head towards Angel Stadium and the mechanics are all happy and excited. But, how much hard work and sweat and frustration took place during the off-season to get everything prepared and ready to go racing in 2011?
[Laughs] Well, I went to get my heart checked three weeks ago. It was spinning out of control and I had to go to the doctor’s office. No, it’s been a lot of work because we have some really lofty goals. We took every single comment from every round last year and we addressed it. Every one. We tested all of those items that needed fixing and we improved every one of them. A lot of the improvement came from weight. Weight reduction, actually. That is very tough to do. All the guys, in grams, are telling me, “That’s not enough. We need to lose more. Come on! We have to do better than that. Let’s cut it in half. This doesn’t need to be that heavy.” So we really went after the weight thing. In the end the riders did notice and their lap times improved.
Jake Weimer's bike now belongs to another Jake, Moss.
Photo Courtesy Monster Energy
Man, what went into all that? Just constant trial and error, sanding and filing?
Yeah, every little thing. You can imagine. Every little gram everywhere. I mean, we have rules on minimum weight and we also have rules where we have areas we can’t change the weight. Like the frame – which is a big part of our bike – we can’t reduce the weight of. So there’s certain things we just can’t touch and we just need to do the best we can. The percentages that we have to get from are small and then we have to cut those down really hard.
Your “franchise player”, Ryan Villopoto, is coming back from some pretty serious injuries. Is he healthy, healed-up and ready to go?
Yes. Ryan has a new trainer with Aldon Baker. You know that’s changed him. Aldon’s professionalism is really good for Ryan. The regimented type of thing – Ryan needs that. Ryan’s attitude is awesome. It’s changed. Even though Ryan was never a problem, I could say Ryan is not a big issue for me as a Team Manager, I still have to tell him what do and the reasons why. Now, more or less, you let him know and he does it. It’s pretty awesome. He knows he has put the work in for 2011. He knows he did all the testing. He knows he saw the improvement on his lap times, so he is excited.
You, the mechanics, the technicians, the engineers… everything you guys do lives and dies on your results. How do you feel about Ryan right now?
I couldn’t feel better about Ryan. I feel better about him than I’ve ever felt. Last season, going into the season, I was a little worried about him. He surprised our team by his results. He did better than we expected based on his efforts he put in before.
He’s notoriously been known as something of a slow starter, right?
Yeah. Well, and that’s why I’m excited because he’s never been ready for anything in his life, I think. He’s ready. He has had a plan and he has stuck to it. He has given every single thing he has to us. He had never done that. I think we’ve all done that. We give our all. I’m not sure he did. He just went off his skill and his riding style. He’s now really prepared himself for a season.
Can Villopoto overcome his typical slow starts in 2011?
Photo: Simon Cudby
After a somewhat erratic year-long stint, Chad Reed is no longer with your team. How do you feel about him? Do you see him being a part of the mix this season?
I do see Reed being in the mix. I always thought of him as the consistent guy. I’ve changed my thoughts, but I still think he has a lot of speed - at times. I mean, I’ve seen him ride really fast at times. I don’t think he has the program that these guys have to do it every weekend and to do it twenty laps every weekend. I don’t want to take anything from him. Of course he’s an awesome rider. He can win a race at any time. Championship-wise, I don’t think he’s there with Ryan, Stewart and Dungey.
Okay, we have Stewart, Villopoto and Dungey. Between you and the team - and what all of you are sensing - do you have any theories on just how competitive this is all going to be?
We know they can all win. Dungey won six races last year. Ryan won seven. We know how many races James has won. It seems like hundreds. Although James didn’t show what he could do last year, I know he’s fast. I think they’re all going to be awesome. They all ride differently – very differently. They all shine on certain tracks and in certain sections of tracks. And, I think there is a lot of tension between James - and maybe Reed and the two Ryans. I think there is some tension there that can get in the way of actual racing, which might suck. Outside of that, those guys are going to scrap.
Tuesday, December 8, Jake Weimer destroys his arm in a practice crash. What a huge disappointment.
Yeah. Yeah it is. There’s his break. (Note: Fisher turns his computer screen in front of me and all I see is screws and plates). So, yeah, that’s a bummer. What do we do about it? We hope he gets better quickly and properly and gets back to where he was. Before this, we were really amazed with him. Not just because he was just fast, but because to watch him ride, he was really smooth and flowing. I’m kind of surprised he crashed because of the way he was riding. He doesn’t ride over his head, really.
Jake Moss has been selected to replace Weimer aboard the Monster Energy Kawasaki team.
Photo: Simon Cudby
Obviously, there has been a lot of speculation and conjecture as to just who will ride that second bike. Who did you end up with?
We looked at the guys in the States. There are a few guys here that are potentially really good riders. There are two that I know of that I actually talked to, but they’re not ready. You’re talking about another, maybe, six weeks to get them going. What does that do for us? Jake Moss is a kid we’ve used before. He’s done really good for us. He rode in Australia this year and did well at some races. A little bit inconsistent, but he has a lot of speed and I think for us, right now, he might be our best choice who can be ready for Phoenix.
So he’ll ride the bike for how long?
We don’t have the details, but we’ll do probably four rounds or five rounds and see how does. If he’s doing well, maybe we’ll maybe do another four or five rounds with him.
And what happened to Christophe Pourcel?
It’s odd. He’s pretty much one of the most talented riders we’ve had on any of our teams. He rides well and he flows so well and he’s awesome to just watch ride. Basically what it came down to was price. Sometimes you’ll renegotiate with riders and there is a price to pay. Some of the guys feel that they are worth maybe more than they are worth. If the value is there, then we will pay it. But we didn’t think the value was quite up there. When I spoke to him and his agent, they were clear that they were not going to race for a certain amount of money. I did go back and spoke with our partners here at Kawasaki and our sponsors to see if it was even worth it. I don’t think anybody thought it was worth that. It was just too high. And so in the end we didn’t even offer him anything because we couldn’t match what they wanted us to pay him.