Proof: Mitch Payton

Proof: Mitch Payton

September 2, 2011 4:40pm
By: Eric Johnson/Monster Energy

Monster Energy/Pro Circuit Kawasaki team owner/manager Mitch Payton has had probably the most successful outdoor season ever in the 250 Class. Up to this point, he has won every overall, and his team lost its first moto of the entire season in moto one at Southwick. On top of that, he has already clinched the 2011 250 title with two rounds left, it’s just down to which of his three racers – Dean Wilson, Tyla Rattray or Blake Baggett – gets it, as they are all more than 100 points ahead of fourth place in the standings. Payton is also heavily involved in Team USA’s Motocross of Nations team. We caught up with him yesterday.

Racer X: Obviously, your season has been going extremely well, but your team did finally lose a moto at Southwick. Did that bum you out?
Mitch Payton: No, not really. I’m going to be honest; it would be cool at the end of the year to say that we didn’t lose a moto or whatever, but it’s something that I probably never really thought of anyway. My goal is always the big prize, and that’s the championship. I’m really happy that all the guys have been able to do as well as they have done this year. To be up there with your own teammates in the top three, and with they way they’ve all conducted themselves, they’ve ridden just incredible. So, I could care less about the perfect season or whatever.

Payton celebrating yet another victory.
Photo: Andrew Fredrickson

It was only news that you lost, obviously, because you won everything before, so it’s kind of a compliment that people even cared, isn’t it?
Well, there are plenty of people who have been rooting for us to lose. Even Andy Bowyer in one of his little deals in Racer X, he’s like, “Oh, I want to see those guys get beat.” I’m like, “Damn, I thought he was my buddy!” I don’t really care. It’s cool to win races and it’s more important for us to win the championship. And the rest of it, yes, it is fantastic and I would like it to continue. Last week [at Southwick], to tell you the truth, we had an incredible weekend, all things considered. We won the overall; went 1-2 at Southwick [with Tyla Rattray and Dean Wilson], and then [Chris] Pourcel won three motos in Belgium [at the Belgian Championships]. Tommy [Searle] won both 450 motos in England and Max Anstie won both 250 motos in England. So, it was really kind of like a global thing. I felt really pumped on our whole weekend, not just here in the USA.

Last I talked to Searle, he was really happy with the support you guys were giving him and his team, and he told me you guys have committed to stepping that up even more.
We are and we’re going to do more next year. It’s a little bit of a learning process. But we owe it to those kids or whoever rides for those teams. If we’re going to help them, I want them to win. I owe it to them to help them do that.

Ultimately, it falls on the riders, though, doesn’t it?
Yes, it does. It’s still going to be a rider’s sport forever. There is no doubt that the rider is the most important element in winning in motocross. I really do believe that. But the pure fact that if their bike isn’t fast enough or if it doesn’t handle well enough, those are issues that cause them to not perform at the peak of their abilities. They’re always going to ask for that. If you take it seriously and help them fix their issues then I always think they perform better.

It’s not really that the bike helps them win, it’s just you take the bike out of the equation so it doesn’t cause them to lose. Does that make sense?
Well, maybe a little bit. And, you know, we’re lucky. There is a lot of stability in our program. We’ve been with Kawasaki an awful long time and now we’ve had Monster Energy a long time, and all of our sponsors. We don’t jump around a lot. I think that helps, kind of. From year to year you’re not jumping around and starting everything all over again.

Wilson, Payton and Rattray after Freestone.
Photo: Simon Cudby

You play an important role with Team USA every year. Tell us about how this year’s team came together.
Really, it’s kind of like business as usual as far as Roger [DeCoster] as the team manager, and then obviously the AMA has input; Kevin Crowther and their group at the AMA, they have a say. I obviously can have a say, but I’m not the end-all to what they’re doing. I’m there in a supporting role, so whatever they decide to do or Roger decides he wants done, it’s kind of like my job to go along with it and try to support it for the right reasons. We don’t need problems, we need solutions.

How much of a role did Roger have in helping you get everything up and running in the first place with Honda back in the day?
Actually, there were two people that I think were kind of pivotal to me starting the team back then and Roger was one of them, and Dave Arnold was the other. And the reason why Roger and Dave Arnold knew me is, it wasn’t that they didn’t know who we were – I think ’86 was the first year of the production rule and Rick Johnson ran our pipe, and then a couple of the other guys ran pipes. And then all of a sudden when they would go to Europe, a lot of times they didn’t want to take their works bikes over there. So, Roger wanted to come up with a solution for a production bike that they could just say, “We’re going to go to France. We want to take suspension, and handlebars, and a pipe, and a cylinder and we’re going to slam it on a production bike over there and we’re going to ride it.” So, Roger went out and rode with a pipe and a cylinder and stuff, and he was kind of impressed with it. And that’s what they gave Johnny O’ and a couple of them. And Rick Johnson, when they were going to go to Europe they would just run Pro Circuit stuff in Europe. And that evolved to where we did stuff for their 125 team. I think in ’89, everybody was running this guy’s pipe and this guy’s cylinder... it was all mixed. So, Dave Arnold and Roger decided they were going to do a test at Carlsbad after the first round and they were going to evaluate everybody’s stuff and whatever was the best, the team was going to run. And we were lucky enough that they liked our stuff, and Mike Kiedrowski won the first race, which probably helped. And they kind of stuck with it. They knew we could do it. We were building stuff for the 500 class. We were building parts for that. So, they already knew we could do it and they helped us out a lot. Me and Roger have always been friends and respectful toward each other. I think Roger [DeCoster] truly loves the Des Nations, and for a while the rest of the Americans weren’t into it. I always liked it. So, it was kind of cool in ’05 when it kind of really got going again. And that was really fun because it was Ivan [Tedesco, in MX2], and Ricky Carmichael [MX1] and Kevin Windham [MX3]. And to go to France and not to have been there in a few years it was really cool. We’re going to keep it going.

I’m sure you and Roger can’t agree on everything all the time, so what happens when you don’t see eye-to-eye?
No. Roger has the final say because he’s the boss, but he always knows I’m right. [Laughs] No, I’m kidding. I really don’t think we’ve ever disagreed. That’s the part that I think is actually kind of cool. We kind of see things very similar as far as what we think is kind of the right thing to do, or the wrong thing to do, or if it’s rider selection and how we do it. I can’t honestly say that we’ve ever had a beef on anything.

Baggett celebrates one of many wins for Pro Circuit this year.
Photo: Andrew Fredrickson

Roger promoted the 500cc USGP at Glen Helen in the early ‘90s, too...
He was the promoter of the USGP for two years. I think it was ’89 or 1990. No, at the end of 1990 the 500 GP at Glen Helen, Roger was the promoter. He actually had me help out. He was like, “Mitch, can you help me? I’ve got four riders that don’t have any help. Can you take some bikes out there and help them out?” I was like, “Yeah, sure.” And they were guys that I’d never heard of. And come to find out, years later, one of them was Joel Smets, but he was, like, 18 at the time and I didn’t know who he was. I don’t remember who they were. One was Smets and there were two Russians and I don’t remember who the other guy ways. We took Bones’ box van out there and we took my parents’ motorhome. We camped and made a big fun deal of it. It was pretty cool.

There’s a bit of controversy going around about which Ryan got picked for MX1 for Team USA, and for MX3. How was that decision made? I assume you have some loyalty to Ryan Villopoto....
Honestly, again, I hope Ryan [Villopoto] is my friend; I hope he’s not blaming me for that. But the truth is – and I really did say this; I said it to Kevin [Crowther] and Roger – you know, I feel bad for both of them because it’s the first time that I can think of when you had two riders so equally matched. In my eyes, they’re both number one. Who wouldn’t say both those guys are real champions and that they’re both awesome guys? They’re both number one. It’s just unfortunate that one of them has to carry the number 3 and one’s got to carry the number 1. So, I thought, you know what’s going to happen is somebody says, “They picked him because of this,” or,” They picked him because of that.” I know it sounded silly but I said, “Flip a coin and just make the whole thing fall to luck instead of someone’s decision.”

That makes more sense, actually, because then they can’t blame anybody.
Do you know what I mean? It takes the whole decision-making process out and it puts it completely in luck. So, I thought that would be the easiest thing to do.

Is that what they did?
No. If you were going to flip the coin you’d have to do that in front of everyone. I think the way to have done that, if that was the decision that you made, is you would have to do it there at Unadilla at the halftime thing when they announced the team. Because then that way everybody would say, “Oh, that’s just the way it is.” But it doesn’t matter. What I’m hoping is that everybody understands that it wasn’t easy for anyone to make a decision of which way it should be or not be, and that we just had the team and it really is a team race. They all just need to be part of the team. It will take all three of those guys doing well in order to win. It’s not an individual score that is going to do it.

Racers have pride, though, so you had to know whoever ended up in MX3 wouldn’t be pumped about it, right?
What’s your opinion? Who should have been number one? You could ask ten people and then you’re going to get ten different answers. So, at the end of ten different answers you’re like, “Oh, shit, we’re right back to where we were. So, who’s going to be number one?”

I think I’d have waited until after Pala and the championship winner would be MX1. But ultimately it doesn’t matter, right? Each guy will get two motos, no matter which class they’re riding.
It’s two motos each. And honestly, there are great riders in other countries too and we just have to do our job and truthfully not let the little things get in our way of the big picture I hope.