At more than 6,000 feet above sea level, the Thunder Valley National in Lakewood, Colorado, brings a unique set of challenges to the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship. EFI and the technology most teams have at their disposal has leveled the playing field to an extent, but the thin air still leaves teams and mechanics searching for answers.
We wanted to know out more about the adjustments one needs to make to succeed in the thin Colorado air, so we called five-year veteran Killy (pronounced Key-lee) Rusk, who grew up in the border town of Durango, and is off to a career-best start (three top fifteens) in his first year in 450MX, to learn more.
Racer X: While this is your first season in the 450 Class, it has arguably been your best season. How has the change from the 250 helped?
Killy Rusk: Going to a 450 was a bit more of a change than I thought it was going to be. I rode a couple days outdoors this off-season just to get used to the bike, then we jumped right in to supercross testing. I was having a really hard time adjusting to the power of the bike. I was over jumping everything. That was mostly my issue in supercross. Riding the 450 on a tight track was causing a lot of issues. Throughout the season I was getting better and my results were improving quite a bit, but I was really looking forward to the outdoor season.
And the outdoor season has been going really well. What’s been the difference?
I think it was just getting on a bike that was more competitive. In the 250 Class it’s hard to build a bike that’s as competitive as the factory bikes. On a privateer budget, it is hard to do. In the 450 Class, I’m just riding a stock bike with a Bills Pipe on it and it’s doing just fine. I’m not having any issues with the bike pulling me up hills or anything like that. I think I just need to have the confidence that the bike has the power and I need to do it myself.
Being from Colorado, did you grow up riding Thunder Valley?
Not really. I’ve only ridden Lakewood as much as anyone else. I usually only ride it once a year for the National. So, I’ve only ridden the track four times.
Does the altitude give you an advantage?
Usually I would say yes, but I’ve been out in California for about a year now, so I’m pretty close to sea level. When I flew in, surprisingly I felt pretty good. I think a lot of that was still in my system, but scientifically, all my red blood cells are basically back to normal. I think going back to that altitude doesn’t bother me as much because I’ve lived there my whole life, so it wasn’t that big of an issue. I think I adjusted to it pretty quickly—I didn’t really even notice anything.
Training in altitude typically gives you an advantage at other tracks. Now that you’ve been in California, did you notice a difference when you came back?
Not really. When I first got there and was walking around I could feel a difference in how thick the air was. I told this to my dad, and he thinks I’m crazy, but when I’m at altitude I feel better than when I’m at sea level. When I’m at sea level the air just feels thick and heavy to breath. I don’t know if that’s because I was born [and grew up] in high altitude, but that’s just kind of how it’s always felt and it felt that way when I went back. Usually when I go home and train, I can run almost a minute faster a mile than I can at sea level. I’ve always found that pretty weird, too.
So it’s gone the opposite way for you, in that it is almost a disadvantage.
Right. It might just be in my head, too. Scientifically that doesn’t even make sense. It’s just how I feel my body does. I could be wrong, and it’s all just a mental game.
Most will say that bikes now have leveled the playing field in regards to altitude. For someone that grew up riding and racing in altitude, do you think that’s fair to say?
I don’t know. When we went there for first practice I was pretty worried because my bike felt so slow. I felt that it was about to grenade or something. I told my dad, “Man, this thing is not running good at all.” He was like, “Well, we’re at altitude,” and I was like, “Yeah, I didn’t even think about that.” It was a huge change in power. It was pretty significant. Usually when I do the Colorado National I’ve been back home for a couple weeks. So usually I’m used to altitude and used to how the bike feels. This year, I didn’t go early and was pretty surprised how it felt.
What does altitude do to the bike? Also, what does it do to you physically?
You’re at higher altitude so the air is thinner and the bike is starving for oxygen—as well as your body. You’re always going to feel like you can’t get enough air and you’re going to get shorter breath, so you’re going to get tired quicker. Also, you’re muscles aren’t getting as much oxygen as they would at sea level. It’s basically going the same way into your motorcycle—it’s not getting everything it should be getting. It makes for slower throttle response… basically a whole different feeling in response to the engine and everything on the bike.
What do you do to adjust?
We tried a couple different fuel mappings just to try and make it feel a lot more responsive. That was basically all we did to it. We couldn’t do a whole lot, but once we did that kind of stuff the bike did feel a little bit better. Just being at that high altitude it’s hard to make the bike feel like it is at sea level.
Do you kind of have to guess at the right setup and hope it works?
This year, yeah. John Turner at Motor Medic Racing, who also works for Dunlop, had some mapping he wanted to try there, so we just changed one map between first and second practice and I liked it so we just left it there. I didn’t do a whole lot of changes.
Going back to the racing side, will you be doing all the rounds this year?
The plan is to do them all. But it kind of depends on plane tickets and stuff like that. I do have my flight for High Point set, so that is definitely in. Also, I have Tennessee and RedBud locked in. After that, it’s a little bit up in the air, but I’m pretty positive I’ll be at all the rounds.
Last year, you weren’t able to travel east. Do you see that being a disadvantage this year?
High Point usually gets kind of hard packed, so I’m looking forward to that. When I was back in New Mexico, that track was basically a highway, so I’m pretty good at riding the hard pack stuff. I just kind of take the mindset that I’m home riding with my buddies and just messing around. That’s the approach I’ve taken this year and it’s worked pretty well.
You’ve had a long relationship with Rockwell. Are they part of your program outdoors?
For supercross they were. They are helping me out a little bit for outdoors, but they aren’t taking the semi around or anything. I’m just loaded up with the Team Gus thing for the outdoors. Rockwell is still backing me a little bit, though.
Team Gus is one of the privateer legends. How is it working with the team?
It’s going good. Everyone is real laid back and they basically have everything that you need. It’s a really good vibe to be in, and they are very nice, loyal and respectable. Gus himself is a legend. He’s such a good guy it’s crazy.
With a great start to the season, does it change your expectations, or even your mindset, going forward?
It makes me a little more nervous, because now I feel like I have to do that good. At the beginning of the season it was more, “Well, let’s go see what I can do.” Now I have a little bit of an expectation, but coming out of Hangtown I had the same expectations where I felt I needed to be top 15 and in Colorado I did that twice in a row. After that I was like, “Okay, this may not be as bad as I thought.” I just need to go into each race with an open mind and look at it as if it’s a brand new race. I’m just trying to take as much pressure off myself as possible. It’s just a matter of trying to stay consistent and get at least one point every race, every moto and be inside that top twenty no matter what. That’s my goal this year.
Thanks, Killy. Who would you like to thank for helping you this season?
I want to thank Rusk Racing Decals, Dedicated Ride Co, CLC Energy Logistics, Core Oil Field Services, Novik, John at Motor Medic Racing, Bobby J’s Yamaha, Bills Pipes, Race Tech, Motul, Alpinestars, 100%, Bell, AXO, Rec MX, No-Toil, Hinson, Works Connection, EBC, Vortex, Dunlop, Rockwell, and of course my awesome girlfriend Lacee and my whole family and friends for giving me their complete support.