Between the Motos: Johnny Oler

Between the Motos Johnny Oler

August 20, 2014 2:30pm

With its roots deeply implanted in the NFL and NASCAR, Toyota/JGR Yamaha isn’t your typical race team. Coy Gibbs, son of legendary football coach Joe, has built an infrastructure that is held together by a cohesive unit. Most of the crewmembers have been with the team since its inception, and formed a brotherhood. They eat together, they work together, and they crack jokes together. It’s this bond that has helped grow JGR into one of the more successfully run teams in the pits.

Johnny Oler has served as the team’s Lead Suspension Tech for the past seven years, after previously working at RG3 and American Showa as the Honda factory race team suspension technician. The Wyoming native, who earned a pro license as a racer, now lives in North Carolina and is a key component to the JGR squad. We caught up with Oler following the Indiana National to learn more about his work with JGR. 

Racer X: A day like this, what do you do for suspension?
Johnny Oler:
Well, it being muddy as can be, the main concern is that the bike will gather weight from all the mud. So settings, there’s a big unknown on the track, so you don’t necessarily go into it thinking, “I’m going to make changes to the bike for an expected terrain problem,” because you don’t know what it’s going to be. It’s an unknown. What you do know is that the weight of the bike is going to add up because of the mud, so add spring preload, potentially add rate to the spring. Just expect that the bike’s going to get heavier; that’s really what you get ready for.

We were talking earlier and you said after ten rounds that you guys are pretty much set. You’re not going to do anything radical. How long does it actually take you to get set on a certain suspension?
I think that every year’s a different story, a different challenge. From years in the past we’ve been maybe not in as good of a place as we are now, so I’d say we maybe struggle throughout the whole season trying to improve the settings. This year I think the bike is just a better package, so it didn’t take us as long to get to a good point. We were maybe at a better point from the very beginning. I think that we were at a really good point by the time the season started, to be honest. As the tracks changed, as we went to the East Coast, we found some new challenges, so we went and tested and improved the bike for those types of issues. At this point the riders are happy with their bikes; we’re happy with how they’re looking. I guess if there was something standing out that was saying it needs to be changed or if the riders weren’t happy, we’d still be testing. And you will in the years that the riders aren’t happy. But right now we’re in a good spot, so we’ve been at the same settings for a few races now.

"I think that as a race team we have to really be open to making changes at any point to improve. If you decide that you’re at a good place and you’re not going to improve, you’re going to stay stagnant." - Oler Photo: Simon Cudby

Canard and Honda recently made a big change. You said that if your guys hated something you wouldn’t be afraid to make a big change to set yourself up for next year.
I think that as a race team we have to really be open to making changes at any point to improve. If you decide that you’re at a good place and you’re not going to improve, you’re going to stay stagnant. I think that race team would be surpassed by others if that were to happen. The reason we’re on the suspension we’re on right now is because we haven’t settled and we’ve wanted to make changes, so we’re on different components than we were last year, and we were on different components last year than we were the year before. We’re changing every year and open to changing even more, really.

How much can you take from this year and apply to next year? Can you do anything, or do you restart every year?
No, this is going to be a good one for us because I think the bike being in a really good place from the beginning of the year throughout the season; it’s not going to change drastically next year. So we’ll be starting out with the same platform that we’re ending right now, and then the suspension settings, we’re going to stay the same there, too. We’ve been happy with where we’ve been this year, and we’re going to continue on with that next year. Really, it’s a continuation of where we are right now. It’s a pretty unique situation for us because we haven’t really had that in the past. We were either really trying to change the whole motorcycle or change suspension components in the past, and that’s really been a challenge. This year, not having to do that, next year is going to be even easier. So we’re going to continue on with where we’re at now. That’ll be awesome for us.

You’ve been with this team for a long time, six or seven years?
Since the beginning. This is our seventh year this year. 

Has it helped that each year you’re working essentially with the same crew? You guys have had pretty much the same crew all seven years. Does that make it easier instead of bringing in a guy that may not be familiar with what you’re doing and vice versa?
As far as the crew goes, we’re essentially the same. There’s a couple of guys that have come on along the way, but the majority of us are all from the very beginning. I think the synergy between everybody is really cool. I think what Coy [Gibbs] started here was an interesting thing. When I showed up at this team seven years ago, I was used to how the traditional factory team worked. Now, looking back, I see that Coy has run it more like a football team. That didn’t really mean anything to me until I have more experience like this now, and now I realize that it means we do everything together. We’re always with each other. We’re eating together, we’re flying together, we’re traveling together. We get along like brothers more than anything. It’s more of a team effort. 

Oler (left) has been with JGR for seven years.
Oler (left) has been with JGR for seven years. Photo: JGR

You guys have been known to be able to experiment probably more than some of the other teams. Does that give you the freedom to go, “Oh, well, this doesn’t work; let’s try this”?
Yeah. Again, I think that we have to go back to Coy. Him having the roots that he has with the NASCAR side, they’re changing everything from body panels to… they’re changing everything there is and shaving weight off each bolt. They’re doing a lot of interesting things. To witness those guys is interesting—you learn from that—but also having Coy running this team and having that as his background, I think he’s kind of steering us in the direction of making drastic changes. If there’s a problem with the motorcycle he’ll pretty much say, “Let’s create a new frame, or something pretty crazy.” While that’s not realistic, it’s interesting. It’s pretty cool. And again the NASCAR shop has so much potential and capability that we can leverage. A couple years ago we kind of reshaped the motorcycle. The Yamaha, when we had a rider we were testing with, and trying to get him to sign on the bike. He said it was too wide. So Coy got in there and took the gas tank off, cut the thing in half, started shaving stuff. And we’re all kind of looking at him thinking, “What the heck’s he doing?” And sure enough he’s giving the rider the image, the visual, of what this could be and he went to the NASCAR shop and he made the changes. We created a whole different gas tank, a whole shroud system. To be honest, look at the new bike. It’s pretty much a copy of what Coy created a couple years ago. Has any other motocross team come in there and done that before? I don’t think so.

You guys were pretty revolutionary with it. This year has been a little different where you got a fill-in with Nicoletti, sometimes all three riders in, and Justin came on late. Is it harder to get a feel for what everybody wants with everybody in and out?
Our team is unique in that way; that from the very beginning of our team back in the day, if we had an injury from a rider, we had to get a replacement rider because our team runs on sponsorship. Sponsors want our bike to be on TV. They want it to be on the track. Maybe a factory team wouldn’t, so they don’t have to have their bike on the track if they didn’t have the rider. We’ve always had to replace riders. I think we counted up in the seven years there’s been thirty-five different riders or something like that. Pretty crazy. But this year I would say would be the best of the years. Justin has been on the team many, many years. Josh has been on the team many years. So we’re very versed on where they need to be. We all work together as a team really well. Then good old Filthy Phil—he’s an interesting one. He’s such a cool guy. It’s too bad that he couldn’t ride more often. It was fun to have him around even though he destroyed more parts than we’ve ever had [Laughs]. Now our trailer has to be pretty much turned in and redone for next year! But it’s been fun with him. It’s been a good year.

Last weekend was Unadilla, which is probably one of the tougher tracks for you to set up. How do you guys even prepare for that? Is it just off of last year’s notes you took down?
From the NASCAR side of things, those guys started coming over to us right when our team started and they said, “Do you use notes from last year’s race to decide what you’re going to do for this year?” I kind of looked at them and I scratched my head and I wondered, “Well, maybe I should be doing that a little bit more.” And as I’ve gone now and I’m figuring out why you don’t do that in motocross. NASCAR can have a simulator that works exactly like a paved track does. But, for instance, this soil that we’re looking at right now, with four inches or whatever today of water, there’s no real predictability in how the dirt’s going to be. Motocross tracks change, as far as the layout, the consistency of the dirt, the moisture of the dirt, the sun… Everything changes so often that you can’t really take what you learned last year and learn much about what’s going to happen next year. The one thing you can do is you can make a rider comfortable on his motorcycle. If you’re at Unadilla and you make a rider comfortable there, you pretty much can guarantee that that same setting will make him comfortable at RedBud and he’d be real comfortable, or vice versa. So Unadilla, yeah, it’s a tough track, and from what I remember in the past there was a lot more rocks and a lot more small, chattery bumps. This year seemed like it was really loamy, the perfect chocolate cake mix dirt. It was really awesome, with not very many rocks. I think this year’s track was so much different than in the past anyway that if we would have gone in there expecting it to be something, it wouldn’t have been that way. So to answer the question, if we can make our rider happy at our test track and throughout the week, then taking that happy setting to the race, and he stays happy.

"The one thing you can do is you can make a rider comfortable on his motorcycle. If you’re at Unadilla and you make a rider comfortable there, you pretty much can guarantee that that same setting will make him comfortable at RedBud..." - Oler Photo: Simon Cudby

We did have a new track and obviously we didn’t quite get what we wanted. But do you do anything different to prepare for a new venue?
No. Before today with the rain, we would change and expect that the bike’s going to get heavier with all the mud. But a new venue not knowing what it’s going to be, if there’s big uphills, big downhills, big jumps versus flat ground, maybe a little bit of difference, but you give the rider what he’s been most satisfied with and what he’s used to. I think that’s the biggest problem about changing settings, is that all of a sudden the rider’s not used to it now. So whether it’s the most comfortable setting for the rider or not, when you change it it’s really uncomfortable. He doesn’t know what to expect at that point.

What it really boils down to is finding that one setting and then taking it everywhere?
To a certain extent. You’re always evolving the setting, but it’s usually based on the testing during the week. If you’re happy with setting A through the first week, you would take that to the first race. If you found that there were some problems at the second race, you go testing during the next week, and you find something that cured those problems, you would take that setting to the next race. You’re not necessarily making changes for specific tracks, but you’re taking the problems from maybe past races and trying to cure those problems going into the next race.