It’s common for motocross and supercross teams to hire a media trainer to teach riders how to talk on camera as well as what to say and what not to say, but it’s not very common for a company like Feld Motor Sports to hire a media trainer for the riders. Feld is the company that puts on Monster Energy Supercross, and they’re making it clear they want to take supercross and arenacross to the mainstream. Nonalee Davis is Feld’s new full-time communications training director, and she’s working across all of Feld’s brands to help improve the public image of their athletes, performers, executives, and corporate employees. Last week I talked about a media presentation that Feld recently hosted where they showed just how committed to this they are.
Nonalee has a degree in communications from Western Carolina University and has a background as a stunt actress for shows, television, and film. Yup, she acted and performed her own stunts, doing things like high falls, martial arts, and car wrecks. As an ocean and water fanatic, she has also worked in shows in Las Vegas. After an accident that left her with a traumatic brain injury, Nonalee went back to school for her master’s degree and then started taking more leadership roles and began private coaching where she trained the top athletes in the NBA, NFL, MLB, Olympics, and thousands more. At Feld’s media presentation, Davis talked about preparing players for the NBA and NFL draft, as well as working with star NFL quarterbacks. Now she is taking all that knowledge and best practices from her years of experience as a coach and mentor and applying them to supercross and arenacross athletes. I spent some time asking for some comparisons between the athletes she’s worked with in the past and her new supercross and arenacross athletes.
Racer X: You’ve coached a number of different athletes. What sport do you like coaching the most? Is there anything particular about certain athletes you like coaching more than others?
Nonalee Davis: That’s a great question. I’ve been asked that question several times—why go from these huge franchises like the NFL or something to a lesser-known sport. I think what I enjoy the most is developing an athlete that really isn’t polished, and taking an athlete that is kind of raw and introducing them to the world of professional sports. Watching them grow is much more satisfying for me than getting a polished Division I athlete who I barely put a mark on.
You’d rather really work with a guy from the beginning, is what you’re saying?
Exactly, from the infancy. Some of my Monster Jam athletes had severe performance anxiety. Teaching them to be able to speak on a microphone or being able to go on camera, watching them go from being scared to death, to being a fan favorite and really overcoming that fear of speaking in front of thousands of people, or going on camera and doing media and watching their fan base grow and watching them as a person just get more confident. I think if anything, I teach confidence and warmth. It’s an interesting combination of strength and warmth. That’s my goal. To be approachable, but strong. I think that’s what connects. If you’re authentic, people can see that. People can feel that. They understand that, instead of something that is super polished and fake because a franchise tells them to be that way. I think that’s my favorite thing, developing an athlete and their own authentic voice, and making them stronger and more presentable and certainly more quotable. I say to the athletes all the time, I am not going to tell you what to say, but I am absolutely going to tell you what not to say. My Monster Jam athletes call me Momma Bear. I think that’s a great description of me because I’m so protective of them and obviously I push them.
One thing fans complain about are the podium interviews. How stale they are and how sometimes the riders simply get in their sponsor plugs. I’ve heard of instances where riders were fined for failing to mention a sponsor’s name on the podium. How do you work around them having to fit their sponsor requirements while giving an interesting and authentic interview in such a short amount of time?
I think there’s a clever way to do it. I think there’s absolutely a sponsorship component to that. That’s who’s paying these guys. The fans understand that too. It’s written all over them. But NASCAR is actually a great example of how to do it correctly and be able to still thank your sponsors without making it boring. Working it into a sentence and being able to hit them all in a very comfortable way, as well as throwing it back to the fans.
The truth is, these guys are delightfully humble and I’m calling them out on that. I feel like you wouldn’t do this incredibly strategic and amazing sport that takes a lot of skill if you just wanted to ride. You do it in front of thousands of people and you do it on TV. So there is an aspect of them that are rock stars. My goal is to find that and tap into that. If we can tap into that, there is no stopping the sport. That’s who they are, and they have that element to them. So it’s just letting that go and kind of breaking what we’ve always done. Every sport has grown and certainly kept up with the times and moved forward. It’s the same with this sport. It’s just bringing it into the now and making it relevant, and certainly helping the OEM’s sell motorcycles. Helping them be strong role models for young people, girls and boys.
Is there any particular athlete that you’ve worked with in the moto community so far that really stood out to you? Something that they do really well that you’d like to highlight?
That’s a lovely trap question. Obviously I’m not going to throw anybody under the bus. However, I think the fellas that keep ending up on the podium—it’s been kind of exciting watching the 450 class because it’s been a little rotating—but I feel like each and every one of them is authentic, and what I’m helping them do is be able to tell that story. I want to tap into the awesomeness of each and every one of their stories and really let them be a little bit more vulnerable and open. I think you saw that when [Ryan] Dungey opened up at that post-race conference when he talked about how [Ken] Roczen was good for the sport. He got a little emotional about him being injured and that that can happen to anybody. I think obviously working with Dungey and trying to help these guys, allow them to show that kind of emotion. I think when he showed that kind of emotion we got to see another side to him that was amazing and human. I find myself reading the fan comments when these athletes do something and when they are vulnerable. The reaction is loving and amazing. The fans of the sport are better than any fans that I’ve ever worked with. That goes across all of our Feld brands. Monster Jam is the same way. The fans are amazing. I think that’s what I love about working in this sport versus any of these franchise sports. It’s the realness and the openness and the fact that these guys can actually meet the fans. When’s the last time you got your football signed by somebody that you follow in the NFL? So I think that’s the openness to the athletes to the fans. The fans are amazing. The fans are typically riders themselves too, so it’s cool.
What do you think makes moto fans different than other fans?
I feel like an NFL fan would be like, “I’m emotional [about my sport], too.” But Aaron Plessinger said this to me, that the track is alive. What a great statement. The track is alive and it’s always changing, and you never know. Each time that you come around a turn it changes. The difference is fans of the NFL or fans of NBA or whatever, they understand the plays. They understand, “Oh, he fouled because he went out for a jump shot and hit the guy,” or whatever. I think with these fans, they never know what to expect in a race, because the track is constantly changing. It’s constantly presenting new problems and new things for these guys to overcome. So I think the fans really understand that they have no idea who’s going to win, and you really don’t. This year has been an amazing example of that. The podium is changing. There’s this excitement to that. You don’t know who’s going to win and you don’t know when the track’s going to win. You don’t know whose bike is going to break. I think that’s also a difference. These athletes are working with machines, where a lot of the athletes that I’ve worked with up to this point just relied on their own athletic ability. These athletes actually work with machines, so they have to overcome an entire other element with the machine and with the track that’s ever changing.
Is there any particular motocross athlete that you’ve worked with so far that you’ve seen a pretty big growth in the small time you’ve worked with them?
Yes, actually I have. I would hate to call them out. Some of the guys in the 250 class that are really open to coaching. They get it. They want to be better and they want to engage with the fans. They love the fans more than any other athlete I’ve ever worked with, I would say. They remember what it was like. I’ve always asked them this question—do you remember the athlete that didn’t sign your poster? Every single one of them had a name. Unfortunately, it was pretty much the same athlete. But they absolutely remembered that. And then they remembered the guy that stayed and signed their poster and talked to them and engaged with them. So they have every desire to be that athlete, which is cool. They know that they’re blessed to be there. They really feel that way. So I would say the guys in the 450 class have been amazing. They’re certainly more polished. So really your podium guys from Shane [McElrath] and Aaron [Plessinger], I’m going to be working with Justin [Hill] in Atlanta—those guys are open and awesome. I can’t wait for them to come out of their shell even more. I think I get a different side to them, and I wish that they would open up more to their fans. That’s my goal. When you get to see what I get to see working with them when they’re open and honest, I think you’re going to fall in love with them even more. They’re really that cool and they’re really that great.
One thing that I find pretty interesting is that motocross athletes are so approachable. On race day they’re signing autographs and engaging with the fans. You can go up and talk to them while they’re sitting under the rig and get a picture. You don’t really get that in any other sport. Like you were saying, how many times do kids get their football signed by an athlete? These guys have a lot on their schedule on race day. They’re doing all of this between three practices and one to four races in a night and they’re still able to manage it all. For example, Shane McElrath’s bike blew up in Arlington and it may have lost him the championship. He had to pull his helmet off on the track and talk to a live camera about how he feels right then and there. How do they deal with all that?
I think they understand it’s part of the job. The cool part about these athletes and unique part about them is that they don’t have an off-season. That’s the commitment they have to the sport. I think that might be why the fans love them so much, is because they understand that commitment. The other part is that’s all they’ve known. Most of these guys got on a little mini or a 50 when they were two or three years old. They’ve known nothing else except this world, which is good for that but certainly keeps them focused on the sport. I think it’s commitment to not just their sponsors, not just their fans, but their family. Most of them, their families gave up a lot to trailer them around and help them be successful. All of them appreciate that. I have not met one guy who didn’t say, “if it weren’t for my family …” Whether that’s a mom or a dad or both or whatever situation they’re in, you can take family however you want to take it. I think that part is pretty cool and the commitment to the sport, it’s their life. It really is. I think the riders staying out there and signing autographs when they’ve been up all night working on a bike or trying new gear or testing different stuff, that’s the part that makes it worth it for them, is meeting the people that they’re doing that for.
At pretty much every race I’ve ever been to I’ve seen Ryan Dungey have people line up outside of his motorhome after a race and he’ll sign autographs until midnight after supercross. That’s commitment.
Ryan is just one of those guys. Everybody asks me if he’s really who he is, and he is. He’s delightfully authentic. I loved that he opened up a couple of weeks ago and showed you an even more of the human side to him. But he’s also one of the most grateful athletes I’ve ever worked with. I compare him to a lot of my quarterbacks that I work with. That being said, I want to push him to do a national commercial for Target. So there’s always a goal. I’m always trying to push these guys even further. I think that’s something that Ryan and I have in common, and I think that’s why he bemuses me and talks to me. He knows that I want to push him further, and he is always striving to be better.
What do you think it is about Dungey? He does a lot of things well with the media and his whole public image. Is there anything specific that you can think of that he does really well that you think of a lot of athletes should kind of take note on?
I hope athletes take note of it because in order to be a successful athlete I think you have to be marketable. That does not mean that every athlete has to be a Dungey. What Dungey has found is authentic and real and amazing and it just happens to be an amazing role model. But I also feel that Ken Roczen has found the same voice. Unfortunately, obviously with Ken’s injury, he’s out, but I do feel like you can be authentic no matter what your voice really is, even if it’s more of a rock star mentality versus more of a down-home, kind of approachable guy.