The Conversation: Ryan Villopoto

The Conversation: Ryan Villopoto

April 17, 2017 11:30am

Although he announced his retirement from racing in 2015, Ryan Villopoto’s still hanging around the pits. He was in St. Louis and Seattle working on the Monster Energy Supercross TV show. Or, in the case of Seattle, hanging out with his hometown fans.

Villopoto’s signed to a marketing deal with Monster Energy Kawasaki and is trying to figure out what he wants to do next. He’s got a race series he’s promoting in the Pacific Northwest, he’s got the RV2 Cup at Pala Raceway this New Year’s Eve and as stated, he’s at some races as well.

When I went up to his place a couple of months ago to film a video and write a feature for Racer X Illustrated, I gathered up some information that didn’t fit either medium, so here’s the rest of our conversation.

Racer X: We’re down here in your trophy room. So, des Nations. People still talk about that Budds Creek ride. Your Donnington ride was good. Then there was France in 2011. Were those races something that was the pinnacle of your career when you look back? Does the des Nations mean anything extra for you?
Ryan Villopoto: I mean, I think Motocross des Nations is a unique race. There’s a lot of pressure on us as racers. Not to take anything away from the European guys, but being that we race supercross and motocross and we see a lot of the guys that can do both, they come to America. I don’t want to say we have something to prove, but every time we get over to Europe it’s like the Euros want to show us what they got. Most of the time obviously it’s in Europe.

Three times in the history it’s been in America.
Three times, exactly. So it’s always in Europe. So when we go over there it seems like we have definitely a bit of a target on our back.

Just a few spare KX250Fs.
Just a few spare KX250Fs. James Lissimore

The 2006 race at Budds Creek, you won both motos on a 250. Does that mean the most of all your races? Or when you had to go to Europe and win on their soil and their conditions?
Budds Creek was cool because I was on a 250F. Ricky [Carmichael] was on his way out. I ended up winning both motos. Both guys gave me the inside gate that weekend, so that was a huge, huge part of it. I can’t tell you if those were … that’s one weekend. So I wouldn’t say—no, that’s not a highlight of my career. I mean, it’s a highlight but it’s not the highest. It’s not the biggest thing I did.

I got to say, I’ve been around you a lot over the years. I always laugh because the des Nations, again, the world is looking at you. You never acted like the pressure got to you. You never acted like it mattered. It did matter. You had your game face on, but you were the same guy.
The way I handled race situations was, yeah, I was serious, but what else are you going to do? Make it more stressful? Make it suck even more? Obviously being under all that stress, if things aren’t going to plan or not the way that you want them to … either someone’s like, “What’s the matter? Try this, try that.” It just makes it worse. So I try to lighten up a little bit.

People will remember that Budds Creek ride forever. That must be pretty cool.
I think they will. Like you said, people still talk about it. It was on our soil, too, so a lot of the Americans got to see it. You have to be a hardcore fan if you’re going to jump on a plane and go over to Europe and follow it that weekend.

This jersey here, that’s with your Rookie of the Year award. Do you look back at that and think about having more fun? Mitch Payton, he loved you. You liked him. Again, training with Randy Lawrence, that type of stuff.
That was a good year. First full year. Did really good in supercross, also. I didn’t win but I think I got second or third or something. So we had a great supercross season and then I was able to win my first year outdoors. Things were simple back then. I was young, in the Lites [250SX] Class. I was training but it wasn’t like what it got to towards the end of my career.

Did you start developing a relationship with guys like RC and James [Stewart] and those type of dudes when you were in the Lites class?
At first I did. Two thousand and six I’d go to RC’s rig. He was racing full-time. I could ask him, “Hey, what about this? What about that? How’s the track?” But the next year BT [Ben Townley] came to town and then he moved in with….

It was Team BT or Team RV.

But you and Ben Townley got along really well.
Oh, we got along really well, but honestly he hated to lose and so did I. It wasn’t weird, but one of us was unhappy.

RV cherishes the unique gifts he was given throughout his career just as much as his many trophies.
RV cherishes the unique gifts he was given throughout his career just as much as his many trophies. James Lissimore

Is there one trophy in there, one memento that means the most to you? Is there something that’s cool for you?
You have helmets. You have trophies and stuff. I think for me probably the most unique trophies and stuff like that. Something different. Like that. I wouldn’t call it a trophy but it’s a gift from Kawasaki, the president of the company. You don’t get those anymore. That was the only one I got. I think that was in 2006.

It’s right here next to your Pulpy.
Yeah, next to the Pulpy. So just really cool, unique stuff. Outside there’s a fan that made a cutout. It says Villopoto and then it’s like this cartoon kind of deal. It’s all hand-painted. So that’s cool.

Something like that instead of a typical first place trophy.
Yeah. There’s trophies and trophies and the second, third place plaques that they give you. Either they got thrown away or my grandpa’s got them somewhere. They’re probably somewhere, but for me … there’s some second ones there, the Lites ones.

There was only one racer that I saw you get upset when you lost to him, and maybe you worried about the most in all the years I was around. That was Stew. I always felt you and Ryan Dungey had a great rivalry, but I felt that you felt you could beat Dunge. I felt that you felt you could handle Chad [Reed]. He had his moments where he [Chad] rode great. But all my time I felt like Stew was the guy that if Stew was on you were like, “I can’t beat him.” And I saw you get angry a few times, frustrated. Do you agree?
You never knew what you were going to get out of Stew. Blazing fast one weekend and then maybe not even on the podium the next.

But his peak, he could beat you.
Well, yeah. Like everybody. If he was on. Light switch-wise, but yeah. For whatever reason, yeah. Coming into the season we’d be with Aldon [Baker]. We’d be training. It’s like, what about Stew? And Aldon would be like, come on, man. Really? We’re putting in the work. He’s going to be fast. You can’t not think that he’s going to be good.

I think you never worried about him beating you in a championship. You would have him covered, but at some of the races …
Yeah. Being in my shoes you kind of know that he couldn’t hold it together. He could at one time but it got to where he couldn’t.

But was he one guy that if he was on … like, I just talked to Damon Bradshaw for a story, and Bradshaw told me he never felt that anyone could go faster on a dirt bike than him for a day, except for McGrath. He said, “I couldn’t beat Jeremy no matter what. If I was on, he was better than me.”
For 20 laps, though—if you ask Ricky that, it’s like, yeah, for 20 laps I knew I could beat him. Not every single time, because he did beat me a few times, or a fair amount of times. But for 20 laps I knew that sometimes it wouldn’t be as hard as it actually was going to be. Or be easier than I expected it was going to be. All out lap time? No. I’m not going to quad some of the stuff that he was jumping or do some crazy stuff like that. But yeah, he was probably one of the guys that he was always in my head, but he didn’t get into my head to affect it, but he was always there.

Going to Europe, would have you done that differently?

Would you have ridden over there before and tested?
We did some testing and stuff over there. I would definitely do things different. It wasn’t what I got told it was going to be, dealing with the [team]. Basically I kind of got told it was going to be a full factory bike, access to stuff that I didn’t have access to in the States.

So it potentially could have been better?
Yeah. The language barrier between the team and myself, even though there were guys that could speak English on the team, there was a barrier there. It wasn’t easy. So definitely I’d do things different. I don’t regret not winning or trying it or whatever. It definitely would have been nicer to sit here and talk about me winning, or winning a handful of races or winning the championship.

If you had gone there and say you didn’t get hurt and not won the title, would that have been okay?
No. I think if I would have went there in the same circumstances with the team and stuff, no. That would have been worse. I would be like, that was a waste of time. So for me it was better it ended the way it ended, because in my opinion, I’ve always been able to work around maybe the bike not being perfect or dealing with something maybe outside of the racing, or whatever. I’ve always been able to get my s*** together and make it happen.

Like we talked about there not being this big pressure in the truck. You were fun to be around most of the time.
Yeah. I’ve always been able to get my s*** together and work through that stuff where if something wasn’t perfect. The bike doesn’t have to be perfect. No matter if the bike’s never going to be perfect, you’re going to have races that it is, but it wasn’t one of those scenarios. It wasn’t a good deal for me. So I’m glad it ended the way it did.

Could you have come back from your tailbone and rejoined the series later?
I was still out for two months where I couldn’t sit like normal. Obviously on a motorcycle that’s probably going to be exaggerated even more. So no, I don’t think coming back was an option, but if it wouldn’t have been that and it would have been something else or something where I could have come back, or maybe I didn’t crash at all and I just raced the series out like that, that’s where I would have been pretty bummed.

I think I know the answer to this, but you win the four supercross titles in a row. Every outdoor series that you do not get hurt in you win. And then you just decide to pack it in. Do you think about where you could be? Could you have won a fifth? Could you have gone another outdoor? You had another year in your contract before you went to Europe.
If I mentally was into it and willing to put in the work and stuff, yeah. I’m not going to sit here and say I would have won, but I would have won.

Do you think about money, titles, wins?
No, I don’t think about any of that. I could have won five or I could have done … that stuff doesn’t matter.

Chasing [Jeremy] McGrath? None of that?
No, but if you say, “You could have made another five million bucks,” I’d be like, “Well, you know …” that’d be kind of nice. We’ve just seen the sport lose Kenny [Roczen] to a major injury. In my opinion the sport is only going more in that direction. Now we’re doing 20 minutes plus one lap, and sometimes that’s going to put us at 24 laps. We already had an issue with Dirt Wurx not being able to keep up with fixing some of the tracks. And we’re not even in the bad tracks yet.

Getting down to plywood and that type of thing.
And they work their ass off to try to do it. It’s not Dirt Wurx’s fault. It’s just time on the clock. There’s only so much in-between, during the night show.

You’ve got a live TV show to fit in.
Live TV. That’s why they went to that. But people are going to say, “Well, can we get rid of outdoors for other reasons?” And it’s like, that’s where racing originated. So I kind of get that.

So did you look around, took an assessment of the bank account, the titles, the legacy, and said, “I’m out. I’m going to walk away.”
Yes, I think for me I’m like, okay, we made a goal. We want to have this much and achieve that, with a pretty … I don’t want to call it a normal lifestyle because we definitely spend more money than the average person. But we live a pretty normal lifestyle. So I’m good with it. You can always say what if. I can win the lottery tomorrow, too. I’ve just got to buy the lotto ticket.

I talked to Aldon a little bit about you, and I talked to Mike Williamson, your old mechanic, a little bit before I came up here. Honestly they both told me the same thing independently. You had to work so hard to win those titles, training-wise, with Aldon on and off the bike, that you didn’t like the work by the end. You didn’t like to do that much. People don’t understand that.
No. They never will. It’s always, “Why do you come back, or why do you retire so early? Why is this guy a d*** at the races?” It’s like, stress. Monday’s coming around the corner. All these things. And I get it. People, “I worked forty years behind the computer and the desktop….” I get it. Those people don’t put in the effort that we do. I don’t think. Maybe I’m wrong.

And they also don’t literally risk their lives.
That’s the other thing. They don’t risk their lives doing that.

It’s dramatic to say that, but it is true. It really is.
Like I said, back to the Kenny thing, his arm. I looked at that and when I seen that I’m like, I’m glad I’m not racing. That can happen. It kind of happened with my leg. I was able to come back, still race and whatever, and we don’t know the outcome of Kenny’s arm yet.

Do you think you had to work harder than some other guys to stay super fit because of your body type?
Yeah, it wasn’t easy. I felt like I was pretty fit on a road bike. I think I could ride with anybody in our sport. Growing up I didn’t enjoy—and there’s some guys that maybe enjoy it more than others. Do they love training? I can’t say that Dunge loves it. Every day he loves to ride his bike. I think he likes to ride it more than I do.

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I heard from people around the Aldon camp that you’re on a bicycle and you’re like, “I hate this. This sucks.”
Yeah. And there were plenty of times where I’m like, send the cycle back home.

But this is what you need to do to win races.
That’s the good and bad thing about the sport, is the level that you have to be at. Nobody can do it. Not anybody. It’s the elite people. Have the amount of the wins that I have and the amount of championships and all those things—not anybody’s going to do that. Not everybody.

Apparently during the testing process at the Kawi track you were still laying down some fast times and you were still taking crap about how you had it. You didn’t lose it. If you wanted to, it would be on.
And then it drastically turned really quick because there was a whoop section and then this right-hander and it was a triple onto a tabletop. Josh [Grant] built up the take off a little bit. I had already been doing it 100 times that day. I went a little bit wider out of the main line. The hiccup was a little bit bigger and I went almost over the tabletop, so then it basically landed right on the end, right on the next tabletop. I went over the bars. Jumped off. Hurt my wrist. Now I’m like, pump the brakes. Now I understand. I’m not as sharp as I used to be.

You and Ryan Dungey’s relationship, did it ever get friendly? Did it ever get to the point where you would talk?
That’s another sh***y part of our sport. You see these other sports—wakeboarding, skate, BMX, NASCAR—the guys are kind of like buddies and they hang out. Our sport is so isolated with just you. So that takes a lot of fun out of it. I had Jake [Weimer] around and things like that, and that was all great. I’m just saying in general our sport is isolated. It’s always going to be that way.

McGrath era I think they legitimately….
That’s the ‘90s. You have to turn the pages back a bit. The whole story was really different back then.

But I think RC changed that a little bit.
He is the one that changed it.

How bad did Kawasaki try to keep you racing here that last year instead of the GPs?
I don’t want to say they didn’t try, but I made it apparent that I was either doing GPs or I am quitting.

You don’t quit if you have enough money to retire. That’s what Timmy’s [Ferry] thing is. If you have enough money to live the rest of your life, you retire and you don’t quit.
The way I see the word quitting is if you didn’t do anything in the sport and you quit because you couldn’t cut the mustard.

So you had told Kawi “GPs or I’m done”?
Yeah, pretty close. I needed a change. I needed to do something different. I was tired. It wasn’t working out. I mean, it was working out but I just needed to change. I was willing to take the chance and go do something else or retire and sit at home and twiddle my thumbs and try to figure out what is my next step. I think that’s the biggest problem with people. They’re struggling to find out what is the next step, because this is all we know.

You’re an outdoor race promoter now.
Yes. So I get the thought process behind that. People don’t like change. We were talking this morning about it. It’s like, well, in my opinion they’ve made that worse where the tracks are going to deteriorate more and I think you’re going to have more injuries.

Promoting races and owning a coffee shop. RV's post-racing life isn't what many expected.
Promoting races and owning a coffee shop. RV's post-racing life isn't what many expected. James Lissimore

Race promotion for yourself is something I never thought you would do. You’re doing a race down in Pala.
Yeah, we have a big amateur race at Pala, the RV MX Cup. So it should be, I think, a really good event. It’s over New Year’s Eve, which is I think a really good time of year to bring outside people in, meaning people from Europe or Australia or wherever, or winter states. All the amateur racing is pretty much Texas east. So Tom threw out the idea about doing that at Pala. I said, “Yeah, that sounds like a great idea, and yeah, we’ll be involved in it.”

You partnered up with a buddy for a track up here.
Yup, and then the Washington State deal. Up home here in Washington there was a track that’s actually on county land, state land, so you just lease it. Once we looked into it and found out what it cost it was like a no-brainer for what you got out of it. The Northwest is kind of on its own little island up here. It’s disconnected from Southern California. And there is a fair amount of riding up here. So this came up. We looked into it. It was good enough for me to say, yeah, let’s give it a try. So I have a partner, Brent Davis is in on it.

He’s a friend of yours?
From way back, yeah. He actually has a current track now and then had one when I was on 80s. That’s where we would ride, his public track, all the time. It was really good back in the day. And then they came in and pulled like 20 million of ag rock out of it. Excavated underneath it. Not him, but somebody else. So the track’s gone now. So that came up. We said yeah, we’ll give it a go. So we have our RV2 prodigy series and then RV2 camp. I think by then when this comes up we have Top Gun, which is basically the biggest race in the Northwest in September. We secured them for this year, so that will be cool.