Pieces of the puzzle. Anyone who’s a fan of this sport has heard riders talk about them, and how hard it can be to put them all together to form a successful championship run. That’s why it’s rare to see riders depart a team immediately after winning a title. But that’s exactly what Justin Hill did when he left Monster Energy/Pro Circuit Kawasaki for Autotrader/Yoshimura Suzuki Factory Racing (JGRMX). We had to know more, so we dialed up Hill for this week’s conversation.
Racer X: What’s been going on lately? How’ve you been spending the off-season?
Justin Hill: I’ve been planning my next non off-season. Just trying to make all the right moves to where I’m comfy getting back to work. I moved to North Carolina full time, and it’s all been a little bit more work than normal, just doing my deals and everything. But it’s been exciting getting to work with some of the people I’ve been wanting to work with too. I bought a house out here, and I’ve been doing every little thing I can to get to the point to where I’m not having to do it later during the season.
Well, one of your biggest moves, was of course the one to JGR. Talk about how that all came about.
I just wanted to be a part of JGR. It wasn’t necessarily the obvious thing. Being at Kawasaki and having a pretty deep-rooted history with them, and winning a championship for Mitch [Payton], you’d think I’d move on and be the new Kawi guy. But that wasn’t really their vision, and it wasn’t my vision either. Everyone kind of had different ideas, and my idea all along, I wanted to be with JGR. In my opinion, they’re the leaders on the technical side and in development. I think, being a part of that, even if it’s just a small part, is cool. I haven’t been out here [North Carolina] a lot, but I’ve been around here and I definitely know it has the landscape, weather, and everything to be optimum for training. That was another thing that influenced me, and I have not been disappointed. I’ve been very impressed by everything they have going out here. As soon as I made it out here they arranged for me to tour the whole place and I was blown away, to say the least. The main thing that sparked it though, was my interest in it. I called J-Bone [team manager Jeremy Albrecht] and told him I wanted to be a part of it, and he was excited to hear it. They didn’t have their Suzuki deal done until way late, so I sort of took a leap of faith with them and trusted Jeremy that what he was saying was really going to happen, and he was awesome. He was a straight shooter and told me exactly what everything was going to be. Nothing more, nothing less, and I couldn’t be more grateful for his honesty. It was almost a foolish move, going off word of mouth on the whole deal, but I trusted Jeremy. He didn’t disappoint me, and it all worked out the way I wanted it to.
No disrespect to JGR, they’re obviously a great organization, but I’m sure a lot of people are probably wondering why you’d leave a team you just won a championship with.
Yeah, I totally get it. If I was outside looking in, I’d say the same thing. But I’ll be completely honest, and to me it’s no disrespect to Mitch, we’re totally cool and I enjoyed my time there, but I wanted to be a part of JGR because I think they’re ahead of the game. I think they have more capabilities than anyone around when it comes to development. And Pro Circuit, being a very deep-rooted Lites team, you’d think I’d be kind of worried being that JGR is a fairly brand new 250 team. But I’m not because of what I know they’re capable of, and what I’ve seen already. I have no doubts. But the actual meaning behind leaving is probably scattered across a few categories. The main one, I really wanted to get out of Southern California and find the better riding areas. I’m competing against everyone who rides on the East Coast in that heat and humidity, I’m talking about the outdoors, and that was a huge boost for me to want to do this. I want to avenge my outdoor season, it was terrible. I blame a lot of it on my location and not having what I needed, and I’m shooting for the best thing for me to try to win. That’s all it is, and I think that’s here.
These guys made a commitment to me to take me on and try to defend my championship, and try to take it further and have a guaranteed 450 spot, which is what I wanted. That was the first thing I’d told Mitch, was that I wanted to ride a 450 for JGR. And inadvertently, that’s what’s happening. I don’t see a reason why I can’t be even better than I was and win more races than I did.
When you say you didn’t have what you needed for the Nationals, what are you talking about specifically?
The tracks out west, what you get are public tracks packed with people. They pull you off every 20 minutes to water, and in my opinion, they don’t even make the tracks worth riding if you’re trying to train for a National. Some people think it’s the greatest thing, and I don’t know where they are in this world, but they’ve probably never been to a track out there. From what you get on a race weekend, it’s an entirely different surface altogether. You get done riding a National, like RedBud or wherever, you’re like, “Dude, what was that? I’ve never even ridden anything like that before.” Then you go back to California and you’re like, “Oh, okay, that makes sense,” because you’re riding around on a parking lot. At the races, the track is ripped so deep and the ground is so soft, it’s almost like you don’t even know how to ride a dirt bike anymore. It’s just a different feeling—you can’t do a 30-minute moto the way you can in California. It’s just not the same thing. They also weren’t super into sending my mechanic and good friend Shawn out to the track with me, so I didn’t have a mechanic or anyone to pit board or anything like that. I just had less support for the Nationals, and I didn’t want that again. I wanted to take the initiative and make my situation better.
When I got out here I got the opportunity to go spend three weeks with Jeannie Carmichael out in Tallahassee. I’d had some time off the bike so I wasn’t that in shape, but going from riding like one time in California then going out to Florida, it’s not even the same thing. You can’t even compare it as far as preparation for the weekend. That’s what I was in search of. And the humidity, it’s just unbearable. You can’t breathe, you can’t think, and it’s exactly what you need to do every single day you ride to be ready for the outdoors. And until I went out there and saw it for myself, I would not have believed it. Then I did, and now I’m here. I moved out to North Carolina. I took a bit of a leap with it, but I love it here. I’m not that big of a fan of California anyway, as far as living there, and hanging out, I just don’t think it’s that cool. These are all the things that brought me to where I am at this moment.
That all makes sense, but it’s still surprising, just from a marketing standpoint alone, that Kawasaki would allow that number one to be on a bike that’s not green. Do you feel there was a lack of effort on Kawasaki’s part to retain you?
Oh, 100 percent. I told them what I would have been happy with and they didn’t do it right away, which I don’t blame Mitch Payton for at all, and I don’t necessarily blame anyone at Kawasaki at all. They’re in a position where they have a certain amount of money and they’re trying to stay within that amount of money. That’s what they’re given to get guys. I felt like I was worth something this time though. Every year, as far as negotiating deals, I just wanted to be where I was happy. I never really penny pinched or got weird about price with anyone, and I always felt I never quite got the deal I should have. So this year, I was like, “I’m the champ, it’s time to pay me!” [Laughs] At least a little bit! I wasn’t being unreasonable either. With Mitch in particular, I wanted a supercross only deal, which we had come to agree upon. That seemed like the best thing to do because they wanted to keep me in California, so then I just wanted to ride supercross, and that’s what we struck up. I told them what I thought it was worth. To me, riding supercross only, is worth at least three-quarters of what a full year deal would be. I’ve been hired for supercross every time—nobody hires me for outdoors. I’m hoping to prove that’s a mistake this year, but that’s the way it’s always been.
To me, my value was definitely in supercross and with that number one plate. I believe I also have value on a 450. I was telling them what [type of deal] I would have been cool with and they didn’t really want to do it. If they had said, “Yeah, we’re just going to make you happy,” then I would probably be on a Kawasaki right now. That’s not because I would rather do that, it’s because Suzuki wasn’t ready, they didn’t have their deal with JGR done yet. And J-Bone was honest with me and told me he didn’t know when they’d have it. But he kept me in the loop and I took a leap of faith with that. I drug it out more than I would have liked to, I wanted to be more straight up than I was with Mitch, but I was still probably ten times more straight up than any agent. But I had to kind of drag it out a little bit and talk with them about what I was thinking of doing. But if they [Kawasaki] would have come right in with what I’d wanted, my hands would have been tied, I would have done it.
JGR has been trying hard for a championship for a while. Is earning the team’s first championship something you think about?
Absolutely. I just want to make these people happy, they’re cool as heck. I want to retain the 250SX title and I want to be a 450 champion too. That’s what they deserve. From what they’ve put into this, they deserve a championship and I want to get it for them. I think I’m ten times better on a 450 than I am on a 250, and they’re giving me the opportunity to prove it. I can’t wait for that. I’m super excited. As far as the championship at hand, what I have to go try to retain, I don’t see why I can’t do it. I think the bike in particular is very good. It handles good and has better power than I thought it would and I’m very confident in it. All I want to do is win them a championship, or two, or three, or however many I possibly can.
Thanks for your time. You said a bit more than I expected you would and we appreciate that.
I’ll say what it is, I don’t sugarcoat. And this isn’t stuff that Mitch or anyone doesn’t know, it’s all stuff we’ve talked about. It makes no sense to say it happened any differently. Not everything I say is going to always reflect perfectly on myself, but it’s going to be the truth. I think that’s better. I’m super happy at JGR and I love these people. Coy [Gibbs] is a super cool dude and Jeremy has been the most straight up person I’ve ever dealt with in the industry so far, and that makes me happy. Not everyone is like that. And with him being in charge of things, he can make a difference by being an honest guy. That pumps me up and makes me want to do well for them.