Mitch Payton. The name carries much weight in this industry. Payton, a former desert racer who became a hop-up guru in the 1980s, started his race team in 1991 and has had a profound effect on motocross around the world. Mitch Payton talks, and well, people listen (just like me, who sat down with the man for over an hour). Payton offered his take on a host of things involving and revolving around our sport. Really, nothing more than a casual conversation between the one-of-a-kind Californian and the tape recorder in my hand (and me asking obvious questions), the whole thing made for a good, comprehensive fly-by on our beloved sport and the current reality of its surroundings.
Racer X: Mitch, we’re basically two months out from the opening round of the 2018 Monster Energy Supercross Championship at nearby Angel Stadium on January 6. As far as the Monster Energy/Pro Circuit Kawasaki race team, what’s going on over here at 2771 Wardlow Road in Corona, California?
Mitch Payton: Right now we have a new bike this year, which we’re pretty pumped on as the base is better than it was last year so that’s going to make it a little easier for us. I think from where we were at last year, we’re ahead of where we were by far. And as far as our race bike and as it finished the 2017 season, we’re also a little bit in front of that. I think that’s pretty good because I think we finished off pretty good with the way it was running. We had a couple of DNFs at the first round of the outdoors this year because of a parts failure and we got that fixed within a week and we were pretty solid the rest of the season. Hopefully, we won’t have that again. We know what to keep an eye on now. I think we’re going to come out swinging. Right now all four guys are healthy. All of them have been out here in California at least once. Everybody is doing a little bit of training and doing their boot camps and then they’ll come back out in another few weeks and do some more testing. Martin [Davalos] is out here right now, actually. He’s been here for two weeks. He’ll go back home and Austin [Forkner] will come out. Adam [Cianciarulo] has been here. Joey [Savatgy] has been here. We’ll get them all back out here and solidify where we are at and, really, just get ready. Hopefully, we keep them all healthy.
I spoke with Martin a few days ago and he was unabashedly ecstatic to be back here with you and the entire Monster Energy/Pro Circuit Kawasaki team.
He was a guy that I’ve always kind of had my eye on. I’ve always kind of believed in him. We hired him a few years ago. He hadn’t won a race before and won races that year and was leading the points, but we had a problem and he crashed and broke his ankle. That put him out of the championship, but I think he could have had it that year.
Guys certainly come and go, don’t they? Davalos is back, but Justin Hill, who won the 250SX West Region Championship for year this year, is now gone to the Autotrader/Yoshimura Suzuki Factory Racing team.
You get them sometimes, and sometimes they go. When Hill left the first time [Note: Hill left Payton’s team for Red Bull KTM at the end of the 2014 race season. He returned for the 2017 season] he thought the grass was greener—and it wasn’t. And then he came back this year and he won a championship. This year him leaving was a little bit different. We both talked about it. There was an opportunity over there [JGR Suzuki] for him for the second year. That was something that was real big for him as he wanted to ride the 450. I said to him, “Look, I totally get it.” I didn’t want to hold him back from that. If he were to win here this year, there was no guarantee he’d get a ride next year. If that team put it in writing right now, then that’s a good insurance policy for him
What do you make of the JGRMX Suzuki 250cc effort for 2018? That’s a Suzuki factory-backed program.
I think it’ll be a lot of work for them. I think it’s a big undertaking to tackle both classes, but they’re good guys and they should be able to do it. It’s going to be a lot of work, but I think as long as they’ve got the budget to hire the personnel and the people, they’ll be alright.
Do you see Justin Hill being competitive, and perhaps winning, on the RM-Z250?
I’m not really sure. If he’s happy and they get a good bike underneath him, supercross for Justin is pretty easy. He picks it up fast and he’s a good rider. I don’t discount him. I think he’ll be in the mix. I don’t think, “Oh my god! He’s the only guy to beat!” I think I have four of those guys also and I think there will be good competition across the board, anyway.
So during this month of November, just what will go inside the race shop here?
Well, we will pick apart what we already have. We think we learned some suspension and chassis stuff in the outdoors that we think will help us and maybe give the guys a little bit better comfort zone. We’re trying to introduce that to supercross and it seems like that’s been a plus. Every one of our guys who has ridden with the new parts really likes it. That’s going to be really good. On the engine-side, we just have to keep working on that. I feel like we already had a really good base and we set a couple of new goals and I think we’re pretty close to hitting them already. I think it’s a more comfortable position to be in then say where we were last year at this point.
As far as having the 2018 race bikes totally dialed-in and ready to go, are you guys essentially done with most everything come early-to-mid December?
I mean I don’t think it ever really stops. I think you’ve slowed it down enough to where you think you know where you’re going to start and then come the month of December you’re really ordering up the parts that you like and try to get them in the door with your vendors. We’ve had parts on order with some vendors for a little while now and all that will start trickling in. As we compile them, then we’ll start building race engines, probably, early-to-mid December. We’ll try and have them down by Christmas, of course. Sometimes it happens where—and every team will tell you this—you’re looking for something that you don’t have and you’re waiting and waiting and waiting. But this year, so far, I think we’ve ordered early enough and done our homework to where I think we’ll have everything. This should be a good year for us.
And you have a rock-solid program of proven winners. You guys won one supercross title this year, and if not for a last lap, last corner pass at Las Vegas, could have had them both.
Yep. We should have had both. That was a little bit of unfinished business. Everybody on the team has won races. It’s not like we’re going in hoping that one of them can win. Now, they’re all proven winners so we need to get them out there and keep them on two wheels and supply them with good equipment. It’s set up for a good year. It should be a great one.
What do you make of the format and program changes Feld Motor Sports issued for this forthcoming race season?
I’m not sure. Like always, every year or so, they start talking to everybody about wanting to change some things to try and create new excitement or whatever. I don’t blame them for not wanting to sit still, but God, I think the best property in the United States is supercross. They’ve got the best show going. I hope it doesn’t confuse the fans. I know we’re going to have two rounds that will be East/West. They used to do that in the mid-1990s, so maybe that will good for the fans and you’ll see all of the 250 riders twice this year, so that’s good for them. For the 450 guys, we went away from the semis. We did that before. We had semis, then we went away from them. We brought it back and now we’re away from it again. I know there will be three races that will have the Monster Cup format. I’m not sure on that one. It works at Monster Cup, I guess. They line up three times and they’re going to go for it three times and all the shit breaks loose right off the bat, so the opportunity to have some weird things go down could be there. The points changes, I don’t think is such a big shakeup. I don’t think that’s a big deal. I think they’re trying to keep it relevant and exciting for the fans, but what I don’t want to do, and I hate to say this, but I was a massive NASCAR fan. Then they started changing their format every year. Now, I don’t follow it close enough and I don’t get it all the time, so they kind of lost me.
Yeah, you do such things to try and “capture the drama,” things such has NASCAR has done with their format, and you run the risk of losing people.
Yeah, it’s confusion. It used to be you could very simply explain what was going on and how it was going down. Now, at times, I can turn the TV on and the first segment is done and then there is the second segment and I’m wondering what is up. Then, the Chase thing keeps changing every year. I know NASCAR is trying to keep the sport moving forward and they are very relevant to a lot of sponsors—including Monster. It’s important that they try and keep it relevant and new, but I think, to me, and I’m an outsider and my opinion probably doesn’t count, but it’s almost a little too confusing when they change it every year.
Okay, Mitch, as far as our sport as a whole, the industry, as we know, has contracted somewhat dramatically during the past few years. However, supercross is doing really well and their TV viewing numbers are way up. What’s the Mitch Payton state of the American moto nation right now?
I think the same thing. I think the industry, as a whole, hasn’t completely recovered from the housing deal that went sideways and there were a lot of motorcycle sales lost to every manufacturer. That all contracted. And it wasn’t just the motorcycles. It was the ATV, side-by-sides…
Yeah, Fun Haulers, motorhomes, vans. Everything slowed down and tightened up. Unfortunately, I think when that happens, some people reevaluate and move on to something else. I don’t know if we got them all back, for sure.
To what you’re speaking to, what about the bike makers bringing back a more entry-level, less-expensive motocross bike, say a cool-looking, well-performing 125cc two-stroke. You think there is something in all of that? Something to bring people, perhaps new people, into the sport?
I would love it. I think it’s important. I think the manufacturers, as a whole, have done a pretty good job of trying to keep the minibike classes to two-strokes. I wish Honda would bring out a two-stroke again. I see it in our shop. Our two-stroke pipe sales are fantastic. Everybody is buying some old two-stroke and they’re fixing them up as a weekend ride bike. I think there is a certain amount of people that love riding motorcycles and they just want to do it for fun. They don’t need a World Superbike to go ride on. [Laughs] I almost think—and this sounds crazy, and I’m probably going to get slaughtered for saying it—that we don’t need to have electric start and some of the stuff. We keep pushing the bikes and they keep getting a little bit more sophisticated. Yeah, after a guy has a button, he doesn’t want to go back to kick starting a bike. We had great racing when we just had dumb old two-strokes with a kick start. And the cost was cheaper. We’ve fuel-injected them, we have electric start, we’ve done a gamut of things to make them lighter and all that. It’s amazing the bikes that come out now. Off the showroom floor, they’re all pretty darn good and then you can make them better. It’s almost unfair to say because I guess you just can’t go backwards, you know? Once the evolution started, it’s just going to continue.
What about the approaching 2018 race season schedule? There will be 17 supercross events and 12 outdoor events. In the eyes of some, that’s a long season. Thoughts?
I do believe that racing is a great way to promote the brands, the bikes, and the sport. I think supercross is a great way to do that. I think it’s fun to go to and the fans are obviously excited when they go. It’s a really good thing. Everybody wants more races. The promoters would like more races because an opportunity to make more money. But I do think we retire guys a little quicker than we used to and I think that’s because they race so much. I think, maybe, if we had 16 supercrosses and eight Nationals—everybody is going to hate me for saying that—it would be healthier for everybody involved. It would be cheaper for all the teams and manufacturers. And then maybe everyone takes a little break. If the promoters want to throw some fall races, some one-offs like the Monster Cup or Straight Rhythm, maybe not everybody doesn’t have to go. For the guys that want to go, throw some prize money up and they’ll show up anyway. If a guy wants to take a break at this point in the year, he can take a break and go get a surgery and heal-up and be back the next year. I think if we run them all year for multiple years in a row, I think we’ve seen what that does. I think it’s hard for the guys to do that. RC quit after 10 years; RV was nine years; Dungey just quit now. That’s a lot of star power, you know? That’s star power that draws people to the sport. I’d like to see them stay around longer, but they still have to be healthy to do it. That’s just my opinion, and I can be wrong and it’s easy to be wrong.
You’ve been running this race team of yours since 1991. Are you still as motivated as ever? Do you still get the rush from winning and maybe finding something that nobody else has?
Yeah. You really, truly have to love it or you shouldn’t do it. It kind of has to be where your passion is and what you love to do. I can’t race, so I always said that this is as close as I can get. To see one of my guys win a race or win a championship is fantastic. And then I get a kick out of the first time a guy wins. We’ve had a lot of one-time winners on our teams and to see those guys get their first win, they’ll never forget it. That’s really cool. Some of them move on and have really great careers and you feel as though maybe you had a part of that when they were young. I still love it. And Roger [DeCoster] is still doing it too. Roger loves it or he would quit and wouldn’t do it anymore. You show up in the morning and it pushes you and makes you think.
And that sense of achievement.
Yeah, a lot of good qualities come from it. I love it. There is always a new kid coming up and there’s always the next guy and all that kind of stuff. That’s entertaining. It’s really hard to be as good as those guys are. You could take—whether it’s [Jeremy] McGrath or Ricky [Carmichael] or Ryan Villopoto or Ryan Dungey—you could take it from where they first started with their parents going to the races, and then to go all the way to the top of the sport, that’s a hell of a road.
Anything else you want to toss in, my man?
I’m happy with our bike and I’m happy with the rider selection that we’ve got. I think, for sure, that we’re going to win races and we should win championships. It could start in two weeks and I’d be pumped.