It was just after 10 a.m. and the owner of Pro Circuit was nowhere to be found. Mitch Payton’s office and porting bench (the only two places you’ll ever find him at the shop) are dark. I had hoped to interview maybe the most influential man in our sport for this website but I couldn’t wait around much longer. I sent a quick text to Nick Wey asking him what time Payton gets in. “Around 10:30, he’ll be there” came the reply and sure enough, not five minutes after that Payton came through on the phone giving me a brief wave. Soon, I was in his office to get his thoughts on his Monster Energy/Pro Circuit Kawasaki team, the sport and more.
Racer X: Okay Mitch, we’re less than a month away from the start of the supercross season. Let’s take your riders one by one. Joey Savatgy, how’s he doing?
Mitch Payton: Very good. Joey’s been training down at Carmichael’s farm. He works with Ricky [Carmichael] and Jeannie [Carmichael] on riding and stuff like that. Actually Bones, the mechanics and Adam from Showa and everybody went down there this week to test a couple days with Joey. It seems like he is ready to go. I feel awesome about him.
And I understand Bowers still has some issues?
Bowers has still got some problems. His back is completely healed. He feels great. Only problem is he’s still dealing with recovering from Epstein Barr.
Healthy. Still recovering from Epstein Barr but farther along than Bowers. Has been riding now for a few weeks and kind of coming back into it. We’re hoping he’ll be fit.
Adam is healthy and riding at Aldon’s [Baker] place down there in Florida. Honestly same thing—Bones and the guys did two days with Joey and now they’re down at Cianciarulo’s to work with him a little bit. Get him more comfortable and I think everything will be fine.
Alldredge is improved quite a bit. He changed his training and his riding coach to something that he prefers. So far I can’t flaw it. I think it looks as though he’s in a better place than he was last year, for sure. So I expect better results from last year by a lot.
By virtue of elimination I’m guessing Alldredge and Savatgy are on the West Coast?
One could assume these things.
You know this drives us media people and fans crazy.
I remember Bowers told me something like that. Somebody says you always try to psych everybody out. I don’t. You've got to use your fast or healthy guys for the West and then it gives the other guys five weeks. If three weeks ago I said, all right, let’s all get ready. I want you, you, and you to ride West. Just look at [Andrew] Short and [Blake] Baggett now. If they were Lites guys you would hope you could pull them back for East Coast. So then you would rotate a guy over to this side. So with my guys I ask them, do you want to ever race the 450 class? They’re like, “Oh yeah, I’m going to kill it! I ride a 450 better than I do a 250!”
So I say, well, if you’re a 450 guy you have to be ready in January, so you should do that now and get it into your system that you should be ready to race in January. Because I may need to plug you on the West Coast. So we try to tell everybody to be ready and then we will adjust the schedule as we have to. I think that everybody’s kind of almost doing that too. You can make a plan for a guy to ride a coast. But [Jeremy] Martin got hurt so he flipped, now Cooper’s [Webb] going to be West. It could be, I don’t know who FC [GEICO Factory Connection Honda] is going to throw over here or there. I really believe that if you’re capable of winning I don’t think it matters which coast your do.
As an ex-mechanic I would think, Joey is out East testing suspension but that’s not a West Coast track. Wouldn’t you want him out here on the West Coast on a very specific kind of dirt?
We’re going to talk about that, but right now we believe that our job is to build him a motorcycle and get it prepared and ready and make him happy. Jeannie’s doing the program for training and Jeannie would tell you that her program is more important. When Ricky rode for us, the program is more important than anything else. So I think she would feel that if he was out here riding that he might not be getting the program done like she would want. So he’s going to stay back there right now.
You’re in your twenty-second year of racing. Do you stress less now as we come up to Anaheim?
I don’t know that I’m more relaxed. Maybe less stressed from the standpoint that I do realize there’s some stuff you can’t fix or change. Like when a guy gets hurt, you’re like, what do we do? You can’t do anything about it. You’ve got to let it run its course and it sucks. I think that our sport’s more political and it’s harder to do business now than it used to be. Everything that I do with a sponsor or put things together takes longer. Everybody’s got more legalese.
Everything is just harder than it used to be. There are more teams. The teams are funded. They’re competitive. It still is about the guy. So now you’ve got KTM and Husky and you've got Yamaha, Kawi, Honda, and even Suzuki’s finally back. So it’s good for the sport. I think it’s great. It makes the job harder, but if you do your job everything should be fine.
That’s bad on those companies for not looking at our sport more, because our demographic is way better. We’re young, affluent, active, willing to spend money.
Which rider do you anticipate maybe making a leap this year for you? Everyone has their roles that they’re supposed to do. Look at Savatgy, he’s supposed to contend for a title. Alldredge maybe just get better than last year. But is there a guy that’s going to gain in your eyes, one of your guys that can leap from where they were last year?
I would say that would be Joey probably. I think Joey was a kid that some people asked why we hired him. I thought—he’s pretty fast. And he showed some flashes of brilliance with the team he rode for before. We go to the first supercross and what a lot of people don’t remember is the last year before the supercross he was ripping. He was riding so good, and then he crashed and I think lacerated his kidney or something like that. He was off for like five weeks and only had two and a half to get ready for his coast. So he came in not 100 percent. He got on the podium and that was the first podium of his career. So that’s pretty cool. And then that kid had a decent season, and then had another little rough go at Vegas where he hit his head and had a concussion and kind of drug that into the outdoors. So the outdoors started rough. So he went through some stuff, cleaned up some things, and kind of raced his way through it. And then by the end of the season he wins a race. I think that’s amazing because that’s one of those brick-building processes where I’ve led supercross, I’ve led a National, I’ve won a heat race and now I’ve won a race. That’s off your bucket list and you can sort of think “I’m one of the guys.” I feel like this could be a breakout year for him.
Your teams going through some changes. Most of us believe you’re going to be leaving your longtime clothing sponsor Thor. That’s a big change for you guys.
It is. They were great to us. I appreciate everything they’ve done for us. Couldn’t have done it without them, but things have changed in recent months. They needed to do something a little bit different so then obviously we have to do something different. It was weird because I’ve never really considered it. I’ve never hunted it down. I never price shopped them. We’re just there, we’re one of your guys, we’re blood, we’re working together. But it’s not that way now so we’re going to do something else. I can tell you that the company that we’re going to go with is pumped to have us and we’re really pumped to have them. There’s a lot of excitement and fresh air.
It’s never great to leave a longtime guy but in one way maybe it does breath some new air into your program.
I think everybody from the outside looking at us is going to be surprised and they’re going to be pleasantly pumped.
If only the Internet was around so we could go back and judge the reaction when you went from AXO to Thor and what we were all saying then.
That was the same thing. I’m not that guy that hops around. I started with AXO and I had other offers and Jim Hale was my friend. I was an AXO guy. And all of a sudden Jim Hale says, “I’m getting rid of AXO.” I’m like, really? What do I do? He says, “You need to find another clothing company.” So that was the end of that.
Rick Ash just retired from Kawasaki. A great guy, always friendly. Just one of those guys in the pits that never let this thing get too big or had too big of an ego or anything else.
There’s not a ton of the mechanics I think that have been through all the evolution of everything. Rick was a guy who used to weld pipes and work for Goat [Breker] on the weekends on Husky’s. And then went with Goat to Husky and traveled the Nationals, started then.
When he first went in-house after being a mechanic, I think he was doing suspension. He did suspension for quite a few years. Then he came back and they made him do engines. Did engines and I think kind of stayed with that. But he’s been at Kawasaki forever. Never moved or whatever. He was around through the whole two-stroke era. Actually he was around when he went from Husky to Kawasaki and they had real works bikes. He was around during the works bikes and then the evolution into production bikes and all that. He’s a very nice guy. Honest, very grounded. Awesome guy.
Thoughts on the series as a whole going into this year? What do you want to see done better? What are we doing a great job with?
It’s funny because we need somehow to grow the sport and make it more mainstream so that we can attract more eyeballs. How we do that, whether it’s TV, Internet, all the different things, I’m not sure. We need somehow to get more youth riding I think. I still think it’s that.
Like in the ‘70s when everybody had a trail 70 Honda or whatever.
It was a very popular trend for kids to ride mini bikes. And I think if we could get that trend again, catch that wave, it would make us massive. I think the things that maybe stalled out a little bit maybe is cell phones and internet and those type things that maybe occupy kids more so. When we were kids I know we had TV, I watched Gilligan’s Island all the time or whatever, but still kids had a mini bike and wanted to go do that. I do think supercross is the strongest series for motorcycles, period. I wish there was more of an opportunity, because that stops in May. I wish there was a way we could draw more attention to the outdoors series to elevate it. At that point it’s an enthusiast-based series but it would be cool to make it a 50,000 spectator-one. I think if we could do that then we could bring in more outside. And we need to do that too. Somehow we need to look amongst our groups and bring in more outside money, attract companies to our sport.
Are you like me and think that when you look at a NASCAR race, why aren’t those sponsors saying, “We want to get involved in motorcycle racing at a fraction of the price?”
I think that’s their fault. That’s bad on those companies for not looking at our sport more, because our demographic is way better. We’re young, affluent, active, willing to spend money. I think our demographic is fantastic. I’m not saying NASCAR’s is bad. Let’s use Tide since they don’t have anybody anymore, but if there was a sponsor like that, and to do NASCAR they’re spending $15 million, let’s say. To me, if I was in charge of that money, I’d say, “Well, you’re going to do it for $14 million. We’re going to put some in this motocross thing. 1/15th of the money going to a Cup NASCAR team will go to motorcycles. And the reason we’re going to do that is we’re going to go after more skews of demographics.” In order to get them to do that somebody has to have the vision of it or believe in it, so it’s hard.
For what they’re giving these NASCAR teams, you could break off a small little chunk of that, and you’re not going to get a giant hood of a car but you’re going to get decent numbers.
Gibbs is doing it with Toyota. He’s the Toyota NASCAR team. They just won a championship this year. Coach [Joe Gibbs] has Toyota on their dirt bike. And then the Toyota truck commercials are all [Justin] Barcia keeps running out of gas. My kids are like, why does he always run out of gas? But that’s good because now you’ve got NASCAR people, you’ve got motocross people. They’re selling trucks through it. All that I think is the way we need to network this thing slowly more together. It’s difficult. Is it the supercross promoters that need to do a little bit better job or is it the outdoor promoters that need to do a little bit better job? Or is it the teams? And what really needs to happen in my opinion too, and I do believe this, I think somehow we need to raise the purse money because we can’t advertise that a guy wins a supercross and makes twelve grand. That is not exciting to an outsider to the sport. When you watch a NASCAR race they say that guy just made 1.2 million bucks.
The problem with it is you change the payout structure so that the guys that win make a lot, but down on the very end don’t get anything, which is bad because they want to bleed that money down so the privateer can keep going. So I don’t know. We take a decent pot and we sliver it up so much that it’s a problem. And what everybody doesn’t realize is that the manufacturers really pay the majority of the money. I brought this up a long time ago. Manufacturers can’t help but screw each other. If they would all chip in money to a pool, you’ve got KTM, Husky, Yamaha, Honda, Suzuki, and Kawi—that’s six. If they all put in a million dollars you’d have a six million dollar purse. Get Feld to put in some too. Maybe you could raise a total of 10. And then don’t pay the team bonuses; pay it in purse. And then all of a sudden you could advertise that the guy that won…imagine if every supercross that you could win was 200 grand? You’d have some racing going on those last five laps.