Last week we presented the first half of an extended interview with Chad Sanner, the owner of the Eleven-10 Mods privateer team that worked with Darryn Durham, Alex Martin, and Phil Nicoletti for several years beginning in 2010. This followed an epic feature, “Eleven 10ths,” by our own Steve Matthes with some of the riders and mechanics involved with the “little team that could … or maybe couldn’t.”
We pick up where Sanner admits he maybe should have pulled the plug, and that’s with his friend and team catalyst Darryn Durham signing with Monster Energy/Pro Circuit Kawasaki for the 2012 season and beyond.
Racer X: So now Darryn has moved on, signed up for Pro Circuit Kawasaki. What did you want to do for 2012 with Alex? It seemed like a lot of the attention from the industry and general public had started to switch over to his little brother Jeremy, who was getting ready to turn pro.
Chad Sanner:Yes, I always had Alex’s back. I would tell my guys that Alex is capable of winning, and even my guys kind of looked at me like I was crazy, but I could see what he was capable of—and it’s no surprise to me at all how well he’s doing now. He just works so hard. And maybe that’s the other part of it too now: Alex has got a really good trainer, so he’s working a lot smarter, focusing properly on what he needs to do.
Honestly, before 2012 it should have been over for the team. We did it for Darryn and he got his deal. We didn’t have any sponsors knocking on the door, but Alex was here. He only had one offer and he didn’t really want to take it because he didn’t think the bike would be competitive at all. He was getting ready to do like a Wonder Warthog deal or something. But again, I just saw all of the effort and heart he put into it and I was like, Man, I can’t let this kid down.
So we took the next season on. It was like, maybe we can learn from last year, make some things happen to get some sponsors for 2012, make it like the whole last year was the investment. I said, “Okay, let’s do it. I’ll give you the same program as Darryn had last year.” But now instead of it being Darryn and Alex, it was going to be all Alex—until Phil [Nicoletti] showed up. I was just getting Alex’s stuff ready but I was getting texts from Phil, or Phil’s sponsor, and I didn’t even answer the phone or call back because I had nothing. I couldn’t help out—and it wasn’t just Phil, there was a bunch of guys calling who were looking for help. You feel bad because they want to be out there, and you know they would do well, but they just have nothing. They just knew the equipment we had was good enough to get them where they wanted to be.
When did it all start to come together with Phil?
It was maybe two weeks before the first race, and I don’t even know if Phil had his pro license up to date with the AMA, but it was a real, real last-minute deal. His sponsor called and left a message with my sister-in-law, who was helping me at the shop with the day-to-day operations. The guy calling had helped a bunch of other teams, apparently, and so I got on the phone and we decided to settle on an agreement. We came up with a number he was going to pay, and it was barely enough to get bikes for Phil, let alone all of his entry fees, which this was supposed to also cover. He was going to do a down payment to go get the bikes and get everything built, which was nice, and then it was going to be a certain amount every other week as payment to take care of Phil. It was super stressful, but I was determined to make my side happen, but he had to make his side happen. I needed him to do what he said he was going to do, or it was all going to fall apart.
The down payment comes through and we get Phil’s race bike and practice bike all together, we get everything built out and we barely made it to the first round. And that’s how I met Phil—right there at the first race, right when it all came together. I mean, I didn’t even know Phil. I had never spoken to him, never really paid attention to him, I just went back and looked at his lap times and results after the guy called me and I saw that he was capable of doing really well.
Didn’t it start out really well? I remember a great showing at the opener.
Yes, we went to the first race [in Arlington, Texas] and he busts out a fifth! And Alex was eleventh. It was like, Wow, that’s awesome. Everyone was all super happy, but then the next week it all kind of caught up to us. [Ed. note: Looking at the AMA’s archived results for that year, neither Martin nor Nicoletti had anyone listed as their sponsors, including Eleven-10 Mods.]
We had to hurry up and get back to Pennsylvania from that race, but the box van blew up because going to the races the mechanics never checked the oil or whatever, and that just added a pile of stress for us going to St. Louis. Stuff just started coming unwound already—Alex was tenth and Phil was nineteenth—and then just before Round 3 [Daytona] the payment never comes in. The guy didn’t send the check he promised for Phil. So now I have to take some of the money that was supposed to go to Alex and put it toward Phil….
From there, everything gets worse and worse and worse. The little bit of money we are making—and there was really no money coming in from anyone else, except for Scott goggles’ Johnny Kuzo. No matter which goggle company he was with, he took care of us. It was just a small amount, and it was usually gone after one day, but it got us by. But the bikes were beginning to become a problem because we can’t afford to put one or two parts in that we needed, and then that would have an effect because more shit would come apart and break. Even the weekends we made it through, we then had to replace twice as much because we had just skimped by the previous week.
So now you have two top-ten 250cc guys out there in Alex and Phil, but no real money for the team?
No, and it’s expensive to keep a couple of 250s out there running every weekend. That’s why a lot of people didn’t want to do 250 teams then, because it was a lot of money to have that level of bike. We were competing at the top level with no budget, and then to bring on a second guy, only to have his sponsor not come through, stuff just started coming apart. Through that whole season, it just got worse. And then when the results weren’t there because we were struggling so much, now the guy didn’t even want to pay the money he owed. I was stuck taking Phil to the races—and he was working really hard, just like Alex, and when you see how hard he charges you just want to pull for the guy.
I mean, if you asked me if I had any regrets, or if hindsight were 20/20, I for sure would go back and be done after 2011.
Was there tension at the shop during the week?
Sure there was. These guys, oftentimes they just didn’t understand. The riders didn’t realize that we didn’t have any money; it was just the money we made during the week doing work on other people’s bikes. It was just a big snowball that kept building up and causing more and more problems. I was again at the point where it felt like I should pull the plug and call it quits. I had multiple conversations with the mechanics, and they said no, no we’ll do anything to keep going. So we did. But there were weeks when they didn’t get paid. And believe me, if they didn’t get paid, it was because I wasn’t getting paid. There was one week where I gave the mechanics all of the money we had to get to the races, get them some pay and some gas and everything, but I am staying back at the shop, with no gas in my truck and not a dollar to my name. Heck, one time I had to dump $200 worth of race fuel in my truck just to get home one night. There was no food at the house, no money for anything, and I was just sitting there thinking, Man, I hope those guys do good….
That was the backside of it that the kids didn’t understand. Phil had just gotten that fifth and he came back to the shop and didn’t really understand why no one else was stepping up to sponsor us, or giving us parts for the bikes, and I had to explain that it didn’t matter if we won five races in a row, the money those big companies have was already spoken for, already budgeted to other riders and teams. It was a struggle.
But Phil and Alex, those guys were doing well and they were making a little money from, like gear sponsors, and they were getting paid. It was easier for them to get some money than it was for me, that’s for sure. Everything we made during the week was going straight back into the racing. But the bills kept growing because we kept rushing things, trying to make things work, but then causing things to break. It was just a huge hole we were digging and it was causing me a lot of stress, and the last thing a rider needs to see is the guy in charge being stressed. I would just try to say, “Hey, it’s going to be all right,” and we would have these meetings where I would try to say we have to do this or that better and smarter, but then I would click on my bank account on the phone, and just see nothing in my account. It was like, Yeah, I wish I could build all of these dream bikes for the guys to race, but we can’t—at least not until Thursday, which is when we finished the customers’ stuff and they could come and pick it up for the weekend. Then that money would go right back into the team.
Ironically, both Alex and Phil, who had some up and down days with Eleven-10, now have the best gigs of their respective careers with Star Racing and JGRMX. You should take some pride in knowing that for all of the struggles and difficulties you guys had, those guys might not have gotten to where they are without Eleven-10 to keep them going for a couple of years.
Yes, for sure. I didn’t want to give up on them, I didn’t want to close the doors and let these guys down. Now I think they understand things a whole lot better than they did when they were with me.
I mean, if you asked me if I had any regrets, or if hindsight were 20/20, I for sure would go back and be done after 2011. Just because of the stress I endured for those couple of years that followed, it’s taken a couple of years to just recover from it. It got really bad for me, mentally.
Sometimes its hard for a young privateer rider, or mechanic for a privateer, to understand that even though a factory guy is just a few yards away in the pits, or one or two gates over on the starting gate, it’s a world apart between privateers and factory teams in our sport.
You know, none of the guys that were mechanics for me had ever been a factory mechanic before—none of them had been at the level I was at as a mechanic. To try to express, like, this is the way that things need to be done, and for them to understand it, that was a challenge sometimes. You had mentioned before Alex and Phil could maybe understand how it all works better now, how they wouldn’t be where they are at if it wasn’t for me, and maybe that’s the case, to an extent. But with the mechanics I know for sure that not one of those guys would be where they are today if it wasn’t for me. I gave them a level of knowledge of things that I did that was way, way above what they had picked up to that point. Obviously they have gotten better now in their careers, but the day that they left here? What they knew and what they were able to do to get those jobs, they weren’t anywhere close to that when they first got here. I am glad that they are doing well now.
Well, the grass is always greener on the other side—and it’s easy to appreciate that more when you actually end up on the other side.
Honestly, the level of support we had compared to where we were at competitively, we should not have even been there. We did everything to get there, and then it would suck to read in the middle of the week, online or in the media, what people had to say. When you’re putting everything you have into just getting there—I would challenge every person who talked crap to just go out and do it, see how it easy it is to run a two rider team, have two riders and mechanics and bikes out there like I did, because there was no difference between me and that guy, only I took all of the money I made at my job during the week and chose to try to help these guys go racing. That’s what I did—I took my money from my job and took these kids to the races. I mean, in 2011, with Darryn, we were competing with Pro Circuit Kawasakis, and that was almost impossible for any other team at that time, and those were million-dollar teams. And Alex was being overshadowed too—he was riding so well that year, just killing it, and no one seemed to know it until the end when he got that third at Southwick.
There were teams behind us—way behind us—that had much better funding than we did. All along I remember thinking the whole team, even when people were coming by and high-fiving us and saying good job and everything, that was honestly the most miserable I was in my whole life. You’re under this microscope, and all of this stress, and the riders are trying so hard, but it’s like, we shouldn’t even be in this position. It was awesome to be racing against those companies and those teams, but on Monday mornings the keyboard warriors were putting us on that level monetarily, so when we didn’t do so well, or things went wrong, they really came down on me.
You know, everyone thought that I had no clue with what I was doing, business-wise, but at the end of the day, people who are real good with business couldn’t do what I was doing, with the budget we had. I was trying to make it work, knowing we have zero money on Monday, but we’re going to have money on Friday. How do you make that happen? That’s the part I don’t miss. Anyone else might have come in on Monday, looked around and said, I’m out of here, this is too much crap to deal with—which is probably what I should have done. I mean, when you know COD [cost on delivery] parts are coming on Thursday, and you have to be able to pay for them, so the check has to pass on Monday, and you’ve got to make sure you get through the weekend, that’s a lot of stress. I hired managers for the shop but none of them ever worked out. It was rob Peter to pay Paul, and then you had to figure out how to pay Peter back in three days! That was the real hard part.
There’s an old saying: “All things end badly—that’s why they end.” Obviously with money being tight and the problems associated with the rising costs of the equipment, paying the bills, getting to the race… You still made it to a few before you reached the end and finally parked the truck.
Yes, we did.
So what do you want the legacy of Eleven-10 Mods to be? I mean, when you look back at all of this, to have had an opportunity to make a team happen when even a billionaire like Mark Kvamme [MDK] gave up on trying to make it happen, and Phil Alderton [Yamaha of Troy] pretty much lost everything but in the end it just didn’t work out… So I guess the question is, what legacy do you want to have in motocross from this team? Despite all of the things that didn’t happen the race they were supposed—the economy, sponsors, people coming and going, the business—you got them out there for three years.
Hmmm.… I’m not sure. Really, in all reality, the reason we were there was to just help a couple of guys. It would have been cool to have built a full-time team that could win races, but the reason it was there was to help a couple of guys with good work ethics that weren’t getting what they deserved and needed to get to the next level. We were a little team that was able to help people.
When you watch the races now on TV, do you still find yourself pulling for Alex and Phil and Darryn? There has to be some pride in the fact that Alex and Phil have their best rides yet in 2016, and Darryn would be on a team if he wasn’t hurt so much the last couple of years. I mean, Alex won a moto and very nearly the overall at Budds Creek—and Phil got a third at Glen Helen on a 450. Given what turbulent times you guys went through, are you still pulling for your old riders and mechanics?
Yes, absolutely. I don’t really talk to them at all, but every Saturday I tune in to watch them race—especially Alex. I was around the kid enough to see how much effort he puts into everything and what he’s put into his own program, how much he’s done to get to where he is… He probably doesn’t know the backstory, how much of a struggle it was for me and what all we were going through, but it didn’t matter to me, I just saw a kid who worked super-hard for himself and I will honestly remember that for a long time. When he won that moto at Budds Creek, when his brother passed him at the end I was so mad at him—
Chad Sanner. Andrew Fredrickson Alex Martin in 2011. Andrew Fredrickson Phil Nicoletti now rides for JGR Yamaha. Andrew Fredrickson Darryn Durham is returning to his roots this year with his own team effort. Andrew Fredrickson Durham after an amazing ride at High Point in 2011. Andrew Fredrickson Nicoletti at RedBud in 2011. Andrew Fredrickson
—I was too! It was like, Come on, Jeremy, you’ve won a bunch of these motos, let Alex have one. And then he stalled with three turns to go and Alex passed him back.
Exactly! I was yelling at the TV, like, “Fall over! Stall or something!” And then he did and I was like, “No way!” I always told him it was possible, like when he got third at Southwick, and I told him to just keep putting himself in a position to win—that things would happen in a race and he had to be ready, if he wanted to be the top guy on the podium. And then his little brother stalled and Alex is in the right place to finally win. That was really cool, I was really happy for him. It’s just awesome to see him do that well—and the other guys too.
Like even with Darryn right now, I talk to him a lot, and I would like to try to help him, but I don’t think I am in a position to right now. But if he had a sponsor or program going right now where he had a little bit of a budget to work with, I’d go be his mechanic right now for sure. I would love to be able to pull for Darryn on Saturday nights and Saturday afternoons this summer. I hope something happens for him this year, because it’s like all that effort we put into him to get him where he went [in 2012] his career is…I mean, he can still win races, and I would love to see that, especially with him being a privateer again. I just can’t do it out of my own pocket again!
It would be nice to see Durham get another shot but stay healthy this time, right?
Exactly. And you know, that was the thing with Darryn. Sure, with me there was a lot of stress—we were doing the impossible—but when you let that kid do what he wants to do, and not have all the structure of a team and all the rules that come with it, I really think he thrives. If you just sit back and let him do his own thing, it works. If the kid’s happy and laughing, he’s going to do really well. Some of the injuries and whatnot were maybe all the pressure on him, and if he can put together a program that comes without all the pressure—but something more solid and sound than what we had—he’s can still win. He’s better than he was a few years ago and I have no doubt he can win on a sound race bike.
You’ve talked about stress and pressure a lot, which is obviously very important in racing.
It is, and I always tried to keep that from the riders, trying not to let the reality of our situation ruin their chances for good results. And that’s maybe the one thing that’s irked me the whole time we were doing it, but in reading what different people have had to say about it, it didn’t matter what I wanted to do or what I wanted to try to do, no one else really stepped up. There was no money, everybody just assumed from the outside looking in we were the same as any other team, but we weren’t the same—there was no money, no budget, and we only bought what we could buy, when we could pay for it. That’s what people don’t understand.
And I always know, having looked back multiple times, that I should have pulled the plug, but I never did. I couldn’t leave those guys high and dry like that. I’ve seen teams just fold up midseason—teams that have money, that could afford to do it—just close up. It’s definitely a lot harder than people think, no matter how much money you have, and I don’t ever remember seeing anybody being able to do what we did again. We were a handful of guys who wanted to do something, and we did it. Yes, it sucked at times, but all of those shitty days were worth it when Darryn almost won, or Alex got on the podium, or Phil leading a national and getting fifth in a supercross. That handful of days, out of all those years of pure torture, they were just awesome.
But that was it. I’m happy those guys all have good gigs now, and there’s no reason for them to complain because they were in a much different place back then than they are now. The riders and the mechanics, they got to where they were going through our team. In that regard the Eleven-10 Mods team wasn’t a failure; it was a total success.