Phil Nicoletti’s strange journey with the Joe Gibbs Racing MX team has worked out. He was signed to the unit in 2014, but only as a part-time rider, with six guaranteed starts each in Monster Energy Supercross and Lucas Oil Pro Motocross. But he would also race whenever the team needed an injury fill-in. Well, Phil-In fill ended up filling in A LOT in supercross, and the team eventually upgraded him to the full 12-round motocross tour as well.
That three-season experiment has paid off now that JGR has switched from Yamaha to Suzuki, and Suzuki asked the team to help run a factory Suzuki 250 effort. Phil-In is now a primary rider, taking the reigns of an RM-Z250 for the 250SX East Region in 2017. It’s hard to get Phil to say anything is great, but he seems pretty excited about this move. Be sure to follow him on Instagram @badnewsphil for more excitement!
Racer X: Most riders in the off-season are pumped up and happy and looking forward to it. But Phil, can you get to that level? Are you positive right now?
Phil Nicoletti: Yeah, somewhat positive. It’s cool because I’ve got a certain date when I’m racing now—February 17. And then the challenges with the new bike, going to a 250F and everything. It’s pretty exciting for me because it puts a good little spin on things, so I’m happy.
Is the door open to be Phil-In, though? Could you fill in on the 450, if someone got hurt, before February 17 or are you like, “No, I am not racing until the 250 East opens?”
No, if they need me to fill in, I will. I think the whole plan is when I come East Coast and they need somebody to fill in there, Bisceglia will fill in. So the logic of the fill-in guy is still there now. Obviously I’d like to just focus on the 250 as much as possible because it’s a big difference going from a 250 to 450 in supercross—especially since I haven’t ridden a 250 since 2012. I’ve got my hands full at the moment, but the transition feels really good. It should be good.
Give me a reason why transitioning back to the 250s can work.
There’s plenty of people that I know that have done it that have been really successful. [Grant] Langston, [Ivan] Tedesco, [Nathan] Ramsey … there’s plenty of guys that have made it plenty successful. Obviously everyone just goes by some of the people that did it more recently, and that’s not fair. I’m not judging by that.
Ramsey legitimately won races, almost won a title.
Yeah. Langston won titles coming back, Ramsey was fast. So it’s possible. I’m just looking forward to a new challenge. Obviously with Yoshimura helping, and with JGR, our bikes will really be good. As of right now I haven’t even tested a race motor or anything yet. I’ve had just a little bit of stuff done on my practice bike. Hopefully I can go out after Thanksgiving and start really laying down the wood.
Do you feel you ever got a chance to show what you could do on a 250 when you were in the class?
Absolutely not. People don’t understand. I talk about it with [Steve] Matthes and stuff, but I have a total of 15 supercross races on a Lites  bike. That’s through four years. Eight of those came from 2010. That was obviously my best year, but other than that it was a complete joke. Bikes were never good. Obviously when I was a rookie I think I wasn’t really prepared. I don’t think I had the right people to help me and get through it. So now with a bunch of maturity, learning through the years, and being around a bunch of good guys with the JGR guys, I really feel like I can now lay down what I should have done seven years ago. It should be fun.
Everyone when they move up says, “A 450 suits my riding style.” Seriously man, I’ve had literally every single rider who is moving up tell me that. Are you okay on a 250?
That’s a joke. It’s actually funny that everyone says that. I’m okay on a 250. I think I rev a little bit more. On the 450 the team guys are always trying to get me to shift more and this and that. But it’s just hard. I guess it all depends on your riding style.
You’re a revver?
I am a little bit of a revver, yeah. You can ask Dean [Baker, JGR engine man]. I’m definitely way past the RMPs I should be at most of the time.
This could be good on a 250 though.
Yeah, exactly. I’m okay with it. Honestly I’m excited to race against some old friends, so that’s another good thing. So we’ll see.
You have to race the Martins?
Yeah, both of them and Zacho [Osborne] as well. I’m excited. I was actually texting Zach the other night. He asked me what coast. I said, the plan right now is East. He’s like, “That would be cool. It’d be me, you, Jeremy [Martin], and Alex [Martin] going after it again.” It would be like old times. It will be cool. We’ll have a lot of fun Friday night dinners. That’s what we do. We always go out for dinner Friday night and shoot the shit with each other. That whole part will be fun. We’ll see. Obviously all three of them will be super tough, and whoever else is going to be on the East Coast will be tough. Trust me, it’s not going to be easy. There’s so many Lites guys that are actually super talented, so we’ll see.
You did this JGR program that no one else has ever done, this fill-in, half-time type of deal. When you first signed this deal it wasn’t a guarantee to race all 12 outdoors right from the start. It was a huge risk that you took.
Basically it came down to St. Lawrence Radiology, Dr. Maresca, and Thomas from N-Fab. Tom presented me with, hey, we could do this JGR deal, or we can continue to do what I did in 2013 with the team I was on. I said to him, “I need to kind of get myself with good people and good programs that can supply me with what I need to do to grow.” I felt like I could get to the next level, but I actually kind of had to take a step back from racing and kind of work my way back up again. If you would have asked me in 2014 if this JGR deal would have turned into what it is today, I would say there’s no way. But I was fortunate enough to have Coy [Gibbs] and J-Bone [Jeremy Albrecht]. We all get along really well. They like me being around and obviously I get along with the team really, really well. It’s just a good fit. Now with the whole Suzuki transition and being able to ride a Lites bike again, the possibilities are endless so we’ll see where we can go.
You are a legit factory rider now. And, actually, it’s not quite the same 450 program with this.
So the 450 program is a JGR effort, and then the 250 program is a Yoshimura effort. So it’s two different budgets at the same time. I haven’t even met any of the Yosh people, or really the Suzuki people, yet. Obviously I know a few of the guys over there. Even though we’re under the same tent, same sponsors, same everything, it’s two different budgets. It’s kind of confusing but they’re split down the middle pretty evenly. None of the 450 budget really goes into the 250 budget too much. That’s what I kind of gather. It might blend a little bit here and there, but as of right now it’s two separate entities.
Does that mean more of your 250 bike is built by Yosh compared to a 450 bike, which is more of a JGR bike?
Yeah. It will be pretty weird because I’ll be a Yosh effort in supercross, JGR effort in motocross, which I’m totally fine with. I’m cool to work with other people. It will be interesting. Hopefully what I can learn with the Yosh guys. Everyone’s been super compatible and has been sharing information which has I think kind of been maybe lacking in the past here a little bit. But everything with the transition has been really good. Obviously there’s been so much development through the past few years on the Yamaha and now switching to the new bike, it’s kind of got everybody working overtime a little bit. But I believe it’s for the better.
Let’s talk about switching to Suzuki. You started with a 450 I’m assuming. What was that like? Was it totally weird?
It was weird because I had been on a Yamaha since 2013, even before I came to JGR. So to look at a different front fender for me was really awkward. I started with the Suzuki on the outdoor track. Bone-stock suspension, everything. I rode it for about two and a half weeks like that. It was a big change, but it was a nice change. It’s a breath of fresh air. It did a lot of things I really liked. Transitioning out into supercross, I think the advantages even multiplied. I think we’re in for a stellar year this year.
I don’t know if you lined up on for a 450 supercross race thinking, tonight is the night I’m going to win. Now you’re in the 250s. What’s the goal now?
Obviously the goal is to be on the box. I think I can. Being a fill-in rider I don’t think people realize how hard it was. Last year when Weston [Peick] had his altercation at Anaheim 1, I was up in the Weinerschnitzel suite. I was drinking a Blue Moon. And then after the haymakers were thrown, that night I knew I was racing the next weekend. I was in California and I was training at the time, I was putting in my laps, but it’s different until you know when you’re racing for sure. Just the mindset is different. Then to be in and you race and then it’s just like, “Okay, I’m only in for one weekend, or two weekends.” The next thing I know, Justin got hurt and I’m in the for the next 12. Which is awesome because obviously I want to race and that’s my whole goal, but to be able to switch like a light switch and be on game time like that, it’s hard. I wasn’t expecting to have to fill in at round two! But now that I know I’m racing February 17 for sure, me and my new trainer Coach Seiji made a lot of changes in the off-season and I feel better than I have in a long time.
So supercross might not be death cross?
I think it will always be death cross, but hopefully I can hone the skills down a little bit and it’ll be better. People don’t understand. The 450 class is gnarly. When you’re someone like me who’s never really had the development as a lot of the other guys that are seated in the 450 class, it was really hard to make the changes and learn what I needed to do to become where I’m at now. Again, I only raced 15 times in the 250 class.
And you’re not afraid to just get starts anyway and go for it.
Exactly. I’ve always been a good holeshotter. So that was a whole different avenue. You’re ripping starts and then you’ve got Reedy [Chad Reed] on your butt, and RV [Ryan Villopoto] or Dunge [Ryan Dungey], or whoever it is. It’s a really hard mindset but now that I know maybe that it’s Alex and Jeremy behind me it might change a little bit. I told Alex the other night—I was like, “If it comes down to it, and even if it’s for third I’m going to saw your front end off. He’s like, “That’s all I’ve been hearing from you now for the past two months!” But it should be fun. I’m looking forward to it.