Joe Gibbs Racing’s switch to Suzuki for 2017 quickly ran aground due to injuries, with Justin Barcia hurting his wrist and missing Anaheim 1, and Weston Peick going down a few weeks later with wrist troubles, also. The new 250 program was also injury-riddled.
The hopes are that with Barcia and Peick back online for Lucas Oil Pro Motocross, and the steady veteran Kyle Cunningham on board the RM-Z250, this summer will be healthier, and better.
JGR sent over this interview with team manager Jeremy Albrecht today to provide an update.
JGRMX: The AMA Nationals kick off this weekend at Hangtown. What’s the status on each of the JGRMX Suzuki team riders?
Jeremy Albrecht: Matt Bisceglia will be riding for the first time on Thursday. He’s excited to get back started. Weston Peick has been riding for three weeks. He’s feeling pretty good. Last week I saw him ride at Glen Helen in California, and he’s doing better than expected. Weston obviously won’t be 100 percent as far as fitness when the gate drops this weekend at Hangtown, but he’s feeling up to the challenge. Kyle Cunningham is excited to have a deal for the Nationals. He’ll be riding in the 250 class. Kyle did well in supercross as a fill-in, and since Bisceglia isn’t ready to be firing at the first round we’ll have Cunningham on board for the full series. Justin Barcia is back home training at Millsaps Training Facility, and apparently he’s been riding a bunch. I haven’t seen him ride lately, but when he was up here in North Carolina a while ago he looked really impressive. Justin usually picks it up during the outdoor series, so I’m excited to see what he can do starting this weekend.
Reports out of California are that Weston Peick has been logging the most laps at the practice tracks. That’s a good sign.
I was happy to see how well he was riding when I was out in California last week. The guy has only been on the bike for a short time after being sidelined for three months. It’s nice knowing that Weston wants to race, even if he’s not 100 percent. Matt Bisceglia wants to race, as well, but he’s been out even longer than Peick has. Matt is coming back from two injuries. For Weston, he’s dealing with blisters on his hands and things like that. Peick is actually a month ahead of schedule from what doctors first thought, so he’s happy about that. I’m excited that he’s going to be at the first round.
Supercross presented its challenges this year, but now that the racing is heading outdoors it seems like Justin Barcia is fired up to score top results.
Justin is capable of winning races and being on the podium, but like any sport, it’s very tough at this level. The mental game plays into it a lot. The supercross season hasn’t gone the last few years how any of us would have thought. There was definitely bad luck with some things going wrong, but that’s part of racing. It’s how you bounce back from the adversity that makes you stronger. Justin has bounced back from worse deals than this, so I feel like he can succeed. I noticed that every supercross round where it was rutty and technical, like Seattle and Daytona, he rode his best. Watching him ride outdoors during our test session was impressive, like I said. So, yes, we’re expecting Justin to be like he has been every other year, if not better. I’m excited to see the riders on Suzuki race bikes. Everyone knows how well the bikes handle. Outdoors, where you really notice a difference in motorcycle performance, we should have the advantage.
Certainly Phil Nicoletti was itching to get on a 450 and race the entire National series this summer.
Well, continuing what I was saying about the Suzuki, one of the big reasons Phil is bummed is because he was looking forward to racing the RM-Z450. He had his best outdoor season last year, and he was happy even with the stock Suzuki. He wanted to show everyone what he could do, but he will have to wait a few months. Hopefully we’ll see Phil toward the end of the year. Right now it’s Justin Barcia and Weston Peick in the 450 class, and Kyle Cunningham in the 250 class. Matt Bisceglia is shooting for High Point, so then we’ll have two 450 guys and two 250 guys. The strange thing is that I haven’t had four guys on the team for very long this season. Once Phil Nicoletti is ready to come back I’ll have to figure something out, but the way our season has been going I’m taking things week by week.
How has your relationship with Suzuki been?
It’s been remarkable. Suzuki has been incredibly helpful and supportive. The same can be said for Yoshimura. We put the team deal together late in the year, and a lot of people had to jump through hoops. They put in the extra work to make it happen, and I’m fortunate for their efforts. Even the guys on our team had to log the hard hours, because they were ready to go racing with what we had. Initially it was hard on everyone, but long term this is the right direction for us. We are happy with where things are headed. Obviously, we wish our results were better. Fortunately, Suzuki understands how the sport is. There are other teams that in some ways have had things worse off. That’s how it goes. We’ve done the best job we could with fill-in guys.
Supercross was not kind to the JGRMX riders.
I can outright state that I’ve never been so prepared at the beginning of a season, only for things to change so drastically. I had it set up so Bisceglia would ride the 450 if we needed him in supercross, and the same went for Nicoletti. Then we went to the first race and already needed a fill-in rider. We worked through it, though. Jake Weimer was willing to jump in for four rounds, and that turned into racing the whole series. We gave Cade Autenrieth the opportunity to compete in his first few Supercross races, and in his second race he finished 13th. That’s pretty special. We took some chances and did things differently than some people thought we should, but through it all Suzuki was supportive. I cleared all decisions with Suzuki and had Monster Energy sign off, as well. It’s important to keep all of our sponsors in the loop and provide the best exposure possible with the bad hand of cards we were dealt. Through it all I thought everything on the team side looked great. The bikes performed exceptionally. We do expect bigger things coming down the road, and I believe results will be better outdoors.
Speaking of coming down the road, the JGRMX race team is building up a 2007 Suzuki RM125 two-stroke. As a race team manager, you’re always working with cutting edge technology. Having said that, what are your thoughts on two-strokes?
People love two-strokes. It’s fun to hear them sing. Our best views on YouTube came from back in the day when we put Josh Grant on a two-stroke. I like that two-strokes are so different. Everyone races on four-strokes. I’m excited to see a guy like Weston Peick ride something he doesn’t normally throw a leg over and wind out will be awesome. The great parts about two-strokes are that they sound cool and the rider feels fast when he’s hammering the throttle. It will be interesting with a RM125, because most people Weston Peick’s size don’t ride a 125. [Laughs] That will be wild to see. I know that RM125’s handle awesome, and I can’t wait to see Weston ride it. Hopefully I can put a leg over it, too. I like two-strokes and see the value in them. If they break then they’re easier and cheaper to fix. If you’re racing it’s hard to beat the old four-stroke. Four-strokes pushed the two-strokes out of racing, but everyone still loves two-strokes. I’m the type of person who believes you should have both. If you’re playing around then hop on a two-stroke. If you’re heading to a race, then get on a four-stroke. Not everyone has those options. I personally don’t, but if I did, I would have both.
You worked on one of the most memorable 125cc two-strokes ever, which was the last two-stroke to win a 125 National Championship in 2004 with James Stewart. What was that like?
It was fun back then, but quite a few riders were still on two-strokes. We didn’t know any different. During pre-season testing we had James try the four-stroke, but he didn’t want to race it. My thought to this day is that James felt faster on the two-stroke, and it was technology that he was comfortable with. He chose the SR125, which was the factory race version of the KX125. Then, right off the bat at the Hangtown opener, Stephane Roncada was all over James. Roncada was on the KX250F four-stroke, and it looked like Stephane was barely pushing it. James was all sorts of bummed out. At that time he felt like he chose the wrong bike, but we couldn’t let him switch during the series. We let him ride the KX250F at the Glen Helen National finale, which was after he wrapped up the title. He won by I don’t know how many seconds [Note: 36 seconds the first moto, and a minute and seven seconds in the final moto]. The KX250F was more trick than the SR125 he had been racing. It had a magnesium carburetor and all kinds of other crazy parts. We only used that bike for that day. There have been lots of cool bikes, in general.
The Suzuki RM-Z250 race bikes have some unique parts on them for 2017.
It’s great to see Suzuki get excited about the 250 class, and they’re making trick works parts for the RM-Z250. Any time you can get a company excited about the smaller bikes it’s awesome to see. The 450 class is where the manufacturers put the money toward, but Suzuki is putting resources in the 250 class and also getting amateurs involved. Suzuki is also making products that people want. We are making Suzuki products, as well. I feel like a lot of the bikes are competitive these days. It’s really about how the company treats you and the cool parts that you can get.
You’ve been in the industry for a long time and have seen some of the sport’s best riders come and go. What are your thoughts on Ryan Dungey’s retirement?
It’s hard, because I understand where Ryan is coming from. It takes so much time and effort now in order to be competitive. In the old days, riders could have a little bit of fun and still do well on the weekends. Right now, you have to dedicate your whole life to racing. That means training, eating well, and doing that practically all year around. Maybe these guys get a week off after the Nationals are over, but really, racing takes over your life. Doing it over and over at the level that Ryan Dungey was at, it probably did take a toll on him. At some point, when you feel like you’ve done enough or have enough money, you decide that you don’t want to risk it anymore. It’s hard admitting this, but motocross isn’t the safest sport. I’d like to say the opposite, because my boys ride and they absolutely love it. However, you can’t go out to the track, tell them to give it their all, expect them to win, and also tell them to be careful. This isn’t a sport for being careful. I do think the Ken Roczen crash got to a lot of people. I bet Roczen can’t wait to race again. Our sport is really tough like that. My kid broke his collarbone, which is one of the easiest bones to break, and he still wants to ride. I’ve been busted up quite a few times, and I still want to ride. But when you’re at the level the top guys are at, where you have to go for it every lap, it wears you down.
Ryan Dungey is still young. Do you think age enters into the decision to retire?
Dungey is obviously smooth and fast, and he’s not old. I remember when Ricky Carmichael retired. I felt like he retired too soon. Mike LaRocco and John Dowd rode their careers out pretty good. [Laughs] Look at Chad Reed. He’s still going strong. I don’t think retirement shouldn’t necessarily be about your age, because riders seem to get better in some aspects of their riding as they get older. Ryan Dungey isn’t retired because of his age. He probably wants to stop while he’s ahead and on top of the sport. I heard rumors of his retirement coming, and I could kind of see it.