Alabamian-turned-Southern Californian Thomas Covington will leave behind the cacophony of waving tricolor flags, air horns, rain, mud, and knee-high ruts from last weekend’s MXGP of France to show up in Milan, Italy, this weekend for the MXGP of Lombardia. The 22-year-old will race this weekend at the sandy Ottobiano circuit with a different sort of mindset, as he is now a young man on borrowed time in Europe and will head back home this autumn to prepare for a new gig racing for the Rockstar Energy Husqvarna team on the 2019 AMA circuit.
After what will be five seasons on the FIM Motocross World Championship circuit, Covington will try his hand in American competition and call time on his goal of becoming America’s first World Champion since Bob Moore back in 1994. And if recent form holds true for the multi-time Grand Prix winner—like a spirited runner-up finish last Sunday in France—Covington, perhaps following along the leading lines of Husqvarna teammate Zach Osborne, should fare quite well in Uncle Sam’s 50 states.
We tracked down Covington while he was wandering around his Low Countries stomping grounds to talk about his return to the U.S. and more.
Racer X: Thomas, just what are you up to today?
Thomas Covington: Not much today. Just chilling and resting up here in Belgium. I’m going to go out and train at Lommel tomorrow, so I’m just getting rested. I’m probably going to have a pretty easy week because with Italy this weekend, it’s going to be pretty tough.
Well, we’ll get right to it: You dropped a bomb by announcing you’ll be coming back to the United States to race in 2019 for the Rockstar Energy Husqvarna team. How did that all go over?
Yeah, I got the win in that qualifying race and I figured it was as good as time as any to let everybody know what was going on.
How long have you known you’ll be leaving the FIM Motocross World Championship to race the AMA Motocross and Supercross events?
It’s actually been in the works for a long time. I think sometime towards the end of the season last year I signed a letter of intent with Bobby Hewitt. Actually, at the Motocross of Nations in England I signed the official contract.
So you’ve known for a while now then.
Yeah, we had been planning it for a while and then signed the deal and everything, but then the first few months of the year, I was like, “Man, I’d really like to stay here maybe one more year in the GPs and finish out my last eligible year in MX2.” Here in the last few weeks, after thinking about it and talking with both teams—here and with Bobby back in the States— I think it’s in everybody’s best interest for me to go back home for next season.
I’ve been around you since your 85cc minicycle days and know how much you have both committed and sacrificed to race the MX2 World Championship. Was this a tough decision for you to make.
Yeah, I kind of went back and forth on it for weeks depending on which day you asked me what I wanted to do. It was a really tough decision for me, because as much as I’d like to go home and live in the U.S., I love racing the GPs. I mean, where I live here between Holland and Belgium kind of feels like home to me. All the guys in the pits here, they’ve kind of become family to me. It’s going to be pretty tough to leave them behind and kind of start fresh again in the U.S.
It’s been an awesome experience here. I’m really glad that I made the decision to come over. A lot of people, they think that I didn’t have any other options and that I had to come over here. Actually, though, I did have the option to stay and race supercross with a good team in the U.S., but something about the GPs just sort of intrigued me here and I decided to go for it and I’m really glad I did. It’s been an awesome experience.
Yes, they have been running motocross Grands Prix all over the world for 70 years now. I mean, Europe is where the sport of motocross came from. France, Belgium, Holland, Italy, England—that’s where it came from.
It’s a really big sport, especially here in Holland and Belgium. A lot of good motocross guys come from around here and just about everybody rides. The tracks are pretty busy. A little bit like Southern California. Just the tracks are a little bit rougher with the deep sand they’ve got here.
As far as your racing exploits go, everything certainly clicked for you last weekend in France.
For sure. In the practice sessions, I wasn’t blazing fast or anything. I was around the top ten or so in timed practice. In the qualifying race, I knew I needed to get a good start because it was a really technical and rutted track, and I knew it wouldn’t be easy to pass on. I was third on the start, and by the time we got around the finish of the first lap, I got into second and then kind of stalked Jorge Prado for half the race and finally made the move on him about halfway through. I had a pretty nice race with [Pauls] Jonass. He was all over me at the end. It was a cool qualifying win in front of all the fans there in France. In the first moto, I pulled the holeshot and just led every lap. It was a flawless race. It was probably one of the best races of my career. I had no mistakes and it was just smooth sailing all the way through.
The second moto, there was a little pressure on me because I nearly had the perfect weekend going. I really wanted the overall. We had some rain the night before and the start straight was a mud bog. They had ripped it, but it was really heavy. We actually decided to go with the scoop tire—the sand tire—for the start, which is pretty crazy at a hard pack French track. We needed it for the start. I don’t know… I just did something wrong over the gate. I just made a mistake and came out of the first turn in mid-pack and made some quick passes in the first few corners and got up into the top ten, and then somebody went down in front of me on the first lap and I got stuck and went to the back of the pack and had to work my way back up. By the time I got into third, there wasn’t any time for me to make the pass into second for the overall. It is what it is. I think I made the best of a mediocre start in the second race.
What all fell into place for you this past weekend? When you are up front and running there with [Jorge] Pardo or Jonass, you’re every bit as competitive as those two guys. Thoughts?
It really just comes down to the start. That’s such a big part of the race. If I don’t get a start up there with the KTM boys, there is no chasing them down. That’s the main thing. My starts have been struggling and we’ve really been working on that during the week—just trying some things to get me off the gate, and they seem to be working pretty well. I just have to be a bit more consistent with it. If I can be in the top three on starts, I think I can win. I’ve got the speed of those guys; it’s just a matter of the start.
Here’s a big question: What was the reaction of the MXGP paddock when you said you’ll be leaving for the U.S. at the end of the 2018 race season?
Some people had already figured it out only because they had heard rumors of who might be going into Jacky Marten’s team next year. With all that, it was sort of like, “Well, I wonder where Thomas Covington will be going.” There were plenty of people who figured out where I was going to go. I think everyone was kind of shocked that I just came out and said it after the race in France. Nobody was really expecting that. I think a lot of the Euro fans were kind of bummed. I had a lot of guys coming up to me and they were like, “Man, this is the last time we’re going to see you in person!” I think that’s why I’m motivated so much for the second half of the season. This will be the last opportunity I get to ride in front of all of these Euro fans and ride at these legendary tracks like St. Jean. I’d like to go home and remember having a GP win at some of these places. I’m really going to go for it here in the second half of the season.
Have you been keeping an eye on the first few Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship races over here?
Yeah, I watched the first few outdoor races. I was pretty interested, actually. [Eli] Tomac looks impressive right now. He’s on it. As usual, when he’s on, he’s on, and he’s really impressive. In the 250 Class, it’s a bummer to see [Zach] Osborne injured like that, but it’s still really good racing. I think there are quite a few guys that can win and get podiums. It’s been a fun series to watch so far. I’m not very good at watching other riders and saying, “Oh, I’d be faster than him.” It’s really hard to tell and to say that. In any case, it’s cool to watch those guys race the tracks that I’ll be on next year.
Okay, I have to ask you this: Having watched the nationals here, where would you see yourself amongst the American-based racers come 2019?
I should be in the top five. I think that’s realistic. That’s where I should be. It’ll be a while before I race outdoors in the U.S. Yeah, I don’t think I should be shooting for anything less than a top five. Supercross will be a bit of a different thing for me. I think the first season is going to be a bit of a learning experience for me, but I’m really looking forward to it.
Any word from America about you coming home next year?
I’ve heard mostly from friends and family. They’re all stoked to have me back living in the U.S. Also, in reading a few of the comments on social media, the fans seem pretty stoked to finally see me come back. Over the years, people have been saying, “You have to come back and race in the U.S.” I’m finally coming home and it feels pretty good.
And you can come home with your head hung high. You’ve accomplished quite a bit over there on the MXGP circuit.
Obviously, I would have liked to get some more wins and fight for the championship. Nonetheless, that’s the way it is and I’m just glad I was able to get a few GP wins over here and I think I’ll look back on these days when I’m older. I’ve got a lot of good stories from it all.
Down deep, did you ever think you’d come back to America to race as a title contender?
At the back of my mind, I always kind of knew that I wanted to give supercross another shot. I grew up, basically since I was born, watching supercross. I think I’d regret it if I never came home and gave it a try. At one point, there was a part of me that was thinking, “Man, maybe I should just make a career of it over here in GPs,” because I’ve learned so much about GPs and I have so much experience now and I’ve started to figure it all out—maybe it is a safe bet to stay here in the GPs and keep doing something I know. But then again, I think sometimes it’s good to branch out and do some things you’re afraid to do. I think it’s the best decision to go back to America and give it a shot.