The clock on the wall Thanksgiving eve read 6 p.m. and Mitch Payton, his day done, dusted and looking forward to the four-day holiday spread out before him, cracked open a Coors Light and took a look out at his Monster Energy/Pro Circuit Kawasaki race shop and said, “What do you got?” I duly replied, “I just left work at Monster, shoved my tape recorder in my pocket and thought I’d swing by here and see if you’d be up for an interview. Do you have a few minutes?” Answered Payton, “Sure, turn that thing on.”
And with that, Mitch Payton started in on reviewing the season that was. It was not really an earth-shattering 2018 for the Corona, California-based racing outfit, as the wins and podium finishes were a bit slow in coming for Payton’s racers Joey Savatgy, Martin Davalos, Austin Forkner, Adam Cianciarulo, and Garrett Marchbanks. Arguably the most important man in American motocross, Payton, as always, had his own way seeing things, both then, now and into the future. Check it out.
Racer X: Okay, Mitch, to start off with a super-broad stroke question: From a 50,000-feet-above-sea-level view, what’s your overall take on the performance of the Monster Energy/Pro Circuit Kawasaki racing outfit this last season?
Mitch Payton: Well, I think East and West [250SX] we were good. I thought Joey Savatgy and Adam Cianciarulo had potential to win. I think they made a lot of mistakes. A lot of mistakes early on which compiled to the end. We got them all in here at the shop and talked to all of them about what we thought went wrong—and why it went wrong—and what we could do to fix that and make it better. In supercross there were a lot of times where we thought that Joey should have got the holeshot, but he would brake early and always go to the inside to try and control the inside. We would say to him, “You’ve got to run it into the corner.” Joey always tried to control the inside and then he would try to ride the inside so much to make sure nobody was inside of him. He never wanted to have somebody hit him and that’s not always the fastest way. And then Adam went to a couple of races where he switched from blitzing the whoops to jumping through them, which wasn’t fast. Then at one race he fell down three times. He was in the lead, fell down, got back and was right on the leader and then went on the inside of a berm and looped out. It was just little mistakes. Then Austin Forkner was really good in the beginning too. Austin came in a little bit behind because he got hurt in the off-season, so I don’t think his fitness was perfect. He would go for it and just hang it out when he was tired and I think it bit him in the end and he just crashed and got hurt. Martin Davalos, I thought, was phenomenal going into 2018.
Yes, I spoke with Martin for a while a couple days ago. In doing so, Martin reflected on that crash that took him out in the first turn of the opening round of the 250SX East at Arlington, Texas. Talk about trying to dig out of a hole…
Well, we didn’t know what was up at the beginning of all that. Martin was like, “Yeah, I think I’m okay, but my neck is sore and I’m sore everywhere.” He tried to push through in it and ride anyway. He couldn’t even ride during the week and he’d just show up and ride on the weekend. It never got any better. We found out he had a fractured vertebra in his neck. He also already had a bad knee and I said, “You need to just get everything fixed.”
Yeah, Martin told me he seriously considered retiring this year, but you two guys talked and decided to make another run at it in 2019.
Yeah, I said to Martin. “I want to give you a fair shot in ’19.” At that first race in Texas, Martin was the fastest guy in both practices. In his heat race, he was the fastest the guy. He won. His heat race was the fastest. Everything was great. And his start was good in the main, but there was a guy who started on the inside and he just blitzed out of there and this guy came hot dogging it in there and never shut off and it, and like blew Martin and a few other guys out. There was a massive pileup and that, well, was the one that bit Martin and he just couldn’t get back from it.
Garrett Marchbanks was added to the team over the summer. That appeared to be a good move for all involved. Thoughts?
We did outdoors with him and I thought that every single race we did with him, he got better. At Colorado he would have been fourth, but on the last lap he got tangled in a rut and fell down and two guys got by him, so that was sixth. Garrett just kept getting better and better. At RedBud in the second moto and Garrett went into that first sweeper and there were two guys tangled behind him and he ultimately got drilled by them and had his ankle broken, so he was out.
Overall, what did you make of your team’s performance during the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship this year?
Austin potentially should have won three or four Nationals. We went to Southwick and he was good and in the second moto he was leading and we ended up with four laps to go and then all of a sudden Alex Martin picked a place and just went for it and hit him and he went down and knocked the wind out of himself. That was one race. Then we went to RedBud and he and [Aaron] Plessinger came together and Austin got knocked down and tweaked his knee. It’s all learning, of course. Potentially, to me, I think Austin should have won three Nationals, minimum. At Washougal he was also in the position to be the overall winner. Those results could have changed the outcome of the year—especially without crashing. If the crashes wouldn’t have happened, he wouldn’t have been so beat up all season long.
When your guys come so close to winning races, or even championships, is it deflating to come up short through small mistakes or even crashes?
I don’t know if it’s deflating. It kind of pisses you off. It bums you out because, for me, I want the kid to succeed.
Yes, for as long as I’ve known you, you’ve always said that.
I always feel like I do everything that I can do and I want them to succeed. That’s all I want. And if they succeed, I’m happy; I’m as happy as I can be. If you look back through the history of it, we’ve probably had more one-time winners than anybody. Like Pedro Gonzalez [San Jose 1994] and Ping got his first win with us [San Jose 1995]. I was like, “Dude, that’s awesome!” [James] Dobb won a National [Unadilla 1993]. I want these guys to win, you know? And when they crack through that zone of winning one race, I think that’s awesome. Looking back, there was Nathan Ramsey. I was so hard on him and pushed him. I was too mean to him and he just told me to back off. I said to him, “You just need to win one. If you win one, I’ll never have to yell at you again because you’ll want this more than I want it.” Then he won one and I was like, “Dude, I’m free. The handcuffs are off. I don’t have to say anything anymore, because if you don’t want this feeling… Second place is going to be sour after this; third place is going to be sour.”
(Note: On Saturday evening, January 23, 1999, this writer covered the Phoenix Supercross at Bank One Ballpark in downtown Phoenix, Arizona. It was the site of Ramsey’s first-ever supercross win and here’s what he said to me in the Pro Circuit pits around midnight: “Man, I can’t even believe to explain how good this feels. It’s what I’ve been working for, and it’s been my dream to be a winner, and I’ve been working for years to try and do it.”)
To win is this feeling that you just can’t get rid of and you just want it all the time. So it pisses me off when they don’t win and more than anything, it freaks me out that they don’t want it for that feeling also. The guys that are really good, after they feel it, you don’t have to question them.
What was your take on Aaron Plessinger’s season? I just got to know him this year and I wasn’t sure he was motivated enough or even enough of a killer to make it as a champion. Well, he proved me wrong.
I thought Plessinger was really good. I just think he’s a good overall rider. Knowing his father—and his dad rode off-road—I think Aaron almost had a luxury situation. He rode off-road with no pressure and he just rode his dirt bike. I think he has great bike skills. I think he learned a lot of mud, a lot of ruts, how paddle through stuff and all that. But then he had to learn motocross and that was hard for him, but yet he achieved it. He was obviously a talented kid. This year, though, and I’m not taking anything away from him, but he had some bad races early on. He was really fortunate that [Zach] Osborne was out, Jeremy Martin had a DNF, and then our guys had screwed up and weren’t killer. The second half of the year he kind of turned it up a little bit and he started being better and more consistent. He was more consistent and better at the front and then he started winning some motos and I think that was just a confidence thing.
I was really impressed by Justin Cooper’s season. I met him for the first time the morning of Anaheim 1 this year and he was almost speechless with everything that was going on around him. Then, once the season rolled into the outdoors, he was absolutely, positively right there. Justin struck me as a kid who earned his break the hard way—by working his ass off for it. He’s competitive, huh?
I think he’s competitive. We’d be at the Nationals and thinking, “Okay, we’re good. We’re in the top four in qualifying.” Then, all of a sudden, this Cooper guy throws down a lap and we’re like, “Dude, out of nowhere, he was the fastest guy out there of the fastest guys!” And it would stay. He’s going to get better. He’s a good rider. He really is. Even nowadays, I kind of think there is a different solution for where we are at now. You bring all these kids up and we spoon-feed them everything and they have the best bikes and their results are good. But they have the best bikes. And maybe the kid that is third doesn’t have one of the best bikes and he’s privateering it. I kind of have this belief that the elite is the elite and you get this pedigree, but you find a kid that is close to that pedigree without the support, and then you give him all that stuff and I look back at RV… RV was kind of that way with Mike Alessi. Alessi was dominating and RV beat him a couple times. Anything we would build for Ryan, we would send to Dan [Villopoto], and Dan would build it. We wouldn’t have to watch after them, they were always there. At that point Alessi kind of had a professional program. They had Honda and everything they needed, so Ryan was racing against that and I think that made him better. Then, all of a sudden, when he rode for us he had great equipment. Up to that point, maybe Alessi had excelled three-percent, but Ryan may have excelled eight-percent. It’s like car racing. You take a guy that is driving a crap car but is a good driver, you put him in the best car and all of a sudden it’s like, “Dude, he’s as good as our guys.” The car is the bigger deal. Still, motocross is much more about the guy. Some of those kids out there, I don’t want them to give up because I think some of the struggling kids can be really good because they have to work for it.
I wasn’t at Loretta Lynn’s this year, but I had some of my buddies come back from there and basically tell me, “Maybe our kids in this nation have it too good.” I don’t know if that is true, but some men pretty high up the food chain in the sport were pretty adamant about it all.
I believe that. I was talking with Tyler Keefe [team manager, Troy Lee Designs/Red Bull KTM] about it back there. The amateur guys are now riding bikes that are very close to real race bikes. All that does is raise the cost, whereas if we choked it down a little bit and we made an agreement like, “Let’s just back it down a notch.” What I’m always afraid of, and I’ve told this to Kibby Christian and Rick Zilelfelder [both of the Factory Connection/GEICO Honda race team], is that we’ve raced the cost so high to do it for two kids. So all of us have two kids and we’re going to miss some kid who has unreal talent and whose parents are barely hanging on to do this. We’re going to write those kids off. I don’t want to do that. I think we should keep things a little closer.
The 2019 season really isn’t that far off. Do you feel good about where you, the riders, and the overall team are at right now?
I feel really good. We’ve worked a lot on chassis and suspension. We have some new engine stuff. More than anything, and this has nothing to do with the bike, I need my guys healthy without injuries. AC has had a bad ACL for two years and after supercross he was just tired of having it always swelling up. He told me we had to get fixed, and we did, and those kind of thins make me happy that we fixed it. It’s been like, “Let’s get everybody healthy so that we can do the right things and we can go race again.” It’s too gnarly when they’re injured all the time.
I know you weren’t there at RedBud, but did you watch the Motocross of Nations on TV?
The des Nations?
Yeah, we had everybody over at the house watching it.
What did you think?
Terrible starts. I wasn’t there so I didn’t see the track. Everybody said that they knew it was going to rain so they added a lot of sand and I was told by someone who was there that it was like Holland on a Tuesday.
I don’t know what I’m talking about, but even I could figure out that the GP guys were using radically different lines and riding a gear higher most of the way around the track than our guys.
Yeah, every time you short-shift the gear is longer. Our best guy who did that was James Stewart. Watch James Stewart and watch any old video and when he goes through the corner his hand is not on the clutch. James would roll through the corner and carry the speed out. That roll speed is phenomenal—it’s like road racing.
In my very humble opinion, Eli Tomac is the best overall motocross and supercross racer in the world. However, most anywhere I stood at RedBud, Eli would come into a corner at full-speed, slam on the brakes, ricochet off a berm or rut, and get right back on the throttle. And, I mean, he was really over revving the bike as well.
Yeah, you can’t do that. There is no power up there, you’re not moving until you shift, then you waste time shifting. RV was really good at that his last couple years at Kawasaki when he rode 450—you hardly heard his bike. He short-shifted and he would go through the corner feet up a lot of the time. Stefan Everts was also like that. That’s where the power is at. The bike handles better that way. Everything. That stop and go thing you mentioned is supercross. So we force them into this stop and go and stop and go, cut you off, pass you, squirt, go, do this and do that... Those GP guys ride, practice and race outdoors all the time. We’re not as good as those guys at that. Like, we ride 18 supercrosses and 12 outdoors. They ride outdoors the whole time. It would be like in NASCAR if you took an oval guy and made him a road race guy. Or take a road race guy and make him do ovals. It’s all so different.