The sport of motocross and supercross will get a little crossover promotional boost in two weekends, as Chicagoland Speedway will bring in a bunch of dirt bike names to race pit bikes for three nights during its NASCAR race weekend (June 27-30). Jeff Stanton, Taylor Kinney, Damon Bradshaw, Carson Brown, Mike Brown, Gary Semics, Kyle Vance, Willy Browning, and more riders have been confirmed to race on pit bikes, and Villopoto has even been named the pace car driver for the Camping World 400 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup race!
If you buy a ticket to Sunday’s Cup race at Chicagoland, you can check out all three days of pit bike racing. We’re not sure if the NASCAR guys are going to be allowed to bang bars on pit bikes—team owners will make that call—but Ricky Stenhouse, noted dirt bike rider and fan, wants to do it badly. You might remember Stenhouse from his appearance in the TV booth for Monster Energy AMA Supercross in Houston earlier this year—he definitely follows this sport closely.
We chatted with Stenhouse recently about his roots on two-wheels, the NASCAR media game, and more.
Racer X: I’ve seen you at some races hanging out with Ryan Dungey. I know you have dirt bikes yourself. You did a great job with the broadcast team coming to Houston this year. So overall, you’re just a moto guy, it sounds like all in all.
Ricky Stenhouse: For me, I started racing BMX when I was three years old and got my first dirt bike when I was four. So I was riding PW50s at four, riding them all around the yard. My dad rode dirt bikes his whole life. Growing up, my dad raced sprint cars, I raced go-karts. We’d do that on Friday, Saturday. Sundays we would go out and ride dirt bikes. That was kind of my childhood growing up.
I saw one of the features they did in the supercross TV broadcast. You had to choose which one you were going to focus on?
Yeah, it was. Maybe I was a wuss or something at the time! They had a dirt bike track and a go-kart track on the same property there in Memphis where my dad raced sprint cars. We went out and spent half the day on the dirt bike track and half the day on the go-kart track, and at the end of the day I ended up picking the go-karts. I don’t remember exactly why. I think I said the jump on the PW50 was a little rough, so I went with the go-karts!
So if PW50s had better suspension, who knows where you’d be?
[Laughs] Who knows? I rode really until I was 18 probably. I rode just about every week. Then when I moved out of the house and moved to Indianapolis and started racing sprint cars full-time, I kind of left riding dirt bikes alone for a while. Then I picked it back up probably my first year of [NASCAR] Cup. Got a dirt bike and have been riding again ever since.
People always wonder about drivers that are into this, they’re always like, are they allowed to ride? How does their contract work?
Jack [Roush, team owner] has always been really good with kind of letting his drivers go out and have fun. When [Greg] Biffle was there and Carl Edwards they both rode dirt bikes and had sand cars and things like that. So Jack’s always been pretty cool. I go race sprint cars and stuff like that. I’ve got a pit bike. I ride a lot of pit bikes now at the house. I have a pit bike track. That’s what I do more often than not.
Is there a little bit of a cult underground in NASCAR, like guys that bang some bars on pit bikes?
No, there’s not. I would say out of the guys that are driving right now in the sport, [Ryan] Blaney will come over and ride. [Kyle] Larson will come over and ride pit bikes. Larson got a big bike and we were running through the woods and he’s like, “Man, I just don’t feel comfortable with all these trees around!” So he would rather get out on a track or something, so we haven’t done that lately. I would say Blaney comes over and rides the most.
Is there some way you can claim this is actually helpful? I don’t know if it’s for fitness or whatever. Some sort of racing craft? Can you justify it?
I think any time you’re on a bike, it helps your hand-eye coordination. Especially running through trails in the woods I’ve always felt like I’ve had great reactions through the woods. Things happen real quick. And of course when you run some hard laps on a dirt bike, you’re definitely getting a workout. I still work out at the same time; my trainer has actually thought about going to run laps and then also coming in and doing something after that. So I think for reaction time and just feel, I think nothing beats that. Things can happen quick on dirt bikes. Rear tire jumps out or whatever and you got to react to it. I think any time you’re doing something that involves reaction time, it only helps.
Now that you’ve become a high-profile guy in Cup and winning races, I’m sure the motocross guys, supercross guys have respect for what you do. It sounds like you’ve become friends with at least a couple of the guys. Like I said, I’ve seen you hanging out with Dungey in the past at some races. I guess you get a little interaction. You’re the top level and those guys at their top level too.
Yeah, I do. It’s always fun to go and just chat with them. Like you said, when I came to do the broadcast there in Houston, just talking to really all the riders that I’ve talked to. Just picking their brain about how they set up their bikes and things like that. I ride dirt bikes, but it’s just crazy to me how they actually can feel small changes, whether it be air pressures or shock adjustments and things like that. It’s just crazy to me that you’re hitting so many big jumps. I feel like it would all feel the same! Then again, they turn around and say, you’re traveling your car up half an inch and you feel the difference in half an inch of travel. So it’s cool to kind of chit chat back and forth. Also, a lot of the mechanics are fans of sprint car racing or whatever, so talking with them and seeing their background of where they came from and grew up is always fun as well.
So as a guy that’s into it, when you had the chance to fly over to Houston real quick and join the broadcast, did you actually feel like you needed to research anything, or were you like, I follow this anyway?
I followed it enough that I didn’t really do any research. They were nice enough to send you packets of information if you need it. I follow every sport and I’ve played every sport. I pay attention enough to every sport. I feel like I could just go kind of do a broadcast of any of it. At least have enough knowledge to get through, and if it not I’ll just toss it to Ricky [Carmichael] or Ralph [Sheheen] and just let it roll.
The fans are obviously very sensitive if an outsider comes in, but I feel like people were really impressed with your knowledge. Our fans assume NASCAR drivers do lots of media training, but sometimes I think it’s just you being yourself and it’s not a training thing. When you throw a headset on, is it pretty natural at this point because you’ve done so many interviews and so many things like that?
I think so. When I first got out of the Xfinity series, I’d go up in the booth and do a few races when I started my Cup career. Then doing the little bit of driver broadcasts that we’ve done. Then, like you said, a lot of the shows and interviews that we do. But honestly, back when I first started it in 2008, I would have struggled to do this interview right here! It was more just getting used to it. I never went to any training or anything. You do it so often that you get used to it, or you’d better get used to it. But like you said on the broadcast, I was more worried about making sure the fans weren’t mad that I was doing it. Made sure that at least they understood that I was a fan of the sport as well.
That’s interesting. If the riders aren’t giving podium interviews the fans like, they’re thinking, “The NASCAR drivers are just so polished. They have all this training, this training, this training.” You’re saying that it didn’t necessarily come from all this training. It just came from reps and experience.
Yeah, it just came from continuing to do it. But I will say, on our end we probably get a lot more of those requests, or maybe not even requests—they’re have to’s! You get quite a few throughout the weekend. Obviously, racing 38 weekends a year you’re continuing to go out and do fan meet-and-greets. It seems like you’re always talking.
The fans always want people to be genuine, too. I feel like you’ve got that part. It never appears that you’re coming across as something that you’re not. Is that something you’re conscious of?
Yeah, I definitely don’t want to try and sound like a broken record or whatever. You’ve got different partners and sponsors that need to be in every interview or expect certain things whether it’s in a contract or different things like that. I know a lot of the moto guys, they’ve got to get a lot of their partners in, and that’s just part of it.
Also in motocross, the riders are so young. There’s probably almost a ten-year difference sometimes between their prime and where you would be in your career.
Yeah that’s right, when you said I could have been a moto guy, I’d be retired by now! That’s another reason I am glad I chose the path I chose because I still get to race and ride dirt bikes for fun. They’re so young. It’s interesting. I feel like now it’s kind of all turned, now that you’ve got social media and YouTube and these kids are doing videos and podcasts and things like that since they were eight years old. So I think you’ll see the whole sport of moto and action sports, the whole interview process and things like that is only going to get better just because kids are doing it more often, like I feel like I did when I first started in NASCAR.
You got a little crossover coming up here at Chicagoland. This pit bike race, are you going to race it? Are you going to be in it? How is that going to work?
So, as soon as we heard about the pit bike races that were going to be happening at Chicagoland Speedway, myself, Jimmy Johnson, Blaney, I think we all got together and we were like, “Hey, we need to have a drivers’ race.” So we’re pushing for that. Obviously, it depends on whichever team owners let that happen but I’m good to go, I think. I’m not sure Roger Penske knows that Blaney rides pit bikes or not. I’m sure he’ll find out at some point. But Jimmy was in. I’m sure Clint [Bowyer] would be in. Trying to get Larson in. I think it would be really fun. Larson said as long as there’s no big jumps, then he would be fine.
How aggressive will you guys get with each other? You are racers. We saw what happened when they had that holeshot challenge at the Atlanta Supercross a few years ago.
[Laughs] Well that one, I saw that I was not going to win and I was like, this corner is coming up quick, and there goes Clint! No, we’ll be aggressive. I guarantee it. That’s what happens when we put helmets on, or whenever we’re competing at anything.
There are probably other stories of throwing a football around or a basketball game or something?
Yeah, we golf together. We play basketball together. We play in some basketball leagues together and things get physical sometimes.
Ryan Villopoto is kind of the headliner in this from the moto side, and he’s like a whole new Ryan Villopoto when it comes to stuff like this. He was so focused as a racer, we weren’t even sure he enjoyed being a racer when he was, but now he’s the happiest guy on earth. I’m sure he’s pumped if you guys get to actually participate.
Yeah, it’s really neat. I had never met Ryan going to supercross races and stuff. I think that was kind of his M.O., being so focused, which you can’t argue his success and what he was able to accomplish in his career. Things like that can burn you out. Then it’s cool to see what people do after they retire. It seems like Ryan’s enjoying himself. It’s kind of like Dungey. He was always pretty relaxed, but now I feel like he’s even more relaxed.
Is there downtime for things like a pit bike race? You guys are at the track for so long. I know you’re hanging out in your busses and all. Is it almost good to have something to watch and participate in?
For sure. That was one of the things that we loved about Atlanta Supercross lining up with our Atlanta race, but then we’ve screwed that up the last two years. The two events haven’t aligned, and not many people are happy about it. We do enjoy when there’s events in town and you’re able to go do something outside of the racetrack. We kind of have a pretty set schedule of we practice two hours this day, we practice and qualify the next day. Having pit bike races is a perfect way to spend some downtime.
So Chicagoland weekend, that’s going to be the big pit bike weekend. Actually that’s NBC’s first broadcast of the NASCAR season, too. So a lot of exciting stuff coming. How’s that track?
Chicago is just a fun racetrack in general. The cars slide around. It’s rough, got old asphalt. As a driver you enjoy coming here. We’ve won here in the Xfinity series and have had some top-ten runs in our Cup career here, but then also struggled at times. I feel like if I’m riding a pit bike that weekend, I’ll probably do better in the cup race. That’s what I’m going to tell Jack!
One other thing I want to ask. I’ve gone and covered some NASCAR K&N Pro Series races, which is where a lot of the young drivers move up the ranks. It is so hard to separate car from driver and figured out who has true talent. In motocross, it’s a little different. The bike helps, but obviously it’s not quite as big a factor as the car is in car racing. When you see people coming up, or when you were even trying to judge your own performance, how do you know what is car and what is driver? It’s got to be so hard to separate one for the other.
It is tough. I think you see that a little bit now. It’s tough to tell which drivers, which kids are coming up through the ranks that are that good, or is the equipment that much better than everybody else? It’s definitely hard to tell. I grew up racing dirt cars so I feel like it was more similar to dirt bikes. Equipment definitely means something, but you’ve also got to be able to get out there and do it, as well. The thing that I’ve always found interesting with dirt bikes is I feel like you watch every single dirt bike racer out there and rider, all of them can jump the same jumps. It’s whoever can do it the fastest. Get the bike back on the ground. It’s not like, this guy is jumping this triple and I’m not, and that’s why I’m slow. It’s which one puts the most work in and has the most stamina to hang on and do it faster the longest. So even there, even though the talent or the skill makes a difference, when you’re watching the top guys the difference is so small.