Kyle Cunningham, a veteran of the sport, has been on teams before. He's raced as a full privateer before as well, where his dad has been his only help—the latter of which he did again this year in the Lucas Oil AMA Pro Motocross Championship.
Cunningham finished ninth in the 250SX East Region of the Monster Energy AMA Supercross Championship and after entering several rounds in, finished 20th in the 450 Class of the Lucas Oil AMA Pro Motocross Championship.
Our Steve Matthes called up Cunningham to talk about his 2019 results, racing the Lucas Oil AMA Pro Motocross Championship as a full privateer, his plans for 2020, and more.
Racer X: The season’s over. It’s been over for a few weeks. What have you been up to? Have you been riding at all, or did you put the bike away and just been totally relaxing?
Kyle Cunningham: I kind of took a week off after the last round and made a last-minute decision to go out to Pro Challenge actually the night before. So I went out to Swan [Texas] and raced. We had a couple small mechanicals both days. I say small... First day had a small mechanical which kind of had to ride around and finish fifth. Then the second day I was actually in the lead and lost the motor with about a lap to go. But honestly it was a fun race to go to. Trey’s been putting that thing on since I was seven, if not even before I was racing. I remember kind of going out and getting watch. Kevin Windham used to come out and race it. Then Trey did a little bit when we were racing together. It’s just a fun event in Texas. I feel like a lot of the people here at home, it’s not like being in California. They don’t get to see a ton of us race all the time, especially with no more outdoors [nationals] in the Texas state. So it’s a fun race to go to.
That thing pays pretty well, right? If you can do good at it?
Yeah. It’s not bad. It’s like a $25,000 pro purse that they pay per moto. We didn’t race the 250 even though I had one sitting in my garage still. I just kind of wanted to go out and ride for fun and be at home racing in front of the hometown people.
That’s cool. You did six rounds of the nationals as a full privateer. Top 20 in the points. Qualified well at a few races. Rode well at a lot of them. Again, you’re a full privateer so to me, I think you had a good summer. Did you enjoy it? Did you enjoy the experience?
I had fun. It was actually five rounds, and two of them we DNF’d. The first two rounds, RedBud and Millville, we had two DNF motos at each one. Then the other two motos of each one I was in both first-turn pileups and crashed again and got 13th both of those motos. I think it’s tough. Obviously, I see the stuff that gets written every now and again. The tough thing is coming in when everybody is already five rounds in. Not a lot of people know, but I got sick at the end of supercross and was told I either was getting Epstein-Barr or I was paying the aftereffects from it for the last three rounds of supercross. So I had to take some time off. I think I took four or five weeks off. Sleeping quite a bit throughout the day and not doing anything. Then I went back to training and riding. If it would have been my choice, I would have been out there sooner. I love being at the races. Always have, always will. When you’re out there racing, people don’t know what you’re doing. So I think for coming out and not being at the first round, I think that totals us out to six motos with points, quite a few of them. Even Ironman, crashed both motos. So I would say results weren’t too bad for kind of a last-minute, thrown together, take the practice bike and the race bike with my dad and go see what we can do.
Exactly. I was thinking you didn’t do the first part of the series just for finance reasons. You didn’t want to travel all the way out there and all that. It was really the Epstein-Barr and everything else that set you back from starting at the front?
Yeah. I actually got the call [about the illness] before Vegas, but with the support we had, putting a program together at the last minute, I had people [supporting us] and I was trying to go out and put the name out for them. For the mediocre supercross season we had had—I would actually say it was pretty good. A lot of people don’t know I had four weeks on the bike before I showed up at Minneapolis. So I was riding a stock Honda 250 the whole supercross season as a practice bike. For what we had to work with, how last-minute it was, I’m super thankful. Todd Hansen, he ran the HRT team in the past, and I called him and he was at Anaheim 1 and was like, “Hey, man. We need to figure some things out to go racing.” So we pieced it together. It was tough. Right around Vegas time I was sitting there going, “Okay. So you’re telling me am I sick? Am I not sick? What’s going on?” But I was just basically at a point from Nashville to East Rutherford to Vegas I just was tired. I went from doing motos all day at the practice track to eight laps in I’m like, okay, why do I just feel stuck? So it was one of those things, and it was kind of tough to hear that you just need to basically lay around and do nothing. Obviously you hear the stuff about [Justin] Bogle and Kenny [Roczen] and people fighting things. We all go through it. I’m thankful that I took the four weeks off, five weeks off. It was more the struggle of not being at the races every weekend. Overall it wasn’t bad, though.
I wrote this a few times. We saw great seasons by John Short and Henry Miller and these other privateer guys, Ben LaMay. They had great years, great seasons. Then if you could put both two motos together, whenever you showed up at five of the races, you would generally be the top privateer guy. So that had to make you feel good.
Honestly talking about John and Henry, we all had some really good battles at some of those races as well that were fun. We were also in the mix with just barely needing that little bit more, like at Unadilla. I was super bummed because the first moto I got up to… I think I had just passed Bogle maybe for eighth and then I crashed and threw it away with I think four or five laps to go. Then Budds Creek we had a good second moto. It was hot there. It was a tough weekend. Then it was kind of opposite at Ironman. I felt good but I just kind of felt stuck where I was that day. You know how that goes when you’re chasing certain things and trying to get things going. Like you said, it’s a lot tougher. I think that’s what people don’t understand. Whether you’ve been training at home or spending time on the bicycle or in the gym and on the motorcycle, you can’t duplicate the race weekend and the intensity of getting up there with those guys and being in that battle. So it definitely was an eye-opener for me. I’ve always been there at round one of the outdoors and you can kind of ride yourself into that race speed, or eventually you build as you go. Even going and doing RedBud, then it was like I took a week or two weeks off because I didn’t go to Washougal, then came back at Millville which I wasn’t even going to do. I felt like the last three were a little better because we were finally racing consistently. So seeing the points at the end and stuff, yeah, obviously I wish I could have been there at round one, but like you said too, financially that wasn’t solely just one thing. Trying to justify spending X amount to make X amount, and then the way the schedule was it just didn’t really make sense. But my plan originally was High Point. I was going to try and come back I believe with the warmer Florida. Then that just changed at the last minute…I give my dad credit. At Millville we had a bike mishap, a mechanical in the first moto. Luckily, they pushed the 125 [All Star] race back. We pulled my practice motor out of my practice frame, then pulled the race motor out of the race frame, then put the practice motor into the race frame, and then somehow made it to the line right when the gate was shutting. It was a little bit of a scramble.
You’ve ridden as a privateer at times. You’ve been on teams at times. It’s so much harder to do outdoors as a privateer. It’s almost incomprehensible to describe to somebody how much easier it is being on a team with a mechanic and everything for an outdoor national.
Yeah. Even at Budds [Creek], I was really surprised. I was surprised I felt as good the second moto as I did because when I rode the parade lap I’m like, man, this one’s going to hurt. I had been sitting behind the sprinter [van] under a canopy all day out in the heat, but surprisingly I felt good the whole moto. My body felt good. I felt like I rode well. The eye-opener this year was like when we did the supercross thing we tried to do it a little more proper, a little more like an effort, a smaller team. I think it worked out really well but we weren’t in the place budget-wise to go and do that same thing outdoors this year. So it’s been an experience being the one to help with handling fuel and keeping track of how much money is being spent on that side, and ordering parts, and making sure I’m getting to the races. It was a little bit of a scramble, but I definitely learned a lot in the same sense and had a lot of positive people around me. Then also to throw it in besides Todd and my dad and my uncle—my uncle actually retired from owning his own business recently so when it came to those last three race weekends, I was going to drive to New York. He called the night before and was like, “Let’s get you a flight, and I’ll just help your dad drive.” So it was truly kind of a family and a team effort with everyone that we involved. It made it fun.
So 2020, what’s your plans? What do you want to do? Who are you talking to? Obviously it’s a little bit early.
Todd Hansen and myself are working on [something], potentially, if we’re going to go do it like we did this year again or maybe even a little bit bigger. That’s kind of what we’re looking at right now. I don’t have any offers on the table or anything like that. I feel like we did a good job this year with what we put together. There’s potential to grow it. We’ll see what happens. I guess the easiest thing to say is that I don’t plan on being done any time soon. One way or another, we’ll be at Anaheim 1. Hopefully it’s me and Todd working together, which I could see that happening. I think this go-around it’ll be 450 for sure. I don’t think we’ll be messing with the 250 anymore.
So 450 would be the plan?
Yeah, 450 supercross I’d like to go. I’ve only done all 17 one time, which was last year. It was a learning experience. I’d like to do it again. Like I said, I have Todd in my corner and kind of working on things. Like you said, it’s early. I’m trying to see what I can piece together and what we can make happen, because that seems like that’s what the option is right now. As you know in the sport there’s not a ton of spots out there and jobs. I’m happy with what we did this year, and I feel like if we have the time to plan, between him and myself we can do it in a bigger way and kind of grow it from where we did.
What about Monster Energy Cup? What do you think about that? Any plans?
I’d like to be there. I have two 450s sitting in the garage right now. So if I still have a bike, I wouldn’t mind being there racing. I think the last time for me there was ’12 or ’13. I think I went 8-7-6 for sixth overall, possibly. It’s always a fun race. Decent paycheck. I think it’s a good race. The track is not ever super gnarly, so it’s kind of a good race to go get back on the gate. If you have a baseline, kind of see where you’re at and then give yourself a couple months from them to the first round to get going more in the right direction. So I think just depending on what we get going with the program and what we can get put together, the main thing for me is if we show up, we’re 100 percent ready or know what direction we’re going with sponsors instead of kind of showing up with a halfway effort.
Inside the November issue of Racer X magazine: See who stood out and what our takeaways are from Loretta Lynn’s and all of its future moto talent. GEICO Honda had a packed house at the last three nationals, but who’s sticking around? Former factory rider Michael Byrne has made a successful jump to team management, and we find out how and why. When the AMA’s 1986 Production Rule went into effect, it ended a glorious run of exotic, hand-built—and wildly expensive—bikes in AMA racing. We dig into the story of those final years. All these features and much more inside the November issue.