Anyone who’s listened to the shows I’ve done knows I believe the amateur motocross scene is a little out of whack right now. There’s nothing wrong with helping the elite amateurs but we’ve gotten to the point where even the riders further back are getting a ton of support and guaranteed deals that seem better than actual professionals are getting. The race to have the best amateur motocrossers is full-on and the OEMs are signing younger and younger riders. There’s one amateur motocross race in the country that somewhat replicates the pro motos—the Rocky Mountain ATV/MC Amateur National at Loretta Lynn’s offers 20-minute motos, and maybe Mammoth Mountain—and other than that, it’s a series of five-lap races to determine the best amateurs.
But hey, I’m not deep into the amateur motocross weeds like others are so maybe my opinions aren’t spot on. Maybe I’m missing something. To have a frank, honest conversation about what’s going on in amateurs, and how we can maybe fix things, I called someone who does know: Ryan Holliday, Team Manager for Kawasaki Team Green.
Racer X Online: Before we get too far into this, man, you’re good at PulpMX Fantasy. You’re good.
Ryan Holliday: Sometimes. Man, it’s a struggle.
There were some weekends where you would pick the guy that killed it, and I’m like, where did that come from? How did he know that? There’s zero chance that he should know that.
Sometimes you kind of know, obviously this guy, on this track. As you know, luck plays a big factor. Except for Cook. He gets so mad, between Paul (Perebijnos), Dan (Truman) and myself. Saturday mornings we’re convening amongst ourselves, and then we get so mad. We’re like, look, between the three of us we feel like we’re pretty damn smart and we know a lot. We need to be better!
As much as I rag on the amateur scene and I’ve got a lot of complaints about it personally, I do realize there’s a place for it and it is a big part of our industry. Even though you’re the head of Team Green, I think you’re closer to my view than maybe some would think. Would that be fair to say? You’re certainly not anti-amateur, but I feel like you’re a guy putting your hand up saying, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. What are we doing here?’
I think that’s fair to say. Obviously, the bulk of what I do deals with amateur motocross. So, I have a vested interest in it, obviously for my job and the company. But I do feel like when we get together among the OEMs and the promoters and we have these discussions, maybe I tend to raise my hand a little bit more with ideas of how we can get better, maybe some things that we like to see. And when I say “we” like to see, not so much just what Kawasaki likes to see, but I really try to look at it overall and what’s best, and not be about me, me, me. I tried to really learn that from when I used to work at the AMA and I was on the other side of the table. I try really hard not to be self-serving. Sure, there’s some things that could have a significant impact on our company that I’ve got to stand up for, but for the most part, I really try to focus on what’s good for everybody and what’s going to help these kids at the end of the day and help the promoters and try to help their business, too. I get it. They’re trying to make money and run successful events. Without successful events, then we don’t have a place to go do what we do, so it all works hand in hand. It all has to succeed or else we don’t succeed.
Well said. Obviously you can’t comment directly on a lot of these things, but when you have OEMs poaching riders from other OEMs who have a year contract with them, when you have guys taking dives at Loretta’s to stay down (a class), when you have pro riders—and I can think of three or four off the top of my head—that have been groomed as amateurs to be successful and then they’re not, and it seems to be happening more and more. Then they lose rides or whatever. This is stuff that irks me. Do we have a problem in amateur racing, in your opinion?
Yes, there are problems, for sure. By the way, amateur racing covers obviously the highest level, what maybe people follow the media coverage see, these factory kids and all that. But then there’s also the grassroots level of amateur racing. It’s not fair to lump all amateur racing into one category. I’d say it’s pretty distinctly different among the people that go to a race a big race like the Mini O’s and those at your grassroots level racing. But there’s a connection among it all. At the highest level, the kids just aren’t prepared when they have to become a professional. There isn’t a good platform for them to get prepared. You look at Europe. Europe has an amazing platform for kids to prepare for professional level racing. We do not. We just have a couple races that are pretty good.
Don’t we just have one? Loretta’s? Do we have a couple?
Some are getting better, I will say. Yes, we all know Loretta’s is the big one, and they get a twenty-minute moto and the track is rough, and that’s where all your guys are at. Now unfortunately that seems to be one of the only times of year where you get all the talent together. I think years ago you would pool all of your talent together better than what it is now. But Europe, as you know, EMX series, from whether it be minibikes or the 125, the 250 series, those guys are competing at a very high level as amateurs on a regular basis, traveling around Europe, doing the long motos, racing on the same track as the professionals, racing in that environment on a bigger stage in front of the people, in front of the teams. All of that plays a factor to when they race on a professional level.
You take an EMX kid and then all of a sudden he’s racing MX2. It’s not that different. Our kids? It’s a totally different universe. Very few now are succeeding in that. The 250 class in America, the level of it, is so much higher than what it ever used to be. When I say that, just the maturity level of the guys that are succeeding is so different than what it ever used to be that you throw a 17-year-old kid in there now and he’s got to race against a world championship contender like Dylan Ferrandis, who’s 26 years old. They don’t stand a chance.
I did a story on this last year. We had JMart (Jeremy Martin) and Aaron (Plessinger) and (Zach) Osborne and someone else, maybe it was Dylan [Ferrandis], last year. They were all 24 years old and they’ve got dozens of years of pro experience combined.
Race wins, championships, global experience. So to expect a kid that raced a couple decent amateur events and you’re like, “He’s fast. He’s ready.” No. They’re not. They go in there either too soon or they’re unprepared with general high-level racing experience, and they get spit out. That’s what you’re seeing with a lot of these teams and kids, unfortunately. As soon as they come in, the sooner you start, the sooner you’re going to get kicked out. That’s exactly what you’re seeing, unfortunately. There has to be something done about it. Whether it’s from the race side of the way the teams go about it, everyone is going to have their theory of what needs to be done, but the way it’s mostly being done, is not working.
I agree. In my opinion, it’s too much, too soon. They’re coddled. Their bikes are too good. The top five guys are on these factory-supported rocket ships, and then the other guys are kind of trying to make it go. They don’t have rocket ships. So I think that kind of inflates the sense of a rider’s worth, a little bit. How do we police you guys? Is it possible?
I think it is possible because it just starts with someone essentially stepping up and doing it themselves, taking a different approach when everyone else is going down the same road. I think we’re going to start seeing that real soon here. In my opinion, what happened, and I’d have to really think about exactly when, but a handful of years ago there was this flurry of activity of scrambling to snatch up a lot of kids at an early point in these long-term deals. A lot of it had to do with the supercross eligibility rules. Guys were getting flushed out of 250 supercross, so where do you pick up the new guys? Most everybody went down into the amateur ranks. Of course, there’s always good talent in the amateur ranks. There’s a lot of great riders out there. So, it becomes this competitive flurry where one or two of (the teams) grab up a couple kids and then everybody falls into this panic of feeling like they need to do the same thing.
I agree. And they keep getting younger and younger, right? You keep going down.
Exactly. I think now with some change to that eligibility rule in supercross, you're seeing these older, more mature, more experienced guys, so you’re going to have a mix of it. Maybe everyone will be a little bit more selective of the young kids that you bring in and make that commitment to groom them and stick behind them, believing that they’re going to get there. Whereas I think some other ones they’re just filling holes, filling holes. Then they didn’t succeed and then they blow them out and then it’s over. Then it’s truly over for them because they don’t get a chance after that.
We can think of three or four kids, both of us, off the top of our heads that I’m legitimately scared they’re going to be out of the sport, because there’s no rides. They had one chance, didn’t get the results and now it’s over.
One hundred percent they are. People look at it like, ‘You had everything. You had a factory ride. You had everything at your disposal. You essentially failed.’ I hate to use that word, but you didn’t achieve what was expected of you. So who is going to jump on that?
Yeah, I agree. So you think it might change a little? You think the tide might turn a little bit here? I’ve always said I have no problems with signing guys like Barcia, Canard, Bogle, guys like that who were winning. The elite of the elite should get money and support because they’re going to be future champions, but this is where my problem is—where you’re going down the roster and picking fourth- and fifth-place guys at the amateur races and they’re not good enough to validate that support.
One hundred percent.
But you think that’s going to change with the rules and the way things have gone?
I do. I think even with us ourselves, we’ve changed our approach a little bit. We have a kid, Seth Hammaker, as a perfect example. Seth is a kid that has great talent, great potential. He does really well at supercross. He won the Monster Energy Cup [in 2017]. Really came from nothing. Totally off the radar, we picked him up and have helped along the way. There was a plan of when he would progress and turn professional, but unfortunately he has some injuries now. He’s having double shoulder surgery because he’s got to have both shoulders fixed. We’re like, “Hey, look, there’s no rush.” He’s 18 going on 19 years old now, so it’s not as if his time has passed. We believe in this kid. We’ve committed to him. We’re going to do it the right way, and when he’s ready, we’ll have him make the jump. He was scheduled to turn pro in 2020 but he had the injuries. We’re like, “Look, let’s get it handled. Let’s get it addressed. Let’s take a year back, basically redo what we planned for a year, and then see when you’re ready to go.” Instead of saying, “Nope. This is when you’re supposed to go.” Then you throw him out there unprepared, not ready, set him up for failure. Then we all fail. If he fails, we fail. And we can’t do that. I think unfortunately everybody just believes that they all get a chance, they all kind of get their day to give it a shot, but that’s not really the right way to do it.
I’ve heard stories from team managers about parents of certain riders not even being allowed at the team track—they are just not allowed to be around the truck! You’re just blown away by this kind of mistreatment from parents and teams and OEM’s and everything. I’m just thinking, what is going on here, people? This should be a great thing for the family and the kid and everything else, but he’s not performing... The teams are bitter because of all this money they put in for years and years.
And that becomes difficult. I think in our situation, we maybe are a little bit better off because we tend to have a longer-standing relationship with a lot of them. So by the time we get closer to that point, and even look at someone like Mitch (Payton). Mitch is dealing with the majority of our kids from a very young age, meaning the kid and the family itself. So when they land on his doorstep, effectively, he knows everything that we know about them, so there really isn’t much surprise. I think that’s important. Even Bruce [Stjenstrom] here at Kawasaki has said it with Eli Tomac as an example. Tomac was an outsider, so to speak, when he came to us. He wasn’t brought up through our program, so we didn’t know anything about him. Let’s say the first race doesn’t go good. You don’t know if he’s going to cry, throw his helmet… How they’re going to react or respond. So, almost that whole first year you’re just kind of learning how to interact with them. Whereas when AC (Adam Cianciarulo) shows up, we know everything about that kid, his family, his dog, everything. There’s no surprise. That’s important.
When you hear a story about an OEM poaching another kid under contract and then you hear about some agents telling other gear companies, “We know we have a deal, but we’re jumping ship. I know you supported us all these years.” Put aside your Kawasaki hat here. Is that the stuff that drives you crazy? Is that the stuff that you see and hear and go, “People, we’ve got to do better?” Or do you just look at it like, hey, business is business?
No, not a business-is-business. Simply, I feel like we’ve always been very well-respected in how we go about our business from our Team Green program, to Mitch, to the factory level. I feel like we have a very good reputation. Of course, those things come across our desk or we get those phone calls. We’re like, Look, we’re not going down that road. We wouldn’t want someone to do that to us, so we’re not going to do it, vice versa. It’s just not cool. It’s not professional. You get that call like, “You can get this guy. I can get him out of his deal.” No. That’s not how we play ball.
You are a big proponent of this new amateur rule that allows these kids to jump in, in 40 points or four races or whatever it is, whatever comes first, to get their feet wet. I have ranted and raved about this rule for a long time. I think it’s ridiculous. I think that these kids, they already are making six figures. They already have great bikes. They already have homeschooling. They’re already little mini professionals, and the one thing they don’t have is pro experience, but we’re giving it to them. We’re saying, ‘Hey, if you fail, it’s okay. Don’t worry about it. You can keep your amateur status.’ Meanwhile though, and you were one of these guys when you were racing, to me there’s a plumber or a carpenter or local guy out there that would love to make the 40-man field and race against the best. You know how it is. You’re a badass dude to make a fast 40. You’re pretty gnarly. These kids are taking those spots. Now, are those guys going to be somebody? No. They’re locals. They maybe have a full-time job, like I said, but I don’t want to give these kids any more than what they already have. I know it goes back to the beginning of the conversation where you said, we’re not doing a good job of preparing them, and I agree with you, but don’t prepare them like this. Make the other amateur races change, in my opinion. Sell me on this thing. Change my mind, if you can.
You kind of said it there. The other races aren’t doing the job that is needed to prepare them. There has to be some kind of alternative, some kind of means to give them some level of experience. Unfortunately, none of the other races have it. It seems like they’re really unwilling to do it.
So this has been discussed with other people?
Oh, yeah. I feel like I’m one of those ones every year going back to those discussions among the OEMs and the promoters being like, Look, we have to do a better job with these races. I can’t bring the dog-and-pony show with a high-level A and B class rider, the proper support, where it costs me tens of thousands of dollars to show up to race for a week and then do a four-lap moto. We’re not learning anything. The kid’s not gaining anything. If he gets a bad start, he’s ruined. It’s just pointless. They get frustrated, and we’re frustrated. Like, what are we doing here? You beat down the door on this, and that’s where I said some are starting to get a little bit better. We did some twenty-minute motos in Texas this year, which was great. That was helpful. Daytona did 15-lap main events for the A class. That’s great. That’s helpful. But when you go to these other ones and you’re just getting these little, short sprints, we’re doing nothing to prepare these kids. So something had to get put on the table to allow them some level of opportunity, in my opinion, to get better race experience. It goes back to even that Europe thing where those guys have a platform to prepare to become a professional racer. We don’t have that. I get everything you’re saying about the other guys and taking the spots and everything, but we have to come up with some means to prepare them. Otherwise, they’re going to continue to fail.
I don’t look at the idea of racing a few [pro] races as [if] we’re sending you out there to see if you fail or not. It’s more just so they learn from of it and it gets them to race. Kids in America don’t race, for the most part. Many of them don’t race, period. That’s a big problem, and that’s why I believe a lot of them don’t succeed at that next level because they have no race experience. There’s a great example with that Jett Lawrence kid. Jett was in Europe racing EMX class, doing all that stuff. When he came to America, they wanted him to race the B class. This is a kid racing at a very high level globally against men on professional racetracks, and they wanted him to race the B class? Someone asked my opinion about it and I said he deserves to be an A rider because compared to anyone in America—that kid is the most prepared to become a professional based on his experience. How can you argue that? He raced at a higher level than any other amateur kid in America. He was more prepared than any of them, regardless of his age. So, that’s the disconnect between what goes on over there and what we have here. Unless the amateur races change, there has to be something to give them that platform.
I know it used to be this way back in the ‘80s. A lot of the guys would ride pros and then jump back to Loretta’s. So I understand the rule was around back in the day.
Another example of it would be if the kids are committed to be on a team, whether it’s Rockstar [Husqvarna] or GEICO [Honda] or us, they’re in line what that team, and we have an injury and you’ve got to plug a guy out there. It’s much easier for us to be allowed to plug in one of those kids for a race or two than trying to dig through the numbers list and the results, “Who can we get to ride this bike twice?” As you know, many teams have obligations to have a certain amount of bikes out there.
That part makes sense. I’ll give you that.
It’s very difficult to go grab a Jerry Robin to ride a Kawasaki for two weeks and be like, “Okay, thanks. Nope. We’re good. Marty’s back. See you later, Jerry.”
I don’t know if there’s an easy fix for it.
I just think it’s out of control. I hear the stories. I hear some of the salaries… and I’m just like, Stop. Stop this, everybody. Because there are some really good professionals right now that have trouble making a living at this sport, and we’re out of whack. I don’t know how to stop this. Like I said, I do think you represent a cool, rational side of an OEM. That’s what my issues are.
I think, with anything, competition drives everything. The market, what’s the value for riders? It’s all what’s market-value right now? What’s the market for riders? To me, like I said before, I think 250 supercross is older, the 250 class in general here. It’s older. It’s more experienced. Those are the guys that are succeeding and winning. That’s just the nature of the beast right now. I was thinking about this earlier, AC came in and won races in 2014 in supercross right off the bat. You look at him then and he’s this little boy. Then you look at the man that he is now? In my opinion, there’s no way AC 2014 is winning 250 supecross races in 2019. Not a chance. I just think the level was so different.
I don’t know. I think maybe he would, but only the elite few. You see a Stew or an AC, Barcia… Barcia is going to win at 16, 17. Guys like that. But it’s very few in-between. So to me, you picked an example of one guy that would. Adam to me was good enough, but I get your drift.
I just think, unfortunately, there’s so many of these kids that get thrown in and spit out, but almost everybody is expecting them to be at that level and they’re just not. You can’t force it to happen. The naturals are the naturals. The Stew’s, the Ricky’s, RV’s… They’re just rare.
I want to fix it. I wish I had all the answers. You talk about the equipment and all those things. I don’t want to do a lot of things that we do to our bikes, whether it be kit suspension or other things to have them be at the level that they’re at, but it goes back to that competition thing where if a competitor is bringing something that’s just of this insane level, what do you tell your guy?
I shudder to think of the GEICO amateur moto budget. Just like, really?
That’s one group that has scaled back, in my opinion. The GEICO bikes in the days of Jordon Smith, RJ Hampshire as amateurs, those things were badass. They were super fast. Factory Honda triple clamps and works suspension. Those bikes, every kid was like, “Who’s going to get the GEICO ride?” Because that was the big deal. Now you look at them. They’re running production suspension, triple clamps. They have scaled it back, which is nice to see. That’s an example of one person, one group kind of taking the lead, like, ‘Is this really necessary?’ Then you have Jett Lawrence. He goes out and runs a pro national on that bike and he’s racing in the top ten. I’m like, that’s rad. He has his amateur bike, production suspension, and runs top ten at an outdoor national. That’s awesome.