Main image courtesy of Jeff Kardas.
What’s old is new again for Justin Brayton. The friendly veteran racer inked a deal with the SmartTop/Bullfrog Spas MotoConcepts team for the second time. That squad joins the JGRMX and Factory Honda in teams that he’s ridden for twice. That has to be some sort of record, right? We called Brayton up on the PulpMX Show this past Monday to talk about the new deal and how it all came together.
Racer X Online: So, the MCR thing, when I heard about that, that took me by surprise a little bit. Obviously, you had good luck with those guys when you rode for them. You did really well, and they ran a good program. Take us through how close were you to retiring and why did you decide to go MCR?
Justin Brayton: First thing, I got hurt at the second Dallas. Leading up to Dallas, I had a big crash riding with Kenny at the Sandbox before Orlando 2. I had a couple mechanicals leading up to Dallas, even. Things just weren't going that good. Obviously had a big mechanical and went over the bars, and I thought that was it, honestly. When I was laying on the ground, I’m like… I think just all of it from the prior month was just really, really tough. My daughter was there in Dallas. My wife was there. For my daughter to see me like that – I had a broken wrist and two broken hands. There were a lot of emotions there. Obviously, Father Time is catching up. I’m not getting any younger. It definitely took some wind out of my sails. I was thinking I would most likely be done.
But then you know how racers are. We start to get healed up, and we spend some time every summer at our Iowa place. We’re just back there with family. I started to kind of get motivated again. I was riding bicycles a lot. That racer in me was just like, I started the year so good this year. I started six, three, ten. I was top five in points after the first three rounds. I had a podium which nobody expected, especially on a new, start-up team. The new Honda 450, I adapted to it right away. Only had a few weeks on it before Houston. It was so good. I still feel like I have some fight in me, especially on that motorcycle, if I can get the right structure around me to where I’m just the racer.
Going back to the Muc-Off team [which Brayton rode for in 2021], I had essentially been with that team and Yarrive [Konsky, team owner] for really four years in Australia. We got along awesome. I won four titles down there. I like Yarrive a lot. He’s like a brother to me. It just got to be too much for me because he’s in Australia most of the time. So, I was kind of like team manager, rider… Not really team manager, but I was calling a lot of sponsors and that, even down to the plastics and getting handlebars. Just all this stuff and dealing with Honda and coordinating my suspension. I was kind of creating my own little program within the team, and that was stressful. There were so many long nights when I’m on the phone to Yarrive because of the time change. Me and my wife sat down and talked about this because she has to be on board with it first and foremost. Her thing was like, “I just want you to be the racer. If you can only focus on racing, then let’s do it.” I still talk to [Mike] Genova all the time. I love hanging out with Mike. We had good chemistry there. I actually had another year on my deal with them, but when I went to Factory Honda [in 2020], he let me out of the deal. There was a lot of speculation that if I was to continue racing, I’ll go back to MCR. Then the Muc-Off Honda thing came up for last year. So, I was talking to Mike, and we just threw it out there. Next thing you know, to make a real long story short, here we are back with the team. Had a lot of good vibes there. I still talk to Yarrive, though. There’s no hard feelings at all.
Was Yarrive bummed?
Oh, for sure. I was bummed too because he’s like a brother to me. We’ve had so much success together. But the hard part is for him, and it’s honestly not his fault, he was just handcuffed because for one, he’s in Australia. For two, he doesn’t have a ton of contacts in America. And three, COVID. Try starting a team during COVID! So, he picked the worst time. I know he can do it, it’s just if this is truly going to be my last year, which I think it is, I want to just race. I just want to wake up every day, train, focus on my riding, and that’s it. I don't want to have to deal with all the other stuff or wait. I don't want to have to wait until November to see if we have the funding, and then if we don’t…MCR it’s turn-key. I know exactly what I’m getting. Genova doesn’t really need any funding. Of course, he would like it, but he can fund it himself if he has to.
It all makes sense, for sure. I can see where you’re coming from. Yarrive is cool. I’m glad that didn’t ruin the friendship there or cause any hard feelings.
Like I tell Yarrive, to be a start-up team… He had a west coast 250 team the year before. But we came out in the second race in the 450 class and got a podium. How many teams actually could say they’ve done that in really their first year? A lot of teams take ten plus years to get a supercross podium. I hope to go back to Australia for him. I would probably go this year if it wasn’t for COVID and all the restrictions and everything. So, who knows? Maybe we could race in Australia together again. Like I said, he’s like a brother and I’ll help him out as much as I can. It’s just I truly wanted to just be the racer for this last season.
We’ve seen guys ride for two factory teams, twice. We’ve never seen guys ride for three factory teams. JB went to Factory Honda twice, JGR twice, and now Genova on a factory-ish bike. It’s phenomenal. You don’t burn bridges!
I mean, I definitely try not to. What’s funny is I was on JGR in 2010 and 2011, and then I left there to go to Factory Honda. JGR was signing James [Stewart] anyways. Then I went to JGR again, then I went to MCR, then back to Honda, and some of the same people, like Erik Kehoe, were still there. Now I’m back to MCR. I always try to leave a team really respectfully. I didn’t grow up with a lot, I was stoked to get 50 percent off of gear. I understand how amazing it is to get paid to race. A guy like Genova, spending a million dollars out of his own pocket to go race. Coy Gibbs, I had a lot of respect for what he did. And the pressure someone like Kehoe is under at the factory level. I have a lot of respect for what everyone does.
You left one team on a bad note.
Yes, BTOSports KTM. But the track record is there. I think a lot of guys have left that team bummed out.
You and the Factory Honda guys, as you mentioned, are tight. You’re going to get some cool stuff for your bike?
For sure. That was one of my things, too. I really wanted to stay on Honda, obviously. I have a really good relationship with them. Me and Ken [Roczen] are pretty good buddies and ride together a lot and chat quite often. So as far as factory equipment, the usual stuff, the suspension. I’ve voiced how much I like the front brake, even in years past. I really like that front brake. So, little odds and ends. I think chassis-wise they’ll be able to help me a bunch. I think it’s going to be awesome. No different than in years past. Just work closely with those guys and the MCR team and it will be good.
You know you should never make a decision to retire the night you crash, and you have broken hands and ribs and everything. No decisions are made then. That’s for sure.
For sure. We kind of joked about the Marty [Davalos] thing a little bit, right when he crashed, he at Salt Lake he posted that he was retiring. I was feeling that same way. I really was. If I jumped on social media the night of Dallas, I would have been done. It took me longer. I really wanted to take some time with it. I know, as you guys do too, I know what it takes to be at the highest level and to race at the front, to have gear companies and teams and all the effort it takes to get me to the races, let alone three kids and a wife at home. That’s a lot of sacrifice. So, if I’m just going to go roll around in tenth place and collect a paycheck, I don't want to be there. My wife doesn’t want me to do it. Her thing always is, if you’re going to go all-in, I support you as long as you want to race. But if you’re just going to dabble in it and you’re just going to collect a paycheck and accept mediocrity, then we’re not racing. I know for another year I can go all-in.
So, wrenching for you will be Shawn Ulikowski. Ulo has been living in North Carolina for a long time. He used to wrench for Travis Preston at Factory Connection and everything.
I’m stoked. Me and Ulo have been friends for a long time. What’s crazy about that is when I filled in at Factory Connection Honda in 2004, Shawn was the first guy I met at the shop. I used to rock this fro. I walk in and then Shawn just starts calling me “Brizzle.” All the old-school guys at Factory Connection, they still call me Brizzle. Ulo is the one who made that up. Shawn was super nice to me when I was on the team. Then fast forward to JGR days. He was the engine builder for the four years that I was on the team there. He’s the one who really got me into mountain biking. We raced mountain bikes together for year. So, it’s cool. He was kind of ready for a change. What’s funny about that too, when Tony Alessi and I started talking about mechanics and stuff when Tony Berluti [Brayton’s mechanic with MCR in 2018-2019, who is now retired] wasn’t an option, he mentioned Shawn. He kept saying, “This guy, Shane. He lived in North Carolina.” I’m like, “I can’t think of a guy named Shane.” Then when he said he worked for Preston I was like, “Oh, Shawn Ulikowski? He’s one of my good buddies. I talk to him all the time.” I just said, “No. Shawn won’t do that. he’s got a family.” Then next thing you know, we kind of started talking about it and our mutual friend, Ryan Kelly, Ryan called me and he’s like, “I think Ulo really wants to work for you.” I’m like, “What? Really?” So, Ulo is back. It’s going to be really fun.