Aldon Baker first popped onto the motocross radar in the summer of 2000, when he was training Ricky Carmichael as RC was headed to his first 250cc National Motocross Championship. The next year, Baker and the Carmichael crew set sights on the AMA Supercross Championship, and Carmichael indeed won it. Since then, success has come over and over for riders trained by Baker, from Carmichael to James Stewart, Ryan Villopoto, Ryan Dungey, and more.
Cooper Webb’s 2019 and 2021 Monster Energy Supercross Championships were the latest triumphs for the Baker’s Factory, but things started looking rough last summer. Veteran Baker’s Factory riders Webb, Zach Osborne, and Marvin Musquin all decided to step away from the program. Was Baker worried he was no longer in demand? What about all this talk about riders wanting to have more fun in their racing? We spoke to Baker after the Detroit Supercross (two races ago) to get an update.
This is a condensed version of the interview. You can watch the full interview via YouTube.
Racer X: You have to be pretty happy with the progress of Malcolm Stewart. He’s coming on strong and coming close to wins.
Aldon Baker: Yes, I’m really happy with Malcolm, he’s improving at a great rate. I think things could have been even better if he hadn’t gotten involved in a couple little things, as we’ve seen, but I think the speed and endurance are there. He has all the ingredients he just needs everything to line up right.
I think, because Malcolm has always been a smiling, fun-loving guy, I don’t think we know how serious he is as a competitor. He seems like he’s just having fun. Does he have that killer instinct that we don’t see? Does he go to the line saying how badly he wants to beat all these dudes?
Yeah, I think he does for sure, but I think it’s masked a lot in the past just because I don’t think he’s had the opportunity to have the full package before. I think he’s tried, and things just haven’t worked out. I get the feeling where this is the first time where he feels he has all the pieces and that has brought out that heart and desire you see inside him. And I see him practice. When things don’t go well in practice or if he has a rough race, you can tell if a guy is bitterly disappointed and there’s that inner fire. He doesn’t just roll over. But it’s easy to see with his personality, yes, he’s a happy guy, and I love that about him for sure, but he does have that side where he’s bummed, and he knows he can win.
The fear everyone had, you have Stewart and Aaron Plessinger over there now. And everyone says, “These two guys like to have fun! But Aldon doesn’t like to have fun!” So how has it actually gone with them this year—and obviously Aaron has lost some racing time with an injury—but how has it gone in general.?
Well, I think there’s been a misconception where the guys don’t have fun with me. I want to have fun and I want them to have fun, but there’s still a job that has to be done. I feel like accountability isn’t going to go away, and as long as everyone has that understanding going in, we will have fun. We do have days where we have fun, but when it comes down to it in order to get the job done you’ve got to put your head down and do the work. After that, for sure let’s go out and have fun. But then you have it where the schedules are so tight that sometimes to find that fun aspect [is hard]. I’ve asked the guys, “What is your idea of a fun day? Is it to not ride and go play golf? Is it to go out on a boat and hang out on a lake?” I don’t know! They don’t have an answer for that. I think the way I look at it is, it goes back to having that balance. You have to get the work done, and if you get the work done then the fun will come. The one thing I can hands down say is, if you’re not getting the results you want on the weekend then no one is having fun, at any time.
They’re all competitive in the end. If they’re getting eighth place, you could give them the whole week off and they could hang out on the lake, and they won’t be pumped.
Exactly. That’s why I say there’s a big misconception. Show me someone who is having all this fun…and then winning. It doesn’t happen. You still need to put it together. I’ve had years going back to the Ricky days, it was fun going to the outdoors, because we knew he was going to work everybody and win, almost every time. That was fun! But we were still putting in the work during the week. You can’t forget that had to be done.
So, you haven’t been calling Aaron or Malcolm at 7:30 a.m. saying “Hey, you guys are late. Where are you?” No one is only giving it 75 percent?
No, and I think when you have new guys with new teams, there’s always that excitement. So, it fits really well. I haven’t had to call anyone in the morning wondering where they were.
So, the group is Malcolm, Aaron, and RJ Hampshire…but you normally have four guys. So, who is the fourth guy?
Yes, I normally have four guys, then we have the 250 group we’ve got Dean over there with the up-and-coming guys, Jalek Swoll and Stilez Robertson. We also have a few amateurs we’re doing for a trial period getting ready for Loretta’s. Then lately Cooper has come back, and obviously I’ve had a good few years with Cooper and he’s back into the fold. Now I’m back to my four guys. Whatever has gone down in the past doesn’t matter. The group dynamic is in a very good place right now.
Well, that answered that question! I was wondering who would move into that fourth spot, and now you have four. Cooper Webb is back? Whole program? I didn’t know this.
Yeah, and that’s one thing, it’s not like when a guy leaves here or comes back, we’re going to put out a press release. The big thing for me is, everybody knows I work for the KTM Group, which is KTM, Husqvarna, and GasGas. I’m always trying to help that group, and the dynamic for me is that I maintain four guys. The good thing with the group is when Cooper left for a period, they didn’t force me to fill in that fourth spot. That was good because if I had filled that spot, that wouldn’t have offered an opportunity for a guy to regroup. Yeah, he’s back in and he’s dived straight in. Unfortunately, he took a crash in Detroit and he’s still nursing some battle wounds. But we’re back on track and building, and he’s still got that fight that everybody knows.
Look when anyone breaks up with anyone, a job, a girlfriend, whatever it is, it’s tough. Davey Coombs likes to say, “All things end badly, that’s why they end.” So, did you and Cooper have to mend some fences here?
He’s always been respectful. We had a good three years together so unless there’s a complete blow up…and in all my years where guys have moved on, I don’t think there’s ever been a complete blow up. There’s more just been a decision made to how they feel at that time. Now, that could change. I know the program is tough, it’s by no means easy and there’s a lot of accountably and it isn’t for everyone. I think riders get to a point where they’re trying to figure out, “How can I do enough to win but without such a heavy schedule?” And who doesn’t think about that? I don’t feel like that’s an unknown, or a bad scenario. I think Coop looked for little avenues he could possibly change up that might helped him in areas, but obviously it doesn’t work out that good. Now he’s come back to sort of regroup and figure out okay, I’ve been down that road and I’m back. There was no bad blood so that avenue is completely open.
So, he’s not just back riding at your track. It’s the full program?
Yes, and that’s one thing I learned last year. You’re either all in or all out. I can’t do a halfway or hybrid thing. We did try a little bit of that but for me it doesn’t work. For one thing, if something doesn’t go right, how can I be fully accountable if I’m not making them accountable in all areas?
This works in cycles. So, you had success with Carmichael, and everyone talked about how serious they were and how hard they worked. This went on through Villopoto and everyone else. Everyone knew the more disciplined you are the better you do. Now it’s tilted the other way, everyone is talking about the teams needing to give more freedom with the motorcycle like Tomac, and everyone is saying the riders need to have more freedom and more fun. The word freedom keeps getting used. Still work but have some freedom. Now you’ve always maintained that doing the same thing at the same place over and over. There’s a reason why freedom—even if it’s still training, even if it’s still working—doesn’t jive for your program.
Yes, and maybe it depends on the athlete. Maybe some guys can do both but I’m not willing to take that chance, and I haven’t seen guys at this level run a loose program, so to say, and still be crushing it at the top level. I haven’t seen that in 22 years. I do believe programs evolve, teams evolve, motorcycles evolve. At one point, all the heavy-hitter riders owned their own facility. Now they don’t, so it’s changed, and I think that’s good. But I still think…look, I’ve never met anyone who has done less and gotten better results. You can’t get there.
[Laughs] Okay got that. Plus, you never know what people really mean. When you hear a rider say they want to have more fun and they’ll do better on weekends, that could be true, or it could be code for “I actually just want to do less work.” We never really know what the motivation is.
Yeah, and that’s a good question, Jason. And I think our biggest problem in our sport is the two combined series. I still feel the year is flooded with too much for these guys. As long as they’re racing, they need to fine tune during the week to make sure they don’t lose any of those pieces. I think guys are just looking for a way to reduce the load throughout the year. And your options to that are limited. You can’t take races away so then you start to shift the focus to the training and riding during the week. I don’t think anyone is trying to do less, it’s just trying to figure out a way to take a breath. Very few sports have a full year like this. Let’s just compare to MXGP. They do one series, and they have a good amount of time off. We don’t. That’s going to be a challenge for the rest of time until some dynamics change in this field. The guys get to a point, especially if they reach their goals. I’ve been hounded that I run guys ragged. No, they reach their goals and then they have options, and then they decide what they want to do next.
So, you’re saying that since they can’t change the racing schedule, so they blame the trainer or team?
Exactly. The travel is difficult. The hardest part about this job is the weekend travel. I feel it and I’m not even racing! I get home and Sunday morning and I’m struggling.
So, let’s say the “fun and freedom’ thing isn’t just a way to reduce the load throughout the year. What if a guy really think’s he will be better by trying something crazy? Maybe a guy thinks he should go try to ride in the desert, because that will help his skills in a specific area, or the woods or some hills or sand dunes. Something different for a performance benefit. Do people even suggest that? Because your program is about riding at the same place every day.
I’ve had people suggest that, and again, I’m open to suggestions. I tell all my guys, you have an idea, come to me respectfully, and let’s analyze it. A lot of times the problem is the logistics. I’ve had people say, “Hey why don’t you guys leave earlier before the race and ride at my track, which is closer to the race.” Sounds good, but hang on, there’s logistics of getting the motorcycle there, the mechanic…the dynamics of riding a different track is great, but there are dynamics and logistics that are hard to get around. You’ve got to maintain the bike, you have all these parts, and let’s say you have an engine problem? Then you’ve wasted the entire trip. We have three different supercross tracks here, so I don’t know how much more you could do. We’ll talk about it; would it be good during outdoors to ride different tracks? I think that’s perfect, that would be unreal, but we still have to have the logistics of getting there, the time to get there and come back. I always relate to, no one has it as bad as swimmers. All they see every day is that line in the bottom of the pool.
Ian Harrison made that point to me last year. If you’re a basketball player, you play on the same court, every day, and it’s just made of wood, nothing changes. The swimming thing is an example, too.
Every sport has its issues. I wish I could put a big old dome over my place because sometimes the weather will wreak havoc. I think every sport, it’s not going to be perfect. That’s part of what it is, you have to navigate it.
Do you ever get to the point where you get worried? Where you think you’ve had a good 21 year run where you were winning and you had top guys on your program, and maybe the sun was setting on that?
No, because I really don’t look back. It’s the same for the teams, when the riders come up for renewal you have to look at who is available. Last summer, we were not sure exactly who was in or out, but I don’t look like it like “Oh I’m losing guys!” I’ve very exclusive so I don’t think I’ll ever have a problem filling up with riders. That’s part of the appeal, and we’ve learned a few things and in fact my place is actually open to less riders now. We have an agreement with the KTM Group where this place is for the elite of the elite. I think that can eliminate some of the things that pop up down the road right there.
What about for yourself? You’ve been doing this for a long time, you’ve mentioned how hard the travel is. Look, you could slap your name on a training facility and show up one day a week and minibike parents would pay you huge money. Have you ever considered that?
No, I’m addicted to this. I turn 53 this year. I don’t feel like, health wise, I have any problems. I mean when I look in the mirror I realize “Oh gosh things are changing!” [Laughs] But I did the bike ride this morning and I felt good. These guys have limited time. This is a young man’s sport, and I have to be there for them to get what they want out of themselves, and what the team expects out of them. Obviously, adding the facility was a dream come true, but that adds more work, maintaining it. The travel is tough, but I think the guys understand that I don’t need to be there holding their hands on weekends. So, I limit my schedule on weekends a bit. I tell them that one of the main reasons I go to the races is to get the background on where they’re struggling, and where there are connections within the team where I can help, or I take [what I saw on the weekend] during the week to work on something. But thanks to good TV these days, I feel like I can get a pretty good feel for the weekend. So that part, the travel, is changing, and besides that I don’t see myself having any issues for another 10 or 15 years.