Monster Energy Yamaha Star Racing has become one of the most successful teams in the pits over the last few years. In 2021 they won both 250SX titles and the Lucas Oil AMA Pro Motocross 450 National Championship in their inaugural season competing in the premier class. Each of those championships takes a team of people to accomplish the feat. Josh “Jelly” Ellingson was Justin Cooper’s mechanic for the last several years, helping the New York native to his maiden AMA Supercross and Motocross wins and his 2021 250SX West Region Championship run. Now Eli Tomac’s mechanic, Ellingson, is one of those vital people in the Star program. We caught up with him to see how he got to where he is today.
Racer X: Thanks for doing this Josh. I know you're busy trying to win a championship with Eli at the moment. Tell us a little about your background.
Josh Ellingson: Yeah! I grew up in a small town in Southern Wisconsin and we had family friends that raced dirt bikes. They got my dad and I into going and I got a dirt bike around 10 or 11. From there I went through the stages of racing 65's, 85's, and then big bikes. We had a pretty good scene doing Saturday night stadium racing and then Sunday motocross racing. You could basically race every weekend somewhere on both days. I knew it wasn't going to turn into anything serious. It was just a hobby. We would go to the local nationals which were RedBud and Millville every year. Then we'd go to Supercross in Minneapolis, Indy, and St. Louis. Going there, walking through the pits and seeing the trucks and people working on the bikes is what piqued my interest. I did some research on it and it turned into something I dreamed of doing.
At what age did you start learning the mechanical side of dirt bikes?
It started with me having to do my own bike work. My dad worked a lot, so if we were going to ride we had to learn to prep our own bikes. It was his way of teaching us to use tools and the fundamentals of fixing things. The racing side of it was going to nationals and seeing the mechanics working on awesome looking bikes. It just looked amazing. The bikes looked so good and it seemed like a lot of fun. It jumpstarted a dream of wanting my bike to look like that.
What did you do to follow that dream that eventually led you to where you are now?
Pretty quick out of high school I started at MMI [Motorcycle Mechanics Institute]. That was the end of 2011 going into 2012. I went there for just under two years.
You became Luke Renzland's mechanic after MMI. Tell us how that came to be.
I had a friend staying at GPF [Georgia Practice Facility] and one weekend I cruised up there to see him. Luke and his family were training there at the time. At some point I saw an old post from his family that they were in need of a mechanic. I was Googling 'race mechanic needed' searching for any thread for an opportunity. I sent them my resume to tell them who I was and let them know what I wanted to do. Surprisingly enough I got an email back and they were looking for someone. The timing worked out great. I went up to meet the family and later that week they called and let me know they wanted to do it. I had a few weeks left of school so I would go to school during the week and then on Friday drive up there and start building bikes Saturday and Sunday.
How long did you work for Luke?
I did two years with him as an amateur and he won two 450 titles. From there we went to Cycle Trader Rock River Yamaha for Christina Denney for two years as a pro. That was 2015 and '16.
Talk about the Cycle Trader opportunity. Chris and Christina Denney are fantastic people.
At the time they were a privateer effort similar to TPJ [The Professional Journey, fielded by Ted Parks]. Christina and Chris grew it into a pretty established satellite Yamaha team with really good success. They were like a stepping stone for riders. They had a chance for great results with a really good bike. It was a comfortable setting for me to grow the knowledge and experience at that level of race team. They were willing to teach and help you. They had a wealth of knowledge about pro motocross and could show me the ins and outs of everything. I was able to portray my work and get my face in front of others in the industry. It allowed me the opportunity to go to Star Yamaha.
How did that opportunity come about in 2017?
There was a mechanic position opening up after Cooper Webb and Eric Gass went to Factory Yamaha. Star's truck driver, John Addison, was a friend of mine and put my name in the basket. I had experience with the Yamaha from Cycle Trader and that made for an easy transition.
In 2017 you worked with Mitchell Harrison and Dan Reardon doing all of the supercross and outdoor series. I'd like to jump ahead to 2018 when you start wrenching for Justin Cooper. Did you notice a shift in your career in regard to the success that was coming?
We kind of got a little taste of Justin at the end of 2017 in the mud race at Unadilla. He led some laps which hadn't been done in a while for a pro debut. Coming into '18 I was excited. We had some pretty high expectations. We had a good off-season but had a misfortunate crash at the first round and we didn't get to see his potential in supercross. But we had a lot of success the first season outdoors.
You got your first pro podium with Justin that summer. How did that feel?
It was an exciting feeling. You go through so many years as a mechanic and that's your goal, your dream. You set small goals like let's get a top 10, let's work into the top five, and your goal becomes getting your rider to the podium. It snowballs into getting a win and then a championship. It made it more exciting that it was his first podium as well. We had a lot of our first career moments together.
The following season, 2019, he gets a career first podium in supercross and finishes second overall. You must have known he had all the tools to be a champion.
You saw how quick he started bringing the results and the consistency in his riding. It's not if it's going to happen, but when. In his first full supercross series he had six podiums which just solidified what he was capable of.
That same year you get your first pro win at WW Ranch. How did that day feel?
It wasn't shocking, but it had been, “When is he gonna get this done?” He grew up riding at WW Ranch and he's good in the sand. Everything was shaping up for it to be his day. He went 2-2, which got him the overall. To roll up there and give him a hug because we were both stoked was such a cool feeling. It was almost a relief. You can't even explain the feeling.
Cooper at the 2019 Florida National. "The bike was never a question. You knew every time you showed up it was ready to go. The guy goes out of his way to make sure everything is in line." - Justin Cooper Rich Shepherd Cooper cooling down after two hot motos in Florida in 2019. Jeff Kardas The overall podium at the 2019 Florida National. Jeff Kardas Cooper with Star Yamaha team owner Bobby Regan. Rich Shepherd
In 2020 Justin got his first supercross win. How did that compare to the outdoor win?
That one kind of trumps it. The first outdoor win is amazing. It was the first win in general and that makes it special. Then your first supercross win comes at A1, everyone is there, and to watch how he rode made it that much sweeter. There were some heavy hitters there. We would have been happy just to get on the podium. It makes the hard work all worth it.
He finishes 2020 second overall in SX for the second year in a row. In 2021, you guys checked another box with a 250SX championship. Talk about that.
Going in, this was his year to get things done. As the season was getting close he had a crash and messed up his foot a little bit. He took two or three weeks off. Then the concern was, “Are we going to be ready?” We only had a couple weeks on the bike after the foot. He came in and won Orlando and just handled it. He looked like the guy. He was riding like the guy. We had some wins and a good season. My job is to make sure that everything is perfect for him on the track. It's stressful. Everything went good and he got the championship. We got both 250 titles that night with Colt Nichols and his mechanic, Matt Winters. The celebrations and excitement were pretty awesome! For two mechanics and two riders to get their first titles, you can't ask for more than that.
Coming off the championship, you made the decision to move to the new Star Racing 450 program as Eli Tomac's mechanic. What led to that decision?
After the 2021 motocross season, they asked if I'd be interested. It was around the time the news was coming out that Eli was signing with the team. His longtime mechanic, [Brian] Kranz, decided he wanted to stay in-house at Kawi. I was one of the longer tenured mechanics at Star and they offered me the position. It wasn't an easy decision because of the relationship and time Justin and myself had put together. Those kinds of opportunities don't come around often. For my own career path, I decided I needed to take it.
What were your expectations for Eli the first year on the Yamaha?
He spent a lot of time in California before A1 and you could see the progress he made on the Yamaha and how he was riding. Our expectations were pretty high. We knew he tended to build slow into the season, so our first round was just, “Let’s see how it goes.” To come out of A1 with a sixth, we knew what we had to work on and were still in a good position. The progress we made from the first to second round saw him getting more comfortable. To see what he was doing at the practice track being done at the races was good.
Was the first 450 SX win for you at A2 just another level of excitement?
For myself it was another level of the goals I wanted to achieve. It was another first. It was cool to do it so early in the series. For Eli it was a turning point to show he could win on the Yamaha. It was pretty surreal. It was that feeling again that we could win this thing.
Have you wrapped your brain around the fact that you are most likely going to win a 450SX championship with Eli?
Obviously it's there. It's what we worked so hard for. At the same time you have to take each race as it's just a normal race and try to do your best. As soon as you try to do something different, that's when you run into some issues. We just have to keep doing what we know how to do and hopefully that's what the payoff is.
Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to become a professional race mechanic?
Don't be afraid to work hard. Set goals and dreams for yourself of where you want to be. Let it manifest into everything you dreamt to become. Meet and talk to a lot of people because you never know when that person could have a position. You might be the first person they remember who went up and shook their hand.