Mitch Payton, one of the best interviews around, talks about stuff
Me: I recently ranked all the team managers on the sport. I ranked them on respect level and intimidation level and you got the maximum fives in both. And I wrote that you were so inside on the sport of motocross that you were actually outside. That’s how far inside you were. How does it feel, not winning my stupid ranking, but being so influential in the sport of motocross and supercross to the point where riders call you that don’t even ride for you and ask for advice, and companies that you don’t work with probably call you and ask you for advice. How does that make you feel?
Mitch Payton: I don’t really feel any different than I ever really did as far as any of that goes because for me it’s what I really truthfully enjoy and I love. It’s so easy, like they say, find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. I think you’re probably the same way. You’ve found something you love and you can do it so it doesn’t bother you to spend a lot of time doing it. Honestly probably a lot of it, and a lot of people don’t realize this, but I started at a Husky shop when I was like 18. At 18 I already kind of was doing something then I decided that I wanted to learn about engines, so I started doing engines. I don’t know if it’s good or it’s actually sad, but I’ve been around for 30-something years doing stuff since I was a kid. We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve been successful in two-strokes and four-strokes. I got really good people. Bones (Bacon) is very well-respected in suspension and the race team kind of grew and took its own life. It has really grown to almost another animal also.
I guess it’s flattering in one way. When you’re a kid you still kind of internally think you’re a kid, and when you look at someone else you think they’re an adult. When I look at Roger (DeCoster), Roger’s an adult. I remember meeting Roger when I was young and thinking “he’s an adult.” Now I’m 50 but when I look at Roger inside I’m still a kid and Roger’s an adult. I’ll always have respect for Sylvan (Geboers) and Roger and Dave Arnold who was at Honda, and (Keith) McCarty, because those were the team managers when I was young that I looked up to, and I’ll always have respect for them.
So being so influential in the industry, what you say and what you recommend is taken real seriously. I guess there’s no real agenda for you when these kind of calls happen or when things go on behind the scenes?
No, I think that’s a nice thing. Sometimes people say, that guy, he’s intimidating or he’s really tough or whatever, that’s probably true but I’m tough on things that I consider to be bad things. If you do something bad then I think you at least have to hear about it. You should attempt to try to fix that. But then if somebody comes to you and they ask your advice, a lot of times it’s the guy that maybe is going through their own internal struggle with what they’re doing so they’re asking you an opinion. So I want to be neutral and “take your hat off” and be honest with the person and tell them what you really, truthfully think. And then say, well, you know, what I believe is this. I think if you really feel that way then you should go to the person and discuss it and be honest with them. I had, when I was young, some good people that helped me say that you’ll never be wronged by honesty. If you’re honest you don’t have to bullshit somebody and try to remember that you scammed or something like that. I prefer to kind of go that direction. I think it’s easier to live that way.
Your 2013 season was pretty tough for you. So was, I think, your 2001 season…
It was ’03. Any year with a 3 in it we suck.
Payton used to have team managers but in the last few years, he's done it all himself. Photo by Cudby
Was this one of the ones that you remember being one of the worst ones since 1991?
It was really bad. We didn’t win near what we thought we would win. Am I disappointed? Yes. But I wouldn’t have changed anything. I felt going in that we should a chance of winning both titles for supercross and we should have stood a chance to win outdoors. That scenario changed at the very first race when Blake (Baggett) broke his wrist. So that hurt. You just keep getting his injuries and then Dean (Wilson) got hurt. You keep seeing these little things happen and you’ve got to be a realist and say, we can’t have very many more of these or the thing’s going to be away from us. And it got away. It happens to everyone. Everyone’s on top and everybody’s on the bottom, everybody’s second, and everybody’s third… It sucks. I want to be constantly up front.
I think we work hard to try to do that but there’s going to be those years where it doesn’t happen. If I thought we did something completely lame, then I would say man, we blew it. But I don’t really feel that we did. I’m confident the bikes were good. I’m confident that we did what we thought was the right thing to get us in the position. And just because you have a plan doesn’t mean it has to work. To quote Timmy Ferry, “you have to have a plan.”
You’ve won so many races and so many titles but I was still amazed coming to your truck and talking to you after the races. You still get pissed at the results. I think some people might be like, dude, we’ve won so much, whatever. But this stuff still gets to you. So I’m wondering is that good or bad? That years later an individual one race out of 29 in one single year can get you pissed. You definitely still wear it on your sleeve.
I don’t think you should do it if it doesn’t. I think if you’re just there… I look at some of the people that they’re there, but what are they there for? I get it. They’re there to have a job or to do something. But if I didn’t have the race team, I’d consider my time more valuable than that to just go there and watch. I’m not much of a spectator. I want to participate and be involved.
After I got hurt, I always tell my guys and I think you were probably that way when you were a mechanic. So you used to ride, and then you didn’t ride, being a mechanic or being part of a team, that’s kind of as close as you can get to still racing. You know how it is; you’re emotional and you’re like this sucks or we just did really good. You have all these highs and lows, and to be just flatline and monotone, that’s not me. I want to be really excited. I have to accept that there’s going to be some real bummers along the way too, but I want to win. That’s my goal. Like I’ve said in some interviews, I remember when I was really young and it wasn’t just one, it was a lot of the manufactures, I would try to give them one of our product and they would kind of almost laugh in your face.
They would say, well, the factory built this pipe and this and that. I’m like, no, you should try ours. And they’re like, who are you? How could you build stuff better than their factory? They’ve got computers… I’m like, well you haven’t even tried it. Just try it. Don’t tell me the computer story again, just try it! I know that if there’s an opportunity for someone to laugh at me I feel like they will, and I’m sure a few of them chuckled at me this year, I plan on getting even with that. I love racing.
Mitch is hoping for a repeat of 2011 when Dean Wilson won the outdoor national title. Photo by Lissimore
Let’s go down your rider list and you tell me what you think about their 2014 chances, what they need to work on, what you like about them, how you think they’re going to do. First up is Adam Cianciarulo.
I expect him to win races because he’s won races in the past. Every step along the way in his career he’s been able to prove that he can win and do it at a consistent basis. Is it a guarantee he’s going to win right off the bat in supercross next year? Nope, but I do expect him to win. And I expect him to be as good as we all expect him to be.
I think that you will see a very, very much improved Dean this year. I’ve always believed in his ability and his talent. You know Dean and you know how he kind of thinks, he’s like “I want to do it on my own. I kind of like being my own guy and I want to be a little different than the regular guy…” And I’m like, nope, that’s not going to work. You’ve got to be like everybody. Ryan Hughes is a guy that rode for me and I know Ryan works really hard and he’s going to help him train. And so far they’ve been getting along really good. I have honestly seen a difference already. I expect that to carry over to this season. I expect him to be probably the best Dean Wilson we’ve seen so far.
He’s going to win races and he should go for a championship. Everybody’s going to say I’m crazy. Unless I am one of the Three Blind Mice, I know the kid’s got the talent. I can see it. I love to watch him ride. He’s not a troublemaker. He’s not running around doing stupid things. He’s focused. He wants to win. He just so far hasn’t figured out how to win. I know he’s going to win.
He’s such a unique case because I can’t think of another rider that’s set the fastest times and won heat races and holeshots, and he’s clearly got the skills. Is there another rider that you either had or just in motocross history that he reminds you of? It’s remarkable at this point that the dude has not been able to pull it off.
What about Scott Burnworth? Burnworth was like a very talented, gifted, great starter… But I think Martin can do it. I like the way he rides. Unless you start believing in a different philosophy or something and you see somebody and you say, I really like his style, I like how he rides, he’s fast, then that’s the person you hire. Once again it didn’t really pan out this year but I didn’t understand it myself. We’re just going to keep going and I’m hopeful he can fix it.
Not so impressed with last year in supercross or maybe outdoors either. I think so far right now if I could have video taped him last year at supercross and you saw him this year, you would think last year it was a different guy. It’s a very important year for Justin but I believe in him and I think he will be much better.
Well he won a supercross two years ago against some very fast guys so he’s done it and can do it again. But this year he was just hurt from last year. His shoulder and then his ankle, but mostly it was just his shoulder. It put him out from before outdoors last year until all the way until right before this year. It’s one of those injuries that when you hear it you’re like it, bullshit. So then we finally talked to the doctor said, oh yeah, he needs another four weeks. I’m like, but he had like 9 months! So 9 months and four weeks is going to help? But it’s a lot better now and he’s in a better spot. I think he’ll have a much better season than he had last year.
He's also hoping for a bounce back year from Blake Baggett. Photo by Lissimore
I know I’ve asked you this before, but it’s no surprise that GEICO Honda’s been really aggressive in the amateur ranks and snagging a lot of guys. But it’s not something that you necessarily believe in. But has the GEICO success made you rethink that at all?
You have to believe that it’s been successful for them on a few of their guys. It’s a personal thing. There’s two sides to it. One, I go to the amateur races and you’re there and you talk to these people. They’re like, what are we doing here? We’re ruining these kids. They’re little jerks. There’s some little animals out here. I don’t believe in it. It’s my own belief. You can’t say that it doesn’t or can’t work. But then again the flip side to that is, if I do it, I understand that we could probably grab a guy each year, but then I help support Team Green so what is their job? It’s kind of what I look for them to do. And they have this whole program and structure down there and they want to do that, so for me to do it on top of what they do… I would like to believe that they should do that because we have some great 65 kids and 85 kids and 250F kids, and we have truthfully in the past two years been a lot more involved with Team Green to try to help with some of their top guys. They’ll pick two or three guys, or four guys, and they all get the same engines and stuff like that. We make sure we do those in-house here. So they have great equipment and it’s really up to them to do it.
It is possible if you pulled one of those kids that maybe you could elevate his skill set maybe a little bit by working with him more one-on-one. But what always scares me about that is what if you picked the wrong one? Whereas if you just watched… I would like to watch all those kids go through the natural process of racing and then say “that’s the guy.” And then we all go about getting him. And they’re like, what is this guy from the ‘40s or ‘50s? Because they’re signing these kids up. And I understand and get it but that’s their deal, not my deal. And you can’t do everything. So my job is supposedly to race in this class. We help Team Green when he’s in that class. If there’s a failure then we need to look at them a little bit, whereas most of the time everybody’s like, you need to do this, you need to do that. We don’t do that. They should do that.
Can you talk a little bit about Bones and your guys’ working relationship? He’s been with you since the mid ‘80s I think or maybe even earlier. How big of a part is he of your race team and your shop itself?
Bones is incredible because he’s just like myself as far as he loves it. He moved here from Arizona. He used to ride a Husky 125. He rode local motocross and never made it professionally. I was looking for someone to hire and he took the job and he started doing suspension. It was his way of being involved in racing, just like for me, that’s why I do it. He’s personally and passionately involved in it, loves it. He’s really, really turned into a really smart suspension and chassis guy. Obviously we count on him a lot. Bones does the race team stuff and then he also does all the settings and stuff that we use for the production retail side also. And that is a lot of work and it’s hard to do, but it’s also like the way we do the engines is that it helps us see… We get to work on all the different bikes and you learn a little bit from each one and I think that really helps.
Payton turned a Husky aftermarket shop into a world wide performance headquaters.
That fight with KYB you guys had back in the day when you wanted works stuff and him sourcing out to Showa, that’s become a big chunk of your business. I would say Pro Circuit brought back the buying of suspension from the ‘70s and early ‘80s when people actually did buy suspension. I don’t know how much business you do of it, but I’m sure it’s a shit ton. It’s really become a great part of Pro Circuit racing.
Yeah, kind of what happened was back in ’99 I think -Ramsey rode here. They way it used to work was the Works stuff or whatever, Kawasaki would give it to us for one rider. I wanted to make sure that all of our guys could have the ability to have the same equipment. That’s kind of what I believe in. I think everybody should have the opportunity to have the same bike as the other guy. You don’t give the fastest guy on the team the best bike and then ask the low go to beat the fast guy. You’re like, so I’m younger and trying to beat that guy and his bike’s better, so how am I ever going to do that? So I wanted to have the same equipment for everybody. They couldn’t do it. And I was told that that’s the way it was and if I didn’t like it, then do your own. And I said, then we should try that.
So we kind of went down that path and we started working really close with Showa. There were other satellite teams - we were considered a satellite team - that were kind of in the same position where if they could afford it, they would like to have it too. So we thought we might be able to sell some of this stuff if we get it right. So we came up with this concept of how we could do it. Sat down with Showa. They thought it was a great idea and supported us to make it available. So now the Works forks and shocks we have available for every brand, even including the KTM. You can put Showa suspension on your Yamaha, Honda, Suzuki, Kawi, everything. We’re a production-based bike and then you hear everybody go, wow, those guys’ bikes are so much better. But it’s another thing that you can say that we go and try it. There are some race teams that start up and it’s their opportunity to get closer to the factory level. It’s been a good business and it’s also been a great relationship with Showa and Bones is a big key part of that. They’ve really helped support our race team. That’s been important to us.