By John Basher
So often the mechanics are forgotten about, mere shadows hidden behind the stars of our sport–the racers. However, ever so often the spotlight is put on those who wield wrenches. Remember Skip Norfolk, Jeremy Albrecht, Chad Watts and Mike Gosselaar? They are some of the most well-known mechanics in the past 20 years, and they achieved notoriety because their riders were successful.
There can only be two winners on any given weekend. Conversely, there are many proven mechanics who win in the sense of ensuring that their rider’s bike is performing optimally. Meet Oliver Stone, the mechanic from England who moved to Belgium and then landed his dream job at Pro Circuit in Corona, California. Stone has worked with Justin Hill and Dean Wilson in the past, and he’s currently spinning wrenches for Tyler Bowers. Oliver is proof that dreams do come true, even if not right away.
Oliver, why did you become a mechanic? It’s like most everyone else who is a professional mechanic now, which is that I’m a failed racer. I raced when I was a kid, which is all because my dad raced dirt bikes. I went to school and learned a lot about working on bikes. Actually, when I was young, I loved going to road races. Back then it wasn’t called MotoGP. I remember in 1994, my dad took me to my first race at Donington Park in England. In those days guys like Kevin Schwantz and Mick Doohan were racing. We went into the pits and I saw the mechanics working on the bikes. I told my dad that I wanted to be a mechanic when I grew up. I was ten years old, and I realized my vision at a young age.
How did you actively pursue your career choice? I started out by working at a local Kawasaki bike shop. Then I did my qualifications through college, which is the equivalent of Motorcycle Mechanics Institute in England. I got to the point in racing where I couldn’t afford to do it anymore, so that’s when I really went full steam ahead on becoming a mechanic. At that time I began working at the local shop during the day, and then helping out a local Pro at night. On weekends I would go to the races and wrench for him. That all began in 2006. A year later I got picked up to do the Grand Prix circuit, wrenching for Jason Dougan for the Fork-Rent Suzuki team. It was a dream come true. Since then I haven’t looked back.
Then whom did you work for? I moved teams every few years after that. Better opportunities kept presenting themselves, so I kept my head down and worked hard. After wrenching at Fork-Rent Suzuki, I went to an English team, which was run by Dave Thorpe. He was a three-time World Champion and a bit of a legend in the sport. He called me up and told me that he was starting a new CCM team. They made their own frames and used Yamaha engines. I moved to that team and worked for Tom Church. His dad used to run and own the factory Kawasaki team in Europe, but the team stopped before that year, so a lot of mechanics came to CCM from the factory program. It was cool, because there was a good group of guys. I learned a lot that year in regard to chassis geometry, development, and materials. We made our own clamps and frames. It was interesting to get involved in engineering. I was at CCM for a few years, but the team stopped racing MXGP.
Why? Maybe it was because of the budget. My heart was in MXGP. I wanted to be at the pinnacle of the sport and travel around the world. It was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to come to America and work for Mitch Payton at Pro Circuit. That dream was formed when I was 12 years old and saw Ricky Carmichael’s KX125 in the pages of a MXA. It was the sickest bike I had ever seen. So I figured that if I stopped wrenching for riders on the Grand Prix circuit then I wasn’t going to reach my goal in life. As a result, I started to look for other work. CCM asked me if I wanted to work in their motorcycle manufacturing plant despite pulling out of the MXGP series, and I flat out told them no. It was a bit of a gamble, really, because I didn’t have anything lined up. I took a risk.
Then what happened? Word got around, and Jacky Martens’ factory KTM team needed a mechanic for Joel Roelants. He was a good kid, and very successful, too. He had some podiums in GP, and he was on the Red Bull Juniors team. I went to Belgium and met with Jacky. He offered me the job right away, which caught me off guard. It was then I realized that I had to move countries. I packed up my van, moved to Belgium, rented an apartment, and began working in Lommel.
Lommel is the hub for motocross in Europe. What was it like living there? It’s pretty much the Corona, California, of Europe. All of the teams are near Lommel. If they don’t live in Lommel, they at least have a race shop there. So many of the riders live there. Some of the guys have two bases in Europe, with Lommel being one of them. Lommel is the happening spot, because in the winter the weather gets wet, with snow and ice. Lommel is one of the only places to ride, because it’s so sandy that you can still ride it. What’s funny is that the town is so little, but you’ll see Tony Cairoli walking through the grocery store.
After wrenching for Roelants you began working for Jake Nicholls. That makes sense, given that you’re both from England. Is that why you were linked up? Yes. The team paired us together. It was quite hard for me to move to another country, where I didn’t speak the language and got paid in a different currency. I worked at a team where English wasn’t the number one language. I didn’t exactly feel like an outsider, but it was really tough emotionally. There wasn’t the regular chit-chat. It’s hard to get in on a conversation when no one is speaking your language. I kept to myself and kept my head down. The whole time I thought about working for Pro Circuit, and that’s basically what got me through the tough winters in Belgium.
You and Jake Nicholls were a part of something unique, weren’t you? Yeah, in 2012 we actually developed the 2013 KTM 250SXF, which was pretty cool. I went back and forth from Belgium and Mattighofen, Austria, to help with development. I got to work with a lot of inside stuff, which was pretty interesting.
How did you finally reach your goal of working for Mitch at Pro Circuit? My friends helped me out. One of my friends, Andy Summers, is the sound control guy for the FIM. He had always recommended me to Mitch. I went to Glen Helen for the USGP in the past, and Andy was always introducing me to Mitch. However, I was always so starstruck by the guy that I couldn’t say anything. I sent Mitch a resume for five years in a row. Then, at the 2012 Motocross des Nations at Lommel, I was working for Jake Nicholls. Pro Circuit was there with Blake Baggett. I heard through someone that Mitch needed two mechanics. I was excited, because it doubled my chances of getting on the team [laughter]. Another friend, Dave, who used to drive for factory Honda in Europe, has known Mitch for 25 years or something like that. Dave would always look after Mitch when he came to Europe. I asked Dave to put in a good word, and he spoke with Zach White from Pro Circuit. Zach knew who I was, so he told Dave to tell me to send him a message on Facebook. I owe a lot to Andy Summers and Dave for helping me land my dream job.
What was your first business encounter with Mitch Payton like? On Friday morning I walked into Mitch’s office. I introduced myself to Mitch, and he acted like he had never spoken with me before. I nearly had a heart attack! Then he admitted that he was joking. We spoke a lot about the position, and at the end of it I asked him to give me two weeks to prove myself. He had the green light to send me home after two weeks if he wasn’t happy with my performance. I was called into Mitch’s office two weeks later and a contract was sitting on the desk.
In hindsight, do you wish that you could change how things went down with switching jobs? Well, people were giving me a hard time for how I handled things. Looking back, I wish that I was more open. Jake Nicholls took it really badly, and he said that I should have just told him about the opportunity. However, it was something I had to do for myself. I did a lot for Jake that year, and I feel bad with the way things ended. We haven’t spoken since. If I was to meet him then I would shake his hand, because we got along pretty good.
Now you’ve been at Pro Circuit a while. Yes, I started a little over three years ago. I worked for Justin Hill the first year. He was a rookie, and so was I. That was pretty cool. Then I worked for Dean Wilson. Last year I worked for Tyler Bowers, and I’m still with Bowers. I’ll probably work with Austin Forkner this summer. I helped Forkner a bit last year. There’s a lot of talk around the shop whether Bowers will race the outdoors. I was told that if I stay with Pro Circuit then my future will be with Forkner. That’s kind of exciting, and I’m pumped that I played a big part in him signing with Kawasaki.
As a mechanic, you’re always putting forth your best effort. Still, it has to be hard during the years when maybe you don’t have a podium-level rider, right? You just have to remember why you started. Everyone that starts out as a mechanic never get the best guys straight away. You do it because you’re passionate about it. The bad days motivate you for the good days. When I first came to Pro Circuit I was starstruck. I made it, and then I didn’t know what to do. I was lost for a couple of months. There was so much to learn, I was far away from home, and I was living in America. Then I remembered that I sacrificed so much and yet I still had my passion.
The MXGP series travels all over the world, racing in different countries and on different track surfaces. What do you think of the schedule? It was cool to see other countries and their cultures. You can see people living in wooden huts one weekend, and then people living in mansions the next weekend. The tracks represent the different parts of the world, too. You go to Italy and it’s like riding on concrete. In Belgium it’s deep sand. The riders have to be able to adapt to so many different tracks. The bike changes in setup dramatically. We were always testing for the conditions, and we had to plan ahead.
I notice that the MXGP riders are more versatile in handling track conditions than AMA National riders. Do you agree? That’s tough to say. I’m one of the lucky ones, because I’ve seen it from both sides. Some European riders can quickly adapt to the track conditions. Then again, you never see the Americans struggle at the Motocross des Nations, no matter where it’s held. If you want to talk about track conditions, think about how Supercross riders need to learn a track in only eight minutes. In Europe you have a couple 40-minute sessions and then a qualifying heat, and that’s a day before the motos go off. I’ll say that all of the Pro riders are talented, regardless of which series they race.
How will the 450 MXGP series play out? Is Tony Cairoli finished? No way! Cairoli is never done. He’s so talented on a bike and mentally strong. I’ve seen him win a lot of World Championships, and he came from behind. Sure, maybe he had some injuries, but he was always still there. When he’s 100 percent he will win both motos. The 450 class over there is like it is over here — stacked. There are ten guys who have won races before and who, on their day, can be unstoppable. It’s good for the sport. I’m excited that more American fans are following the MXGP series, and I’m excited for when they Europeans come over to race at Charlotte and Glen Helen. We’ll be there, as well. It will be cool.