LET’S BEGIN WITH YOUR EARLY DAYS GROWING UP IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA. Well, my dad got me into motocross when I was 7 or 8. It was just the normal weekend-warrior-type thing. We did not put too much emphasis on it, but once I got some help at the races, we were definitely trying to make it happen. It was quite expensive, and my dad had to miss work just to get us to the track. We were selling old parts and all that type of stuff to get by.
WEREN’T YOU WITH KAWASAKI’S TEAM GREEN BEFORE YOU TURNED PRO? My main sponsor was my dad from the very beginning. I took a break from racing when I was 12, and I started doing the normal kid stuff—not involving dirt bikes. Then, one day I went to Perris Raceway with a friend from school who was racing the Beginner class. He was having a bad day and said, “Hey, why don’t you race for me.”
It had probably been a year since I had ridden, but I said, “All right. Whatever.” I got his gear on and went out and jumped the big jumps they had. This sparked my interest in going back to riding again. We got a little bit of help from Team Green to go race the Team Green Youth Nationals. I ended up beating a lot of their Amateur prospects. That started it, because Honda of Houston helped us out and gave me some bikes—that helped my dad cover a lot of the costs to race.
“I GOT A GOOD START AND WAS ABLE TO RUN WITH JAMES STEWART AND ALL OF THE BIG-NAME GUYS. I HAD NO IDEA WHAT TO EXPECT.”
DID THE HONDA OF HOUSTON AMATEUR RIDE HELP YOU LAND A JOB WITH THE GEICO HONDA PRO TEAM? It is a funny story. I was riding for Honda of Houston at the 2004 World Minis. I had cleaned house that year in Las Vegas and got a call from the Geico Honda team. They said, “We would like to have you come out and test ride our bike. We want to see if you are capable of going to the next level.” They wanted to do it on Monday at Cahuilla Creek. We drove straight home from Las Vegas and went to meet the Factory Honda guys at the track. I wasn’t feeling well—problems from nerves and the long drive. I got in my gear and my dad asked, “What are you planning on doing?”
I said, “I’m going to lay down the hardest laps I can until they pull me off the track.” I went out and rode as fast as I could and then came in and began taking off my gear. One of the Honda guys came over and said, “What are you doing?” I said, “Well, I am done. If you can’t decide after watching that, then I should not be here.” A couple of hours later Geico called and said, “We want you to line up at Hangtown for us.” That’s how I got my factory ride.
AT HANGTOWN, YOUR NUMBER WAS 386 AND EVERYONE WAS ASKING, “WHO IS THAT GUY?” It was shocking. I got a good start and was able to run with James Stewart and all of the big-name guys. I had no idea what to expect. I raced all the Amateur races, but I did not know what racing professional motocross was like. I got the holeshot in one of the motos, but didn’t know what to do! I literally had no training program; I was just riding. I definitely was thrown right into it. It was a learning experience. Geico Honda signed me for the next four years.
YOU NEVER WON A 250 CHAMPIONSHIP; WAS THAT A BIG DEAL? I wanted to win one, but at the same time, I felt that I should go out and race and the rest would work itself out. I did not point out of the 250 Supercross class. I had so much bad luck that the championship was out of the question. I wanted to move up to the 450 class, and Geico Honda did not have a 450 program. There was no platform for me moving up, so it was either shop around for a 450 ride or stay another year at Geico on the 250. That is when we got the call from JGR. I went out and tried their bike and I really liked it. After going to their race shop and seeing all that they did, it was a no-brainer. I packed up everything and moved to North Carolina.
IT MUST HAVE BEEN A DREAM COME TRUE TO MAKE YOUR 450 DEBUT FOR JGR AND WIN ANAHEIM 1 IN 2009. It was great rewarding them with their first—and my first—450 win. It was so unique and special. There had only been two guys who had ever won their first 450 race as a rookie, and to be in that category felt pretty cool. The JGR team was pretty happy about getting their first win too. It sparked a lot of good things for the future.
OTHER THAN YOUR BIG WIN AT ANAHEIM ONE, WHAT WAS YOUR TIME WITH JGR LIKE? I raced for them in 2009 and did really well, especially in Supercross. We missed a couple of races because I broke my arm at Jacksonville, but we got on the podium the very next weekend in Phoenix. Later, I battled with Chad Reed all year in the outdoor Nationals for the championship. I ran second in points for much of the series until I went over the handlebars and ended up breaking both my feet.
YOU ALSO RODE FOR JGR IN 2010. WHAT ABOUT THAT YEAR? 2010 was when Yamaha came out with its redesigned bike. I struggled with it. I did not like it at all. I asked the JGR guys if I could race the old bike, but Yamaha was trying to sell new bikes, not old ones, so it just did not work out. I did have some good races, but I also got hurt quite a bit that year due to being a guinea pig on this new motorcycle.
HOW DID YOU BREAK BOTH YOUR FEET? Actually, it was my ankles. As part of my No Fear gear deal, I had to wear their gear and boots. The boots were junk. I had originally hurt my feet at the 2009 X Games, and that was the start of my ankle injuries, but it kept escalating to where I am now.
“RIDING FOR THE HONDA FACTORY TEAM HAD BEEN ONE OF THE BIGGEST GOALS OF MY LIFE.”
AFTER YOUR TWO YEARS AT JGR YAMAHA, YOU ENDED UP ON THE FACTORY HONDA TEAM IN 2011. For 2011, I sat down with Factory Honda and worked out a contract. Riding for the Honda factory team had been one of the biggest goals of my life. Even though I struggled with the YZ450F in 2010, Honda saw that I still had the potential to do well. It was a one-year deal. I was coming back from my JGR Yamaha injuries and was behind the eight ball, but I was really happy with the bike. Then, all of a sudden, at the second round of the 2011 Supercross series, I ran into one of those typical Alessi stories that seemed to follow me from the Amateurs. Jeff Alessi cross-jumped me in the air and cleaned me out. I tore my ACL, MCL and PCL, all in one shot. It was one of my worst times. I wanted to be on that team so much and got hurt at the second race of the season.
YOU CAME BACK FOR THE 2011 AMA NATIONALS, BUT WHAT HAPPENED THERE? I came back for Colorado, and the day before the race, MX Sports’ John Ayers said, “Let’s go check out the track and tell me what you think.” We were cruising around in his Rhino when John came over the top of the jump and didn’t realize that it was a drop-off. The Rhino flipped, and I jacked up my knee again. I didn’t think about my knee at the time, because I was worried more about getting killed by a Rhino. The morning of the race, my entire body was sore, and when I went out for the first practice, I realized something was not right with my knee.
I tried to race Red Bud the next weekend by taping it up and taking all kinds of Novocain to stop the pain. I got a seventh the first moto, then stuck my leg in a rut in moto two and tore it out again. That was my last race of 2011. I only rode three races for Factory Honda that year.
I CAN IMAGINE THE DISAPPOINTMENT AND DISCOURAGEMENT YOU MUST HAVE FELT FROM THAT. I had a Factory Honda ride but was not getting paid because I wasn’t racing. It was the lowest time I ever had. I was pretty much over racing. I did not even care about dirt bikes. Then, I found out about the whole deal with my mom.
TALK MORE ABOUT YOUR MOM. She wiped me out financially. When I look back on it, I have to own up to not being as involved as I should have been with my money, but when you are a kid making that much money, you put your trust in your parents to help you out. I trusted my mom to take care of my finances. I have not spoken to my mom since.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT? After the Honda ride ended after 2011, I hung my boots up and thought I was done racing. I was going through some hard times, and I had a friend who had helped me out in the past who was an investor in the Jeff Ward Racing Team. They offered me a deal for 2012. I did not have any other options, so I signed a one-year deal with the Ward Racing Team. My ACLs were still torn up, but I took a podium at New Orleans with a second behind Villopoto. Later, I got an outdoor podium at Steel City. I looked at it as an opportunity to rebuild my career and put the dark times behind me.
DID THE PHONE START RINGING AGAIN? My rides sparked interest back at JGR for the 2013–2014 season. They had a couple more years of development on that new Yamaha, and I felt that the bike had turned around. And, things started turning around for me as well.
BUT YOU LEFT JGR TO JOIN CHAD REED’S PRIVATEER TEAM IN 2015. I did not know what JGR Yamaha’s intentions were about renewing my contract for 2015. To me, it seemed like they were holding out to the last minute to see if I would settle for a lot less money than I wanted. They took so long that it just pushed me to go with what I felt was right. Chad called and said he was building his own team and wanted another rider. Unfortunately, the next year it came down to dollars and cents, and I was not able to go any further there. But, Chad was awesome to work with, and I had one of the best Supercross seasons I had ever had. I rode every single Supercross, which I had not done in a few years. I clipped off a lot of top 5s and top 10s. Chad and I are still good to this day.
BUT, YOU REBOUNDED TO FILL IN FOR WIL HAHN AT MONSTER ENERGY KAWASAKI. Yes, after the 2015 outdoor season ended, Kawasaki signed me to fill in. They had just signed Eli Tomac for the following year, and there was a lot of new stuff for them.
MOST PEOPLE THOUGHT THAT YOU WOULD REPLACE WIL HAHN PERMANENTLY, BUT THAT DIDN’T HAPPEN IN 2016. WHAT HAPPENED? I was banking on riding for Kawasaki in 2016. With the results that I had at the end of 2015 when I rode inside the top 10 in the outdoors and killed it at the Glen Helen USGP, I felt as if I had a spot with them for 2016. They were thinking the same thing, but the management at Kawasaki was changing at the time, and they realized that Wil Hahn had another year on his contract. They could not release him, or sign me, so I was left without a ride again. After I realized that I was not getting a ride, I waited for something to pop up.
THE 2016 DAYTONA SUPERCROSS PUT YOU BACK ON THE MAP AGAIN. HOW DID THAT COME ABOUT? My friend suggested that I race the Daytona Supercross in March of 2016. I had a Suzuki I used for film trips. I rode it for about two weeks before Daytona, and then in Daytona I ended up getting seventh. It almost felt like a win, especially after going through all the tough times.
THAT’S NOT THE WHOLE STORY, THOUGH, IS IT? On our way to Daytona, we stopped to get some dinner. As we were eating, the Dallas Supercross was on the restaurant’s TV. We saw the big heat-race crash with Shorty, Wil and Nicoletti. I immediately got two text messages— one from Kawasaki and one from JGR. Hahn and Nicoletti had not even been carted off the track before I was offered two fill-in rides.
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THE MONSTER KAWASAKI DEAL? I felt comfortable with them. Also, I was racing their bike a couple of months before that. I was not mad at them for not signing me. I knew the situation they were in and that they had to keep Wil. They could not have a third rider with the added cost of parts, bikes, mechanic, travel and all that type of stuff. Once Wil got hurt again, I was glad for the opportunity to race Supercross again.
BUT YOU HAD SAT ON THE COUCH WHEN THE 2016 SEASON UP TO DAYTONA; WASN’T THAT A BIG GAMBLE? There were people who wanted to help me race, but it was not worth it. They wanted me to ride for free, but it was not something that I felt I could do. That is really the reason I did not show up for any of the Supercrosses. I know what I am capable of, and I know my value. Those opportunities were not there, and that is why I chose not to race.
BUT WHILE FILLING IN FOR TEAM KAWASAKI, YOU PULLED OUT OF THE 2016 AMA NATIONALS? I sat down with the team and said that I had to get my ankles fixed but that I wanted to be with them in 2017 when I would be healthy. I made a verbal agreement to get my ankles fixed and return to Team Kawasaki in 2017. I got my surgery right before July 1, 2016, and spent the next two months in a wheelchair. I was off for a good four months.
YOU HAVE SUCCEEDED IN LIFE AGAINST ADVERSITY, YOU CAN BE VERY PROUD OF YOUR 14-YEAR CAREER. I have not had the results that I wanted in the last couple years, but none of the top guys have had double-ankle surgery or gone through the troubles that I have. At one point I was suicidal. It was that deep and dark for a while, but the one thing that I learned coming through all of this is that we only have the “right now.”