By Jim Kimball
COOPER, GOING INTO 2016, WHEN YOU WON YOUR SECOND 250 SUPERCROSS & NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS, HAD YOU ALREADY SIGNED YOUR 450 YAMAHA DEAL? Yes, actually before I even went racing in 2016, my deal was done and signed. So, I was fortunate that when 2016 came, all I had to do was go out there and race; it was pretty cool.
DID YOU HAVE MULTIPLE TEAMS VYING FOR YOU? At the end of 2015, I won my first 250 championship, but what I think helped me out the most was when I raced the USGP on a 450, and then the Motocross of Nations on a 450. I proved to a lot of people that I could ride a 450 well, which helped me. Going into the 2016 season, I got a lot of offers, and I had a few different options. Yamaha kept telling me was that they were going to bring their factory team back in 2016 with Chad Reed, and that Monster Energy was going to be involved. That was going to be the factory team, while JGR was likely going to be switching manufacturers. At the time JGR had Justin Barcia on a big, multi-year deal. But they were interested. I actually tested their bike at one point. At the time though, Factory Yamaha was the best decision.
YAMAHA DIDN’T WANT TO LOSE YOU, DID THEY? They were going to have Chad Reed be my teammate, and mentor, and do a lot of testing. Monster Energy was going to be involved, and it was a two-year deal. It was a really sweet opportunity for me. I actually rode the factory Yamaha and started racing the 450 at a couple events. I enjoyed that bike, so we did a two-year deal.
YOU HAD RIDDEN FOR JGR AS AN AMATEUR, SO MANY PEOPLE THOUGHT THAT YOU WOULD GO THERE. I can understand that. The possibility of going there was exciting because at that time it would have been a Yamaha deal as well. Basically, Yamaha wanted me, and they did not want JGR to have me. They were going to cut their support for JGR, so they really wanted me on their team. JGR would have been a great opportunity to be in North Carolina. That was where I wanted to be. As an amateur, I had ridden for JGR and they did my suspension and motors for a few years, so it all made sense.
TAKE US THROUGH THE 2016 YEAR. 2016 was a good year. But I had a bike shut off on me and broke my wrist. So, I had to race Vegas with my scaphoid, which is a small bone in your wrist, broken. 90% of the time recovery actually takes surgery, but luckily, I did not need surgery. So, I had broken my wrist two weeks before the Vegas finale, but I still went and raced with a broken wrist. My mother and my dad were there, and I wanted to win the championship. After Vegas, I did not ride, and was considering not racing the first couple of outdoors to let my wrist heal, but I lined up a few weeks later at Hangtown. I was able to race, and actually got on the podium that day. I was not riding during the week, I was just racing on the weekends. Then after Colorado, we had a weekend off, and that was when my wrist could heal, and I could start riding again. So, it was a special championship for sure. I actually did really well with my broken wrist. At that point, I had never won the AMA 250 outdoor title, so it really meant a lot to me. I really wanted to win that outdoor championship, especially having my teammate Jeremy Martin beat me in the championship the last two years. I desperately wanted to win, so it was cool to be able to accomplish that. It was really a good way to end my 250 career.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE HAVING CHAD REED AS YOUR TEAMMATE IN 2017? It was nice, but it definitely did not work out like we wanted it to. He was in Florida and I was in California testing. I felt like Yamaha, for some reason kept us apart. We did not really get to work together as much we could have. He was still wanting to win races, be on the podium, beat me, and protect his job. So, I do not think it quite worked out like everybody wanted it to, but he was a really great teammate. I respected him a lot and it was cool to have him around to ask questions.
CHAD SAID HE WAS LOOKING FORWARD TO MENTORING YOU, BUT SAID YAMAHA KEPT YOU TWO SEPARATED. WHY THAT WAS? I wish I knew (laughing).
YOUR FIRST YEAR ON THE YZ450F STARTED OFF DECENTLY, BUT YOU SEEMED TO STRUGGLE. A lot of people did not know, but I got hit by a rock from Jeffrey Herlings rear tire at the Charlotte USGP. I went to the Motocross des Nations with a broken hand. After the Nations I did not ride until the end of October. The bike was all-new and I did not gel with it right away. I only had November and December between the testing, the training and riding that I needed to be doing. I just could not find a good balance, it was a lot of testing but without much good testing, if you will.
IN THE 2017 SUPERCROSS SERIES YOU GOT HURT, RIGHT? At Minneapolis I crashed and separated my shoulder. It was a racing deal, and not anyone’s fault. I took five weeks off the bike, and really should have waited until it was completely healed before I got back on the bike. But lots of people pushed me to go racing. So, I returned to racing when I was not ready, still not healed, and just really struggled. Ultimately, my shoulder never really got better. I went into outdoors that year with that nagging shoulder injury. It was a tough start for my rookie 450 year. The whole 2017 year coming in, I struggled with testing, and did not have the proper preparation.
WOULD YOU SAY THAT 2018 WAS BETTER OR WORSE? Unfortunately, 2018 was actually worse. Yamaha told me that after four rounds I would be racing the 2018 YZ450F. They kept telling me “next round you will race it, next race you will ride it.” That went on all summer. I had stopped testing my 2017 YZ450F, thinking that I was going to ride the 2018, but it never happened. Finally, the weekend after the last 450 National I was told I was going to ride the 2018 YZ450F at the Florida USGP. But, Yamaha showed up with pretty much a stock bike. I crashed and tore the ligament in my thumb that holds your thumb together, I ended up having to have surgery. I was in a cast for two months, so that Fall I could only do a certain amount of training because I had a cast on. I actually did not ride my dirt bike until the week of Thanksgiving.
BUT YOU WERE ON THE PODIUM AT THE 2018 DAYTONA SUPERCROSS. I did the best I could. I was in California a lot, doing a lot of testing, and not really getting anywhere once again. I went to North Carolina once the season went east and that is when things started turning around. I took a sixth at Dallas, a fourth at Tampa, a second and a third in two of three motos at the Atlanta Triple Crown race and at Daytona I was on the podium. Everything was clicking, then Yamaha gave me a change to try that they thought was better, but it wasn’t (laughing). I popped my shoulder out again. I had a crash at St. Louis that banged it up again. Then I went to Indy and got a seventh and in Seattle I got a fifth. Then in the first main event at the Triple Crown in Minnesota, and I had a start crash and broke my leg in three different places.
IT COULDN’T GET MUCH WORSE, COULD IT? I actually came back for 2018 450 outdoor Nationals way sooner than I should have. I had only been walking for about three weeks, so it was dumb decisions looking back. I went out, tried to race, and struggled. Eventually I got a little better in outdoors, but it was just a lot of frustration for those two years, and lot of injuries. Some my fault, some not my fault, but it was a tough two years.
IT WAS OBVIOUS THAT YOU AND YAMAHA HAD REACHED THE BREAKING POINT. DID YOU HAVE MANY OFFERS? KTM showed interest still. I had some Yamaha contract stipulations that said I could not negotiate with other teams before certain terms were met. I actually gave Yamaha an opportunity to re-sign me, but it was a one-year deal, for a lot less money than I had been making, and a lot less money than what KTM offered me. I got a two-year deal with KTM for more money,.
ANY REGRETS ON YOUR CONTRACT CHOICES? Looking back, it would be easy to say I wish I would have gone to KTM originally. After my struggles in 2017 and 2018, I was really surprised that KTM was still interested in me. They did not write me off like the others did. They made the most of it, and here I am.
YOU HAVE HAD A SUCCESSFUL CAREER, BUT 2018 MUST HAVE BEEN HARD TO HANDLE MENTALLY. Yes, it was tough from the injury standpoint, lack of preparation standpoint, lack of confidence standpoint, and an everything standpoint. It is tough to go racing when you have doubts.
GOING TO YAMAHA SAVED JUSTIN BARCIA’S CAREER, DO YOU THINK THAT GOING TO KTM SAVED YOURS? The moment I hopped on it, I loved it. It was great. I felt within three laps, and I hate to say it, but more comfortable than I ever did before on the Yamaha YZ450F. That was a really, really cool feeling, right then and there, I believed in myself again, and knew that it was the right decision.
MOVING TO KTM REJUVENATED YOUR CAREER? At the time, you think you are at rock bottom and I definitely was, but I was faith driven, and knew it would all work out one way or the other. It was cool just to get on a bike again, get around the team, have that little bit of change, and to instantly have that belief again. The moment I hopped on the KTM, I loved it. It was great. I felt it within three laps, and I hate to say it, but I was more comfortable in three laps than I ever was on the Yamaha YZ450F. That was a really, really cool feeling, right then and there, I believed in myself again, and knew that it was the right decision.
YOU HAVE ALWAYS BEEN OUTSPOKEN, OFTEN TO YOUR OWN DETRIMENT, NOW YOU SEEM TO HAVE A QUIETER CONFIDENCE. Thank you, I appreciate that. Age helps that, along with a lot of downs over the past couple years. Also, the people I am around now with my mechanic Carlos Rivera, being one of them, along with the whole KTM team in general, have changed me. I feel like they have helped me a lot with being respectful and humble.
DID YOU HAVE ANY IDEA THAT YOU WOULD BE DOING SO WELL THIS SEASON? Not at all. I knew I would be a lot better, but definitely not this good. It has been quite an adjustment. I could not have asked for anything better. It is a long season and I am still learning and getting better. There are still a lot that I can be better at, so I am taking it one week at a time, tweaking what I can, and trying to apply that on the weekend. But no, I did not expect to have done as well as I have, that is for sure.
Photos: Brian Converse, Daryl Ecklund, MXA archive