INTERVIEW OF THE WEEK: JEFF STANTON
Without perspective, all would be lost. Six-time AMA Champion Jeff Stanton has been there and done that. These days he can be found home in Michigan, running a banquet facility that he was converted out of one of his old barns. Despite his hectic schedule, Stanton hasn’t lost sight of what’s going on in the motocross industry. He’s opinionated and, unlike most, he has solutions to problems. Sit back and enjoy a fresh perspective from one of the most successful motocross racers of all time.
By John Basher
Jeff Stanton established himself as a threat in 1987, skipping the 125 class in favor of the larger 250 and 500 machines. The Michigan native finished second in the 500 National Championship that year while riding a Yamaha.
You really hit your stride in 1989 after signing with factory Honda. Were you shocked that Honda signed you?
It was a little bit. I was on a Yamaha and doing decent in the 250 and 500 Nationals in 1988. I happened to be reasonably close friends with Ricky Johnson. Between his influence and everyone at American Honda, it came together like a dream. Back then, Honda was on top of a pedestal. It was more than an honor to be there. They were so dominant in the late 1980s and early 1990s. That’s where everyone wanted to be.
You were brought in as Ricky Johnson’s protege. What was it like that first year aboard Honda?
At the end of 1988 and beginning of 1989 RJ told me to live with him so that we could train and ride together. He said that if I wanted to be the best, that I had to surround myself with successful people. I didn’t need to be a brain surgeon to figure out that it was what I needed to do. Going into the Supercross season we rode and tested together. It was an honor. Everything worked out great. Ricky was dominant. He went on a long race streak, and I was on the podium right behind him. For me, I was absolutely stoked. It was my first year on Honda, and I was finishing on the podium and making bonus money. Life was great. We went to Atlanta, and I was persistent and consistent. Ricky made a mistake, and I ended up winning the Atlanta Supercross. It was my first Supercross win. From there we went to Gainesville, where his career took a big turn. He was landed on by Danny Storbeck and suffered a wrist injury. It was super unfortunate for him.
Gainesville was monumental for several reasons–not only with Johnson breaking his wrist, but also the arrival of Jean-Michel Bayle. He won that day, while you finished second. It was a precursor to you and Bayle battling for titles in the following years. What was your relationship like with him?
There really wasn’t much of a relationship. With the whole French thing, he didn’t speak great English. We didn’t go out of our way to hang out. He had a totally different training style than I did. So, no, there wasn’t much of a relationship there. Roger DeCoster took him under his wing and Bayle did his own thing. My mechanic Dave Arnold and I did our own deal. It wasn’t until much later that JMB and I had a relationship and enjoyed doing things together. Everybody built up that there was huge animosity between us. The fact of the matter was that communication was not there. He didn’t do the things that I did. He didn’t train or go out and do his motos. He did what worked for him, and I did what worked for me. Yes, it ticked me off when he beat me. Everybody should get mad when they get beat, you know? The press made our relationship out worse than it actually was, especially the European press.
In speaking with Roger DeCoster recently, he said that his primary objective was keeping the peace between everyone at Honda when you and Bayle were under the awning.
Even in today’s world, a little animosity among team members is good. It makes everyone push harder. The last thing you want are best friends. A little trouble isn’t such a bad thing. That’s what we had at Honda. There were multiple guys who could win, so of course not everyone got along great. In my eyes, animosity wasn’t so bad.
“THERE ARE MAYBE FOUR OR FIVE GUYS THAT ARE KILLING IT. THAT SHOWS IN THEIR CONDITIONING AND RIDING. FROM THERE ON BACK DOWN THE RESULTS SHEET IT’S EMBARRASSING. WHEN I GO TO A NATIONAL AND SEE GUYS WINNING BY A MINUTE, AND THEN FOURTH PLACE DANG NEAR GETS LAPPED, IT’S EMBARRASSING.”
How much do you think training has changed since you raced professionally?
There have been advancements in technology. The bikes have advanced tremendously. I believe there a few guys who are using the training technology to advance themselves. They are steps above everyone else, and then there are the guys in fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth that I don’t believe are doing half of what I was doing when I was winning. Things haven’t changed. There are maybe four or five guys that are killing it. That shows in their conditioning and riding. From there on back down the results sheet it’s embarrassing. When I go to a National and see guys winning by a minute, and then fourth place dang near gets lapped, it’s embarrassing. Granted, things haven’t changed in forever. It was that way when I raced. What I don’t get is that some of these guys are on factory bikes and they’re getting lapped. How is it that they’re not putting forth the effort the other guys are? Do they feel that they don’t need to or what?
A while ago I did an interview with Bob Hannah, and he made similar remarks about modern racers. He couldn’t understand why riders would be proud of finishing a minute back in second or third.
It drives me absolutely insane. “Oh yeah! I got fourth place!” Dude, you were a minute and a half behind the leader! Are you kidding me? You’re pumped on that? I work with some amateur kids, and one dad was pumped his kid got sixth place at the Amateur National Championship. I looked at the lap times every single day, and the kid was 13 seconds a lap slower than the leader. That won’t get the sixth place kid anywhere.
What was it about the 500 National title that was so elusive to you?
That’s a good question. Some things just didn’t fall into place for me. I wanted to win a 500 title so bad, but I always seemed to finish second. Wardy [Jeff Ward] was good at riding those things. I guess I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, so it didn’t happen. The year I really thought it was going to happen I turned down racing the Motocross des Nations in Australia because it was in the middle of our 500 National Championship. It ended up that Jean-Michel Bayle pulled over and let Mike Kiedrowski by at the last race and I lost the championship. It was luck of the draw. Racing is racing.
You brought up the fact that you bowed out of racing the Motocross des Nations in 1992. Do you regret that now?
I do, absolutely. One hundred percent. That was a huge mistake on my part. Live and learn. I should have gone and raced. I regret never going to Australia to race. I was fortunate enough to go to Australia last year with Ricky Carmichael and do the Ricky Carmichael University. It’s a great country, and I made a big mistake. I was always stellar at Motocross des Nations, and they were good to me.
“I WAS DISAPPOINTED WITH ELI TOMAC FOR NOT DOING IT [MOTOCROSS DES NATIONS]. I’M BUDDIES WITH JUSTIN BARCIA, AND I’M DISAPPOINTED WITH HIM FOR NOT DOING IT. YOU GET BEAT A COUPLE OF YEARS AND THEN YOU BOW DOWN? THAT DRIVES ME NUTS. I WISH THERE WAS A LITTLE MORE HEART AND DETERMINATION IN THAT WHOLE PROCESS.”
In recent years Ryan Dungey and Eli Tomac bowed out of competing at the MXDN, citing that there are too many races throughout the year. They must have forgotten that guys such as yourself used to race a ton.
Dude, for three or four years I did 50 races a year. I did all of the Supercross races, Nationals, des Nations, and I was getting paid ridiculous money to race the European Supercrosses. I couldn’t turn it down. I can accept that Dungey didn’t want to do it this year, because he had gotten hurt. I was disappointed with Eli Tomac for not doing it. I’m buddies with Justin Barcia, and I’m disappointed with him for not doing it. You get beat a couple of years and then you bow down? That drives me nuts. I wish there was a little more heart and determination in that whole process. We almost won it this year. If that freak accident hadn’t happened to Jason Anderson, we probably would have won.
Is the Motocross des Nations losing relevance in U.S. racing?
I think so. The emphasis has been pulled away, because those guys are turning it down. We haven’t won in so long, so I don’t think guys appreciate what it really means. It’s the Olympics! I looked at the Motocross des Nations as upholding my country. You don’t turn down opportunities like that, you know?
There’s a rumor floating around that the Supercross series schedule will grow to over 20 events in 2018 and beyond. What are your thoughts on that?
I’m hearing more and more rumors about it, which means that it’s probably true. It is what it is. I understand Feld Motor Sports and where their thought process is. The times are changing. The outdoor Nationals are not getting spectators. It saddens me, because the sport is really falling apart. You’re familiar with it. You go to Europe and see 20 guys on the starting line at a GP. That’s embarrassing. That’s where we’re heading if we start deleting outdoor Nationals from our program. Kids learn to ride motocross. They don’t jump right in at the Supercross level. Without the youth following we’re not going to have anyone! There will be ten guys on the start line, and we won’t even have a show. I totally get Feld and what they want to do. There’s money to be made by selling out every stadium in the country. You can’t knock them for doing what they want to do. They want to make more money by putting more Supercross races in the schedule. At the same time, they’re not going to be bringing a bunch of kids straight out of Loretta Lynn’s and into Supercross. There has to be some kind of thought process to that. There is, and we’ve been in contact with them [Feld]. Their hope was the Arenacross thing, but kids are not going to go from Arenacross to Supercross. I hope the outdoors don’t totally go out, but I’m hearing we might have a 20-race Supercross series with three Nationals in, just like what NASCAR does. Hopefully we can continue to have outdoors, even if it’s a six-round series. Hopefully everyone can get along and work together, but I don’t see that happening [laughter].
“I’LL THROW HONDA UNDER THE BUS ABOUT THIS. MANUFACTURERS CAN’T JUST THROW ALL OF THE MONEY THEY HAVE AT ONE GUY. THERE NEEDS TO BE SOME THOUGHT PROCESS AT GEICO HONDA AND WITH THE AMATEUR PROGRAM. IT ISN’T GOING TO DO ANY GOOD TO PUT ALL OF YOUR EGGS IN ONE BASKET, AND THEN THAT RIDER GOES OUT IN THE FIRST RACE AND BREAKS HIS LEG.”
Honda is looking to get back on top, having hired Ken Roczen to a huge contract worth millions. Will Roczen be the missing piece?
I hope so. Obviously I bleed red. Honda is still taking care of me. If Kenny can stay healthy and continue to ride the way he has this year, then yes, I think so. He seems to like the bike. Is it the cure all? No, it’s never the cure all. Honda has made some mistakes in the past by getting rid of guys like Ricky Carmichael and a few others. There has to be development. I’ll throw Honda under the bus about this. Manufacturers can’t just throw all of the money they have at one guy. There needs to be some thought process at Geico Honda and with the amateur program. It isn’t going to do any good to put all of your eggs in one basket, and then that rider goes out in the first race and breaks his leg. Then you’re screwed and back to where you were in the first place. I’d rather see them have Ken Roczen and Eli Tomac, and bring guys up and keep them happy so there’s brand loyalty. Those days are probably gone by now. Look at what Kawasaki is doing with Austin Forkner. He was a Kawi guy forever, and they’re taking care of him. I hope for their sake that he stays at Kawasaki for ten years. That’s why Kawasaki puts so much effort into their amateur program. Hopefully some other manufacturer doesn’t come up and pay him $10 million a year…you know, then Ken Roczen in two years. Do you know what I’m saying? Will Roczen be Honda’s cure all? I hope so, and I hope they work together well. That’s kind of been Kenny’s nemesis is having a few problems with the technical side of it. Hopefully it’s not a love/hate relationship, but instead a love/love relationship.
Is there any modern rider who reminds you of yourself?
I like the Martin boys. [Alex and Jeremy] come from the midwest, and they work hard. They’re not the most talented, but both of those boys have done a great job this year just based on their hard work. They have some trainers on their side. I appreciate both of those guys. They do a great job in making up for their lack of talent by putting in the effort.