INTERVIEW OF THE WEEK: PHIL NICOLETTI
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Photos and interview by John Basher
What direction do you take when things aren’t going your way? That’s the question New York’s Phil Nicoletti faced several years ago. Nicoletti endured his fair share of problems in the beginning of his professional racing career. At one point, Phil contemplated retirement. Fortunately, he stuck with it and caught a few breaks before it was too late. Now, the JGRMX Yamaha rider is flourishing at a team that he considers to be family. It’s not clear whether Phil will race a full schedule in 2016, but the fill-in Supercross rider is lobbying for the chance to show what he can do under the stadium lights at Anaheim 1 and beyond.
I sat down with Nicoletti this past weekend during the ClubMX training facility open house in Chesterfield, South Carolina, to bend his ear about an up-and-down career, riding for JGR, and why he kept racing when things were looking grim. His comments are a refreshing perspective on the challenges of professional racing. Aspiring Pros should take note.
Phil, why did you originally come to ClubMX to train? I came to Club in the beginning of 2011 and stayed for a month. Brandon Haas and Zach Osborne, who were co-owners at the time, were very welcoming. I enjoyed my time here, but I had to leave in order to race Supercross in Australia. I knew that when I came back to the U.S. I was going to make ClubMX my primary place of residence. I really dislike California, and this is the best facility for me on the east coast. The dirt is awesome and the tracks are National-caliber tracks. This is my fourth year being here. It’s a fun atmosphere.
What separates ClubMX from every other motocross training facility? Every facility is similar, in that they all have a gym and their trainers. What stands out about ClubMX is their outdoor track. You can’t get any closer to an AMA National than here at Club. As you can see, it’s a National-caliber track. There are 30 kids riding the track every day, so it can get brutal. I could go anywhere in the country and ride, but as far as the weather and heat, this is the best place for me.
“I LOOK FOR THE SUFFER FACTOR. I WAS ALWAYS TOLD FROM EVEN WHEN I WAS A KID THAT THE MORE I SUFFERED THE BETTER IT WAS FOR ME. I HATE HAVING TO SUFFER, BUT I SEE HOW IT MAKES A DIFFERENCE. WHEN IT’S 110 DEGRESS OUT AND I’M PUTTING IN MOTOS AND ON THE VERGE OF COLLAPSING, IT STRENGTHENS ME FOR THE RACE WEEKEND.”
What do you look for when it comes to training for the Nationals? I look for the suffer factor. I was always told from even when I was a kid that the more I suffered the better it was for me. I hate having to suffer, but I see how it makes a difference. When it’s 110 degrees out and I’m putting in motos and on the verge of collapsing, it strengthens me for the race weekend. Racing a National is easy compared to the work I do here. I can see the difference in my results. It’s hard at times, because the heat is so demanding on the body, but I’ve learned how to manage my riding and conditioning. I actually taper off with riding through the outdoor season to pace myself better. To answer your question, the suffer factor makes training better.
What are your plans for 2016? I’ll be with Joe Gibbs Racing again. This will be my third year with them, and I’m glad to be a part of their program. They’re a great group of people. I wish I would have met them at the beginning of my career, because things would have turned out a lot differently for me. I have some things in the works for Supercross and hopefully they go through. Right now I’ll be filling in for Supercross and then racing the full National series. The fill-in program has been put to good use the past two years. In 2014 I rode nine Supercross races, and this year I did 11 rounds. Filling in isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because I still get the opportunity to race.
Are you itching to get a full Supercross deal? I do want to run a full year. On a scale from one to ten I’m probably a 7-8 outdoors. Obviously I still want to get better. Supercross is harder, and I’d rate myself at a 5. It’s hard for me to give myself credit. I make main events and can get close to the top ten, but Supercross is still a learning curve for me. I don’t want to make any excuses, but it’s hard getting thrown into the series when everyone else has been racing for six rounds. Those guys have their settings figured out, and I’m getting thrown to the wolves. Part of my job is to be ready and handle the pressure. It’s still tough. The ultimate goal is to get a Supercross deal and also do the Nationals. I want to be a top-ten guy in Supercross and a top-five guy every weekend outdoors.
I’m sure that you were presented with other opportunities for 2016 after having a solid season. Yeah, I had several opportunities, but I look at it differently. The guys at JGR make it easier to stay around. There’s never an issue with the bike, and everyone gets along well. Justin [Barcia], Weston [Peick] and myself are friendly. We’ll all go out to dinner, which is unusual for a team. That makes me want to stick around longer. Hopefully I can stay with JGR for the rest of my career. Who knows? Jeremy [Albrecht], Coy [Gibbs] and all the guys want the best for me, as well. I’m sure if a good deal came from somewhere else they wouldn’t want to hold me back. They have my best interests in mind, which makes me feel good.
You were all over the map in the beginning of your career, bouncing around from team to team. Was that tough? Yes, but it was my fault. I wasn’t ready when I was a rookie. I came out of high school and hopped into the Pro ranks. I wasn’t home-schooled or anything like that. When I signed with the Kawasaki team I wasn’t necessarily prepared. I was on the same team as Tommy Hahn, Andrew McFarlane and Kyle Chisholm. I really don’t think we all had the same equipment. I got lower-grade stuff. There were times in the summer when I was riding Brett Cue’s Honda CRF450 during the week, because my practice bike was broken. Then I’d go to the races on the weekend and race my Kawasaki. I’ve been through the wringer. I tell a lot of people that if I had to go back to that time in my life again I don’t think I could do it. Now that I see how an efficient program works I understand how it makes life easier. I can focus on other aspects of my riding. If people had to go through what Alex Martin and I had to go through with being on certain teams, I bet they would quit. That’s what makes me appreciate the guys at JGR. I don’t take anything for granted.
“I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT A GOOD PROGRAM WAS. MONEY IS THE ROOT OF ALL EVIL, BUT THAT’S WHAT IT COMES DOWN TO. IF A TEAM DOESN’T HAVE MONEY THEN THEY START CUTTING CORNERS. THE NEXT THING YOU KNOW YOU’RE NOT GETTING GOOD PRODUCTS ON YOUR BIKE. IT GOES SOUTH QUICKLY.”
How did you deal with riding inferior equipment and struggling all year long? It was a mental struggle. Like I said, I’ve been through those types of situations so many times in my career. It became common. I didn’t know what a good program was. Money is the root of all evil, but that’s what it comes down to. If a team doesn’t have money then they start cutting corners. The next thing you know you’re not getting good products on your bike. It goes south quickly. None of that is an issue now. The JGR team runs efficiently, which makes things easier and also more enjoyable. I hated the sport back when I first turned Pro. Fortunately everything came full circle.
Phil rode for the N-Fab/TiLube Yamaha team the year before linking up with JGRMX. He attributes that break to being the catalyst for his return to relevance. This photo was taken during the N-Fab/TiLube Yamaha poster shoot at Yamaha’s Supercross test track in 2013.
Were you thinking about quitting? Yes. In 2013 I was on the N-Fab/TiLube team. I wasn’t making any money, and I was riding for free. I always knew that I could do well, and they gave me that chance. There were a lot of pieces of the puzzle that I needed to put together. After 2012 I thought about going to college. Then I looked at how I invested 18 years of my life into the sport. I figured one more year wouldn’t hurt. I’m glad I kept plugging away. It made things worth it.
Describe the feeling after finishing third in a moto at Glen Helen this year. Oh, man. That was awesome. After working hard for so many years I finally finished on the podium. Granted, it was only a moto, but I didn’t care. It was one of the best feelings of my life. I would have liked to get a few more podium finishes this summer, but I showed what I could do. Next year I want to get a bunch more podiums and even an overall, which I think is possible. Every year I’m getting better. As long as I’m seeing positive results I’ll be stoked.
Is there too much emphasis placed on Supercross? I do. Then again, if you ask any team owner or team manager, all the limelight comes from Supercross. It’s where the money is. The demographic might be a little bit better, too. There are more women involved, and guys can bring their families. It’s harder in motocross, because having your wife and kids sit in lawn chairs when it’s 90 degrees out isn’t easy. At the same time, it’s the root of our sport. The Nationals are for the diehards. That’s why I like motocross more than Supercross. Times are changing, and you have to be good at both.
Do your Supercross results hold you back? Yes. My emphasis right now is motocross, because that’s how my deal is structured. I do ride a ton of Supercross, and I’m in the hunt for top-ten finishes. It’s not like I’m terrible [laughter]. It’s just one of those things. Eventually I’ll become as good at Supercross as I am outdoors. I just need to keep plugging away.
You and Alex Martin are really good friends. How did that relationship form? Alex was my teammate at Eleven10 Mods. I’ve known Alex my whole life, but I wasn’t really that good of friends with him back in our amateur days. Then when we were on the same team and dealt with the same issues. It seemed to form a bond between us. He ended up coming to ClubMX and we ended up living together in a cabin for two years. We became really good friends. I’ve only known “Troll” really well for four years, but I feel like we’ve been friends forever. He and his family are great people. This winter I’m heading out to California, and I’ll live and train with Alex and Jeremy. It should be a good time.
Did the dynamic at JGR change once Justin Barcia came on board? After all, he was touted as the guy who would win titles for the team. There was a lot of emphasis put on Justin. He’s the guy who has won titles before, and the team knew that he could win. He’s super talented. Then again, so is Weston. The great part is that we all get along. It makes things a lot easier inside the semi. I’ve been on teams with three other riders, and none of us would talk to one another. Justin has come down to ClubMX a few times, and I’ll ride with him at the JGR track. We can feed off each other, and it also helps with testing.
Good luck in 2016, Phil. Hopefully you’re able to line up to the gate for the entire Supercross series. Thanks, John.