MXA INTERVIEW: JGRMX’S JONNY OLER ON SUSPENSION TECH
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HOW DOES A KID FROM WYOMING END UP AT THE JGRMX RACE TEAM BACK IN 2007? My grandparents opened a motorcycle dealership in Wyoming way back in the day. It was open in the summer months. They sold old Harley-Davidsons, BSAs, and a bunch of the English brands. Then, in the winter time, they had a taxidermy service. My dad grew up racing, and eventually he wanted to start his own motorcycle dealership. He opened a Rickman and Husqvarna dealership that, in a way, was in competition with my grandfather. That caused some friction, as you can imagine! My dad was pretty successful, and my grandpa finally retired, so now there aren’t any more issues [laughter]. I grew up spending time in the dealership, and like most motocross nuts, I began riding motorcycles at the age of three. I had a new bike every year, which was a great advantage. Unfortunately, the weather in Wyoming isn’t so good for riding, because of all the snow.
WHERE DID YOU LEARN YOUR MECHANICAL SKILLS? Through my dad and grandpa. My grandpa passed down his knowledge of motorcycles to my dad, and then he passed that down to me. My dad was always into vintage motorcycles. I had a lot of motorcycle history with regard to the development of different bikes through the ages.
DID YOU RACE? I tried to take racing as far as I could. Once I turned 18 years old I wanted to get the heck away from my parents, like most kids do. I packed up my bags and went by myself to California, but it was a dumb idea. I didn’t have the support of my parents after I moved. I wanted to live the dream, turn Pro, and dethrone Jeremy McGrath in Supercross. That was the plan anyway. I rode a few Supercross races, but I just barely made the night program.
WHAT DID YOU DO AFTER REALIZING THAT RACING PROFESSIONALLY WASN’T GOING TO WORK OUT? Fortunately, I had a few friends that were working at Yamaha Motor Corporation. I got a job at Yamaha building bikes for the testing program. On the side I would ride and race, but that fizzled out after a while. About that time my mechanical skills took over. After working for Yamaha for a few years I took a job at RG3, selling triple clamps and making service calls. That allowed me to learn the suspension end of things through Rob Henricksen at RG3.
HOW DID YOU TRANSITION FROM SALESMAN TO SUSPENSION TECHNICIAN? At a certain point I was getting fed up as a sales person and decided to quit. Rob asked me what I was going to do. I told him that I was going to work at 7-Eleven, because I was so burned out on the job [laughter]. He told me that I was making a bad choice. He proceeded to ask me if I wanted his help in getting a job. I thought it was strange that someone would want to help me after finding out that I planned on quitting. Rob is just that kind of guy. He knew of a job opening at Showa. With Rob being well respected in the industry, he could basically just tell Showa that I was interested and I’d have the job. I was thinking the job would involve collecting data and building spreadsheets, which is something I really enjoy. It turned out that the only job open was as a suspension technician for factory Honda. The title sounded pretty neat, and I figured it would be a good way to get my foot in the door.
WHICH RIDERS DID YOU WORK WITH WHILE YOU WERE DOING SUSPENSION FOR FACTORY HONDA? I came in right at the end of Jeremy McGrath’s career. I also worked with Travis Preston, Davi Millsaps, Andrew Short, Tommy Hahn, and Kevin Windham. I didn’t really enjoy the job, because I was basically just a monkey rebuilding suspension all day long. I was always elbow deep in oil and contact cleaner. My job as a Honda suspension technician wasn’t the most fulfilling job, but the challenge of suspension was awesome. Showa had me fly to Japan for an educational trip so I could learn the fundamentals of suspension. I was able to visit Showa, and that was an eye opener. To see how they manufactured suspension was amazing. Then I came back to the U.S. and was back to the grind.
HOW DID THE SWITCH TO JGRMX COME ABOUT? Before I answer that, I have to tell a back story. One of the race team semi truck drivers, Tom Gildea, had asked me where I wanted to live. He knew I was tired of living in California. Having traveled around the U.S. for a while and going to the races, I realized that I wanted to move to the east coast. I liked the country feel around High Point, which is in southern Pennsylvania. Tom told me that I should look at North Carolina. He said they had the Lake Havasu of the east coast, which is Lake Norman [note: a popular lake located northeast of Charlotte]. I kind of brushed the idea off. Then, a month later, Jeremy Albrecht called and told me that Joe Gibbs was starting a motocross team in North Carolina. He asked what I thought of working for them. Little did Jeremy know that I was ready to make the move regardless of what happened.
WERE YOU SHOCKED THAT THE GIBBS WANTED TO START A MOTOCROSS TEAM IN NORTH CAROLINA? To be honest, the name ‘Joe Gibbs’ didn’t click right away. I was aware of who he was, but I didn’t grasp who he actually was. The father of my girlfriend at the time found out about my job opportunity and told me that I had to take it. He went on and on about how he was a Super Bowl-winning football coach and was big in NASCAR. Like I said, I was convinced that I was moving to that area anyway, sight unseen. I told Jeremy that I was into the idea, so they flew me to North Carolina and I checked out the place. I was awe-struck by it all. At that point it was a done deal. I started at JGRMX pretty much right at the beginning.
TALK ABOUT THE PROPRIETARY JRI SHOCK THAT JGRMX DEVELOPED WHEN THE TRIED TO CARVE THEIR OWN PATH. That came about because the new Yamaha had that goofy shock with the reservoir pointed sideways. It meant that we couldn’t use our existing works suspension. We had to get new stuff. At the time, the asking price for works suspension was astronomical. Coy Gibbs, JGRMX team owner, being from the car world, asked why we couldn’t just build our own shock. I snickered and thought it was foolish. Coy contacted some shock manufacturers that worked in NASCAR. We started working on some drawings. We had a prototype built in about a month. It was crude, but it was in the ballpark. Going into 2010, we decided that we were going to take the plunge and make our own shock. Luckily, we had a Roehrig suspension dyno, because it probably would have been an impossible feat. I wouldn’t say the settings were great right away. Justin Brayton could probably attest to that [laughter].
WHAT WAS THE JRI SHOCK LIKE? Some of the shock’s features were from the car world, so those parts weren’t as dependable as they needed to be for motocross. We tested each little part and continually made improvements to the seals, pistons, bodies and shims. The JRI shock really evolved quickly. The first year it was pretty good, and by the third year we were really far along. The JRI had become something that looked nice, was very light, and we could fine tune it. At that time we had James Stewart, and in early testing he preferred the shock we had built over something different.
DO YOU USE THE ROEHRIG SUSPENSION DYNO FOR EVERY SET OF SUSPENSION THAT YOU BUILD? I use it for probably 95 percent of the suspension that I build. After I develop a setting at the track with the riders I come back and confirm on the dyno. If I still have some lingering issues then I’ll tune the suspension on the dyno before taking it to the track and have the riders test it.
ON THE YZ450F JGRMX USED KAYABA SUSPENSION, BUT WITH SUZUKI YOU’RE USING SHOWA.WERE THERE ARE ISSUES WITH THE SWITCH? This year has actually been the easiest of all. The bike is a pleasure to work with, because it takes to the changes and is easy to see the changes. Looking back at the team’s history, we started with KYB, went to Showa, and then built the JRI shock. After that we went to KYB, and now we’re back with Showa. Being an ex-Showa employee, I tend to favor Showa anyway. Having only about two months on the bike heading into the 2017 season, we were, and continue to be, farther along than we ever were in the past. This year has actually been pretty easy.
WHAT PERCENTAGE OF RACERS WOULD YOU CONSIDER TO BE REALLY GOOD TEST RIDERS? I would say 5 to 10 percent. In my experience, the phenom as a kid doesn’t generally offer much feedback. I think that’s because they have gotten catered to and are taught how to complain about a bike. On the other hand, a rider that didn’t get support and had to do his own adjustments at the track is more in tune with what’s going on with the bike. They learned how to diagnose the problem and come up with a solution. The less support a rider has had in the past tends to give them the upper hand when it comes to testing. We’ve had some really big names on the team, and also some lesser-known names. It seems like the lesser known riders are pretty good at providing feedback.
DO YOU THINK SUSPENSION TECHNOLOGY HAS CHANGED MUCH IN THE LAST DECADE? Yes, and no. It seems like the technology in suspension has been the same for quite some time now. There is still a damping system with some type of spring system. I read an article about 15 years ago where they asked the top suspension guys what they thought was going to be the future of suspension. A lot of guys mentioned coatings and improved valving systems. One guy brought up computers, and I laughed to myself. Then I thought that it could be possible. Now, 15 years later, suspension is still basically the same. However, the tolerances have gotten really good, as have the coatings. The ability to tune the damping system is really intricate. Now there are so many areas of tuning that it’s very easy to screw up.
WHAT ABOUT AIR FORKS? There was air suspension back in the 1970s. It’s not turning out to be something that people are liking. I don’t know if just getting a bad reputation, or if it truly doesn’t perform as well as conventional spring-style forks. The systems that most everyone is on right now is pretty old technology, but it’s getting more fine tuned.
WOULD WORKS SUSPENSION MAKE A SIGNIFICANT DIFFERENCE TO THE AVERAGE RIDER? It comes down to tuning the suspension for the rider. As long as you have your works racer on works suspension, and that suspension has been developed and tuned for that racer, then it’s a really good package. If you put a Novice rider on any generic setting, then the works suspension may work worse than stock suspension. Production components are really good. The settings are chosen so that they work for pretty much everyone. I don’t think it’s necessary for anyone other than the top riders to have works suspension. That is, unless they have the time and support crew to develop the suspension specifically for the rider.
WHAT’S THE NUMBER ONE PIECE OF ADVICE YOU CAN OFFER SOMEONE WITH REGARD TO SUSPENSION? Bleed the air out of your forks every time before you ride. Check your sag regularly so that it’s set up properly. Learn how your suspension works. In almost every component a clicker is essentially a needle closing off a hole. If you figure that oil is flowing through a hole, and you close that hole off, the oil doesn’t flow as easily. That will slow the oil movement. Understand that going in on the clickers makes things go slower. Keep notes on where the clickers are at. Make small adjustments, and always take notes on where you’ve been. That way if you’re going the wrong direction you can have notes to show you how to get back to square one. Don’t be afraid of your suspension. I find that a lot of riders are scared to touch their clickers. It’s the simple stuff that makes a big difference.