JUSTIN HILL’S CIRCULAR CAREER: MXA INTERVIEW
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Justin Hill dominated the AMA 250West Supercross Championship, but he’s still waiting to get going in the 250 Nationals. His cause wasn’t helped by an engine failure at Glen Helen. After three races his moto scores have been 8-9-DNF-12-17-7. Photo: Kyoshi Becker
By Jim Kimball
JUSTIN, WERE YOU DESTINED TO BECOME A PROFESSIONAL MOTOCROSS RIDER? Well, my dad was a professional BMXer who also did freestyle when he was younger. He was always riding dirt bikes along with bicycles. When my mom and dad got married and had my brother, he started to get away from BMX, to make time for a family. He also started riding Motocross again, which was more of a hobby for him than BMX was. He started to ride dirt bikes more frequently when my brother was young, and Josh just loved that. Anything with two wheels would have fit right in with us. Me and Josh and my dad all share a good general bike skill with anything that has wheels, so I think it was my destiny.
DID IT SEEM LIKE JOSH WAS THRUST INTO THE SPOTLIGHT WHEN HE SIGNED WITH FACTORY YAMAHA AT A YOUNG AGE? Yes, I was only about 11 or 12 at the time, but I remember he pretty much had a plan. Everybody moved up into the pro scene a little bit sooner than they do now. He was on big bikes when he was thirteen years old, same as I was. We were going by the Ricky Carmichael, and James Stewart days where everybody went and tried to race pro at sixteen. That was just when you started your pro career. As a family that is what we thought should happen. We were not trying to do the whole, spend half of your life on a Super Mini, and then spend half of your life in the 250-class route. All of us were in agreement on this idea of just going right into it, which can be good, or it can be bad. The good part is that you get right into it, and start making the money. It was big for us, and something we had never seen before. He won the Minneapolis 450 Supercross main when he was just eighteen, which was very young as a winner in the class. I was in my motor home in Texas for my own racing. We were watching the race on my computer screen, and could not believe it. Still to this day, it was one of those moments that I am so bummed that I missed out on. There are not a whole lot of those in my life that I am really bummed I missed, but that is one of them.
CRITICS MAY SAY THAT YOUR BROTHER MAKE SOME BAD CHOICES AS A PRO, DO YOU THINK THAT WAY? Well, my brother and I are very different, but I have never been not proud of him. He did his career exactly the way he wanted to, and it was nobody else’s decision. He was good and won races. He was on the podium a lot. He got paid, and he accomplished everything that he in his mind wanted, or thought he could do. There is always going to be someone saying, “oh he could have done this, he could of done that, and he could have been better.” At times I was right there beside him, and I think he could have done some things better, but you know what? He did it the way he wanted to do it. It was also at a different time, had he come up in my time, it would not have been quite the same. I just think the sport has got, let’s just say less fun, as far as extracurricular activities. Everybody is just a little more by the book, which in a way is good, and a way is not good. Dirt bikes are supposed to be fun. That is why we all started doing it, and he had fun doing it, so I am pumped that he did. I think I am way more business-like than most people are. But at the same time, I definitely like my freedom. I like to take time off and have fun. You just have to find a balance. I never wanted to criticize him because he has accomplished more than I have. I have not won a Supercross 450 race. To me, that is a big deal, and something that very, very few people on this earth will ever do. I am proud of him for that, and anything else is whatever.
WHEN YOU TURNED PRO, HOW DID YOU END UP AT PRO CIRCUIT KAWASAKI? It was just our first pick. We had a few options, actually a few places that we could have gone for more money. My dad and I made every decision together as far as what we thought was going to be the best career path. It definitely was Pro Circuit where we wanted to be. We were really into it what the team had accomplished. We respected what Mitch for a really long time, and watched him and his team through the years. Definitely, it was where we thought we needed to be.
HOW WOULD YOU CHARACTERIZE YOUR FIRST COUPLE SEASONS AS A PRO? I would say my first year in 2013 was very successful. I started the season with a broken hand, so I had a really hard time riding. I always loved Supercross when I was younger, and I was bummed that everybody saw me not do that great. I was like no; this is not me. I am a Supercross guy; just you wait. On paper, I did not score any podiums so I was bummed about it. Then I exited the Supercross series by getting landed on, and breaking my other hand. So I came into Outdoors with the other hand broken, and it took me all the way through the year just to be 100%, but then I felt awesome. Before coming into 2014, I was feeling good again, feeling like myself. I could truly ride again. I could do everything that I felt was going to get me wins and that was a turning point, just getting everything back in order and feeling comfortable again. I won my first Supercross in 2014, and was having some pretty good results indoors. I took the momentum from my Supercross series into the Motocross series, and that helped me a lot. I was in race shape, and I was confident in lining up at the gate.
WHY DID YOU LEAVE PRO CIRCUIT FOR RED BULL KTM FOR 2015? When you are the perceived next guy, everybody is going to throw everything at you to just come his or her way. I was eighteen, and I did not have my dad as involved in it, and that was a big mistake. I could have gone anywhere. Like I was telling you, every time I made a decision with racing, I had done it every step of the way with my dad. But I was out living on my own in California, and he was not there with me. We did not get a chance to make the best decision, and I blew it. Something I liked about joining Red Bull KTM was that it was going to be four guys under a factory tent, the old school way of running a team. This is what I grew up thinking a team should be. Obviously, I had known about Roger DeCoster for a long time, so I definitely had a lot of respect for him. I had a desire to hear what he had to say, and how he might help better my career. But the whole thing was a lot more detached than I would have thought. I was just under the impression that it would be a little different than it was, which was nobody’s fault really but mine. I wanted the opportunity to learn from Ryan Dungey, and get on the program with him.
SO YOU WEREN’T ABLE TO LEARN FROM THE TEAM? Yes, that is exactly my point. There was not a whole lot communication. I had suspected there to be a nice amount of time to get to know them, and see how they do it. I still could not tell you how they do it! I assumed this was going to happen. At the same time, I am quite different from Ryan who is an awesome, awesome dude, and is super driven. I have so much respect for him and what he was able to do, but at the same time, I do not think the same program would work for me that worked for Ryan. When I went over there, I was taking something that was already working, and trying to change it. I should have just been trying to stick with what was working for me, because it worked just fine. I like to do my own thing. I like to keep it light and have fun, but still always work hard. It is such hard work to do what we do that you might as well try to enjoy it, and make it easier on yourself.
HOW DID YOU FEEL WHEN KTM MOVED YOU TO THE TROY LEE KTM TEAM FOR 2016? At first, I thought, “Okay, that is fine, no worries”. They promised me that the bike was going to be the same, which it was. I was the only one to ride both, and I felt them to be very similar, so there was no problem there. I think more than anything, I was disappointed that I was told a thing, and that thing was not kept. People that know me, know that I am really old school, and I like when someone says something that they carry it through – because that is what I do. If I am going to do something, I will do it. If I were going to ride for Troy Lee, I would have approached Tyler Keefe (Team Manager) and said, “Hey can I ride for you guys?” That is not whom I signed up to ride for, yet that is who I ended up riding for. It is not necessarily a bad thing, but it was a principle thing.
WHAT WERE THE DOWNSIDES TO THE SWITCH? At Red Bull KTM I had signed contracts with people because I was free to wear my own helmet, and gear. It was factory, so I got to wear things that I wanted too. I like Fox a lot and was with them for years. I wanted to continue relationships that I was not able to continue, but Tyler was really awesome about it. He compensated me for what I lost out on. I do not mean a single bash him at all, or the TLD KTM Team, it was just what was done by the factory.
YOU GAVE THE TEAM IN 2016 A SUPERCROSS WIN, RIGHT? I was the only one to win when they first took over the Factory KTM effort, so that was cool. I was able to do something for them that was a landmark as far as them being a team. They became the factory team in 2016 and I won a race for them, and that is in the history books. I am pumped to give them that, but I would have rather gave them a championship. But we had a problem that year in Supercross practice at Detroit where I had a concussion. It was unfortunate because now after a really bad year that I had in 2015, I felt good. I started the year decent with the same scores that I had this year to win the championship. I started with a fifth, a second and a first. It was all getting better and better and I felt awesome, but had that crash in Detroit. That pretty much put a stop to it, I am bummed that I was not able to do more.
BUT NOW YOU HAVE RETURNED TO PRO CIRCUIT KAWASAKI; HOW DID THAT HAPPEN? I always kept in touch with Mitch. We actually probably became closer chatting with him over some time, and getting to know him just a little better from the outside looking in. I began to appreciate what they had, and who they were a little more. After I won in Toronto he gave me a call just saying congrats, and that he was super impressed that I got the win. Then a little later in the week, he gave me a call again and said, “Hey what would you think about coming back?” When he called me the first time, I was just expecting him to say, “Hey what is up, how is it going”, and that kind of stuff. I was not really expecting him to call back again and offer for me to come back because it just does not happen. I was so fortunate for him to feel the need for him to give me another chance. I was just like “wow Mitch that is cool.” Right after I got off the phone with him, I called my dad, and my dad just went “oh wow, that would be really cool, wouldn’t it?” I fielded some offers just to get my fair market value. I got a fair deal with good bonuses, and things that I wanted. I just wanted to earn back what I had thought I could have been doing for those two years that I was gone.
SO YOU RE-SIGNED WITH MITCH PAYTON FOR 2017, AND TOOK THE SUPERCROSS WEST 250 CHAMPIONSHIP! Yes, I was extremely bummed to be on the West Coast, because I broke my shoulder, my scapula, my collarbone, and pretty much everything on my left side. My shoulder blade was broken in three or four spots and it was just a big mess. Things can happen so quickly, and I thought to myself “why do I make these mistakes?” Just right then and there, I changed who I am. I changed the way I approach the sport and I gained so much respect for what I do. I now attempt to make very fewer mistakes and make better decisions. Winning the Championship was a big deal for me, and I ended the drought that Mitch had.
IS WINNING A 250 OUTDOORS MOTOCROSS CHAMPIONSHIP IMPORTANT TO YOU? For myself, it is important that I do the whole outdoor championship and to do well. When I signed up to ride a 250 again for Mitch, I thought I had a high chance of winning him a Supercross title. That is what I focused on, and that is what I did, so I am happy. At the same time, what I want to do now is for myself. I have now completed what I wanted to do for Mitch, and what I set out to do. Everything from here on out is just for me.
WHAT IS IT THAT YOU WANT TO DO? I want to have points at the end of the year to earn a career number. I want to win outdoor National races, and that is all a part of the puzzle. If I could be on the podium more often, then I am looking good for a championship. The Motocross series is a longer, and tougher series. I have just as good of a shot of winning the Outdoor one as I did winning the Supercross one. But I have not been looking that far ahead. I first wanted to get what I got done out of the way. Now that I have done that, I believe that I can build as a rider, and be more confident for the future in the Outdoor season. Riding a 450 in Supercross is what I look forward to mostly, but this championship right now is part of the puzzle, and I want to do my best to get it done.
YOU SEEM ANXIOUS TO MOVE UP TO A 450 RIDE, WHY? That is what I want to do, but there is a lot involved when you make another two-year commitment to something, so I am going to look at every single option. I am not going to rule anything out. Once again, I am in a position where something is working, so I don’t want to bust that up if I don’t have something better to replace it. That is all stuff that I have to consider, and we should have a little bit of time before I need to focus on that. They are going to push really hard to get me to run #1 plate on a little bike. But I have the #1 plate hanging on my wall, and it does not seem that big of a deal to me to run it. Honestly I think it is more of a risk just because I ride a 450 better. What I would hate to do is stay down in the 250 class, and maybe something happens to me. Then, defending the championship is gone, and I am pretty much forgotten about.
Justin wants to move to the 450 class in 2018. He reportedly has a clause in his Kawasaki contract that guaranteed him a spot on Team Kawasaki if he won a Championship. He did, but he may still need to prove his worth during the 2017 AMA 250 National Championships.
DOES ANYONE ELSE BELIEVE YOU ARE READY FOR THE 450 CLASS? I have more to offer as a 450 rider if I can get two years on it and get rolling. I am pumped that I won the 250 West Championship; I just want to move on and capitalize on it. I really don’t want to compete for the same title again. I don’t want to do anything that is going to stop the ball rolling for me. I just want the chance to show what I know I can do on a big bike. I don’t want to lose this opportunity. I am on a good 250 team right now, so I don’t want to make a move to a lesser team after a major accomplishment. I hope that I will have options in both directions. It is totally dog eat dog in the 450 class, and there are not as many rides available. But I believe that there is room for me right now.
Photos: Kyoshi Becker, Brian Converse, Pro Circuit, KTM, MXA