THE MXA INTERVIEW: THOMAS COVINGTON

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By Eric Johnson

In 1994, American racer Bob Moore won the 125cc World Motocross Championship. Nearly a decade in coming, for Moore, who had committed to racing for a world title all the way back to 1986, the year after the former minicycle sensation had clinched the nascent AMA 125cc West region Supercross Championship, the Federation Internationale Motocyclisme Gold Medal was the ultimate reward for the dedication and perseverance he had displayed both to himself and to motocross fans the planet over. Interestingly, what made Moore’s championship challenge even more impressive was that he did it during an era of total American domination. In the mid-1980s, the balance of world motocross power shifted, radically, in favor of Uncle Sam’s contingent. During the period, the United States was, by all accounts, the world power in MX. However, that axiom just didn’t register with Bob Moore. Instead he steadfastly adhered to his childhood dream of becoming a World Champion, and when all was said and done, he did, in fact, fulfill his dream. Admirable stuff.

Enter the year 2014 and 18-year-old Thomas Covington. Born and raised in the far flung state of Alabama (for motocross), Covington started racing at age five and was a winner right from the onset. Careening down the well-worked path that is the American amateur system, “Big Air” Tom (a nickname given to him by his brothers) did all the correct things, did all the correct races and won all the correct championships. So correct was he that late last winter Mitch Payton offered him a spot on his mighty Monster Energy/Pro Circuit/Kawasaki team for the 2014/2015 season. Covington was both happy and appreciative, but the FIM Motocross World Championship was a clarion song for the teenager (a three race offer to run the opening phase of the globetrotting tour only turned up the volume to 11). Covington decided to give the three-race part-time gig a go. And the three race shakedown went reasonably well for the rookie – a rookie not even completely graduated out of the amateur ranks – and when a two-year offer was tendered to him by the highly-competitive CLS Kawasaki Monster Energy outfit, Covington decided to be his own young man and to hop off that beat-down American path, thus he signed on the dotted line and paced up the plantation to begin a quest for a world title.

Jumping ahead, all 17 races of the 2014 World Championship have now been and Thomas Covington, after spinning the globe, found himself a respectable 17th overall in the points chase. What was it all like? Just how big of a challenge was it? Was it, as he initially assumed, the right move to make? Motocross Action recently cornered the friendly southerner in his home away from home in Temecula, California and asked him these questions as well as a few others. Read on.

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MXA: Thomas, the last time we spoke you had just competed in the MXGP of Brazil. At that point you were up in the air about racing either the 2014 AMA Nationals or the FIM Motocross World Championship. As history now dictates, you made the decision to be a GP rider. What led to that decision?

After the first three GPs I decided I wanted to stay in Europe. CLS offered me the ride to go with them for the next two years so I went with them. I thought it was a good choice.

You started racing when you were five years old. As far as your career in the sport is concerned, deciding to race for the World Championship, as opposed to racing the Nationals here in the U.S., must have required some soul searching. Was it a tough call for you?

When I was making the decision, I looked at it from more than just the racing side, you know? It was a life decision for me. It wasn’t just a career decision. I felt like in the bigger picture, it was better for me to go over there. Even to this day I feel like I made the right change. I wouldn’t change my mind for nothing.

When you left to join the GP circuit, did you hear the reverberations from America? Were people involved in the sport in the U.S. shocked by your choice?

Yeah, everybody thought I was nuts. But a lot of them who thought I was nuts didn’t know anything about the GPs or what they were about. After I did those first three GPs, it all sort of blew me away. I was blown away by how big the races were and how well they were ran. It was all so professional. It was almost like the life of a MotoGP guy. That’s what I felt like especially with the flyaway races when we were gone for three weeks. Sometimes we didn’t even get the chance to ride during the week because we were just flying from one place to the next and living out of a hotel – which was all pretty cool. I definetley dove into the European thing head first. I expected it to be hard because everyone who would talk about would say, “Oh, .it’s different in Europe. It’s a different game.” To me, I was like, “It’s motocross. I’m on two wheels. Motocross is motocross.” But, yeah, when we went to round four in Italy, it was the first round of the season in Europe, it was a little bit of a shock for me because I came in pretty confident. In the first three I was running up inside the top five the majority of the time. When I want to Italy for the first race, it was at Arco, the track was like nothing I’d ever seen before. It caught me by surprise. I ended up crashing so much because it was so slippery.

What made the Arco di Trento truck so different?

Every track I’ve ridden on in my whole life has been ripped and watered. There, it wasn’t ripped or anything. They just watered it and it was hard as a rock with little pebbles on top. It was so slippery that I didn’t know when my tires were hooking up or when I was getting traction.

From the Arco race forward, you appeared to lose some momentum and your results started to drop off. Was a lot of that due to the fact that you were trying to acclimate yourself to this big, new world? Not only were you a rookie, but you were a rookie based on the other side of the world.

I struggled at the first two or three in Europe – Italy, Bulgaria and Holland. I was sort of trying to get on my feet again and I was starting to get back up into the top 10 again. I got a ninth in France. It was going well for me and I was getting just a little bit better each weekend. At Maggiora in Italy I qualified fourth. That was the best I had qualified yet. On the lap of qualifying, though, I ended up breaking my foot. That put me out of three races right there.

During that period, did you ever think, “Maybe I should have just stayed in America and raced there”?

There was a lot going on with it being my first year as a pro. Being a professional racer changes a lot, even if you’re still living at home and racing in the U.S. For me to just move over there a week before that first race in Arco was a lot. I noticed right away in practice that I was a little farther down on the lap time charts once we got into Europe. That surprised me and I was really down on myself. Even so, I didn’t regret my decision to go at all. I felt like I was right where I should be. It was definetley better for me to be there.

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You left your family as well as all of your friends behind when you set up shop in Europe. You were, without a doubt, on your own. What was that like?

The team had a house and they put me up in it. Man, I thought it was cool. I was just loving it. I was 18 years-old and a professional motocrosser traveling the world. I was just like, “Man, I’ve been blessed.” I was really happy and just enjoying every moment of it. I was just having a good time, you know? I was trying as hard as I could to be ready and trying to take in as much as I could from the people that were around me. I wanted to learn as much as I could about the GPs. I wanted to make the most of the opportunity.

Using the team you raced for as sort of an example, your teammate Arnaud Tonus will leave the GP circuit and race here in the States in 2015. Your other teammate, Dylan Ferrandis, wants to be here by 2016. As a converse of their aspirations, you wanted to leave America and go race around the world. Unique sets of circumstances, huh?

I look at it like… I had dinner with Tonus the other night. He’s here in California testing the bike. We were talking and it was like, Europeans want to come to America because they’ve never been here and they hear about it and everything. For me, it’s like I always hear about GPs and I wanted to see what that was like. I think some people just have the urge to see what the rest of the world is like. To see what you’re missing out on. I want this to be a life experience. Also, I thought I learned a lot with my racing, too. With the different racetracks and everything it would make me a better rider. I knew real rough tracks like Lommel [Belgium] would make me a more skillful rider. Whenever I do come back over here in the future, I’ll be a more well-rounded rider.

How about the GP paddock? So many different riders from so many different parts of the world.

I get along with pretty much everyone. There are some other riders who can’t stand one another. There is quite a bit of drama in the pits. As far as me, I get along with everyone. Everyone is really cool. Although we’re all from different countries, there is sort of camaraderie there. We’re all from different countries, but we all travel around the world together. We see each other each weekend and we’re all giving it our best to do our best.

As far as dealing with the media or racing in a different nation every week, how was it being the lone American? You were holding the flag up over there the U.S MX way of life.

As far as the locals from each country, they really enjoyed me being there. They had a lot of really positive things from them. My results weren’t really that great, so you might expect them to be like, “He’s no good”, but really they helped me get through the season because they were like, “Oh, it’s so cool you’re over here! We’ve been watching you every week!” They loved keeping up with me. It was cool to see that. It surprised me. I really liked that part of it. And as far as the paddock, most of them thought I did really well for my first year being myself in Europe. They know how hard it is and how different it is. The typical fan in America may have looked over at me and my results and said, “Oh, he sucks.” But the people who understand GP motocross, they know and they sort of have a little bit of respect.

The guys you raced against looked every bit as driven and competitive and just plain good as the American guys. How do you want to answer that?

That’s always the question people want to ask me. They want me to compare the two worlds, but you really can’t. It’s so different. The tracks are so different, the food, everything. Everything is different. You really can say Europe is better than America or America is better than Europe. You really can’t say. I mean both series have really good and really talented riders. One series is just as hard working and driven as the others. I think maybe the strategies are a little different and the racing is different, but as far as the skill the level and work ethic goes, it’s the same thing. We’re all just professional athletes.

You were one of the youngest riders in the class in 2014. Truth be told, most of the riders in the MX2 division were significantly older than you. Arnaud Tonus is 23 years-old.

There have been a few guys like Roczen or Herlings who just light it on fire at an early age and are winning everything. For a majority of the guys, though, it takes them a few years to get a little bit of experience to sort of ride to the top. Like you said, Tonus is 23 and has been racing the GPs for a long time and he’s struggled and has had some injuries and he’s never really been on top. Then just like this last year he just sort of lit it on fire and he’s on top of the world. It’s cool to see that and it’s positive for me because I’m so young I can still race MX2 for five more years. That’s good for me. Not everyone is a Roczen or Herlings. It’s going to take me a little bit of time. I’ll get there.

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All in all, a good year?

Yeah, there were a lot of good things about this year. There were also some bad things. The bad things, I’ll just learn what I can from them and take them into next year. I’ll remember the mistakes I made and the things I did wrong and fix those. Looking into next year, it’s going to be like a giant step for me. With everything I know now as far as how the training works and how the travel works and how the races go, I’ll be much further ahead. Also, I’ll be shadowing Tyla Rattray during this off-season and all of next year Tyla will sort of be guiding me a little bit. I’m really lucky to have a guy like him, a guy who has had so much experience in the GPs an in America. He’s always been known for always being prepared and he’s always been a hard worker. I’m really looking forward to learning what I can from him.

Do you have a Jeffrey Herlings story for us?

I don’t really see Herlings too much. I don’t hang out with him that much. I did have a few words with him when he was planning on coming over here for Unadilla. He asked me, “Man, are those guys in America really as fast as they say they are?” I talked to him a little about that and said, “Yeah, they’re fast. No doubt. I think you’ll do good. I still think you’ll do great.” I could tell he was a little nervous about coming. That’s really the only words I’ve ever spoke to him.

The Motocross des Nations is only a few days away. How do you think Jeremy Martin will do in Latvia?

I think he’ll do really well. A lot of it will have to do with confidence. I mean he’s the champ, you know? I think he’ll do good. He should be able to beat those guys. At the same time, the guys in Europe are fast and I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the Euro guys won. It’ll be close. Really close.

Thomas, what do you make of this proposed Ryan Villopoto versus Antonio, America versus the world, matchup?

It would be awesome for the sport. Not only for the GPs, but for motocross, in general. I think it would put a lot more eyes on the sport – pretty much the two champs from each side of the ocean would be going head-to-head and you’d be crazy not to watch that. If you’re a motocross fan, it would be like the perfect, perfect storm. I’m racing and I can’t wait to watch the 450 class. Of course I’ll be pulling for my American guy Villopoto. However, I love watching Cairoli ride. I love his style. I watch him any chance I get. He’s just fun to watch. I don’t think it would be easy for either of them. For either of the guys, it won’t be an easy championship. I think it’ll be a really good, close race and they’ll have to fight it out to the end.

What would be the toughest thing for Villopoto?

Probably when he is just in the heart of the season. When you’re in Europe you sort of get stuck in a rut. You’re flying out every weekend to probably not the best tracks in the world. He’ll have to race on tracks that are probably like nothing he’s ever raced on. At the same time he’ll have Tyla there helping him through it all and he knows what he’s doing. I think he has a really good plan and he’s not jumping into this unprepared. He’s going to be into it and he’s going to be ready. I think he knows it won’t be easy, either, so he’ll be prepared.  It’ll be the biggest thing in motocross – pretty much ever.

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