Most people might not have even noticed the bright red leathers or even the immaculately prepared Rotax dirt tracker. And since he was pitted like everyone else under an awning in the relatively dark infield of the Pomona Fairplex' 5/8ths mile dirt track, he pretty much blended in as just another old guy out for a bit of fun in Gene Romero's West Coast Flat Track Series.
But for those who knew him or of him, there was no mistaking John Kocinski. Even at the age of 40, he didn't look any different than the 32-year-old who last raced a Vance & Hines Ducati in the AMA Superbike Series in 2000. And not much different than the youngster who won a 250cc World Championship in 1990 and the World Superbike Championship in 1997.
"When I called the leathers company and told them I needed a suit, they asked me what size," Kocinski said with a smile from his pit on Saturday night in Pomona. "I told them to make ‘em the same size as I wore before. They said, ‘You sure?' "
The highlight for Kocinski on Saturday night in Southern California was a victory over up-and-coming dirt tracker turned road racer J.D. Beach in the eight lap semi-final of the K&N Open class - with Kocinski holding the kid off to take the win and advance to the main event. In the main, Kocinski finished 11th on his Bondio Fabrication-backed Rotax (arguably the trickest bike in the paddock), but this wasn't in a field of slackers. The winner was Harley-mounted Henry Wiles - the man who a few minutes earlier came away with the win in the AMA Grand National Twins final.
We caught up with Kocinski for a few minutes prior the night of racing getting started.
Okay...what are you doing here?
I've always had a passion for flat track racing. From my experience with road racing, I enjoy building chassis and parts - basically just taking what I learned from road racing and trying to apply that same principle to flat track to see how much relates similar and how much is different. With the road racing, the track stays pretty consistent and the tires wear out. But in dirt track racing the tires stay pretty good and the track wears out so you're always chasing the racetrack and whatever you start out with in the beginning can be absolutely terrible by the end of the race - or vice versa. It's fun for me. It's a challenge to learn more about what makes a chassis work - what it needs and what it responds to.
How involved are you in the bike itself?
I oversee every aspect of that bike. It's been a fun project. I set out with a target with that bike and we have definitely have done some testing with it, but on much smaller racetracks and we've learned quite a lot in a small amount of time. We decided to come to Pomona just because it's a much larger racetrack and to see how the chassis would react and how it would work. Of course, this racetrack is very different - the dirt is a lot different than anything we ride on. Of course, the straights are much longer so it's a whole new learning curve.
Have you been racing, or just testing?
We rent a local track and go out and test. The unfortunate thing is that I haven't ridden in probably five months and this year I've ridden only twice, so when you ride only one or two times a year and you come to an event like this... I come here not so much to race, but to learn about the chassis and take the experience from a different racetrack. You really have to spend more time on a motorcycle to actually go to an event with your mindset of we have to win this thing. We're here to gather some information and get out of here in one piece.
When was the last race you actually participated in?
I did a local race at Perris [California]. I did one this year and I did one last year - on some different variations of that bike. We're constantly building new parts for it. It's been pretty good so far. The only problem at this point is myself - just trying to visually go that speed again and feel comfortable and miss all the holes. There's a lot going on out there. And judging by the tires, their brand new, so it's like sand on a sidewalk - it doesn't even wear the tires. You can't really set anything up because there's no grip. I hope it gets better as the night goes on where there is some grip and you can get some heat in the tires and make the chassis work.
You look like you're in the same shape as the last time we saw you racing?
Conditioning is important to me and I feel like I'm going to live forever. If I take care of myself, then I'll have a lot of longevity. If I want to come do this when I'm 85 years old, I want to hop on my Rotax and go. I just want to give myself the best chance to give myself as much choices as possible as we get older. I was never really busted up, touch wood, so that helps so I'm not fighting any nagging injuries. So that's a plus. You just set goals in life and work hard to try and catch ‘em.
Do you watch the current races like MotoGP?
I try to stay up with it and I follow it through cyclenews.com. and it's an interesting setup, but when you stand back, like a long way back, and you look at it, it's interesting how if you're not Spanish or Italian, your chances of making it are slim to none. It almost seems like a European Championship than what I remember it when it was a World Championship with a variety of riders. Europe has definitely produced some amazing riders, there's no doubt about that, but it just seems like the scale is a bit tilted.
Do the 800s interest you?
Nah... I enjoy the flat track racing and that's why I put this bike together. When I stopped dirt tracking at a very young age and went road racing, that's when the Rotax were just coming out. It was a bike I never got to ride and I always wanted one so I figured, ‘what the hell I'll start right here.' We've got a big task ahead of us to do well and we have to make sure we don't fall short of our expectations."
Are you still involved in real-estate development in Beverly Hills?
Yep... same real estate development. We've got a big project going right now and it takes all my time. I get frustrated because everything I do I like to do it at a very high level and there's only so much time in a day. I just can't deal with... someone said you have to prioritize things, but for me everything is a priority. That makes for an interesting life.
Has the economy hurt your business?
There are a lot of rich people, but in the bad economy you find out who are the rich people because all the leveraged rich people... you don't see them anymore. The real rich... well, put it this way - there's no foreclosures.
It's a challenge. The stuff we do is traditional. Real period... it's 18th century Italian, French. It's real stone and everything comes from Europe. We take our time and make sure that everything about the property is perfect. I'm involved in every aspect of the business - just like with this bike. It's tough. It's tough to be a one-man band, but every time I try to hire someone I end up finding out that I have to... if I hire five people, I have to watch over five people and most of the time do the job for them. If you want it done right, most of the time you just have to do it yourself and take your time.
Everything is brand new from the ground up. If we buy an existing place, we completely tear it to the ground and start over. It's a process.