Fire and Ice: Mitch Payton on Stroupe and Pourcel

Jean Turner | May 13, 2009

It’s been another banner year for the Monster Energy Pro Circuit Kawasaki team, and it comes as no surprise as Mitch Payton has quite the reputation for bringing out the best in his Lites riders. Payton is also no stranger to having the task of keeping the peace in the Pro Circuit pit among riders competing for a title. This year, Payton’s two polar opposites – the cool-as-ice Christophe Pourcel, and the fiery Austin Stroupe – went head-to-head in the East Lites series, which Pourcel clinched, along with the East/West Shootout title in Las Vegas. The two riders will be doing battle once again in the upcoming outdoor season, along with a full roster of other riders in the Pro Circuit Lites team.

Payton talked about the differences between the two riders, their riding and training styles, and what it’s been like dealing with friction among teammates. Payton also commented on Ryan Villopoto’s rookie season in the Supercross class, and the biggest challenges he sees riders face as they head into the premier ranks of AMA Pro Racing.

You have two very different riders in Christophe Pourcel and Austin Stroupe. Talk about their unique personalities.

I guess if you started with Christophe (pictured right), you’d say that in the beginning of the series or working up to it, he was for sure taking a really patient approach toward the series. He wasn’t amp’d out, wasn’t excited, like he was going to light it up and go crazy. In the beginning, it was more about really wanting to win the championship. He didn’t care about all the rest of the little stuff around it and I think he didn’t ever change that in his mind.

There were a couple races, like Louisiana where he got fourth and I was kinda like, ‘Man, you should have rode a little bit better,’ and he was never stressed about that. He’s like, ‘Yes, but it’s about points. It’s about the championship.’ So he doesn’t really care about the little details as long as he accomplished the goal. So he proved when he had to throw down really fast laps and ride hard that he could do it and when he was put in the back around other people, he was pretty conservative and took his time.

Austin on the other had is an awesome rider, great heart, gives everything he’s got when he’s on the track. The very first race and Daytona were both mistakes done in the first lap. He was probably over-trying, like Daytona was a bad start trying to make up too much time all at once. Same with the first round. He probably shot off the track. He’s kind of like that. He rides 110% the majority of the time he’s on the track. So he needs a little bit of the Christophe style and Christophe, I think, needs to ride a little more aggressive. But they were both capable of winning the championship this year, and Christophe won by being there every single round and being consistent.

Do you have to deal with them in different ways?

I think all of our riders are slightly different. Christophe obviously knows what he wants to do. He has an opinion how he wants to do it. He’s pretty strong-minded and kind of likes to do his own program how he likes to do it. Really, it’s just a matter of keeping equipment ready for him and make sure we do our testing with him when we have to. Then he likes to kind of run his own thing.

With Austin, it’s more of what I would consider a conventional style – like Villopoto. It’s a lot of just the same repetitive stuff. We go out to the track, we do our testing, he does his practice and we work on his conditioning. He works really hard at it.

You talked about how Christophe is more focused on the championship rather than each race at a time. Is that more of a European mentality?

Probably, I guess it is. It’s never been a mentality that I would say that I’m completely always comfortable with. We’ve always had goals that every week you go to the races and you’ve gotta win. And maybe you’re not paying attention to points as closely as they do. It seems like their mentality over there – they always talk about ‘the championship.’ ‘We’re watching the championship, we’re working on it,’ and it’s like they got this big plan. The only thing that’s scares me about that is if you give a guy too many points, you gotta ride phenomenal to make those points up if you get behind.

How do Pourcel and Stroupe (pictured left) deal with each other?

They’re teammates. They watch tapes together. They obviously of two different ages, they’re two different people. They’re complete opposites in a lot of ways.

So it’s not like Ryan Villopoto and Ben Townley where they were friends after the race?

No, I mean they’re competitors, and they’re teammates. They both obviously want to win and it’s always difficult.

I think it’s hard to race someone and not hate ‘em. It’s easier to hate the guy. So it’s difficult when you have guys on the same team and they’re doing well and they’re taking points from each other. It’s just the way that I believe we’re going to do it.

It’s a stupid way to think of something if you had one elite athlete and three guys that were slow and they sucked. Well then yeah, your elite guy’s totally happy and the other guys know they’re slow so there’s no problem. But if your elite guy gets hurt, then you got a shitty team. We’ve never wanted that. I’d rather always have the best guys we can. Sometimes we deal with friction if it comes up, but hopefully if we do our job and if they’re mature about it and if they race the track, pay attention to their job, they can still be friendly, or at least be cordial, and be teammates.

You gotta keep it all level and fair. It’s so hard to keep it all fair but you just have to. I think they learn from it. They learn to deal with the stress of being that close to someone as far as week in and week out.

It wasn’t originally your plan to have both Pourcel and Stroupe on the East, was it?

Everybody says that, but we never even made a decision on where anybody was going to ride. We had planned on doing that really close to the series; intentionally, we just wanted to watch everybody ride. And then both of them (Pourcel and Stroupe) broke their collarbones so we never even made a decision. But when they were both hurt, it kind of made my decision for me.

What are Christophe’s plans? Does he want to spend another year in Lites?

Well that’s the plan currently. He’ll ride one more year Lites and then I’m sure he wants to ride 450s.

Do you think his smooth, patient style will  translate well to the 450?

I assume it will, yeah. If he has a good outdoor season and deals with all that all season and has good endurance and if he can win the championship, then obviously he’s going to prove a lot. And obviously riding easy and smooth on a 450 is really important because it doesn’t tire you out so much.

But I expect Austin to be right there for the Championship, I expect Tyla [Rattray] to be in the championship and Jake [Weimer] to be in the championship. Ryan Morais hasn’t had good series’ in the past, but we want to see him up there. The outdoors is going to be a good series.

You’re going to have quite a full roster here.


Do you still talk to Ryan Villopoto often?

Yeah. We’re still really close and I’m really happy he finally won a race [in Seattle]. That’s really a big weight lifted off of his shoulders. He seems like he’s healthy again. He’s not sick. He’s back on track and he’ll probably just get ready for outdoors and he’ll be awesome.

What have you seen him going through this year?

I really, truthfully, thought everything that he’s done is predictable. Like I thought that the goal for him would be stand on the podium all the time. That would be a good goal because that’s top-three. You had to know that James and Chad were both going to be really fast. But if he did what he expected to do, or what I would expect him to do. He should be in the fight for that third spot on a continuous basis and he’s proven to do that. He’s had some rough races, which I think all of them have had the first year. The getting sick thing – that could happen to anyone, anytime. And then to win a race, that’s awesome. That’ll give him a little bit of a feel-good deal. I think the first year to ride outdoors, in my opinion, that’s more natural for him, so I think he’ll be more at home.What do you see as the biggest challenge for most riders when they move up to the premier class?

I guess even if you are successful on a Lites bike, you come out of this class and you’re sort of riding a wave. You’re on top of your game and you’re feeling like you’re the man. But the problem is you’re moving up to a class where there’s ten of those guys that used to be the man in the Lites class. They’ve already achieved the same thing you’ve achieved and they’ve got a little bit of a head start on you. They’re maybe a little older and wiser, maybe more used to the bike. So I always expect the first year for anybody in the big class to be difficult and have highlights, have low points and to be a struggle. McGrath is the one of the very few that I can think that moved in there on the 250 and just did awesome. Ricky and James, their first year was filled with some difficulties and Ryan’s has been, too.

Jean Turner | Contributor

A former staffer at Cycle News, Turner continues to contribute to the website and magazine as a columnist and someone we can count on to whip up a few thousand words on an off-road race when needed.