Mitch Payton, the owner of Pro Circuit, manages the Monster Energy/Pro Circuit/Kawasaki team that currently has two of its riders – Josh Hansen and Broc Tickle – at the top of the West Coast Lites Series leaderboard. Ryan Villopoto was with this team before moving up to the 450s and is a recent example of successful riders who, like Jeremy McGrath and Ricky Carmichael, started out with Mitch and went on from there. At the Oakland Supercross, we had an opportunity Saturday morning to sit down with Mr. Payton and asked him a few questions regarding the 2011 season and his team for those who might not be familiar with the Pro Circuit squad.
In the three races this year, your team has won the most points in the Lites Series. What’s behind this outstanding team performance?Although last week wasn’t their best results, they’ve [Hansen and Tickle] been good at the other two rounds, got good starts and done well in the heat races. That’s the key – it’s a long series, just being up front, being around the box all the time was really our goal.What are the strengths of each of your West Coast riders?The three riders with us for the West Coast Lites are Josh Hansen, Broc Tickle and Tyla Rattray. Tyla’s originally from South Africa and he rode GPs before. He was World champ over there and his goal was to move to the United States and ride Supercross. It’s been a little bit of a learning process for him. He’s nursing a little bit of an injured wrist, but his strengths are that he’s in really, really good shape and always strong at the end of the moto and, actually, that he’s been getting really good starts.Broc Tickle is new to the team this year. Broc was a kid we looked at for the last couple of years and his results have continuously gotten better. I think he’s going to win some races this year and he’s also a good starter.Josh is a kid that was extremely talented when he was young but went through a lot of, maybe personal, issues in his life, where he kind of lost everything. And then a couple of years ago our sponsor, Monster Energy – Mark Hall – wanted us to help him for the X Games. So he asked us if we’d put him on a bike. We said we would, Josh went to X Games – and he won. They appreciated that and said they wanted to keep him on as a Monster athlete. So, his salary is being helped out by Monster and we’re really happy to have him on the team. He’s obviously a really gifted rider. His problem in the past was just that his focus on racing wasn’t always there consistently. I think now he’s in a place where, personally, this is what he cares about, focuses on, and I think it’s showing.Training, of course, is just as important as speed on the track. How do your riders keep in shape?They all kind of do a little bit different training. Tyla works with Eldon Baker, Josh with Doc “G” Broc with Charles Dao, so each rider has their own different program, tailored to their needs, and it’s every week.Josh is from Colorado, Broc is from Michigan, and Tyla is from South Africa, but currently living in California – so they’re from all over the U.S. Do they have a base out in California for the western part of the series?Yes. Pretty much everybody starts out in California this time of year because there’s testing to do, there’s West Coast races, that’s where our shops are at, where we’re based, and it makes it easier for us to help keep their practice bikes going, in good condition. Kawasaki has a track in Corona, which our guys ride at, and we have another track at Glen Helen that we use.Tell us about your race bikes. How are your new 2011 KX250Fs working out?Technically, the Kawasaki 250 this year is fuel-injected, compared to last year, and the fuel injection has been a big improvement – a big improvement for anyone who buys one because you don’t have to worry about the jetting issues and changes from day to day or track to track. That’s been a real benefit and confidence-inspiring thing for the riders. When they do sections on the track they don’t have to worry about any carburetion issues.The other thing that the bike has is a new fork system that is exclusive, which is called the SFS (single functioning fork). One side has the spring and the other side has the damping. It’s a lighter fork with less friction so the action is really plush. Just listening to the guys, I hear its benefit is when the track is slick, where you see uys lose the front end.
What can you tell us about your staff?We have a great staff of mechanics and technicians that all work on the bikes. Derek Brush, who works for Josh, worked at Kawasaki for a couple of years, left and was looking for an opportunity. We decided to give him a shot and he’s been really good. Dave Feeney, who works for Broc, used to work here earlier, was Broc’s mechanic and wanted to come back. So we’re glad to have him. Wayne Lungair, who works for Tyla, was his mechanic in Europe when Tyla won the World championship. So each rider has his own mechanic. Bones Bacon is our suspension tech. Aaron Johnson and Zach White who help with development and the functioning of the team.With 17 races in all, extending into May, all over the U.S., do nerves get frayed at times?I don’t think it’s that bad on the nerves and such. It’s a lot of work to keep everything organized and functioning for that many weeks. There’s only one week off – at Easter – throughout the whole series. And as hard as that is on the Lites guys – they only ride half of the series – it’s even worse for the 450 guys because they have to ride that many rounds in a row. If anybody sustains an injury, it doesn’t allow an opportunity to heal up. It’s really important for our class, and more so for the 450s, that everybody stays consistent and focused so they can win a championship.
Could you describe the mix of business, professionalism and friendship that characterize the folks on your team?The whole reason we race is to promote our business, to prove that Pro Circuit has products that can win and that will supposedly go down to the average kid and the customer. Everybody makes a product and we believe our product is the best because we’ve won a lot of events and championships. We learn a lot from racing in our development. All that we learn winds up in the parts that we sell, and that helps the customer.Besides seeing your talented riders on the podium, what’s the best part about your job?To do this job, you need to love it. I loved racing, and then, when I got hurt, it was something that I wanted to do. It [having raced] is important. All of our staff and mechanics, even, have raced- all of them rode and raced in the past. It’s just something that’s in your blood. You love it and it pushes you to drive forward. I get a big satisfaction out of a guy winning his first race or his first championship. I think that’s really special ’cause they’ll have that forever and they’ll always remember it. Whether it’s one of these guys right now or as far back as someone like McGrath or Carmichael, or guys like Villopoto, you want to see these guys succeed and knowing that we helped a little bit in the beginning is really important.What’s the hardest part of your job?[With no hesitation!] Politics. I don’t like politics. I don’t think that doesn’t make it fun sometimes. You know, there’s things that go on that you don’t agree with or you don’t enjoy, but we’ve always told all of our guys – I have a saying, “Good things happen to good people” – if you’re honest and you treat people right, even if somebody jacks you around, in the long run you’ll come out on top.For those who might not know, tell us about your own career development?I actually rode off-road racing. I got hurt in 1977. After I was hurt I still wanted to be involved in the sport. About a year later when I was – believe it or not – 18 years old, with the help of my parents I bought a little Husqvarna shop in Anaheim, and started from there, selling motorcycles. Then all of a sudden I wanted to know what it took to make one bike fast. I couldn’t understand why they all went the same speed! I started learning about engines, and pipes, and different things, and it never stopped. You know, it’s an on-going process.How long have you been with Kawasaki?We’ve been with Kawasaki since 1993, and it’s been a great relationship with them. We’re very fortunate to have Monster here. We were Monster’s very first motocross team, in 2005. We’re really proud and honored to have those guys on board with us because they’re a big part of the sport now. This [motocross and Supercross] was the first big thing they really pushed into, and they really believe in this sport and they’re passionate about it. It’s great to have them.