Ricky Brabec Interview: Talking Desert

Mark Kariya | December 27, 2016

Ricky Brabec Interview: Talking Desert

Ricky Brabec Interview: Talking Desert: Few would’ve guessed early in his career that Ricky Brabec would close out 2016 as a two-time Kenda/SRT AMA Hare & Hound National Champion with a seat on the factory Monster Energy Honda Team, preparing for his second Dakar Rally.

Ricky Brabec Interview: Talking Desert
First or second at all but the round he skipped due to a conflict with his rally schedule earned Ricky Brabec the right to carry the number one plate in next year’s hare & hound series. It’ll be the second time he’s run that plate, having first won the title in 2014. Photography by Mark Kariya

A former BMX racer, he wasn’t a regular in the AMA District 37 desert races near his hometown of Hesperia, California, and even dropped out of the scene for a few years before storming back with a vengeance in 2014. A large part of that involved shedding pounds from his 274-pound frame, but many consistent hours on his mountain bike and in the gym (as well as riding) trimmed him to a much leaner, stronger 211.

Brabec enjoyed huge success that year, winning three of desert racing’s biggest championships: SRT AMA Hare & Hound National Championship Series, Best in the Desert American Off-road Racing Series (for the second year in a row) and SCORE World Desert Championship.

Three championships didn’t make 2015 easier, though, and due to budget slashing throughout the industry—with desert racing hit especially hard—Brabec found himself with even less support as he tried in vain to defend those titles. Getting hurt halfway through the year didn’t help, though he still finished second in points despite missing two rounds.

But by the end of 2015, things began to look up for Brabec and demonstrated that all his hard work hadn’t been for naught. As it turned out, Honda signed him to ride for the factory Team HRC Rally with an eye to grooming him as the next American star in rally raid, specifically the Dakar Rally where he finished ninth in his 2016 debut. And to keep him occupied between rallies, Honda assigned him to race the Kenda/SRT AMA Hare & Hound National Championship Series as the sole member of the Johnny Campbell Racing (JCR) Honda team, where he promptly rewarded their faith in him by winning the final round of the 2015 series in his first race back from that midyear injury.

Brabec is the king of the desert nowadays—at least in the U.S—but the 25-year-old retains his fun-loving, personable manner and still hangs out with longtime friends who like nothing better than giving him a hard time—in a non-malicious way, of course. He’s now got that coveted factory ride, which means he’s had to have his passport stamped numerous times and is expected to produce results for his employer, but he’s fine with that. While Brabec is completely comfortable with the hare & hounds, he realizes he’s still learning the intricacies of rally racing and its European heritage, though every mile aboard his Monster Energy Honda Team CRF450 Rally works bike takes him closer to the navigational acumen as well as the riding ability to reach the top.

Ricky Brabec Interview: Talking Desert

Ricky Brabec Interview: Talking Desert
Brabec clinched the H&H title at the final round and celebrates here with his mom and dad.

Could you imagine yourself in this position five or 10 years ago, having a factory ride and possibly facing a future as a professional rally racer?

No. Back five years ago, I could definitely not imagine myself where I am now. I always thought I’d be a chubby kid working construction and going out to the bars with my buddies every night (laughs).

You had an incredibly consistent year in the hare & hounds this year, finishing first or second at every race except the one you missed in order to fulfill a rally commitment. Did that consistency surprise you?

Actually, yeah! I know I can ride for three to four hours consistently on a hare & hound-style course. I learned how to manage myself racing Baja and racing rallies; you figure out how to manage yourself and keep yourself energized for the entire time you’re racing. I think other riders kind of push a little too much in the beginning or vice-versa—they don’t push in the beginning and by the time they start pushing, the leaders are already gone. I kind of go balls to the wall to mile two or three after the bomb. That’s when your heart rate starts to slow down and you start to find your groove. Some races are different; you race a lot faster in some races, kind of depending on where you start. For sure, if you get the holeshot on the bomb [run], you’re controlling the race. The way my starts have been going, I have to push the whole, entire race (laughs)! My training program is, I think, where it needs to be to stay consistent.

So your rally experience has helped you in the hare and hounds?

Yes and no. I would say hare and hounds helped me in Baja and Baja helped me in hare and hounds, and Baja and hare and hounds helped me in rally and now rally helps me with higher speeds and looking farther ahead for hare and hounds. I think all of them together, it’s like a circle. In hare and hounds you have your three hours of high intensity where it’s also technical. Baja, you have your high speeds and your rough course racing, and rally, you have your mental focus for six to eight hours a day. All of them together is good.

Ricky Brabec Interview: Talking Desert

Ricky Brabec Interview: Talking Desert
Brabec enjoyed great success in his first full year as a factory-backed JCR Honda racer, amassing a record of four wins and two seconds in the seven-round hare & hound series. (He skipped one round since it conflicted with one of his rallies.)

You mentioned Baja and you haven’t been racing there for a couple years. Do you miss it?

I miss Baja a lot. When you’re racing rallies, that’s five days of racing [at most of them] then you show up four days, five days before the race [for the pre-race responsibilities] so you’re gone two weeks. I do miss Baja, but I think it’s in the cards—I hope it’s in the cards—for the coming years, but that’s a process I think we’re going to have to work through.

Getting back to hare & hounds, this year seemed to be easier for you than your first championship year in 2014. Was it indeed easy for you?

It wasn’t easy. The first year that I won the championship, I had different intentions in hare and hounds than I did this year. The first year, I had no idea I could win a National hare and hound, so I was just racing and wanted to see how I could finish. My first one, I was in fifth [at the end after running second most of the race until breaking the front brake off]. After that I told myself, ‘I think I can win a national hare and hound.’ The year kept going on and I kept doing better each race. Getting the championship was a big surprise; I was super-excited. Then last year due to my neck injury and other injuries that I had and the one crash, I wasn’t able to make two of the rounds so I think last year I could’ve had the championship again, but unfortunately there was a crash and mistake there, so—

This year, going into it, I knew [2015 champion] Ivan [Ramirez] knew he had a target on his back. Once I started winning a few rounds, I knew there was a target on my back and Gary [Sutherlin] and Jake [Argubright] were wanting to beat me. I think we’re all equal racers. Gary, Jake and I, I think we can go bar to bar for the four hours at a hare and hound.

It’s not easy! It might seem easy to people, but there’s rocks you have to go through; there’s ribbon you have to follow, especially if you’re opening the course first. Each race is different too. Some clubs mark really well and some clubs are kind of lazy. It’s not easy!

Ricky Brabec Interview: Talking Desert

Ricky Brabec Interview: Talking Desert
As he prepares for his second Dakar, Brabec finds himself on the factory Honda team once again, though it changed names from Team HRC Rally to Monster Energy Honda Team, reflecting the new title sponsor. PHOTO COURTESY OF MONSTER ENERGY HONDA TEAM

What do you consider the most important factor in your success so far? Is it your riding ability, your attitude, physical training, your support structure, your eyesight or what?

I would say the training is a big part of it. Preparation, of course, is a giant part of it. The riding ability is a part of it as well, but we as professional motorcycle racers spend a lot of time out on the bikes so that comes with play-riding or going out and practicing on skills that you’re not very good at.

I think the attitude is a big part of it. When I get home and go to dinner with my friends, we don’t talk about racing. When I’m at the races I’ll talk about racing, but when I’m at home, I kind of want to steer away from motorcycles.

Attitude is definitely a big part of it. You don’t want to go into a race talking yourself up to other people or to yourself. I just go to the races and tell myself to be careful and be consistent and just do my best. I’m not going to go around talking to people about how good I am or that I can win for sure, because Jake and Taylor [Robert] and Gary and all those guys are really good. You don’t want to jinx yourself by being That Guy.

Since the last Dakar, how many rallies have you done and how have those experiences helped you?

Since the [2016] Dakar, I got a contract with HRC and in 2016 I’ve done three rallies: the Merzouga Rally in Africa, the Morocco Rally in Africa and the Atacama Rally in Chile. They help you, of course, because it’s roadbook training; it’s racing at high speeds with the best in the world, literally. Learning the roadbook and learning the bike a little bit more and learning how the rally team works, I feel really good going into the Dakar 2017 only because Johnny and I have been working on some things here [in the local desert] and I’m way more comfortable on the bike. I think Dakar this year is going to be good.

During some of the rallies this year, it seems like the team’s had a few issues with the bikes, different things popping up. What has the team learned from this?

I really don’t know the problems with the bikes. I don’t get into it with [the mechanics and engineers] about that stuff because I kind of know how things should be done. I don’t think the way they do it is [necessarily] right; I don’t agree with it only because we go to races with new product without testing it. If it was my own budget, I would be concerned, but I asked them if we could try the product at home before we go race with it. I don’t know their system; I don’t question it—I just race.

Ricky Brabec Interview: Talking Desert

Ricky Brabec Interview: Talking Desert
Seen here during the recent team photo shoot in Spain, Brabec likes to play and keep things light whenever he gets the chance, though he’ll be all business once Dakar gets underway on January 2, 2017, in Paraguay. PHOTO COURTESY OF MONSTER ENERGY HONDA TEAM

You and the JCR Honda team have done durability testing of the CRF450 Rally bike here. Does testing in the American desert help develop the bike or is it mostly to help you get used to riding the rally bike?

We test and we [helped build the] new bike out here in Barstow, actually. We had a two-week test with [fellow team riders] Joan [Barreda] and [Michael] “Mika” [Metge]. Joan and Mika really, really enjoyed it, so I think out here in Barstow, the Mexican desert out there in Sonora, [the] Dumont [sand dunes]—we kind of went all over the place. They really liked it.

At the 2016 Dakar, which was your first, you were there mostly in a backup role to Joan and Paolo Goncalves. In subsequent rallies you’ve continued your rally education. In the upcoming Dakar, will your role change?

I think my role will still be the same, but I think they’re going to let me go a little bit more rather than staying behind. I told them I want to race and I want to win so we’ll see what happens.

Do you have a two-year contract with HRC?

It’s actually a year and a half. I get my contract renewed before Dakar 2018.

The Red Bull KTM factory team has been unbeatable at Dakar for years. HRC has gotten stage wins, but little problems always seem to pop up and take the guys out of contention for the overall victory. Is the team still confident of winning Dakar and is there a time frame to get that win?

I’m not sure if there’s a time frame—l mean I’m sure there is, but I don’t know it. I’ve been in the boat where you’re doing good then you break and then your confidence kind of goes down. I think, of course, that if there’s stage wins and stage wins, and all of a sudden you have an issue with the bike that you can’t control because it’s something they did, I think of course your confidence goes down and kind of puts you in the dirt—for me, at least.

Does the team overall seem to be confident?

Yeah! The whole team is really confident, but like I said, when you start to get problems here and there, they start stressing out just like I think anyone else would.

Click here for more off-road racing articles and to follow Brabec at the Dakar Rally which gets underway January 1.


Mark Kariya | Contributor Kariya spends way too much time in the desert, but we’re glad he does as he’s the man who gets us our coverage of all things sandy.