Empire of Dirt
I’ve always thought that one of the major appeals of motocross racing—or motor racing in general—was that it was an individual sport as opposed to team sports. In team sports, you can do your job perfectly fine, but if the rest of your team doesn’t, you can still lose. In individual sports, the presumption is that if you do your job, you win.
Upon further review, this doesn’t really apply at the top level of motocross/supercross racing. MX/SX racing is a team sport in the truest sense of the term. Factory racers are the best of the best, and they’re expected to give their team results on the weekend. And believe me, all of them want to deliver on that expectation. But just as in any other team sports, other members of the team and/or coaching staff can make or break the season for any factory racer.
Look no further than Red Bull KTM’s defending AMA Supercross Champion Cooper Webb. Webb spent two years with the Monster Energy Yamaha team and had very little to show for it in the end, then in his first year with the Red Bull KTM team, he won a championship. The simple fact is that the race team Roger DeCoster assembled at KTM is full of people who do whatever it takes to get their jobs done, as evidenced by their winning four of the last five AMA Supercross titles (all five if you consider Husqvarna to be a de facto part of the same camp).
Monster Energy Yamaha’s Justin Barcia said that he has struggled with his setup at Yamaha for a while, and although he didn’t elaborate too much, he said that former 125cc SX Champion Travis Preston, who works in product development at Yamaha (mostly testing pre-production machinery), rode his factory YZ450F and “confirmed to the team what I had been feeling.”
This left me with the impression that Barcia told the team what he was feeling, and somebody within the team resisted accepting that feedback (the only reason I can imagine that confirmation was necessary in the first place). Teams should always listen to their riders, but this sort of stuff happens all the time. Recall the columns I’ve written over the years about the trouble Eli Tomac faced getting a setup that worked at Monster Energy Kawasaki. More than once, discussing this with a Kawasaki team principal, he told me (paraphrasing, but not much), “We could test and test, but we know the bike is good, and they’re [the racers] paid a lot to race it. At some point, they just need to get out there and do their job.”
“The bike’s fine; it’s the riders who suck,” should never be an acceptable answer when you’re dealing with the greatest racers the world has to offer, whom your company/sponsors are paying hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars per year. Teams should always be able and willing to trust their riders; it’s the riders’ asses on the seats, and potentially in the hospital beds after all.
This is a pervasive problem often caused by institutionalization. “We’ve done it this way for X number of years, and that’s how we do it. It’s worked in the past, so it should work now.” Institutionalization of one form or another is at the root of basically every problematic bureaucracy we face in our society, so it’s not just a problem with race teams. It’s also a big part of why our government changes so little despite seemingly drastic changes in elected officials; people who have been working in the government for 25 years aren’t about to change everything they do just because voters elected a new person with a new agenda. But I digress.
When the Monster Energy Yamaha team hired Cooper Webb from the Star Racing 250cc squad, they wanted Webb to be the face of the team and the Yamaha brand for many years to come. They had high hopes. But he struggled, the team’s faith in Webb diminished, and they let him go after only two years. Then, the very next year, Webb won the most prized championship in the entire sport, on a different team, with a different motorcycle.
I have no idea what goes on inside Yamaha corporate, but I would bet a lot of money that this motivated some of the top brass at Big Blue to begin poking around in the racing department. Webb’s success at KTM may have been the wake-up call the Yamaha factory team needed.
This past off-season, some technicians left and/or retired, which made room for the team to hire Jon Primo (who spent eight years at Pro Circuit) as their engine technician, and Sergio Avanto (who is literally a mechanical engineer, and who worked at Yamaha 15-20 years ago) as their chassis technician, and they started over completely on the 2020 Yamaha YZ450F. The end result, according to Barcia and team manager Jimmy Perry, is a race bike that Barcia says is “comfortable” for him, while also being a lot closer to a stock YZ450F than their factory machine has probably ever been.
Ask any factory racer about all the time they spend testing parts and settings, and they’ll tell you they’re searching for “comfort.” That doesn’t mean the seat is soft and the grips are easy on their hands. “Comfort” means a motorcycle that suits their riding style and reacts predictably to their input. In short, the motorcycle does what they tell it to do without any attitude or surprises.
At Anaheim 1, Justin Barcia and Adam Cianciarulo (not surprisingly) looked far more comfortable than anybody else on the track. Only one race into the 2020 season, it seems like Barcia may have a team around him that will allow him to contend for a championship. CN