Even professional motorcycle mechanics wish they could focus on just one machine and not have to deal with penny-pinching customers or being forced to gibbell things together with homemade parts.
What’s it really like to be part of a factory motocross team, wrenching for a big-name motocross star? IMX wanted to find out, and went straight to the source for answers.
A national level motocross team is a very complex small business. The racing atmosphere demands an intense crew of professionals, each focused on getting their jobs done quickly and professionally. On race day, with the pressure on and the clock ticking (not to mention throngs of fans staring at their every move), the pressure to perform pushes patience to the limit.
Top riders are a finicky bunch, and depend on their mechanic not only to put them in the winner’s circle but also to keep them alive. Still interested?
Part mechanic, part gopher, part coach, and part psychologist, the factory mechanic hasn’t got it easy. We talked with some of the top wrenches in Canada to find out not only how they got there and what they do, but more importantly why they do it.
JON BALDUCCI; BLACKFOOT HONDA 250F SPECIALIST. Wrenches for Dusty Klatt (West) and Donnie McGourty (East)
Jon, first things first, what are your responsibilities with Blackfoot Honda?
My title with Blackfoot racing is lead technician for MX2. I worked with Dusty out west when he won it and now I’m working with Donnie McGourty. I loved working with Dusty. He’s one of the best riders I’ve ever worked with. I wish I could go right across the country with him but they’ve designated me to work on 250Fs only. That’s the bike they’ve really focused me on to learn, and I have no problems switching riders halfway through.
It must be hectic out on the road.
Everything depends on how organized they are. At times you get kids asking you for stickers when you’re in the middle of a valve adjustment, and you can’t just walk away. We have people that solely look after the fans, and it’s a lot nicer to work in that environment. Race weekends are the highlights. When your rider does well and ends up on the podium it’s such a good feeling. The worst part is all preparation you have to do to get up on the podium…preparation is what it’s all about, though. Constant testing.
Are there big differences between the different rider’s machines?
The suspension is different, but the motors are all the same for each rider. They are all basically the same bike…you don’t want jealousy between riders. The more experienced riders are easier to work with, because they know what they like and what direction they want you to go. Younger riders sometimes tell you one thing and it’s the exact opposite of what you know will work for them. That can be frustrating. We have a lot of experienced guys to help out. We have a really good suspension guy, Joe Skidd, who constantly watches the bikes on the track and can see what the bike is doing before the younger riders even know what’s going on. That’s one less thing I have to do.
Are the suspension and engines farmed out or handled in house?
The bikes start as out of the crate stockers, and engine maintenance is all done in house. PR2 builds the engines, but we just send him the parts we need him to work on. It’s up to the mechanic to put together and service the motors later on. As far as suspension goes, luckily that’s one thing I don’t have to touch thanks to Joe Skidd. Every weekend we get new fork and shock seals, even if they’re not leaking. Everything has to be perfect. Honda and Blackfoot pitch in huge amounts of money to keep us going. Lack of parts is not an issue.
Some riders are gentle on equipment, but some can be just brutal…
I’ve worked with riders that would use up a clutch every time they got off the track. This weekend was deep sand and muddy, and McGourty did in a clutch in the first moto. One guy was always jumping stuff and bending and breaking swingarms because he was so aggressive on the track and flat-landing everything. Different riders have different riding styles and are harder on equipment, and that make the mechanics job a whole lot more involved.
Compared to a busy bike shop, specializing in one type of bike must simplify parts ordering and maintenance schedules?
We have people constantly doing parts orders for us, but we can’t just expect parts are always going to be there if we don’t keep on top of it. We stick to a very strict maintenance schedule, and are constantly going through the bike. Aftermarket stuff changes maintenance schedules, but it comes back to preventative maintenance. When you’re squeezing as much power as you can out of a bike you have to start looking at what weak links there could be. The worst thing a mechanic fears is a mechanical DNF.
You must have a lot of fun on the road to make the endless workload and stress worthwhile?
A few years back in Regina we got kicked out of a go-kart track. Full contact…we were getting our moneys worth! I slammed Chuck Mesley up on top of some tires, and he was totally stuck. The karts had an electronic kill switch, except that Ian Hayden’s kart didn’t shut off. They were chasing him across the track and he kept going, right across the grass. One guy climbed on the back trying to reach the kill switch, and when Ian made a sharp turn he went flying off onto the grass. Laughs…It was quite amusing…. Sometimes we ride around with the guys and have fun with them, but if it’s a testing session we’re working on one bike while they are out testing another.
RICHMOND KAWASAKI, ED GARDNER. Wrenches for Evan Laughridge
Do you work for one rider with Richmond or do you shuffle around as needed?
I work for Evan Laughridge, and I oversee all the other mechanics. I did it from ‘91 to ‘94 with Greg Rand, then came back in 2000. This is my full time job.
You’ve done this for so long; don’t you get tired of being on the road all the time?
It gets old, I stay on the road a lot, to do the motors, but that’s all you can do. You’ve got to get the work done. Next year I’m not going to have a rider, I’ll be a crew chief to help the other mechanics, just go bike to bike to lend them a hand when they need it. I was born and raised in Boston, and have been working with Billy Whitley for the last 6 years. I bought a house in Texas in February, and I’ve been there only 25 days since February first! I’m always looking forward to going home and sitting on the deck by the pool, but after four or five days I get anxious to get back going again. I don’t like to sit still too much.
You don’t find being constantly surrounded by people watching you work annoying?
In the beginning I’d get a little nervous with people watching, but you get used to it. Your heart has to be in it. Sometimes its tough and sometimes it’s a little easier, but you’ve got to stick with it. At the end of the day when you win all the hard work and the month and a half of testing just melt away, and all the hard work is worth it.
When I talked to you at Gopher Dunes you were doing a between-moto valve adjustment. How do you like working on the four-stroke compared to the two-stroke?
I don’t have a preference between the KX and the KXF. The four stroke is a little more detailed, but that’s the way things are going and I really don’t have a preference.
What kinds of memories keep you coming back to the big rig ‘pressure cooker’ year after year?
Watching Bill Mclean take his rental car around the whole track at Lethbridge in ‘01, that was a good one!
OTSFF SUZUKI, KEN GHIESSEN. Wrenches for Gavin Gracyk
A big part of being a factory mechanic is getting to know your rider…
I didn’t know Gavin until I got to meet him earlier this year. He’s really easy going and a fun guy to work with. So far Gavin is really good about telling me stuff about the bike…he makes my job a lot easier, and he’s open to my input as well.
You’re new to the factory mechanic role, right?
This is my first year, so it’s all new to me, but it’s been pretty good so far and I’m liking it. I raced for years, and I’ve always been into fixing stuff since I was a kid. I figured I might as well have a job that I like, and I love being around the motorcycle industry and working on this stuff.
With all this being new to you it must be very challenging.
The biggest challenge, with all the travelling, is making sure the bike is ready. I’m not with the bike all week, I’m back at my normal job (at Two-Wheel Performance) and the challenge is to make sure that the bike is 100% for Gavin for the weekend.
Is your boss ok with you spending so much time on the road with the team?
Two-Wheel has been lenient to give me time off on Fridays and Mondays to travel to the races. Ron Ashley (race team manager) is really good…I’ve got to thank him for giving me the opportunity to help me get a foot in the door with the Suzuki team. Doing just the factory stuff would definitely keep me busy all week. I work nine to five at my regular job, than work on the race team stuff after that. I’d eventually like to, if the opportunity came up, do just the race stuff.
Your team does all engine and suspension modification in-house, right?
We have Pro Action suspension in-house, and we have a motor guy in-house that does the engines. Keith Johnson’s mechanic does motor work as well. Everyone works together on the team.
What’s been the best part about being a factory wrench so far?
The best thing so far was definitely the first round in Calgary. We went from being rained out on Saturday to Gavin leading most of the motos on Sunday and finishing two and two. As the first highlight of the year that was pretty good!
How about the worst part?
Mud. All the rounds out west…with mud races like that you spend an hour just getting the bike clean so you can work on it and get it ready for the next moto. Wet sand is the worst…it just gets in everything and everywhere. It’s been nothing but mud this year, and we’re getting used to it, but it definitely makes the job harder.
Have the other guys been receptive to you, being the ‘new’ guy?
All the guys get along pretty good. We’ve had a lot of fun on the road so far, and it’s a really good atmosphere…their team mentality makes everything more relaxed and focused…and more fun.
KTM-CANADA, TODD KULI. Wrenches for Pierce Chamberlain
You factory tech guys are always busy…
Agghh…the glamorous life of a factory mechanic! (laughs) I’m just doing my laundry and getting packed up to head out again tomorrow.
Did you always aspire to be a mechanic for a factory team?
I’ve always ridden, and my dad was interested in my riding but always had other things to do rather than work on my bike. When I went to races as a kid I always watched what the mechanics were doing, what kind of tools they were using, and how they were putting bikes together. The trick little parts…I was always more interested in talking to the mechanics than I was in talking to the riders.
How did you get hooked up in the world of professional motocross in the first place?
Back in ’97, when Jimmy Wilson first went pro, I went and helped him at a couple of races and a couple of supercrosses. You just get to know people. I met Andy White in Florida in ’96, and in ‘99 when I first met JSR I found we had a mutual friend. I helped out Planet Honda as ‘pit bitch’ at three races in ‘99, and in 2001, JSR’s mechanic and I became really good friends and I went to six outdoor nationals with him - not for money, just for free parts.
Is this your full-time job or do you juggle two careers?
I begged my boss at my ‘real job’ for a whole bunch of time off, and took 35 days off that summer. I do hydraulic design, industrial stuff…not for the little cars that jump. My boss is a great guy, and knows it was always a dream of mine and let me go, even though we were really busy at the time. The extra money is always great, but the main reason I do it is because I love the sport and I love doing the job. I don’t have to work for somebody if I don’t want to, and I don’t have to work for a rider if they aren’t putting in the time and effort. Pierce [Chamberlain] is a good kid, a hard worker and he trains. That’s the most important thing, because there are a lot of riders out there that are more interested in living the rock star lifestyle than in being a professional racer.
The mechanics are definitely the unsung heroes of motocross.
A racer might spend all week busting his balls to get ready for a race, but it takes a whole team of people to get him to the front of the pack. If a bike breaks down we’re the first thing people point the finger at. I’m not just a mechanic at the races…I’m a big brother, a father, a best friend and a worst enemy. I have to wear any number of hats to get my rider to go out there and compete if he’s hurt or tired or sore…we have to get them charged up. We have delicate egos and fragile kids to deal with. You have to be such a jack of all trades, not just know how to work on the bike. You have to be positive and motivate somebody to ride well…you have to know when to say good work and when to give them a kick in the ass.
Any advice for kids who might aspire to be a factory motocross technician someday?
People always ask ‘where did you go to learn all this?’ and ‘how did you get to be on a team?’. It’s not rocket science. At the end of the day it’s nothing more than a dirt bike. If people would spend a little bit of time reading the manual and working on their bike they’d be so much better off. Lubing cables and taking things apart and keeping them clean is not rocket science. So many people make this out to be black magic. Just work on your bike…it’ll last longer and be more enjoyable to ride. Don’t be afraid to adjust suspension…spend the time working on the bike and don’t be afraid to try different things. The best part of being a factory mechanic is the adventure. The flights, the rental car stories, the little side trips you make when you’re out on the road. It’s not everyone that gets to sit at a stoplight and have Damon Huffman in his rental car behind you bumping into you, or takes the off-road way into a motel parking lot. When you remember that crazy stuff the long hot days just sort of fade away…\
Story by Dan Paris