THEY EAT THEIR YOUNG: CRAZY WORLD OF AMATEUR RACING|Motocross Action Magazine
For many years the industry’s top brands and bike manufacturers have offered what is called “track-side support” to the Amateur motocross community at all of the top races around the country; however, it seems the new buzz around the pits is “full factory support,” a term of status that used to be reserved for the Professional ranks once you crossed that bridge from Amateur to Pro. Yes, you read it right—top-tier AMA Supercross and AMA 250/450 National teams are signing select young athletes to represent their brand in the Amateur nationals in hopes that they will be the “next big thing” when they are ready for the AMA Pro ranks. Although this might not be news to some of you, the details and amount of support these young riders are receiving have skyrocketed over the last five years. But what exactly does this entail? MXA decided to do some digging and check with our connections to find out.
“Track-side support” is just that— support at the races. At the very least, a company will send a box van full of parts to the events. Many companies offer sponsorships to the Amateur motocross community. They provide technical assistance, if needed, at all the big Amateur racing events. These companies offer rider discounts on parts, accessories and gear, especially if the rider has the potential to become a professional motocross racer. It’s a great marketing tool to have these young athletes connected to their products. And, if you are lucky enough to be sponsored by these select brands, it makes racing easier. Need tires? No worries. The crew at Dunlop is more than happy to give you a fresh set of MX3S’. Had a tough moto and ripped your jersey? Cheer up! Chances are your sponsored gear brand is there to hook you up with a new one. Maybe you ran out of tear-offs or need a new lens for your goggles? Hallelujah! Your goggle company will take care of that vision problem. The convenience of track-side support, depending on your contract level, could also include great discounts on all the things you need. Modern-day Amateur racing costs a lot of money. Someone, normally Mom and Dad, has to foot the bill for bikes, spare parts, riding gear, training camps, entry fees, travel expenses and anything else that goes into getting to a big Amateur national. Help of any kind is a blessing.
“Full factory support” for an Amateur rider is the teenage version of being Ken Roczen’s teammate—if he’s still around when you step up to the big show. Full factory support means that all you have to do is show up to race. These hand-picked riders pit next to the big rig. Their gear, goggles, boots, tires and bikes are free. If your bike has trouble at the races, a team mechanic is standing by to fix it. Got a crick in your neck from a crash? The team trainer is there to help you work it out. Need a blood-sugar boost? Go on into the rig and grab yourself something to eat. Sounds pretty rad, right? And while no one wanted to comment on exactly what a contract looks like, or how much it pays, every Amateur hopeful is angling for this top-flight gig.
“FULL FACTORY SUPPORT” FOR AN AMATEUR RIDER IS THE TEENAGE VERSION OF BEING KEN ROCZEN’S TEAMMATE—IF HE’S STILL AROUND WHEN YOU STEP UP TO THE BIG SHOW. FULL FACTORY SUPPORT MEANS THAT ALL YOU HAVE TO
FULL FACTORY SUPPORT MEANS THAT ALL YOU HAVE TODO IS SHOW UP TO RACE.
The most famous of the full factory support organizations is Team Green. It was formed in 1981 as Kawasaki’s Amateur support program and has produced talent like Austin Forkner, Adam Cianciarulo, and former champions Justin Hill, Dean Wilson, Blake Baggett, Ryan Villopoto, James Stewart and the GOAT himself, Ricky Carmichael. Originally, Team Green was just a track-side support program. KTM’s “Orange Brigade” was formed in 2012 as a track-side support system for their Amateur riders, and they have been joined by similar Amateur programs like the bLU cRU and the RM Army. But, the big story here is that the factory-backed 250/450 Pro teams, like Troy Lee Designs KTM, Yamalube Star Racing Yamaha, Geico Honda and Pro Circuit Kawasaki, have created elite Amateur programs designed to move young Amateurs under the factory tent in the future. Truthfully, they’ve been doing this under the radar for years. Take Troy Lee Designs for instance. They signed current rider Sean Cantrell at the age of 15, four years ago when he was racing in the Schoolboy class. After winning multiple Loretta Lynn titles, Cantrell made his Pro debut under the Troy Lee Designs KTM tent at the opening round of the 2017 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Nationals at Hangtown.
Yamalube Star Racing Yamaha signed 250 Loretta Championship contender Challen Tennant (age 17) and Supermini powerhouse Matt LeBlanc (age 13) to the program for 2018 and beyond. Tennant is scheduled to finish out the Spring Amateur nationals and make his Pro debut at Hangtown alongside the factory 250 team in May. LeBlanc is the newest addition to the Star Racing squad. When asked about signing Matt LeBlanc, Star Amateur support coordinator Will Hahn said, “Matt’s racing ability is awesome, and he also comes from such a humble family with great morals. He was truthfully an obvious choice to bring on board! We know his skill level as of right now, and we are currently trying to get him over here to California to start testing and working with our guys. Before you know it, training with Gareth Swanepoel early on will have him even further ahead of the ball in his career!”
TODAY, IF A TEAM WANTS A RIDER, THEY CAN’T WAIT THAT LONG. THE COMPETITION TO SIGN THE NEXT SUPERSTAR IS INTENSE. THE FULL FACTORY SUPPORT RIDERS KEEP GETTING YOUNGER.
Just up the 15 freeway from Star Racing is the Geico Honda squad. Many of today’s top riders, like Eli Tomac, Justin Barcia, Justin Bogle, Jordan Smith, R.J. Hampshire and Chase Sexton, all graduated from the Amateurs to the Pros with Geico Honda. The difference between these riders and the Amateur riders of today is that all of the riders listed above signed with their factory support teams when they were in their final Amateur year in the A class. Today, if a team wants a rider, they can’t wait that long. The competition to sign the next superstar is intense. The full factory support riders keep getting younger. Geico Honda team manager Dan Betley said, “I think it’s the type of deal where it can be risky, but for the most part it pays off. If you let a kid slowly ease into the program, then his jump to the Pros is not so much of a shock. He will know what to expect and how to handle most situations.”
Like every recruiting backstory, Loretta title contender Jo Shimoda signed with the Geico team in late 2016 after pulling together multiple jaw-dropping rides in front of the head honchos at Geico Honda. After that, the team decided to bring the talented young athlete from Japan aboard. 2017 was his first run on the Honda CRF250, and team mechanic for Jo Shimoda, Cameron Camera, mentioned, “We couldn’t be prouder of his development and progress.”
Rewind back to 2015 when the most sought-after child prodigy, Carson Mumford, was added to the Honda program with a six-year contract. Originally a Kawasaki Team Green rider destined for the Pro Circuit National team, the 12-year-old received an offer from Geico he couldn’t refuse. “Signing with Geico Honda was a dream come true. Although Kawasaki did want me to stay, this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I know going from an 85cc two-stroke to a 150cc four-stroke is hard for some, but I got used to the factory bike super quick and felt very comfortable on the Honda CRF150cc four-stroke right off the bat,” said Mumford. The young rider from Simi Valley, California, will race the next three years as an Amateur (all the while collecting a big salary from Honda). Mumford won’t make his AMA Pro debut until 2020 if all goes as planned.
But, Mumford isn’t the youngest rider in Geico Honda’s sights. They have signed 12-year-old Hunter Yoder. The 12-year-old rider from Menifee, California, has had the industry’s eyes and ears since he made his mark in 2009. Yoder made an immediate impact on the Orange Brigade KTM program in the early stages of his career. He has won multiple titles and was referred to as a young prodigy for quite some time around the pits. As of right now, he is the youngest racer to be recruited by a factory organization. He has had much success in the 50cc and 65cc classes, and 2018 is scheduled to be his breakout year in the 85cc and Supermini classes.
MXA sat down with Hunter to find out what it was like to be recruited at such a young age. Hunter said, “It’s definitely different and a crazy feeling. I mean, I have a full factory, tricked-out bike. It adds just a little more pressure on me, but for the most part, I just try to go out there and do my thing. Obviously, it’s truly amazing to be on a full factory team riding a full factory bike. I’m beyond excited to start racing next season.”
BUT THESE KIDS AND THEIR PARENTS HAVE STARDOM IN THEIR EYES.
AND SINCE A FULL FACTORY SUPPORT RIDE CAN COME WITH A $100,000 SALARY,
LONG-TERM VISION IS OFTEN CLOUDED BY SHORT-TERM SUCCESS.
When 12-year-olds are signing long-term contracts, you have to wonder if their education is being sacrificed while chasing the brass ring. The magic words for hopeful Amateur stars are “home-schooled.” While some parents are dedicated to their children’s education, home-schooling often leaves kids uneducated when their dreams come to fruition—or a quick end. Some teams have programs to put pressure on their Amateur riders to keep up with their schoolwork, but statistics don’t show very many college-educated riders coming out of the AMA Pro ranks post-career.
But, these kids and their parents have stardom in their eyes. And since a full factory support ride can come with a $100,000 salary, long-term vision is often clouded by short-term success. There is no doubt that a small percentage of the riders being groomed by the Suzuki, Yamaha, Kawasaki, KTM, Husqvarna and Honda factory teams will make it big in the AMA Pro world. But, most won’t. They will be eaten up by the gristmill system and spit out. Oh, they will get their moment in the sun, because that is what their contract promises them, but a year later they will be dropped. If they are lucky, they will sign with a lesser team. And, if that doesn’t work, well, you know the rest.
Every young kid dreams of growing up and becoming a Professional motocross racer; however, in this modern era, you don’t even have to grow up.