Justin Hill explains why he's already right at home with his new team
PHOTOS courtesy of O’Neal
Among the biggest moves of the 2017 offseason was that of Justin Hill. In his return to Monster Energy/Pro Circuit/Kawasaki, Hill rode fast and consistent to clinch the 2017 250 West Coast SX title. It was assumed that he would then be on his way to the 450 class, a move that Hill was plenty excited about. However, a change to the eligibility rules in the 250 class allowing him and other championship winners to defend their title for one year changed those plans and many expected him to do so with his current team. That is until Hill received an offer he couldn’t pass up, a chance to ride for the Autotrader/Yoshimura/Suzuki Factory Racing team backed by JGRMX. The deal would guarantee him one year on the new 250 effort followed by a year racing the 450. Since the move was announced we haven’t heard from Hill, so we called him up and got the scoop on his new ride, his new gear deal, and much more.
You’ve got a whole new deal with Autotrader/Yoshimura/Suzuki Factory Racing, what are your thoughts on the team so far?
It’s been better than expected honestly with the team and what we’ve done so far. I’d say we haven’t even scraped the surface of what we can accomplish, but I’m already happy with the workings. If I need something, I call J-Bone [Jeremy Albrecht] and we get it done right away. That’s awesome, that doesn’t always happen. I like the people a lot and I’m getting along with everybody really well. They’re my kind of people. Everybody out here is like me and it’s a whole different scene than California. That’s what I was looking for. I didn’t assume it’d be as good as it is, but everybody is killer. That’s all that I want, a home. I want to win for myself and I want to win for my family and for the people that I care about, but I’ve never wanted to win for my team so badly. I think that’s awesome. It’s just more fire to win and I feel good about putting in the time hanging out at the shop and working hard. Maybe if I was in SoCal with all of the people and the distractions, I wouldn’t see that stuff as being important, but being here everything just makes sense as far as doing what needs to be done. The whole demeanor of the team has been great.
So on that note, do you see yourself being based out of North Carolina with the team, or will you still spend a lot of your time somewhere like California or Florida? I know you’ve also spent some time training at your home in Oregon as well, will you do any of that?
I think I’ll do some of that training at home around outdoor time, basically Washougal and Hangtown. I still have a house in California, but I actually bought a place here in Huntersville, North Carolina, too. I love it because what you get for your money out here is crazy. A couple people were questioning whether I should buy a place when I haven’t ever lived here, but to me, what I got ahold of is what I’ve wanted for so long, and I got it for so much cheaper than I ever thought I would. Plus I like it here, ever since I’ve been here I’ve totally eaten it up. I love this place, it’s a great settling ground. JGR has everything that I need to be the best professional racer that I can be, and I truly hope I finish out my career with these guys. It’s a great fit for me and this town and everything is badass. I definitely want to make sure that I put in one hundred and ten percent and make sure that they’re happy. I’ve said it a few times, I’ve wanted to do well for people before, but I want to make sure that my team knows that I dig this and I want to give them my best effort. It’s a very crazy sport and it doesn’t always work out the way you thought, but I’m hoping I can retain the championship and come out swinging on the big bike. The big bike is what I’m looking forward to the most. That being said, I have a lot of stuff ahead of me that I can either totally achieve or not, and I want them to know that I’m giving it my best to do those things. I don’t think that I’ve had this much incentive to want to do that for a team. It’s a “you, yourself, and I” sport when it comes down to it, but when I got here and saw what they do, I just went nuts. For these people not to have a championship is crazy to me. It’s just been bad luck or maybe a bad deal with a manufacturer, or not getting the right guys at the right time. It hasn’t fallen into their lap the way that some championships do for some teams. I think it has a lot to do with timing. They’ve put some commitment into me and I want to be the guy that gets those championships for them because they deserve it. I think it’s a great time, I’m the most mature and I’m the best rider that I’ve ever been and I feel way better on the bike already.
Some might say, ‘Why leave Mitch Payton and Pro Circuit, a tried and true 250 that’s been around a long time, for JGR that’s barely had a 250 team?’ Once you see what these guys do and what they’re capable of, especially with the resources they have, it’s nuts. I think if the general public came here and took a gander, they’d be amazed. Who wouldn’t jump on that? To me, this is the biggest name, it’s the one you trust. It’s the most recognizable team out there in the real world. If you said to some guy in Texas or somewhere that isn’t necessarily a hub for dirt bikes that you ride for JGR, chances are they’re going to know who that is. They know who coach [Joe Gibbs] is and they probably know who Coy Gibbs is. They know that racing pedigree, and I want to be a part of it. There is a lot of rich racing history with these people. Even if it’s when I’m done racing and I’m just a small part of it, I want in on that because it’s awesome.
You bring up your past with Mitch Payton and Pro Circuit, could you explain that decision further?
Yeah, it’s definitely not me being unhappy with Mitch. He is an awesome guy with an awesome team. A few people have asked me about it, and sure there are differences. There are always differences. I’ve found great support at every team I’ve ridden for and I have a lot of good things to say about them. I spent the most time with Mitch in my pro career and I’ve seen a lot of success with him. I’ve only had one win without him. That’s a lot of wins with just him. I was appreciative of what he offered and the fact that he wanted me back meant a lot to me. We made it work and he didn’t even expect me to win. I broke my shoulder right before the 2017 season and it wasn’t looking good. I was pumped to do that because it was a success story in its own way. I was not unhappy. My outdoor season was terrible and I wanted to make a change and redeem that. Being that Pro Circuit is based in Southern California, that’s where they want you to be. With some guys being elsewhere, I assumed I could be elsewhere, but for reasons I don’t fully know, they wanted to keep me there in SoCal. I would say that was my only thing. Hypothetically, that would be the only thing that would have gotten me more riled up to stay, but that’s not what led to the change. That’s honestly the only thing that I can look back on and say, ‘Hey, that didn’t go well,’ but that’s minuscule. Other than that, it was great to be there for all three years that I rode for him.
For me, it’s what I see in the team I’m on now. I see a bright future here. I love what they’re doing. I walk into the shop, I see what’s going on, and I don’t know who dreamt it up, but they put something amazing together. It’s nothing like I’ve ever seen before. It’s an enormous ordeal and a huge collection of people with various talents all working under one building and one name. I think it’s very cool. It’s all a bunch of gearheads, and I love that! It’s a whole group of people who are competitive and love racing. That fits me very well, and that made sense to me. Like I was saying, the location makes a lot of sense too. The fact that they said, ‘No, we’re not going to be based out of California because that’s what everyone wants, we’re going to stay home where the money is and where we have the authority to do what we want,” that’s huge to me. I don’t buy into the whole SoCal attitude that you have to be here to race dirt bikes. Obviously, people are doing it elsewhere, from Florida to Oklahoma. JGRMX is based around the Nascar shop and it’s thriving. I wanted to give it a test drive, so I came out here early, just after the MXGP of the USA, to check out the town and see what it was like. It’s funny, I actually told Mitch what I was doing after the MXGP, which was our last race together, that I was going to go up to Huntersville, and he said, ‘Oh cool! Go check it out, you wanted to be on the East Coast.’ They were pumped for me. I got out here and fell in love with it. This is something I wanted to do for multiple reasons. To go back to the question though, it wasn’t because of what things were like at Pro Circuit. There were a lot of reasons behind my decision and another big piece of it was the manufacturer. I loved Suzuki’s when I was an amateur. It’s the same bike since I rode one for the first time, which was the first year they had fuel injection and all of that. It’s the same chassis, and I loved that thing. When I came here I didn’t ride the bike or anything. I mean, you’re not supposed to do that anyway, but I didn’t ride it. I knew the chassis and I knew it’s good, and I told them that I trusted them.
That bike has been criticized for the lack of change and having less power, but with the support of JGRMX and Yoshimura do you notice that or is it on par with other bikes?
Power-wise it’s great. I’ve known people who’ve ridden for the team. Actually, my best friend, Matt Bisceglia, was on the team for a year and he rode it in its early stages. At that time it wasn’t really JGR yet, that was entirely Yoshimura and the collection of people they had to work together. They’re really smart over there, but at the time it wasn’t fully funded or intended to be anything more than a test run for the team. Now that it’s Suzuki Factory Racing and JGR too, it’s full speed ahead now. As soon as JGR has a hand in something, they want it to be perfect. That’s how they are and I’ve noticed that. The power of the bike is awesome. I guess the reason I brought all of that up is that I had heard people say it wasn’t great on power, but as soon as I came over here we brought in a bunch of people from Japan who work for Yoshimura and Suzuki. We all got together and basically went through the entire bike. I actually rode the OEM bike before we got the parts, and I was like, ‘Yeah, we could use some power.’ Any 250 could use power though, we’re always hurting for power [laughs]. With this bike though, it exceptionally needed some power. That was my first thought. The guys threw three things on it, geared it for Supercross, and I was like, ‘Damn, that’s pretty good!’ They know what they’re doing, and they’re currently working on a bunch of stuff that’s getting dyno-ed right now. I know they don’t want to do it one piece at a time, they want to give me a package and really see how it works. That’s what I’m looking forward to. As you get up to speed, you start to realize where it needs more in certain areas. Right now, I’m feeling great and I’ve been on the bike for a bit, so I’m telling them what we can benefit from and they’re applying that to what they’re working on. I think it’s going to exceed any other bike, I really do. It’s on par.
Every bike is different, but they’re all pretty much the same too. It’s all where the power is delivered. The KTM, in particular, didn’t have the best off the bottom, but it had great pull through the gear and a strong top. It always felt like you were in the power when you got past the bottom end. The Pro Circuit bike had snap off the bottom and it hollowed out in a few places. I would say the Suzuki is in the middle of those two a bit. The direction we’re going is more hit on the bottom. That’s more my style and my preference. I’d like that because I don’t rev the bike out a lot. We already got some of that and they’re working on it still. As it sits currently, it’s somewhere in the middle of the green and the orange one as far as where the power is delivered, but the peak itself is very similar. I can only speak on those two factory bikes that I’ve ridden, but I’m aware of the power on the Honda and Yamaha. Apparently, the power on the Yamaha is everywhere [laughs]. I think that’s probably the strongest 250 among the teams as far as collective word of mouth from everybody in the pits. I honestly think with some work that we’ll be able to battle for that though. It’s going well, I’m not sweating the bike. There are people out there saying the bike is going to be slow, but to me, I rode Suzuki’s stock and I rode Kawasaki’s stock, and I thought the Suzuki was faster. Then I got to reading on some stuff that people were saying about the power, and I think it’s all relative to who is fiddling with the motor. Other than the Austrian motors, I think most of the Japanese motors are pretty similar. Mitch Payton or Star Racing or whoever else could take any of those Japanese motors and build great peak numbers. I think Mitch does that every day. The construction of the Suzuki engine versus the Kawasaki engine doesn’t seem that much different at all. I’m mechanical and I’ve torn both apart, and I can’t really tell you the difference. It’s all splitting hairs as far as the bikes that come off the showroom floor. For people to be up in arms saying it won’t be good, that’s funny to me. Ryan Dungey was the last person to win on a Suzuki 250 I think?
That’s probably true. If it’s not, I can’t think of who it would be.
I can’t think of who it would be either. Stroupe was before that I think, and I’m not sure he ever even won on that bike.
I believe you’re right, and Anderson’s wins started coming on the KTM. Actually, I take that back! I think his first win did come on the Suzuki.
Oh! Anderson’s win on a Suzuki was Salt Lake City Supercross in 2013. The next year was KTM and he won a lot then, but the last person was Jason Anderson. That’s one race though since Dungey that I can remember. That’s the night that Tomac had a bad race and Roczen didn’t qualify [laughs]. I remember watching that race like it was yesterday. That was the craziest night. Regardless though, the Suzuki 250 hasn’t really been at its peak as a full factory bike since Ryan Dungey. Obviously, Bobby Hewitt’s team took it for a spin, but not for that long. I’m not sure who was doing that motor either. My point is, it’s the first time I know of that there’s been a full factory effort behind this bike since Dungey, who was riding the previous carbureted version of the bike. Now we have an engine that’s much closer to the other brands and we have guys that know what they’re doing who can make it good. That’s why I didn’t ride it before signing, I knew what it was going to be and I believed that these guys here can make it happen. Also, they have the full support from Japan and that’s key. I think that you need the guys that originally designed the bike to be able to reach the full potential of the machine. They’re designing everything on that motorcycle and you need to know what that process was for each part. That’s just me, some people don’t see that as being as important as I do, but I think it’s important and we have that here, so that’s great. To re-touch on the engine one more time, it’s good now and I think it’s going to be great. I’m not sweating it, some people are, but I think it’s funny [laughs]. Most people that go online and comment on how the bike is going to be slow have no idea what goes into these engines and how easy or hard it is to make them good.
Yeah, people tend to forget too that when a bike is compared to the rest, it’s all relative. These are still fuel injected 250 four-strokes and it’s hard to say any of them are truly slow.
That’s the other thing, I was blown away when I first rode a fuel injected bike. The RM-Z250 and RM-Z450 were the first bikes I rode with fuel injection. I spent my time on smaller two-strokes, then I went straight to a YZ250 two-stroke. Obviously, that was carbureted. Right after that, I jumped on two ’09 Hondas for two weeks or so. We were trying to figure out what we wanted to do. Yamaha, at the time, wasn’t offering much to us so we decided we’d ride what we wanted to. I rode my friends ’09 RM-Z450, and I was amazed at how it handled. It was the best thing I had ridden at that point in time, so I said we ought to go with Suzuki’s. The other bikes were good, but I liked the Suzuki more. We went with that and bought Suzuki’s, and I ended up winning amateur championships on it. At that time, the Suzuki amateur team was folding so I didn’t have a deal to stay on that brand. That bummed me out because I loved the bike. If the timing was different, I probably would’ve stayed on the Suzuki from amateurs to where I’m at now. There hasn’t been a great Suzuki 250 team since I’ve been a professional. I was blown away by fuel injection and how good that bike was, and I knew I wanted to go back to them.
The other new announcement is the deal with O’Neal gear, tell me a little bit more about that.
Yeah, how it came together was totally random. I was just chilling at my house and J-Bone texted me and said, ‘Hey, the O’Neal guys hit me up wanting your contact information, is that something you’re interested in?’ and I said yes. I was a lifer with Fox, and whenever I could wear their gear I would for as long as I’ve been riding. Everyone assumed I’d do a Fox deal regardless and I was actually open to whatever. I got to talking with them and they were pumped. They really wanted to make it happen and they gave me a great offer right away. I told them that I was a Fox guy and no matter what, I would call Fox and tell them what I’ve got to see if they want to work a deal out because it’s a loyalty thing for me. They respected that, which I thought was great. Basically, it was just a budget thing. They weren’t able to provide was O’Neal was willing to do for me and it all came down to the timeframe. Their interest in me wasn’t going to force them to spend more than they wanted to spend. I was understanding of that and I could have stayed for less, but I wore the O’Neal gear and I loved it. The fit was good and the look was good. I decided to go with it because I liked the gear and the guys there are really cool. It’s nice to be wanted, and they came right in with that attitude. I was excited about then and I still am, every time I gear up I’m stoked. I’m glad that I made the switch. Honestly, I started paying attention around the middle of this year when Dean Wilson was wearing it, and I was like, ‘Man, that stuff looks good!’ I was pumped on it before the deal ever came about. When they called me my immediate response was to consider it because I think it looks cool. I always thought that Fox had great looking stuff and they were very cool to me, I’ve known a lot of those people my whole life, so it was a nervous change to make. I wasn’t sure about the idea of switching before anything came about, but this happened and I’m happy about it. They’ve been working super closely with J-Bone on things to make sure everything they do is cool with everyone. When you’re in this position, you need to make sure that your sponsors are working with the team and they’re doing that for me. I can’t say that I have a single complaint about it. They were generous and put together a great deal for me. Anything I ask them for, it’s here overnight and they always send me stuff even when I don’t ask for it.
We touched on it earlier, but as you mentioned this deal with the new team will extend through 2019 and move you up to a 450. You’ve talked about how you like to ride the 450 in the past as well. Have you had a chance to ride the JGR 450 at all, and what’s your excitement level like to race on that bike eventually?
Well firstly, I don’t know that this deal would have come together had they not said they’d throw in a year on the 450 and give me two years. If it wasn’t for that, I don’t think I could have even gotten out of the deal I was in. That is a huge hinge on the whole door opening to where I’m at now. I couldn’t be more thrilled about it because as you’ve said and as I’ve said, and anyone else who knows me for that matter, the 450 is the bike for me. I struggle to ride a 250 and I make due, but I have to compensate a lot because I’m not the smallest guy and I don’t have the high-revving style that fits a little bike. It’s really tough, that’s not my natural way of riding a dirt bike. I have to think about it and do things differently than I’d like to. When it comes to making that happen, I think I’ve exceeded my own expectations for my 250 career. I wasn’t sure that I would ever win a championship on a 250 because the bike doesn’t fit me that well. The engine is not what I like. With this deal coming together and me being able to say that I’m a 450 guy as soon as this year is over is the coolest thing. That’s all I wanted. I told Mitch that right away, I said, ‘My goal is to be on a 450 with JGRMX.’ Then they made the rule change, which sent everything into a tailspin. At that point I was thinking that I wanted to be with JGR on the 450 – maybe they’d put me on Monster Energy Kawasaki – but I didn’t necessarily want to do that. I knew where I wanted to be and the whole eligibility rule almost threw my whole deal in the trash. It was a close call because now all of the sudden I’m negotiating primarily about the following year with a different 250 team and that’s like any other deal. When you win a championship on a 250, you’re out and you move up. Your team would tell you, ‘Good job, now move on and have fun.’ Now it doesn’t work like that. I had to make sure that I was leaving for a good reason and I think that I made peace with it right away, I told myself what I would jump ship for. I knew I wanted to be a part of JGR and I probably would have gotten here at some point, but when it comes to the specifics of a contract my team could keep me if they wanted to. I know that it would have been tough for me to get over if there wasn’t a 450 deal for me on the table. That’s just how it shook down. With them deciding to put trust in me for two years and get me on a big bike, that was perfect. That sealed the deal, it made perfect sense, and I couldn’t wait. It’s what I’ve been working towards this whole time, to earn my way out of the 250 class. I know that maybe doesn’t sound great because I’ve had a lot of good times, but it’s not where I want to spend my life. I was ready to get out of it the second I got into it. I wanted to be on a big bike. There are some guys that the bike fits well. Martin Davalos is a total little bike guy, he loves it and makes it happen. For those guys that make it happen, cheers to them. If that’s your thing, I think you should do what you want. My dad and I both think there shouldn’t be any eligibility, you should move up when you feel like it. To me, if I like the 250 I’d want to ride that forever. I’m the guy that prefers the 450 and I would have liked to have ridden it earlier. That being said, I’m glad that I didn’t because with the position I’m in right now I can’t really say I would rather do something else. It’s worked out perfectly and I’m where I want to be.