This article was originally printed in our April 2017 issue of TransWorld Motocross.
Striving For Success | Joey Savatgy Is Out To Take Over The Top Spot In The 250 Class
By Michael Antonovich | Photos by Mike Emery
There is a constant shuffle of talent in the 250 class. Young riders fight to fill the spots vacated by their exiting, successful predecessors, and all are in a rush to make the most of what’s supposed to be a very brief time at the top of the order before jumping up to the 450 division. Joey Savatgy is in that exact scenario for 2017, as he is determined to get redemption for the two titles he missed out on in 2016. The California-native-turned-Georgia-resident certainly has tools to make this happen, thanks to continued support from the Monster Energy/Pro Circuit/Kawasaki team and riding coach Ricky Carmichael, a package that he’s benefitted from for the past three years.
Savatgy is like Carmichael in many ways—like how he often gives off a vibe that racing at this level is not much more than a career choice and that anything less than success is unsatisfactory. Sure, there is plenty of enjoyment that comes with the job—particularly the sensation of crossing the final line ahead of the competition—but he makes it very clear that his life is separated by time on a motorcycle and far away from the racetrack. Does that make him unappreciative or arrogant, the way so many critics have claimed? To that we ask: Do you enjoy every detail of your job with a passion? His replies to our inquires about this topic make it clear that the rigors of this life can grow tiresome over time, but that’s a price that must be paid.
Why did your family decide to move from California to Georgia?
We wanted to move out of California and actually looked in Oregon, but it rains too much there. We ended up back east because the riding, the weather, and everything was best suited for what I wanted to do. It gave me the best opportunity to chase my dreams and to be a professional racer.
Was the move solely to establish your life as a racer?
That was a big motivator for it. We were going to move regardless of if I quit racing the next day; we wanted to leave California. We started to take it seriously when I was still an amateur, and it was definitely a persuader that made it easy for us to decide where to go because of the tracks and other facilities. We went straight to MTF [Millsaps Training Facility] from California and were there for a few years before the switch to the Goat Farm in 2014.
Did Ricky and his mom, Jeannie, come to you with an opportunity to ride at the Farm, or did you go to them?
The long story short is that my gym trainer [Clint Friesen] left MTF and went to the Farm to help them out, and he requested that they bring me in the move. At the time I wasn’t necessarily looking to leave MTF, but once my trainer left they started to change the program and did things that I didn’t believe in. Once you question what you’re doing, it spirals downhill quick. It was an easy decision to load up and take it somewhere I felt I could take my career to places that it had never been. Once I was put in a position of, “You have to do it our way and there is no other option,” it was simple because I was not comfortable and didn’t think it would work. The Farm was an option, and since Ricky is very good at winning, has his mom there, and I got to stay with my trainer that kept my gym structure the same, I went to try it.
When you were a very young amateur racer, Ricky was at his peak. Did you imagine that you would have a chance to work with him?
It’s weird because there were times in the beginning that I would go home and think that the guy I used to look up to was out there with me and giving me advice, spending time at the track when he didn’t need to. I think that there are people in the past that took the way he spent his time there for granted, and some people still look past the fact that he doesn’t even need to go out there at all. He chooses to, and that’s where my respect level for him comes from. I’ve always known that he was a hard worker that got the job done, but being around him day to day and living three minutes from his house, the dude is the most humble guy. He busts my chops along the way, but he’s a genuine dude. He enjoys working with people and seeing the progress that we’re making. It is weird to think the guy used to be my idol and now we’re smack talking each other as friends.
When he cracks the whip about something, how do you separate his role as a coach from the friendship?
It’s pretty straightforward because we don’t talk a lot about riding unless it’s serious. It’s usually a lot of other things, like who’s better at racquetball or video games, or if we want frozen yogurt. But when he brings up riding or something I need to work on, it’s easy to justify it and weave out what is serious from the smack talk. When it’s time for business we are both clear and know when it needs to be done. That’s something that I’m glad I can distinguish because there have been times when you’d be confused. But since I’m with him all of the time, I can tell when it is serious or a joke.
There is a perception that the work is so damn gnarly. Is it really that hard?
With the program, you are held accountable for everything you do. I don’t want to say that it’s not hard, because it definitely is, but it’s not a crazy deal with everyone yelling and tension. It’s pretty laid-back. All they ask is if you show up, then give it all you have. I’ve always had pride in myself for hard work and a belief that you get out what you put into something. I show up and give it what I’ve got to make the most of every day. It’s pretty gnarly at times, but it’s straightforward. Show up, do the work, don’t complain unnecessarily, and get along. There are guys that are at the Farm like Gavin Faith and Jace Owen, and we toss information to each other all the time.
The vibe at the Pro Circuit rig is always lighthearted. Is that intentional or just a by-product from a crew of young guys all working together?
We joke around when the time is right. I think that when people see us joking, it’s hours before a race. If you came by here minutes before a race, it’s totally different. We know when to have fun and know when to be serious.
During the week your dad handles your practice bike, and at the races Justin Shantie is your mechanic. How is it to build relationships with two people who are so close and important to your program?
It’s nice to have a tight, consistent group. My dad and I have our thing. We go to the Farm, he holds the stopwatch and the pit board, and is there to make sure I get my week in for the races. At the races I have Justin, and it’s our third year together. I rely on him and I know he puts in the effort with details when putting the bike together. Those two work hard, and between the three of us there is a consistent mojo that bonds us together. There is never any tension and it’s always fun, but there is a time to get serious before the race. We know when we race that regardless of the results it’s not from a lack of effort.
In 2016 you were a title contender for both the Supercross and the National MX championships. You lost the Supercross title to Cooper Webb by a very slim margin. What do you feel were missed opportunities in Supercross that you addressed for this year?
The biggest thing is consistency. Last year we had two main events that were not good finishes, and that was somewhat out of my hands, but all in all I learned that every point matters. We always say that, but you don’t realize it until you are put in the position. We lost the title by one point, so looking back, if I got one more guy on both bad nights, there are the two points. But I don’t have any regrets. I’m a hard worker and give it all I have. I felt like I did everything that I could. When we showed up to Vegas, I knew it was a long shot and didn’t expect to get as close as I did. But as long as I got a good start and rode the main event the way that I wanted, that was all I could do. We won the main event and came up just shy, but it’s something I will remember for the rest of my life. It’s a bummer I won’t remember it for the way I wanted it to end, but I know that when I want to settle it could cost me a point or two that I could need.
Is there anything you want to share in regards to what happened to you during the Nationals? Or is there nothing else you feel needs to be said?
I don’t necessarily bring it up or talk about it for a couple of reasons. The biggest reason is I’m not going to make excuses. At the end of the day, we were in a good position to win the outdoor title. It’s easy to say that since we were only halfway through the season and had a decent point lead, but some things got out of control and it’s unfortunate it ended the way it did. There were things that got out of line that could have been avoided had we known ahead of time. But I’m not going to name off everything that was wrong because it doesn’t matter. We didn’t win, we had some problems, and that is that. We know what to watch and maintain for next time.
How is there a balance of competitive nature between so many riders in the 250 class? It’s aggressive, but is there a mutual understanding that you guys aren’t just going to break each other’s ankles at every chance?
It depends on the person. There are some guys I will give a lot less room to than others. When you come in as a rookie, you’re just pumped to be here and you go for it. But as you get older and have experience, you realize you aren’t awarded anything because you “go for it.” I think the biggest thing is the maturity, because each year that goes by I know that doing certain things could save me time, but if I don’t make it, the consequences outweigh the benefits. There are guys out there I have no problems getting in contact with, and there are guys I will do everything I can to avoid contact with.
What’s it like to win a professional race? We’ve all imagined it at some point, so is the feeling what you anticipate? And does winning multiple races make it seem different?
Winning the first one…it’s something you can’t describe. But then when you get the second one, you feel that the first one is legit because you backed it up. When you have three or more, you have the feeling that you can do it and need to do it. I started the season off with a win and that was good because I didn’t feel I rode well, but to win on a night that I didn’t feel great was awesome. I know from winning races and having that feeling, it’s never going to be easy. But when I put myself in the position to win from the start, it makes it much easier. That’s where experience of knowing how to win and how it becomes easier, not in a sense physically, but more what to do, how to identify things, and make adjustments.
You’ve been at this for a while, but has there been an experience you’ve had as a pro racer that still surprises you?
It’s hard to say. A big standout is winning my first race, and it sounds cliché, but it’s all you dream about as a kid. When you do it, you’re so caught up in the moment and leading it. When I won my first race last year, I got the points lead, so I got caught up thinking that I was back in it. And that overshadowed the win, and I wish there was more time to soak it up, to remember thinking as a kid how sick it would be to win with the flames and everything. It would be nice to soak it in more than we do, but it’s part of it. That first win, I can’t describe it and it’ll never be repeated. That first one does something to you.
What do you enjoy away from riding?
This is going to sound bad, but I enjoy going to the casino during the off-season. I set a limit at 200 dollars and play the minimum bets at the table. When I’m in Louisiana seeing my girlfriend I’ll head to the casino that’s near there. I fish some, but I’m pretty relaxed. We work so hard during the year, so during the off-season I try to relax. If I don’t leave the house some days, I’m good with it. I have no serious hobbies. I play Call Of Duty, go to the casino, and try to be a normal person.
Are there players on Call Of Duty that know who you are?
I start open lobbies with fans and we’ll get online to play sometimes. Adam Cianciarulo plays and there’s a group of us that get on to play almost every night, so it’s pretty competitive. I’d like to say that we’re good, but in the big picture we aren’t [laughs]. It’s just a good way to relieve some stress and talk smack.
What’s you casino game of choice? What’s the most you’ve been up?
Blackjack, for sure. I like single or double deck if they have it. I went in with 200 one night and left with 1,250. That’s decent, but I bet the minimum. I sometimes get risky and bet a little more, but usually I stack it slowly. I’m very conservative with my money, so it sounds dumb that I go to the casino, but I set a limit and if I lose the money, then I’m done for the night. I’m not going to keep losing. It’s only 200 bucks.
Mitch Payton is a high-stakes guy. How is it to have something to bond with him about away from motorcycles?
When I go to California I stay with him. When he comes home we talk about anything, play Ping-Pong, and step away from bikes. In Vegas, he knew that I did everything I could and was proud of me. I was stoked to put a smile on his face and it sucked to lose, but he knew I did everything in my power to win that title. We played until one or two in the morning, and then I got on the plane and went home. It’s nice when you can bond with your boss, and I value that.
Do you have things from motorcycle racing all around your house, or is that a place to get away?
I care, but there is a point when you’re a kid that you want to play every game or watch old races. But now I live it, so when I leave the Farm at the end of the day, the dirt bikes are done. I go home and they don’t get brought up. If I go to see my parents and have dinner, it might get brought up for a brief minute, but that’s it. We live it every day.
You’re in a different city every week, riding one of the best bikes and working with people who are going for the same goal. Are there parts of this experience you’re still surprised by?
It sounds bad, but we get used to it. I never take it for granted, but there are times that I think when I went to Supercross races as a kid, saw Mitch and this truck, I wondered what they talked about inside. And then you live it and know, and it turns out that it’s a bunch of goofy dudes that are either good at riding dirt bikes or working on them. That’s about it. We’re normal dudes.