By Geoff Meyer
When you talk about technical genius in the sport of motocross it isn’t hard to use the name Mitch Payton. As the owner of Monster Energy/Pro Circuit/Kawasaki, Payton is known worldwide for his blue collar work ethic and his amazing desire to have the best riders in the world working with him.
From Jeremy McGrath, Ricky Carmichael, and Ryan Villopoto, to Grant Langston, Ben Townley and Christophe Pourcel the best have ridden for the Payton workshop. Now with his support of the CLS Kawasaki team in Europe we are starting to see the benefits of his experience and handy work. We sat down and had a chat with Mitch at the USGP and he told us of his love of the sport and his knowledge of the Grand Prix series.
Not only a hard worker, but also a man who enjoys a good laugh, during the interview I asked him what his opinion was of the AMA versus Grand Prix battles; his answer was funny and also very honest.
MXlarge: Mitch, so what got you involved in working with the CLS team?
Payton: I’ve always wanted to be involved at a good degree, but it’s hard if you are not over there or have somebody who is there for you. For us I needed somebody I could trust with our parts and stuff and Harry is obviously the guy who had been in America and I got to know him. He was with KTM and we were friendly rivals and then he went back to Europe and we kept in contact. He has the program with the Champ KTM team and they were losing support from KTM and they talked to me about doing something possibly on a Kawasaki.
Monster Energy/Pro Circuit/CLS/Kawsaki’s Jeremy Van Horbeek
MXlarge: So why CLS Kawasaki?
Payton: We needed to be over there. The CLS team was an existing team from last year, they had the foundation in place, they were restructuring things, and we wanted to give them the parts to help them be competitive. We thought it would be a fun venture for us, and they are doing good. We want to win some races and we haven’t done that yet, but we are hoping to do that.
MXlarge: Harry mentioned to me that you are a big fan of the GP’s.
Payton: Oh, yes, I have always followed it, I would always like to find the next guy and that guy doesn’t always come from California or Florida, it can come from South African, France or Australia, or anywhere. Watching the GP’s is like watching the AMA Nationals. You see kids over there that look exceptional. I had Pichon a long time ago, then we tried to get Langston a long time ago and I wound up with Ben Townley and then Langston finally. I always follow the GP results, because I know if you are good in the Grand Prix’s, then you will be good in the Nationals.
Monster Energy/Pro Circuit/CLS/Kawsaki’s Steven Frossard
MXlarge: Do you have a favorite from all your GP riders?
Payton: They are all good, I mean we have Christophe right now and he is like one of those really gifted riders, so I don’t know, it’s difficult. Everything happens in eras. If you look at the era of Pichon he was fantastic, when I had Langston I loved that, when I had Ben I loved that, and now I have Christophe and I love that.
MXlarge: Christophe is a lot different to a Langston or a Townley. How do you look at the differences?
Payton: They are all so different. A long time ago I thought everyone had to be one way, but as time has gone on I realized that there are certain guys who do the hammer down effort and then there are other guys who just do it different. Like with Christophe I give him a long leash, but as long as he gets the results then I let him do it the way he wants to do it.
MXlarge: You seem to have a good relationship with Christophe.
Payton: We waited like a year and a half after his injury and we were not even sure he was going to be able to race, and I think I could understand the injury he had and I didn’t want him worrying about anything beside the injury he had. We were going to be there no matter what, he was going to get that opportunity, and when he did come back he was awesome.
MXlarge: I always enjoyed interviewing Christophe when he was racing the GP’s, but many people don’t really understand him, many think he is arrogant.
Payton: I think a lot of people mistake arrogance for almost a quiet calmness. He has a really dry sense of humor. He will say something and I think, “What?” Then he says, “That was funny right?” and then I realize it was a joke. He makes a joke but he doesn’t laugh or smile, he wants to know if you get it. He has a lot of self-confidence and he is calm. The days when everyone is really happy and jumping around he is still pretty mellow.
MXlarge: He isn’t a risk taker is he?
Payton: It’s how he feels. He went through a lot when he got hurt, and to think about a life in a wheelchair isn’t something anyone of these guys want. To have that and to live that for a little while and come out of it, it gives you a new reflection on what you do. There have been a couple of times when I have tried to push it and told him to hang it out a little more, but he says he won’t hang it out, he will ride to his ability and that is it, he takes the chances he feels comfortable with and not what anyone else thinks he should.
MXlarge: I’ve talked to Pit about his injury and how he dealt with it. You have been in a wheelchair a long time, what is your take on looking forward and not looking back?
Payton: I don’t think I would have done anything different, I mean it was an accident, and it’s unfortunate that it happened to me and it’s unfortunate it happens to a lot of kids. I don’t think there is anything you can do to stop it happening. It just didn’t work out. It’s a dangerous sport, but so is football, or driving home. You just do the best you can with or without a wheelchair.
MXlarge: How did you enjoy the USGP?
Payton: I was excited about it. Every year I look forward to the des Nations race. I like the element of all the different riders from different countries and the different bikes and people. I love the des Nations and I think they like having us there. The more International it is the better it is for all of us.
MXlarge: Last question. The age old question of which series is better, or which riders are better?
Payton: The rider level the United States is 50% better (laughing), no I got you there. I think if you look at MX1 or MX2, you follow the results and you can see what is happening. They have a group of kids in the MX2 probably deeper than it has been for a while, and I actually think the MX1 class now that Cairoli has moved up, Philippaerts, Desalle is a good rider, Nagl is a good rider, Pourcel when he is on is good, Barragan, is also pretty strong. There are a bunch of guys who can win a moto and their day and that is what the series needs. Just like in America.
Our Lites class has maybe a little more depth than MX2, probably eight guys could win a moto with a good start and the 450cc class is also going to be good this year. Without injuries it’s great, but with Villopoto back or James (Stewart) back, it’s a deep class. Both sides of the water are pretty cool. Everyone wants to be the best in the world and it’s a different element, we do Supercross for half the year and then motocross, while in Europe it’s all motocross. Maybe the GP guys would have an advantage early in a season because Supercross is very stop-and-start, while the GP guys work on momentum in the races.