The biggest stories of the 2013 race season revolved around the Rockstar Energy Racing team founded by Bobby Hewitt and Dave Gowland. They received no support from American Suzuki, contesting the entire year aboard purchased bikes that were crafted with parts from their sponsors. They signed Davi Millsaps, a rider practically written off by the industry following years of injuries, to compete in the 450 class and proceeded to win the opening round of the Supercross season. Their dominance continued through the spring as Millsaps carded wins and maintained control of the 450 championship until an untimely injury, while longtime 250 rider Jason Anderson grabbed a win in Salt Lake City. Towards the end of the summer, they startled the masses by announcing a new partnership with KTM and the Factory Services program for 2014 and beyond, which will put Millsaps, Anderson, and Joey Savatgy aboard factory equipment. During the KTM media event, we talked with the two men in charge and found out what it takes to make an impact in the sport and what their future plans entail…
How did the Rockstar Energy Racing Team start?
Bobby Hewitt: I got really drunk one night and….
Hewitt: It was in 2004, with the amateur program and Team Green. We brought riders up through there like Dean Wilson, Austin Stroupe, and Ryan Villopoto in his last year as an amateur, and an opportunity came up for the Motosport.com team when Dave was still Team Green Manager. Kawasaki was looking for a secondary team, because we had more riders on the amateur side and they couldn’t all go to Mitch. Kawasaki was looking for another team, so I purchased that team (the Motosport.com team) and had the pro team and the amateur team. That went along until 2008, and then Reed was signed with Kawasaki. They had already come to me and said that if they signed Reed, they would cut resources from Mitch and that our program would be gone. And obviously they signed Reed. But at the same time, Roger (DeCoster) approached us on going to Suzuki and we ended up going there and acquiring Rockstar sponsorship. When Roger was there (at Suzuki), we were brought on as the factory Lites team, and when Roger left, so did that agreement. We basically did everything for a couple of years with Jamie as our engine tech, and we had good success with that, but we were looking to partner with another manufacturer. We wanted that same relationship and that support.
Dave Gowland: We asked Suzuki to support us, but for whatever reason, it just didn’t happen. We wanted to partner because we had something to offer and needed the corporation to partner with. This (KTM Racing) just seemed like the best fit.
Hewitt: So we made the switch and now are with KTM.
The years you were funding the team yourself, were the numbers “in the red?” And now that you are with KTM, would you start seeing a profit? Or would you even do this if there was no profit?
Hewitt and Gowland in unison: There is no profit and never will be.
Hewitt: If you break even, that is profitable.
How did the partnership with Rockstar Energy come about?
Hewitt: That came with Suzuki. Being a part of the Lites program, Rockstar played a big part for many years. When we started that relationship, when we transferred and went to Suzuki, they became the strongest partner that we have with Mike Kelso and all of the guys there. Frankly, if it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be here.
Gowland: Although he funds it on his own, he can’t fund the whole thing. Suzuki for whatever reason decided to back away from the partnership with Rockstar, and for us, it was the perfect opportunity. We took advantage of the situation and that we could do the same thing as the factory.
One thing that the team has always done is bringing in good, non-endemic sponsors that have money, from Makita to Horizon Hobby to Canidae. In racing, who had heard of Canidae dog food until five years ago? What goes into making those sponsorship decisions and how do they happen?
Gowland: It’s Bobby. Those people he found in Texas, and for whatever reason, there are a lot of guys in Texas that have these businesses and he runs into them from his other businesses. They share a common interest and a desire to go racing, and that is where a lot of it has come from.
Hewitt: Everyone is trying to hit the same sponsors within the box. And unfortunately there are always barriers for guys outside the box to make penetration into it. Canidae was one that was a really good sponsor for the long-term, but they didn’t fit a lot of the molds of the core. But as far as family and a sponsor, they were very enthusiastic. That is the wall that you are trying to break down with more outside sponsors. Most of them are meeting a guy on a plane or see him in a meeting. The guy with Horizon Hobby came from Scuba (Steve Westfall), one of our mechanics. He is a RC fanatic and he was talking to them, who told another guy, and the next thing you know we are in a meeting and able to put something together.
Gowland: It is a multitude of things. Because we have Rockstar, they can do a licensing agreement with them, which is in their interest because it’s the same demographic. So they do a Rockstar car, and it all works out. These are the things we are trying to do, to give our sponsors an opportunity to sell and generate revenue because of their association, and not just because we have a semi and sit in front of 20,000 fans at a pit party.
In all of the riders that the team has had, what has attracted you to them? You have had tons of guys, from Nico Izzi to Blake Wharton to Ryan Sipes, and what was it about them that gained your interest?
Gowland: Let’s start with Jason (Anderson). We saw him coming up through the amateurs.
Hewitt: Starting with Jason, I have known him with our amateur program. There are guys, especially in our Lites class, that I have known since they were 10 years old. I know their families and hell, half of them have stayed at our house for periods of time. Jason is one that was two-fold. First, the credibility of the pro team initially is no different than saying Roger DeCoster calls you and that is where you want to go. So you come in and compete on the pro side, and it is hard to get the pro riders because they want to be on the factory supported programs that have proven they can win. There is a process that goes into that and Jason is one that we have built up enough through there, and by knowing Jason and his parents, they trusted us and he was the first. Having guys like Ryan Morais, Tommy Hahn, Blake Wharton, and the success we’ve had with Davi, nothing substitutes winning. When you start winning, your bikes get to the front and you are competing for championships and things like that, which opens up the doors to get more aggressive riders. But because of the business side of me, I have to take off the enthusiast hat and see the amount of a budget that I have. Do we have one rockstar and three fill-ins, or do you try to be in the running with everyone? You have to build over time and once you gain the riders, like now, we don’t have any problems. I can pick up the phone to call a rider and we don’t have the discussion of whether we have the quality team they can ride for.
Gowland: I think that part of the thing is that we might not necessarily get the first hit, so we look at riders that have left a little bit on the table. Like Davi’s case, I think he was sort of a second fiddle. Some of these guys have had accidents before and they are counted out, but we look at them and see an opportunity. I think that is part of the selection process, because last year when we looked at Davi, he had ridden a Suzuki before and had a lot of success as an amateur, and thought he could do really well on our program. With Jason, he had ridden most of his amateur career on KTM, and it is like he is coming back home, the way Davi was last year. If he wins a championship this year, we have stuck with him through things because we believe in him, and if does well, we look like heroes and all that we did was give him a chance.
Hewitt: For me personally, with someone like Ryan Sipes, I love him as a rider and his family. That’s not to say that I don’t like some that we have had, but there are some riders I wouldn’t have. It’s the way they conduct themselves, they have to trust me and I have to trust them. There are just some that I wouldn’t have, and I wouldn’t say anything bad about anyone, but there are things about certain riders I like. I tell my guys all of the time that you never know who is watching or around, and this industry is so small that you can’t get away with anything, so you might as well get it right the first time. We are looking fro the guys that will put in the work and they have to be fast.
There are appearance details with sponsors that have to be exact, from the bike to the gear to the rider. When designing these details, is there a process that you must follow?
Gowland: Last year we were so focused on the bike that it was all that we really cared about. On last year’s team ware, we were more concerned about making the best bike we possible could and win races, but this season we have put more effort in than seasons past because it is a fresh start. We are coming to the gate with a whole new look and we put an emphasis on it, where last year we were all about the bike.
What made 2013 the breakout year?
Hewitt: I think it was a combination of things. The team atmosphere plays a big part and there have been years when one bad guy can ruin the whole bushel. But in 2013, the riders worked well together, the rode and trained together, and the mechanics were always together. And I think that we have that again in 2014. I don’t think the success was one particular thing, because Davi surrounds himself with good people. When he was with James, he was “the other guy” and it was that way everywhere else. Here he is the guy, and anything he wanted to try we would test. We didn’t question him and built the bike the way he wanted, and it’s the same way we are doing it now. We ask what they need, because you can line up 10 different riders and one will like something the other one doesn’t. Where he had been in the past, sometimes a rider will struggle with one team as opposed to another team, they will force them to take on a certain chassis or suspension. I am trying the best bike to give them the ability to win races.
Gowland: I think that is also what happened with Jason. We have spent a considerable amount of time with him over the years to get him and to keep working on some of the things on our end and his, and he continues to get better. Last year we saw him win and I think that this year he has a good chance, and we will keep building.
Hewitt: When you have the seasoned guys like Villopoto, Davi, and Dungey, they know what they want. They have been in this long enough and know how they want their bike to get the feel they are looking for. When you take a guys like Savatgy or Anderson when we first got him, and Dave can speak to this, they are young and impressionable. If someone says something works good or that they need to try something, they don’t know. I can tell a big difference in Jason this year, because he is going into his third year, has been on the circuit for a few years and knows what all of that is about, but more importantly he knows the bike now. Especially when it comes to the chassis. Before, and he will be the first one to tell you, that he just rode the bike and now he says, “I need it do this.” With the success last year, when we had Wharton, who had been around a while, Jason, who was in his second year, and Izzi, who had been around, and Davi. We had some seasoned guys there who were not star-struck by the light and what was going on, which helps a lot.
Gowland: Bobby is right, because we just don’t burn a guy for a year and leave him, unless there is a real reason. Normally we stick with a guy and I think that Davi and Jason will be around long-term. We try to invest and see it to the end.
Did any other manufacturer approach the team for 2014? And was KTM the best package?
Hewitt and Gowland in unison: Yes.
Gowland: Yamaha approached us, which we though was really good, but…
Hewitt: We had support at all different levels from each manufacturer, but it came down to KTM and Yamaha. We let Davi make the choice.
Was having Roger here, someone that you have a history with, a factor?
Hewitt: I get along with Roger really well, so if I need anything, I can call him. I had comfort on that side because I had that relationship.
Gowland: And the riders needed to be comfortable, and Davi made the decision. We approached all of our guys at the time and said, “Look, what do you think?” It was a true team decision.
What are you individual backgrounds? You have to have something going on to fund a race team…
Gowland: I’m a plumber.
Hewitt: I’m a janitor.
Hewitt: I’m from Texas, so we make whiskey out in the middle of the woods. My real job, which I think is a race team 90-percent of the time, is manufacturing and installing granite, tile, wood, and carpet and some construction.
So you’re no big Texas oilman…
Hewitt: I’m a rock guy, and it can’t be too difficult, because I polish rocks for a living.
Gowland: I have been in the industry a long time, with Kawasaki as a Team Green Supervisor, the General Manager at Thor, and have been working with Bobby for the last few years. He can’t get rid of me, so we are doing what we do.
Hewitt: And the day you leave, I’m gone.
Correct me if I am wrong, Dave, but are you now at ONE Industries also?
Gowland: Yeah, I have a position at ONE. They are a corporate sponsor and I hold a position there, too. They have been bought by a venture capitalist group and I am there to see them succeed. If they are succeeding, then so are we. It’s no secret that Bobby and I have looked for things to get into, and this is something other than a race team to be involved in. I’m not saying that we are going to by ONE Industries by any stretch, but we never know what will happen. Bobby may become a board member there at some point, but at least we are looking at other avenues to make a revenue in the future.