CRUNCH TIME: For Ezra Lusk, it’s Now or Never

Story and Photos by Donn Maeda

In Southern California–the Corona area, to be exact–rumors spread through the motocross industry like wildfire. We first heard tales of Ezra Lusk’s blistering lap times at the Yamaha test track around Thanksgiving time from not one, not two, but three very reliable sources. As the tale went, Yogi felt so at home aboard the Yamaha YZ250 from the minute he threw a leg over it that he hardly switched a single setting throughout his multi-week testing stint in Cali. Even more interesting, however, was the claim that he had the rest of the boys in blue beat in the unofficial lap time wars, including Supercross superhero Chad Reed. So flustered was Reed, said the rumors, that he even had one of his friends secretly videotape Lusk in action in hopes of analyzing his speed advantages.

Whether or not any of the rumors were true will perhaps never be known, but the fact remains that Ezra Lusk is a new man–or should we say, more like the old Ezra–aboard his new Yamaha, and he has his sights set high in 2004. After shocking the sport with a surprise win at last year’s Phoenix Supercross, it appeared that Yogi had found his form aboard his Kawasaki, but his results were never nearly as spectacular for the remainder of the season. Outdoors, Lusk was an also-ran; sometimes not even posting top-10 finishes.

Reunited with the bike he claims “started (his) 250c career,” Lusk has a newfound drive and determination that many feel will help him return to the front of the pack. TransWorld Motocross paid a visit to Yogi and his family right after Christmas not only to see him in action (check www.transworldmx.com/yogivid to see for yourself), but also to sit down and chat. Here’s what Ezra had to say…

 

It feels like déjà vu, seeing you back on Yamahas…

Yeah, blue has always been my favorite color, and I’ve had fun this off season with testing the YZ250 and all. It’s gotta be one of the better bikes that I’ve ever ridden. It definitely helped a lot that I’ve ridden a Yamaha before and been on that team and worked with most of the guys before, so I was really comfortable testing this year.

We heard that before the 2003 season even ended you had decided that you would do whatever it took to be on a YZ in 2004…

Yeah, that’s basically what it boiled down to. I wanted to ride a Yamaha. I just wanted to give myself the best possible chance of winning the championship, which is the only thing I haven’t been able to accomplish throughout my career. I thank God for being able to give me the chance to do it, and aboard what I feel is the best bike out there. I’m 28 years old and I have been racing for 11 years as a pro, and if I am ever gonna win a Supercross title I figure it has to be now.

You’ve ridden for every Japanese manufacturer now…

Yeah, I don’t know what to say about that other than I’ve just been in weird positions throughout my career that either forced me to change or I had to change. I pretty much did the Kevin Windham thing this year: I wanted to ride the bike I felt suited me and the bike that was going to help me win races. The Yamaha YZ250 is that bike.

You had a real successful year in 1997 when you last rode a YZ…

When I rode for Yamaha in ‘97, it basically started my 250 career. I won two Supercrosses and two 250cc outdoor Nationals. That’s really what got me started. At the end of that year they really didn’t have room for me at that point with Kevin and a few more guys being on the team, so I went to Honda and had a great career there. I was treated really well at Honda and I had a lot of fun, but things didn’t work out for me to stay there, so I went to Kawasaki for a couple seasons and struggled. Now I’m here back on Yamaha, and I am happys can be.

So how does your deal with Mach 1 Yamaha work out this year?

I am riding under the Mach 1 Yamaha banner, a shop in San Francisco, California. I’m on a full works bike supplied by Team Yamaha; it’s the best bike out there, and on it I can do anything I want to do. It’s been working out well.

You seem much more content, confident, and focused than in past years…

Yeah, you know what, through this off-season I felt like I went on an emotional roller-coaster ride. I got to spend a lot of time with my son and figure out where my priorities were. I really debated in my head what I should do, keep racing or retire. I sat back and wondered if I had perfect circumstances in any of the seasons in which I didn’t win a championship, and I realized that I never have. Whether it be an injury or some sort of equipment problem, there has always been something holding me back. I knew that I couldn’t deal with that fact for the rest of my life, so my wife and I decided to give it another go. This time, everything is perfect; the bike, my health, and my place in life. This year I am looking at racing as kind of a hobby, because it’s definitely not for the money. My 2004 season is all about earning a number-one plate.

So this year is perfect, as far as your pre-season preparation goes?

Yeah, I would say that it is. Every decision I made this year was made with one thing in mind: a championship. Every contract that I signed, from clothing to the bike to my mechanic, it’s all to accomplish one goal. My wife and my son and my trainer Gary Semics have been focusing on winning the Supercross Championship in 2004. Mentally and physically I am more prepared than ever, and if I don’t do it this year I can at least say I gave it 100 percent and I can walk away knowing that I did.

Is this your last year?

You know, it’s hard to say. I wouldn’t retire because I’m not having fun racing, by any means. I do have to say I’m not having fun outside the top three, or five. I want to be there every weekend and I want to win races and championships. If I don’t do that this year, then it just might be my last season.

So last year you busted out at Phoenix with a win, and then had the most insane battle in your heat race at Anaheim 2 with Chad Reed. It’s obvious you still have the talent; what kept you from doing well after that?

It’s really hard to say without really calling people out. I didn’t change any of my training or preparation through the season. Nothing changed with me; everything I did throughout the year was the same, from start to finish. There was just a little bit of inconsistency within the team I was on and it just didn’t work out for me. The conditions didn’t really suit the Kawasaki, especially on the East Coast. I feel that I won in Phoenix because the whoops were really small, but that was the only place it was like that. I got to a point in the series where I just felt like I needed to make it through the rest of the races and not injure myself.

During off-season testing, you were the king of the lap-time battles at the Yamaha track. Do you think you will surprise some people when the season starts?

I think so… I hope so! I don’t think any of my rivals underestimates me; I think they all kind of know what I possess deep down inside. It’s just when and where I’m going to let it out, you know? I think the fear I have is whether or not I can do it on a Yamaha every single weekend? When I was on a Honda and racing against Jeremy, I think Jeremy kind of knew that back then I wouldn’t be on the pace every single weekend. That’s were I’ve been trying to prepare myself mentally…just to be on top of my game every single second I’m on the track.

In the past, you were known as one of the most aggressive riders on the track, but that has changed. Have you become too passive?

No, but I have been taken advantage of. I’ve been taken out a few times by guys that struggle to finish in the top three or five. I don’t think that I have to do that to beat people anymore. Jeremy really never did that to beat anyone. I’ve mentioned his name a few times because he won a lot of championships and he earned a lot of respect from the riders and fans by being a clean racer. I would just like to base this year off of that: I’m riding a Yamaha and I’m wearing No Fear, so it’s kind of like I would like to do what he did. I don’t want to be his protégé, but I can’t help but feel some coincidences going into the new season.

You’ve become a father recently. Has that changed your outlook on racing?

It has really changed everything, you know? Like I was explaining about the decisions I had to make for 2004; everything was different this time in my decision-making process. Becoming a father has definitely changed my outlook on racing. Instead of racing being something that I live and completely die for, eat, sleep, drink, and think about all the time, it has all changed. Now he’s the number-one thing I live for, and racing is just a hobby. But it’s a hobby that I still do all those things for. I still love it more than anything in the world except for my son and my wife. Like I said, my goals and interests in racing this year were for one purpose, and that was to be able to have a number one plate. I guess I am kind of being self-centered about it this year because I could have just stopped and spent all my time with him, my wife, and my family. But I wanted to be able to show him one day what all that was for; all that time that I spent away from home and doing all that for: a championship plate. So hopefully my wife and son can support me and put everything else on the backburner for right now until I can do that.

Another big change you’ve made since I’ve known you is becoming a born-again Christian. Has that had anything to do with your lack of aggression on the track?

I think it might have a little to do with it, but like I was saying earlier about being a little vulnerable on the track on weekends when I wasn’t the fastest guy: the whole time I rode a Kawasaki, I wasn’t the most aggressive person because I didn’t feel like I was the fastest rider on the track, except for that one weekend in Phoenix. When you’re not the fastest guy and you know you’re not riding to your ability and things are holding you back, you feel like a knucklehead if you just go out and start ramming guys. If you’re ramming the guy for fifth place and not climbing the ladder and moving towards the front, there’s no point! This year, I feel like I’m going to have the speed and the aggressiveness to move people out of the way if I have to. Hopefully I will start up front, though, and not have to! (laughs)

You are one of the most naturally talented Supercross riders, but you have admitted being less of an outdoor motocross specialist. What’s up with that?

Obviously, I’m shooting for the Supercross championship, but I have always struggled a lot and I don’t know. My goal is a top-three finish outdoors in the final standings, but I’d like to win some Nationals, too. That’s being realistic. If I can build on what I’m building right now as far as the mental attitude that I have and the new speed that I’ve got on this bike, I should be a contender. I have decided that I’m riding the YZ450F outdoors. I’ve ridden it a little bit so far, just a stock one, and it’s a lot of fun to ride. With the bikes they have nowadays, the YZ450F, the CRF450R and the 450SX KTM, it’s hard to compete against them off the start and on the longer tracks. Unless you weigh 135 pounds like Ricky, it’s kind of hard to get a good start on a regular 250cc two-stroke. I’m going to ride a four-stroke, and I think it will be a lot of fun to see w>No, but I have been taken advantage of. I’ve been taken out a few times by guys that struggle to finish in the top three or five. I don’t think that I have to do that to beat people anymore. Jeremy really never did that to beat anyone. I’ve mentioned his name a few times because he won a lot of championships and he earned a lot of respect from the riders and fans by being a clean racer. I would just like to base this year off of that: I’m riding a Yamaha and I’m wearing No Fear, so it’s kind of like I would like to do what he did. I don’t want to be his protégé, but I can’t help but feel some coincidences going into the new season.

You’ve become a father recently. Has that changed your outlook on racing?

It has really changed everything, you know? Like I was explaining about the decisions I had to make for 2004; everything was different this time in my decision-making process. Becoming a father has definitely changed my outlook on racing. Instead of racing being something that I live and completely die for, eat, sleep, drink, and think about all the time, it has all changed. Now he’s the number-one thing I live for, and racing is just a hobby. But it’s a hobby that I still do all those things for. I still love it more than anything in the world except for my son and my wife. Like I said, my goals and interests in racing this year were for one purpose, and that was to be able to have a number one plate. I guess I am kind of being self-centered about it this year because I could have just stopped and spent all my time with him, my wife, and my family. But I wanted to be able to show him one day what all that was for; all that time that I spent away from home and doing all that for: a championship plate. So hopefully my wife and son can support me and put everything else on the backburner for right now until I can do that.

Another big change you’ve made since I’ve known you is becoming a born-again Christian. Has that had anything to do with your lack of aggression on the track?

I think it might have a little to do with it, but like I was saying earlier about being a little vulnerable on the track on weekends when I wasn’t the fastest guy: the whole time I rode a Kawasaki, I wasn’t the most aggressive person because I didn’t feel like I was the fastest rider on the track, except for that one weekend in Phoenix. When you’re not the fastest guy and you know you’re not riding to your ability and things are holding you back, you feel like a knucklehead if you just go out and start ramming guys. If you’re ramming the guy for fifth place and not climbing the ladder and moving towards the front, there’s no point! This year, I feel like I’m going to have the speed and the aggressiveness to move people out of the way if I have to. Hopefully I will start up front, though, and not have to! (laughs)

You are one of the most naturally talented Supercross riders, but you have admitted being less of an outdoor motocross specialist. What’s up with that?

Obviously, I’m shooting for the Supercross championship, but I have always struggled a lot and I don’t know. My goal is a top-three finish outdoors in the final standings, but I’d like to win some Nationals, too. That’s being realistic. If I can build on what I’m building right now as far as the mental attitude that I have and the new speed that I’ve got on this bike, I should be a contender. I have decided that I’m riding the YZ450F outdoors. I’ve ridden it a little bit so far, just a stock one, and it’s a lot of fun to ride. With the bikes they have nowadays, the YZ450F, the CRF450R and the 450SX KTM, it’s hard to compete against them off the start and on the longer tracks. Unless you weigh 135 pounds like Ricky, it’s kind of hard to get a good start on a regular 250cc two-stroke. I’m going to ride a four-stroke, and I think it will be a lot of fun to see what we can do with it.

In spite of your attitude about being weaker at Nationals, you do have some wins to your credit…

Yeah, I’ve won two or three Nationals, but that’s not really a lot when I’ve won 14 Supercrosses. You know, I’ve just never been highly motivated for Nationals, and I think riding this 450 is going to get me more fired up, with a little better chance at it. It’s going to be fun. I’ve never had to worry about my physical conditioning for Nationals, except when I’ve been sick or injured or something like that. I think it’s going to be a fun bike to race, because it’s definitely been fun to ride and test on.

Over the past few years, has there ever been a point where you felt that you had lost your speed or gotten too old?

There have been points were I thought I lost my speed, but never times when I felt that I lost my edge. As far as my age, I’ve never thought, “Man, I’m getting old.” Just as easy as you can lose your speed, you can regain it. I didn’t lose my speed for any other reason than something holding me back. Whether it was the bike or injuries, I knew I still had my drive deep inside me.

It’s good to see you fired up again, Ezra. Good luck in 2004.

Thanks a lot. And thanks to all of my loyal fans who have stuck behind me through thick and thin. Win, lose, or draw, I am going to give it all I have in 2004.

ee what we can do with it.

In spite of your attitude about being weaker at Nationals, you do have some wins to your credit…

Yeah, I’ve won two or three Nationals, but that’s not really a lot when I’ve won 14 Supercrosses. You know, I’ve just never been highly motivated for Nationals, and I think riding this 450 is going to get me more fired up, with a little better chance at it. It’s going to be fun. I’ve never had to worry about my physical conditioning for Nationals, except when I’ve been sick or injured or something like that. I think it’s going to be a fun bike to race, because it’s definitely been fun to ride and test on.

Over the past few years, has there ever been a point where you felt that you had lost your speed or gotten too old?

There have been points were I thought I lost my speed, but never times when I felt that I lost my edge. As far as my age, I’ve never thought, “Man, I’m getting old.” Just as easy as you can lose your speed, you can regain it. I didn’t lose my speed for any other reason than something holding me back. Whether it was the bike or injuries, I knew I still had my drive deep inside me.

It’s good to see you fired up again, Ezra. Good luck in 2004.

Thanks a lot. And thanks to all of my loyal fans who have stuck behind me through thick and thin. Win, lose, or draw, I am going to give it all I have in 2004.