Jeff Ward has been a motocross icon since childhood. First made famous with a wheelie in the eternal motorcycle movie On Any Sunday, the Southern California youngster soon became one of the most well-known mini-bike riders in history and carried that same legacy into the professional ranks. In the prime of his career, Ward amassed seven AMA Supercross and National titles in the 125, 250, and 500 classes before retiring in the early 1990s. After brief but successful stint at Indy Car racing, he returned to motorcycle racing and claimed the 2004 AMA SuperMoto Championship, a discipline similar to the famed ABC Superbikers special he competed in during the 1980s.
Ward currently acts as riding coach and training partner to Rockstar Energy Racing KTM’s Jason Anderson, and earlier in the year the pair achieved Anderson’s first professional championship in the Monster Energy Supercross 250 West Coast division. Anderson is on the cusp of becoming a 450 racer and will be the star of Husqvarna’s revitalized racing program in 2015, but has found a trusted tutor in Ward. The two are a common sight at the test tracks around Southern California and during a recent break between Anderson’s motos, we spoke at length with Ward about what the average rider can do to help reach championship status.
To start, we asked Ward what common mistakes he sees by riders at the practice track…
“The biggest thing I’ve learned about other riders are their line selections, and the need to quickly find another when one line doesn’t work. They seem to stick with the same one and never change to see what works better.
“To minimize mistakes you need to think ahead, which I think is the biggest thing. For example, there is entering corners in the right position, which means you have to set up in the corner before so that you are right position for the next corner. People seem to come into a corner, hit it, then come out and try to figure out what they will do next. That means you are coming in too straight and don’t have enough speed for the next turn or jump. Thinking ahead is the biggest thing for amateurs, because they usually like to nail berms and then react to wherever they land. And that doesn’t work, because it creates mistakes.”
With Anderson racing nearly every weekend for the bulk of the year, we wanted to know if any changes are made to the training program as the season progresses. For example, when we spoke with Ward it was just before the Budds Creek National, which Anderson flew to early to take part in press day….
“During the race season, the week after an event will be a little different depending on how the weather (at the event) was and how a rider is feeling. They won’t go out of shape by not riding a long moto one day or by cutting it back from two motos to one. You have already established a base throughout the year and are building from that. If you have a weakness in the season you will find out pretty quickly and then you can work on it, but there might be a race or two where you are a little flat because you had to step something up.
“Jason is riding the 450 now to get ready for next year, but it also helps with the 250 and makes it feel a little light and makes him a little more aggressive on it.
“For Jason, this is a different week because he leaves early on Wednesday for press day so we have to get our long motos in earlier in the week. It means that he is working a little harder earlier in the week right after he got home from the National. We do a recovery cycle when he gets back, but he will be a little tired and we will get everything in.”
Unlike some riders on the East Coast, Anderson turns almost all of his laps on public race tracks. This poses a problem when trying to put in motos at race speed, but is something Ward doesn’t dwell on…
“It is the same everywhere we go, every day. There are guys out there, but as a rider you have to look ahead and not get frustrated because someone got in your way or are too dialed in on lap times because you’re two-seconds off than a lap before because people were in the way. Practice is just practice, where you are trying to refine your feeling, comfort, and confidence on the bike. Lap times don’t mean a lot because the track is watered some laps and not others. It’s all about putting your work in and knowing that you did it. What builds confidence is putting in the work and not skipping it. You shouldn’t come off of a bad day saying, ‘I’m out of shape,’ but instead say, ‘Well, I’m tired and this is what I need to do to get back for the weekend.'”
There is a common debate on whether or not a racer should taper back their weekly riding to avoid injury. Ward’s outlook on the idea comes from the mind of an experienced racer…
“If you are thinking about injuries, you shouldn’t be riding motocross because it is going to happen [laughs]. You don’t want to ride tired, because I feel that on the bike you can over-do it training wise, and in Supercross you can get hurt from a little error or lapse in fitness. That’s what the offseason is for, to get into shape on a bicycle so that you can suffer and not get hurt. You might get tired and sick, but you will eventually come in and be able to do those laps on a track. Build a program and stick to it, and then you won’t get hurt because when you go to a race you know that you can do twenty laps without being tired. The last thing you want in your mind is, ‘On these last five laps I will be tired and hanging on.’ If that is on your mind you will never win, and overcoming that comes in the offseason.
Riding the bike is the most important thing and should always come first thing in the morning. That way if you do get tired, you can regroup your second program. You don’t want to do a bicycle ride in the morning and then come to the track thinking, ‘I’ll only do ten laps now instead of twenty because I’m tired.'”
Many older riders still view Ward as a hero, an honor that grows as he continues to ride and race competitively against fellow icons Doug Dubach. Ward has advice for those that still ride while their age increases…
“It’s tough because when you are older, riding is the only thing that helps you on the bike [laughs]. You’ll get arm pump and your muscles will be sore the next day. I went to Mammoth and ran down Doug Dubach, but I hadn’t ridden since February. I ride mountain bikes every day so I am in great shape, but I’m not in great motorcycle riding shape. On the second day of Mammoth my shoulders tightened up and on the third day I could barely get out of bed, but I loosened up once I was riding.
“You need to get out a couple of times a week on the bike so that you feel comfortable and not overwhelmed. Even when I don’t ride a lot, the speed, jumps, and the braking overwhelm me. Once you get comfortable, everything gets better.”