The last two years have been very trying for Justin Hill. After a stellar pro debut with the Monster Energy/Pro Circuit/Kawasaki team, Hill was lured away by KTM and signed as their hope for the 250 class. The Northwest native had both flashes of success and a string of serious setbacks during the two-year term. The positives included a win at the 2016 Toronto SX that turned into a chance at the 250 East Coast championship until a concussion at the 2016 Detroit SX, Hill’s third knock to the head in a short period of time, sent Hill to the sidelines until the start of the summer. His time outdoors was also interrupted, as a back injury at round two put out again until almost the end of the series.
But that’s all in the past. For 2017, Hill has returned to Mitch Payton’s famed Pro Circuit squad and is ready for a fresh start with familiar friends. Likely set to contest the 250 West Coast SX, Hill will be aboard the all-new Kawasaki KX250F and is confident that he can help the PC team return to their former prestigious level.
It’s been a little while since we’ve seen you in action due to a shoulder injury early in the offseason. What exactly happened and how was the recovery?
About six weeks ago I had a little crash after I came up short on a jump at Milestone, just a stupid little thing. I had only ridden the new bike a few times, so I was getting my feet wet in order to see how things were. I was excited and was having a good time riding, but I should have waited for the track to come around because it was greasy. I went out anyway and that was a dumb thing to do. I came down on my shoulder, which broke my collarbone really close to the sternum, and also broke my shoulder blade in three different spots. It was a good one and I hit the ground pretty hard. Thankfully I didn’t ring my bell at all, which had been the deal over the last couple of years. I’ve been trying to protect my head and I feel very recovered from that now. I’ve hit the ground a couple of times and haven’t gotten shaken up, so that’s a cool thing for me. I’m a big fan of the Bell helmet, so that’s a good deal with PC. My shoulder thing was a crapshoot, just a stupid crash, but every since that things have gone really well. I can’t complain because during the offseason you always wonder when you have a crash if you could have hit the ground harder at some point in those six weeks of recovery. In a way, it’s a blessing it happened early because I can still make the West Coast if that’s what’s needed. I’ve ridden a few times since then and it’s a little sore at the end of the day, but it gets better the more that I ride. I’m not worried about my shoulder at all and I think that within a week from now, I’ll have forgotten about it. When I hit the ground, I had never had any type of injury to my shoulders, so when it was totally hammered I started to wonder what I jut did because of the horror stories from other guys and repeated shoulder injuries. I’m glad that it was nothing like that, just some broken bones. I drank some milk and chilled [Laughs]. But it’s going good now.
You were able to come back at Washougal and finished the summer off, but before that you had a lot of time off of the bike over the last two years. Is it hard to come back and find the flow of the pack?
In Supercross, I feel like I can come right back to it. Supercross is my home with the timing, the trickiness, and the weird things that people don’t like. I feel like I could not ride a bike for ten years, then come back and feel better riding Supercross than I would outdoors. That comes easily. I was proud of myself this summer, because those guys were riding great. Forkner is a hungry young kid that will be a superstar, Cooper was riding good, Savatgy was riding good, Jessy was riding well before his crash, and they were all on it. I came back, had good rides, and battled it out with them. I expect myself to always do well, but I expected myself to battle with guys back in seventh and eighth place until I got the flow of it again. But I came right out and was a top-five or podium threat. That was nice. It came back quicker this time and I think that’s because of my age and experience so far. I get thrown a lot few curveballs because I’ve seen these things before now, and that definitely helped with all of the variables that you go through. This past outdoor season, I had a bulging disc in my back that I think came over time and a crash made it worse. It was a nagging deal and I had everyone working on me, from Doc G to my buddy Doctor Nick, and the consensus was to stretch everything out and chill. So that’s what I did and everything got way better. I haven’t felt it since the few weeks that I took off. When I came back I was pumped that I was able to mix it up again. To be clear of the nagging things that bothered me for a long time, it was nice to let that chill. 2015 was my kicker year and I’m still recovering from that, I swear. I hit my head a whole bunch of times and in those crashes messed up other things. I’ve just now gotten back to myself. 2014 was a good year and I should have just gotten better, but 2015 was a really bad year. This time around in Supercross, I was totally in line for everything. I came out and was the best I think that I have been in a series, then crashed in the first turn at Atlanta but nearly caught Jeremy Martin at the checkered flag for fourth place. At Daytona, that was probably the best showing that I’ve had on an outdoor-style track with trying to chase down the dude that is the outdoor champion. And then I won Toronto. I felt that it was going to be a good year and I kept chipping away at it, but since 2015 the knocks to the noggin aren’t helping me. Everyone is different and I get all looped out, because it changes the way that I feel on the bike. I tried to ride three days after the crash in Detroit and hoped to come back for Indy. I took everyone’s opinion and told them that when I rode I was dizzy and felt funny. Around lap fourteen, I couldn’t see straight. We were in the championship hunt and ahead of Malcolm in points, so it felt like we needed to get out there and win the thing. It was a deal where Tyler Keefe, whose opinion I respect, told me that I should try to nurse myself through it. And truthfully the amount of people that said not to do ride outweighed the people that wanted me to ride. I had such a bad year before that with hitting my head that I had to think about the rest of my life and career, and I knew that I couldn’t keep dragging something like that the way I did in 2015. I’d come back right away and would hit my noggin. So I had to cut it and that was the best decision that I ever made because I feel awesome. I needed a lot of time to come back from that. Now that I’ve been through a few things, I feel like I have the potential to get the title. I’m having fun training again and am back with Johnny Louch and Matt Bisceglia, which makes it a good time when we are cycling. We are back to the way things were 2014, when I was in good shape. I was in awesome shape last year, but I think that I was doing more riding and wasn’t quite at the weight I wanted to be. I think I was around 175 pounds during Supercross and since I’m not a small guy, 175 pounds is something to be at if I’m really focused on working out. But if I’m really serious about my nutrition and training, I can be around 160 pounds, which is more optimal for a little bike. I wanted to get back on a bicycle again, have some fun, and burn some calories, and that’s what we are doing. So far things are going, other than the hiccup with my shoulder. I don’t know the status of my teammates, but if it’s possible that I go to the West Coast, I’ll be ready for it. I still have five weeks until the start and I always like to give myself a six to eight-week boxer training camp. If I don’t get the full six to eight weeks, it’s not boxing because I have nine races to attend and be at my peak. We don’t just show up to the MGM and then leave. I have races where I can improve my fitness and riding. So maybe I don’t come out swinging at Anaheim One, but instead rein it in and act chip away at it. I’ll be better off because of it.
Consider the fact that we are going fast out there and when we hit the ground, it is not fun. I hit my head really hard and three times in a row within a few months. Maybe you can say that you see fighters get knocked out and come back, but it’s a little bit different because it’s the g-forces and the impact from falling where we fall from. It’s from really high and really fast. They are getting punched enough to shut the lights off, but I feel as if we take further damage from that. But either way, the problem is that we’re tough and want to go back one week later, and that’s the mistake everyone makes. It’s the mistake that I made and that I’ll never make again.At what point did you figure out that you were going back to Mitch’s team?
I was talking to Tyler Keefe, my old team manager at Troy Lee, and they had a lot of money tied up in Jessy for 2017. I totally understood that, he is their guy. Jessy is a lifetime TLD guy and I get that they wanted to make him their guy for 2017. I kind of fell into their laps, so to say, and as much as I love Troy and all of those guys because they were my first sponsor, I understood all of that. Early on we realized that I needed to do my thing and later when Jessy got hurt, we had a talk about it. They still wanted to do something for Jessy and I said that they should do that, that they needed to help their boy. That’s the number one thing in my book, to keep helping him through what he is going through. KTM put me on TLD because they faded the 250s away from the factory team, so when it was contract time, it wasn’t the same discussion. It isn’t like it was when I was talking to Roger DeCoster when he co-signed my contract. When it came time for negotiations, KTM didn’t have a 250 team other than TLD and I talked to Tyler, and that’s what we came up with.
I started talking to Mitch after that, right about the time that my deal was about to be up. That’s late in terms of big deals, so we talked. My dad and I sat there, then Mitch called and asked what I thought. I said that I would be honored to ride for him again and things like that don’t happen often. I can’t recall a time that it has, other than guys like Hansen who were off and on with Mitch. To have a full-on, serious contract with Mitch two separate times is an honor. I wanted to do it. My big brother is working with Monster and I’m close with all of those guys. It all just kind of worked out. I love the guys at Fox and their stuff, I like the Bell helmet and am good buddies with Rob Salcedo and the guys there, so it was an easy transition. When it was mentioned, I felt that it might total sense and tried to do it. I had other guys talking to me, like Bobby Regan at Star Racing. But I didn’t want to get offers that were close and unsure of the way I wanted to go. Truthfully, it was more of a pride thing and I wanted to make Mitch look good. I think I can and that’s a bonus.
All of these 250 teams have come up in the last few years and are all powerhouses, but to ride for Mitch is still the stamp of approval for most young riders. Does that put extra pressure on you?
Not really now, but it did initially. When I signed as a rookie and things weren’t going well, I thought that I couldn’t be the one to break the spell of Mitch’s championships. So it put more pressure on me then. Now that I’m older and know more about what I’m doing, I feel I have the experience and am excited to bring his brand back and be the guy that wins him titles again. I think that would be the coolest thing. I’m going to do what I can do and hopefully it’s good enough.
It’s a new bike this year and it’s based off what Kawasaki debuted last year with the 450. It sounds like the team has done a lot with the 2017 250 already.
Bones has been with us a lot hanging out, just watching everyone and tweaking the bike when we feel it needs something. He’s been really cool when just hanging out and he’s always there. I like that more than testing, because when you have a test day, you’re committed to the track conditions. But if we’re just out there riding and I say something like everything is good but it could be better in certain spots, he’s there to turn a wrench or swap a fork. And I think that’s an advantage over just having a guy out there. I like the new chassis and I think it’s a little more nimble, so it wants to turn down in corners. I only rode the old bike a couple of times, so it’s hard to say. I liked the old bike when I first came back, but this is just better.
You are back to working with Johnny Louch and are around close friend Matt Bisceglia more now. You’re back to the program that you’re completely comfortable with and there’s no search for something new.
I’m not a dude that turns this stuff into a science because there is no formula for Supercross. It’s just riding, being as comfortable as you can be, and being in the best shape that you can be. You can get there a thousand different ways, so for me I want to have fun training because it motivates me into doing it. If I’m with my boys and having a good time, then that’s what I want to do. If you work hard, you’ll see the results. When we get together we race each other on the bikes and put in hard work, but we don’t even realize it. And I think that’s one of the biggest things for me.