This article was originally printed in our April 2017 issue of TransWorld Motocross.
Work In Progress | Shane McElrath And The Continued Build Of His Career
By Michael Antonovich | Photos by Donn Maeda and Mike Emery
Over the last four years, Shane McElrath has established himself as one of the best riders in the 250 class. Like most things of high prestige, getting to this point has not been simple or swift, and the North Carolina native has chased the challenge with the full support of the Troy Lee Designs/GoPro/Red Bull/KTM race team. During the early weeks of 250 West Coast portion of the 2017 Monster Energy Supercross Series, McElrath stunned the competition with a win at the opening round and then reaffirmed his spot at the top with a second win, one week later. For some, this success was seen as sudden and unexpected, but for those who know "Moody," an all-out alter ego that's a play on McElrath's middle name, it was just another step in the project.
The McElrath family has deep ties to motocross. At some point in time the entire family—from the parents to the daughters to the sons—all swung a leg over a bike for a moto, and two of the boys, Shane and Kyle, proved to be exceptionally talented at the amateur level. Racing was more a way for the family to spend time together and not necessarily a venture for fame or fortune. "My parents never pushed me to do anything I didn't want to do," McElrath recalls. "The only time they ever got upset with me wasn't because I did badly, it was because I wouldn't do a little jump that everyone else was jumping. They would bribe me with money and video games! 'Every double you jump will get you a video game!' I don't know why I was so terrified of it."
McElrath's skills resulted in an eight-year run at the National championships held at Loretta Lynn's ranch in Tennessee, which was supported by a residency at the Club MX facility in South Carolina. "I won the area for Loretta Lynn's at Muddy Creek in 2011 and was at the regional qualifier where Mark Osborne told me I could start to stay at Club during the summer before Loretta's. It worked out and was a total God thing," McElrath says. The family's finances didn't support the cost of a full-time stay at the South Carolina training facility, so thanks to a unique deal, McElrath was able to trade hard work for laps on the track. "We didn't really have any money to pay, and our deal was that I would only pay for food and electricity used by our RV, but I had to work for an hour or two a day around the place on whatever needed to be done."
The move was a massive change in lifestyle for the entire family, because it put the teenager on his own for the first time in his life. "Club MX is right at 200 miles away from where I grew up. It was the first time I had been away from my parents. We've all been sheltered for a part of our life, some people more than others, and I was 16 years old when my mom dropped me off there," he remembers, years later. "She showed me how to wash my clothes in a bucket of water, because we weren't sure how often I would get quarters. I had frozen French toast sticks that I would make for breakfast and frozen chicken patty sandwiches that I'd heat up in the microwave. It was a big deal at the time, because I had to learn how to do everything on my own. Now I look back and think I was such a little kid."
The constant time on the bike helped McElrath immensely, and during his visit to "The Ranch" in 2012, he caught the eye of Tyler Keefe, the young team manager of the Troy Lee Designs race team. "Going into Loretta's, I had a stock 250 that I raced in the 450 Mod class because the suspension that was on it made it illegal in the stock class. We went to Loretta's just as another year," McElrath says of his breakout performance at the enormously important event. "I had never raced against some of those guys competitively. I was always behind the eight ball in a sense, so to win the first moto was like, 'Dang, what just happened?' From there on out, it was natural. I ended up with two first-places finishes and four second-place finishes on the week, and during the week I met Tyler."
Keefe's take on that weekend is similar, but his first impression of McElrath almost kept any deal from coming to fruition. "When I first saw Shane, he looked like he was 25 years old—and then I found out he was a teenager," he jokes. "At that time it seemed like everyone was already locked up by teams, so I didn't know if I was wasting my time going to Loretta's. I watched one of the 250 B motos, when this kid got out front and hit this corner before the Ten Commandments. And all I could think was, 'Woah, that was fast.'"
During a meeting in McElrath's motor home, standard procedure for teams and riders at the amateur event, it was decided that a trip to California would be necessary to properly evaluate the possibility of a partnership. The initial days on the West Coast were good, but not outstanding, as Keefe felt McElrath had more to show. "We were at Glen Helen, and he was good, but maybe I was expecting more," Keefe notes. "I asked if that was all he had, and he said, 'No, sir.' At the end of the day, he dropped two or three more seconds. I told Troy that I wanted to sign him, so we just did it."
Frame It Up
The first contract with Troy Lee Designs was confirmation to McElrath that a professional career as a racer was a reality. Solid results have not been a problem for Shane, as he's consistently run in the top 10 during many of his races, but there have been challenges along the way. A practice crash in late 2015 resulted in a broken wrist and a lacerated liver, and it took most of the 2016 for McElrath to feel normal again. "I felt like my body was still trying to catch up until outdoors started, and I was dealing with the side effects of that," he shares. He could have waited out the injuries, but according to Keefe, McElrath asked to race the moment he was medically cleared to resume normal activity. "In this sport, it's so easy for people to turn their backs on someone, and for him 2016 was a wash. I knew what he was going through," Keefe explains. "He was cleared to ride a week and a half before Atlanta and told me that he was going to race. He's a smart kid, so I knew that he wasn't going to put himself in a position that could hurt him more, and we let him race. He got two podiums in Supercross." A spectacular crash at Southwick and damaged lungs brought an end to the summer, and after some rebuilding in the off-season with trainer Tyla Rattray, McElrath has emerged stronger than ever before. "When I injured my lungs at Southwick, for a month after I didn't do anything," McElrath brags. "I got to spend the extra time at home relaxing and forgot about racing a little bit. When I got back to training, it felt the same as when I hurt my liver, so I felt like I was going to start all over again. But once I got on a bicycle, it went really quickly. It took maybe three weeks to get my body over being sore, and we got back into riding shape. Since Southwick, I've been building."
In the years since the initial agreement between the two parties, there have been multiple contract re-signings and pay increases. "Shane didn't come in with the largest salary, but he's worked for everything that he has," Keefe explains. "We always try to reward him. He got second in a championship and his salary was pretty minimal, so we gave him a bump and the next salary went up. We always want to do the right thing for him and all of our riders." The incentives offered by each contract are certainly lucrative, but the relationship shared by the rider and team is worth far more than the monetary values.
"I have definitely taken a few times for granted, and now I'm so happy with where we are and the relationship that we have. We all work together and that's the biggest thing, the motive behind all of this," McElrath mentions. "Everyone puts in their full effort, and while I'm the only one on the bike, if it wasn't for what happens during the week and at the races, it wouldn't be the same. They've been more than a family to me. Looking back I want to kick myself in the butt for the times that I took for granted. I don't want to do that anymore. I want to give back to them."
To the common observer of a Supercross, it's hard to see past the speed and style of each racer. But the mental aspect might be the most interesting part of all, as only the rider and their inner circle know the motivation necessary to make it as a constant contender. "Shane needs to believe in himself and how good he truly is," Keefe explains. "If he settles and doesn't apply himself fully, that's when I get upset. He doesn't believe in himself as much as we believe in him. His ability and what he can do on a bike when he's 'on' is unreal. We have heart-to-heart talks, times when everything is great, and then there are times when I have to push to get him going. Once he's in his groove, he's fierce. But it's very hard to get him there."
Channeling McElrath's confidence has become a major focus, and there's a set routine that he likes to follow before the gate drops. "I have to have the intensity and aggression that I need to ride with. It's nothing crazy, but there is a mental side of it that we're always working to overcome," he reveals. "I just go over a routine in my head of things that I can control, of the things that I'm going to do. If a negative or bad thought comes into my head, I start over."
"I've tried to learn from other people's mistakes. When I go to the track, I don't want to do anything stupid," he continues. "But I have to catch myself, because if I think about it, then I'm already doing something stupid. If I go out and something happens, it's not for me to get mad or upset about."
Part of this mental process takes place away from the track, and over the last few years, McElrath has learned to make the most of every moment. "I've had to use my personal life to try and practice things for when I'm on the track. I know it sounds silly, but I hate being selfish and self-centered," he admits. "There's a time and place for everything, and the hardest part for me has been finding those times for things. I've had to learn priorities, what I'm doing with my extra time, and if I'm putting everything I can into my training and recovery."
Mechanic Andy Dalton has seen the change firsthand and knows McElrath is now able to take on the tasks without any extra influence. "He gets himself amped up, which was a big change from years past," Dalton notes. "For him, he needs to shut his mind off and do what needs to be done. To keep the progress that he built last year going, we didn't let him drop down or not think he was a front-runner."
Being competitive doesn't seem like something that would mesh with McElrath's mellow and noble personality, but it's something he's learned to balance when necessary. "There are other guys that are a lot better than me, and it wasn't until last year that I saw people as even with me," he says. "Yeah, there are people that have won championships and all of that, but no one is better than someone in anyone's eyes. That's the reality of it."
"There are people we race against, and I don't know if they take things personally or if it's their personality, but if someone wants to pass me, they're going to have to move me out of the way. I'm not going to let anyone go," McElrath adds. "I'm there to put up a fight. If someone is faster than me or is catching me and there's nothing I can do about it, then oh well, but I'm still going to try and hold my position. I'm not going to make it easy for them to get by. Everyone has good days and bad days, but it's one of those things and I'm tired of losing. I don't have a problem with anyone; I just don't want to get beat."
With all of the pieces of the program finally in place, now is the time for Shane McElrath to make his mark, and it's an opportunity that he will not let go to waste. "I love to do this, I love the challenge and to work hard, so within the last year I've gotten tired of giving it 90 percent. I'm ready to give everything I can and not take what I have for granted," he declares. "The ultimate goal is to be number one in the 450 class, and in my opinion, we're halfway there. This is something that I love to do and I'll continue to do it until I'm called to do something else."