Brave New World: Ryan Villopoto Speaks
By Eric Johnson
Photos by Jeff Kardas
Since the christening of the Federation Internationale Motocyclisme Motocross World Championship in 1957, no rider in the 57-year history of the sport has ever won both the premiere MXGP World Championship and the AMA Supercross Championship (first launched in 1974). Furthermore, since the rise to power of American motocross in the early 1980s, no supercross champion has ever left the AMA series to join the FIM circuit to seek out a world title. Until now, that is. As everyone even remotely in the sport now knows – due to the announcement he made last week, Ryan Villopoto, the reigning Monster Energy Supercross Champion, will forgo a chance to fight for his fifth consecutive supercross championship in 2015, instead making the choice to leave most everything he knows in America motocross to try and win the FIM MXGP World Championship. Villopoto's historic decision has, no doubt, caused a seismic shift in the sport and rocked it to its very core. And as can certainly be expected, RV's impending move means radically different things to different people. For every action there is a reaction, and to the men who run the sport around the world, the 26 year-old's new quest has left some excited, some disappointed and many perplexed. Nevertheless, it now is what it is and the series of events required to bring the complex undertaking to life have now been set into motion. Why the move to ride the Grands Prix? Why now? What's left to prove? Key questions and questions only Ryan Villopoto can address. Which is why Ryan Villopoto is sitting out on the patio of his home in balmy and serene Corona Del Mar, California and in a talkative mood. Fans all over the planet want the inside line on why he's about to fly to blustery Europe and begin getting his Grand Prix program in order, and the time has come for Ryan Villopoto to set the record straight and let everyone in on his brave new world. Read on.
Ryan, back when you were a kid and racing 80s all over the United States, did you ever really think you'd get to this level? In other words, a level where the entire motocross world is waiting for you to speak?
Sitting here with you doing this interview, no, I never thought about getting this big or getting to where I'm at now. To be honest, things might be a lot easier if I wasn't as big or made it to where I am. There are a lot of things that come along with being in this position that 99% of the people out there will never see. So then you get a backlash at times like, "Why did he do that?" or "Why is he doing this?" Honestly, as a rider or an athlete, you can't look at that stuff. We put ourselves at risk every time we climb on the bike. Nor can we care too much about what others think. We're out there doing this for our own reasons. Those reasons are different for each of the athletes.
Why do you do this? Why do you race motocross?
Obviously, winning is good. It started off as a hobby and I got good at that hobby. We started doing the amateur nationals and then it went from there. It just kind of snowballed, you know? I never thought it would ever get this big. For me, it was just something we did. It was in the family. If you talk to Adam or Alan Cianciarulo, for instance, they'll tell you Adam carried around that Bar to Bar 2005 video and watched it all the time. That's all he wanted to do. My path was different. There are things in the sport that I dislike. It's not just this industry, but being in the limelight of any sport can be rough. That's not why I do this. There comes a point in time when you're 16 or 17 years old and it changes. Everybody knows that schooling isn't a big part of getting to the top in racing. You have to go and do other things, the riding and the training. Formal schooling gets put in the back seat – it gets put to the side. So there's a point in time where there's no returning, you know? It gets to the point of "This is all I have. There's nothing else. I better make the best of it." It's not like I was thinking that way. Things happened so quickly and you're young and you enjoy it. The job aspect of it doesn't come until a lot later.
Last October, at the Monster Cup, I spoke with your dad and he was talking about the incredible amount of dedication it took from you to become – and remain – a champion. He made it clear that to get to where you are at now, it took everything you had. Sort of what you just spoke about, there is no – in between if you want to get to the very top. It's sort of a make it or break it deal, isn't it?
Yeah, you either make it or break it. The biggest thing is that probably 98% of the families out there break it. They don't make it. They put a lot of money and sacrifice into trying to make it and they're not left with anything. That's a hard pill to swallow for the parents. It's a hard a pill to swallow for the kid. It's hard because by the time he figures out he isn't making it he's 20 years old and he's like, "Shit. I've got to get a job." When that happens he's going to be starting off on the lowest rung of the ladder or very low on the totem pole at an older age. Normally, you start all that stuff at around 16.
Yeah, starting a career in the work force with no real skill set or an education.
Yeah, yeah. Obviously, most of these guys stay within the industry because they've built relationships and with some of those positions there is a high turnover rate so there are always jobs available.
When you clinched the 2014 supercross title last April, more than a few racers, racers such as Jeremy McGrath, mentioned in the media that you look liked you weren't having too much fun with the sport. True?
Oh yeah. For sure. Maybe they don't think that way, but if you go ask Ricky or Jeremy what has changed since they each left the sport it would be real interesting to hear what they say. Think about it. You're initial thought might be, "Ricky didn't quit racing all that long ago". But you look at the calendar and it was a long time ago. It was seven years ago. Think about the technology with the bikes and think about this and that and all the levels just get raised. For me, for the guys who say that I'm not happy or whatever, well… the sport is so different now, technology has progressed so far, that they may not fully know what we're dealing with now in the sport. They know the racing side of it, you know, the gate drops and you have 20 laps. They know the basics of it. Just think about training today versus when Jeremy was riding. Ricky may have been one of the first who started serious off-track training, before Ricky it was different. I've heard stories. I'm not saying it was all that way and I'm not saying all those guys did things the same way. I know Jeremy took it seriously – I'm not saying that they didn't. It's just a different world now. I know that when I retire after next year and have been out of racing for three to five years, it's going to be a different world then as well. The ball keeps rolling. Jeremy was the legend in his time, he passed the baton to Ricky. Ricky upped the game and passed it on to me. Them going before me opened the door in many ways for what I have done. I would like to think that I have done the same thing for today's younger riders. It rolls way past what you've ever thought you would see, right away.
The fact that you didn't race the Nationals caused a bit of a commotion, didn't it?
Yeah, to be honest, once I hurt my knee and had to make the decision not to race outdoors, that was tough. Being in my position, it wasn't something where I could just say, "Oh yeah, I hurt my knee and I'm not racing outdoors". I have a lot of companies that I ride for, all major companies and sponsors, and things have to be methodically thought through. Things like, "How long will it take to comeback, if I even can?", "When are we going to tell people we're not racing, if that is the best decision?" Sponsors have to think things through and maybe find a fill-in rider. I got a lot of criticism for saying, "Yeah, I'm racing outdoors". But what else did they want me to say? The severity of the injury wasn't fully apparent right away. So, for me, for the companies that I represent, and for the team, it wasn't time for me to come out and say, "I'm not racing outdoors". So what's the other answer? "I'm racing". I got a lot of criticism for that, which is fine. That's just a little insight on all that.
Things went very quiet with you after you decided to sit out the Nationals. What was going on and we're you, as many rumors suggested, thinking about retiring?
I definitely contemplated retiring. There are only a few people who do this at the level that I do it at and they do it for whatever reason that is. They do it because they enjoy the limelight or the spotlight. They enjoy the money and the fame. I fall into the category that this was a family sport that we all did. It was a hobby and I became good at it and we took that. There were a lot of good times and I've met a lot of great people in this sport. I don't do this sport for a lot of those other things that people do it for. So when I started to think about making a decision on retirement and for people to say, "Oh, how can he just walk away?" that was a bit odd for me because in the big scale of things, this is my job. This is what I do. It's not my life. This is just what I do.
How and when did the idea or the opportunity of racing the 2015 World Championship come to the fore?
Well, every time we go to Europe for Motocross of Nations or going over in the summertime for Parts Unlimited or Monster, it just amazes me that it's just such a different world over there. It's fun. To go to see Europe and see the different places and the architecture and the food is fun for me. Everything is so different. It's something new and I enjoy that. When we went over for Teutschenthal [MXGP of Germany] we kind of talked about it. We talked to Monster about it. We talked to a lot of my main personal sponsors about it. Everybody seemed to be on board with it. We had to get the ball rolling early because there are a lot of moving parts in this whole thing. It took a long time to get things going. You wouldn't think it would have been that big of a deal because it it's Kawasaki and it's one company, but it was a big battle to pull it all together.
At this point in the interview Ryan's longtime business manager, Bobby Nichols, enters the conversation to add some further insight.
Bobby Nichols: "I think it was all something of a perfect storm. If it was a straight ACL issue (Note: Nichols refers to the comprehensive knee surgery Villopoto had performed after the supercross series), Ryan would already be a month into his supercross training and we wouldn't be having this conversation. But after we realized the meniscus and the ACL were going to take, at least, three months of additional preparation, then it came to fruition that we had no chance at being ready to race for the fifth consecutive supercross title. A healthy Ryan would have been the clear favorite as he's the guy who has won four years in a row and can manage a series like no other. Ryan is here to win. This is his job. But the bottom line is: What does Ryan have to gain by coming to the last six supercross races? Does he want to get in the middle of a championship of guys who have worked their butts off and put their asses on the line? What's Ryan going to do? Go win some races and get on the podium and just mess with the points and stuff? That's not what Ryan's about. Ryan is about winning. When this opportunity to go to Europe came up, it was like, "Man, what an opportunity to do something that nobody else has done." Talk about a legacy move.
Ryan, want to jump back in?
Yeah, even a little bit prior to all this, I was wondering if I wanted to, basically, saddle back up. I was wondering if I wanted to climb that hill or climb that ladder again with fitness and training and that whole thing. This is the third time I had my knee done. And I was also thinking, "Yeah, I could go out on top now." All this stuff was running through my head. As time went by, we had to make a move and do things to get the deal going. We got it going, but it took a lot longer than we all thought it would, actually.
As far as getting the deal up and running, I'd assume things had to begin with Kawasaki.
Yeah, at first it was like, "Well, what are they going to say? What's going to be their initial reaction?" Nobody goes from the U.S. to Europe. Everybody from Europe comes to the U.S., for whatever reason. I'm assuming because the racing is very big here. There is supercross and the money and the salaries are a lot greater here. As far as Kawasaki as a company and me wanting to go that way, probably as one of highest paid guys out there, that was probably a pretty big pill to swallow. I think the Japanese side of Kawasaki, I think they saw the value in the marketing side of it. They're a worldwide company so they were able to see the value in me going over there as an American doing something that had never been done. Win or lose, this will sell motorcycles than they've sold over there in Europe and sell more motorcycles around the world.
And Monster Energy is also a global company.
Exactly. Monster is a huge part of Kawasaki and Monster is also a huge part of my program. Obviously, Monster has a very big presence here in the U.S., but what you see over in Europe is KTM/Red Bull. On Monster's side of things, they want to have the same presence they have here in the U.S. over there. And that's what they're trying to do. I think they have traction, but now, with me going over there as a partner and having Kawasaki on board, we just got a whole lot of traction. I am so grateful to Mitch Covington and all of Monster management for seeing this opportunity, supporting me in pursuing it and for being instrumental in making it happen.
Bobby Nichols on Kawasaki Motors Corp., U.S.A., Kawasaki Motors Corporation Japan and Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Limited [KHI] Japan : "Ryan has done more for Kawasaki than any other rider. He has nine major titles. He's been on them since he rode 80s. He won as an amateur. He rode a 125, he rode a 250F and he rode a 450. Everything that has ever been asked of this kid has been done to the benefit of KMC and to the benefit of KHI and KMC worldwide. He's a global star. For us to want to go do the global deal from an MXGP perspective, if it wasn't for KHI, we were dead in the water. It took that visionary stance to make this happen. Ryan's idea to do this had to be met with the same aspirations at the top. Ryan is at the top of his game and he needed KHI at the top of their game. Ryan has been very loyal to the cause at Kawasaki and they've been very loyal to him.
Ryan, do you want to elaborate on that?
For sure. Without Shinichiro Yokoyama [General Manager, Kawasaki at Motors Corp., U.S.A.] and Mr. Ondo Mr. Ondo [Motorsport Manager, Kawasaki Heavy Industries] there would have been nothing. I probably would be retired right now. Thanks to those two, and I'm sure a lot of late hours they put in pushing numbers and doing the things they had to do to get everything lined up, it all happened. You know I never thought I'd retire on one brand. But like I said, I have some great relationships with the guys at KHI, and whatever happens, I will be retired after next year and I will retire as a career-long Kawasaki Rider. That's something that doesn't happen very often. From Mitch at Pro Circuit, to KMC to KHI-that is pretty special.
Ryan, upon making the decision and the subsequent announcement to race the World Championship, were you concerned about the opinion of the American fan base?
You know, the sport and I have great fans in the U.S. They have supported me throughout my career, so yes, what the fans think is important. At the end of the day though this sport is a tough sport. In racing, you're only as good as your last race. I'm sure that it hurt some fans feelings to hear that I'm going to Europe. But from most of the stuff that I've seen and from the stuff I've heard, most people are saying that they're looking forward to it. You really can't read into it. Racing is a global market now.
What sort of vibe have you gotten from the U.S. MX industry?
As far as the industry, I'm sure there are a lot of guys that are happy and there are some people who have not been excited about the move. I think that in the long run it will be good for the racing over here. Not to say that just by racing I would go out and win again, but, maybe it opens up a spot on the podium for somebody else. (Ryan laughs)
Was the money a factor in whether you did or didn't take the Grand Prix deal?
Uhm… The money wasn't a factor. No. Am I going to get paid to go and do this? Yes. Am I going to get paid well to go do this? Yes, also. Once again, this is something that has even been done. This is an American Rider going to Europe, not a European coming this way. Not only that, but I'm taking a number of great companies like KHI and Monster with me. Whatever may come we're doing this together as a team.
It can certainly be argued that you're move to MXGP will bring ALL the eyes of the motocross world on the sport. In other words, what you are going to do is great for motocross as a whole. Is that important to you?
Was that my agenda? No, it wasn't my agenda. Yeah, I definitely think it's going to give the sport a boost all around the world. And like I said, from a company side, I think Kawasaki is going to sell more bikes over there. And for Monster, we're hopefully going to surpass Red Bull over there and make it to where Monster has all the momentum. That's the goal. And being with some of the other companies I'm with, they also want to have bragging rights on some of this stuff, for sure.
As far Tyla Rattray entering the equation. Did the fact that Tyla had won a World Championships and knows the ropes of the globetrotting GP circuit very well help you in your decision? Did he help talk you into making the move?
No, he didn't talk me into it. No. Going over there and then figuring out that we're going to make a run at doing this, for me having Tyla involved is definitely going to make things more comfortable. I've never raced over there. There are a lot of different countries and things like that. Having somebody on the team who has done this and having a buddy to share it with, where we're both racing and training will definitely make things easier for me.
As far as Kawasaki and the technical side of things, will they give you everything you need – works equipment and technical assistance – to make a full-on effort to try and win the World Championship?
I do know that some of the equipment that KMC has here for racing in The States does not coincide with racing for the World Championship. And the stuff KME has in Europe is different because their rules don't coincide with ours. That was one of the great things with having Yoko and Ando all on-board with this. I told them, "Hey, I'm not a close minded person and I'm not going to not try what they have, but if I need something that they don't have over there, will I be able to have access to that stuff?" And Yoko said, "Whatever you need. Whatever KMC has, you have access to everything." That was my only concern. I've been with the Kawasaki factory team for six years and I know what they are producing and they know what I want and things like that. Yes, I have all access to all that and that's all I wanted.
You and Kawasaki are both going to win, aren't you?
Of, for sure. First of all, to have an American win in the first year would be huge. That would be a big deal for them. And it's not going to be easy to just go over there, you know? It's going to be tough. It's going to be a completely different world. I'm going to try and be as ready as I can be for it and whatever happens, happens. That's the way I'm going to leave it. I don't want to say this is going to be a one shot deal, but this kind of is just basically a deal where I'm going to give it my best shot of winning it. If not, I'm good. I'm okay. And I want everybody to know that now. I'm retiring after this. I'm just putting it out on the table now: whatever the outcome, I'm retiring.
Will your longtime trainer Aldon Baker still remain involved in your program in 2015?
Yeah, I read that I had fired Aldon. That was another one of those good stories I have read about my decision. Yeah, I'm still with Aldon. I'll still be working with him. Obviously, not on the same level because we couldn't be at that same level even if we wanted to. It's not possible. I'll still be on his program and he'll be going through all my numbers and all my stuff that I. He'll also be putting plans together for me to do and execute during the week. I'll be doing that with Tyla.
How were Giuseppe Luongo and Youthstream during the process of stringing this entire program together? Helpful? Encouraging?
Before all this took off and got traction, I went over there and looked at how their whole thing is run. He runs a top-notch, first-class operation. Everything goes off when it's supposed to go off. He's running his program. On Sunday, he doesn't have to lift a finger. Because of how well it is set-up everything can run without him needing to be there. As for him wanting to help and wanting get things moving, he was awesome. Obviously, this happening will be huge for his racing. I think he sees the value in it. He's been very helpful in getting things set-up and being very easy to work with.
When all of this started to become public knowledge, the name Antonio Cairoli was put right next to yours. You have nine major AMA titles and he has eight World Championships. It's pretty easy to pitch this whole thing as a war of the world showdown, huh? How do you see it? Are your legacies on the line or is Cairoli another guy to go race?
Honestly, he's another guy to go race. Is he one of the best guys? Yes, he's one of the best guys over there. Can you compare the racing over there to the racing over here? No, you cannot. They don't race supercross. There isn't even a supercross series over there. You can't compare the two. They only have outdoors. To say who has the better riders, you see all this stuff "who has the better riders?" and you go off of Motocross of Nations. It's one weekend. You go off Anaheim 1. The last two years I've done terrible. That's what you're going to go off of? Not to say you can't judge off of the Motocross of Nations, but on one hand you can and on the other hand you cannot. As for Cairoli himself? He's going to be tough. First of all, he's in his element. He's done it. He knows the tracks. I think I'm going to run into some places where he is going to be better, and probably vice-versa. There will be places where I will be better. I think we're going to run into situations where I catch him off-guard and I'll run into situations where he catches me off-guard. One thing with me, I've never had a problem getting used to a track. The place I raced over there was St. Jean d'Angely. I've heard that's one of the worst places they go to in the series. It's like rock bed underneath with a little bit of dirt on top. I fared fine there. Getting used to the dirt and getting used to the tracks isn't going to be one of my issues.
So I guess all this means that you're not going to be going for your fifth consecutive Monster Energy Supercross Championship in 2015. Five straight titles would have been a new record.
Yeah, I mean people say, "I don't understand why Ryan didn't go for five straight." That didn't do anything for me. I don't know what it means to you guys. I retire and the gate drops in 2016 for Anaheim 1. The fans are going to forget who won that fifth title. Things get forgotten very quickly. The way I looked at, if I ended up breaking records or setting records, that's just something that happens through this journey. That wasn't any of my goals. Looking at going to Europe and making that move and being the first one to do that, that wasn't what drove me at first either. Obviously, it's been brought up and I've been told that, but that's not what I looked at.
Here's a big question… If I have it right, and I think I do, you've never lost a motocross championship that you've lined up for. Is that correct?
Yeah. Putting races together and putting a series together has always been one of my stronger points. You have a lot of those guys that are really fast and lot of them who never put the puzzle together. Yeah, we're going over there to race outdoors and hopefully I can cap this off with another win. If not, that's what was laid out for me. It's going to be interesting. At a lot of the inter-Europe rounds, it's probably going to be like the Motocross of Nations. Probably not to that scale, but pretty close. Each weekend is going to be like a mini Motocross of Nations for me.
In closing, through this adventure, do you think you'll be like a pioneer?
Yeah, and I think to outright say, "Man, I love this sport", that's not what builds the sport. What builds the sport is the decisions that you've made or make throughout your career that are good for the sport. Meaning, you have those guys that are really wild that are here and make a huge statement and then they're gone. And then there are those guys who might not have the greatest image for the sport, but they're pretty good. The thing is you might not want your son to be trying to be them.
For me, I've tried to make good decisions throughout my racing career. I've surrounded myself with good people and good sponsors. I've have been loyal to those sponsors as they have been to me. I think what grows the sport and what helps the sport are the decisions that you make throughout your career. This is another one of those. I'm hoping all the fans in the America, regardless of who their favorite rider is, will support me and my effort at carrying the U.S. flag to MXGP. I want your support and I need your support. I'm going to give it my all. Thanks for being there!