Ryan Villopoto | The Patriot
By Michael Antonovich
Ryan Villopoto’s decision to spend the final year of his life as a professional motocross racer chasing the Monster Energy FIM Motocross World Championship sent shockwaves through the entire sport. Rather than stay somewhat comfortable in the usual cities of the Monster Energy Supercross Series and Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship, he will experience the cultures of the world as the series travels for months on end. The process has already begun, with Villopoto already riding early versions of his Kawasaki Racing Team KX450F both in the United States and in Europe, and in many ways things are the same as they’ve always been with testing and training.
Tuesday I watched as Villopoto and new teammate Tyla Rattray turned motos at Milestone MX Park in Riverside, California, and managed to pop a GoPro camera atop his Thor helmet for what I later learned to be only his seventh day on the bike. Afterwards, we sat on the tailgate of his truck and talked about what’s to come in the months ahead.
After six years of working on this side of the motorcycle racing industry, this is one of the only long talks I’ve managed to have with the multi-time champion. I won’t lie, I’ve gone out of my way to avoid interacting with Villopoto at times (especially during this past Supercross season). Sometimes getting a simple interview seemed like a major challenge and I’d walk away from the moment hoping I’d both gotten something of substance for the website and not bothered him too much. But on Tuesday, we talked for roughly twenty minutes with the recorder rolling and discussed the decision to race in Europe, issues with the American circuit, and what will happen after the final checkered flag flies in 2015.
Only seven days on the bike is what your dad had told me earlier. How do you feel?
I feel pretty good, just kind of working back into getting my hands where they need to be, and my ass. I was off for about five and a half months, so even with my lower leg injury (St. Louis 2010) that I had, this is still longer than that. For me it's getting back into it and getting some riding under me, because I haven't been riding in a while.
Of all the places you could have gone, why did you come to California to start again? Is it because it's easiest for the team to work with Kawasaki America?
Yeah, basically. They (KRT) are based in Holland, so it makes it easy to start riding here. We go to Europe pretty soon.
Earlier you mentioned a trip to Spain, but how was the first trip over recently?
Since we've been working with KRT, I went over one other time for ten or eleven days. I had fun and the team is awesome. They are obviously excited to have someone like myself come over and race for them. But as a whole with the motorcycle and racing scene, it is a whole different feel than what we have here. For me, that is not necessarily what I was looking for but it is nice to see that. Because the way it is here, I was in need of a change or I was going to retire.
At twenty-six, how does it feel to know that you will retire soon, or at least go do something else? Is it kind of odd? I'm twenty-four and know that I'll have to work another fifty years…
It's kind of funny. I don't know who did this write-up, but everyone basically in the last six months has tried to explain me in their own words, and I liked what he, I don't know who it was, but he basically said, "All the work that he's (Ryan) put in and all that he has missed, I wouldn't trade that for the things that I've gotten to do or the life that I have now." And he is a journalist and it's not like they make a lot of money…
[Laughs] Exactly. So for a guy like that to say, "I wouldn't trade shoes with him," looking back on, I don't want to say the way that I was brought up but with the things you have to do to be good in this sport, you miss out on a lot. You miss out on a lot as a kid, as a teenager, and are pretty much an adult very young when you are doing what we are doing. For someone to say, "Well, you are only twenty-seven," it's really like we've gone through a lot compared to most people.
You married young, and you and Kristen are looking to start the next chapter of your lives. It'd be hard to do balance all of that while being a professional athlete.
Yeah, and I think there are other professional athletes in other sports out there, but ours is, if not one of the most unique sports, probably the most unique sport. With Supercross and motocross and two separate entities running Supercross and motocross, as a rider, a mechanic, a journalist, or someone on the inside, we are stuck in the middle of this whirlpool where we have to hit motocross and Supercross. It's a never-ending circuit. You have the guys at Feld, who take off the summer, and then the guys at Lucas Oil, who take off the winter. We are stuck in the middle, and every time we come into the series again they are all excited and we are like, "What are you excited for? We just got done racing." I will be the guy that throws my hand up and says that something has to change with the way the sport is here. Or you will have guys like myself, not everybody, but there will be guys retiring sooner. Like you said, only twenty-six now and next year I'll be twenty-seven, and that is relatively young in our sport. You can race until you are thirty or thirty-two, or I guess as long as you are competitive and want to keep doing it. But I think the sport and the way it is run now will keep pushing guys out. Like I said, I'm not speaking for anyone else, but it has pushed me out.
It's very much an F1 mentality, where those guys race karts from the time they are little kids. Lewis Hamilton is thirty but he will probably be done in a few years, and Michael Schumacher retired fairly young but came back. It's just a grind. For you, what will be next? Will you stay in the industry or just get out?
I will definitely take a break from it. But this industry has provided a lot for myself and my family, and the next step in our lives. I won't just wash my hands of it, but for sure I will get away and take the time that I need to. I will always kind of be involved, but on what level I don't really know yet.
As someone that came from your grandpa and dad both riding, would you put your kid on a bike? They will know that you were a professional racer, but would you let them chase it to the fullest extent or wean them away?
I'm third generation; my grandpa still rides, my dad rides, I ride, and my brother rides. Everyone kind of rides, so to say I would not put them on one, that's probably not going to happen even if I didn't want it to. I think that we will for sure have motorcycles, but it will never go to the extent that I am now. Unless he just really, really wanted to do it. Then that's his choice, but you miss out on too much.
Looking forward to next year, is it a working vacation or is it just work?
For me, I want to win. I've won the last four Supercross championships here in the States and every time I've raced outdoors, I've won. So, for me I'd like to win. I guess where I am at this stage in my career, I won't have the same thought process that I did here, where I felt in the past that this is all there is and if I don't win, then it's the end of the story. For me going into next year, I want to win and will give it one hundred percent to win. But if it doesn't happen or I don't have it that day, I'm not going to push that limit and try to make something happen when I don't really need to. I guess the easy way to say it is that I will be a little smarter about it.
What is the biggest thing that you are looking forward to next year?
Just getting a change and working with people that are really excited, that do it for the passion of the sport. For me, just to see different places, work with different people, and try to cap off my career by having fun. Everyone knows and said they saw it or whatever, and was I having fun? No. I am going to try and have fun.
How is the bike? It's a little different with the carbon fiber subframe, hydraulic clutch, and the chance to be a full works bike.
To be honest, KRT (Kawasaki Racing Team) and KMC (Kawasaki Motor Corporation), they both have every option the other has. So that being said, it's all about what the rider wants instead of what the team orders. We have a couple of different tranny options, and they were running different than what I was here. What I did to make our lives easier was start with what I had, with everything. Then I know and we cane change little bits and pieces. I went there and rode one day on my setup, other than the subframe, was a KMC bike pretty much. I said, "Okay, change the triple clamps," because they run XTrig and I wanted to try them. They were good, so we left them on there. For myself as a rider, I was very open and tried to be open to the fact they try and do different things than we do. I'm open to trying and didn't want to go there saying, "I've raced this for nine years and this is what I want. This is how it's going to be and not any other way." You just start butting heads right away doing things like that and it's never going to work. From my standpoint I'm pretty easy rider, not with bike setup, but if something's not perfect I can get around it and make it work.
You dad is coming over and said that they'll spend the summer in England. After everything that you have all gone through, how is it as an adult to see that you are all on good terms now?
I think it is cool. Doing this sport, there has been a lot of ups and downs. It's not easy and to be racing my last year and have him back involved like he was before we had those lows is cool. He can come over to Europe and spend some time, and I think it will be cool for all of us. I am looking forward to it and I think going over that way and racing my last US race will be Glen Helen, since it's the last stop of our series. I think it will be cool to cap off my career or my last race in the States, other than the Motocross of Nations.
Seeing the Supercross track over there, do you think, "Man, I'd like to go do a lap?”
I've done a billon laps around a billon different tracks, and they are all tracks and it's whatever. I will be at Anaheim One doing things with Feld and stuff, and as of right now to say that I don't miss it, I don't as of now. No matter what you do when you swing a leg over the bike, it is risky and we all know that Supercross is more risky than outdoors. For me, I'm trying to limit that risk a little bit and I know how the Supercross tracks get by the main event. The Dirt Wurx guys do the best that they can, but sometimes you get dirt that is frozen when they bring it into the stadium and then it's like a marshmallow. There's nothing they can do about it, and they try their best, but it is still really sketchy. Everyone is going for broke out their and no one is going to settle for anything less than first. I won't miss that side of it.
Are you surprised how many people are RV fans now? For a while it was, "That guy is a dick, I don't want him to win," but now it's, "I can't wait for him to beat the Europeans."
You watch the way it goes. Ricky was that guy; he won for so many years and then announced he was going to retire and then everyone loved him because he was going to be gone. I'm sure MC went through that. You have these ups and downs where everyone loves you, and then you win so many times that people say, "I want to see someone different." Everyone's fuse gets short after a while, "He's a dick. He just won and look at him act like whatever." So for me, that doesn't bother me.
But me going to Europe and racing the MXGP has brought a lot more attention to it for the US market. No matter if we are talking about food or currency, most of us Americans are dumb and don't think there is anything outside the US. And I am the same way. When you go over you think, "Holy shit! Look how different this is. I can't believe you do things like this or this is how you live." But that's just the way it is because it is a different part of the world. We are all at fault for that, and I'm not saying it's one person in particular, because I do the same thing. I'm like, "Holy shit, look at this." Now I think that me going over there will bring awareness to the sport and the people will watch it over there. It's not that people don't know that there is motocross racing there, but now they will have someone to follow.
It's like if you watch NASCAR but you don't have someone you follow or are a fan of. Well, you don't really watch it. Like I didn't watch NASCAR but now after meeting Jimmie (Johnson) a couple of times, I'm a fan of Jimmie and I keep up with what is going on in NASCAR because I follow someone. That is the way it will be now with me going over there, and fans will be excited to see where I stack up. I'll be carrying our market and the flag basically over there, and hopefully I can live up to how good we really are.
I did an interview with (Steve) Matthes and one of the guys from the GPs later said, "I liked how you described that you can't compare the United States racing and Europe." They don't do Supercross, but we do. So with that being said, who is a well-rounded rider? I would automatically have to say that we are, because they don't do Supercross and we do. But it's almost like everyone relies on the Motocross of Nations and saying, "Oh, the US really isn't that good. They've lost the last three years." That's one weekend and everyone carries a lot of pressure there. It's a really bad way to judge who is the best racers, but that is the way they do it and we have to race under the same circumstances. But now we will have seventeen or eighteen rounds to say who really is better. I will be clear, my goal was never to say, "I'm going to Europe and will make a point that I'm better than Cairoli or any of those guys." That was never my goal. I want to win, but if it doesn't happen, then it doesn't happen because those are the cards I drew. I'm not going over there to make a point of who is better, but all of the keyboard warriors will say, "The Italians are better." That will always be the fight and will be until this world blows up. That'll be the discussion [Laughs].
When I went to Latvia, I was worried a few times about the Russia situation. Are you worried about anything like that?
I have talked about that, "Jeez, we are going to sketchy places." And there are some that we are going to, but luckily we are only there for three days or so. But that is just like someone saying, "Are you scared of flying?" Well, yeah I don't enjoy it but I sit and think: There is a plane taking off every minute or however long they are spaced out, they are flying around the world right now, and think of how many plane crashes there are? So, can something happen and can a country go into turmoil? Yeah, it can be. But that's like saying you should just sit in your house and wait for it to happen. And that might never be.