For the last few years, Christina Denney has called the shots for the CycleTrader.com/Rock River Yamaha race team. With Denney’s direction, the team’s relationship within the paddock as climbed thanks to the numerous riders that have advanced through the ranks to top-tier teams like Star Racing. For 2019, the team will consist of returning rider Brandon Hartranft and new additions Jacob Hayes, an Arenacross champion, and Matt Bisceglia, a top-twenty racer in the 450 class. During the team’s photo shoot, we spent a few moments with Denney to learn about the program and her place in the sport.
A big thing that the team had this year was being highlighted in the Red Bull series and I think that answered a lot of questions about the team. It was a great showcase of how the team operates, the platform that is provided, and what you do. Has it been a hard sell for the team? Do you have to explain to people that the team is not there to go against the factory efforts, that it's here to support riders as they attempt to go on to the next level?
I think from the beginning there was a misinterpretation of what the team provided. A lot of people thought that we took money and had the riders and that's all we were. But that's changed a lot. As far as making people understand, we want to give a guy an opportunity to have the best equipment possible and have their expenses paid so that they can move on. But as each year goes on for us, it's becoming a home for riders. Having Brandon Hartranft come back for a second year has been our goal for him to begin with. From the outside looking in, the Red Bull series did open a lot of eyes not only about the team but what the riders endure.
Other motorsports have this. In Formula1, Ferrari and Mercedes have their factory teams but they support to other teams as a way to bring drivers up through the ranks. And that's essentially what you have with Yamaha.
I think for Yamaha, especially for the amateurs, for several years that's all this was. We had supported amateur riders but that dynamic has also changed. Hartranft is the prime example of what that's like and now we have Jacob Hayes, who was never a Yamaha rider, and Matt Bisceglia, who was a Yamaha rider at one time. That dynamic has changed and I think having guys that are capable of doing good for the team and putting in results that maybe weren't Yamaha riders is not out of the question anymore. Alex Martin was a prime example of what that was and we realized we were handcuffing ourselves if that was all we were ever going to do. To work as hard as we do, we didn't want to just limit that to just Yamaha amateurs. Obviously, if they are going to move to another factory-level team, I would like for them to stay on Yamaha but there are a lot of good teams that will provide. I don't want to tie anyone down. Our relationship with Yamaha is exceptionally and they have never sat me down and said, "You are only going to raise our riders so they can go to Star and the factory team." That's never been the conversation.
You have three good guys for 2019. It's great to see Brandon come back, Matt is a good addition because I think people forgot about him through 2018, and Jacob needed a place when Arenacross went away. How did you determine they would be your riders?
Brandon was done more during the year and after his injury outdoors, it didn't look like he was going to get an opportunity, so we secured that. Jacob was on my radar to begin with because I knew that we needed another 250 rider, but I honestly thought that he was going to get an opportunity with a high-level factory team. But when he didn't, I made the call and he had no hesitation whatsoever. It's not like he was settling, but there wasn't anything for him so it worked out. With Matt, we went into 2019 not even planning to have a 450 rider, we were just going to focus on the 250 class. With a restructure of the budget, we realized that we weren't going to be able to give everyone what they needed so we went back to the program that we had been doing with a 450. It wasn't until I made a call to Jeremy Albrecht about who I could get, because there were a lot of guys available, but I really wanted to make the best attempt at finishes and results. There are a lot of good guys and he threw Matt's name out there. Matt was riding with JGR when he got injured and this was a good deal for him. I called him and before I finished Matt had said yes.
You are in a unique position by personally being on the East Coast and the rest of the team being everywhere else in the country. Is it hard for you to run the operation when you are not in the race shop or is it not too bad because it holds everyone accountable for their work?
It's hard but I have learned over the last nine years how to make it work. There are lots of emails and lots of communication with phone calls. Scott is in Texas, I'm in Atlanta, and the mechanics are in California for a little bit, so that makes it difficult because things get misconstrued. But we are all on the same page and have the same goals, so we keep it as simple as possible. I do wish we could report back every Monday and review the weekend, but we spend a lot of time together as a team and we try to sit down and assess why we are together in order to eliminate problems. We make it work and with the owner in Wisconsin, I don't know what we would have done without text messaging and all that we use to do what we do. I have an app that I've used for four years now and it's saved me, it's Slack. I read it in SKY magazine one year and it sounded like something I could use. Everything is put in there, from the travel to the dealer signings to the events, and it eliminates the questions. It's all right there. I've learned to use the best communication and tools.
Do you have Netflix or heard about the documentary, Williams, on the Formula1 team?
I watched it on a plane. It was really inspiring.
You're like the Claire Williams of motocross. I see a lot of similarities and you have this history in racing. I don't know if a lot of people have asked you how it is to be a woman in this industry because I just think you do the job without issue. But is it hard for you?
Not because I am a woman.
That's good because motocross is seen as a boy's club and you came in and made your place.
For her it is a family thing, and she obviously had options. I didn't seek out for it and it wasn't something like, "I'm going to be a team manager one day." But being a woman, the most difficult part was that I'm not a rider. Having the organization, the business, the relationships, and the skills that side brings and to be a manager of people or a group and be an ambassador for the companies we represent, that's what I'm really good at. On the riding side, I have good people around me, like my husband being a rider, the riders don't question me when I tell them to take a line because I can see it. When we are looking at times and data, they aren't questioning me because I am a girl. It's data and anyone can see that.
I think that if you go to enough races, you can learn to tell what works and what doesn't.
From the beginning, I have never felt that with the riders. There was some staff that didn't maybe appreciate it or had the "you shouldn't be here" type of thing, but I put that past me. I have always been around sports, like in wakeboarding I was one of the few girls on the boat at all times and in high school, I was in the weight room, I have just been this way. But having these people around me, like how Scott taught me about the bikes through 2012 and 2013. He broke it down for me and explained why we used things, and at times it was more information than I probably wanted to know [Laughs]. He broke it down to me so that I was taught and as we built the 2019 bikes, he ran things by me and explained the differences.
That's good that he educates you so that you can all make informed decisions or to communicate to a sponsor about what you need.
It also helps me when I talk to a rider because I'm the mediator sometimes and because he explained it to me, I have the knowledge to explain it to the rider. It happens a lot with the suspension, so it's good we have Yoshi, Ross, Will at enzo, because they are all the same way. To have a rider ask me my opinion shows that they trust what I'm doing.
Looking at the bike I can see all of the normal sponsors, like the great relationship you have with Moose Racing, Dunlop, FMF Racing, and all of the companies that are around moto. But the one I want to know about is Buca di Beppo. How does an Italian come into play?
There's a long history with the Saultz family and Rock River. Rich is the COO of the company and his son, Chad, are longtime Rock River customers and friends. I don't know how they got connected with GEICO Honda, but at Loretta's they always catered and did a dinner for us. I would always order and pay for catering at big events like Atlanta or Anaheim, but the relationship started before the team. It's such a blessing to have them provide dinner for the riders and crew at Supercross races. It's unique to be in this sport for them, but they are a moto family. Chad is going through the Supercross Futures program this year and hopefully, he races East Coast Supercross this year.