This article was originally printed in our July 2018 issue of TransWorld Motocross.
Worth The Wait
At an age when most racers are ready to call it a career, Justin Brayton has found new focus and determination.
By Michael Antonovich | Photos by Mike Emery
Justin Brayton almost ended his professional racing career two years ago. Burned out by the year-round workload that came with contesting the Monster Energy Supercross Series, the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship, and other events around the world, the veteran racer knew that a change was necessary if he were to continue racing any longer. "The last few years of doing the full season, it seemed like I would always have some injuries late in the outdoor season. After a few years of that, I wondered why it was happening and why I wasn't excited late in the year to go train or race," Brayton said. "Then Supercross would roll around and I would have so much fun and would love riding again." Determined to stay on the starting line, Brayton worked out a unique program that allowed him to race on his terms aboard competitive equipment. This move has not only added years to the veteran's career, but has allowed him to reach his full potential at age 34.
The timing of Brayton deciding to only race Supercross worked out perfectly with American Honda's plans in 2017. The Japanese brand knew that it would benefit from more red bikes on the racetrack, especially during their first year with a then all-new CRF450R model, and they wanted to support an existing 450-class team. The rider and brand had an existing relationship from his previous time with the factory team, and together they worked out support for Brayton in his run to the 2016 Australian Supercross Championship, which then led to a new program with Mike Genova's MotoConcepts Racing team in the United States. "There was the idea of a Supercross-only deal, and thankfully I had kept a great relationship with Honda and my previous sponsors, so the Honda in Australia deal came about and American Honda jumped on board to help," Brayton said. "Things rolled on from there, and I called Mike Genova to see if something would be possible there with some Honda support. The pieces of the puzzle really came together so easily, and I think it was great for the team and Mike Genova."
The MotoConcepts Racing team has been involved in a number of controversies both on and off the track in its early years, all things that Brayton saw or heard from his place in the pit area, but after some staffing changes, the independent team was ready for a fresh start. "I have to be honest, when I first came here I didn't know what to expect," Brayton said, admitting his apprehension. "I had heard things, but growing up my parents told me that you don't judge a person off of what other people think, you should make a judgment for yourself." With Genova's financial support, Honda's technical support, and Team Manager Tony Alessi's attention to detail, the team was able to make decisions based on a rider's personal preference instead of a sponsorship endorsement, and the status as a "second tier" team put less pressure on the riders. These were things that Brayton noticed immediately and helped him to adapt to his new surroundings. "I get asked a lot of questions about how it is over there, and it's great. There is so much freedom to be yourself and not have the pressure on you every single time you get on the motorcycle like you do at the factory level," Brayton said. "It's let me ride more freely, so if I need to finish in eighth place one weekend, it's not a bummer. They understand it's what we had that night and we still have fun being around each other, but on a night that I'm good, we try to go get the win. That really helps me going into the weekend, knowing that it's not all or nothing. I think that starts with the leadership and that's how Mike Genova runs the team."
In many ways, the team's attitude meshes well with Brayton's current outlook toward life. For most of his career, Brayton felt that he could not speak openly about certain topics due to the concerns that might arise from a manufacturer or sponsors, and much of his happiness was determined by whether or not he finished well at a race, two apprehensions that have now vanished from his mind. "When you're younger you feel like you're in the fight to get a ride the following year, make a few bucks, and impress a team manager so you can maybe get a place on their team. But now I'm just myself, and I wish that I could have done that earlier in my career, because it's not like I was a crazy kid that didn't train or was out partying," Brayton said. "It doesn't change my life one way or the other now, but six years ago it would have, when I wanted to be in that circulation of getting or keeping a ride and getting paid a certain amount. Now I'm fine with what I've done in my career, and I still want to do it and work hard, because it's something that I enjoy and I've challenged myself to enjoy it more this year.
"Racing is not my whole identity, but at one point it really was. It's so hard to live that way. Those six days in between races can be so tough when you don't do well on a Saturday night, and it can define your happiness, how many friends call you that week, and I hated that," Brayton said. "Now that I'm a little older it doesn't define me at all, whether I win or get last, it truly doesn't change my life. I still go home to my daughter who wants to go ride bicycles with me, and to my wife who loves me the same that she did the week before. That's a good spot to be in and that's helped my career, because I can ride freely."
Just as one would expect, Brayton's family is the most important thing in his life. His wife, Paige, and their two young children often stay in North Carolina while he travels to events throughout the United States and Europe, but the entire family heads Down Under to Australia for an extended vacation when he contests the country's Supercross championship. This tie to a "normal life" is something that helps Brayton maintain an even-keeled outlook on all that he's involved in and allows him to connect to fans of the sport. "I've grown into a family man with two kids and a wife, and I make that all known. I think I can relate to a lot of fans because as racers, we're nothing special. We have the same issues at home as anyone else; I just happen to ride a motorcycle well," Brayton said. "I feel like my autograph line and my fan interactions have grown in the past year just because they can be relatable with their kids. Our sport is a young man's sport, so I think it's cool that the older fans are fans of mine. After Daytona it was really neat to share stories, and I've had a lot of fans tell me that I give them hope."
Before the 2018 season even started, Brayton knew there was a chance that it could have been his last. All of the contracts that he had with the MotoConcepts teams and his personal sponsors were set to expire this year, and he was not in a rush to renew anything until he knew if he really would pursue the sport any longer. With this in mind, he made it a point to enjoy every experience that comes with Supercross, from the travel to the camaraderie to the competition each weekend. "Going in to this Supercross season, I thought if it was going to be my last, then I really wanted to enjoy it. I wanted to have fun flying to the races and with the people that I'm around," he says. This positive outlook is easy to detect when talking to Brayton on racing weekends, and he wishes that his counterparts could develop the same enthusiasm toward "dreaded" tasks like travel. "One of my biggest pet peeves is when I ask people how they are doing and they say sarcastically, 'Just living the dream.' And I think that I truly am! When people are bummed to be at the races I just think there are so many people that would love to have your job. Look around at what we get to do. We travel the world, see cool things, work with the best dirt bikes, race in the coolest stadiums, and are around some of the most successful people in the sport. I think that is great," Brayton said. "I step back a lot and think of the people that I get to meet and be around every weekend. There are so many things that if you step back, it's something that we'll all miss, so we should enjoy it as much as we can."
Much of the conversation with Brayton for this feature was focused on the mental aspects of racing and what he's learned during his time in the sport. The physical efforts of riding are not often a challenge for Brayton, but he admits that sometimes his mind gives out before his body does. "Physically, I think I could handle the workload year-round, and I feel just as good now as I did when I was 25. But the main thing is mentally I need a break," Brayton said, explaining the topic further. "We're racing the clock every week and show up on the weekends trying to be the best that we can be. Doing that for 12 months out of the year got to be a lot. Now for most of May and all of June and July, I'm free from the racing mindset."
Since Brayton is a racer based in North Carolina, it should come as no surprise that he's developed friendships with his counterparts in NASCAR, most notably seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson. Through shared hobbies like mountain bike riding, Brayton and Johnson are able to see how similar their two sports actually are, particularly the mentally taxing task of needing to be at your best for most of the year. "Getting to know Jimmie has been awesome and he's helped me a ton. In 2016 we talked weekly before and after the races about mindsets, and I attribute that to a lot of my success now. By winning so many championships he's dealt with pressure that maybe no one will face, and I've learned a ton from him," Brayton said. "I talk to him all of the time and I pick his brain a lot on what we deal with on a week-to-week basis because it's very similar. To have guys like him in my corner to bounce ideas off of is pretty special. When you hear from a guy like him, who has won seven championships, if it worked for him to be at the highest level of his sport, why wouldn't it work for me?"
There's no denying that Brayton is one of the most talented motocross riders in the world, as he's known for hitting the biggest jump combinations that track builders come up with on the weekends while maintaining a nearly flawless technique. Rarely does he look out of sorts or uncomfortable on the track, something that Brayton says he's able to do on even the most routine practice day. "When I watch myself on film, it doesn't even look like I'm trying, but I remember that exact lap and think how it felt like I was on edge. I have always been a smooth, calculated rider, and I would rather have a calculated style than a reckless style," Brayton said. "I feel like that's why I have longevity in the sport. I have been fortunate injury-wise and maybe that's because I don't take massive risks. People point out how I jump quads and how it's risky, but that comes easy. I feel so comfortable putting jump combinations together that no one else might do."
With all of that said, he admits that in the past it was difficult to bring the same comfort and confidence from the middle of the week into the weekend, but it's something he's managed do to this year. "On a Tuesday at Club MX, sometimes I feel unbeatable and there are times that I've thought, 'If I could bring this to a race, no one would beat me.' I felt that way when I was 25 and 26 years old, but I could never really bring it to the race. Now I feel like I can, and it's shown this year.
"I have a joke with a few of my friends: 'Okay, watch this.' I have this side of me that I don't want to say is cocky, but there is a belief inside of me that is like no other," Brayton said. "There are days when I have it in me and don't show it. I'm such a respectful guy towards others and am so thankful to be racing. That's a double-edged sword a bit because I have the potential to win races and championships, so maybe I need that chip on my shoulder. There have been days that I think I'm the best in the world, but I haven't sealed the deal because of a mental block."
Brayton managed to piece everything together at the 2018 Daytona Supercross by Monster Energy. Throughout the afternoon qualifying practices, it was clear that Brayton was among the fastest in the field and he knew it as well, which turned to confidence for the night's racing. Although he says that there was not one thing in particular that dictated his attitude or speed, Brayton dominated both his Heat Race and Main Event, as he led 24 of the 25 total laps of the two motos, and upped his own intensity in the final laps to fend off a charge from Eli Tomac. "I got a great start and knew that if I got into the lead on the first lap that I could put down some good, consistent laps. That's what I did. I got a six- or seven-second lead and was just doing my thing. It felt like a Tuesday at Club MX," Brayton said, recalling the night of his win. "I made a few mistakes with five or six laps to go and I saw Eli was coming, but I stayed calm. I'm most proud of the way that I dropped my lap times, because with three laps to go, I was matching him. As a racer, that's the hardest thing because you're in a rhythm and then have to drop another second and a half off of your pace."
The Main Event win, the first of Brayton's career, came after 130 starts in the premier class and made him the oldest winner in the Supercross. He was 33 years old at the time and turned 34 a few days later. Brayton has few, if any, enemies in the industry, and for this reason it felt as if the entire paddock shared the excitement and celebration of the accomplishment. "There are so many things about that night that I'll remember forever. It makes me smile so much because I know all of the work that went into it. They always say it's a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, but truthfully there was a lot of everything," Brayton said. "To see how many people in the industry were happy for me might be something I'm even more proud of. I have a lot of friends in the industry that were truly happy for me, and that was really special. When you're in a small sport like ours, it's tough to have everyone be your friend."
His parents were among the first people that he hoped to talk to after the checkered flag, as they were watching the race from their home in Iowa. "I talked to my mom and stepdad on FaceTime. My sister, my aunt and uncle, and a bunch of their friends came to their house at 11:30 at night and had a party to celebrate the win. Nothing would have happened without them taking me racing," Brayton said, acknowledging those who have supported him. His Daytona win was the fulfillment of a promise he had made to them earlier in the year. "I sent my mom and stepdad a text message when I was on my flight home from Anaheim Two that basically said I would win this year. I was sobbing on the airplane as I sent them this text saying how my true potential was going to come out and that it'd be my year. Thinking about that text and rereading it, there were so many special emotions and people involved."
When asked if he always felt that he'd reach this level in his career, Brayton admits that he felt it was unobtainable as a kid living in Fort Dodge, Iowa. "I never imagined this. And it's probably partly why I haven't been a champion or won a ton of races. I never even thought I would qualify for a Supercross Main Event. I know it's crazy to say that, but I was always an Arenacross guy and Des Moines was always the season opener. I watched that race as a kid and wanted to be like Buddy Antunez and Denny Stephenson and Chad Pederson. The Jeremy McGraths of the world seemed like cartoon characters. I never went to Supercross races and only got to see them on TV or in videos, so they didn't even seem real. For me to now be friends with them and to win a race, even now thinking about it is crazy."
With a win under his belt and a positive outlook on everything in his life, how much longer will we see the number 10 on the starting line? It's a question that Brayton doesn't quite have an answer for yet, but feels it will be for a little while longer. "It's still going to be year by year. I have so much fun during the week, and that's a time that fans don't get to see. On a Tuesday afternoon when I'm busting out motos, that's the time that's so much fun for me right now, and there have been times that it hasn't been that way. I think that when there is a time that I don't enjoy it and am really bummed to get on a flight and leave my family, that's when I'll be done," Brayton said.
That fact that he is able to race on his terms with the support of people that share the same passion is something he knows has lengthened his career, and he's grateful for the opportunity. "If I was done racing or didn't race professional at all, I would still ride with my buddies as much as I could. And that's not going to change when I'm 45 years old. I think the biggest reason why I can still have fun is I haven't had those big burned-out years and I'm smart enough to know that if I didn't go Supercross only, I'd have been done two years ago," Brayton said. "I stepped outside of the box and made phone calls to people that I really respect in the industry, and thankfully I haven't burned bridges with any teams in the industry, so I put together this amazing program where I go to Australia, race a few times in Europe, and then do Supercross here. It takes a lot of courage to turn down a couple of offers to do both Supercross and motocross, but I wanted to do my own thing on my own schedule. You need companies like Honda to back you and guys like Mike Genova to help out, and the stars just aligned perfectly. The life lessons I've learned through all of this are amazing, and it's why I've enjoyed every day of it and will keep it going. I want to keep at this for a while longer."
Follow Justin on Instagram: @justinbrayton