There was plenty to discuss during the team introduction for SmarTop/MotoConcepts/Honda last week. A passion project for businessman Mike Genova, the independent operation has grown to five riders for the 2017 season. The latest addition to the team was by far the most unexpected, as veteran racer Kyle Chisholm inked a last-minute deal and made the trip to California for the official debut of the now Honda-supported squad. What’s so special about a rider and team coming to a contract agreement? Well, the entire deal happened in just a few hours time, as Chisholm received approval from the AMA to rejoin the 250 class, a division that the tall rider voluntarily moved up from in 2009 , and started a conversation with team management Mike Genova and Tony Alessi.
The terms of the deal will put Chisholm on a Honda CRF250R for the West Coast rounds of the 2017 Monster Energy Supercross Series, with the possibility for select stops of the East Coast swing aboard a 450.
When we talked in Geneva, our conversation included contacts for possible sponsors and different scenarios that could have played out. Were you faking me out or did you not have any idea that a ride at MotoConcepts was possible?
Honestly, I didn't know at all. Just after we talked on Friday is when it started. I had been putting my own thing together with the guy that owns the team that I rode for in 2016. Rocky Mountain ATV-MC was the title sponsor, but they didn't own the team. Bracken Hall, who rode the 250 West Coast in 2016, his dad is the owner of the team. Even though Rocky Mountain left and are with a new team, Bracken and his dad are still planning on going racing with the semi and everything. I was working on finding new sponsors to replace Rocky Mountain, so it was like I was doing my own thing but with their semi and resources, it was a better platform to start from for the team.
The MotoConcepts thing came together while we were in Geneva. I had gotten the approval from the AMA to race the 250 the day before I went to Europe, but it took so long because I had tried to get that since October. It took so long that most of the 250 rides were pretty much gone and I wasn't looking for the most part. I was just working on putting 450 stuff together.
All of the rumors about Phil Nicoletti dropping down started at the Monster Energy Cup, because Phil is a similar situation as you because he jumped to the 450 quickly in his career. You immediately expressed interest in doing the same thing. What's the process like to go to the AMA and explain your case, and how open were they to letting you drop down?
Going back in my career I only rode three years on the 250, 2006 through 2008. But in 2007, I only raced Anaheim One and then broke my heel at the second race during practice. I have only qualified for a total of twelve main events from those two years of racing in the 250 class. In 2009 I got the opportunity to ride the L&M San Manuel Yamaha team, so when I got that I had only done a few races on the 250. It was the best offer that I had and it would have been crazy to not take an almost factory 450 ride and move up. I'm a bigger guy and always have been, so I've always liked the 450 better, even during my amateur career. In 2009 I had the opportunity to ride with James, and I was good friends with him, so it was a no brainer to take that offer. But I didn't even know about the top-twenty in the 450 class rule, I always thought more about pointing out of the 250 class. So I took that ride and got fourteenth overall in my first year of the class. After the season was over I had surgery on my knee and didn't race outdoors, so in 2010 I had an offer from the Butler Brothers team to race 250 Supercross. When I got the offer from them, they said I had to check if I was able to race the class from the AMA. That's when I found out about the whole 450 rule. I went to the AMA then and asked if I could ride the 250 class because I had just moved up and never pointed out, but they told me that I couldn't do it. I was frustrated because I had an offer to ride a 250 and be paid, but no 450 offers. And they wouldn't let me do it. So I raced the 450 that season on my own, then got a fill-in ride at MotoConcepts, and had a really good year. It all worked out, but since then I've never been able go back to the 250 class because I have always been in the top-twenty or was injured. It's two or three years that you cannot go back if you make it into the top-twenty, which is crazy if you think about it. There are some years that a lot of guys get hurt and a privateer rider makes it in the top-twenty, so that limits a guy going back.
I'm pretty good friends with J-Bone at JGR and on the Friday before the Monster Energy Cup, we got to talking and he explained what he was trying to do with Phil. I told him to let me know how it went because I had tried to do the same thing since 2009 and they had always told me no. No more than an hour later he came back and showed me the email from the AMA that was the approval for Phil to go back. I asked what he said that got them to say yes and what he explained was my exact same scenario, that Phil never pointed out of the 250 class but had a job opportunity with Alan Brown on the NFAB/TiLube/Yamaha team and voluntarily moved up to the 450 to take that ride. He finished in the top-twenty in 2015, but since he never pointed out and voluntarily moved up, he wanted to move back down. So before I went to the AMA I looked at stats so I had some more information, like that Phil raced nineteen races on the 250 compared to my twelve. The last time that both of us finished in the top-twenty in points on the 450 was in 2015, so it was an identical scenario.
I sent my written appeal to the AMA the week after Monster Energy Cup and it included all of the information that I had and just got the approval. It was frustrating because for the last two months I've emailed them wondering what the deal was and waiting for an answer while all of the 250 rides were being taken. My thing was that I didn't have an offer for a 250, but I wanted the opportunity to do it if I wanted. If they were going to let Phil do it, then why wouldn't they have let me? I wanted the opportunity in case someone like Pro Circuit or GEICO Honda needed someone.
It took a little time and finally came through the day before I went to Geneva. While we were over there I noticed that MotoConcepts put their press release out, but there was nothing about a 250 West rider. I believe Fredrik Noren was supposed to race the 250 West for them, but there was nothing about it in the press release. I thought they may have still be working on the deal, but I figured I should text Tony Alessi and Mike Genova and let them know that I had my eligibility for the 250 class if they wanted to fill the spot. In about an hour it went from a text to Tony to him sending me an offer. He talked to Mike Genova, who said that he was definitely interested and wanted to do something. I told them I needed some time to think about it. When I got back on Sunday night I talked to a few people, on Monday morning was on a flight, and was at the team intro on Tuesday. Within two or three days it all happened, which is kind of crazy.Do you think that if Phil didn't get the approval to race, you wouldn't be in this situation, that unless J-Bone and a big team went to the AMA, it would not have happened?
To be honest and I hate to say it, but yeah. I tried for a few years, since 2009, and was always told no. With J-Bone, we were just talking about other stuff and when he told me at Monster Cup what he was trying to get approved, I figured that I would give it another shot. They can't tell him yes and me no. There are other guys beside Phil and me that this could affect. It's a frustrating rule and that's how the sport is, unfortunately. If J-Bone didn't do this, and let's be honest, they have a little more power with the whole JGR team than just me going to the AMA. Him doing that opened the door for me, but this is where the AMA needs to be careful because this can open the door for other people. How can they tell one person yes but another person no? I believe they've added something to the rulebook for this year which states the situation for Phil and me, something about voluntarily moving up. That I've been fighting with this since 2009 is bull crap because there are guys that are paid a lot of money to ride a 250. It's a professional class and is not a true East or West thing like it was ten or twenty years ago, when you had to race on the coast you lived on. It's not a regional championship for guys that only need to go to their region of the country. There is factory support, big money sponsors, and people getting paid a lot of money and with bonuses. If someone is allowed to take that money, why is the AMA allowed to dictate who is allowed to pursue the job and money? It really limits jobs for the people in our sport.
This is a homecoming of sorts for you because you had a lot of success with MotoConceptsin the past. Did the history help you out?
Yeah, for sure. Tony runs the team and does a really good job. Some people might think he is a little off the deep end or whatever, but I've known him since I was on PeeWee bikes. Mike and I are the same age and have raced against each other forever. I know Tony and the way that he is, and sure he might be out there sometimes with ideas, but everything about him is one hundred percent. He puts that into everything he does and there's nothing he will not do to help the team. When you ride for a team, that's the type of person you want to have behind you. With Mike Genova, when we worked together in 2010 and 2011, I had the two best years of my career. I've always gotten along well with him, even when I didn't ride for him. He doesn't cut corners and for a private team, he's put together a great program. It was super easy to let them know that I was available and it's an honor to ride for them again.
Did you and Justin Brayton discuss any of this during the Geneva trip?
After Tony and I talked, I talked to Justin a little bit when no one else was around. I told him what I had going on and wanted his opinion on everything. I told him that my history with the team was good, but my biggest thing was going back to the 250. It's been so long since I raced a 250, so did I want to go back and do that? Justin asked what I had to lose and honestly, I have modest expectations because I don't know how I'm going to do on the 250. I've only ridden the bike for a few days and it's totally different but really good. I'm racing a bunch of kids and some guys that are older than me, guys like Martin Davalos who have been in the class longer than I have raced professionally. There are young kids that are willing to hold it wide open, and I'm hoping that raw craziness or speed is something I can make up for with experience. I don't know what to expect, but in talking to Justin, what do I have to lose? I think that if everything goes well and I get comfortable with the bike, especially with the 250, I think my experience will pay off and I could be a top-five guy that mixes it up with the guys at the front. That's kind of the goal, but I have no idea what to expect. It'll be eight or nine races, so I'll make the most of it and will have fun. That's the biggest thing and I'm having fun on the bike because it is fresh and new. I almost feel like a rookie.
You're a bigger guy, well over six feet tall, so will you have to change your body or training to adapt to the smaller bike? When Jimmy Albertson dropped to the 250 in 2016, he lost a lot of weight but at times I think there were still some struggles.
I don't have a lot of weight to lose. I'm around six foot tall and weigh one hundred and seventy pounds, so I can get down to one hundred and sixty-five pounds without gear. I'd like to stay close to that weight, but everyone knows there's not a lot to lose from there. I think my height will be an advantage but my weight will be a disadvantage because no matter how light I get I will still be against guys like Alex Martin that weigh one hundred and thirty pounds. It is what it is and in my eyes, it's all about strength to weight ratio. I want to be strong no matter what bike I'd ride, but at a weight that suits me. I don't think I need to be as strong on a 250, but I don't want to be too weak or thin. Riding over the last few days, the bike feels good and I haven't had any problems getting over jumps that other guys are jumping.
Did this change your plan for the rest of the offseason? You live in Florida most of the year and probably didn't expect to come to California until later in December.
I got home from Geneva on Sunday and was on a plane to California on Monday, and now the plan is to stay here through the West Coast. I'll go home for few days during Christmas to spend time with our families, but then it's right back to California. I didn't plan on coming out until after Christmas, that week before Anaheim, but it all came together because the team and the bike is out here. I have a house in California and that is nice because whenever I need to hop on a plane, I can get out here and already have a place to stay with a vehicle.
You and Brittney always explain your situation to critics with clear answers. Have you received more flack or support for this decision from the general public?
I would say it's been more on the positive side, at least ninety percent positive. I think the people that aren't as involved in the sport, and in all fairness they probably don't have a way to be inside the sport, they just view the 250 class too much as a stepping stone class. The AMA wants to move people up to the 450 class, the premier class, but twenty years ago that is what the support class was. There wasn't as much of a factory presence in the 125 class, so the goal for guys back then was to race the 125 class for a year or two and then get a 250 ride. But now the 250 class is not a stepping-stone class because there are guys that make half a million dollars. Twenty years ago there wasn't that kind of money or teams in that class. It was mostly guys in their pickup truck that raced in the West Coast because that's where they lived. But nowadays you have guys like Martin Davalos that are in the 250 class, finish in the top-three, and make good money. If he can do that, why shouldn't he? Because otherwise he has to move up to the 450 and not have a ride. I think the people that don't view it like that are the people that are negative about it. But look at Jake Weimer, Dean Wilson, and the list goes on with guys that have to ride a 450 but there are not rides for them. There are twenty-two rides but that's not for the other guys. If you look at the flipside with Malcolm Stewart, who is a champion in the 250 class that has to move up, but has no ride. If he were allowed to still race the 250, he would have a ride. Why should he have to move up if he doesn't want to? He should be able to stay back if he has a paying job. It's putting guys out of work and out of the sport, moving them up and not letting them go back. My whole solution to this would be to let anyone ride a 250 or 450, no matter what, and then add an under nineteen or under twenty age class. Maybe they could qualify during the day while we practice and in between the heats or the semi, they could do their main event. There could be a limit on sponsorship from the manufacturers, like they wouldn't have a team but could out bikes. That would be a chance for a guy to show his talent and earn a 250 or 450 ride. It would be a third class in the series that is a true stepping stone for the amateurs that didn't get a full-factory ride from a team and would be racing as privateers. Since the bikes would be like GEICO or Pro Circuit, they would be more level bikes. That would leave the 250 and 450 classes as professional classes and wouldn't limit who could race in them and make money.
Where do you see yourself in this class? It's very competitive but your experience will help with the younger riders that need a few weeks or months to figure out Supercross.
There are guys that have been in the class for three or four years and then some younger kids. I'm hoping my experience will pay off, but it's hard to put a number on where I think I'll finish. I wouldn't be racing if I didn't want to be competitive or could be close to the front. I'd love to say that I'll be a top-five guy every week and maybe getting podiums, that would be awesome, but it might be a top-ten. I wouldn't do this if I couldn't be a top-ten guy. In the 450 class my goal is to be as close to the top-ten as possible, so in the 250 class it should be no different and actually a little better, like in the top-five. There are young, crazy kids that are willing to hang it out. I'm used to racing with guys that are a little more reserved. And the bike is totally different. Outdoors you just hold the bike wide open, but for Supercross you need timing for the jumps and whoops. The stuff that you do on the bike is quite a bit different and will take some getting used to. These first days have been good and I'll keep learning about the bike.
In 2015 Shane McElrath was getting top-five finishes, podiums, and heat race wins on the 250, and then did a few East Coast races in the 450 class. In the races he did, I beat him in the 450 class so I look at it like, "This guy is getting podiums in the 250 class and I'm beating him on the 450. What if I could go back to the 250? Maybe I could get podiums." I don't know what to expect, but those kinds of examples are in my mind. I'd love to be a top-five guy and get on the podium, so we'll see how it goes. I don't know what to expect, but I'll do my best regardless.