This week we sit down with Autotrader/Yoshimura/Suzuki Factory Racing parts manager, Rene Zapata. The long-time tuner has an inspirational story that all aspiring tuners should learn from. Rene has worked with many of the top racers in the sport, moved up the ranks, and turned his appreciation for wrenching on motorcycles into a fulfilling career.
Zapata moved to North Carolina this past month and hasn't looked back. Responsible for duties such as parts ordering, overseeing the mechanics, communicating with Suzuki in Japan and—dare we say recycling old race parts—Rene is a vital asset to the team's operations. Meet this week's team spotlight: Rene Zapata.
Rene, how did you get involved in the motorcycle industry?
The funny part is that I was never into dirt bikes growing up. My brother was the one that really wanted a dirt bike. My dad promised him a dirt bike on his 12th birthday. His birthday came around, but there wasn't a dirt bike to be seen. So my brother called my dad out [laughter]. Looking back now, it's strange how dirt bikes didn't interest me. I had played baseball since I was three years old. Around the time I turned 16 I started riding a little, but was never serious about it. For some reason I enjoyed working on the bikes, though. It felt natural to me. When we moved to south Florida from Puerto Rico, we met a man by the name of Jim Peli. He owned a small shop in Bithlow. Jim noticed that I was pretty good at working on bikes. He was a teacher at Motorcycle Mechanics Institute, and he suggested that I attend MMI. I was 17 years old at the time. It was weird, because I didn't even have my high school diploma yet [laughter]. I passed the admissions test and graduated from MMI when I was 18. A month later I met up with Matt Boni at a motocross track. The countershaft sprocket on his bike was making a weird noise. I swapped the sprocket for him really quickly. Matt then told me that he needed a mechanic, so he talked to his dad and we worked out a deal.
Matt Boni had a successful amateur career. What was it like wrenching for him?
Matt had just turned 14 years old. We worked together for several years together when he was still an amateur. He won a bunch of races. All he had to do was ride. I was hired to work on the bikes. Matt, his father and I traveled all around the country to go racing. It was a fun time. If it wasn't for the Boni family I might not be where I'm at in my career now. Matt's first Pro year was in 2007 on the MotoSport Outlet team. If I recall, the team that year was Kyle Chisholm, Steve Boniface, Bobby Kiniry and Matt.
You eventually started working with other riders. Who else have you wrenched for?
I remained on the MotoSport team for 2008, while Matt went in a different direction. I worked for Andrew McFarlane that season. The following year I assembled engines and took care of parts. In 2010, the team switched to Suzuki. I worked for Ryan Morais in 2010 and 2011. The following season I moved to the JDR Motorsports KTM team, with my focus being on engine assembly. That continued into the 2013 Supercross series, but then the team folded. Ray Tetherton from Suzuki called me and offered a job as a test mechanic. I jumped at the opportunity. In October of that year I was given the opportunity to be James Stewart's mechanic. I already had a relationship with the Stewart family, because Malcolm was on the JDR Motorsports team while i was there. I knew James a little bit prior to working for him.
What led to your decision to make the move from southern California to JGRMX in North Carolina?
It was a hard choice. California became my home. Having said that, North Carolina felt comfortable to me. Working at JGRMX is also a great opportunity. There's a lot going on here. I could have stayed in Chino, California and worked with the team from a great distance, or be in the thick of things and working with a cool group of people. I wanted to be with the team, and be surrounded by a group of people who are all working toward the same goal.
What are your job duties on the team?
I'm responsible for ordering all of the factory parts–what's needed and what we might not require. I'm basically the middle-man between Suzuki in Japan and the Autotrader/Yoshimura/Suzuki Factory Racing Team here in North Carolina. Dean Baker handles the engines, and he's the lead technical person. My goal is to handle all of the mechanics so that people aren't constantly going to Dean. I give the mechanics all of their race parts. Right now they have a list of things that need to get accomplished before the new season begins. I help them with anything they need, from wire routing to lacing their wheels and changing hardware on the bike.
In the past few weeks, there have been pallets of containers from Suzuki in Japan. A little background on that, you actually had to order works parts by the end of September so they could arrive prior to the start of the 2018 Supercross series. Was it challenging to figure out the order quantities?
It comes down to bike numbers, really. How many bikes will each rider use throughout the year? Usually a 450 rider will be allocated 4-6 bikes. That also depends where the rider is living, as he may need an extra practice bike. Along with the race bike on the semi, there's another spare bike for each rider on the semi. Once that's figured out, I determine how many parts per category are needed. Things like brake pads, frames, handlebars, and on down the line. I've learned through the years how long all of the parts last. Then I come up with these crazy numbers. People always look at me and ask, "You need how many of what?!" It's pretty funny. I also have to take into account whether every rider is using the same parts. You can have four different front brake options, for example.
Let's run through some numbers with regard to the amount of each part the team will go through for the 2018 season.
Usually, we go through 100 sets of plastics just on the 450 side for the year. We have four 250 riders and two 450 riders, so we'll go through 12-16 works front calipers. With two to three sets of wheels per rider, that's 40-50 sets of wheels. The numbers are crazy.
How much time do the team riders put on their frames before the mechanics use them on the race bikes?
We try to put anywhere from two to five hours on each frame. It all depends on the rider. Sometimes a rider will like a firm-feeling machine, so the mechanic will build a fresh race bike and the rider will line right up. Sometime guys want more of a worn-in feel, so we let the guy ride the main chassis and swingarm until they feel that it's more comfortable. Then we swap that frame out for a new frame, and the rider will break that frame in on his practice bike.
People make a huge deal out of works parts. You're around these exotic parts all day long. Do you still get excited when you hold a works part in your hand or has that worn off?
I've learned that you cannot get attached to works parts. At the end of the day, parts wear out and if you hold on to them then you're quickly going to run out of room. When the season is over I'll go through everything. Some of the parts will be kept, while most will either be recycled or destroyed. The Japanese like parts to be destroyed. People look at me like I'm crazy when it comes time to cleaning out inventory, but it has to be done. You can't get too attached. They're pieces of metal.
The 2018 Suzuki RM-Z450 is an all-new motorcycle. Has it been challenging to figure out with regard to new parts?
The chassis is different. The engine is somewhat similar, but with more advancements. A lot of the chassis hardware does transfer over. Things like wheels and triple clamps are the same. Other parts, like the linkage, frame, swingarm and subframe, did change. Still, the bike has maintained that trademark Suzuki feel. The team had a good base coming into the start of 2018 testing.
What advice would you offer to someone who wants to land a parts manager job in the motocross industry?
Keep your head down and work hard. Everyone is always watching, whether you think they are or not. Someone will notice you if you're doing your job and putting in the effort. Also, don't be afraid to talk to everyone in the pits.
Be sure to visit www.jgrmxraceteam.com in the coming weeks for new team photos, biographies, and videos. Keep on the lookout next week for our feature with another member of the Autotrader/Yoshimura/Suzuki Factory Racing Team.