Behind the entertainment of a motocross race lies a different world. It’s a world the everyday fan doesn’t get to see and only a handful of people in the world really appreciate. It’s a world of work. Race team crews show up early and leave late, and there’s not a lot of time for rest in between. This year at the Southwick National, I found this out firsthand.During the 30th anniversary weekend at the famed Motocross 338 facility in Southwick, Massachusetts. I infiltrated the Motoworldracing.com/PPG/Yamaha team to find out just what it takes for a professional motocross team to put on their show.Wake Up and Smell the Semi
My weekend on the job officially started Saturday just before 7 a.m. (4 a.m. Pacific time). I was hitting the snooze button like Gallagher hits watermelons when Iain Southwell, the team’s crew chief, called my cell phone. I was awake but not really moving as quickly as I’d like before my first day on a new job. Southwell and the rest of the crew were downstairs in the hotel lobby waiting on a magazine guy so they could get to work. I hustled downstairs, jumped into the car and quickly met most of the mechanics on the team. We drove for about two seconds before banking left and swerving right to grab breakfast sandwiches at a local greasy spoon diner. I say bank and swerve because that’s how Southwell drives. He banks, swerves, zooms and splits. I wouldn’t say he’s a bad driver…he just has an aggro-Australian style that makes commuting to the track and pissing off truck drivers quite enjoyable. Along the way to Southwick, Keith Bowen, David Vuillemin’s mechanic and a former professional racer in his own right, put on his tour-guide hat and gave us tidbits of history as we weaved through the New England countryside and munched on breakfast. Bowen won the Southwick national 20 years earlier and was surprisingly full of random facts about historic underground prisons in the area. I nursed my jet lag and tried to take it all in.Once we got to the track, we met up with Larry Kastner, the team’s transport driver. Most everyone calls him Trucker, and Kastner, living up to his nickname, had the big-rig parked and ready for us when we arrived. Besides piloting the semi, he’s also in charge of just about everything. If you want to know where something is, you ask Larry since he probably put it away. Want to know what place the riders are in during the race? Ask Larry-he’s wired into the team’s headsets and spots each moto. Want to know how to fit all the race essentials inside a semi-truck? Ask Larry-it’s his truck.It was officially time to get to work, and it wasn’t even 8 a.m.It didn’t take long for the back of the truck to open and the unloading process to begin. One of the first things to get unloaded each weekend is the canopy cart. The cart holds all the poles, beams, tarps and hardware necessary to construct the ultracool awnings gracing the sides of today’s race team big-rigs. Tim “Timmy” Easley, Tucker Hibbert’s mechanic, explained the numbering system on the poles and where to lay them out on the ground. I asked him seven or eight times how the system worked, and he nicely repeated it each time. I eventually got it down, and as we laid out the awning’s skeleton, I realized something obvious: These guys didn’t need any help. They were dialed, and I made a mental note to stay out of the way. It wasn’t long until the awning was up and the rig was race-ready. Well, almost. We still had to unfold the tables, put on their tablecloths and distribute chairs in the hospitality tent; install the mechanic’s workbenches on the outside of the truck; set up garbage cans; unload coolers; roll out the barbeque; lay down the work mats; set up bike stands; and unload the race bikes out of the truck. Then we were ready.Men and Machines
When I see a race bike, I lock onto it with a miniskirt stare. And when the Motoworldracing.com/PPG/Yamaha YZ250Fs rolled out of the truck, I couldn’t take my eyes off them. Now that I was actually on a race team and had full access, I took full advantage to inspect every nook and cranny as we waited for practice to start. Personally built by each mechanic, the race team’s bikes were sporting some unique setups for the Southwick sand. Most notable were the modifications to keep the bikes cool, as they would run at the boiling point around the horsepower robbing track. Air scoops on the shrouds as well as vented fenders, radiator louvers and front numberplates adorned the machines. These mods were cool in their own right, but what made them sano to an outsider like me was all of them were handmade by the mechanics and crew. Even the numberplates were cut, drilled, riveted, masked and painted by the guys on the team (some were fashioned under the tent at this very race!). There were even some one-off pieces. Bowen had a fabricating friend rig up a bolt-on spark plug retainer. It seems they’ve had issues with the caps vibrating loose and lifting off the plugs a little, so Bowen brought enough of the custom parts for everyone on the team to install and test out. I wasn’t surprised to see the crew’s teamwork, just impressed with how quickly it came about during the weekend.
Practice Makes Perfect
Besides setting up the truck and getting the pits ready for race day, Saturday is all about practice for a professional motocross team. For most, this begins with the tech inspection. The tech inspection is easy to pass, but the sound test makes mechanics sweat a little. The AMA tests each bike before an event, and if the mufflers don’t pass the 102-decibel limit, the bikes don’t race. To say it’s a big deal is an understatement. The teams have until 4 p.m. on Saturday to pass sound. However, most technicians prefer to get it over with before practice so they have one less thing to worry about. Since the exhausts are quietest with about 10-15 minutes on them, a lot of bikes don’t pass sound until after a practice session or two of run time. DV’s bike failed its first sound test. It was close but no cigar. So Bowen and I took two mufflers to the mechanics’ area during the first practice. Halfway through the session, Bowen flagged DV over and we switched the cans. This way, Bowen had two broken-in mufflers to try as he went through tech the second time. It worked with one of the cans, and the #12 bike passed sound early in the afternoon.For me, Saturday’s practices were a kick. I rode in the team golf cart to and from the track, carried wheels over to the Dunlop truck for fresh tires; I just strutted around in my official team shirt and headset and pretended to be useful. I definitely didn’t have the stress that came with the real job. Unfortunately for Eric Wood, Richie Owens’ mechanic, he does have that stress, and this particular weekend, it was running high.Owens pulled off in practice because his bike’s clutch was malfunctioning and not fully disengaging. Basically, he’d pull the clutch in and the bike would keep going. The two of them hustled back to the truck, and Woody had a new clutch basket installed in time for the second practice. But the bike was still acting up, so neither him nor his rider had a good start to the weekend. After the second practice and during the final race prep session on Saturday night, Woody finally had time to carefully inspect the clutch plates and found the culprit: a badly bent metal plate that caused the drag and constant engagement. All that work came down to one warped plate. It was a strange combination of frustration and relief when the problem was finally solved. But the weekend would, surprisingly, get worse. Owens grabbed a great start in his Sunday qualifier only to get pushed outside into some ultrasoft sand, go over the bar and have the bike pile onto him, breaking his hand. The duo’s weekend was over and Woody spent his time during all of Sunday’s motos tearing down the #65 Yamaha. He didn’t watch a single moto.My first day on the job as a member of a professional race team left me exhausted and impressed. After a quick shower, I met the team in the lobby and we went to dinner at a crazy Italian restaurant. Every time we’d order a beer, the old guy working the bar would pour an entire pitcher, and my chicken parmigiana weighed a metric ton. We drank some beer and laughed at the portion sizes, and I crashed as soon as I hit the bed back at the hotel.Race Pace
Sunday began much like Saturday, just a little earlier and with the same wonderful, greasy breakfast sandwiches, the same excitement from Bowen as we passed the underground prison and the same driving by Southwell. But when we got to the track, the vibe was completely different. It was more business, more serious. Just before Sunday’s practice started, team owner and manager Paul Lindsay arrived. He’s usually in town on the Friday before a race, but this weekend some personal obligations kept him from the race until Sunday. Lindsay immediately went to work. And as I listened in on the team’s chatter on the headsets, I found out there’s a lot of thinking that goes into these races. Lindsay was all over the place Sunday. First, he was behind the starting gate talking to Southwell, Karl “Gunsee” Gunderson, Timmy and Bowen about which gates would be best. Then he was at the finish line picking out fast local riders. Gunsee was checking the local speed as well. Since he’s a Connecticut boy, he knew some names to watch and suggested that Timmy pull in his rider and have him follow around one of the speedy guys.When the races finally started, the anticipation was killing me. I had lived with the team for a little more than 24 hours, but I was pulling for them like they were my personal friends and coworkers. I guess it’s because I saw all the hard work that everyone put in and I wanted them to get something worthwhile out of it. Woody was already out of luck, but we had two more 250Fs on the line and a 450 with a whole lot of momentum. David Vuillemin had been, up to this race, the surprise of the series. Sitting fourth in points after two rounds, the friendly French import was turning a lot of heads once again in American motocross. He welcomed my foreign presence gracefully, as did all the riders and crew, and that undoubtedly had an effect on how much I was pulling for them. My role on the sidelines of the race was simple. I wasn’t instructed to do anything, so I figured I would wave a towel, scream as our riders went by and be the best damn cheerleader in the mechanics’ pit. I waved my towel. I screamed like my brother was racing, and when the riders fell, my first step was in their direction.Listening in to the headset radio chatter was, by far, my favorite part of the weekend. And I truly wish everyone could hear what it’s like to be inside the mind of the race teams during the events. I heard betting odds, why competitors’ bikes were blowing up, how many laps are left in the race and jokes about the rookie on the team-me-(and I wondered why they gave me the headset that wouldn’t talk back). Also impressive was the organization of the team. Trucker was spotting from up high on the track; Lindsay was at the finish line doing the same and was astoundingly aware of every rider on the track. Southwell was in charge of lap times, and when the mechanics needed one, he’d have it to them almost immediately. The mechanics, with me eavesdropping, would listen in for positions and lap times and get ready to communicate it to the riders via the all-important pit board. It was so much fun, as a fan, to be inside the world of the race and to truly be a part of it.Another impressive thing about these race teams is just how many mechanical issues they deal with every day. I saw mufflers repacked, clutches torn apart, complete bikes “framed” to a hundred pieces, cam shaft journal modifications done on the bike with a rotary tool, seat covers installed, radiators replaced, aluminum gas tanks installed and locking gas caps rigged up. The mechanics were almost constantly tweaking their machines, and while that was happening, lunch was being cooked by Trucker; Southwell was running around helping all the mechanics; the riders were cleaning off their boots, bodies and helmets; and I was busy looking for something to sweep or fending off the free-stuff predators who constantly ask for goggles, plastic, tires, motors, handlebars and anything else they see not directly attached to a running bike. The pits are a hive of activity, and they’re always buzzing.After the motos were finished, the crew went directly back to work at the truck. The mechanics had their hand’s full tearing down the bikes for the weekly maintenance (see sidebar at left), and after everyone had the bikes where they could put them away for the night, we all pitched in and tore the whole pit down. The final motos finished at 5:15 p.m. We didn’t get back to the hotel until 8:30. The race team had just put in a 13-hour day of work, and when we all went to dinner, it was nice to be able to relax and let loose a little. Nothing’s better than finishing a day of hard work with a night of laughter. The Motoworldracing.com race crew is an entertaining bunch. Here’s a big thanks to the entire team for letting DR aboard.Being on a professional motocross team is a dream job to many, but it’s definitely work. As you watch the next motocross race, whether in person or on TV, take a closer look at the guys in the pits. I know it’s hard to get past the 30-second girl and her spandex one-piece, but these are the guys who keep our sport running and they deserve a great big pat on the back.Right on Schedule
Being a race mechanic isn’t a weekend job. It’s full time. And when the tracks empty on Sunday, the boys on the Motoworldracing.com/PPG/Yamaha team are just getting started. Check out their regular work schedule and see how your job compares.Friday: Fly into race location and start prepping bikes for Saturday. Every three races: Complete rebuild of motor including splitting the cases, replacing all bottom end bearings and seals, and rebuilding the top end. Bike is framed and every piece is inspected, cleaned, maintained and, if necessary, replaced.Every race: New top end. Some mechanics even tear down the bikes to the frame just to get everything cleaned and perfectly looked over.Between motos: If it’s broke, they fix it. If it’s dirty, they clean it. And no matter what, the bike is ready to go when the gate drops.
Saturday: Finish prepping bike, set up the pit area, go through Saturday practice and qualifiers.
Sunday: Race day (consisting of two practices, possible qualifiers and two motos of wear and tear on the race machines), tear down the pit area and reload the truck.
Monday: Perform bike maintenance out of truck at hotel parking lot.
Tuesday: Fly back to California race shop.
Wednesday: Day off/work at race shop.
Friday: Fly to race location.
Every three races: Complete rebuild of motor including splitting the cases, replacing all bottom end bearings and seals, and rebuilding the top end. Bike is framed and every piece is inspected, cleaned, maintained and, if necessary, replaced.Every race: New top end. Some mechanics even tear down the bikes to the frame just to get everything cleaned and perfectly looked over.Between motos: If it’s broke, they fix it. If it’s dirty, they clean it. And no matter what, the bike is ready to go when the gate drops.