Most fans only see what goes on at the races with the fancy semi-trucks, pressed team uniforms, and pretty motorcycles, yet they have no idea what it takes to get to that point. Nearly all the mechanics and crew we spoke with when putting together the magazine feature story “Building Speed” for the April 2012 issue of Dirt Rider noted that being at the races is almost like a vacation compared to the preparation and crazy hours that take place leading up to the start of the season or in-between race weekends. There are so many behind-the-scenes personnel and several operations that occur away from the track, it’s almost impossible for those we spoke with to accurately calculate the sheer number of man-hours needed to prepare for a supercross season.What shocked us the most is how a Factory team like Honda creates a race bike compared to a team such as Jeff Ward Racing. JWR wheels a stock production bike into the shop and tears it down to the last nut and bolt to prepare for a build. From there they construct a race bike using a slew of aftermarket and specially-developed components. Whereas a Factory Honda mechanic has a playbook with pages of part numbers, some standard production and some special works or special aftermarket components with custom part numbers. From there the mechanic orders OEM parts from the Honda warehouse and painstakingly gathers every special nut, bolt, engine cover, transmission, crank, suspension, triple clamp, radiators, and so on until every part is laid out in their work area to build a works bike.After thousands of hours and an obscene amount of capital invested in developing a supercross race bike, it all comes down to 20 riders, 20 laps, 17 times per year. The most trick and expensive machinery may not always win, yet with the right rider aboard they are often in the hunt. Just realize the next time you’re at a supercross event and see the fancy semi and freshly decked out race bike under the tent that it takes more than a fast rider to win races or be competitive. The crew behind the scenes with dirt under their fingertips deserves just as much credit for a championship.Ryan Villopoto’s Mechanic Mike Williamson
By Steve Cox
Monster Energy Kawasaki mechanic Mike Williamson is still a young guy in the mechanic world, but he’s been doing it for about 20 years. Most people in MX who are home-schooled are racers. Mike was a home-schooled mechanic when he was high-school aged. We caught up with him about his job wrenching for current everything champ Ryan Villopoto, his life, and how you might be able to do what he does…Steve Cox: What advice would you give to people who want to become a mechanic at your level?Mike Williamson: What if I don’t want people to do it?SC: Say that…MW: No, because I’ll get in trouble…SC: No, you won’t…MW: But I don’t really have advice for people because I get this question all year long about, “How can I have your job?” I just grew up working on stuff, like with my dad, riding out of a local shop, North County Yamaha, with Jim Hurkman. I started working on stuff, and Jim Hurkman happened to offer me a job when I was fifteen doing trackside support.SC: What year was that?MW: I might have been fourteen… It was ’91.SC: So it was pre-Don Upton NCY Yamaha?MW: Yeah. That’s how I ended up there. I was probably fourteen. I would just go to all the local races like Golden States and all that, when it was huge, and do that stuff every week. So, from going in that shop, I got offered that job, which I learned even more working on bikes. Started from just changing people’s handlebars or changing a tire to engine stuff, jetting, and just kind of went into it. Tim Morgan used to work there. Tim taught me a lot and then I started doing stuff… North County Yamaha did support for Mike Guerra [at Yamaha], so I went to Loretta Lynn’s and kind of went into that. Then it just kept going from there. After that, Hurkman happened to start that NCY team. I wasn’t part of it the first year; it was J-Bone [Jeremy Albrecht] and someone else. But the next year, when they hired, Upton he asked me – I was sixteen – “Do you want to do this?” And I was still in high school so I had to get the okay from the parents and do it with home schooling on the road, which was terrible…SC: Home-schooling is usually reserved for riders…MW: Exactly. Except I actually had to do my homework, which sucked. And I still had to come back and do all the tests and everything, and it was hard. It was so hard. They just gave you these packets of work and you’re like, “How am I going to do this?” So, it went from there and then to Danny Smith – I did stuff with him and then worked for him at FMF Honda, and then obviously on and on and on. So, I don’t know if MMI is the route. I think they do a good job and I think there are guys that do good jobs coming out of there. But I don’t think having an MMI diploma can let you walk up to a team and go, “I went to MMI. Can I work for your factory race team?” Because I don’t think there are a lot of spots available…SC: And you guys hold on to the spots that are available…MW: Well, I think there are a lot of people that have relationships with riders that kind of bring them in. I’ve seen amateur riders come up and bring their mechanics. But then there are riders that come in to a team and, me being on the team, ask me to be their mechanic. When J-Bone went to be the manager over there [at JGR Yamaha], [James Stewart] asked me to do it, and Ryan [Villopoto] had asked me to do it when he was still on Lites, and so on and so on. So, the direct route to get here? I have no idea. And I know that doesn’t help anybody…SC: Just put a wrench in your hands, though, right?MW: That’s right. You’ve got to make the right choices, too, because I had job offers to go to other teams that I didn’t choose, and probably at the time people would think I was crazy. But I didn’t choose to take those routes for my own reasons and fortunately enough it worked out for me.SC: Yeah. But that’s life; you make you choices and then you end up where you end up.MW: True. Even when I was at KTM, I had an offer to go to another factory team for the premier class, and I didn’t choose to take that and I stayed at KTM another year, and after that year is when I got the offer to come here to Kawasaki. So I’m glad I did that, now…Kevin Windham’s Mechanic Brian Calma
By Steve Cox
As Kevin Windham’s mechanic since 2007, Brian Calma has seen the world, been part of a winning team, and has become more than just a mechanic to Windham. He’s a really good friend. We talked to him about how he got to where he is and the life of being a factory mechanic.Steve Cox: So, what advice would you have for anybody who wanted to become a mechanic at your level?Brian Calma: I don’t even know about that. I guess probably try and get some sort of an education as far as working on motorcycles or have some sort of a background of working on your own motorcycles so you have a general understanding of how four-strokes work these days…SC: How did you start?BC: I went to MMI [Motorcycle Mechanics Institute], but I worked on my own personal bikes, as far as two-strokes, growing up, racing and riding and having to fix things on my own. My brother helped me a little bit when I was younger, just trying to learn how to work on my own bike. And then I went to MMI just out of high school for a year and a half and got an education there. I basically moved to California to be around the motorcycle industry as far as motocross goes.SC: Where are you from originally?BC: New York.SC: So that’s kind of a big deal then to move all the way across the country. How did you decide that for sure that’s what you wanted to do?BC: I didn’t actually move to California with the grand intentions of becoming a motocross mechanic; I just went to school because I love bikes and I wanted to continue to ride and race a little bit and work on motorcycles for a living because that’s what I enjoyed.SC: That’s kind of funny though because you actually end up riding a lot less, don’t you?BC: Yeah, exactly… Well, like I said, I just wanted to work on bikes. I didn’t have an ultimate goal. I wanted to do something like this but I didn’t know how to get my foot in the door. So I just started working at a dealership doing service work; which is terrible work.SC: So you would not recommend that if somebody has a choice?BC: Yeah… If you have a choice, don’t go do service work on motorcycles. It’s not cool. [Laughs] Actually, I have a buddy that makes a lot of money doing service work. He probably makes more than me, actually, so it’s not that bad. It wouldn’t be my first choice, though…SC: Talk about the dynamic once you build a trusting relationship with the guy you’re wrenching for.BC: It’s really important to have a good relationship with your rider because basically he’s putting his life in your hands, as far as you building him a good motorcycle to go racing on and trusting you that you do everything correctly and do your job properly. So you have to have a really good trust in each other so that he has complete confidence in you every week that his bike is going to be race-ready.SC: He can’t be wondering if the bike is going to do what he wants it to do when he’s in the middle of a rhythm section or something…BC: Yeah, exactly. “I hope something doesn’t go wrong because of my mechanic.” But that’s obviously a huge part of it, and also, on a personal level, me and K-Dub are friends. Obviously, I didn’t know him very well the first year I started working with him. You’ve got to kind of build that trust up over time. At first I didn’t really get to spend a lot of time with him away from the track; it was kind of more of on a professional level. But when you become good friends over the years and he trusts me with my opinions on the bike and what I think he might need to do on the track, I think that’s a huge part of it when you’re racing every weekend and have that relationship.SC: Windham’s been racing for a long time. Can you still give him advice on lines and stuff during the track walk?BC: Yeah, absolutely. There are a lot of times over the past couple years where we’re looking at something on the track and it’s a pretty decent triple out of the turn, something pretty technical, and he’s like, “There’s no way I can triple that!” I’m like, “Come on. Really? You say this to me at least five times a year and you guys go out there and do it no problem.” So we have our little bicker battles on the track and he goes out there and triples it no problem. And I’m just like, “Told you so!” But you’ve got to be able to feel each other out and know what your rider is capable of and steer him in the right direction.SC: Which is something you learn that over time, I would imagine. Because it’s not only at the races; it’s testing and being out there for practice and all that stuff too, right?BC: Yeah, exactly. You’ve got to be able to know what your rider is actually capable of. If he’s out at the test track and you’re trying to test a setting or push it to the limit of where he’s going to be race-pacewise, and you see him being a little lazy in a corner over here or maybe not staying low enough in the rhythm section, you can give him a little bit of feedback on what they need to do to get a better feel for that certain test session.
Ryan Dungey’s Mechanic Carlos Rivera
By Scott HoffmanScott Hoffman: What is it like having to be a mechanic as well as developing a brand-new motorcycle in addition to working with a brand-new rider going into the 2012 season?Carlos Rivera: It’s actually not only me. We have a good team behind us. Roger DeCoster, as you guys know, is one of the best guys not only as a manager but also as a mechanic too. He does a lot of projects for us as well as a lot of development work. It’s really good to be behind him and be part of his team.SH: Has it been a difficult learning curve having a new motorcycle as well as working with a bike that’s still completely unproven at this point?CR: Yes, the bike’s actually got a really good base. It’s been a very good bike to work on. We’ve got a lot of experience between Roger and the rest of the team who have worked on different brands. With those two things combined, we’ve done some good packaging and we believe in the bike and we believe the bike’s going to surprise a lot of people.SH: As a guy who’s building this bike, what would you say the advantage of this new motorcycle is technologically?CR: KTM has been solid in using a chromoly frame, a steel frame and I believe there is a lot of potential in this frame and it’s something different. It’s the only bike that will be racing with a steel frame. I believe we have something.SH: What would you say is the ratio between production parts and Factory parts on a race bike of this caliber?CR: It’s pretty much the same. Every brand pretty much has similar stuff from titanium bolts and all the light stuff on the bike. Basically it’s pretty much the same but one thing that I’ll always strive for, and it’s kind of my goal, is to have the lightest bike on the track. I’m working very hard and I believe I’m going to have the lightest 450 on the track.SH: What’s the trickest part on this bike that you can actually tell us about?CR: Besides the rider who is pretty trick, the whole bike is pretty trick. Everything on the bike is really nice. It has some pretty trick Brembo brakes. We have, of course, the titanium, steel frame and that’s really the trickest part on the bike. Besides that, everything else when you turn on the engine is kind of on the down low.SH: How many hours does it take you to build a full race bike if it is down to the frame?CR: It depends. If it’s a bike that was already together and then I took it apart, I can do it in about 12 hours but if it’s basically starting from ground zero to what I have done for Anaheim 1, it can take a week because you have to go through every part and sometimes make spare parts. It takes quite awhile to build an original race bike from the ground up.SH: How many people are there behind the scenes that have had their hands on this bike?
I’m guessing there are motor builders, suspension guys, etc?CR: You have a quite a bit of people behind the scenes. You have the truck driver, the team manager, and the whole crew that is behind each rider.SH: So the amount of man-hours in addition to what you put into the bike is probably close to hundreds of hours, which includes time spent by engine builders, suspension guys, etc.?CR: Yes, it’s not even hours. It’s more like months and months. The season starts in January and we will continually test the bike. We have a test crew and we’ll go testing with the different riders to make sure that each time we will get the best come race day. We never stop. It’s every day. We are always trying to get better and better and it takes forever.SH: If you had to train somebody to do your job, how long do you think it would take?CR: It would take some time because I’m an MMI graduate. It’s a good base to start but basically the years of experience I have is hard to match. Even though I feel pretty comfortable with my level of knowledge, I learn something new every day and it’s pretty hard to say how long it would take to train someone. You learn a lot from experience.SH: Are there any things that the average person wouldn’t know is part of your job description? Leading up to the season are you here 8-12 hours a day?CR: I always say that race day for me is almost like a day off because when the race is finished, that’s when the job really starts. There is a lot of work behind the scenes. We work sometimes 12-15 or 16 hours a day-it never stops. You work until the job gets done. It’s not an 8-5 job. It’s whenever the job gets done, that’s when you are done. It could be 1:00 in the morning or it could be 6:00 in the afternoon. It depends.SH: How many motorcycles are you responsible for? Obviously Ryan Dungey has bikes on the east coast, he’s got some on the west coast, he’s got practice bikes, and he’s got race bikes. How many motorcycles do you have to keep track of?CR: At the moment I have two bikes and I will have around five bikes during the race season that we have to keep track of. We have a rotation.SH: How close are Ryan’s race bikes compared to his practice bikes in terms of performance and technology?CR: We try to keep it as close as possible but of course a race bike is fresh every weekend and the practice bike stays pretty fresh also. They are very close, I’d say 95 to 98 percent the same.