Holeshot Tips From The Pros

The Art Of The Start

From the April 2016 issue of Dirt Rider Magazine.

In 2015, Justin Barcia told Dirt Rider that even when he gets a bad jump off the gate, once he clicks his Autotrader/Monster Energy Yamaha up into third gear, he can feel his bike pulling the competition. That’s a testament to engine man Dean Baker and the JGR crew’s expertise. However, there’s a whole lot more to getting the holeshot than just having a fast motorcycle. Barcia will be the first to tell you that.

During the 2015 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Series, Justin was the absolute king of the holeshot, winning 11 MotoSport.com Holeshot Awards out of the 12-round, 24-moto series. That’s way more than any other rider.

In the world of GNCC racing, 2011 champ and FMF/KTM factory rider Charlie Mullins has been one of the most consistent starters in the series. After spending nearly two years recovering from a pair of wrist injuries, Charlie is back in race form and ready to take on the 2016 season. Dirt Rider traveled to the East Coast this fall to catch up with Mullins and Barcia at their respective training facilities to do a comprehensive study on each of their starting techniques. The first thing we noticed was that both riders spend a lot of time concentrating on the details, and they both feel that the average racer can improve his or her starts by doing the same.

The following is a list of techniques Barcia and Mullins think are important to get you to be the first rider in first place.

Justin Barcia Start Setup
Justin Barcia Start SetupPhoto by Shan Moore

Justin Barcia On Supercross / Motocross Starts

Duh—Starts Are Important!

“The speeds of the top riders are so close these days that I would say 90 to 95 percent of your success in a race depends on your start. I’ve been the fastest guy on the track on several occasions, but the lap times are so close that if you get a bad start it’s difficult to make up that time. In 20 laps the race is over so quick you just can’t do it. So the start is huge. To be in the top three, top five right off the bat is important—even sometimes being top five is tough to make up. You need to be in the fight from the beginning.”

Justin Barcia starting
Justin Barcia startingPhoto by Shan Moore

Picking Your Gate

“First of all, you’ve got to concentrate on qualifying well—it starts there. That gives you a good choice at a gate pick. If I get a good qualifying pick, I like to pick an inside gate and one that’s as straight and lined up with the first turn as possible. If I get a bad qualifying pick, I either get way inside or way outside. If I’m not one of the top three or four to pick a gate, I move more to the inside just so if I do get the jump, I can hold those guys off who are on the outside of me.

“If I’m not first gate pick, then I usually like to line up to the inside of the best guy who picks in front of me. It also comes down to how good the rut is though. If the rut next to the top guy is bad, I’ll pick a different gate, but ideally I like to be on the inside of the top qualifier.”

Prepping Your Rut

“Sometimes it’s not about gate position; it’s about picking the best rut. In supercross it’s hard to prep your gate anymore because the dirt behind the gate is like concrete. There’s usually nothing to work with. In that case you’ve got to pick the best rut. That makes a big difference. If the dirt’s soft and I have some room to work with it, I fill in the rut with fresh dirt behind the gate a little to try to get the wheel not to spin, and I also pack the rut in tight to get a nice, flat start area.

“You also want to make sure the rut isn’t veering off in the wrong direction. Usually it either gets a big hole at the end of the gate or the rut gets squirrelly and is crooked. You just look for the straightest, most perfect line. In a perfect world you would get a good gate pick with a good rut, but in racing there’s no perfect world, so usually you have to deal with some issue here or there; either the gate pick is not great or the rut isn’t exactly perfect, so you have to know how to deal with it.”

Pre-Start Rituals

“I think all riders kind of have their own thing they do, but for me, I just try to breathe and focus and think about getting the holeshot and what’s just around the first turn.”

The Mechanics Of The Start

“I’ve always felt like I sit more straight up and down than most riders. I sit on the bike with my head over the handlebar and both feet on the ground—just relaxed with elbows up. I know some guys put one leg up and do different things, but I try to keep my feet down as long as possible and try to keep them in a straight line. I start in second and grab third gear pretty quickly, and that’s pretty much when my feet come up onto the pegs. “For the most part you want to keep your body and your butt on the front of the bike right up near to the gas tank, but remember that you can control a lot of wheelspin or traction by just moving your upper body back a little. If it’s softer dirt, you want to be more forward because you’re going to get a lot of traction, but if it’s slicker and harder, you kind of want to lean your body back a little. In our sport there’s just so many variables, and there’s so many different things you can do to mess up your start. Getting a good start comes down to practice and experience. At a race, you also want to feel out the dirt in front of the starting gate during practice so you can get an idea of how it’s going to be during the race.”

Justin Barcia Start Setup
Justin Barcia Start SetupPhoto by Shan Moore

Watching The Gate Drop

“I’ve heard of guys watching the pin and some guys looking over at the next rider’s gate, but for me I’ve always been looking straight ahead just as perfectly straight in line as I can. That’s always kind of worked pretty well, just to look at my gate in a straight line with the first turn.”

Clutch And Throttle Control

“I try to have a good clutch feed rather than just dumping the clutch when the gate drops, but it depends on the dirt. I think most of the time I hammer my throttle pretty hard, but if the dirt is fairly hard-packed, you’ve got to have a little more clutch slip and a little more throttle control. If there’s a lot of traction, you want to give it more rpm to break the wheel loose. There are just so many different scenarios. When we go to Anaheim the dirt is really hard, so I need to have a lot of throttle control, a lot of clutch slip. And then when we go to Daytona the dirt’s super loose, so I pretty much hammer it. You have unlimited traction, so it’s pretty nice there.”

Stopping A Wheelie

“When you get off the line well, there’s a certain spot where you want your wheel to hover above the ground, and that allows you to get a little more traction to the rear wheel. If you can have a perfect launch and your front wheel hovers just above the ground, usually that’s perfect, but if you start to get too much of a wheelie, you’ve got to double clutch it, and at that point you’ve pretty much lost the holeshot because someone else is going to get a better drive. The first 10 feet are so important just to get that fighting room in front of the other guy’s handlebar.”

Shifting Gears

“I know some guys shift with their heel. Over the years I’ve tried so many different ways, so many different starting techniques. But now, after leaving the gate I lock my feet in front of the pegs, and when I’m ready to shift I just kind of shift with the front of my boot. I tried the heel thing, but it just seems like the most consistent thing for me is just to shift normal.”

Anticipating The Starter

“Some guys try to anticipate the start, but that can get you in trouble if you anticipate wrong and hit the gate before it drops. There’s too much at stake for that. I think Mike Alessi used to study film and guess when the gate was going to drop, and he was pretty good at timing it just right, but it also bit him a few times.”

Improving Your Starts

“Obviously practice helps a lot, but I think it’s just that you need to practice good habits, not bad habits, and doing the right things. I think one of the best ways to learn is watching the pros, how they do starts, and picking up things from them and then going to your home track and practicing those things. It’s not something you can do alone; you need someone out there working with you. That’s definitely a big part of it. You need someone to be out there to lock down your start device and drop their hand to simulate a real start. Like they say, practice makes perfect.”

Electronic Start Aids

“We’ve tried a lot of different electronic gadgets to get more consistent starts—like a light on the front fender that tells you when to shift. I know Trey Canard has used one, but in the end I think when it comes down to it it’s more about rider feel and knowing where the perfect place for the rpm is on the dirt you’re racing on. If it’s soft dirt or it’s hard dirt, there’s always a different rpm setting. For me, I tried the light and it was just too inconsistent and distracting. One weekend the dirt is like concrete and the next weekend it’s loose. We can change where the light lights up, but it’s just not really worth it because the dirt changes over the course of the day, from heat race to main event. There are so many variables in starting in supercross and motocross; it’s not like Moto GP where we can start on asphalt, which is always consistent. For me it’s better just to go by feel.

“Another thing to consider is that a lot of times the dirt on the start straight is so much different from what’s behind the gate. So I go out there during track walk or even before the first or second practice and take a look behind the gate and see what it’s like and then look and see what the dirt’s like on the start straight. Usually it’s a lot softer up ahead of the start, so you have to take that into consideration and just feel for the traction.”

Lockdown Devices

“I use JGR’s rear lockdown device probably 95 percent of the time. But 5 percent of the time, say if it’s a muddy race, maybe I won’t use it because it’s really slick underneath and I don’t really want more pressure on the rear wheel. For the more hard-packed dirt sometimes I won’t use it, but then when there’s ideal traction and the bike’s perfectly level, it gives you a really good traction launch. But I do practice starts with it off because sometimes you get excited on the starting line and you accidentally bounce on your seat and it will pop. And then the mechanic’s already gone, so I don’t have someone to lock it down. So I need to know how to start the old-school way without the rear lock.

“The JGR rear lockdown device [which JGR is going to sell to the public] is actually something that’s really cool because you can have settings that gauge how high you want the bike to sit. You figure that out before you go to the race, and then you get it locked in where you want it. It pretty much makes the bike perfectly level. You’re not having to be on your tippy-toes. It almost feels like you’re on a minibike. Everything’s just locked in.”

Recovering From A Bad Start

“I think I’m pretty good at finding holes and squeaking through the first turn if I get a bad launch off the gate. Usually if your start’s really bad, it’s good to check up and try to shoot to the inside. But that doesn’t really work as much anymore in the pros. There’s just so many guys going to the same place and doing so aggressively. So usually when you get a bad start you try to find little holes and fight your way through. I’ve been pretty good at that, but it’s tough for sure.”

The Mental Game

“I think the mental game is huge. You need to believe you’re a good starter, and you need to believe you can do it. But that alone is not enough. It’s definitely a lot mental, but it’s also a lot of technique and doing the right things to put yourself in the situation. A lot of good old-fashioned practice gives you a mental edge as well as a physical edge. Good practice gives you the confidence you need to get a start. You have to believe you’re going to be the first guy in the first turn.”

Justin Barcia holeshot
Justin Barcia holeshotPhoto by Shan Moore

Charlie Mullins On Dead-Engine Starts

Picking Your Spot

“For GNCCs, they line you up based on your ranking in points, so luckily I’ve always had a top-three pick on the line. Usually I walk the start the morning before the race. A typical GNCC from the start to the first turn is probably 200 to 300 feet. It’s a good stretch. Then the first turn is typically a left-hander that chicanes right. So I analyze the first turn and pick a line that sets me up for the chicane but not too far outside or too far inside. “Since it’s such a long way to the first turn in most GNCC races, it’s about the same distance from the start to the first turn no matter if you are on the inside of the start or the outside. I know a lot of guys line up on the outside so they can sweep the outside and have control of the inside of the second turn. But I like to just be in the middle and hopefully get a good jump and be in control.

“If it’s muddy, I’ll usually pick more of an outside line so I don’t get pinched off or anything like that if I get a bad start. So it kind of depends on the weather.”

Charlie Mullins starting
Charlie Mullins startingPhoto by Shan Moore

Prepping Your Rut

“Typically the grass is kind of chewed up from all the quads running the day before the bike races, so I’ll pick my line and then I’ll do two or three practice starts to get a rut burned in. Then my mechanic will essentially pack the rut and get all the loose dirt out. That way I have good traction.”

Pre-Start Rituals

“I don’t have any rituals or superstitions. I like to make sure my goggles have no glare, and I make sure there’s no dirt on the inside, but there’s nothing that I do the same every race—no rituals.”

The Mechanics Of The Start

“We used to have to kickstart the bikes, but the new bikes don’t have kickers, so we use the start button. We run the Super-B lithium battery, and that helps a lot because they turn the motor over faster. KTM Factory Services does our engines, and they do a little work internally to help it start easier too. We also have a switch that turns the computer on before the bike is started, which means it doesn’t have to ‘think’ when you hit the start button. “So, basically, I get to my gate, I get the rut packed, then they wave a flag to tell everyone to shut their engines down. At that point I’ll click my bike into second. Then I’ll hold the clutch in and I’ll kill it with the kill switch. After that, I like to rock the bike back and forth a few times so it breaks the clutch loose. Then I rock the bike back, and I hold my thumb on the kill switch, and I bump the starter and I listen to it turn over until it locks on top dead center. So I have my clutch in, it’s on top dead center, and I wait until they say 10 seconds. At that point I count in my head to about four or five seconds and then I turn the computer on. That way the fuel pump and everything’s running. So when the flag drops I just hit the button and it fires right up.”

Clutch And Throttle Control

“I usually do a second-gear start, and when the starter throws the flag I feed out the clutch, kind of slipping it. Once I feel the bike fire, it’s not a dump—it’s just a nice, gradual release, just slipping it along.”

Controlling A Wheelie

“We use a holeshot device, so that helps with the front end coming up too much. But typically I really don’t struggle with that issue. I’m pretty controlled, so I’m able keep the front tire low to the ground, and I’m just slipping the clutch halfway down the straight.”

Charlie Mullins
Charlie MullinsPhoto by Shan Moore

Start Posture

“I’m sitting down with both feet on the ground, and I’m in the middle of the seat, but I have my back hunched over with my head toward the handlebar to keep the weight on the front end so it doesn’t come up.

“If it’s a mud race, I like to be back on the seat and put a little more weight on the rear tire so you hook up. But typically it’s just right in the middle of the seat. Some guys run a bump on the seat just so they know where they’re at on the seat, but I prefer a stock seat.”

Shifting Gears

“Typically I really won’t even hit third. I just stay in second the entire length of the start straight. That’s just how a GNCC start is. So I just keep both feet on the ground until I feel like everything’s in control. So maybe within the first 20 feet I have both feet on the pegs, and I’m in an attack position.”

Recovering From A Bad Start

“If I do get a bad jump, which is not that often, I kind of settle in and try to make quick passes. The second or third turn is where I can make all my passes. Most guys try to hug the inside if they get a bad start in the first turn and it gets crowded down there, so I just stick to my line.”

The Mental Game

“It’s a confidence thing, for sure. With the KTMs you know the bike’s going to start. When I was on other bikes there were times where you would kick the bike and it wouldn’t start. So then you had to kick it a few times. So that’s the good thing with KTM; you don’t have to worry about re-kicking or anything like that.”