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Interview with Justin Cooper, the MXON and MX2 Champion

Sep 282022

2022 didn’t start out that great for Monster Energy’s Justin Cooper (Star Racing/Yamaha). In fact, it started out horribly. But man, did it sure end well.

Cooper’s entire 2022 Monster Energy AMA Supercross season was grounded before it even started. A severe foot injury suffered in practice just about the time Anaheim 1 was about to kick-off ended up cancelling Cooper’s entire supercross season.

But Cooper forged ahead, hitting the rehab trail hard. After a rough start (12th) at the ’22 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship season-opener at Fox Raceway in Pala, Calif., Cooper rallied back with a 2nd place finish at Hangtown (Prairie City, Calif.). From then, it was “on” for the New Yorker as he fought the difficult battle of continuing to get his foot healed up while competing in one of the most demanding sports in the world.

As the summer weeks and months clicked off, Cooper managed to win some motos and scored four more 250 class podium finishes to place 4th overall in the series. As a testament to his strong will and strength with his comeback, Cooper, being the top American MX Nationals’ 250 class finisher, earned a well-deserved spot on the 2022 Motocross of Nations Team USA.

This past weekend, Cooper led the American charge to the top of the MXON podium at Michigan’s RedBud MX, going 9-4 in his two motos (versus 450cc MXGP and Open class bikes). Those two finishes, supercharged by a 1st place qualifying moto on Saturday, earned Cooper 1st place in the MX2 class at MXON – leading the team to victory over France (2nd) and Australia (3rd).

Still riding high, Cooper was pumped to tell his side of the story of the great ’22 Motocross des Nations at RedBud and Team USA’s victory, snapping an 11-year drought at the prestigious event.

Justin, you’ve gotta be on top of the world right now. How’s it feel to bring the MXON title back to the USA for the first time in 11 years?


You know what, I am on top of the world. But at the same time, I’m kind of relieved. The anticipation. The pressure. The expectations for Team USA. And the fact that we had to come through. To deal with all that, and accomplish what we did… it’s just a dream come true for the whole team, and now we’re just enjoying it.


What was the feeling going into the weekend at RedBud? You guys pretty confident you could pull this off?


Yeah, for sure. We had a really strong team this year. Eli and Chase (Monster Energy’s Eli Tomac & Chase Sexton), everyone seemed so up, and into the event. I definitely noticed that in the weeks leading up (to RedBud MXdN). Normally, motocross is such an individual sport. But we were all giving each other advice, support, leading into the event. Everything was clicking. Sunday was pretty much perfect. Stress-free.


One of the more dominant performances of the weekend was your qualifier on Saturday. What frame of mind did that race put you in headed into Sunday?


I had a rough end to the pro motocross season. I had a bout with Covid. People counted me out. I was frustrated. So I got ready the last three weeks and just wanted to make a statement. The qualifier was just so much fun. Once I got into the lead, the whole place just lit up with noise. Almost wish it lasted longer. (I had) Chills up my back the whole moto.


You’ve done well at RedBud in the past. And everyone seems to like that track. What worked well for you in that MX2 qualifier?


Yeah, RedBud’s a track everyone enjoys. The weeks of preparation leading up to that race, ran all out, prepared the best I could. I was just ready to go when I got there. Nothing special. A little bit of anger, and I kept the intensity up. Cool with the crowd and I think my riding was really good. I felt I was a second or two faster than anyone. And I was able to hit the Leap (the massive 130-foot LaRocco’s Leap). I hit my marks the whole moto and didn’t even need to get out of my comfort zone. Clicked off fast laps and was just being consistent.


Late Saturday night, early Sunday morning the rains started. Were you aware that the track was going to be a bit muddy? Did it affect your mental approach to Sunday at all?


I looked at the app a few times. Even looked at it on Friday. Saw that the rain was coming, so I knew the qualifying day was important. Rain is more mental than it is physical. So again, in knowing it was coming, I honestly really didn’t think that much about it. I was prepared for it. I knew I had to get a good start against the 450s. I broke my hand in a crash in the first lap of the main at the last MXON at Assen (Netherlands, 2019) in the rain, and took my teammate (Monster Energy/Kawasaki’s Jason Anderson) out with me. So my approach was all about thinking of the start and staying consistent.


Sunday comes, and you put down a pretty good opening moto. Real good in fact. Were you pleased with that effort? What went right, what did you figure you needed to work on for the second moto?


In the first moto on Sunday, I knew Eli (Tomac) was out front. So I knew we were in a good position there. I started descent, around 10th. I got blasted with mud the first few laps and the vision was really tough. I sat in 8th/9th for quite a while, knowing 9th was a decent spot for the 250s. So I just kind of rode that in. Not the best, but it was a score that would count. I had some more thoughts on how I’d approach the second moto, knowing that I had something to fall back on if I needed to, and could try to get a better result in the second one (moto).


So MX2 has to run back-to-back motos. How tough was that? How much time did you have to prepare your muddy self and bike for the second MX2 moto?


It was really tough. Actually, man, it was quick. I remember getting back to the truck, getting cleaned off, then got dressed – and had to get to the starting gate. Big scramble. Get some food and nutrients in me. 30-minute turnaround. But in preparing for the des Nations, and having raced the event in 2019, I based my practice sessions off those time frames. So it really wasn’t that much of a surprise.


Interesting. So the second moto was epic. Talk about your start, getting up towards the front and, ultimately, your early race get-together with Hunter Lawrence.


So we were on the (starting) line for like five minutes, with no umbrella. I was absolutely soaked when the gate dropped. I did manage to get a really good jump, braked hard, and came around in like 4th. Saw Chase (Sexton) up front. (Cooper pauses.) So, basically, he (Hunter Lawrence) tried to cut me off. I was ahead and headed to the outside, he headed to the inside in a last-second decision to get into my line. We came together, and I blew off the track because of it, and he obviously crashed. He’s done that a lot, and he’s done that to me before. It was a dirty pass. He knew it was me, and I was expecting it because he was riding like that the lap before it happened. He forced his way in there, and it didn’t work out for him. Serves him right.


Huge swing in points as Hunter Lawrence dropped back to 19th after that. And probably the turning point of the MXON team championship. Talk about the remainder of the second moto.


So I was back up with the leaders after that, but didn’t push too hard as I was trying to save my goggles. I made a little run there at the end for 3rd, but it didn’t happen. I knew 4th would be a really good score. It was a solid ride, and I was pumped on it.


Was it even more helpful knowing Sexton was running well up ahead of you?


Yeah, I saw Chase up front and kept an eye on those guys. I knew with Chase up there and me in 4th, it’d put up two more really good scores. And we were already leading. So there was no reason to push things out of my limits. I really didn’t make any mistakes, and didn’t push to the point where it’d lead to me being on the ground.


That crowd at RedBud was bananas. Did they keep you pumped up throughout the moto?


Yeah, you could tell right off the start. When they’d see me and Chase in the top five, they were a little louder than normal. But it was quite a bit different when Eli and I were in the first moto. With me and Chase, since we were closer together, it seemed a lot louder.


Beyond Team USA’s overall victory, what did it mean to you to win the overall MX2 title?


The des Nations is one of those one-off races that you don’t get many chances at. I wanted to win just as bad at Assen (’19 MXON). I won the qualifier, then things went to crap on Sunday. Yeah, it’s more about the team, but I wanted to do my part and win MX2. So to do both was awesome.


In the final moto, from the sidelines, at what point did you feel you that you guys had won it?


I was above the mechanic’s area, on the second level. You couldn’t see everything, but it was a good spot to keep an eye on who was running where. Honestly? I was really confident after the second moto that we’d win it. I knew I put in better scores than the other MX2 riders. My only worry was the weather, because anything can happen when it starts to pour. But the rain held out. That and France, running 1st and 2nd, when Dylan (Ferrandis, Monster Energy/Star Racing/Yamaha) made that mistake it kind of sealed it up.


Unbelievable day and, in reality, comeback season for you. Talk about the elation you felt on the podium.


So I’d never been up there at the des Nations. It’s a different type of feeling. A little bit new to all of us. Just a special experience. It was like standing on top of the world. And such a cool feeling doing it here in the U.S.