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Jon Primo and Olly Stone from Black Monster Pro Circuit Kawasaki
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Part of the Empire: The inside line at Pro Circuit

May 262016

Black Monster Pro Circuit Kawasaki is one of the most feared and prolific race teams in motorcycle racing. Any doubters to the claim only have to open the door to the ‘PC’ facility in Corona, California and walk into reception. The first thing that comes into view is a line of race bikes. A long line. Almost one for the all the 29 AMA championships they have totalled in 25 years of existence; 2016 bringing the crew up to a quarter of a century setting new boundaries for technical excellence, performance and - ultimately – ‘delivery’. Walking past the Hondas (for two years) and then Kawasakis and watching the development through two-stroke, four-stroke, fuel injection, carbon, titanium, air forks, electronics, start devices; the march of Pro Circuit innovation as a technical specialist and tuner is matched by the heavy-weight roster of the athletes that saw the team as the essential stepping stone: McGrath, Pichon, Brown, Carmichael, Stewart, Pourcel, Villopoto, Langston, Townley, Wilson and many more. Behind the locked doors and workspace created, patrolled and controlled by owner and victory-addict Mitch Payton is a cosmopolitan squad of ten people and five riders hand-picked and then negotiating a relentless racing calendar that will involve seventeen supercross races, twelve ‘outdoor’ motocross rounds of the national series and other events like the Black Monster Cup and the annual Motocross of Nations (if one of the Pro Circuit riders is selected for their country).

Pro Circuit have become an institution in off-road motorcycle racing, not just in the USA but globally as the brand has become allied with supremacy. The Corona reception area acts as part-shop, part museum and part ‘waiting area’ with fans, clients and media coming through the tinted glass on a frequent basis. Pro Circuit’s track record is stunning in itself but add the important connection to Team Green’s youth development scheme (exciting seventeen year old Austin Forkner is the latest sensation to bound off the line) origins with Black Monster that go back to the first days of the company and European links in MXGP means they are something of a behemoth.

 

Stories about the operation have circulated for years; Payton, as the chief whip-cracker, mandating a level of dedication and achievement to match his own lofty expectations but then also playing a fatherly role and nurturing the best out of imported talent to AMA competition like Frenchman, Kiwis, South Africans, Brits and even a Swiss. Guiding enigmatic and individual stars like Christophe Pourcel and Josh Hansen among others. Stories of how defeat can float a ‘dark cloud’ through the Californian blue skies and over the workshop (and it has been quite ‘overcast’ in Corona the last four years), and - conversely - how victory is celebrated with ‘Pizza Mondays’ for the entire firm.

One of the lesser-told traits of Pro Circuit is the diverse collection of mechanics and technicians that form the tightly-knit race crew. “We’ve had Aussies, Kiwis, South Africans, French; this team has a good continental twang throughout,” says Briton Olly Stone now a four year ‘vet’ of and a mechanic who realised a lifetime dream to be under Payton’s wing. “I guess Mitch just keeps an open mind.”


To get a grasp on what it feels like to selected and then hit the ground running in one of American motocross’ strongholds we asked both Stone and Frenchman Jon Primo to talk a bit about their experiences at Pro Circuit and just as the 2016 AMA Pro National motocross series starts to gather pace (Joey Savatgy already securing their first overall triumph of the campaign with a win at Hangtown for the season opener).

 

Jon, you took a job here in 2012 and moved from being a championship-winning Grand Prix mechanic. Can you talk a bit about the job and how it has changed for you here in half a decade?
It has changed quite a bit simply because you learn more and get to know the people and the longer you are here the more responsibility you are given and Mitch shows you more things. So you get to do a bit more each year, and, if you show that you want to know more then you get the opportunity.

 

Why is there such an international flavour to this place?
I asked Mitch that same question once and he said something along the lines of not being totally sure! But he felt Europeans want to work more and we’re not scared to work. When we do the Grands Prix he knows that we travel and we’re on the road a lot, living in a Sprinter [van] and it is more like it was here back in the day. He says that background helps a lot. He has always liked Europeans and is pretty open-minded.

 

It seems quite intense here: the workload, racing schedule, the desire to succeed…
It is. Our season starts in the first week of January so we have eight weeks of supercross on one coast and eight on the other; so sixteen races. As soon as supercross comes to an end we are testing for motocross. We never stop because when the motocross season is done then we are working for the next January. Then we have things like the Motocross of Nations; which is pretty cool when we can go. The workload never really ends and Mitch is always trying to find more power for the bike or Bones [Jim Bacon] for the suspension will want to continually try something new. Nothing is left on the side. It is intense…but it is also good for learning and seeing a lot of stuff. It is hard…but beneficial.

 

That must require a high level of dedication; of committing yourself totally to the job…
I think we have one week off for the year and then a few days here and there. If we don't help some of the guys on the other coast for supercross then we can actually have a weekend off. It’s not a lot but it’s enough for us. I chose to be here, nobody put a knife to my throat and I don’t regret anything. If you want to improve and be one of the best mechanics then it is what you should go through.

 

Mitch is quite famous for this desire to win. So what is it like here when the victories and championships arrive and on the other side what has it been like recently when there’s been a bit of a dry spell?
It was almost normal here to win at least one championship a year but we haven’t seen one since 2013, so the workload became even bigger as we looked even harder at the bike and were testing suspension and so many engine specs. Mitch did not want to leave any stone unturned and made sure the riders are happy and will do anything to make it all work. The good times? Going to the track, seeing the riders happy and responding puts a good mood around the place. It’s not like Mitch is a mean guy. If you work hard and show him that you want it as much as he does then he will do anything for you and vice-versa. It is a give-take. If you are slack at work then you’ll be told. He is a really good guy and I’m not just saying that because I’m on the record!

 

How is it handling different riders and changes from season to season? How does that affect the atmosphere?
I worked with [Darryn] Durham in the first year and then another two after that. Then with Arnaud. You create links with the guys and build relationships where you want to go that extra mile or do a bit more to make him happy on the bike. You definitely need something in common with your rider to get to that point. The whole thing is like a chain; if you are missing a link then it doesn't pull together and it won’t work. If your guy is a dick then you don't want to do much for him, even though you are getting paid for it. It helps when you can get-on with the rider.

 

What about being French here because Pro Circuit has a strong past affiliation with French riders…
In the beginning it was quite hard for me because I didn't know how to take the jokes and the talk: were they being funny or personal?! I got used to it and even make fun of myself sometimes with a stupid French accent. Through the years you get to learn how it all works and how you get to joke about stuff.

 

Do you have a good Pro Circuit story?
Hmmm, maybe the Nations in St Jean D’Angely in 2011. I was just switching from KTM to Pro Circuit and I walked into the Alpinestars hospitality in the evening after the race and everybody was pretty intoxicated. People were getting clothes ripped off them and I had my shirt torn away! It was pretty crazy. Sometimes we’ll have a Christmas party or end-of-year party at Mitch’s house and he’s a really good guy; outgoing and fun.

What’s the best thing about Pro Circuit?
That you are working for the best team in the industry and being able to see what goes into the racing because we are working on a lot of things with the engine. It’s a real education.

 

People talk about the Pro Circuit working system; how was it fitting into that and has the job evolved since you came into the set-up as the ‘new guy’?
Once you pick it up then I wouldn't say it is easy but there is a routine. There have been newer mechanics since I’ve been here and I’ve had to teach them the same methods that I was taught. I was fortunate enough to learn from some of the greats – I’d say – like Paul Perebijnos who won a championship with Dean Wilson, Wayne Lumgair, a world championship winning mechanic and all of whom were here many years before me. I said to Mitch that I felt I learnt from a great generation of mechanics so it is up to me to uphold that and teach the new guys how it was done back in the day. It is so second-nature to me now and I know what I have to do and what needs to be done and prepped.

 

What is the atmosphere like here with success and then a dry patch?
I cannot really talk about it too much because since I joined there hasn't been a championship win! I don't know if I’ve jinxed it! In my first season we won a couple of races and [Blake] Baggett was second in the Outdoors. Like everyone always hears when we win we get pizza and in my first year I was getting a bit sick of it because we were winning a lot. In my second year I was with [Dean] Wilson and we won some races and [Adam] Cianciarulo; actually I think Pro Circuit won the most amount of supercrosses that season but no championship. Winning races is good but the main man wants [title] plaques on the walls and he doesn’t care how he gets it. 2015 was sh***y; a bad year.

 

Is Mitch like a machine? Is he the same year-on-year for the demands he sets?
He has high expectations but I think I do as well, being on this team. You sign for this team just like a rider; you expect to win. I am working with [Tyler] Bowers for supercross and was last year. I think it was A2 in 2015 where he led almost the whole race and let [Cooper] Webb pass him with two laps to go and I was letting him ‘have it’ on the podium. I didn’t even stay around to watch it. Tyler was second but I was that p**sed off I just went back to the truck. The next day my girlfriend was like “you really need to talk to Tyler about that…”. Back to the question though and I don't like getting to races unprepared as I think it makes us look bad. He [Mitch] has high expectations and it rubs off.

 

It sounds like your spinning at a high speed…
It’s more than a job. It is a lifestyle and a passion…and it has to be a passion. When we work late then Mitch is the last guy to leave. It is a passion for him. I didn't move half way around the world and sacrifice so much just to be at the races and say ‘hey, look at me’ or live the American dream…but on the other hand it is quite tough and hard to be away from so much and miss so much. When you win it makes it all worthwhile.

 

The International ‘make-up’ at Pro Circuit means it is quite unusual in the paddock…
But it is a thing that’s not unusual to this team. Mitch wants good guys and looks far and wide to find those that fit best. We work a lot here and I would say – personally – more than I did in Europe but then you have to think of the travelling for Grand Prix. Our first race was the Angel Stadium and it is a fifteen-mile drive for me, and we went there twice! San Diego also twice and that’s just an hour away. The first GP was in Qatar…and then Thailand and the guys also did pre-season races and do national championships. We should be finishing a bit earlier this year but a couple of GPs have been added to the calendar for us [Charlotte and Glen Helen] and then we’re into Monster Cup and then Red Bull Straight rhythm. Before you know it then it’s January and A1 is just around the corner.

 

 

You must have acclimatised to that schedule by now…
Yeah, it is tough the first couple of years but then you just get used to it. For my last years in Europe I’d have ten-month contracts. I’d work January to October and then go back to England [from Belgium] in November and December and be so bored that I was hungry to get back to it! Here it just rolls. I quite like the fact that you do supercross and then draw a line under it. In Europe you’ll do three GPs and then a Dutch race, another GP and then to a British Championship race. To go back to your earlier question: I do get burnt out. I was lucky last year because Bowers did not ride outdoors but then I did Loretta Lynn’s [biggest amateur race in the U.S.] and that was twelve days straight! I was like ‘I wanna get back to the Outdoors!’. At the end of the year I got ten days in England but it didn't feel like long enough. So two months is better and it’s good to get hungry to start it all over again.

 

So what are the perks to being here?
Like I said, winning…and the bonuses because of that! When you’re a kid and you see the guys on a podium at a supercross and know that there is 60-70,000 people in a stadium watching the race…it is pretty cool and you want to be a part of it. I’ve won some races here for Mitch and there is no better feeling. You also get that cheque from the rider and that doesn't happen in Europe; it helps.

 

What about the technical side? 2015 wasn't great so does that put a lot of pressure to make a step?
Not so much…Mitch is making decisions and suspension is Bones’ department but they don’t see the guys every day at the track so I can make requests and they are taken seriously. We have so many resources here and technically-minded people here that we all work together as a unit to make the best package possible.

 

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