Behind The Scenes: The Life Of A Supercross Mechanic
Every kid who has ever thrown a leg over a dirt bike has had dreams of launching off that final jump with the checkered flag waving and crowd cheering as they fly across the finish line of a Supercross Championship. What you don't hear about too often is the other side of the story. The people behind how that rider got to the top spot. It takes a group of dedicated and talented people to make a campaign for a Supercross title. We always hear about those in the spot light, the rider, but not much about the team manager, the trainer, or the skilled mechanic who helped the rider get on the podium. Luckily we were able catch up with Chaparral Motorsports Technical Adviser/Communications Specialist, Mike Medina, who, when he's not on the phone consulting a Chaparral customer about parts for his/her bike, he can be found spinning wrenches for 450 Supercross class rider Alex Ray.
Mike got his start on dirt bikes at an extremely early age. He was only three when he was placed on a 1982 Kawasaki KD80 and shown how to work the throttle. Actually the story behind that 80 is pretty funny, Mike's dad had a friend who was on the Price is Right and he won a KD 80 and KDX250 and he gave Mike's dad the 250 and Mike got the 80. Now keep in mind this was before there were any sort of training wheels or anything like that for mini bikes, and his parents didn't even know that there were 50s, so they put him on the 80 and let him go. Barely taller than the dirt bike, Mike couldn't touch the ground when seated, so whenever he needed to stop he would have to wave his hand and slow down so that his parents could run up and catch him.
These days Mike's on a little bit bigger machine, a KX250, which he's able to touch the ground on, but still likes to wave his hand every once in a while-not sure if this is just an old habit or he's expecting someone to catch him when he comes to a stop? Mike likes to spend his time riding his KX in the mountains and hills around Indio Valley and the Salton Sea. However, when it comes to the streets he has his sights set on nothing but the utmost in speed, performance, and adrenaline induced intoxication; he wants to own Moto GP World Champion, Valentino Rossi's Yamaha YZR-M1. When he's not on his motorcycle or spending time with his family, Mike can be found on the phone at Chaparral Motorsports where he's worked as a Technical Adviser for the past 2-1/2 years, or manning the pit for Alex Ray. Quite the busy guy, we were able to catch up with Mike for a few minutes and get some insight on how one becomes motorcycle mechanic for a Supercross rider/team and what it's like being the mechanical guru for a professional rider.
TWM: You went to one of the motorcycle schools correct?
MM: Yes, when I realized I couldn't make it as a pro rider I decided I wanted to be the guy behind the bike. So after college I went to Motorcycle Mechanics Institute (MMI), in Phoenix. I started in early 2007 and graduated in late 2008. I specialized in Kawasaki and Yamaha. The school prepares you for working in a dealership service department, but I wanted to get into the racing side of things so I took the Team Green Clinic within the Kawasaki program, which is a three week course that focused on the competition aspect. It's a more technical clinic than the other classes and teaches you about tighter torque readings, tighter clearances, and specifics associated with competition performance.
TWM: Once you graduated or were about to graduate did the school help you land a job?
MM: The school was affiliated with Monster Energy Supercross, and they had an intern program with one of the Privateer teams called Wonder Warthog Racing for people about to graduate or who had just graduated and wanted to work as a dirt bike mechanic for a race team. The program was a way for guys or girls to get their foot in the door and get their feet wet in the competition side of the industry. If you wanted to get into the racing aspect you'd submit a letter as to why you wanted to do it, then they'd interview you over the phone and then pick a handful of applicants and tell them to show up in Anaheim for round one to help the team out. Most of the riders were rookies on this up and coming privateer team so it was a way for MMI interns to get some experience and help out the riders. Luckily for me the rider that I helped out that night really liked what I did for him as he had one of his better nights and asked me to stick around, so I got to travel around with him that season. I also spent some time at one of the rider training camps where I would make side money here and there helping the younger riders with their bikes. I got to know a lot of different people through networking so I had a lot of opportunities to work with different riders. So that's how I got started. I've been doing it professionally since I graduated in 2008.
TWM: How many teams have you worked on since then?
MM: I'd say four since then. Most of them have been privateer teams.
TWM: How many mechanics does each rider or team have?
MM: It depends on the rider and the team. Some riders like Villopoto might have five mechanics, one guy handles just the engine, one guy does the suspension, one guy handles the wheels etc. The smaller teams might have just one mechanic per rider. Like right now I am the sole mechanic for 450 class rider, Alex Ray (#314) of team PRL, Spider Energy, NoleenJ6, JT, Vertex. So I do everything. I do all the engine work, the wheels, chassis, electronics, all of it. I am kind of the big brother and help everyone else out on the team as well, but I am exclusive to Alex.
TWM: So you have a full time job, but also work as a mechanic, how does that work? What's a typical week like?
MM: I work four 10s Monday through Thursday at Chaparral Motorsports as a Technical Adviser/Communications Specialist. If the race destination is pretty far I'll fly out Thursday night. If it's close I'll just drive to the track. Friday morning we have breakfast and then go to the track. We do the finishing touches or whatever we need to do on the race bike: whether it be adding new graphics or installing new tires, things like that. We have to go through tech inspection to so the race officials can make sure the brakes work, the wheels spin, nothing is leaking, and give the bike a once over to make sure the bike is safe for the rider to take onto the track. Then the helmet and gear have to get checked out, make sure the number on their jerseys and license match up, make sure their helmets are safe etc. Then we have to go through sound check to make sure the bikes aren't too loud. The bikes can't be over 114db, so we have to find the right combination of mufflers or tips to try and quiet it down without taking away too much power. So it can be a chess match with the officials trying to get through sound check. Once we're done at the track on Friday we grab some dinner and head back to the hotel for the night. Saturday morning back at the track we do another once over with the bike to make sure everything is where it needs to be. At 11:00 am we all get to walk on the track and inspect the obstacles that the riders will be going up against for the first time. As a mechanic, when walking the track we're looking at things like how big the whoops are, how is the terrain, is it hard, muddy? These things will help us determine how to setup the suspension, fuel mapping, and what dirt bike tires we should use. We also discuss strategy with our riders talking about how they should handle certain sections like the rhythms, turns, whoops, line choice, doubles, and triples. Then there's the rider's meeting where the organizer will lay out how the event will go. They'll discuss how the opening ceremonies will go, and maybe talk about events from the previous race. Then we break for about a half hour and everyone gets ready for the first practice.
TWM: So after that first practice what happens?
MM: The rider gets 10 minutes of free riding that's not timed and during that I'll watch what's going on with the bike and then I'll discuss with Alex what I saw and he'll give me feedback. Then after each subsequent practice/qualifying race the track will get faster and faster so we'll continue to fine tune the bike to help him get into the top 40 for the night show. Then hopefully everything will go good and we'll be in the show's main event.
TWM: What's the most common task you have to perform at a race?
MM: Basically from the time I get up in the morning on Saturday I'm going non-stop. We have a lot of sponsors and keeping the graphics clean is a big priority. They want their logos to be seen, so I pretty much have to wash the bike every time he comes off the track. He's a billboard and the sponsors want their graphics to be seen in case he's on TV. But I also have to maintain the bike to make sure nothing is getting loose and stay on top of the fuel, oil, and tire pressure. While it's a lot to do, Saturday is actually the easy day compared to the week leading up to the race.
TWM: After each practice or qualifying race do you have a routine?
MM: Yeah once the bike has cooled down I check all the fluids to make sure they are topped of. I check and clean the brakes, adjust the chain if needed, refuel the bike, make sure the suspension settings didn't move or anything. I make sure the spokes haven't come loose and go through every T-handle I have starting with the 8mm and check every nut and bolt all the way up to 14mm to make sure everything is tight and isn't going to come loose. I'll clean his goggles, his boots, and then one of the last things I check before he goes back out on the track is to make sure the tire pressure is right. Meanwhile Alex is resting, go over video with the trainer, and studying what he can change or do better in the next session or heat.
TWM: Worst case scenario, what's the most difficult thing you might have to do?
MM: Worst case scenario would be he blows an engine. We have his practice bike as a backup. So I'd have to take the engine out of that bike and swap it over to his race bike so he can continue racing. I try to have that engine ready, in case that happens. The bigger factory teams on the other hand might have five engines standing by and they've got communications going from the track to the pits in case something happens so that by the time they get the bike back to the pits they can have the swap done in like 10-15 minutes where it takes me like 30-35 minutes to swap engines. If he crashes and breaks anything on the bike then I really got to hustle to install the new stuff. We have some new parts ready to go, but if he breaks something out of the ordinary I've got to take it off the practice bike and swap it over to the race bike. So that's when my day really gets rough, if he crashes and things break. Then I've got to do all my other normal tasks on top of repairing the bike.
TWM: What about something like a blown head gasket? How long can that take?
MM: That actually happened last season, he blew a head gasket halfway through qualifying practice in Oakland. We had less than 25 minutes before his next qualifying practice. So we ran back to the pits and I had the tank and head off, a new gasket installed, and had the bike back down to the gate for the next practice in about 20 minutes. I was sweating the whole time and I was moving so fast I thought I was about to have a heart attack. It might have been easier to just swap engines, but his race engine is much higher performing than his practice engine, and he was on the bubble of not making the night show so I decided it just had to be done. And it turned out he had one of his better nights, so all that hard work paid off.
TWM: What's the least fun about being a race mechanic?
MM: At the beginning the traveling is fun. You get to go to all these different cities. It'd probably be easier to count on one hand the places I haven't been to. But once you do it for a few years it kind of starts getting old, you're living out of a suitcase, eating fast food every day and you just want a home-cooked meal. Life on the road can get a little old, especially when you have a wife and kids. You're never home and your family can only see you on TV or via a web cam. So the travel and being away from your family can be the hardest part.
TWM: What's the most rewarding part?
MM: The most rewarding part is if Alex has a really good night, I know I was behind the bike that he did that on. It makes me proud to see him do well, but it's really satisfying to me to know that I helped him do what he did. To see these up and comers do well and move to bigger and better things is very gratifying to me. Knowing that all that hard work and all those long hours you put in paid off on that Saturday night when he does well, and it means more sponsors, more exposure, and more money coming in, it's really satisfying.
TWM: What's the most fun part about it?
MM: Everyone is one big family. We're all friends during the week then it gets serious on Saturday. You see the same people and go to the same restaurants every year. You see the same crowd so you start to make different friends in each city. Race time is really fun. The roar of the crowd is really exciting. When the night show starts we're in the tunnel waiting to come out and they're doing opening ceremonies, the lasers, the fireworks, the glitz the glamour, hearing that crowd it just echoes in that tunnel and gets everyone amped and ready to rock. Everyone is there to see the best Supercross riders in the world do battle, and to be a part of that is pretty exciting.