Aside from Ken Roczen’s switch to HRC Honda, the biggest offseason news has been JGRMX’s move from Yamaha support to Suzuki equipment for 2017. Since bursting onto the scene in 2008, the Huntersville, North Carolina-based race operation has ridden under blue support. However, the trio of Justin Barcia, Weston Peick and Phil Nicoletti are now flying the yellow flag. It’s a good move for JGRMX, as Team Manager Jeremy Albrecht explains. I couldn’t agree more. Expect big things from JGRMX this coming season. I sat down with Albrecht to discuss the transition to Suzuki, along with several other pressing matters involving the team, riders and future of JGRMX.
By John Basher
A few images from the JGRMX Instagram account, showing Justin Barcia with his Suzuki (left) and Phil Nicoletti’s RM-Z450 (right).
A lot has changed with JGRMX in the past few months, except for your riders. Was there a time when you were also thinking about switching up your riders?
Yeah, we were thinking about switching it up a little bit. I told Weston [Peick] that he had until the middle of the Nationals to get it together, and he did. He came around, and no one else really did anything special. We like Weston, and his performance picked up, so we kept him.
I’m sure your phone was ringing off the hook with riders looking for rides.
Yeah, and there are still a lot of riders out of a spot, which is a bummer. It’s pretty crazy, actually. We need more teams in the pits. There aren’t enough teams out there.
Do you ever recall a time when so many good guys were without rides heading into a season?
No. There have been guys like [Kyle] Chisholm or Nick Wey who didn’t get rides in the past, which even then didn’t seem right. Now there are the Stewarts, and both of them don’t have a ride. Malcolm won the [250 East Supercross] Championship, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that happen where a guy doesn’t get a ride. James possibly not having something is pretty crazy. Even Dean Wilson. There are a lot of guys at a high level without a spot. It’s not even that people don’t want them. Teams just don’t have the money to sign those guys.
It’s hard for most people to understand that signing a rider for free is still a big expense to the team.
Exactly. Even the financial obligation and time that’s required to take care of that rider is huge. The engines and suspension are going to need work, so you’re overworking your staff, which means that you’ll need more people on staff. The staff, travel and salaries are what get you [financially]. So although a guy says that he will ride for free, you still need a mechanic. Then you need to get a hotel for the mechanic and the rider at every race, along with airfare and parts. It adds up quickly. Even when we started the deal with Phil [Nicoletti], everyone told me that he should ride a full schedule. It sounds easy, but then again, to have three guys out there doesn’t make a difference. We have two riders in our sponsorship agreements, and that’s all we’re contractually obligated to. If we have three guys then it’s extra. We always try to put two guys out on the track. I made the deal with Phil that he could ride all of the outdoors to make it better for him. It worked out. However, to add a guy for a full season is a big undertaking. We’re also not set up in the truck for a lot of riders. We can handle three guys, which is why we were able to take on two 250 riders for Supercross this coming season, and they’ll be on separate coasts. Suzuki wanted us to help more 250 riders, but we don’t have the room in our rig. When we do one 250 guy outdoors it won’t be ideal, because then there will be four guys in the semi. We’ll figure out how to make it work.
Phil Nicoletti did very well in the 2016 Nationals. Was it difficult telling him at the end of the season that you weren’t going to put him in a full-time gig for 2017?
I don’t like that I had to tell him that, but it’s the reality of the situation. There wasn’t anyone sitting here saying, “Hey, I’m going to pay you more money because Phil got fifth outdoors, so we want to run him full time.” I get Phil’s point, too. He technically beat Weston outdoors, and also in a lot of races. In Phil’s mind he feels like he deserves a shot. Supercross is where he needs to get better results. That’s where we need the exposure, because sponsors value Supercross more. He rode some good heat races, but something always seemed to go wrong for him. It’s a bummer, because he rode better than what his results show.
“LOOKING BACK AT HIS RESULTS, HE [PHIL NICOLETTI] ONLY RACED 15 SUPERCROSSES TOTAL ON A 250. MOST PEOPLE WOULDN’T MOVE UP. HE NEEDS MORE EXPERIENCE RIDING SUPERCROSS IN THE 250 CLASS. I’M VERY GLAD THEY [THE AMA] LET HIM WIN THE APPEAL, AND I HOPE HE CAN GET ON THE PODIUM AND WIN RACES.”
Is it true that Nicoletti will race 250 Supercross in 2017?
Yes. We actually appealed to have him race 250 Supercross, and it worked. We’re looking at him riding the 250 indoors. He likes the idea. Looking back on his decision to move up to 450 Supercross a few years ago, I can’t help but laugh at him. Take his buddy, Jeremy Martin, as an example. Jeremy had a chance to either move up [to the 450 class] or stay back. I asked him, “Why wouldn’t you stay back and try to win a championship?” There’s no reason to jump up, unless it’s a ride like the one he thought he was going to get with RCH. If it’s a good deal then it makes sense. There’s no reason to jump up a class, especially when there aren’t any rides available. Anyway, Phil moved himself up for a ride with the Allan Brown TiLube Yamaha team years ago. Looking back at his results, he only raced 15 Supercrosses total on a 250. Most people wouldn’t move up. He needs more experience riding Supercross in the 250 class. I’m very glad they [the AMA] let him win the appeal, and I hope he can get on the podium and win races. Maybe this will help him get better in Supercross, because that’s really where the money is made in this sport. Mentally, that’s where Phil’s problem is with Supercross, and also having the technique. He can race with anyone for five laps, and then it’s almost like he looks back and sees it’s Ryan Dungey behind him and he starts riding differently. Hopefully in the 250 class he’ll look back and see some kid he thinks he can beat, and so he goes and wins the race. Then he realizes that he’s good at Supercross.
Do you have your other 250 rider set in stone yet?
It’s not officially done, but it’s looking like it will be Matt Bisceglia. There’s a pretty good list of guys available. I would say the pick we could have had if things [with Suzuki] were figured out months ago might have been different, but I’m happy with the guys we have on the list. Matt Bisceglia makes the most sense, because he rode for Suzuki this year. Yoshimura is going to handle the 250 program, and we’re going to do the 450 stuff. Yoshimura is still going to do things with RCH, too. Hopefully we can all share information and work together in order to make Suzuki the best bike, which already won the 450 National Championship.
“OUR GOAL IS TO BE WITH SOMEONE WHO WANTS TO HELP. THAT’S WHAT THIS SWITCH WAS ALL ABOUT. WE WANTED TO BE IN A GOOD SPOT. WE WERE WITH YAMAHA FOR NINE YEARS, AND WE NEEDED SOMETHING NEW. WE WANTED A PARTNER THAT WE FELT WE COULD HAVE A LONG-TERM RELATIONSHIP WITH.”
What were the motivating factors behind moving from Yamaha backing to Suzuki for 2017?
Our goal is to be with someone who wants to help. That’s what this switch was all about. We wanted to be in a good spot. We were with Yamaha for nine years, and we needed something new. We wanted a partner that we felt we could have a long-term relationship with. Yamaha was bringing back their factory team, it seemed like things were changing. We only had a one year agreement, and we wanted to do something for us. Now we’re riding a bike that just won the championship. The guys are excited. You never know until you get to a race, but the riders think the bike handles awesome and turns good. We’re fired up.
How did Justin Barcia react in learning that you were thinking of moving from Yamaha to Suzuki?
Justin was one of the people who was pushing me to continue pursuing it. He wanted to do something different for himself. It didn’t obviously go the way he expected it. We thought he would go out and win. We hired him to win, and I know he can win. I don’t know if he just didn’t get along with that bike [Yamaha] or what. Our sport is so mental. There are a lot of riders that talk a lot of stuff, and it gets in their head, even if they don’t believe it at first. We’re paying Justin a pretty good chunk of money, and he wasn’t really that happy, so we figured let’s try to get him happy so we can see some results. Hopefully things will grow from there, like more sponsors and better support with the sponsors we have now. We really have never accomplished the goals we set out for. It’s funny, because when we started the team, Joe [Gibbs] told us that it would take ten years to get where we wanted. I didn’t believe it. Now we’re coming up on ten years and we still haven’t done what we think we can do. It’s tough, because there are a lot of good teams out there, but that’s what makes it fun. If it was super easy then maybe they [the Gibbs] would have quit.
Did you ever think nine years ago, when you uprooted your family and moved to North Carolina, that you would have gone through so much? You’ve worked with Josh Hansen and James Stewart, won some races, and now you’re switching brands. It must have been quite a ride these past nine years.
I try not to think about it. Obviously I planned on doing this for the long term, especially with moving my family to North Carolina. When I first took the job I asked if they [the Gibbs] were thinking long term, and they have been. We’ve gone through some rough years of finding sponsorships, but they do a very good job at JGR of finding support. We keep grinding and being a good partner to the sponsors we have, and it has worked. We have gone through a really tough time with the economy, and I’d like to think that makes us stronger. In hindsight, we started JGRMX at the hardest time. It was difficult getting manufacturer support and sponsors to spend money. I’m hopeful that we’re through the hard part and now we can keep building.
How did the opportunity with Suzuki actually come about?
This year we weren’t looking to switch brands, but our deal with Yamaha changed quite a bit. It made us really analyze things. The deal wasn’t what we had thought or expected, so we had to ask ourselves if we should agree to it anyway or try something different that could help us for the future. I was actually working on my annual Surfercross event, and I was talking to my buddy, Dave Castillo. He wanted to borrow a bike for the event, and I told him that I didn’t have a bike. That led to me telling him that we were trying to figure out our Yamaha deal, because they were cutting us back quite a bit. He started asking me why I hadn’t called Suzuki, because Dave’s buddy, Chris Wheeler, works there. I didn’t know Wheeler good enough to cold-call him, and I didn’t want to get in the middle of the RCH and Yoshimura deal. I told Dave that if he wanted to call Wheeler and see if Suzuki was interested in talking with us, then that wouldn’t be a problem. Wheeler was in the job probably four months at that point. I remember Chris back when he raced, but I didn’t want to call him and create issues. I also didn’t want to do that to Yamaha, either, because it didn’t seem fair. Anyway, Dave called me back and said, “Yep, Chris is willing to talk. He doesn’t know exactly what’s going on, and there might not be any opportunity, but he’s interested in talking.” At first we didn’t know what was going to happen. We were told ‘No’ three different times, so I had to come up with a different angle. Really, looking at it long term, the Suzuki partnership was one we felt we could benefit from. I had watched the bike outdoors and it looked really good. I was trying to get Barcia to ride similar to that. Now that I see Justin on the RM-Z450 it definitely helps him with the things we were trying to get him to work on. I apologized to him for getting on his case so bad for trying to change his technique during the outdoors. From the looks of things it was more of the way the bike was set up than him.
You’re talking about a long-term partnership with Suzuki. How many years is the deal?
Right now it’s a one year deal, because there wasn’t budget there for both sides to do it the way we feel it should be done. We did a deal together to build for the future. We’ve already talked about five- and ten-year plans. Hopefully they’re thinking the way that we are. You never know. I figured Yamaha was, too, but that’s the way our sport is. Things change, people move, and there’s different management. So far, Suzuki is where we feel that we fit the best.
“OUR GOAL IS TO WORK HARD AND HELP EVERYBODY. IT’S NOT A ONE-WAY STREET. RIGHT NOW WE’RE THE ONES BEHIND, SO THEY’RE HELPING US GET UP TO SPEED. WE APPRECIATE THAT.”
The team is working with Yoshimura now. What’s that like?
Most of the 250 testing will be in California by Yoshimura, which makes sense. It’s the same reason we do a lot of testing here in North Carolina, because this is where we’re located. The Yoshimura guys did offer to have us come out to California and stay a while, and we offered that same opportunity to them. The same goes with RCH. It’s very exciting, because we’re all working together very well right now. I hope we can bring something to the table for everyone involved so they feel like it was worth it having us switch to Suzuki. Our goal is to work hard and help everybody. It’s not a one-way street. Right now we’re the ones behind, so they’re helping us get up to speed. We appreciate that. RCH and Yoshimura have helped quite a bit, and we also just switched to Showa, so they’ve stepped in, too.
JGRMX also has a retail department that does engine and suspension modifications, as well as selling hard parts. Will the switch to Suzuki bolster the retail side of the business?
We’re hoping so. Really, we haven’t done a great job of advertising the retail side. Like any business, we’re growing by word of mouth. We make linkages, carbon fiber parts, and also engine and suspension mods. A lot of the retail parts are based around the Yamaha, because that’s what we rode. We are going to keep growing the business, little by little, to make things better. We’re adding new parts all of the time. Switching to Suzuki is going to help people understand that we do Yamaha and Suzuki parts. We are also going to make parts for other brands. Right now we have great modification packages for all of the bikes, as well as karts. We do the same type of work as Pro Circuit and Factory Connection. We’re just on the east coast, and we help a lot of local kids.
Will your guys have any race time on the Suzuki RM-Z450 before Anaheim 1?
Justin Barcia is racing Lille and then Geneva. He will be on a bike that’s not really that close to his race setup in Lille. That’s why I’m excited he’s racing Geneva, because at that race he’ll be on a race setup. For him to get starts on a Suzuki and push himself in a race situation, we’ll figure out any issues we might need to address. Justin is super happy now, but I’ll be interested to see what he thinks after he races the bike.
Good luck with the transition. Thanks for the time, Jeremy.
No problem, John. Thank you.