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Former ProMX Racer and Industry Expert - Steve Johnson
This week, we'll discuss where Ken Roczen is headed, flat track class changes and more. Then, we'll jump into a conversation with our friend Steve Johnson, a former ProMX racer with additional impressive credentials.
MotoAmerica is a signature sponsor and partner of Pit Pass Moto. Hear from champions of Superbikes on the podcast, and keep track of the race schedule right here.
Dave Sulecki: Hello everyone, welcome to Pit Pass Moto, the show that keeps you up to speed on the latest in motorcycling and brings the biggest names in the motorcycle industry right to you. I'm Dave Sulecki.
Dale Spangler: I'm Dale Spangler. And this week our guest is Steve Johnson, a pass pro motocross racer who spent nearly 30 years working in the power sports industry.
This episode of Pit Pass Moto is brought to you by MotoAmerica. MotoAmerica's the home of AMA Superbike racing, and is North America's premier motorcycle road racing series.
Rewatch every round of the 2022 series and revisit all the action with the Moto America Live Plus video on demand streaming service. Or visit the Moto America YouTube channel for race highlights and original video content.
To view the complete 2023 MotoAmerica race schedule, head over to motoamerica.com and be sure to follow Moto America on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook for real time series updates.
Hello everyone. Welcome to episode 149, our penultimate show of 2022. Thought I'd do a little housekeeping before we get started.
Our next episode, episode 150, will be our last of 2022, and it's scheduled to air on December 22nd. Then Dave and I will go on break through the holidays, and we'll be back with our first episode of 2023 on January 12th.
Super excited about 2023 and looking forward to another fun year with you guys, where we continue to bring you timely news and interviews with racers, riders, and industry regulars.
Speaking of 2023, Dave, the final piece that everybody's been waiting for fell into place. Ken Roczen signs with H.E.P. Suzuki. Can you believe it or did you think that's what was going to happen?
Dave Sulecki: I love it. They're calling him Kickstart Kenny, is his nickname. So-
Dale Spangler: That's awesome.
Dave Sulecki: And he goes into the season, I got to believe, I think it's great news, he finally settled. I don't think anybody should be totally surprised where he ended up.
But kind of coming in is the underdog now, and I think this particular team and bike everybody kind of underestimates maybe in their minds. So, it's going to be interesting when the gates drop on January 7th.
Dale Spangler: Yeah, there was a really great interview that Vital MX put up with Kyle Chisholm, who we just learned is also going to be Ken Roczen's teammate over at H.E.P. Suzuki, alongside … I think there's going to be one other signing, isn't there, Dave? Did you hear anything about that?
Dave Sulecki: I did, yeah.
Dale Spangler: Yeah. Who's it going to be?
Dave Sulecki: Well, at the PRI Show, the rumor was, I'd say beyond strong and confirmed by a couple of industry insiders that the other teammate is going to be Shane McElrath.
Dale Spangler: Wow.
Dave Sulecki: Who just recently won the World Supercross Championship in the SX1 class, I think it was, the 250CC class.
Dale Spangler: SX2, yeah.
Dave Sulecki: And I think he's a replacement rider for an injured rider. So, there's a pretty stout team. I mean, you really got to hand it to the H.E.P. team. I mean, they've really come out swinging for 2023.
Dale Spangler: Yeah, they seem like they have it together. I heard they're rebuilding their facilities. They've got like a Dino on order and a suspension Dino or something like that. So, they're really spending money, Suzuki's on board.
It looks to me like Roczen is able to … he kept a couple of his personal sponsors, Red Bull, and Fox. There was some rumors that he was going to change to FLY Racing, which is the new gear for the H.E.P. 450 team.
So, that might had something to do with his decision. He's able to keep those two sponsors. I figured between the two of those, he's probably making a couple million. So, not a bad place to start.
But it seems like the bike's good. From what the interview I watched with Kyle Chisholm, he helped set the bike up for Ken Roczen initially and he seems to love the bike, minus the kickstarter debate, which I thinks kind of silly.
Like some people were making some great points. Like if you look back, not that long ago, there were bikes winning championships with kickstarters on them, no problem. Against bikes with electric start.
So, I don't think it's a big deal. They'll probably end up putting something on the bike anyways as kind of a backup. So, I don't think it's a big deal at all. I think it's going to be amazing. The story's going to be so good. Looking forward to it.
Dave Sulecki: Yeah. And how much at the end of the day, does the kickstarter even matter? I mean, only in certain situations on the track if something were to happen, goes off the track, stalls the bike, whatever. That's the only time that really is a factor in the outcome of the race.
If the rest of the bike is working and it's making Kenny happy, he's comfortable on it, that's half the battle. I mean, this sport is highly mental. If he's content and happy and comfortable, as he's proven in that World Supercross series, when he was super comfortable on that Honda, he was unstoppable.
So, it's all a mindset and I think it definitely is working in his favor. I mean, it's good to know. It's funny because it was exactly 30 days before the GateDrop that he made his announcement of assigning. I thought that was kind of interesting timing.
Dale Spangler: Oh, I didn't even put that together.
Dave Sulecki: Yeah, it was interesting timing, but we're looking forward to it, man. It's definitely added some drama and some good talking points as they kick off the season.
Dale Spangler: Yeah, I kind of think the kickstarter versus push button starter, it's almost like it's made the racers a little bit complacent. It's almost like they've lost their sense of urgency when they crash. How many times have we seen recently where you just see a rider, sitting on the bike, pushing the button, waiting for it to start?
It's almost like they kind of lose a little bit of that sense of urgency. So, I don't know. I don't think it's a big deal. He seems to really like the bike. With this H.E.P. opportunity also, if he wants to go World Supercross, he can, he has that opportunity since they're in both series now.
I have a feeling he's probably going to stick to US SuperMotocross. I don't know, it's hard to say. Like we'll find out. But he's the new alpha on the team, which I think is something he was probably looking forward to. He is going to be the focus. And so, going to be a great program going forward. Awesome to see Suzuki back.
Dave Sulecki: Yeah. And it'll be interesting to see, you mentioned World Supercross. Which direction he's going to lean because as I understand this is a one-year deal for Kenny.
Dale Spangler: Yep.
Dave Sulecki: I don't know if there's an option for next year, but it sounds like it's a one-year deal. So, is he going to start out Supercross, start out outdoors, and then maybe kind of see how things are going? Because I know there are scheduling conflicts and I know you wanted to talk about that with World Supercross and the outdoor motocross, and the SuperMotocross finals that are supposed to happen late in the year.
Dale Spangler: Yeah. So, on that note, last week, the World Supercross announced their provisional calendar and it's comprised of six rounds and six countries across four continents.
And according to their statement, they said they're just getting started. So, six rounds in 2023, who knows, maybe they'll go to 10 or something like that in 2024.
But the six rounds will be visiting the United Kingdom, France, Southeast Asia, which is to be announced. I have a feeling it'll probably be someplace like Indonesia. Germany, Australia, and then the series makes one stop in North America, not the United States, but in Vancouver, Canada. So, pretty good series.
But as you mentioned, Dave, three of these dates conflict with either U.S. Motocross or MXGP. So, I feel like that's going to limit some of the World Supercross riders making that decision.
The opening round on July 1st conflicts with Red Bud and the Lombok MXGP. So, I don't know if there's any GP riders that wanted to race World Supercross too, but that's going to certainly put a dampener on that.
And then round two on July 22nd, conflicts with Washougal and the MXGP of Flanders. And so, yeah.
And then the third one is the German GP in October and that conflicts with the SMX World Championship final. So, it seems kind of funny that that ended up landing onto the exact same date as the SMX World Championship final. I don't think that's a coincidence, but maybe it is. What do you think?
Dave Sulecki: Yeah, I don't think it's a coincidence at all. And kind of the other thing that falls into this, and we talked about this on previous episodes, and that's the Motocross of Nations is October 22nd.
So, it falls exactly right between the German Grand Prix/the LA final for SuperMotocross and that Canadian Grand Prix in Vancouver.
So, how many riders decide, “Oh, I don't want to get hurt, so I'm not going to go to the Motocross of Nations because I'm in it for the World Supercross title, or I'm in it for the SuperMotocross title.
My prediction is this World Supercross is going to draw the guys that aren't having a good season, sign up with a team and can get in and gives them some life going into late in the year.
Are they going to get the premier riders? Are they going to get the top riders? I don't know. It doesn't look good to me just for my perspective, but mine's just one opinion on the subject.
Dale Spangler: Yeah. I feel like on the SX1, it's probably going to be more senior riders. I'm going to use that term, “senior”. But no, it seems like a guy like Kyle Chisholm, perfect example, he's a little later in his career, he might not necessarily want to race as much as he did, but he's going to race smarter, not harder.
And so, I think for a guy like him, it's a no-brainer. But for Ken Roczen, you just don't … I mean, which way is he going to go? I think he could probably make a lot of money off this World Supercross. But then if you start with the Supercross series and then to be a part of the SuperMotocross finale, you have to race some outdoors.
So, it's kind of like they're throwing down the gauntlet, World Supercross is right now, and these riders are going to find out where the chips will fall next year and where these riders end up.
So, as always, we'll keep an eye on this subject. But more than anything it looks like this series is really trying to become a true world championship and beyond pretty much every continent like Formula 1. And so, yeah, good for the sport, good to see what's going to develop from this.
Dave Sulecki: Definitely got to keep our eyes on it because don't know which way it's going to go. And we've got a similar happening in the U.S. with the American Flat Track series for 2023. Kind of want to know where it's going to go.
They've announced a provisional schedule. It runs from March 9th through September 3rd and it's pretty packed schedule because they've got five-mile events, five-half mile events, four short-track events, and three TT events packed in there.
And they're all kind of keyed off of other motorcycle events. A lot of them are related to things like Sturgis, for example, and Daytona Bike Week. So, they've kind of synced those up with major events to try to draw people in.
But they've got such a big change in the twins class, the premier class, that it's affecting what's going to roll out for next year.
So, 2022 was an experimental season for Flat Track where they were trying to merge the super twins class, which was the kind of unlimited type twins racing. They tried to merge that somewhat with the production twins class, which was a production-based class where it was production-based motorcycle and engine.
They had a series, what was called the Production Twins Challenge, where they took force riders from the production class and ran in and the super twins just to kind of get the two classes closer together, get the riders and teams comfortable and adjusting. Because for 2023, they are basically dropping the super twins class and just will have production twins going into the new year.
So, that's put some challenges on the race teams, I think, going into this 2023 season.
Dale Spangler: Yeah, from my understanding of it, pretty high level, I haven't really dug that deeply into it, and you're definitely more technically savvy than I am. But it seems like what they're trying to do is just be able to, in some ways, reduce costs, like have one class, create more interest.
But then you've got this sort of dichotomy of a production bike that where they can use a production-base engine up to 890CC, whereas the super twin bikes that are built specifically for racing can only go to 750CCs. Is that the case? Is that my understanding of that correct?
Dave Sulecki: Yeah, that is some of it. But basically, Flat Track has just imposed more and more roles on that super twins class to bring them down in speed so that the production twins can catch up and they've given them more leeway and tuning.
So, I'll give you some examples. Like you said the 890CC limit for a production-base, but they also allowed to run bigger throttle bodies. They can ride by wire electronics. Those things can combine to more horsepower where on the high zoot FTR750 engine, for example, they limit the RPM to 11-5, they put a restrictor plate in the engine, they can only have certain size throttle bodies.
So, it's all in an effort to try to, like you said, maybe bring the cost down, bring the two together. But what's happening is going through all of this, Harley is actually backing out and pulling away from the sport, and they may or may not back a team for the new season.
So, therefore, their main development partner, who's Vance & Hines is also pulling back from the series. So, that's going to leave it up to some other teams. The Atchison team for example, the Yamaha team, they're still going to go racing, they've got some premier riders.
But what's going to happen with Indian? Are they going to go racing? We don't know. Are there going to be any Harleys on the track? We still don't know.
I do know there was a certain class champion from the super twins class last year walking around the PRI Show this last weekend, and he was claimed to say that he may not be going racing this next year.
So, all of this has really impacted the series and I don't know which way it's going to go. I know some teams will go racing, but it almost seems like it's going to be on a much smaller scale for 2023. We really don't know.
Dale Spangler: Yeah, it's like the series is a little bit in flux. From what I read, they were kind of like … I don't know, the series seemed like it was going a little bit down. Interest in the series, was going down a little bit.
And so, I think this is a way for them to try and reinvigorate the series, bring some more interests, bring the OEMs back to the table, like you're saying. Because it was kind of the Indian show for the most part because they just dominated so much and …
But yeah, it's kind of a little bit of a MotoAmerica thing though, getting in there trying to level the playing field because it's … we've learned that a little bit through how MotoAmerica does that in some of their classes as well.
Dave Sulecki: Yeah. So, maybe this 2023 season’s a reset for AFT. We're going to see. It would be kind of sad if we don't see Jared Mees out there because he was such a talent, and I wouldn't blame him if he didn't go racing. Maybe if Indian just kind of took their ball and went home just because of the rule changes just did not work in their favor.
But you can go racing, you can go to Vance & Hines, and you can buy yourself an XG750R for $39,000 and you're spooled up and ready to go. So, it's still a possibility. You can also go to the private route and build yourself a Yamaha MT-07 and go racing. But I'm sure the cost probably isn't much different than that.
So, there are some contingencies. I know that Vance & Hines had offered contingencies for 2022, and they were paired with Harley Davidson on that. But they may or may not be doing it this next year. We're going to kind of wait and see.
We love Flat Track. It's one of the most exciting forms of racing out there and if you ever get a chance, check it out. But this doesn't spell well for this series if it doesn't follow through with increased participation and more turnout for watching the events.
Dale Spangler: I heard you mentioned earlier there, the PRI Show and I've never been to that show. It looks like it's kind of back in our old stomping grounds in Indianapolis where the AIMExpo used to be held for a while. And so, were there some pretty interesting stuff there. It looked like it was amazing show from what I saw.
Dave Sulecki: Yeah, definitely by a mile. A PRI Show, it's every year, usually in early December. It was December 8th through 10th in Indianapolis.
Dale Spangler: What's that stand for?
Dave Sulecki: Performance Racing Industry.
Dale Spangler: Yeah, okay.
Dave Sulecki: So, they are actually partner … they are the same ownership as the SEMA show, which is held in Las Vegas.
Dale Spangler: Oh, okay.
Dave Sulecki: But this is more the hardcore technical side of the business, which is the engine builders for just possibly every form of racing that goes on in the United States.
And what I've noticed over the years, because this is one of my favorite shows being kind of a gearhead myself — that they are starting to cross over into power sports. You're seeing it more and more and more as you walk the floor and see the vendors that are attending. We see a lot of the same vendors that attend motorcycle-related trade shows such as AIM.
Dale Spangler: UTV, primarily. More than two-wheel though?
Dave Sulecki: No.
Dale Spangler: Huh.
Dave Sulecki: Surprisingly, a lot of two-wheel. In fact, we actually had a Vance & Hines, we had Jesse Janisch's production twins winning number one bike in our booth at the Wossner booth at the show. And there were other Vance & Hines race bikes, Angelle Sampey's Bike was in one of the 3D printing booths.
So, just a lot of motorcycle stuff as you walk the show, and a lot of motorcycle vendors were there. So, it's cool. If you're a gearhead and you love technical things about building engines and everything that goes with it, which is a big part of the racing industry in both automotive and power sports, this is the show to go to and learn about new products and technologies that are available to squeeze the most out of any possible engine you're trying to build.
Dale Spangler: Anything that stood out that really was just like, “Wow, that's the coolest thing I've seen in a while”?
Dave Sulecki: Oh, every time I go it's like that. To me, the technology that has become available to the average, let's say, business or shop that wants to get into the business, the machining side has become nearly turnkey where it used to be kind of a big barrier to get into because you had to have a lot of know-how and how to piece the things together.
A lot of these machining manufacturers are now, offering programs where they will analyze your product line and come up with business solutions and provide all of the information to get set up and running to the point where it's almost hands off.
So, to me, that's what's evolved in this industry, is just the technology and the machining side has grown in the last 10 years, just tremendously. So, I enjoy seeing that stuff because that's the kind of thing I do, and there's just loads of it there and it just impresses me every year.
Dale Spangler: Well, I think our guest that we have coming on here, Steve Johnson, he's one of those guys that I think he's very similar-minded as you and very technical and so, that sounds like a place that he would've loved to have gone to during his period at Wiseco. You guys worked together. So, looking forward to catching up with our friend, Steve, here shortly.
Dave Sulecki: We'd like to welcome to Pit Pass Motor today, Steve Johnson. He is a longtime power sports industry guy who is now selling buses for Daimler. So, Steve, we want to thank you for coming on the show today and telling some stories with us, man. How are you?
Steve Johnson: I'm doing great, Dave. Thanks for having me. It's great to be back. It's been a while. So, I miss you guys and really excited to be here.
Dave Sulecki: I mentioned that you're selling buses. I mean, what are you up to these days? I understand you're selling municipal buses for school systems and such. It's Thomas Built Buses I understand, which is part of Daimler. How's that going for you?
Steve Johnson: It’s really, really great. I mean, it's a lot of fun. It's the polar opposite of racing. It's the safest and most regulated vehicle on the road. Like I said, it's the polar opposite of racing.
We try to build the safest, most mundane vehicle we can because we're hauling the most precious cargo in the world, our kids. And with my role at it, which is it's Daimler Trucks North America, which is a group we're in, which is part of Daimler Worldwide. And that includes Mercedes, Mercedes Truck, Freightliner, Western Star and of course, Thomas Built Bus brand and Sprinter as part of that group.
Now, we've got electric buses and it's just the age of electrification coming fast. And there's $5 billion from the government out there that we're trying to get our lions share that and getting our bus out there and rocking and rolling. We got over 250 on the road already.
Dave Sulecki: That's 250 of the EV, because that was actually one of my questions for you. Was, is the EV movement kind of hitting you guys? Sounds like it is.
Steve Johnson: It is full throttle. I spend every day talking about it. I’ve created an EV experience at our company so that when we bring in factory tours, we have an electric vehicle chassis there.
And typically, it's all customer buses that we're using these demonstrations for. So, as we're building them, so we have an electric vehicle chassis so they can see what the battery packs in the drive train look like without the body sitting on it.
And then we build the body and install that on the bus that day. It's really, really fun. Again, we've got 200 plus out on the road, running every day all over the country. Even as far as Tok, Alaska, we've got one up there, 45 below zero. It's the warmest bus they have, so they just love it.
Dave Sulecki: That's cool. Sounds like your company is at the forefront. We talk about it a lot on power sports and where it's headed, but that's interesting to hear.
So, I wanted to go back in time a little bit and talk about, you grew up around racing. I know your dad was a snowmobile racer, he raced Rupps, I think. How did that lead to you getting started riding motorcycles or anything in general? How did that begin and what was your first bike?
Steve Johnson: Yeah. So, my dad had a need for speed, so he was a little bit of an adrenaline junkie. He was in the Air Force, he was an MP. I still have trophies of his, from him racing Jeeps in the Air Force. So, they had actual organized Jeep races for the troops. So, he was racing at an early age, in his early 20s.
And then once he got married and had kids, he started racing snowmobiles. And about 1969, he became a Rupp dealer in that same era. So, he was a factory racer for Rupp because he immediately had a need for speed and if he wasn't up front, he wasn't happy. So, he was doing everything he could to build the fastest and best handling machines. And so, racing was in the family right from the get-go.
And when I was four, my dad got me a little Rupp scrambler, a little four horse Tecumseh belt-driven, the thing would do like 50. It was just crazy fast once you'd shift through the belt drive. But it was a lot of fun.
And then started racing when I was 10. I got hooked by my uncle, raced motocross, raced Huskies for the most part (my mom's brother) in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. And then our neighbor raced as well.
So, we would see them, the Spear family. And everybody knows Ron Spear, so Ron's dad raced. So, I would see the Spear family at the same race as my uncle’s. So, it goes all the way back to then.
Dale Spangler: A funny part about you, Steve, is that when I first started racing, the very first place I rode in my 1981 YZ80 was at your house. I don't know if you remember that.
Steve Johnson: I remember you guys coming over.
Dale Spangler: Yeah. So, I came over there, didn't have a clue what I was doing, crashed my brains out, got my first scar from a dirt bike crash on my knee. I don't even think I had knee pads on.
Steve Johnson: That's awesome. I remember you coming over to the house and your dad, Spanky, was just awesome. You loved him the minute you met the guy. Then we just had a lot of fun all those years watching you grow up and move your way through the pro ranks and had a good career.
Dale Spangler: Yeah. And then I think it was after that, I think it was your dad that was like, “Hey, you should go racing that Erie, PA.” That was that little like night track out there.
Steve Johnson: Yep. Wattsburg.
Dale Spangler: Yeah, Wattsburg. So, and what happens, I crashed my brains out again, and it was on that jump that they had. I think it was Tequila Dive, I think they called it.
Steve Johnson: It was right in the middle.
Dale Spangler: Yeah. So, crashed my brains out on that. So, those are my first two riding and racing experiences. And I don't know, Steve, like it seems like I mean, you were there from the start.
But let's go on to your career though, because I feel like, man, there's so much that you've done in your racing career. We haven't even gotten to like your industry career.
How far did you make it in Pro Motocross? Because if I'm not mistaken, I think you and Kenny Keylon were Yamaha teammates. I don’t know if you were fully factory, but you had Yamaha support if I'm not mistaken, right?
Steve Johnson: Yeah, correct. In ‘83, I got some help from a local guy down there. It's actually Kenny Keylon's in-laws now. I was living with Kenny's wife's family. Renee's dad, which is Kenny's wife.
Renee's dad started helping me with a couple of 1984 YZ250s and gave me some support. And I went to my first national at Six Flags Over Georgia when they had the national there.
And my first Pro Moto, I got 9th place. Ricky Johnson was a huge contributor to that position for that race. He and I got like 39 and 40th on the gate pick. I'll never forget that. He's like, “Dude, just come all the way to the outside with me and follow me.”
He says, “When we hit that jump after the first tree, do not let off. And we will go … regardless of where we're going to land, we'll be up front because we'll jump over top of everybody.” He goes, “I've already done it.” I'm like, “Okay.”
So, we did. So, and then the second Moto had running up front again and took a header. I might even have tangled with Bone at one point as he was coming around to lap me. But still in the top 10 and broke my clutch lever off and all that. So, I don't know where I ended up for the day, but my first Moto was 9th.
And I remember Larry Griffiths, who was running Team Yamaha at the time, he comes walking up, he's like, “Who the hell are you?” I go, “Nobody. Just had a good Moto.” But it was fun.
Dale Spangler: Yeah, I think I tried to look you up in the Racer X Vault and what I saw … like I don't know if this is the correct information, but I saw where you finished 11th at the 1984 High Point National. Was that your best overall outdoor finish?
Steve Johnson: Best overall, for sure. And I think I might have got 12 at Red Bud and was running 7th at Millville, and actually passed out in the second Moto. I mean, I just overtrained. They said, “You were dehydrated, exhausted, all that.” I woke up in the back of Fred Andrew's pickup truck on the way home.
Dale Spangler: After you finished racing Pro Motocross though, did you go onto the ATV side? I don't even remember that — that you were a factory Yamaha ATV guy.
Steve Johnson: Yeah. And just to touch on the Yamaha stuff a little bit, they gave me some bikes and parts after that first round at Six Flags Over Georgia. Larry was just great. And High Point was definitely a good career race for me.
And just being new to that whole thing, I definitely would've in today's world where you've got a trainer and somebody to help you with your nutrition and all that stuff, that could have been a much different world.
But Geoff Bell, my best friend and travel mechanic, he and I were just winging and figuring out as we went. But it was fun.
So, after racing Pro Motocross as long as I could, well, Kenny Keylon and I were racing the Winter Series after the ‘84 season and Yamaha said, “Hey, we'd like to send you guys to Brazil and race for factory Yamaha there. Full factory ride, box fan, mechanics house, the whole nine yards.” And we're like, “Oh hell yeah, we're in.”
So, they were going to send Kenny and I because we already traveled together and rode and trained together every day. And he really helped push me to get me into the pro level ranks for sure. Without Kenny mentoring me that whole time, I would've taken much, much longer, probably another year or two to even get in the top 20, let alone the top 10.
Because Kenny was a top 10 guy every weekend, even an outdoor national winner. So, racing with somebody with that caliber of speed, it's just going to rub off and learn things.
Dave Sulecki: And I think from racing and maybe even before those Yamaha years, you were always closely connected and associated to the Wiseco brand. I always remember your Suzukis were painted red and black and white and they had Wiseco in the tank that was maybe back in ‘81. I'm going back probably a few years before the Yamaha deal.
But how did that lead to you kind of segueing into the industry because you were racing and you knew the company well? Is that how the connection kind of came about?
Steve Johnson: Yeah. My dad raced for Wiseco. He raced against the Andersons and Kipps, ice ovals. So, they all knew each other. They sponsored my dad racing.
So, when I got on a bike they said, “Alright, well, we're just going to put Wiseco stickers on your bike and you'll be a test dummy force in the dirt bike market.” Which I was.
Tom Kipp Sr. was actually him grinding pistons for me to get shapes dialed in. And my dad was constantly taking the bikes apart and sending stuff back to those guys. And in the early days, I actually acquired the nickname of Sisco. So, we were either up front or seized it up, one or the other.
So, after my pro career, like I said, we were getting ready to go to Brazil and I dislocated my shoulder at West Palm Beach for the second time. So, I was on the injured list. So, Rodney Smith went in my place and Rodney had a great career down there and the rest is history for him.
And at that point, I got back and got surgery and tried getting back on a dirt bike and it just hurt so bad. The damage it was done, I just could not ride at that level. And so, Mr. Bob Gorman, one of the owners of Cometic or the owner now, was hounding me, “Man, come work for us. We'll do track site support, you can come work technical sales.” And I'm like, “Nah, I'm going to go fly airplanes.”
And come to find out the money my dad and I kind of set aside for me to go to aviation school to become a professional pilot, he used on his new boat after I got my contract with Yamaha. He figured I was going that way so he could use that money for something else.
So, I had to go get a real job. So, I went and worked for Wiseco for the next 23 years. That was history.
Dave Sulecki: Yeah, and history it was, some great stories. We could have a whole show just talking about those years, you and I know, and Dale also. I mean, there's so much that went on.
But kind of talk about those years at Wiseco. You held several roles in the company. I know you started out as sales and race support, but that matured over the years up until I think when you left, was it 2006 or 7, when you went to another opportunity? But talk about some of those roles you had with the company.
Steve Johnson: Yeah. So, started out in technical sales because I was a gearhead, rebuilt all my own stuff. Snowmobiles, dirt bikes, jet skis. So, in the early days, the technical sales. And then moved into doing special products, handling all the oddball custom business for Wiseco, doing the big bore kits, the vintage snowmobile stuff or obsolete products for bikes or snowmobiles and just kept expanding that.
Did the track site support, Loretta Lynn’s. I don't think I missed a Loretta Lynn’s or Daytona for at least 20 to 25 years straight. Either I was racing it or working it or both.
That progressed into the power sports manager role, overseeing the product line and all the things that went with that. New product development working side by side with you, Dave, on the engineering side. Working with Dale and the guys at Cometic, and that crew to make sure we had gaskets tied into that and crank shafts and rods, and whatever else we were trying to develop. And putting all those kits together, building the catalog, and that was just a ton of fun.
Dave Sulecki: Yeah. And the legacy is, I mean, overall, those years, you became the face of Wiseco. I still today, I'll meet people in the industry, and they'll always bring your name up and you've been gone from Wiseco since then, and you're still associated with the brand after all these years. Almost as much as I would say the family members were. That's quite a legacy when you really think about it.
Steve Johnson: I bleed red, black, and white. For those of you that aren't familiar, those are the company colors. Everything I have in house … I still have original business cards. I got pictures of me five-years-old, with the Wiseco hat on fishing up in Canada or something, with my dad, because this is what we did.
And I'm still pretty close with the Kipp family. Tommy, the grandson of the founder, Clyde Wiseman — Tommy and I talk all the time. He's a pilot, so we go flying together and do some events. And he actually just moved back home. They're back in Ohio now.
But yeah, just been with Wiseco forever and for me, it's in my blood, it's in my DNA. And I don't think that'll ever change. I'm severely loyal to the brand and the family and just because I grew up with it. So, again, it's part of my DNA.
Dave Sulecki: We'd like to take a break from the interview right now and pay some bills and here's a word from our sponsor.
Eventually, that led to your next role that you took on. I know you took some schooling, and you had an opportunity to go south to some better weather out of Ohio and that turned into a pretty good opportunity for you.
Steve Johnson: It did. And really, it was more out of keeping my wife happy and staying married than it was an opportunity. She's like, “I am not spending another winter in Cleveland, Ohio. So, I'm moving with you without you, so find a job.”
I'm like, “Honey, you realize I have the best job in the world. And I get paid to ride motorcycles all over the planet and I've got friends for the last 30 years in this industry.” And she's like, “I can't do it. I just can't stay here.”
So, Jim Zoretich, who was our president at Wiseco previously, and Jim had worked at school for 21 years and worked his way up through manufacturing, with the Dover organization as well. And Jim was the president at CV Products, which was one of our primarily automotive distributors, really just north of Charlotte, North Carolina, just south of Greensboro, where we live.
And I said to Jim, “Hey, the wife wants to get out of Ohio.” He goes, “Dude, I get it. We love it here.” And I said, “Have you got any openings that I might be able to fit into with your organization?” And he says, “Yeah man, that'd be great. Come on down.”
So, we did, and Jim, put me at the head of his power sports division. We actually grew that; the valve train and our online air filters and batteries, and it just kept expanding our own portfolio in addition to distributing other brands like breaking and the CV4 horses with our own brand with that.
And then they actually had me start to do the automotive side of the business as well as the sales director for the company. So, I oversaw power sports and automotive up until the last days there.
Once the company changed ownership in 2014, I think it was, that the new owner came in, and he pretty much cleaned house from the CFO on down. And CV Products does not exist anymore, so he wasn't quite as smart as he thought he was.
Dale Spangler: That's a bummer.
Steve Johnson: Yeah, for sure. A lot of great people.
Dale Spangler: Seems to happen a lot these days. It's just the way it is. But to back up a little bit, Steve, about to your Wiseco days, and something I was thinking about. The last couple years, I've thought about this numerous times, but I don’t know if you knew this, but to me, you were definitely in a lot of ways a mentor to me.
My first job at Cometic Gasket, I was a naive, just a dirt bike racer, didn't really know what I was doing. You hired me to be a draftsman. I asked if I could do some marketing, and so they let me. And so, what did I do? I went to the races, and I did what Steve did. If Steve put up a tent and a table, that's what I did.
And so, I feel like I owe you a thanks for that. I want to want to say thanks because I probably wouldn't be in this industry without that. Whether it was Loretta Lynn’s, High Point, Steel City, like with the Cometic Gasket, I was set up and like I said, I did what Steve did. So, just wanted to give you some accolades for that.
Steve Johnson: Well, and I've seen you say that before, Dale, so thank you so much. And it always makes me smile and I think you'd said it a few years back and I think I sent you a text or reached out to you through email and just said, “Thanks for the kudos there.” And man, I love you like family and I'm excited, all the stuff you got going on.
And I've watched your career with Dirt Buzz and your years at Western Power Sports and all that, in Cometic as well. And just doing all that stuff. I mean, how much fun did we have going to the races, you and Dave and I?
Dale Spangler: Too much.
Steve Johnson: Nearly all the races we hit and the insanity that went down that we can't talk about, otherwise we'd be implicating ourselves in illegal activity.
Dale Spangler: Definitely. There's a couple that just came to mind to me, I'm-
Dave Sulecki: I’m going to hit the mute button.
Dale Spangler: I can't tell that story.
Steve Johnson: Plausible deniability, Dave. I didn't hear a thing. What are you talking about?
Dave Sulecki: Exactly.
Dale Spangler: Well, so, on that though, you're talking about, so you went to CV Products as Dave mentioned, and then you may … like this is what really kind of blew me away. You switched industries completely. And I guess now that makes more sense because CV went away.
I was going to ask you, how did that come about? Like you now have two businesses that focus on the aviation industry, other technical businesses, which kind of makes sense to me when I look at it. With your background, it seems like it was a natural thing for you.
One of them is Everything Arrow and then you have Perfect Aircraft. So, what are these businesses and how did you decide to go in that direction?
Steve Johnson: So, Perfect Aircraft is and was a detailing company that my nephew started fresh out of college. So, he was doing that in the summertime when he wasn't going to school.
So, he came down here and finished a couple courses at the local college and spent the summer with me and we were talking about it. And he went back up and graduated from Kent State University with a business degree.
And he's like, “Man, what do you think about starting an aviation detailing company in North Carolina?” I go, “Dude, I know all the NASCAR teams, I know a lot of the pilots. I can get you started in there pretty quickly just because of all the guys that I've met through that industry that are dirt bikers, that are pilots.”
Jimmy Johnson's pilot, he's a great guy. Kelly Hudson and some of the other pilots for Hendrix and so forth. And just a great group of guys.
I said, “We've got three major airports within an hour and a half of Greensboro, in addition to the volume of Greensboro alone.” And I said, “So, this would be a great place to start.” So, he is like, “Alright.”
So, he came down here, started out on his own and then the demise of CV Products started to happen. And so, I had some free time on my hands. I said, “Hey, how'd you like some help?” He's like, “That'd be great.”
So, I jumped in with him for about two and a half years and helped him get the company up and going. And we got a ton of clients and built the great little business. We acquired the Honda Jet account, a Swift Air, which has got a huge fleet, Old Dominion Trucking, which you see their trucks everywhere. They had three aircraft and that was all the gold we needed for anyone in North Carolina.
And then getting Hendrix on board and some of the other teams, it was a great business. My nephew actually sold it a couple years ago and just did fantastic. He killed it. So, that's kind of how I ended up in the aviation world.
So, for me, with Everything Arrow … so Perfect Aircraft is no longer — it got sold, it's got new names. Actually, the Carlyle Group, which you guys are probably familiar with, because I think they own some power sports companies somewhere along the lines. They're the ones that bought it and have changed the names and even merged even more detailing companies into that group.
So, Everything Arrow I've had since 2008, really since I got down here. And when we got the Lithium Battery project with Chris Hackl and the guys at Millennium that started Ballistic, we were on the backside of that.
They brought me this little battery at the dealer show and I was like, “Oh my God, what is that?” And they're like, “That's what we're running in the factory, Aprilia Bikes.” I'm like, “That is just too cool.” I said, “I want one for CV4 and I want one for whatever my own brand is going to be.”
Which turned out to be Aerovolts. So, I still have that going, and it just chugs along and does a nice little business and it's a lot of fun and gets me into air shows, gets me an excuse to get out there and hang out with all the flying people.
Dale Spangler: So, what would you say the allure of aviation is for you? Because it seems like there's some kind of connection there. Is it similar to riding because it seems like there's a lot of Moto guys; Bob Hannah comes to mind, of course, pilot. What is it about aviation that really kind of pulled you in?
Steve Johnson: Well, it's the adrenaline of it. It's extremely tenacious and the rules and regulations are probably the biggest pain in the butt to learn all that. I mean, the book is like four inches thick that you got to memorize just the rules and regs.
The flying part is, I would say, relatively easy from that aspect, for a dirt biker because we're so three-dimensional because we have to fly a motorcycle and we understand how inertia works and all that.
So, most Motocrossers are intuitively good pilots, for the most part. Kevin Windham, Heath Voss. I mean, there's so many … Brock Sellards. There's 30 pilots you could-
Dave Sulecki: I was going to say Brock's name.
Steve Johnson: Yeah. Riders and-
Dave Sulecki: Jump in there.
Steve Johnson: They're all pilots and they all soloed within 10 hours or 8 hours, which is way below the norm.
And flying is actually very mellow. Our threshold for panic is very, very high as a racer. And you know that when you're riding in a car with your family, everybody else is screaming. You're like, “What's going on? Why are you freaking out?”
Anyway, so, I think it's the adrenaline of it, the freedom of it, the skill level and just everything that goes with it. Just like racing the preparation, the plane's got to be perfect, you're race bike got to be perfect. So, I think it's just … I've wanted to fly since I was eight years old. I've just been in love with it.
Dave Sulecki: And it's got to be, you're the guy in control. So, I know that's for me, and motorcycling is one of the reasons why it has that allure because you're the person who decides what it's going to do. And I could see aviation kind of fit in that same envelope.
You've got so much on your plate and so much going on. But in your spare time, you also are a promoter. You run two big events every year. One in the spring and one in the fall.
And one of them, I think you just had a 21st anniversary with the Crow Canyon event and then you've also got the Spring Break Ride. Talk about those and kind of how they got started and where they're headed.
Steve Johnson: Yeah. With the Turkey Run was the first. My brother-in-law and I partnered up and purchased some land up in Ohio there in the new Philadelphia area in a little town called Yorkville. It's about 400 acres. And my dream was to have an outdoor national there.
And we had, I think four or five GNCCs there that were televised and so forth. And then the GNCC group just outgrew the amount of parking we had.
We've got a lot of terrain on the property called Crow Canyon there. And a lot of people hopefully, have been there and rode and had a great time. I know Dave, you've been there and ridden. I don't know if Dale's been down there to ever get a chance to ride there or not, but I know Dave's been there many times.
Dave Sulecki: Yep, I have.
Steve Johnson: So, we had like 9 or 10 Loretta Lynn’s qualifiers, working with the Coombs family. The relationship there was still strong with Tim Cotter and everybody. And it was just a lot of fun.
But then once I moved away, promoting a Loretta Lynn’s event, something like that was just too much work and too hard for me being down here. And then we leased the land of the club down there and they do a great job of putting on some events.
They help me with the Turkey Run, which the group from the club down there just — I couldn't do without them for sure. They make it all happen for us, which is awesome.
So, big kudos to Jeff Ricker and Tom Coffee and Chuck and Jeff's son, Chase, from the EROC series. They do all the signup and registration for us and then we bring the KTM guys out and we have Yamaha there and Serco’s been there, we're hoping to get GASGAS this year.
And so, yeah, we actually celebrated our 20th anniversary of that event, the Turkey Run.
So, it all started with like eight of us. Chris Buehler, who was a Wiseco at one point, one of the engineers there. And Jon-Erik Burleson, myself, Keith Engel, some local guys. There was like eight of us and some other friends. And we deep fried some turkeys. And so, the next year, we had like 25 and then it was 50, and then it was a hundred and something.
And then I started talking to Mark Kind, I'm like … Mark was working for KTM. I said, “Hey Mark, why don't you bring some bikes out for these guys to ride from the dealer, so people can get a chance to demo KTM and just see how good they are.” Because I loved mine, early 2000s, I had a 400 and made a 470 auto with a Wiseco big boy kid. The thing was just a blast.
And so, Mark started bringing bikes out and that's where the KTM demo program started. Now, it's the largest off-road demo in the country.
Dave Sulecki: I can't imagine they draw I don't know how many people every year to the Crow Canyon event. It's huge. I mean, everybody talks about, “Are you going to the Turkey ride? Going to the Turkey ride?” So, it's definitely lived on, and we appreciate that.
And as we wrap up here, Steve, I want to get your take. I wouldn't say you're totally an outsider in the industry, but you're working outside of the industry, but how do you see the power sports industry today as maybe that's somewhat of an outsider looking in.
Steve Johnson: Yeah. I saw the growth of it, just how wild it got with COVID because people couldn't do anything. So, we had a lot of new entries coming in, which I thought was just fantastic. And I was hoping that we could maintain a lot of that activity. And I'm hoping that that has continued.
And I think the Turkey Run this year, we had a thousand plus riders come through the gate and buy a wristband to go riding in two days, which that's a good testament that it's pretty healthy for just a fun event. That is not a race.
So, we got all sorts of people participating. ATV, side-by-sides, Moto guys, there's guys that just come out strictly Moto, and then we got woods guys and it's a good mixture of everything.
So, I think that that side of it, on the recreational side, it's strong. I haven't been to a local race to see how many people are showing up there, but I know with the demise of the two-stroke, which is totally just driven by the size of the four-strokes. If they made them a 400 and a 200 and kept at that size, we probably would still have a lot of two-strokes racing.
But the torque was just too much better on those bigger motors. So, it just took that 16-year-old kid in his pickup truck out of the equation. I was looking at getting a new 300. $10,000 for a new 300. I about fell out of my chair.
Dave Sulecki: Yeah, they definitely have not gone down in price, I would agree. And we don't know where it's headed. And I think your analogy is accurate that it's healthy on the recreation side.
Kind of have some concerns myself about the racing side where it's headed because you see participation is a little bit down on the local level. Do you follow any of the professional, you check in on any racing throughout the year?
Steve Johnson: Oh yeah. I watch every outdoor, every Supercross. I'm a Ken Roczen fan. Mainly just from the heart of that guy and what he's overcome with his injuries. The fact that he wants to get out of bed and race just blows my mind.
Dave Sulecki: You following the Roczen drama that's been going on.
Steve Johnson: Oh, yeah. The sign with Suzuki and I'm excited for him because he's won his championships on Suzukis. He came to the USA on a Suzuki. I think Joesph Czernik brought him over. So, yeah. So, I watch all the local races or the Pro Supercross and outdoors and so I won't miss any of those.
And I try to show up at one. When they had Muddy Creek, I'd go to that one every year because that was the closest one for me.
Dave Sulecki: Yeah. And I don't know what the next closest one's going to be. Maybe Atlanta Supercross might be not too far. Because I don't think they do the Charlotte event anymore.
Steve Johnson: We wanted to go to that Atlanta race, and I might make it down for that. So, that would be a fun one because it's Atlanta Motor Speedway, not the stadium.
Dave Sulecki: Gotcha. Gotcha. Well, definitely, I hope you get out to one and stay in touch with the industry. And as we wrap up today, is there anybody you want to give shoutouts to?
Steve Johnson: Yeah, thanks. Just all our sponsors, Wiseco and Cometic. Cometic's been with us since day one at both of my events. The Spring Break Ride, it'll be May 6th and 7th up at Brushy Mountain Motorsports Park. And I think you've been there before, Dave.
It's a pretty epic place to ride if you not … it's got a motocross track, but it's really not geared for motor. It's primarily an off-road park, but 2000 acres roughly of single track and ATV and side-by-side trail.
So, whatever you bring there, you're good to go at all different levels. You can scare the hell out of yourself or ride the bunny trails and just have a great time with your family either way.
60 Helmets, the list goes on and on of people that have supported us — Klotz and Moose. Moose has been with us since day one and gosh, it's just great, great companies that we've worked with, and they've really taken good care of us.
Also, with the Aerovoltz batteries that I have for the airplanes, I'm launching a sister company called Motorvolts. It's Motorvolts with an S at the end instead of a Z. So, keep an eye out for that new website coming out and a new product line to get me back into the power sports industry, maybe into some distribution at some point.
Dave Sulecki: Let's hope so. The industry misses you, Steve, and they'd welcome you back with open arms, no doubt. And man, we really appreciate you taking some time and coming on today and telling your story.
Dale Spangler: We're Steve Johnson fans, for sure.
Dave Sulecki: We should definitely do this again and tell some more stories. Maybe we'll keep them maybe PG. Even though we are a podcast, we could probably get away with it. We've got our reputations to protect.
Steve Johnson: Absolutely.
Dave Sulecki: We'll change the names to protect the innocent for sure.
Steve Johnson: Right, right.
Dave Sulecki: Alright, man. Thanks for your time and we really appreciate you coming on.
Steve Johnson: Thanks guys. I really enjoyed it. Thank you so much, and you guys take care and I really appreciate the time today. It was awesome.
Dave Sulecki: If you enjoyed this episode, make sure to follow Pit Pass Moto on your favorite podcast app, so you never miss an episode. If you have a moment, please rate and review our show, we’d really appreciate it.
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Dale Spangler: This has been a production of Evergreen Podcasts. A special thank you to Tommy Boy Halverson and the production team at Wessler Media. I’m Dale Spangler.
Dave Sulecki: And I’m Dave Sulecki. See you next week on Pit Pass Moto.