[Yamaha]

INTERVIEW: RYAN VILLOPOTO

3 weeks ago | Words: Eric Johnson | Photos: Monster Energy

22 years is a lot of time. That’s how long ago it was when this writer met Ryan Villopoto for the very first time. The year was 2002, and a then totally unknown 13-year-old minicycle racer named Ryan Villopoto had just fiercely battled Factory Honda minicycle racer Mike Alessi in the 85cc Modified (9-13) moto at the 21st Annual AMA Amateur National Motocross Championship. Stunned by Villopoto’s performance on the Brothers Powersports 85cc Yamaha YZ80, I managed to find him way back in Area 3, where the teenager was fishing by himself between motos. Well, a decade and two years removed from the Hurricane Mills meeting, one Ryan Villopoto called time on one of the most spectacular and successful AMA Pro Racing careers of all time after he ran his very last race at the Las Vegas Supercross on May 3, 2014. By the time all was said and done for Villopoto, he had amassed four Monster Energy Supercross Championships, two AMA 450MX Championships, three AMA 250cc Motocross Championships, and had been a member of Team USA in winning Motocross of Nations titles in 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2011. But that was all then, and this is now. At last Saturday’s AMA Pro Motocross opening round at Fox Raceway in Pala, California, Villopoto was sitting on the stairs of the Monster Energy/Pro Circuit/Kawasaki 18-wheeler and taking it all in when I approached him with my recorder on. In a talking mood and with a little bit of time on his hands, RV gave me the nod when I asked him if he’d be up for an interview. Well, here it is!

Okay, my man, just what are you doing here out at Fox Raceway in Pala, California?
Well, we’re here at the first National and here at Pala. I came in here on Thursday and parked with the truck and the motorhome, so I’ve been camping since Thursday. My family came out yesterday and we had a nice little T-ball game going last night. Always good vibes, you know? First National. I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors and it’s good to be back here, you know?

You’re a legend and a champion and you came out here to be a fan, huh?
Yeah, exactly. Yeah, I came to just hang out. I have no real obligations at all. I live in Newport Beach, so this is the closest race for us. To be able to come out and camp and also bring the family and the kids out to really experience it is really good. We don’t just drive in and drive out. I didn’t really get to do that as a kid. I went to Washougal and the Seattle Supercross when it was in the Kingdome and stuff, but honestly, it all happened very quickly. It’s cool for me to be able to give this experience to my kids. I always tell my mom that if my kids want to go and race, it is a ton of work and a ton of commitment. I’ve now lived it from the bottom to the very top and I feel like we can do it a different way. A big part of that is financially driven. I don’t essentially have a real day job. My dad spent every dime that he had to go race, right? He’d go to work and we’d go race and then he’d go back to work to make the money to go racing again. If we do it, and if they would like to do it, I feel like we can do it better and we can have more fun at it. However, if you want to be good at anything, you have to take it super seriously. I feel like we can balance it out better than my dad did when I was coming up. And a lot of it has to do with the reality that I started at the bottom and made it to the top. Now I know the trajectory and I know I have a roadmap to the top.

Man, the first time I met you at Loretta Lynn’s in 2002, nobody even knew who you were. That day, I had to ask Jimmy Button who you even were.
Yeah, yeah, totally. We had some fairly good support at the time like Yamaha. In 2003, we switched over to Team Green and that was much more support, and the trajectory from there was to hope to be under the Pro Circuit tent, and all that worked out. That’s basically what set off the trajectory of my professional career. I was able to surround myself with good people.

Pro Circuit lit the match for you, didn’t it?
It did. It did. Coming up in 2006 and 2007 and 2008, there were still other options out there, but at the time, Pro Circuit was, and still is, the pinnacle of where you want to be, and I was lucky enough to be able to be picked up by these guys. I wasn’t a prodigy that came in and was just going to fit right in here. I still had to work for it. Now things are much more progressed and they’re signing young guys way out. Some guys are being signed when they’re on Superminis or 125s. It’s just the evolution of the sport.

I was around you when you were racing 80s and then moved up to the big bikes. Even then I could see how serious you were with your racing. It took everything, huh?
Yeah, it does. These guys give it everything they have, too. I can’t take anything away from them. I do think there is, or was, a different mentality with Ricky and myself. I don’t want to use the phrase “never say die.” Not that it’s not everything to these guys, because it still is, but I just think that our mentality was a little bit more old school than it is today. Obviously, being here under the Pro Circuit tent for three years early on in my career, there have been a lot of good memories. 2007 was a good year for me when I was teamed with Ben Townley. We were young and dumb, and that was fun. If I had to say what my most fun and enjoyable years were as a pro, I’d have to say those three years were my most enjoyable. In 2009 I moved to the 450cc class and ran it up the ladder there. It got more serious. The pressure got more and the money got to be more. All of that added more pressure. I became an adult, essentially.

Even at a very young age, there is a lot of pressure and expectation to face in this world, isn’t there?
There is. And at a young age, too. I’ll use RJ Anderson as an example. He just won his west coast championship at 28 years of age. It was a phenomenal season for him. But his trajectory was totally different than mine. Mentally, he’s way more mature and he’s older and he deals with those pressures a lot differently than if he was 23 or 24 or 25 years old, like I was. I was still pretty young when I went to the 450 class. We dealt with a lot of stuff at a very young age.

All things considered, are you happy with what you accomplished and achieved in the sport as a professional?
I couldn’t ask for more. There were a few decisions that maybe I could have changed for the better. Honestly, I can’t go back and look at it all and really change anything. I should have potentially moved teams. I still love everybody over at Kawasaki, but maybe I should have moved just for something different and maybe that would have prolonged my career a few years.

Where would you have gone?
I don’t know. There was no option to go anywhere else. No money was remotely close to what Kawasaki was paying me. But for me, I’m one of those guys that doesn’t go back and dwell on things, you know? I had an amazing career and made a ton of money and put myself in a great position now to be retired and be able to do the things that I like to do now.

You won four supercross titles. Great memories?
Totally. I would say the first title was the easiest for the 450 class. It was still hard because I hadn’t done it. To do something for the first time is always tough, but then to repeat and then to do three in a row after that to make it four was hard. Each title got harder and harder to win. Mentally it got harder. Everybody wants a piece and you put more pressure on yourself with a “When am I going to lose?” type of mentality. Even though you know that you haven’t changed anything and you know you have gotten better from the years past. You have a target on your back.

What do you think of the sport and all that goes with it here in 2024?
I think the sport is in a great spot with SMX and Pro Motocross and FELD partnering with everyone and coming together. And the riders that we have, Jett and Hunter Lawrence and Jason Anderson and all of our participants that are racing as athletes, are excellent. They’re doing a way better job than we did of getting outside of the box and showing personality. I’ve heard some of the numbers involving the sport and it’s growing. We’ve got Triumph and Ducati coming into the sport now. It shows you that they see the value in the sport. It’s growing. The money hasn’t changed a ton, but that will follow suit here soon.

So what have you been up to as of late?
Myself, I did the two-Stroke World Championship out at Glen Helen with Fasthouse. It was good. In the first moto, I had to blow some cobwebs out, for sure. It was a bit rough. In the second moto, I pulled the holeshot and was able to lead a couple of laps and ended up third. I was stoked on that. Last weekend we had a bLU cRU event out at Glen Helen again. That was a lot of fun. Working with Yamaha has been a real blessing. I’m just keeping myself busy between that and the kids. The sport is tough, but I wouldn’t change anything. I’m sitting very pretty at 35 years old.

Thanks for your time, my friend. Your dad Dan has to be smiling down on you and the great life you lead.
Totally. It’s been a great career.

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