Ricky Russell – AmPro Yamaha Factory GNCC Racer
In this episode, Dale is joined by AmPro Yamaha Factory Off-road Team racer Ricky Russell. He discusses his preseason preparation coming into this year's GNCC Championship. Then he shares his path to east coast off-road racing despite growing up in Washington state on the West Coast.
Welcome to Pit Pass Moto, the show that brings you deep dive interviews with the motorcycle industry insiders and racers that make the sport move. I'm Dale Spangler and this episode's guest is GNCC and Enduro Racer for the AmPro Yamaha Factory Off-road Team, Ricky Russell.
This episode is brought to you by MotoAmerica, home of AMA Superbike Racing, and North America's premier motorcycle road racing series. Watch every round of the 2023 series with MotoAmerica Live + video-on-demand streaming service. Or visit the MotoAmerica YouTube channel for race highlights and original video content.
For the complete 2023 Moto America schedule, head to motoamerica.com or follow MotoAmerica on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for real-time series updates.
Let's get started.
Ricky Russell, welcome to Pit Pass Moto. I think I know what you're up to today, but what's going on?
I was actually in the middle of riding, it’s two o'clock I'm here in Florida and just trying some different shocks right now, actually. So, just trying to get ready for this sport around. Everything's a little bit dryer, hotter and softer down here.
Yeah, for sure. And it looks like you've got a fun crew that you've been hanging out with. I watched your recent video from a couple weeks back where you were kind of just getting to Florida and starting to train. It looks like you guys are having some fun times.
Yeah, that got cut short a little bit for me, unfortunately because I ended up hurting myself. But it was awesome. We Airbnb-ed a house and we were right there in Claremont area. It was just the middle of everything.
We had all the people down there trying to ride, so lots of tracks. We were able to hook up with Zach Osborne a lot, and he showed us some places and we showed him some of our backwards off-road stuff.
So, it's been good. We've had a good crew, good group of guys that all want to do better. And we all push each other, so it's been awesome.
So, here we are after three years, you're with the Coastal, started Husqvarna then GasGas, so for the last three years. And then we had this dejavu moment for you where you're back with the AmPro Yamaha team and a familiar group of faces.
So, how did this all come about? Where you're back with the team that I know you had pretty good success with in the past?
Yeah, I was with AmPro for ‘17, ‘18, ‘19, so I was with them for three years. They were awesome to me. They were always great people, great group of guys to work with, but they've definitely escalated their level of competition and support since I've been there.
So, now coming back it's kind of a refreshment. I'm back with my friends that I was with before and kind of started this whole thing with and now they're even more backing it.
So, just everything's really good with them so far. I left for three years, which was kind of like a little bit bittersweet, but like I said, we always kept a good relationship.
But rode with Coastal for three years and they were great too. There's always pluses and minuses at every team, so I just wanted to try something different and got to ride the Austrian machine for three years and it was good. Like I said, there's positives and negatives and now it's a refreshment coming back, so yeah, it's exciting.
Well, it seems like a great time for you to come back to the blue crew because I've just heard nothing but good things about that ‘23 YZ450F and from what I understand, this is the first year that you're being allowed to race the F model instead of the FX in off-road competition.
So, tell us a little bit about that. It's got to be a fun bike to get on that thing and ride a full moto bike and if anything you probably have to detune it, maybe for the woods, I would assume.
No doubt. I jumped on this thing, like you said, that's super exciting for me because like you said, it was perfect timing. They came out with this new model and everyone's a little leery about new models, but since I'm switching back to Yamaha, I didn't even know, because last one I rode was ‘19. I rode a FX, which it was a big bike, it was a big unit.
So, immediately jumping on this new one, I was just like, “Holy cow.” It was a rocket ship, really fast and didn't feel big and heavy. So, I was super pleased.
And then, yeah, once I started getting more comfortable, I actually, yeah, did smooth it out, kind of detuned it a little bit just off the bottom a little bit, little smoother and more manageable for the woods.
Fun factor, it was really fun when I had it set up for like moto, but for us for three hours I had to smooth it out a little bit. It's super easy to do because the phone, you just connect the phone right to it and literally, you could just change the mapping within 30 seconds. So, that's a cool part.
And then watching Tomac go out and just kill everyone, I was like, “Well, the bike must not be bad.” So, once I started fine tuning things and getting things down there, it's been awesome.
Yeah, as quick as Tomac seemed to pick up that new bike, as we all seen with KTM over the last year, they had some struggles. Whereas, so with Yamaha coming out with this new bike, you just kind of have this in the back of your mind, “Is it going to be the same?”
But wow, they just seemed like they nailed it. Like you were saying, everybody's saying the bike feels thin and I think I even saw where you were able to put a oversized tank and you can't even tell.
Yeah, exactly. When they change the models totally, completely, everyone's always excited because it's new, but then we're always wondering, is it going to be good? Is it going to work and it's working great.
And then, yeah, IMS has got the new tank for us pretty quickly and that's my favorite part because back when I rode Yamaha's you had the dry break right in your groin area and sometimes it didn't feel so good. You land on that thing wrong or whatever and it — yeah, it would knock the breath out of you and you'd be hurting for a little while.
So, we are still able to run the seat, the detachable part of the seat, which hopefully in the future someone will design one. But we have one for our race bike that is the dry brake cap and the seat all in one.
So, you pull the seat, you're pulling the dry brake cap and it's just as quick as a normal dry brake. Looking at the bike, you can't even really tell there's a big tank on it. It's not like the KTMs or some of the other models where you look at them and the tank hangs down two feet almost one side or whatever. It's like you can barely tell.
So, really cool. Really cool, that part about the bike. I was really happy that we get to run the seat mainly.
Definitely. Well overall it sounds like it was a pretty good off season for you, minus the little hiccup. I understand you broke your collarbone not long before the opening round, but yet you're able to rebound somehow and after only four weeks and land back on the podium at round one.
Yeah, ended the season last year with a win and so I was on a high note and just switching teams, new bike, new everything and the bike's been so great, like I was saying and just on a high, everything's been good and came down to Florida and just everything's been clicking, I thought.
XC’s really got us dialed with their suspension and one little mishap and over the bars and broke my collar bone. So yeah, it was like, oh, I was really bummed and just really frustrated because I had I think exactly four weeks, two days from when I broke it, to round one.
And I was just bummed because we have a program kind of … we all do it, everyone does it, comes down to Florida and gets in the heat and just, you got kind a six-week window of a boot camp to really ramp up your training and get ready for round one. And I was really bummed because I was only two weeks in and did that.
So, to be able to rebound, I still was able to train and I did a lot of cardio and a lot of other stuff and just slowly got back going, so I didn't miss out on too much luckily. And we were able to make it happen and get on the box at round one.
So, the goal is just to keep getting stronger. I was really worried about round one, not knowing where I'd be with this hiccup and then being able to come in and get on the box and be competitive the whole day, I was excited. So, now with another two more weeks, there's no reason we can't be stronger.
Yeah. So, I was just going to say, coming off of your third overall performance last year, like you're saying you ended the season with a win, so it has to be just a huge confidence boost for you to come into round two after landing on the podium at round one with the broken collarbone only four weeks ago. So yeah, it's got to be a huge boost for you coming into this second round.
That's exactly it. Like I just said, I was not sure with round one. So, when we're competitive, being I guess a little bit injured, it wasn't real big hindrance but I was fighting a little bit, it was a little weak, a little bit sore.
So, to get through that three hours and be there, which Ben Kelley was who I was battling with the whole day, same thing, he's dealing with a leg injury, so kind of wild. I think both of us weren't real sure how round one was going to go.
So, for that to happen, yeah, I think we should be competitive. We should be competitive all year.
Are you pulling out of any PG like the National Enduro series and the Sprint Enduro or is you just going to kind of end up missing a few rounds from the injury?
So, I just missed round one, Sumter at the National Enduro. I kept saying to Randy, the team manager, I kept telling him, “Man, I think I could ride.” And he was like, “No, we're not going to risk it.”
And in the long run it was smart because the Enduros are tight, Sumter especially, you're kind of leaving and bobbing through trees and everyone's shoulders on their jerseys are always torn. You're always clipping trees with your shoulders, not even …
So, it was smart not to. But yeah, I missed one round because I finished that series pretty strong last year too with three or four podiums consistently and the last round was the second place behind Toth.
So, I was looking forward to being competitive in that one as well because that was kind of a learning curve to get good at those. It was a little bit different and last year we were starting to prove that we were a contender there too.
So yeah, missing one round. Hopefully we can get back in it and just be consistent. It's not as long of a series but last year, Stu broke his neck, missed a round and he was still in it at the end. He was second or third in the championship and he was right there. So, missing one round suck, but we should be okay.
We'll get back to the conversation in one moment, but first here's a word from our sponsor.
Let's change directions slightly and talk a little bit about your background because I think you have a unique, interesting story. You race on the East Coast primarily, but you grew up in Washington state. So, I'm curious to know, first off, how did you get your start riding and racing?
It's kind of funny. I started really late racing. I started riding when I was three or four, like the typical young moto kid who's trying to get into it or who’s dad's trying to get him into it.
But I just had no pressure ever to go race or anything. My family and friends, we grew up camping in the mountains in Washington and trail riding every weekend, we'd go trail riding and go on big camping adventures with, we had my family and a few other groups of families and friends just, we would get together weekend after weekend.
And I didn't do my first race until I was actually 16, once I could drive, I drove to my first race, it was a hare scramble, a local one in Washington and I had a friend at school that was like, “You need to come try one of these,” and did it.
And I think I raced 200 B or something my first time and it was two and a half hours long. And man, it was a supper fest but I won and I was just from then on hooked.
So, the next year I raced the whole local series in Washington and I won whatever that was, I think it was 200 A.
And then the next year I went to the local pro scene and battled for the championship all that year. And then I ended up winning that championship four years in a row and people, everyone was like, you need to go try to do something bigger and better.
And so, I was late to the game but then also I think it kind of helped with burnout. I was just so into it and it went from our families and friends all camping and trail riding to all camping and racing.
We had a huge group of us all doing local racing. And then I finally tried to do some national stuff and we tried some West Coast stuff here and there, some works in the Hare and Hounds and I think it was like 2011, I was going to do the Hare and Hounds and ended up doing the first round and I got sixth or seventh overall. That was when Caselli was doing them and he was just smoking everyone.
And I was happy with that but I was going to do the whole season and the next round I ended up out in the middle of desert, big crash, lacerated my spleen.
So, that was a setback and then I was just like, “Man, I don't want to do this desert stuff or these this fast West Coast stuff anymore.” Because Washington's real a woodsy, all we race is woods. So, when I went and had to do the West Coast national scene, it was like all deserty and fast and just not my style.
So finally, I actually healed up from that and saved up all our money for a whole year just working, I think 2012, got ahold of Jason Raines at the end of 2012 and it was kind of because of him and Randy Hawkins in the first place, I was able to stay in, we called it the bunk house in 2013.
It was Randy's shop essentially, we threw an air mattress on the floor and he let us stay there and got thrown in the ring of fire with Paul Whibley. So, I was able to train with him every day and kind of see what it was all about.
And it was me and my girlfriend at the time. We load up my van and just came over there and slowly kept escalating year after year. I started XC1 with just no support and I got smoked. It was an eye-opener. I was like, “Holy cow, this is a whole nother level.”
And then got support for XC2 for two years and we were competitive for that championship both years and just slight injuries. I had a wrist injury the first year. Me and Grant were battling it out and it was summer break, coming back from summer break, I think we were like tied in points. We were really close. And then coming back a week before I broke a wrist and had to drop out. So, I ended up second.
And the next year I ended up breaking the opposite wrist, two rounds in. So, just stupid injuries in XC2. But we were showed that we had speed.
And then I did my own support thing through MCS in Indiana for Suzuki actually, 2016 and went back to XC1 and we struggled, it was me and Chris Douglas with the XC Obemeyer team and we struggled kind half the year and then got things clicking and ended up on the box a lot towards the end of the year.
And that was when I first signed with Randy Hawkins. So, then you heard the rest, it was kind of a circle from there.
That's unreal. I had this thought that it might have been a little bit of Jason Raines because him being a fellow Washingtonian, if that's correct, from the state of Washington. But yeah because I was like, “You've been doing this a long time, so you're 10 years in now from starting in 2013 of XC1 competition.”
So, you're kind of a journeyman. So, I feel like everything you're saying, this sort of buildup, coming back to AmPro Yamaha, it kind of seems like this might be the year for you to chase down the title. I would assume that's probably your plan.
Yeah, that's the plan. That's the feeling. It's just, like I said, been a big circle and kind of feel back at home and the vibes are good. Everyone's real motivated and everything's been yeah, good.
Jason Raines and Randy, they all live in Travelers' Rest and that's kind of where I lived for five, six years, actually eight years. And it was kind of like I didn't know anything different.
But then now after living to other places, now I feel like I'm back home. And Washington's still home, but my East Coast home, Travelers’ Rest is really that area where the AmPro Yamaha's out of and just familiar with it and I think it feels like home and with this group of guys and the new bike and everything just working and now we're back healthy. I'm thinking it's our year to shine.
For sure. So, it sounds like you kind of split your time, you're primarily on the East Coast, but then you go back to Washington when you're not racing. And so, each year you kind of have this sort of move from Washington, drive across the country to Florida, and then you're probably there for the season, I assume.
Yeah, so the first however many years it was, yeah, every year driving the Motovan, the Chevy Express across the country every year.
But the last, pretty much since I've been with Coastal, kind of gave up on that. I'm over that drive. It sucks. I luckily have acquired enough stuff and have a camper and vehicles on the East Coast. So, I fly back summertime, I usually go back July, just go visit family and ride at home and kind of bring myself back to my roots. It's always fun to go trail ride again in the mountains and just nothing like it.
But from Idaho and all that. Just the mountains and stuff around there is just, there's nothing like it. So, try to go home when I can, but it's mainly just July and then the winter from the end of October or November to back to January.
So, definitely more on the East Coast than the West Coast now. But yeah, still try to go back and forth but no more driving. I'm over that.
How cool is it though? You're 10 years in and you've been able to make a decent living to where I assume you don't have to have another job on the side. But that's got to feel pretty good to be able to support yourself and just keep this going for as long as you have.
No doubt, when I first came over here I was spending every single penny I ever had, which wasn't much at the time, never had much money. So, it's essentially a dream come true. Off-road is always hard cuz we don't make the big bucks like the Moto guys. But yeah you can make a living, so it's really cool to essentially make my dream come true.
What do you think has been a couple of the biggest things that have evolved in off-road/GNCC racing over the last 10 years? Overall the pace just seems like it's absolutely blistering for you guys in a three-hour long GNCC these days.
It's crazy because when I jumped into it, it was like everyone was way fast, then I wasn't used to it. But once I got to that level, it just keeps going. Every year I feel like everyone's ramping up to essentially the KR level because Caleb was always one level ahead of everyone else for those eight years.
So now, he's got his program training people and there's other people who have been with Aldon who I've trained with like Tyler Rattray, I trained with in 2020. It essentially I guess relates to Aldon Baker's style and then now kind of converting over to the off-road side where everyone just keeps ramping it up, their fitness level gets better and better, which with that our speed gets better and better longer.
So, I don't think the initial speed is way better, but now we're just doing that for the three hours. We're going as fast as we can for three hours. And there's still a little bit in your head, you have to race for three hours so you're kind of a little bit of a pace but it's a blistering pace, and just keeps evolving because everyone just keeps getting fitter. And with technology, the bikes are so good, it's nuts.
So, is there a most memorable race or win throughout that 10-year long career you've had?
For sure. So, my most memorable ever would be Snowshoe 2017, which was with AmPro and it was my first ever XC1 win and that was just super exciting. I felt awesome all day and it actually ended up being me and my teammate battling down to the last mile and he was XC2 at the time, which was Josh Toth.
He was in front of me and I was able to get by him in the last Howard’s mud hole. And so, from there it was pretty much ski slopes back up to the finish. That would've been the most memorable. And then there's some other ones that are right up there, but that was the biggest one.
My first XC2 win was in Indiana and I'll always remember that one but it wasn't nearly as exciting as XC1.
And then this year, because from then I didn't get another win. Just multiple injuries, just lots of issues over the years and never got another win, was really close multiple times, but Caleb always slipped it away from me right at the end.
So, I didn't get another one until last year. Ended up getting Mount Morris, which was really, really emotional and cool to get that win at Mount Morris. I was going through … I had a best friend who just passed away and it was just really cool how it all happened.
Now you've definitely done some cool things. I think you've been on the ISDE team a couple times and then you've been able to go over to the JNCC, the Japanese Cross Country Championships. So, you've been able to do some cool stuff as part of that AmPro Squad, haven't you?
Pretty cool, pretty cool where your motorcycle will take you. Yeah. So, I got to go with — because Randy's really close with them, so I got to go do a fun, it was eight-hour team race in Japan. That was fun.
It was different because we had Japanese teammates and we couldn't communicate. So, trying to figure out when we were switching riders and doing whatnot, it was just fun. It was different. So, that was cool. The language barrier kind of made things tricky.
And then I got to go for GNCC because they used to send someone every year as well and that was fun, Japan's cool.
And then I went to Portugal once. So, I've only been to Six Days once, but I just wanted to do it and check out the list to go and do it and it was really cool too. So, really cool where my motorcycle has brought me.
Any other plans like that for this year? Maybe going back and trying a Six Days or anything like that?
I thought about it, but my main focus, I don't want to focus on Six Days this year. I want to focus on that GNCC Championship and then hopefully do well in Enduros. I just want to be there for that GNCC Championship. I'm just kind of just really focused on that.
Well, one other thing I thought I'd mentioned, I saw on your social media that it looks like you're going to be … congratulations you're going to be getting married this summer to your longtime girlfriend.
And yeah that's one of those things where I feel like you got to have a good partner supporting you when you go to the races and that just makes a huge difference.
And it sounds like you've got good situation going, where your girlfriend really supports you in all your racing endeavors.
For sure. No, yeah. July, so I got like four or five months to maybe back out. No, I'm just kidding. But yeah, no, she's awesome. She's been around for many years, six, seven years now. We're going on seven and yeah, it's kind of cool.
That's definitely a big step, get married, but I don't think in the long run anything's really going to change because we've been together for so long already. But yeah, she's been behind me. She's lived on the East Coast with me. We've done it a lot where she's in Washington, she visits a lot, so we kind of make it work, so it's definitely cool that she's that supportive and lets me or allows me to keep chasing the dreams.
Absolutely. I think I saw a few of your photos look like you might have snapped some at Cannon Beach, which my wife and I went there on our honeymoon. It's one of our favorite places on earth, Cannon Beach, Oregon. So, I think I saw a couple of snaps with the Haystack Rock in the background, so it must have been when you were back home.
That's actually where I proposed, was Haystack Rock, so-
No way. Oh wow.
Yeah, yeah. That's funny. But yeah, we were home, it was wintertime, so it wasn't as pretty, but it's a cool area. I grew up — my parents, we would go down there quite often just as kids and go to the beach and stuff and really cool area.
So, I kind of tricked her and brought her there in the winter and made it happen in front of some Christmas lights and Haystack Rock in the background. So, it was cool.
Well Ricky, I really appreciate your time today and I just feel like there's a lot of good positive vibes going for you this year, coming into this GNCC season. You got another round coming up this weekend. Wish you nothing but the best. I think it might be your season to shine. Any last words you'd like to share at this moment or shout outs you'd like to give?
No, I appreciate the call, I appreciate the support. Yeah, I think the motivation is there and just loving how things are going besides that one little hiccup. We got the injury out of the way earlier this year. So, yeah. Thanks for having me on. I appreciate it.
If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to follow Pit Pass Moto on your favorite podcast listening app, so you never miss an episode. And if you have a moment, please rate and review our show. We'd appreciate it.
You can also follow us on social media or visit pitpassmoto.com where you can listen to past episodes and purchase your very own pit Pass Moto swag.
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. I hope you'll join us next week for another episode of Pit Pass Moto. Thanks for listening.