There’s an age-old question we hear almost daily, “How do you get into the industry?”. Fans go to their local supercross or national and see the semi’s, the immaculate motorcycles, the hustle and bustle going on behind the tent and they want to be a part of it. There is no one perfect way to get your foot in the door. One trait inevitably factors in every time. That’s ‘grinding’. You must work for it. And usually from the bottom. You have to be willing to go without financial abundance and live the life of moto. Derek “Jericho” Rankin did that for years. But like Ric Flair said, “if ya wanna be the man, ya have to beat the man”. So, Derek worked his butt off to move up through the industry with the goal of being the best mechanic in the pits. We visited with him to hear his story and what’s next for him. I give you the gift of Jericho. Drink it in, man!
For the full audio interview, hit hit the YouTube video here. To read through the condensed version, just scroll a little farther.
Jamie "Darkside" Guida - Vital MX: Before we get into you being back at the races with the BBMX team, let's go back to how you got in the industry. I know you were an MMI graduate and at some point you reached out to Tony Alessi as I recall.
Derek Rankin: Yeah, while finishing at MMI, I knew motocross was what I wanted to do. I wasn't interested in working at a dealership. While I was there, I tried to network as much as I could. As you know, it's a very tight knit community and it's hard to break into it. I had befriended Tony on Facebook. I just messaged him to tell him a little about myself and what I wanted to do. Luckily, he replied and gave me his phone number. We talked a little bit but it didn't really turn into too much for me. It was more just getting advice from him. That advice helped me with how to break in. From there, I drove up to Atlanta Supercross in 2013. I had a Muscle Milk Honda pit shirt I bought, and my roommate had a Yoshimura Suzuki shirt. We took our MMI lanyards and made them look like credentials. We walked into the pits at the Georgia Dome, and I just talked to people asking for advice. I figured that was the biggest thing, just getting advice. Questions like, “how do you get someone to trust you to hand you their expensive motorcycle and just let you go to town on it?”.
Vital MX: Who were you asking these questions to?
Rankin: I remember talking to a few Pro Circuit guys, Erik Kehoe at Honda, I don't remember anyone else in particular. I don't remember going up to somebody that I now know personally and have been around in the paddock, luckily. That would probably be a little embarrassing. I got some good advice. And that day I met Gus Decker with Team Gus. He was the guy that let me in and took me to the races. That was the biggest thing, just being at the races every week and showing your face. People get to know you from that. Two weeks after I graduated MMI I was at my very first race working. I did not wrench for anyone. My stepdad dropped me off at Thunder Valley on Friday morning. We drove down from Indiana. I dropped my stuff off at Gus’s motor home and my stepdad said, “see ya later” and I've been at the races ever since.
Vital MX: Who was the first rider you wrenched for?
Rankin: He was a Russian rider, Evgeny Mikhaylov. He was #95 on a KTM and our first race together was Millville in 2013. I believe it was Friday night at Millville and Gus asked, “hey Derek, how would you like to work for a top 20 rider?”. I heard the words top 20 and thought, “Wow!! Yes, I would love that!”. I met Evgeny that night and the next day I was on the line with him. I finished out the season with him.
Vital MX: How did you start working for Alex Ray?
Rankin: I did 2015 with Noah McConahy at Team BWR for outdoors. That's how I met Alex. After Red Bud we had a break and Alex said he'd pay me to come down to Tennessee to help him. I finished the outdoors with Noah that year. But going into Supercross in 2016 I jumped on board with Alex because we hit it off so well. That offseason we put together the Spider Energy Honda deal. It was surprising how gnarly the schedule is. The workload for one guy. Take this with a grain of salt because it is Alex Ray. You are going to have to replace a lot more parts than most people. There were nights like at San Diego we were up until 4 a.m. on Thursday night putting a crank in an engine. Then driving down to San Diego to park and set up. That's the stuff no one gets. We did all 17 rounds of Supercross and we were lucky we had a good sponsor with us. I then did outdoors with Freddie Noren.
Vital MX: In 2017 you made the move to the Rocky Mountain KTM Team with Forrest Butler. Talk about that.
Rankin: I had heard rumblings that Rocky Mountain was jumping over to Butler Brothers that year. You also hear every year what spots are opening for mechanics. One of the spots was to work for Benny Bloss. The only way to get a job is to walk over and get it. So at one of the races, I went over and introduced myself to J.R, who was the Crew Chief. It helped that I was working with Freddie because the more a rider gets noticed, the more his mechanic gets noticed. They can see that your bike isn't falling apart every week. So, Monster Cup in 2016 was my first race with the team.
Vital MX: You parted ways with the team in 2020 to support Benny Bloss in a full privateer effort. Why step away from the safety of a fairly successful team?
Rankin: Benny had been filling in for Justin Bogle in Supercross that year. That is still his best SX season to date. He won a heat race and qualified inside the top give a few times. He was the fastest and smoothest I'd ever seen him. It was also the start of Covid, and we had all this time to prepare for outdoors. We got the KTM super dialed, and he was the most comfortable he'd ever been. As we got closer to racing outdoors Justin Bogle decided to come back. He's one of my best friends but I knew Benny was just ripping. I felt he could be top 5 if he could figure out a way to get a start. That was my main reason. I liked the team and everyone on it. I knew I needed to stick behind Benny, or he would lose all his momentum. The season went the exact opposite of how we thought it would. We had a lot of stupid issues with the motorcycle. I was over it. I thought I was done with motocross.
Vital MX: Did Star Yamaha save the day?
Rankin: I knew I needed to get back on a team to help me have fun again. I reached out to Wil Hahn and the job with Christian Craig was offered. Those guys are there to win races and that's all they care about. I love them for that. It's why I get up every day. I want to be the best in the world. I enjoyed that year a bunch. It wasn't a matter of 'if' were going to win races, but how many. Now I know that feeling and what I'm chasing. I know it's worth it.
Vital MX: That led into another opportunity and career decision for 2022. The position of Crew Chief at Rocky Mountain KTM was offered to you. Did you feel that was the next step in your career?
Rankin: Yeah, that's how I always saw it progress in my mind. I'm tired of putting the motorcycle together. I love testing, figuring out the bike, talking to sponsors and everything a crew chief does. And I like working with people and helping younger mechanics. I struggled with it because I knew Christian was going to win the championship. How do you walk away from that? Do I let this crew chief position pass me by? They don't open often. Ultimately, I felt if I could go build something and I went and did it. It had a very good trajectory. Unfortunately, me and the 'other guy' could not see eye to eye. I couldn't get passed it and I literally just left. I'm not proud of the way I left. At the time that's what I needed to do.
Vital MX: You spent some time away from the sport and worked with Andretti Motorsports. Now, it seems it was time to come back with the reformed BBMX team spinning wrenches for Freddie Noren again.
Rankin: You put so many years trying to get to the top level of something. To just walk away without fulfilling everything you want to do is pretty tough. If I hadn't been so close to fulfilling that it would have been easier. Being at the Indy Car races and watching Christian just dominate was difficult to miss. The relationship with Forrest Butler is still a good one and I felt like it was worth coming back. I told him that if I was going to do it, we needed to step back the program a bit. Let’s take a couple years and rebuild before having the big production again. We need a good base and build back to that level.
Vital MX: Let's do a couple fun questions. What is your least favorite part to change?
Rankin: Foot peg pins. The cotter pins and spring just piss you off.
Vital MX: Who was the easiest or chillest rider you worked with?
Rankin: Shane McElrath
Vital MX: Who had the most raw talent?
Rankin: Justin Bogle
Vital MX: Who was the hardest on equipment? (We all know the answer to this)
Derek: (laughs) That is A-Ray, 100%