The Troy Lee Designs race team started in 2003 with it's own Supermoto team and through the years has grown into one of the premier teams in the Monster Energy Supercross and Pro Motocross Championship series. In order to be successful they not only have to have talented riders but need the proper guys in place around those riders. The Team Manager role is an important one and coming into the 2023 season long time Team Manager, Tyler Keefe, decided to take a step back to be at home more with his family. Max Lee, son of team owner Troy Lee, was called up to fill the spot. Max has been around the race team his whole life and filled other roles within the team for a few years. I got him on the phone to hear his story and how he feels the season has gone so far.
For the full interview, check out the Vital MX podcast right here. If you're interested in the condensed written version, scroll down just a bit further.
Jamie Guida - Vital MX: For anybody that doesn't realize, you are Troy Lee's son. So, you grew up in the racing world. What are your first memories of motocross, Supercross, and racing in general?
Max Lee: Oh, man. My first memories, I think, were before we even started the Supercross and motocross team. We were a Supermoto team with my dad and Jeff Ward. The Supermoto Championship came over, it originated in Europe and they just decided to go for a racing team with Jeff Ward and Chris Fillmore. I think it was at the Queen Mary. We had a race there and then there was another one. I forget where it was, but up toward the Palm Springs area. It was really just being at the races there, hanging out, watching motorcycles go fast, and enjoying it.
Vital MX: I assume it instantly connected with you.
Max: Oh, yeah. I've been around bicycles and motorcycles for as long as I can remember. I never didn’t enjoy it. I just love it so much. Whether I'm riding it or watching it, I'm enjoying it a ton and I don't plan on stopping anytime soon.
Vital MX: You did a bunch of racing yourself. How far did you take it?
Max: I grew up riding bicycles a ton. My pops was so busy with work and I was going to normal school. I played some soccer and ran track and played a little football, but I was always riding my BMX bike around town and mountain biking a ton from the house. I grew up on bicycles and would ride moto here and there a couple of times a month just for fun. I never really did any racing. Then all my friends growing up like Jeff Ward's kids, we're all super passionate. We had some other family friends that were all doing the full series, going to Loretta's and World Minis and all that stuff, and I always wanted to be a part of it. Pops was just so busy, but luckily once I got my license at 16, I was able to buy my first car. I got a Chevy Express van and kind of went from there. I just started going to the track every day and kept wanting to go to bigger races and spend more money. My dad's like, “Man, I'm so busy with work, I don't know if we can do it.” I said, “Well, I got my license. I'm going to take myself.” From about 2015 to 2020, we were wide open for those five years. We were trying to hit every amateur national we could, any area qualifier, and any local race on the weekend just to get as much gate time as possible and learn as much as we could. I won a couple of championships in the 250 C class. I'm proud of that. That was my first real win, at Freestone in the 250 C class. I got my first number-one plate, so that was a huge accomplishment for me. Then a few years later I went into the B class and got a championship in the B class at the AZ Open. Then I moved into the A class and raced a couple of amateur nationals there. I started getting my points for Supercross Futures and ended up having a crash where I hurt my thumb. I was planning on racing the Canadian series to get my feet wet for the Pro Motocross series here in the US. After that injury and COVID, I stopped racing, and I was going back to school. I took a few online college courses and for the time being, I was traveling to the races, helping out our race team, and doing all the outdoor nationals that year. I really enjoyed it. One thing led to another, and they offered me a full-time position as the Athlete Support Manager there, and I did that for the next three years.
Vital MX: Growing up Troy's son with his history there were probably a lot of cool opportunities. Who are some of the coolest people you got to meet as a kid that kind of blew your mind?
Max: I've met a lot of very cool people. Brandon Semenuk was one of the coolest dudes I've met. Also, Brandon Fairclough. They're both mountain bike guys that we sponsor. We actually took them out riding motorcycles for a day at Milestone a while back, and it's crazy to see someone so dang talented on a bicycle struggle a bit on a motorcycle, but they got around super well. It is different seeing someone so high class on a bicycle with so much talent and skill look like they're trying to learn a new one on a motorcycle. Very similar, but that was a cool one for sure. Some of the old-school Supercross guys like Jeremy McGrath and (David) Pingree. Those guys, I still look up to them to this day. They're legends in the sport. MC, ever since I was a little kid, has always been my hero. Honestly, now, working with Justin Barcia and this race team. It's such a blessing for me and I appreciate it a ton. Justin's such a rad dude on and off the bike. I couldn't tell you exactly who's number one, but I've been very fortunate
Vital MX: Did you ever consider an occupation outside of the industry? Was there something that you were looking at before you got offered the job?
Max: I was actually considering working some construction. I have a good buddy of mine that I've known for a long time. We grew up riding together and he started his own construction business. I was just a little bummed with the whole COVID thing and not being able to race and then injuries and I'm like, “I kind of want to just jump into something else and learn a new skill and something completely different than I'm used to.” That ended up not happening. It seemed to work out because things are going all right so far.
Vital MX: You got offered the Athlete Support role. What was that like? Was there anybody that was like, “Well, has he earned this spot?” Or was it pretty welcoming right off the bat? What were your roles?
Max: It was welcoming right off the bat. I basically spent almost every day of my last few years in high school at the Corona Shop, our headquarters there at TLD. I had a little shed in the back where I was working on my bikes, and I knew all the employees super well. A lot of them have been there for a long time. I've known them since I was probably 3 or 4 years old. I've always had a really good relationship there. Before I even took that position, everyone at the company who rode mountain bikes or moto, if they needed some extra work on their bike, I was always back there working anyway. I was changing tires for some of the employees and had a good relationship. So, when this opportunity came up, they welcomed me gracefully. I couldn't be happier to be a part of it and work with those guys whom I've known for so long and that are as passionate about the brand and the sport as I am. It started with me going to the races on the weekends with the race team and bringing gear and then it turned into basically the athlete support position for all moto athletes. We had a team in Europe, our MX2 Yamaha team. I supplied all the gear for them. I was in charge of approving all the designs and making sure that the schedule looks good and trying to coordinate the gear they wear on race weekends with what we're racing in the Supercross series here in the States. Ordering all the gear from the vendors, and finding new vendors because stuff was late because of COVID. That was quite a handful, trying to reach out to different vendors and trying to coordinate all the gear to get there at the same time from helmets, gloves, pants, and jerseys, all coming from different parts of the world. I also handled a lot of the contracts for all of our off-road athletes, some ambassadors, and our amateur athletes. I took care of all of our amateur athletes and traveled to all the big amateur races as well as all the Supercross races, outdoor races, and even a couple of GP races. I worked quite a bit with the paint department as well as the R&D on a lot of the products. I was basically the main source of feedback from all of our new products and current products going out to our athletes. If they had any issues, I'd relay all that info to our designers to try and make those improvements. I really did enjoy working with the paint department and having a little bit of freedom and say on what we could do with these custom-painted helmets and even designing a few for some of the athletes. I really enjoyed that a ton as well.
Vital MX: Coming into this year, Tyler Keefe, who was the previous Team Manager, decided to spend some time at home with family and take a step back. You get offered the role. Were you surprised by that offer and were you nervous about it?
Max: Absolutely. Yeah, I was pretty surprised and for sure nervous. It was mentioned to me briefly after outdoors. Roger DeCoster came up and asked me if I'd consider the position in the future. This was actually at Motocross of Nations at Redbud. At the time I was like, “Heck yeah, Roger. I'm just honored for you to ask this of me. This is unbelievable. I would love to do this later down the road.” He kind of shook his head all right. After that, I didn't think too much of it. It was just something that was like, “Man, that's bitchin hearing Roger say that.” Hopefully sometime down the road, if that opportunity came up, I would definitely jump on it. About a month and a half later, I got a call from Roger and my father, and it seemed like it was moving pretty dang quickly. They're like, “Hey man, TK's having a baby. He's ready to start the next chapter of his life and we think you'd be a good fit for the role.” I was again thrown off completely. I said, “You really think I'm ready for this?” Honestly, man, we have such a solid crew. We have great mechanics. Our crew chief, Olly Stone, who's been in the industry as a factory mechanic for over ten years. I think without that whole crew and spending time with them the last couple of years in this athlete support position for TLD, I wouldn't have taken it if I didn't have 100% trust in the crew. They are crushing it and helping me a ton. I will be honest; it's been a huge learning curve for sure. I've been trying to stay open-minded and listen to everyone and just trying to learn as much as I can and dive into the deep end a little bit.
Vital MX: What has been the biggest surprise or maybe the most difficult thing to adjust to?
Max: The biggest thing for me is trying to keep up with the whole machine of this race team. It's a crazy series. We're racing so many weekends out of the year and so many weekends back-to-back. Things are just moving so dang fast. We're always trying to be 2 or 3 steps ahead just to be better prepared for the weekend and trying to keep up with all that and coordinating with the whole team and crew and making sure testing is going well. Also, make sure that our mechanics are flying out and getting to the race on time to set up. If there are any changes, shipping parts, engines, suspension, and trying to plan for Supercross practice here in California with all this rain we’ve been getting. It seems like we've been living in Europe for the past few months. We've been getting so much rain every week. It's unbelievable. It's been a ton of fun and as I said, I have good people around me, so they're helping me out a ton.
Vital MX: How much interaction do you have with riders, and do you have anything to do with contracts? There are contracts up this year with your team. Do you have a lot to do with that stuff?
Max: Yeah, it's just some conversations between me and Tyler Keefe. He is still involved in a lot of those higher-level decisions and he's again helping me learn as we go. We have a lot of conversations about it. I would say my role is more handling a lot of the day-to-day stuff, but I do have a lot of input with the riders. I try to share my advice whenever I have it to offer for our current guys and potential guys in the future. I love going to the races and watching these guys ride and I feel like I've been watching it long enough to really have a valid opinion. Again, it’s mostly TK’s decisions currently, but he's constantly giving me phone calls and pitching me ideas and we're shooting ideas at each other back and forth.
Vital MX: With your current riders like Justin Barcia and Michael Mosiman, both of their contracts are up. There are rumors all the time. Maybe you're going to do one 250 and a couple of 450s next year. There are names being thrown around. What would you like to see happen? What do you feel about the future of TLD/Red Bull/GasGas is? What would be best for the team?
Max: I think keeping Justin Barcia on board has been huge for the team. I really like the guy. He's such a genuine man off of the motorcycle. I think he's good for morale. I think he's learning himself, trying to be a little bit more of a positive role model in the sport. I think keeping him on board and getting some young talent on the team would be huge moving forward. Pierce has been crushing it. I think this is his third year here and he's got potential. The speed's been there. We've just got to figure out the starts a little bit. I think he's ready to have a couple of breakthrough rides. I think Justin's helping him a lot. Hopefully down the road, Justin sticking with the team and the brand is killer for TLD and GasGas. He can kind of help guide these guys and give them the confidence and energy and that race mentality that we all know Justin Barcia has when it's game time. He's putting it all on the line and he's giving it 110% effort. He wants every single inch he can get. So, for the team overall, I think the morale is huge and Justin plays a big part of that, and a lot of the younger guys look up to him.
Vital MX: Do you feel this season has been a success? Three podiums for Barcia and sixth in points. Pierce has a couple of top fives and is eighth in points. Obviously, Michael has struggled this season, but overall, do you feel like it's been a success?
Max: Overall, I'd say it's been a success, yeah. I think the work we've been doing behind the scenes has been great. I think the crew, and everyone's been busting their butt and we're all on the same page and focused on the same goal. I really think the work we've been putting in and where we're at with this motorcycle is a good spot. I don’t think our results quite show how good I feel about the whole process currently. I don’t think we’ve quite reached the top by any means. We're only going to get better as the season goes on.
Vital MX: How are the logistics of having some guys in California and Justin being back in Florida? Has it been more difficult with him being in Florida?
Max: Yes and no. Being in Florida for him with the baby has been a lot easier. He's got a beautiful facility there that he can train at. It has been difficult not being able to talk to him face to face and see him ride in person. Getting some input and feedback through videos and some input from him on a few things. The motorcycle we have this year with GasGas has been so good for the most part. Hunter Faulk our suspension guy has been doing such a good job as well as Olly Stone, our Crew Chief building a great motorcycle. So, it's been a lot smoother than it could have been in the past because we have gotten him in such a good spot on the bike that we're not making huge changes. It's not like we're trying to test with him while he's over in Florida and we're trying to figure some stuff out. He's over there doing his motos and he's actually been riding a little bit at MTF (Millsap’s Training Facility) as well, which I think is huge. It is difficult having to have the team kind of separated. That's why race weekends feel so nice because the family's back together. Yeah, having the 250 guys out here and Justin in Florida and just trying to keep track, and also you want to see progress with the motorcycle, progress with the rider. Every week it's a little bit more difficult to track. But Justin, he's been doing it long enough. He knows what it takes to be at the level that those guys are and to be at the level to win. So luckily for me, he's a lot less work because he's dedicated, and he knows what it takes.
Vital MX: Being a privately owned team competing against, but also working with factory teams that are owned by the same entity, the KTM group, do you ever feel lesser than Factory Husky and KTM? Do you have to live up to a higher level or struggle more?
Max: I wouldn't say that. I feel like we're one big family under this roof here. Everyone's been more than helpful to me, and the rest of my team and we all want to win together. Whether it's a KTM, a Husqvarna, or a Gasgas on the podium, we're all high-fiving and congratulating each other. We just moved into this new building that they built for us right up the street. I think it's a $53 million investment into this facility and it's beautiful. All our race shops are right next to each other. We're just down the hall. I don't feel like there's any extra pressure on us by any means. Roger DeCoster and Ian Harrison have always been really helpful to me. Also, Nate Ramsey helps me with whatever I need moving forward. It seems like we all want to win together, and I think we're stronger as a team in general, so it's just going to benefit us all.
Vital MX: You mentioned the new facility that KTM built. Has that improved communication with testing and development?
Max: I would say so, yeah. Just us all being so close together. I mean, we're constantly walking between each other's shops and checking out how we're organizing our parts and our plan for the week and riding schedule. They have KTM's test tracks here, and we have a test track in Corona, and we kind of flip-flop. We're just working together. I feel it's a good thing for all of us.