The Muc-Off/FXR/ClubMX Yamaha team has been steadily making moves to improve their program with the goal of being a championship contending organization. Brandon Haas, Team Manager and owner of the ClubMX Training Facility, visited with me about the origins of the facility, why he chose to start a professional race team, and what it takes to accommodate a rider like their recent signing of Jeremy Martin. I also asked him how close they came to signing Ken Roczen and we talked about the recent social media comments on possible engine failures.
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: ClubMX as a training facility is one of the premier training facilities in the country. Tell me what you think sets Club apart and what is your primary goal?
Brandon Haas: Well, I think we are the premier facility in the world. But I think for people that haven't been here, it's hard to show what our facility offers through the website or social media. We don't put a ton of time into that because we’re so busy all the time trying to catch up. I think generally speaking, what separates us from everybody else is our dirt. The facility itself sits on 200 acres. We have four supercross tracks, four motocross tracks, a couple of corner tracks, a little bit of everything, and we have different types of dirt around the property. We have two clay pits that we mine out of and we have a big excavator and an off-road haul truck and we're able to manipulate our dirt to have completely different tracks all on the same property. One of our supercross tracks is kind of a gray clay that resembles your Anaheim style dirt. And then we have a red clay that's more of your Georgia red clay, Carolina red clay. And then we have a sand mix track that we keep pretty sandy. But actually, under the track is pure sand, so it drains water through. And a day like today when it's raining all day, we'll have a good track to ride tomorrow. And then we have a hybrid one up top that we build into like a Daytona track for that time. And same thing with motocross. We've got our loamy stuff, we have our sand, we have our hard packed clay on the practice track. We just have a little bit of everything. That's always one of our strengths and has been since the very beginning. We were blessed with discovering this property. A lot of the reasons why we located to South Carolina to do this was simply because this property fell on the Piedmont Sandhills divide. So, we got half the property that is clay and half was sand, which is very unique. But in the aspects of the training facility, our full-time training program is also what separates us. We don't do a lot of camps or short term. We focus on long term training, even like the supercross guys that I work with beyond the race team. There are guys that have been here for four or five years, six years, and guys like Nicoletti have been here for ten or 11 years now. I think the training program has constantly evolved when we have guys at that caliber to set the tone and to evolve around. It's helped us piggyback the amateur side pretty well. It's making a well-rounded program with nutrition and fitness. And on the bike training, we have a full-time chef, a full meal program. Monday through Friday, we do breakfast, lunch and dinner. Even the race team crew, they get lunch brought to them every day in the race shop. And there's a lot of unique variables that nobody else has to offer. We're just trying to put together a full package that guys can come here and just totally deactivate from reality and what's going on in the world and just focus on racing. So, I think that's ultimately what separates us.
Vital MX: Didn’t Zach Osborne have something to do with getting ClubMX started early on?
Brandon: Actually, that's how it ended up being I was in South Carolina, I was riding for an Arenacross team just an hour away, and I raced at a track just down the road from where Club is now called Sand Hills. I had heard rumors that Osborne had a sand track just down the road and I ended up getting in touch with him. I think back then it was primarily just Facebook, but got up with them, started doing some riding with him, and I had a group of guys I was coaching at that time. I ended up making a comment to him that I'm originally from Minnesota and I tried starting Club in Minnesota three different times. Over the course of those years, I got shut down each time, whether it was permit issues or county people complaining, and just whatever. It's very political up north compared to the southeast. So, I made that comment to him, and I think the next day he texted me and said, “If you're serious about that, I would love to be involved”. He was racing in Europe at that time on that Cosworth Yamaha team and doing well, but also maybe not good enough to have a promising future, so to speak. And I think for him it was a backup plan, if racing doesn’t make it, at least I could fall back to this. So, he did help me get it going and with financing. I didn't come from nothing. I’m just a punk kid basically trying to make my way and very grateful that I met Zach and then his dad. I ended up meeting Mark and he was a big factor on getting me going and helping me learn heavy equipment and just the whole ropes of business. Zach was in it for, I don't know, the first couple of years. And then I ended up buying his stock back and he trained here off and on over the next five years between here and California. And we had a good run and still get along good. I’m super appreciative of it.
Vital MX: Having a training facility like that has to be very demanding. The track work constantly, the kids, the families, etc., etc. So, in the midst of trying to continue to grow ClubMX as a training facility, why start a pro race team in 2018?
Brandon: It is. And to be honest with you, when I started this in ‘18, the race team end of it, I didn't really have this vision for what the race team is now. I really just did it out of a place in my heart where I got sick of watching guys come through Loretta's or these up-and-coming kids or even privateer guys that were really, really good but just caught an injury or something at the wrong time and got overlooked or whatever the case may be. At that moment it was Joey Crown and Kyle Peters. Those two guys were in my head because whatever deals they had didn't pan out and they got left hanging. Josh Osby That's who. Josh Osby and Kyle Peters. And they had been Club guys for many years coming to that point. And I was like, “Man, if I could just put together something to help these guys get a platform”. And as I got into it and we started racing and learning the bike more and just dealing with all the different dynamics, everything started falling into place. I had spent years working with Osborne, McElrath, McAdoo, and Brayton, and all those guys. Over the years I've been in all these haulers, I've been around all the race teams, I've been involved with the testing, with suspension and engines. We've allowed most all those teams to come to ClubMX and do their testing. So, I've just seen the way teams operate. And over the years it seemed to get a little bit more political. And so, if I could build a program that could actually just evolve around the riders and not a corporate plan, I think we could do something unique, different, and possibly work our way to the top. And every year that's kind of been the goal, let's just chip away. We're still a very under budgeted race team in comparison to who we're competing against. But I think because we do just focus solely on the rider. With a training facility backing the race team, our priority number one is always training. We don't pull away from training to go do sponsor stuff or do testing. We incorporate our testing within the training, or we'll do it at the end. We have everything here at our fingertips to make sure that the rider always has what they need to perform. And then let's evolve after that, where other race teams, it's such a process just to ask for a suspension setting change or something. If it's going to take two or three weeks, we can usually do it in a day or two and have it done and behind us. So, there's a lot of things that fit naturally with ClubMX and the race team together. But the start of this was simply just to help guys. That's still the mission. I myself have no ambitions to make profit or monetary gains on a race team. I really just competitively, I want to grow this in and compete for championships one day. And along the way I hope that the riders have an opportunity to make something better of their careers, and also the staff, the technicians, the management. I want people to have jobs doing something they love and that ultimately makes me feel good. I'm glad Ben (Graves), my General Manager, and all the guys here can have careers that evolves around things they love. I'm very grateful for that, that I get to do it myself. And I hope as many people as I can reach can get that opportunity as well.
Vital MX: What have been some of the biggest growing pains that you faced and how did you overcome them?
Brandon: Honestly, the liability side would probably be the biggest hurdles. I mean, people from the outside looking in, it's like, “they're crushing it, they're doing this or doing it”. Yeah, we are doing good. But there's a lot of bullshit that happens behind the scenes with lawsuits. People think, “Oh, that dude's a multimillionaire. He ain't gonna feel no difference”. So, you get these, I guess, scumbags that come into the sport thinking that they're just going to do something or it's so easy. Then they get a taste of reality, and they crash and get hurt. And then mom or dad thinks that it's your fault. That’s stuff track owners and people don't really talk about. You hide it for a business prospect. Me personally, I don't care what people think. But that's been some of the biggest hurdles I've personally faced. But the workload on running a facility, not only are we training, but behind the scenes, we're a full excavating company. You know, we have dozers, excavators, skid steers, tractors, water trucks, irrigation systems. We have all kinds of stuff to try to keep the track going. And on a normal day, we have a full supercross track prep top to bottom and a full motocross track prep, and we do those five days a week, Monday through Friday. Then we run a practice facility on select weekends. There are months where we're operating seven days a week wide open, and it never stops. But what fuels us is the passion for dirt bikes. We love motocross. So, everybody that works here has got the same passion and that's how we overcome it.
Vital MX: I assume every year you try to make steps up. In ’21 you hired Garrett Marchbanks, last year you hired AMart, and now Jeremy Martin. One of the biggest signings you've ever had. How to you accommodate the needs of a high-level rider like that?
Brandon: That's a good question. Garrett was one of those deals where he lost his ride, and he wasn't a Club guy at that time. But I had had three years with him, and I know Garrett personally on a different level than a lot of people do. So, at that point, I was just reaching out to him to wonder what's going on, you know, who's offering you what? And he's telling me the offers he's got. And I'm just scratching my head like, “Wow, this is one of the best amateur kids to come up through the ranks. What's going on? Is this something Garrett did or is this something his agent did, or his mom and dad did”? You just have all these questions. I knew we had a good motor. His training program is going to be good, and I'll give you everything you need. And we have a strong bike. Come ride it, see what you think. He rode it. He really liked it. So, for him, it was pretty easy. Jeremy Martin on the other hand, that was not easy. That was a fight with the Star Yamaha program to get Jeremy. It's not like Jeremy got kicked to the curb from Star or he quit them. There were offers there and they fought hard. They offered him a lites program. They offered him a 450 package. He had good opportunities to stay put. With Jeremy, what resonated was the Minnesota connection. We've known each other for a long time. I know their family and go back with Alex, but we also spent a year with Alex. And along the way, Alex is obviously talking to his brother. Behind the scenes, I think ClubMX, our race team does some things really, really well. Other things we don't have the resources that some factory teams do, but every year we've been able to bridge that gap pretty quickly. And I think Jeremy was very confident in the direction we're going. We're an up-and-coming team. We kind of take the egos aside and we want to give what's best to Jeremy and Jeremy only. I don't have an agenda to drive. I don't have an ego to fix on a certain bike set up or motor package or anything like that. This is about giving him the tools he needs to succeed because he does know what he wants. And he's experienced a lot, he's ridden a lot. He knows what works and doesn't work for him. He's a veteran in the sport. And I think for us, we've got the young kids with Marchbanks and Lopes and we also have the veterans with Nicoletti and Martin. As a package that's really what makes a team, is having the whole package. I don't want a bunch of young kids to be the face of the team, just like I don't want a bunch of veterans to be the face. I want guys that can help each other in a real team environment. We have the enthusiasm of the young kids, and we have the knowledge and expertise of the veterans, and we work in harmony. We're not fighting each other. We're not competitive with each other. I mean, obviously we're competitive, but we leave the egos at the door. This has been the best offseason we've ever had for training. We're all having fun, but we're grinding and working hard, and I think it's just a very rare thing with what’s happening with our program and where it's going. I hope with time people will start realizing that.
Vital MX: Maybe two or three years ago, you hired Mike Bonacci, and he does a lot of things trying different ways to get exposure to the team. And he's got a lot of cool ideas and then you have Brandon Scharer, the riding coach, and numerous other people. Talk about bringing the right people in for these different positions within the organization.
Brandon: Basically in ‘18, when I started this, it was me and Greg Chidgey and Greg ran the pro shop at ClubMX, which was just the shop for all the kids to go get their bikes fixed and buy parts and stuff like that. We started doing this as basically a Friday through Sunday project, and that evolved and evolved. And last year was my first year to be able to hire Greg full time for the race team and get him out of the pro shop. And same thing with Mike. Last year was my first year ever hiring full time staffers for the race team. Up till last year, we were all operating as part time employees and myself. We're not this big Goliath of a team that some people have the illusion we are. And now this year we have a staff of six full timers, which the growth is just incredible. But Mike is older, retired from the auto industry. Mike is not your typical moto guy. And that's what I like about him because we're all moto nuts, so our mind is just different. He has that corporate mindset and has a different viewpoint on things that I like because it helps round me off. I like people that are different than me because it complements my personality, and we work together well. I really enjoy having Mike around. Greg and Cam (Callaghan), he's one of our mechanics, he does a great job. He's Jeremy's guy. Tyler (Morgan), Jason (McCarty), and our driver Scott (Lehnerz). I mean, everybody works really hard. And, you know, it's taken time. When we started our budget, I think the first year we went racing, I might have raised like 40 or 50 grand. And then the second year we went racing I was pretty ecstatic to get just under a hundred grand. And then the third year I remember flying up to FXR and sitting down with those guys and they could see that I'm really trying hard. And the ClubMX angle was unique, so they ended up helping out a lot more and stepping up. Then we were able to raise our budget cumulatively with all the sponsors. I think we got up to like 360 and then last year we got around 700 and now we're getting to the point where we're bridging the gap to be in a well-funded program, not to the factory level, but we're getting close.
Vital MX: And speaking of those sponsors, you mentioned FXR. FXR and Muc-Off are back on for ‘23.
Brandon: Yeah, Muc-Off and FXR are two of our key partners. So essentially the three of us share the title sponsor position and it works great. You know, FXR is an awesome company to work with. Muc-Off being a powersports company and a cleaner and all the mountain bike stuff, it really fits what we do really well. I really enjoy working with them as well.
Vital MX: Michael Lindsay was telling me you built a new race shop this year. Enzo was really stoked that he's lockered right next to Phil, btw.
Brandon: Going back to when we started this team, it was part time. So, we worked out of the pro shop, which is Greg's shop. Part of the reasoning why last year was the first year I was able to hire a full-time staff was because I actually didn't have anywhere for anybody to work. I couldn't hire more mechanics because we didn't have anywhere to place them. So now that we built this new race shop, we were able to hire a full staff. Back in 2014, I don't know if you remember the Factory Metal Works Honda team that ran with (Vince) Friese, (AJ) Catanzaro, and (Jace) Owen. That was my first taste of going racing. But we brought back in Lucas Joyner from Factory Metal Works. He's on board helping us with some engineering stuff and machining trick parts. That's been really exciting because it's great for me to be able to give back to people that helped in the past. The long-term relationships that you build within this sport are something that I place a lot of value on.
Vital MX: Is there any fear of growing too fast or maybe getting outside of what you're capable of doing? Again, we talked about hiring a guy like Jeremy Martin. You’ve said you're a team that is underfunded compared to a factory level team. You guys involved yourselves in World Supercross this year? Now there’s the new Supermotocross series, there's Canadian Nationals to consider. You could easily try to do too much too soon. How do you manage that?
Brandon: You're definitely right. I've turned down many opportunities to stay focused. Even with Club when we first started in 2010, it was a slow, steady growth all the way through, and it still is. We started training 14 guys and the next year we brought it to 20 and we just slowly started building more and more on the facility. The race team hasn't been any different. When we signed Jeremy, at first, we had extended Marchbanks's contract for two years. I told Garrett from the beginning as long as he's committed to bettering himself in every way on and off the bike, then I'll stand behind him. But with Jeremy, now we're going to bring somebody in that's clearly a title guy, championship level guy. Our program has got to tighten up. So, we went from seven riders last year to four. We doubled, tripled our parts ordering and budget. We've significantly enhanced the process and program of the bike rotations and engine rotations. We've revamped the whole program with everything we've learned over the years that we wanted to do, but maybe we didn't have the right guy to take that step with. I'm also not the guy that's going to sell somebody like Jeremy on coming here if I'm not ready for it. We're ready for him. We've been building to this point. Our paths crossed for a reason. And I think time will tell. And I know people can rag on, “why would you ever leave Star for Club”? You know, I get it. I totally understand what people are seeing. But when you see the inner workings of the program and the direction we're going, I don't even have 1% doubt that we're not ready for him. So, the new shop, the new truck and semi, and everything was all part of this equation, kind of bringing everything together.
Vital MX: Injuries have unfortunately plagued your riders multiple times throughout the last few years. Phil got hurt last year. A lot of guys got hurt last year. Currently, JMart and Marchbanks are a little banged up and probably going to do East Coast if I'm understanding correctly. Talk about that.
Brandon: Injuries are tough. Nicoletti was a tough deal last year when he hurt his knee. Well, he hurt his knee the first year and then last year broke his arm. That was due to him trying to push the envelope, get back to it too early. We kind of rushed into things and learned a good bit from that. But, you know, at the moment everybody's doing good. Aside from Garret. I know there's rumors going around that Jeremy's hurt, which he's not. We showed his crash on our episode, but he's okay. He's been back to training, and he had a good trip to California testing suspension. Marchbanks does have, the end of his arm is broken. A small fracture. He had a crash; I think it's been six weeks now. We're optimistic that he's going to be back for East Coast and get back on the bike sooner than later. But we want to learn from our experiences in the past, too. And I don't want to rush Garrett. It’s a bummer for Garrett as the dude was riding absolutely unbelievably well, gelling well with the bike. Lopes is really riding well right now, too. So super confident in both of those guys as well as Jeremy and Phil. Phil for an old man, he's going to give some young kids a tough time this year. I think we could see Phil flirting with podiums. This is the best Phil Nicoletti I've ever seen. But injuries are definitely a part of this sport, as everybody knows.
Vital MX: There's a lot of talk on social media on quote unquote, engine failures or what people perceive as engine failure causing some issues. And a lot of those injuries lately have happened to be to guys using Jamie Ellis’ Twisted Development engines.
Brandon: I do in my free time occasionally go on Vital and RacerX and you read through the YouTube comments. I think people assume factory teams don't have failures, they don't have parts breaking or whatever. We are trying to show people what we're doing to try to grow the sport. We don't have an agenda to drive. When we do show Jeremy's crash on YouTube, obviously it sparked a lot of, “Oh, his engine must have failed”. His engine did not fail. People assume that because they see him flying forward off a step on/off. We haven't had any issues with Twisted engines. We've been with Jamie for four or five years now, and we've had great success. When you have a machine and you have people, occasionally you're going to have issues and all you can do is really learn from it and try to dial it in. But part of our program for this year is we practice 5 hours on an engine. Those come out, they get all brand-new transmissions, new everything top to bottom to try to eliminate the chance of somebody getting hurt. When we go racing our new process, they get a brand-new engine every race weekend. Yamaha has had some hiccups with a few components in the engine that we try to stay on top of. Just like every bike has its own flaws. And when it comes to 250s, we're pushing them to the absolute limit, and occasionally you will find the limit. This year we found a lot more power and torque, and across the board we've made significant improvements with our motor packages through Jamie and it has exposed different weaknesses in the motorcycle. But I know he's catching a lot of heat online. But generally speaking, we do everything we can to maintain that. Jeremy's crash specifically was a manufacturing defect. With COVID everybody's struggling to get stuff. And some of the biggest hurdles we face is quality control on products. Every partner we have amongst the race team provides us product. When they can't provide us with product, and they have to change manufacturers to keep up with the demand, or the manufacturer they're using is short on labor so they're hiring it out to other people, it puts us in a vulnerable position that all race teams are facing. We had a batch of a large quantity of product come in, internal engine components, that they call us the day after we got it and asked us to return all of them because there's a manufacturing flaw now. I'm glad we returned it before we experienced the failures, but across the board we have to verify everything we get in. So, every time we order, whether it's pistons, valves, wheels, chains, sprockets, bars, I mean every single thing on that motorcycle to OEM Yamaha components, we have to do our homework and verify that nothing has changed in this process. Because we've been running very much the same parts going on four years. We've been running the same pistons, the same valves, the same cranks. Once we find what works and we dial it in, we know exactly how many hours almost to within a 30-minute window that we can put on each component of the bike. But since COVID, that has kind of ticked that philosophy and flipped it upside down because you've got to verify that valve might be exactly the same valve, but it could have come from a different manufacturer or that piston or that anything. And it's created a lot of issues that does regard the safety and welfare of our riders. That's what a lot of people don't see going on, because race teams like us, we go through so much stuff, and you've got four guys getting brand new engines every 5 hours in the middle of a boot camp. We're burning through a lot of product. But also, we're not scared to show Jeremy crashing because it's not an issue of we're just rolling the dice, or we don't know what we're doing. We have answers to fix things when they happen. And thankfully we video record all of our sessions. We're always able to kind of go back and make sure we do our homework and don't let it happen again.
Vital MX: I didn't really want to lend any creditability to the social media shit talking because Jamie Ellis has been around a long time. Twisted Development has been building engines for a long time and there can always be a mechanical failure. I feel people are trying to point the finger at Jamie as if he's doing something half ass or shady or whatever. I think that’s ridiculous.
Brandon: Our engine program with Jamie is so good. We send him a brand-new engine, he builds this full race engine, he mails them back, and we take care of them from that point on. So, any engine that is maintained as part of our rotation, that liability is on us. Not Jamie. He's building these engines to specs that we've developed over the years of working with him. And we have three different engine packages. Nicolletti is on almost a completely different engine characteristic than Jeremy Martin's on because he doesn't want all the power. We can't give him everything. He doesn't want it. It's too much. Where Phil wants everything he can get. And then Lopes kind of falls in the middle of things. But again, Jamie's in the same situation all of the race teams are in, in that he's relying on his key partners that are providing him with components to meet quality control standards as well.
Vital MX: Well, thank you for clarifying that. At least the Vital MX listeners, they'll know what's up. Last thing. A few weeks ago, a lot of social media hype with Ken Roczen coming out riding the Yamaha. How bad did you want him on the team? Did you go after him for the team?
Brandon: So yeah, that was cool. So, backing up to when I signed the four guys we have now, I gave them all my commitment that we're going to four guys. This is it. We're going to dial in our program. We're going to do everything really well and give you guys the best we can give you. When the opportunity with Ken happened the first thing I did was tell these guys, “Look, here's what's on the table. Do you want me to say no? Because I'll say no, you don't need to come here”. And they were all like, “If we could train with a guy like him, that would be beneficial to all of us. So, all right, let's see what happens”. So, we scheduled him to come in. He did two days. Ken's a great guy. We had a lot of fun. Everything went really well. He liked the bike. Unfortunately, that new Yamaha, we haven't even had our hands on one. So, we were able to get one for him and build what we could on it. But we really don't know much about it. We did have good talks while he was here with his agent, with everybody. We ended up making an offer right away. He seemed pumped on wanting to come here. He loved the facility. I think the team blew his expectations out of the water. I don't think he was expecting to see what he's seen. But after going back and forth with Yamaha and some of the concerns with the bike being late and parts being late and that new 450, just with all the unknowns, it kind of put me in a situation where I was not feeling comfortable with making a commitment to Ken, knowing that it's possible we might not be able to deliver to the level he needs. And also, backing up to what I said earlier, I didn't feel I yet had the personal relationship with him, that I'm in a position to go racing with him because I'm not just a team owner that's standing on the sideline or up in the stands watching. I'm involved every piece of the way. Not to say I'm micromanaging, I try not to, but I love what I'm doing. So, to take somebody like him and potentially have any risk of not being able to give him what he needs and that becomes a stress that takes away from the other four guys, I kind of drew that conclusion and we retracted our offer. Ken is such an energetic and fun guy to be around and watching him ride was just like, I mean, everybody sat here in awe, just like, wow, this dude is second to none when it comes to natural talent. But there's part of me that says, can anybody make Ken happy with the motorcycle? I don't know. I hope he found a home and I really hope he does well on the Suzuki. But we just weren't in a position to roll the dice like that. But it was really cool and a proud moment of our race program.