We caught up with Brad Hoffman (Team Principal of Monster Energy Star Yamaha Racing), while on a recent trip to test the all-new 2023 Yamaha YZ450F at Star Racing's new (to them) facility, to ask him why the team chose to Cairo, Georgia.
Michael Lindsay – Vital MX: I’m here with Brad Hoffman, who is the co-owner and Team Principal of Monster Energy Star Yamaha Racing. We were lucky enough to spend a few days out here at their facility for the 2023 Yamaha YZ450 intro. During that presentation, Brad, you were telling us about your reasons for moving here. You got the property, what about two years ago or so? You talked about all the thought that went into the decision. It wasn't a knee jerk reaction of, “Oh, this property is available”. What were some of the locations and states you guys weighed out in this decision-making process?
Brad Hoffman - Team Principal for Monster Energy Star Yamaha Racing: We talked about Texas a little bit. We talked about the Clermont, Tampa, and Orlando, FL areas. That's pretty popular. We even talked about where ClubMX is. At one point Club actually asked us to move on their property. They would make us a little place and. They were pretty nice about that actually. We called around to riders that were in those areas. Shane McElrath was a guy we knew that grew up at Club a lot. We talked to guys that were in Clermont to find the positives and the negatives. We talked to Jeremy Martin because he had trained at the Nest, Club, and he'd trained at Carmichael's. Jeremy wasn't on the team at the time. He was on Geico still. And I said, “Man, you've been to all these places. What's your thoughts”? He said, “Honestly, the best of everything was the Goat Farm”. That was a big thing. You know, I think even Club gets pretty cold in the winter and it can be a problem where here we never had frozen dirt one time last year. We were worried about that same thing in Texas, a little too cold, maybe even more rain. So far so good here. Weather is a big factor in it. And it was pretty mild last winter. Most days by the time it warmed up, at the coldest it was 55 to 60.
Vital MX: You had operated in California for a long time. You talked about the amount of money that gets wasted in general rent. There are the commercial costs of staying there. From the outside looking in, you have always focused a lot of your budget and resources, technically speaking, on the bike, providing the best of the best equipment. But you were relegated to running SoCal tracks. I've heard a few people say, “Oh, Star moved back east like KTM having Aldon’s”. But this is truly a unique scenario of, yeah, some people have facilities and areas back east. But the entire race shop isn't on the property. The mechanics can roll the bikes out and straight ride. There's no getting in the box van or even having to go a mile down the road. Was that a big part of your decision? You guys wanting the entire facility to be completely 100% housed and to invest beyond the equipment like you guys have before?
Hoffman: Yeah, we kind of feel like we were caught up on the engine development side, the suspension development side. Things haven't really changed. You still have to spend a lot of money to get new parts and all this stuff. But maybe the development cost and the engine cost weren’t quite as high because we think we're in a pretty good spot. In the sport if you're not looking for a way to reinvent being the best team, if you just try to be the best team that worked in ‘16, that's probably not going to win in 2020, you know? So, we're trying to change the game a little bit and to try a little harder in places that maybe people aren't.
Vital MX: For anyone that got to see Ricky’s property back in the day, The Goat Farm wasn’t exactly the Taj Mahal set up. Ricky was good with his money, and he had tracks, but nothing really over the top. I guess a big part is figuring out how to do this shop we're sitting in. What were some of the thoughts and plans that were minimum requirements? What did you guys want to do with the facility itself?
Hoffman: Ricky was one guy, right? Whatever he needed he could do and that was fine for him. And Ricky's been retired for about 15 years or so. I think if you look back at a lot of national tracks in Ricky's heyday, you'd see them get hard packed. Now it seems the U.S. gets criticized a bit about the track being the same all the time. It's always tilled and watered and perfect or whatever. So, there's a little bit of an art just to getting the ruts and getting it rough enough. And obviously we need a race shop if we're going to be here full time. The concept is to have everything in one place. So, it's a little different than Ricky just driving up here and practicing every day. The two supercross tracks that were here, we rebuilt them, but we're going to do that every year anyway. We just rode the existing outdoor track that Ricky had when Dylan won his championship. Obviously, that got the job done that year and we just changed it to change it. We were trying to get a little bit more elevation. There's already more elevation than Clermont here. In California, the one cool thing is, you can go to Glen Helen and make sure your downhill stuff's cool. So, we still have some work to do on that. We might try to build our little mountain bigger and bigger as we go to get steeper downhill braking bumps. But the tracks haven't changed all that much. We're running a layout that's real similar. Ricky changed his layout a bunch of times and we actually found some old Google Earth images and the track layout that's on here now is similar to one that is from about 15 years ago.
Vital MX: In California traffic's miserable and even if your guys only lived ten miles from the shop, it still might take a half an hour to get to the shop. Then you have to load everything up and get in traffic for an hour, an hour and a half to get to Glen Hellen. Then sit in traffic another hour and a half to get back. Three, four working hours have been burnt there. Frustrations build, things of that nature. I imagine you guys have gained back working hours or the ability for these guys to actually have some off time.
Hoffman: The first year was pretty hectic. Making a move like this is pretty wild. Our off season is short and it's really not an off season because we're riding anyway. We didn't take any more time off riding last year than we normally would have, a week or two. Building a shop with COVID and material supply shortages and everything was pretty much chaos in the off-season last year. But it didn't affect our prep. The first series we raced was the 250 West and Christian ended up winning that. This whole thing we're doing here is just going to start getting good. This year it was a tough thing for everybody. But this off season we can already tell a big difference. The guys have time to go do stuff if they want. We have a handful of guys, maybe four or five, that are into bass fishing. Well, there's a pond here. A bunch of them show up at 6 a.m. in the morning, jump in a little boat, go do a little fishing for an hour or two, and then come to work. They can do that after work. Not that you can't do that in California, but it's not very likely you’d have time when you have to worry about how long it's going to take you to go five miles. In Temecula, it's just a different pace. We don’t spend any time in traffic now. We don't worry about getting to Tallahassee Airport too early. You know, I show up in the parking lot when boarding started, and I've never even been close to being late for a flight.
Vital MX: That was one of my questions on the airport. The flight we came in on, it's a smaller commuter plane. It's just two rows on each side. With the size of team you have, do you guys have to book a little bit earlier? Because you guys could probably take up a big chunk of the plane if everybody's flying on the same day.
Hoffman: American flies those smaller planes. Delta does fly 737s and stuff out of there. Once in a while you might not be able to be picky about your exact airline or something. So far, we've never ran into a situation where there's nothing. It's three and a half, four hours away, but if you really got in a pickle, Atlanta is right there. I think I had two flights all year that that got a little tricky because a storm came in and I had to drive to Atlanta. I was never even close to being late for a flight. But I did have to drive to Atlanta a couple of times. With 30 races that's bound to happen a couple of times.
Vital MX: What were the key items on the wish list for the shop for the guys? We talked about SoCal, I went to one of your original ones in Elsinore and I've been by the one that was in Temecula. They got the job done, but commercial space there isn't cheap, and you guys are running a pretty big team. You weren’t parking rigs inside or anything nice. There's a lot of limitations. Since you guys had a blank canvas here, what was on your wish list?
Hoffman: It was so nice to be able to set up a shop that's like property because we've never had that, you know? We kind of got kicked out of our Elsinore shop because of fuel smell. In that process, they just said, “Hey, we're not going to renew your lease”. And we said, “That's like a month from now. We really need to find a shop”. Luckily, they gave us six months to find a shop. So, we had six months to look, and we had our checklist. We'd really like to get a shop that we can back the semi in. It needs to be 4000 to 7000 square feet, something like that. We need to be able to afford it. It needs to be in a certain area. We were looking from Corona to Temecula to over by where Langston Motorsports is. A broad area. We weren't that picky because there were almost no listings for six months that fit. There actually wasn't any ever. And we finally settled on one that checked some of the boxes off. But you couldn't park the semis in there. They were on the street. Even that with utilities was costing us seven to 8000 a month. And that's only big enough for the 250 team and barely big enough for the 250 team. And then the 450 team worked out of Yamaha for the short period we were there. You really can't find what you need. Definitely that you can afford. If you had $20,000 a month, you might be able to buy some really big commercial building that you could pull them in. So, building this, the obvious things are the same things we're looking for in California and couldn't find. Offices for management. That's something we never really had. In Murietta we had one office and a front reception area and that's it for offices. And we didn't really pay to build out these leased buildings a bunch because the permitting process in California is pretty wild. We wanted to combine both teams here. At the time we had 11 riders, which I didn't build it bigger than 11 riders to grow because I really don't think we need to grow. So, it's set up for 11 riders, which includes amateurs, 250, and 450 pro guys. Both semis can park in here. There's a lot more weather in Florida as far as rain. In California, even at Yamaha, the semis sit outside and when you have a brand-new semi here, you end up having some green stuff on your semi.
Vital MX: I think it would actually shock people the only two teams that I’ve seen that can park inside is PC, they have a building. Mitch has been in Corona a long time, so he got in good on property. And then the Taj Mahal, what Geico was, they were able to. But you go to Honda, KTM, or Yamaha they’re on the street. Here's these beautiful million-dollar rigs and they're just sitting there. It's not like NASCAR where there's eight of them parked side by side indoors.
Hoffman: And then to have a machine shop area was important. We do all our own welding and stuff on frames and radiators here. We do prototyping engine stuff here. There's porting tools and lathes and mills and all the stuff you need to prototype some basic stuff when you get a new model. That's all here. A dedicated suspension room and engine room. At the Star shop in Murietta they were in the same room, suspension and engine guys. Everyone was just cramped. Obviously, the team grew a lot since we moved into that building in 2016.
Vital MX: Most of the bike washing’s outside, but in the mechanics area you guys have a nice indoor washer where they can scrub frames and different things like that. Really efficient. The workflow seems really good the way you laid out all the work bays.
Hoffman: It was a stressful time because when we designed the shop, we didn't know anybody in Cairo, Georgia and we weren't here. We were in California still. In California you just buy a house. You don't build your own house. I really knew nothing about the building process. I drew up a thing on Microsoft Excel, and it was to scale. I thought I would hand it to a general contractor, and they would say, “okay, we kind of get it. You screwed up a couple of things flow wise. We'll fix it". And honestly, they built the exact thing, and I was like, “Oh man, I thought somebody was going to take this thing and change it and help it a little bit”. But that never really happened. So, I was always nervous that it might not be good, but it's worked out well. Everyone seems to think it's pretty well thought out. Even something as simple as pressure washers, we have a pressure washing area here in California. And this is no exaggeration, you are breaking the law, washing your bikes in California. And you feel like it, too. Our first shop in Montclair, we would get tickets, they'd drive by and catch us all the time. That was an important part of our Murrieta shop is we had a yard that would kind of hide it and we got away with it. It's kind of ridiculous that you've have to worry about washing a dirt bike.
Vital MX: When you first made the move there was a decent amount of staff changeover. You had guys that were long term SoCal guys. Coming into the season, you guys have a small group now, guys seem to like it here. It's a little bit cheaper to be here than California. Of course, they don’t have the traffic. Do you notice the difference in your guys? The work attitude and their overall quality of life?
Hoffman: Yeah, we did have a pretty good sized turnover last year and you know some years that happens in the sport period. I'm sure some people were skeptical. Like I said, this building you're sitting in wasn't here when we're moving. We moved four or five semi truckloads of stuff. We had people starting to move while we were doing outdoors. I was one of the first persons to move here to manage this building and try to get it done on time. And looking back at it we did actually build this thing super quick, especially since nobody in this area had built a race shop before. This year I think it speaks for itself. There were a bunch of people that were skeptical, you know. “Oh, these guys are crazy. This is not going to work. How are they going to build a shop in the off season”? We started it in February, honestly. One of the biggest things that just killed us was getting the actual metal building parts here. This is a metal building that a farmer would park their tractor in, the shell of it. That's the cheapest way you can build something. And that was right when steel was hard to get. But I think it speaks for itself that right now there's not a single guy leaving here this year. Which for a race team, that's almost unheard of, whether you're HRC or Pro Circuit.
Vital MX: Do you feel like this ends up becoming a bonus if you guys are talking to riders about coming here? This is a nice extra thing on the checklist. Instead of having to stay in SoCal or go find some facility that you have to pay to be at and you're going to have to hire a practice mechanic. If you're going to go there, you're going to have to deal with figuring out how you're traveling separately to each race, etc. Where here you have combined all that together. That's got to be enticing.
Hoffman: We think so. And it's for sure only going to get better. We have so many things that we're excited about doing here that you can't really do at local tracks in California. We have a laundry list of stuff to do still, so it's just going to continue to get better and better and we're excited about it for sure.
Vital MX: You were talking about the community being really open to it. I know the track is in Georgia and everyone thinks Ricky is from Tallahassee. But in the town of Cairo, or nearby it, you have MTF, GPF, Next Level, it's not just you down here. There's a lot of other tracks. You mentioned this was a big point of why even Clermont isn’t a super positive idea. Yeah, Baker's is there. Yeah, Tyla’s is there. Doesn't mean you guys are all going to ride at each other’s facilities. However, down here, you're the only pro team. You guys have a lot more options than I really would have realized to ride. I knew MTF was nearby, but I didn't realize how much you were going to be able to rotate and trade out track time.
Hoffman: That was another super big part of the decision. Brian Johnson is co-owner of MTF now and he was on our team for three years in the early days, 2004, five and six. I spoke with him because I knew he would know. I asked, “Hey, how are things going with the community in Cairo, Georgia with motocross? Is everything cool”? And he's like, “Yeah, man, everything's been cool for ten, 15 years. There hasn't been a problem”. We could have moved to Alabama or something. You go somewhere that there's never been a motocross track and who knows what could happen? You could invest your future in something that gets shut down immediately. That would be a disaster. If you build a race shop in the country somewhere, what are you going to do if it doesn't work? If they shut you down because some farmer around the corner doesn't need some fancy race shop, you know? It was a huge concern and we felt comfortable here. They have an old movie theater downtown Cairo, Georgia on Front Street. And they had an event where they showed On Any Sunday and they had the local motocross historian guy showing the history of motocross and the history of motocross in Cairo, Georgia. There’s been tracks here since the seventies and lots of people were into it. That's a good sign They actually show Supercross races once in a while at the theater, stuff like that. So, the city's really been welcoming to us, and it's been a super positive thing.
Vital MX: The only negative I can see is when the West rounds come around, what would you do? However, Yamaha still has their race shops in Cypress. It's easy for you guys to hang out there for four, six, eight weeks. So, discounting that, have you run into a negative with moving; shipping time from any of your suppliers, anything like that?
Hoffman: Um, the only thing that can be a drawback is in California rain doesn't even come across your mind, you know? So, the first, year rain stressed us out because we were like, “Oh my gosh, we might not be able to ride tomorrow”. But once you realize you're going to be all right, if it rains you can still ride. So, it's really not as stressful. But that that seemed like a negative at first, because sometimes you feel like you're chasing your tail. You look at the forecasts anywhere in Florida in the summer and it literally shows rain every day. My brain is thinking it's going to rain all day, but it's not. It's just going to rain for half an hour in the afternoon. And a lot of times it's just the right amount of rain for the track the next day where you don't have to put the water truck out there or something. So, that was a little scary at first. Once in awhile, flights can get out of control. But I think when flights get out of control, they're kind of out of control everywhere, you know. Once in a while, you're going to get somebody that is super comfortable with the city or something. They've got to be around everything. Big cities, you know, all the time. I guess you might lose out on a rider or something that's just like, “Man, I have to be by LA or San Diego” or something big. I mean, I guess that could happen. We haven't necessarily run into that yet, but I could see it happening.
Vital MX: Is a prima donna that wants to live by the beach or LA worth having on the ticket?
Brad: There's enough riders out there these days. I don't think that's gonna be a big deal to us.