Honda Power Broker
John Ethell may not garner the same level of name recognition around the beer tents as racers such as Miguel Duhamel, Jake Zemke or Josh Hayes, but the engine-building virtuoso and undisputed master of the Honda racing mill is universally lionized in the paddock. Throughout his remarkable 18-year career, Ethell has earned the respect and friendship of the riders who have racked up countless victories atop his powerful motors.
John Ethell’s heart has pumped high-octane gasoline since childhood. He began racing motocross at the tender age of five. A shattered ankle sidelined him at 19, but Ethell refused to slow down. "They told me I’d never walk again," the soft-spoken Ethell says, "so I decided to prove them wrong." Abandoning the hard surfaces, Ethell raced watercraft, eventually working in testing and development for Sea-Doo.
At 21, the Ventura, Calif. native found himself back on dry land, contemplating his next move when a young road racer asked him to prepare a few motors for an upcoming race. That young gun was Jason Pridmore, who would go on to collect 21 AMA National wins over a legendary 16-year career.
John Ethell worked in an advisory role on the building of Matt Lynn’s Honda CBR1000RR racer.
After working on Pridmore’s Kawasaki engines, Ethell headed to Charlotte Motor Speedway to watch his handiwork fly around the track. It was a new experience for the motocross-bred Ethell and one that would set the course of his career. "It was exhilarating to see the speed—the way they leaned over and dragged their knees," Ethell recalls of his first taste of the paved track.
In 1995, Pridmore broke his leg, leaving Ethell without his primary source of income. The pragmatic Ethell resorted to selling Kirby vacuum cleaners door-to-door to pay the rent. Eventually, the leg healed, Ethell returned from his detour into home appliance sales and the pair landed at HyperCycle Suzuki, where Pridmore took the 1997 AMA 750cc Supersport Championship.
The following year, Ethell plucked another young gun, Jake Zemke, from behind a parts counter to test ride the Aprilia Mille for a project that would bring the Aprilia Cup Challenge to America. The mutual respect born out of that experience would result in a long friendship between rider and mechanic.
The Master at work in Jett Tuning’s climate-controlled, soundproof Dynojet room. (Click image to enlarge)
Shortly thereafter, Zemke asked Ethell if he would accompany him to races if Zemke bought a bike. "I said yes, thinking there was no way he would be able to afford it," Ethell recalls with a smile. Within two months, Zemke pulled up to Ethell’s door with a brand new Suzuki GSX-R750. With that, they were off to the races. By the close of 1998, using bikes Ethell built in his home garage, Zemke had six AMA Nationals under his belt, finishing the season in the top 10.
2000 saw the beginning of John Ethell’s long association with American Honda. A year after joining the crew as Miguel Duhamel’s chassis mechanic, Ethell would be elevated to engine man for the legendary Canadian and fellow Red Rider Nicky Hayden.
Ethell returned to his dirt bike roots in 2005, working on Honda 4-stroke motocross engine development, but the 130-mile round-trip commute quickly took its toll. Ethell retired the following year. "I had been doing this a long time," he says of the decision. "I’ve always wanted to have dogs and a life outside of racing." Retirement for Ethell meant opening his own race shop, the Camarillo-based Jett Tuning.The decision to go it alone satisfied Ethell’s desire for a more conventional home life, and he also recognized an opportunity in his hometown. "People wanted a better product than what was available," he says. Apparently, Ethell underestimated local demand for his services, which range from Dyno mapping to complete engine builds. Less than two years after hanging his shingle, Ethell is doubling the size of Jett Tuning to nearly 4,000 square feet.
It may be fortunate that Ethell has his own place of business for an altogether different reason. On two separate occasions, the fastidious Ethell unwittingly tossed his employers out of their own shops. "When I was working for Jason Pridmore, I was told not to let anyone in," Ethell recalls. "Reg Pridmore walked in and wouldn’t leave, so I escorted him out and locked the doors. I got a phone call from Jason saying ‘Dude, that was my dad! Let him in!’" Ethell recalls with a laugh.
Later, during his tenure with Honda, Ethell was working late one night when a gentleman "walked in, didn’t identify himself and wasn’t wearing a badge, so I asked him to leave and locked the doors," Ethell says flatly. That intrusive gentleman turned out to be the President of American Honda. "I have this bad habit of throwing people out of places that I probably shouldn’t," Ethell reluctantly admits.
Evidently, that incident did nothing to tarnish his reputation at Honda. Three months after retiring, Ethell was asked by Kevin Erion to return as fly-in crew chief for the Erion Honda squad. In addition to acting as Aaron Gobert’s crew chief, the position reunited him with his friend Jake Zemke.
While tending to his Jett Tuning and Erion duties, Ethell also found time to build all the Superbike and Supersport engines for Corona Racing in 2007. For team owner Tim Saunders, Ethell was the obvious choice. "His engine work speaks for itself," Saunders affirms.
Racing moto-journalist Steve Atlas notched an astonishing ninth-place finish for Corona on a race-kitted Honda 600 in this year’s Daytona 200. Riding an Ethell-engined Supersport machine at Laguna last year, Atlas was genuinely impressed with the differences between the stock 600RR engine and one that has been subjected to John Ethell’s ministrations. "It’s a lot crisper. It pulls harder. It made considerably more power with all [Ethell's] black magic secrets" Atlas enthuses. Simplifying matters, he adds, "John Ethell knows how to make a motorcycle go around a race track like a son of a bitch."
Ethell is disarmingly modest when asked to discuss his own accomplishments. He describes his development of the Honda F4i’s 600cc engine as a "silent, proud moment." While he also built the engines that Duhamel and Nicky Hayden used when the pair captured first and second place in the 2001 Daytona Supersport race, Ethell’s pride in that remarkable feat is tempered by his broad range of experience in the pit, having performed nearly every crew function imaginable. "Every time you win is a proud moment; whether you’re a lead guy or one of the chassis guys, it doesn’t matter," Ethell says.
A Jett Tuning race-prepped Honda motor. (Click image to enlarge)
Throughout his extraordinary career, John Ethell has gathered an impressive catalog of accomplishments. Perhaps more importantly, he has earned the admiration and friendship of his riders. "I’ve been fortunate." Ethell states. "I’ve had a bond with pretty much every rider I’ve worked with."
Atlas agrees, "John’s just an all-around good guy. On top of being your buddy and a cool dude, he’s got confidence in what he does." After a pause, he adds, "If I ever had to pick a guy to be my crew chief, John Ethell would definitely be at the top of my list."
Given Ethell’s Herculean workload, Atlas may need to convince an overzealous employee to toss Ethell out of his shop and lock the doors if he wants to get his wish any time soon.