John Ethell Interview – Behind the Curtain at Jett Tuning

John Ethell Interview | Inside Jett Tuning
John Ethell Tuning Ultimate MotorCycling President Arthur Coldwell’s Suzuki GSX-R1000

In this edition of Ultimate MotorCycling’s “Behind the Curtain,” we sit down with John Ethell, the founder of Jett Tuning, a world-class motorcycle performance and repair shop in Camarillo, Calif.

Ethell has spent his entire life tinkering away with high performance engines, and is a name with which you might be familiar. His associations run deep, having worked with the likes of Reg Pridmore, Jason Pridmore, Fritz Kling, Gerald Rothman, Jake Zemke, Nicky Hayden, Roger Lee Hayden, Miguel Duhamel, Alex Gobert, Aaron Gobert, Josh Hayes, Andrew Short, Davi Millsaps, Kevin Windham, Ernesto Fonseca, and Jeremy McGrath.

Just those names on Ethell’s résumé are enough to get anyone to sit up and listen. However, Ethell is a straight shooter and this tell-it-like-it-is interview is long on candor and gives tremendous insights into motorcycle racing and tuning. Enjoy!

UMC’s Nic de Sena: How did you get into this? Why’d you start riding?

Jett Tuning’s John Ethell: Oh, man, I started when I was four. My brother had an [Honda] XR75 and was playing around with that and moved on to an [Suzuki] RM80, and my dad was willing to put me on the XR75 and push me off and catch me every time I stopped. I started riding and racing the same year.

UMC: You’ve had very prolific racing associations. So, how did you move into the street bike world?

JE: You know, the street bike world was a fluke. Obviously, I followed it as a kid — I followed all racing. It wasn’t a plan or intention or anything else; it was accidental. I was working for a couple different watercraft companies as a contractor. One of them went bankrupt. I went to work for another one out in Havasu. They liked my work, but they wanted me to move to Canada and I don’t live where it snows. So, I came back home and was selling Kirby vacuum cleaners door-to-door to try and make a dollar.

A kid called me on the phone, a kid — he was my age, our birthdays are almost identical. Anyways, his name is Jason Pridmore. He said, “Hey, I heard you were pretty good with motors. Can you go help out my crew chief while we get ready to go to Charlotte?” So, it was a two-week fill-in, go-help type of job. Okay, fine, I didn’t know anything about it, so I thought it would be good experience.

Did that. At the end of the two weeks we did the hurry up, thrash, load the truck, and he said, “Hey, what are you doing right now?” I said “Nothin’” and he said, “Well listen, you wanna see this stuff go around the track?” and I was like “Sure!”

That’s when I was informed that I couldn’t be paid (smiling), but I would have my expenses covered and would have a place to sleep. Jason and his wife at the time, Suzie, really nice people – great people and they took great care of me and I proceeded to work for expenses for a few years. I had a lot of fun working with Jason, moved on from there.

UMC: How old were you when you were doing all this?

JE: That was late ’92, so quick math – 22 or 23?

UMC: So, you were still young enough to go out, have fun and learn the trade, that’s awesome.

JE: Yeah when I came home from Havasu, I moved back into my mom and dad’s house. Of course, my dad said he was going to cut the rubber band that was tied to my ass (laughter), but I moved back in there selling the vacuum cleaners door-to-door just trying to figure out what my next move was, whether I was going to stay in the motorsports industry or move on.

UMC: How did you end up with HRC and some of the bigger racing ventures?

JE: Well, by then I’d worked for quite a few people over the years. In 1998 I ran Jake Zemke out of my garage on a home-built [Suzuki] GSX-R. We did something like four races. I had gotten burned out from the year before, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to partake. I was doing the Aprilia thing and all that stuff at the same time.

In 1999, Jake Zemke and Roger Lee Hayden rode for Cycle Gear. My intention was never to work for a corporate company. I’d already had bad experiences, and I usually don’t do to well with corporate policy. I ended up being noticed by Ray Plum and Merlyn Plumlee at American Honda. They came to me and wanted to hire me – would I come down for an interview?

At the time, Honda was an icon god to me. I thought, they came to me, I didn’t go to them. I’ll go and at least hear what they have to say. I signed up to work for them. It was a year-to-year contract. Originally, I thought that I’ll be here for a year so I can at least say that I’ve been there and done that. One thing led to another, and it turned into a rather lengthy relationship, kind of a Honda family, you know, all the way up to 2010, when we did the Moto2 project with Roger Lee Hayden. That was the last official event at a racetrack.

I’m still involved as far as press stuff, shootouts, sometimes some input on the bikes, future things, and special projects.

UMC: On racing – you’ve worked with a pretty storied list of people over the years. Can you speak to some of the qualities that need to be there in a rider looking to get into racing?

JE: Well, they have to have the attitude. That’s first and foremost, right? Because even the attitude will overcome some of the lack of skill. I’ve always had this thing – the 5-percenters. 95-percent of the guys out have 95-percent of the skill set. 5-percent of the guys out there have 100-percent of the skill set. But, you still have to have the attitude.

There are guys, and I’m not slamming anyone, like Jason Pridmore. The guy was always up front, always had the skillset, but didn’t have the last five percent. But, what he did and does have is the heart and the attitude. That can make up the difference. I’ve seen a lot of them over time and you will them to win because you know they’re putting everything, in it.

There are other guys out there that just got handed a bunch of natural talent and can go fast pretty easily. It’s subjective to a point, but there is always “that kid” that was coming up; everyone was watching and was really fast, and then they hit the deck. Not just a little tip over, usually a pretty good one. After they have a pretty good one, that’s when you find where they’re at. Because it’s how they come back from it, you know?

Having the Mike Alessi dad doesn’t help — it just makes everyone move away from you. The kid with all the talent in the world, but doesn’t go to the gym and doesn’t exercise, just relying on his talent doesn’t work either. There is a whole package there and you have to see all of those things fall into place. Having the kid that has the good attitude who has hit the deck a couple of times and still keeps pushing forward is what you need.

UMC: So how did Jett tuning come into the picture?

JE: (Laughter) You know Jett Tuning — the name Jett Tuning was given to me by one of the guys that was a parts warehouse manager at one of the watercraft companies I worked for that went out of business. I had to have a fictitious business name, so he came up with Jett, which is John Ethell Tuning Technologies, because I was always tweaking on carburetors.

Jett Tuning was a matter of happenstance because of the environment. In 2005, Southern California had a little bit of an El Niño. The McClure Tunnel [in Santa Monica, Calif.] flooded, there were sinkholes on the PCH [Pacific Coast Highway], and they were also doing the carpool expansion lanes on the 405 freeway. I was driving from Camarillo to Torrance and back every day for about six years [approx. 60 miles each way]. It was starting to take me four-and-a-half hours round trip. There was never an easy way to get home; there were nights where it took me four hours to get home.

At the same time, there was a diesel plant manufacturing the low sulfur diesel that burned to the ground and suddenly prices were three dollars a gallon.

I was doing motocross engine development on the CRF250R. So, I was already transitioning into a different aspect of the job since the road racing side of it was doing its own thing. The freeways were a mess, I was spending too much time in my truck, I didn’t get to see my nieces, and diesel was hugely expensive. I had just gone ahead and signed a new contract when I went in and told them “It’s done.”

So, I actually started Jett Tuning. Within a few months of starting here, I got a phone call from one of my bosses at Honda and he said, “We want to you go work for the Erion Honda Team.” And I said, “Well, I have a job,” to which he replied, “You’ll be a fly-in guy” (smiling).

From there I ended getting to work with Kevin Erion and Rick Hobbes for the next five years. I had a great experience with them. Jett Tuning managed to survive with me leaving for weekends at a time and (nodding) it’s all been okay!

UMC: I know that Jett Tuning is a full service shop. Can you go through a little bit of what you guys focus on?

JE: Not to say that we’re the jack of all trades, but we kind of are. We do suspension, fuel injection, motors, chassis, and general service work. I’ve got a couple of older gentlemen in town that have brought me watches to fix generators (laughter). We do watercraft, side-by-sides, and boats. Street, dirt, Harley. We try to do all of it.

UMC: What are some basic things that consumers need to be looking for with a shop?

JE: Sans California, the CARB and the mess that we have to deal with here, the end consumer needs to have someone that has a good reputation. I don’t know how many people have a dyno across the country, but there are a lot of dyno shops out there and sometimes people think that just because there is a dyno, that there’s credibility. Well, there’s not.

I happen to be one that prides myself on what I do – and I happen to think that my skillset and my tuning ear makes me better than the next guy down the road. There are times that the computer tells you that this is what the motor needs and it’s just not what it needs. But you have to know better than the computer and not just follow along the software. But back to the consumer; somebody that’s willing to take the time to get it right.

On the tuning side of it, as far as fuel injection. There’s no rocket science to it. They need to be willing to play with it a little bit, but 99-percent of it is pretty straightforward. You always have the guy calling in that says “I’ve got this pipes, these cams, I’ve done this,” but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter because what we’re trying to do is make what’s going in equal what’s coming out, which is what we’re reading – which is what we want to see.

For the consumer, obviously, there is fuel mileage. If they are commuting on the bike then we need to maximize that. In all cases, doesn’t matter what the build is, as they’re harder on the throttle and higher in the rpm, we need to make sure that there is enough fuel to cool the combustion chamber.

They just need to find a guy that’s got a good reputation and just having a dyno is not the answer. There are a bunch of different forum sites and I have customers come in showing me “Hey, this guy got five extra horsepower. Here is his dyno run!”

I can cheat a dyno run in two seconds with you standing next to me, producing all kinds of numbers and you’ll never know what I did; all of I sudden I look like a hero. A dyno doesn’t mean you know what you’re doing.

UMC: On the performance end of it, for the guy off the street, what should someone be thinking about with any bike?

JE: Man, it’s kind of funny, because I’ve made my reputation from motors over the years but I have always told everyone — “Save your money. Do the suspension.” Any production based bike — sans some of the European stuff that comes with some better suspension — they all come with “okay” suspension, but we call them suspenders (laughter) ’cause that’s kind of what they’re there for. They’re meant to hold the bike up in the air, but not meant to do anything good. They’re only there to prevent the manufacturers from getting sued.

The stock suspension is usually a price-point item. So, in Japan, or wherever when the’re sitting down and planning out what they’re going to do with the bike, and the engineers have grand visions. Then marketing and sales get involved and say, “Well yeah but it has to retail for this…” and the engineers reply “Oh….OK.”

Everything gets scaled back from there (laughter). Suspension is probably one of the more touted things, but it’s probably one of the least performance-minded items on a production bike.

For example, Honda has the SP version of the CBR1000RR. It comes with pretty decent Öhlins road and track forks on the front end and it comes with a really nice Öhlins rear shock, but Honda not wanting you to change the geometry of the bike means that the shock isn’t ride-height adjustable. So, we can’t change the geometry. Automatically, that means you have to take that one off and sell it on eBay to someone who wants one that is that length.

Even though you paid extra money to get this nice bike that comes with Brembo and Öhlins, the front forks are good and you can make them even better, but the rear shock…you can’t do anything with it. You paid all this extra money and you can’t do anything with it. You know, the Brembo calipers that it comes with, they’re from a lower line. You gotta remember, when you buy stuff in production trim, its production quality and production priced.

My big thing is, most everybody wants a pipe. If not for the sound, but for the performance, get a pipe, get a Power Commander. Put on good suspension and good brakes. Because go-fast bikes need stop-fast brakes.

I don’t care what skillset you are, you can always benefit from suspension. Anything I do to the motor isn’t going to change whether or not you’re going to make that corner or hit the brakes any harder or improve your skill set. So if I make the motor a 200 horsepower motor, well, okay, you can whack the throttle open and go a little faster, but the guy who rolled through the corner 15 or 20 mph faster than you is still going to out accelerate you down the straight. So it doesn’t matter how much hp you have if you can’t ride the thing and you can’t get through the corner.

UMC: What are the suspension basics that people need to look into?

JE: If it’s just an everyday commuter guy, he probably doesn’t need to buy Öhlins suspension. Would they benefit from having an Öhlins rear shock? Sure! But they still need to get the front end re-valved and re-sprung. Obviously, every bike is a little bit different in some form; there is an untold amount of benefit to be had there.

Brake pads are not something you want to go and buy because you saw something that were $29.99. Some of our racing brake pads are $160 a side. So it’s $320 for a dual rotor bike. They’re pretty outstanding brakes, but price is indicative of everything in our industry and there are a lot of forum sites or shops that sell a lot of lower dollar stuff and there are a lot of middle of the road products that people aren’t even aware of, then there are high-end products.

Brakes are not something that I would suggest getting the $30 set. An average set of pads should be about $44 dollars a side, so you’re looking at around $90 for set of pads.

UMC: Speaking of investment in things that will help your skill, can you talk a little bit about track riding? Why should someone invest money into the track?

JE: It’s an investment. It is. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten a phone call or an e-mail about one of my customers or someone that I know that’s died while riding the canyons. We have people that have been seriously hurt riding the canyons. I’m like everyone else – it’s fun, it’s not a major dissertation.

You’re not loading up your tools, your bike, your tire warmers and going away for a day or two. One of the reasons I no longer own a street bike, and will probably never ever own a street bike again, is because I have the same disease that some of the people I know who have been killed have — I call it a sickness. It’s a throttle sickness. You’re not comfortable or happy unless you’re pushing it, going a little faster, riding a little harder, trying to catch the guy that’s running away from me a little bit.

I caught myself doing that one too many times and was fortunate enough not to pay the price, but there were several times that I should have.

That’s the value of a track day, whether it’s instructed or non-instructed. I think everyone should go to at least one school in their riding careers. I don’t care if you’ve been riding for 30 years, you’re going to show up and learn something you didn’t know. Beyond that, track days are where you can say “Hey, I wanna see how far I can take this and push a little harder in a controlled environment.”

The canyon riding? Everyone can ride them, but until you’re much older, you don’t have that self-control — knowing when to say no. Inevitably, you end up going way faster than you ever should have, and you come home with the adrenaline high which the fun part of it. The adrenaline high can quickly turn into trauma and tragedy if you’re pushing it too much.

UMC: Coming from the position of a veteran rider, shop owner, tech, and enthusiast, do you have any closing words?

JE: There are several aspects of what we do here and some of it is racing, albeit a very small portion of it. Some of it is club racing, and the club racing is very, very good. There are a lot of talented guys hanging it out and doing that. We do cruisers, we do a lot of enduros, and the enduro riders are sometimes guys who used to be involved in one aspect of racing or another and that’s their way of toning it down a little bit.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a racer, a track day guy, a commuter, or just the occasional street cruiser type. Find a shop that caters to you and takes care of you. Make sure that you have a relationship with that person so there is that personal touch.

This industry is very small. The motorcycle community is close nit. One of the cool thing that has been born of that culture is the Ultimate MotorCyling/Jett Tuning track day that we did — we had OEM manufactures there, we had MotoAmerica pro riders there, we had guys that were worth billions there, we had the everyday guy, and then we had little old me, just a mechanic out of Camarillo, California.

We all sat down, watched a movie, and ate tri-tip with a nice little BBQ. We had our track day the next day; everyone hung out and got along. There was no echelon. There was no socio-economic grouping. Everyone hung out as friends! That’s the beauty of the motorcycle industry. It’s certainly not the money (laughter). It’s the camaraderie, the bond we share; that we’re all equal, right?

I’ve got to work with some really great people over the years, some fantastic riders. Worked with some extremely wealthy people, worked with some really young guys riding bikes in the back of dad’s beat-up pickup truck, tied together with wire, just trying to make it. At the end of the day, everyone has the same attitude and same approach, the same love or passion for the sport. That’s what it’s all about.

About Jett Tuning:

Jett Tuning is a full-service motorcycle performance shop in Camarillo, Calif. that caters to all who are part of the two-wheeled lifestyle. Jett Tuning is happy to work with riders anywhere in the United States, satisfying all of your performance needs.