Josh Hayes Interview

Josh Hayes has been part of the American road-racing paddock for over two decades. The 42-year-old hailing from Mississippi, who currently competes on the Monster Energy/Yamahalube/Yamaha Factory Racing YZF-R1, is arguably the most experienced rider in the 2017 FIM/AMA MotoAmerica Superbike Championship.

To date, in 119 starts across the former AMA SuperBike class and MotoAmerica Superbike, Hayes has claimed 53 podiums, including 33 wins and four AMA SuperBike titles. He also rode as a wildcard for Yamaha at Valencia MotoGP in 2011, finishing seventh.

During Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca MotoAmerica, round six of 10 in 2017 MotoAmerica, we spoke to Hayes, who shared some great insights to the track, the current state of American road racing and motorcycle development in the modern age.

Josh Hayes Talks Current State of MotoAmerica & Life After Racing
Yamaha’s Josh Hayes

Ultimate Motorcycling: Thank you for sitting down with us. Tell us about the current season. You’ve seen some good successes but also had some heavy crashes. What’s the plan from here on out?

Josh Hayes: (Laughs) it’s been a rough start to the season but I’ve had a few that were mildly difficult starts. I’ve had some bad Daytonas then you get rolling after the first race. Having five big crashes in the first four events of the year isn’t easy, you know Miller was the first race weekend that I got through without falling down; my body is a little beat up. I’m still pretty lucky because for the twelve for thirteen years prior to this year, I’ve been first or second in every championship I’ve ridden in, so you’re bound to have a bad one come around at some point.

I find myself pretty far down, pretty much out of the points for the championship race but it frees you up in one frame of mind because I don’t need to worry about gaining points. I can just worry about winning races and if I fall down while trying, okay because winning races is what’s important for me and it’s what’s important for Yamaha right now – on my side of the truck. It frees me up to not be afraid to help Cameron (Beaubier, teammate) along with just experience and things that I know. He’s not a threat to me in the championship and I can only help him and I want Yamaha to win the championship, so whatever I can add to his program to help him do a great job for the team is always good.

I’m not in the best shape, I’ve been recovering a lot from a couple of big hits but I see some glimmers of hope. I had some races that didn’t finish the way I wanted but I had a decent result in Utah, so I find myself here in the top-two in every session – so things aren’t going bad but they’re not going swimmingly well (laughs)

UM: Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca is one of the most iconic circuits around but it’s known as being a particularly difficult track to race at. Given your experience with racing here, what are some of the key elements that make this track so challenging?

Hayes: You know, Laguna is one of the iconic tracks in the world – the corkscrew, of course, is a big topic of discussion. I always laugh because my first time at the track was 19 years ago in 1999 and I found out very quickly that it was easy to go this fast but when you needed to pull out an extra half a second or a second, it got real difficult.

For me, it’s never been a track that’s suited my style of riding. It’s a flowing track and for years, people would always say to me, “you gotta slow down to go faster,” and I’d always looked at them like they had a horn growing out of their head (laughs) and I didn’t understand what that meant. It was very difficult for me, it took me a long time to figure out what they meant by that.

You can’t charge the entrance too hard on this race track, you need to focus on the exits – climbing the hills, maintaining your roll speed, just things like that. So when I figured it out, it made a big difference and help me steady out around the track. I don’t think I feel I’ve performed particularly well here but lessons learned over a lot of years; I’m pretty steady. It’s hard to have a consistent race here because there are so many places where it’s easy to make a costly mistake.

I’m still as prone to it as anybody but I’ve managed to figure out a process that’s worked for me. I can’t come here and just get up to speed instantly because I have a tendency to have bad form, pump up tight and that can ruin the whole weekend if I do that. It’s a matter of starting slow, which is not natural to the way I like to do things.

It’s funny, the most iconic tracks that we’ve ridden at were probably the MotoGP tracks, so you have Laguna Seca, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Circuit of The Americas. In all three, I feel like I’ve shared the same sentiment – they’re fun tracks but it’s not my kind of track (laughs) but you couldn’t have a more picturesque place here at Laguna. The surrounding area is just beautiful but I can’t imagine riding a GP bike around such a small race track.

It’s always tough coming to Laguna Seca because we come from two long tracks like Miller, where it’s high altitude, where the bikes don’t feel as powerful and we’re running longer gearing, whereas here, we run some of the shortest gearing we’ll run all season. The bike suddenly feels particularly peppy here (laughs).

2016 Laguna Seca MotoAmerica Results & Recap
Yamaha’s Josh Hayes leads teammate Cameron Beaubier and Suzuki’s Toni Elias

UM: The FIM/AMA MotoAmerica series is rebuilding. You have been part of the American road racing paddock for many years and seen its ups and downs over the years. What kind of insights do you think organizers should consider so that they can continue drawing more interest in American road racing?

Hayes: There’s a million things and we all have a lot of ideas, so sure, I have a lot of ideas like anybody else. During the heyday of racing we had a lot of core fans, we had a lot of motorcycles on the road. It was just a different show. Sunday afternoon was a show – we allowed a lot more camping, there were a lot more crazy antics going on during the weekend, so it was a party as well as a race. We also elevated our heroes, we built people to aspire to, grow up to be men to be like or ride like, and we grabbed hold of something in the personality or in their riding that we felt like we could relate to or that we could cheer for.

In the information age, there is so much information out there – there are so many different series and all of them have their own columns, even ones that are…I don’t want to say insignificant, but at a much lower level. I think in doing that, we’ve made the heroes of the sport, who can do things that are not human on a motorcycle, we brought their level down too and made them somewhat bland. Selling the personality of the riders I think is what is going to get people behind a rider, and not even the core motorcycle enthusiasts, just the average viewer that goes, “I can relate to him in some way, so I wanna see how he’s going to do in this situation.”

The core fans that we once had, felt abandoned somewhat in the transition era and it isn’t easy to get those people back. We had quite a few years when it was bad and when we all said “no, no! It’s different now!” they weren’t really convinced. It’s also an age where people get bored quickly and move onto something else, so once they’ve moved on, it’s incredibly difficult to get those people to return. That said, I still think that we have one of the most beautiful and cool sports in the world.

Today, you get to see so much detail, and high-definition cameras have made things so much better – I think we need to focus more on promoting and presenting the actual show of the race. We need to focus on getting people to show up on a Sunday afternoon and watch a couple hour program by making it easily accessible to people with families who have never seen it before. When we come to their local town and people go, “hey I heard there’s a motorcycle race in town, maybe we should go see what that’s all about,” and then have it be so expensive that they can’t do that.

People like to use Supercross as an example but road racing is hard to spectate, unlike Supercross. It’s a big track and you can’t see much of it, so I think that the Jumbotrons have made the experience much better. You’re able to watch an exciting part of the track without missing out on everything else. We’re so stuck on the concept of keeping bikes on track that we forget to sell the main event well. Supercross is a four hour show, it has lazer-lights, you can see the entire track and here we are trying to get people to buy into a three day event. We want them to come watching qualifying and practice on Friday, then watch a race on Saturday and still come back on Sunday.

I feel like we need to sell a good three or four hour show on Sunday to start with. When new fans show up and sit down at turn one and they go, “Hey, how do they know how to line up?” The core fans, who are still going to be there, they’ll say, “Oh man, that’s from qualifying. That’s on Saturday, they get one lap to fire out their craziest lap time that determines their whole weekend,” and maybe then they can come and check in person next year. I think there are a few things like that which will help the sport but I’m just a rider, it’s just an opinion.

When I look at NASCAR, people don’t buy Chevy and Ford things, they buy Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhart Jr. keychains. We don’t have licensed product anywhere in this paddock. You can’t go and buy a Yamaha shirt to go and cheer for your group; you can’t buy a Josh Hayes shirt, even if you wanted to. Its things like that which will add to it and get people to get behind something that they can relate to.

UM: The Yamaha YZF-R1 was the newest factory supported Superbike out in the field. This year, Suzuki has brought out the latest Suzuki GSX-R1000, giving the Yamaha team some heated competition. In addition to that, there is a fresh Honda CBR1000RR out there and a recent Kawasaki ZX-10R, both run by independent teams. What kind of challenges has this situation created for the team in terms of development?

Hayes: The biggest thing is the rule changes. We had to inherit and adopt an electronics system that was developed by someone else, where before, we had a system that we had run for 12 years that was developed by the team and we were pretty well sorted.

When we got the new system, we discovered that it was considerably more complicated and that has somewhat dominated debriefs whenever we come in. When it dominates the discussion, it slows the chassis progress and development. Engines are constantly being worked on by the team and I don’t know how much it has slowed their progress, but on the chassis side of things – we go ride and come in, and it’s the electronics are the main discussion of the debrief.

The electronics are so integrated into the bike that you can’t go around them anymore, you can’t just put in a simple setting and go and ride the bike, they’re just too ingrained in every aspect of what the bike does. There is an electronic fix to every problem, every bump, every wheelie, every bit of tire-spin, rather than fixing it mechanically, there is a fix for it electronically.

I think all of racing across the board, whether we’re talking about the World Superbike paddock or right here, has changed in that aspect. The art of chassis development is kind of getting pushed to the side because so many of those problems can be walked around on the electronic side of things. That doesn’t mean that the racing isn’t good.

We all adapt to what we have. If you give me something and even if it hate it and let me ride it long enough, I’ll ride it pretty well. I think that’s what’s happening more and more in this day and age, instead of developing the chassis but that’s happening from an engineering standpoint. The day to day work for us is on the electronics standpoint.

My understanding is that we inherited a system from Yamaha WSBK that went about things a different way than we did. Suzuki didn’t have a WSBK team, so it’s possible that they were able to develop a system that was closer to home and understood by their crew. That could have shortened their learning curve so that they were on top of it much quicker.

At this time their bike is getting better. In the beginning in the season, the current bike was not head and shoulders above the last GSX-R1000. The last bike had its strong points over our current bike but the biggest change in that team to me is Toni Elias. What he has brought to that team is something a little different.

Roger Lee Hayden is a fantastic rider but I feel like his pace was dictated by the people around him. He’s a great rider but he hasn’t been a finisher. I don’t mean that as a knock towards Roger, I don’t know if it’s a nerves thing or what but when Toni came into the fold, Roger felt some new pressure, so he upped his game. That’s where I believe their gains have come from and now you add to that a proper new motorcycle that’s developing, taking their strong points and making them even better, it makes it very difficult for us.

That being said, our bike is still very capable of winning races. Cameron is in that spot I was in a few years ago with Blake Young where they have some strengths over us. You can’t turn their bike into our bike and match their strengths, you just have to figure out how to get the Yamaha around the race track the best it can go, and take it to them a different way while keeping your head straight about that. It’s hard, and experience goes a long way. So that’s what we’re focusing on as a team and that’s I’m trying to help Cameron do, without spinning himself down the wrong road.

2016 VIR MotoAmerica Superbike Results Yamaha's Josh Hayes
Yamaha’s Josh Hayes

UM: There has been talk that you might be leaving the FIM/AMA MotoAmerica paddock within the next season or two. What do you hope to do after racing and are you working on shifting your role in the paddock?

Hayes: I’m really lucky that I have a support system around me, namely my wife (Melissa Paris), who’s pretty understanding. We’ve always tried to make smart decisions with the money we’ve been making on a yearly basis, so that we’ve put ourselves in a good position where there’s no pressure on me when racing’s done. I have the ability to go and do what I want to do, without having to go and quickly figure something out. That’s about the depth of “life after racing” that we’ve gone through.

I love racing motorcycles. I had a discussion with someone where we were talking about the current season, where I said, “Man, I don’t want to go out on a tough season like this.” I was asked, “Do you want to win the championship?” and that’s like “Heck no, if I win the championship, I want them to have to take it from me (laughs).” The more I thought about it, there really isn’t a way that I want to go out of racing because I love it. I’m never going to be able to do something this cool again in my life.

That being said, on a very human standpoint, I’m in the twilight of my career. I’m on the downside. As Keith McCarty put it, “I have more racing past than future.” I’m going to fight tooth and nail, as long as I can. When the inevitable happens, whenever that may be, I’m not going to be devastated. I’m fortunate in that I’m not going to have a lot of “what ifs,” I’ve accomplished far more than I ever believed I could have imagined I would have in this sport, I’m content and happy. I believe some of that has an impact as far as how things are going now that I’m 42 years old. I don’t have the chip on my shoulder that I did as a young guy wanting to prove himself. I’m a four time champion and you can’t take that away from me (laughs). I still hate losing.

I’ve been asked the question a lot of times and then I have a crash like I did at Road America. As bad as that hurt, I got up on Sunday and rode without thinking twice about it. That tells me that I still must really like this and the positives still outweighs the negatives. I still want it, I still want to be there.

I think that my racing career ending is not going to be in my hands. That decision will be in the management above me and what the Yamaha team strategy is going to be. We have discussed retirement but only as options and there has never been a direct timeline. Yamaha has been a family to me, they believe that I have value to the team and there will be a plan where I’ll be involved. I don’t want to be away from the race track, I don’t know in what capacity I’ll be involved but this has been my extended – this traveling circus – for 25 years, and with Yamaha 19, so I can’t imagine a life where I don’t come to the race track.

I’m still trying to race and win races. If you start making a plan about retirement, and you dedicate a day a week to that goal, and you have a hard day at the race track, you start working towards the future, you don’t work towards the past. At this point, I’ve been lucky that my wife understands it and we’ll take care of the rest when the time comes.

UM: Sounds good. We appreciate the opportunity, it’s been great speaking with you.

Hayes: No problem, thanks!