Jake Gagne Interview [MotoAmerica Superbike Champion Speaks]

You might not guess it from Jake Gagne’s mellow demeanor, but he has been the man to be for three years running in the MotoAmerica Superbike Championship. Gagne’s dominance kicked off in the 2021 season and hasn’t relented. He recently wrapped up his third-consecutive title fight with two rounds left on the 2023 calendar. Gagne has racked up 39 career superbike victories in an extraordinarily short period while aboard his Yamaha YZF-R1.

A familiar face within the MotoAmerica paddock, Gagne’s career is colored with time in the World Superbike Championship, Moto2 wild card rides, and much more, making him one of the most well-rounded and experienced racers on the grid.

Jake Gagne Interview: Motorcycle racer

We sat down with the Southern California native who now calls Colorado home and talked about his racing philosophy, the Yamaha R1’s development, and much more.

Ultimate Motorcycling: Things have been going pretty well for you recently. You’re carrying on winning ways and recently claimed your third-consecutive MotoAmerica Superbike championship. But before diving into that, I’d like to start by getting a little background about your career because it didn’t begin with roadracing, as many fans might assume. Can you tell me how things got started for you?

Jake Gagne: I started racing motocross when I was five or six. My dad was into dirt bikes, so I convinced him to get me a bike around that time. I started riding in a buddy’s backyard, and fortunately, we had a cool track called Barona Oaks MX that was close by, so I started racing motocross almost every weekend there. 

Kind of fast-forwarding, by the time I was 10, 11, or even 12 years old, my dream was to race Supercross. I didn’t know a thing about roadracing. And then, my dad signed me up for the Red Bull Rookies Cup program, and that came out of nowhere. We just flew to Barber Motorsports Park and did the tryout. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I was definitely one of the slowest kids out there, I think. But I had no experience, so luckily, I got picked, and I just learned a lot that year. I started way back in the pack at the beginning of the year and then fought for wins at the end.

It was a quick transition, really. Like I said, I had no idea about roadracing. And, yeah, I made the transition and had great opportunities through the Red Bull Rookies Cup to go to Europe right after that. I was thrown in the deep end, which helped me get a good jumpstart, I think.

Jake Gagne Interview: AMA Superbike Champion

UM: So, your vibe is much more relaxed than your fellow racers, which is pretty refreshing in the machismo-laden world of motorcycling. How does that play into your whole racing philosophy if that’s a conscious effort?

JG: At this point in my career, of course, I’ve been doing this for a long time, and like anybody, we race motorcycles because it’s fun. That’s why we all started—because we enjoy it. We enjoy being here. We want the challenge.

Every day I’m here, I try to be grateful that I’ve got a gig racing motorcycles, and even on bad days, I remind myself that I’m fortunate to have a gig racing. I just try to enjoy every minute, be grateful, and do my best. Obviously, that’s easier said than done sometimes, but doing the best I can is kind of my thing in life. And if things don’t go my way, as long as I give it my all, that’s all that matters to me. And like I say, we have good and bad days, but just give it my all, and be grateful, and enjoy it while I’m here. 

UM: That’s a solid attitude about all this. Your career is interesting in that you’ve taken a lot of opportunities and risks, as well. You’ve done the Red Bull Rookies Cup, Moto2 wildcard races, took the Ten Kate Racing opportunity in World Superbike (WSBK), and that’s before tallying up your domestic racing history—you’ve done quite a bit. You’re now at the top level in MotoAmerica, but do you still see competing in the World Championship as the end game for an American rider? Do you think that’s still at the forefront of your and your fellow racer’s minds?

JG: Yeah, being an American, it’s not as easy to make it over there in Europe as it is for a European, for sure. 2008 was my first year of roadracing here in the Red Bull AMA US Rookies Cup. I only did one year, then I went straight to Europe for two seasons in the Red Bull MotoGP Rookies Cup. I think that was such an important part of my career to get thrown in the deep end there.Jake Gagne Interview: Motoamerica Champion

My second year of roadracing was with many really amazing European kids who had probably been doing it for a little longer than I had. I think that helped me grow and push my skills. At this point in my career, it’s hard to say whether there’ll be many opportunities for me in Europe, as opposed to maybe a younger kid who is motivated to go to Europe for Moto3, Moto2, or whatever that path may be.

The experiences I’ve had in Europe with the Red Bull Rookie’s Cup, a few dabbles in Moto2, and even my 2018 WSBK season with Ten Kate Racing (Honda CBR1000RR) were all really cool experiences. Even at that point in my career (2018), I was getting thrown into the deep end again, with some of the best Superbike riders in the world, with some fantastic and experienced teams—not only riders or teams, but the programs and the bikes. I was able to learn a lot through that.

There were tough days, big crashes, and days when I wasn’t too stoked to be traveling around and being on the road constantly. That part was certainly tough for me throughout my career. You want to enjoy traveling, but it’s not the same when you’re racing motorcycles. You’re going to the hotel, track, and airport; you’re not getting a lot of time to go sightseeing or enjoy the different parts of the world. It is work, but I really enjoyed my experiences and seeing all the different sides of racing around the world, whether in Europe or America.

Obviously, I’ve had most or all my success in America, besides a little bit in the Rookies Cup when I was young. And the most enjoyable part of my career racing has been in America, in MotoAmerica. I’m biased being an American; I get to be home more and be around people I can speak with who speak the same language, and I think I can relate with a lot better.

I’ve built a lot of great relationships in the American paddock with many great people. So, it all plays a part. Coming back to racing motorcycles, making sure that I can enjoy it every day and be stoked and motivated to go out there while we put our butts on the line, to give it everything we got, and at the same time, enjoy it, is important. So, it’s been a balance that I’ve got to experience all sides of it throughout my career.

Jake Gagne Interview: MotoAmerica Champion

UM: That does give you a unique perspective since you’ve worked with private MotoAmerica teams like Schiebe Racing (BMW S 1000 RR) and World Superbike teams like Ten Kate Honda, and now you’re on the factory Yamaha bike in MotoAmerica (Fresh N Lean Progressive Attack Performance Yamaha Racing). You’ve seen all sides, as you said. You also did a WSBK wildcard race with the Attack Yamaha team recently. So, what kind of parallels between your overseas experiences apply to what teams and riders are doing here?

JG: It’s a whole different world. If we are comparing AMA MotoAmerica Superbikes to World Superbikes, the rules are fairly similar. The tires are a big change, which is what we faced when setting up our bike for that event. And for me, as a rider, just getting used to those things is a lot.

I think the whole paddock mentality in Europe is a bit different. It’s hard to pin down if it’s more serious or intense, or maybe there’s more money to be earned or lost. So, I think all those things play a part in just the mentality of the riders, the teams, and the crews. I’ve always felt, here in America, that there’s a little bit more of a grassroots feeling, and even a little more enjoyable at times.

MotoAmerica almost feels like a big club race with more money on the line. People are there because they love the sport, they love motorcycles, they love racing—whatever side of the team that they’re on, whether they’re a rider, mechanic, crew, or a fan—it’s always felt a little homier. And obviously, being an American, I think that’s part of the feeling.

For example, when I did that year in World Superbike, I’d say it was always a lot more intense. Whether it’s because of the sponsors, the pressure from the teams, or just the mentality of a different culture—it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is. Maybe that’s just why I feel more comfort or enjoyment here, I guess. That’s always been an important part of whatever I’m doing because there were times, even in that year in World Superbike, or even in times when I was a teenager in Rookie’s Cup, where I was like, “Man, I kind of just want to go home. I don’t want to sit around here,” (laughs) Of course, I want to come and race, but after that, I want to go home.

Jake Gagne Interview: Leading the superbike pack

There were times in the World Superbike series when we were traveling a lot, where I could say that I hated traveling, and I just wanted to get the heck home, get away from all the stress, get away from the drama, and the pressure, and all that. It’s natural.

Everybody is going to handle that a little differently. I think it’s crucial for young American kids who want to race on the world stage one day to do it; I think it’s pretty necessary to get out there. Especially now with how big the talent pool is coming from Europe and the opportunities that those kids have, I think you have to make it a priority to get over there at a young age and experience it and see it and be a part of that world and see if that’s for you and if it fires you up or not.

UM: Absolutely, and that’s something I’ve experienced on the media side. MotoGP, WSBK, and MotoAmerica all have different paddock vibes. MotoAmerica can often feel casual, as if dudes hang out in the pits between races. Circling back to the bike momentarily, You know what the Yamaha YZF-R1 can do overseas and with your domestic domination. Richard Stanboli (owner of Attack Performance and team manager of Fresh N Lean Progressive Attack Performance Yamaha) is leading development stateside and is known to be a bit of a wizard in his own right. So, how’d we get here, and where is it going?

JG: So, when I joined the team, that was the first year that Attack Performance came on to run the Yamaha U.S. racing program. Before that, Cameron Beaubier and Josh Hayes were on the bike, and those were some very successful years for Yamaha, especially when the new generation came out in 2015. I was on an R1 Superstock bike back then, which was just an amazing machine and a huge step up from the older generation R1. With Attack taking the reins and bringing the Yamaha program in-house, Richard Stanboli could have the freedom to play with a lot of the stuff he wanted to do.

The guy, like you said, he is a wizard. He’s super smart and can manufacture a lot of great stuff. Even these days, we’ve got an Attack Performance swingarm, Attack chassis parts, Attack triple clamps—all that stuff can help really dial in and let us play with the bike’s geometry. The motor and electronic stuff are big pieces and are always moving forward.

Yamaha YZF-R1 Jake Gagne MotoAmerica

It’s been cool having Attack, Richard, and his expertise in the chassis so we can try to tune in on stuff. Even with swingarms, I know we’ve had evolutions of those parts over the years I’ve been with the team. All those little parts, like triple clamps or whatever else, really play a role in changing geometry, the bike’s flex, and its character.

And that’s stuff that I think Richard, even on paper or on the computer when he’s designing all these parts, has a unique understanding of what they can do even before they hit the track. By the time he gets them manufactured and we go testing with it, we’re already in a pretty good zone and see improvement from where we were.

It’s been really cool as a rider to be able to play a part in that over these last couple of years with Yamaha and give the input I can in areas that I feel will help us become better, especially as we’ve seen the last couple of seasons with the competition, stepping up their machines and riders as well.

Everybody’s playing that development role of trying to understand what the priorities are with the bike. We need to focus on and realize the strong points of the motorcycle and then also try to understand what the other bikes or the other guys are doing a little bit better to close those gaps in those areas. So, it’s been fun to be a part of that development.

As far as when we raced in Portugal last, it’s hard for me to say even what exactly is different about those guys’ bikes. I’m the rider; I don’t get too technical with all this stuff [laughs]. At a certain point, it’s pretty good for me to understand a basic level of what’s going on, but not really get too tweaked into all the little millimeters here and materials there.

Even then, with Yamaha Europe and Richard at Attack—there’s still plenty of information they can bounce back and forth and share. The Europeans did help us a lot with general guideline stuff going into that round at Portimão, which was really cool, and it was a lot of fun to play with that. We got thrown in the deep end, even though we’ve had great success at home; it’s a different world and style of tracks over there.

I think the big thing was utterly different tires; regardless of the actual bike setup stuff, it was the tires. Especially for me, being so used to riding the Dunlop tires being one way, then going over there into Free Practice 1 on Friday and having to ride the bike totally differently. We build habits over time, and sometimes it’s hard to go straight into a race weekend with all the big dogs and be able to change a lot of stuff. But it was good for me as a rider to experience that and understand what those Euro guys do really, really well.

Yeah, it’s been fun to be a part of the evolution of the Yamaha over these couple of years. And it’s not stopping any time soon. Even going into next year, we got a couple of rounds left. It was nice to get the championship done and dusted, which is a weight off our shoulders. But, there’s still a lot of work going into next year that we want to dial in and improve. It’ll be a fun process.

UM: Since we’re discussing evolution, I wanted to ask about your riding style. Coming into your three-time title-winning streak, it seemed like your style began changing in 2021. The bike used to move around underneath you a lot, and since you’re a taller, lanky guy with a motocross background, maybe that worked for you. I’m unsure if it’s a conscious effort or evolving with the R1 simultaneously, but things seem to be a lot more settled. Could you tell me about that?

JG: I think it’s been a combination of many different things. When I jumped on the Yamaha in 2020, I was still Cam’s (Beaubier) teammate. Coming from bikes that I’d ridden over the past couple of years before that, I think I’d say I was giving the bike a lot more input than it needed at times. I was trying to force it into doing things that it didn’t always want to do.

It was really cool being Beaubier’s teammate that year. He had so much experience and success on the R1 then. I could analyze, not only with data, but how he rode the bike—even his style, how smooth the guy was, and how precise he was with the Yamaha. He understood that there are times when you might overwork the bike, give it too much input, and take away some of the power that the thing has—not just mechanical power but of the chassis and what the bike wants to do.

Watching him that year and getting to see him briefly on track before he sailed away from me, I could tell how he could finesse the thing and how efficient he was on the bike. Even if you were to watch the broadcast on TV or watch a replay, if you were to compare us, sometimes it looked like I might be going faster, but I definitely wasn’t. He was just allow the bike to do the hard work for it.

When Beaubier left in 2021, I was still transitioning into becoming a smoother rider and, in a way, just being more connected to the bike and letting it do some of the jobs it wanted to do without getting in the way.

That’s been a learning process, and I think it just represents experience in the sport. As guys get older and do it longer, things happen a little easier, smoother, with a little less intensity, especially with the Yamaha. The R1 is a bike that likes someone with more finesse. It wants to flow and not get out of line too much, but just enough, so that’s been a process over these last couple of years. Part of that process is being able to ride with the same team and the same basic motorcycle for years and years and years now. You get more experience, and it comes to you.

I remember when I was a teenager or in my early 20s, I’d say I put a lot more out on the line every time I was racing. I know I have a better feeling when I’m close to that limit, and sometimes, you can’t fight around certain things. I think it’s just a lot more finesse, combined with a lot more comfort and understanding of what it takes to get around a track fast, even if it doesn’t look as wild and crazy. That’s kind of how the lap times come down.

UM: As a racing fan, I think the confidence shows, too. Speaking of Beaubier, you guys spent tons of time racing together besides being teammates. You’re back to racing him at the top level in MA while he’s riding the Tytlers Cycle BMW M 1000 RR. Related to that is another competitive guy like Josh Herrin, who is aboard the Warhorse HSBK Racing Ducati Panigale V4 R. The bar is rising in MotoAmerica competition, so where do you see your strengths and weaknesses within the Superbike class?

JG: Yeah. As you said, seeing so many different manufacturers at the front of the Superbike class has been fantastic. Of course, everything rides a little differently, and with the Yamaha, we’ve always had a little more success with the really twisty areas when you’re on the edge of the tire for a long time. How it handles and manages bumps or elevation is always done really, really well.

For sure, the motors play a part—those things have got some serious power. Depending on the track, there are places like Road America where you’re flying down straightaways for a long time, but it’s still all about mechanical grip and getting power to the ground.

Those things (BMW and Ducati) have insane amounts of power, but if it’s not hooking up, then what are you going to do? I think putting power to the ground is something we’ve been able to figure out, especially this year. That’s one of the strengths of the Yamaha. We always seem to be getting off the turns really, really strong and use our power in a good way—how the Yamaha handles the bumps is essential. The tracks in America don’t have the newest, freshest, nicest asphalt, and it handles the bumps, cracks, and different asphalts well.

When there’s a track with a lot of elevation, no big, long straightaways, and a lot of side-to-side or quick direction changes—we can take advantage of our strengths. We’re always working to improve everything; we’re always trying to find more mechanical grip and fine-tune electronics—anything that will let us get into the turns deeper and harder while on the brakes and use the front tire better. We’ve made a lot of headway this year, for sure. We’ve always had a pretty good setup, but I think we made a lot of headway while braking and getting to the apex this year.

Everybody is strong on the brakes, which we focused on this season. I got much more comfortable with the bike setup and understood how hard I could push the front end. It’s a never-ending battle because as soon as you think you’ve got one thing figured out, something else will jump out and need tweaking. This year, riding and racing with all the different guys at the front has been incredible. It’s going to keep on rolling, continue forward, and we just got to keep doing our work.

UM: Those are great insights we’ll look for in broadcasts. We’ve gone over our time with you, and I know you’re a busy guy, so we’ll cap it off here. Thank you again for your time and thoughtful answers, and, lastly, good luck this weekend!

JG: Yeah, of course. It’s been good! It’s been great chatting, and let me know anytime you guys want to catch up and talk motorcycles. I’m always game. So, it’s been fun.

Photography by Bryan J. Nelson