For the last two years, racing in the Lucas Oil Off Road Series Pro-4 Division has been a completely new endeavor for Newport Beach Businessman Josh Merrell. In fact racing off road short course or any kind of motorsport is almost completely foreign besides a little dabble in late model circle track racing. Overcoming the tremendous learning curve has been difficult to say the least. Feeling out the dynamics and dealing with the variables of off road racing is one thing but maintaining the equipment and making it last while smashing it up with 15 other trucks besides you is a whole other deal all together. It is the difference between success and failure.
Since the 2011 season started it truly appeared that Merrell was coming around. His talent as a driver was shining through and he only needed to stay clean and keep the truck together to make consistent top 5 finishes.
Since the beginning, Premiere Motorsports Group provided all the resources and assets one could muster including mentors like Scott Douglas and Bill Johnson from Pro Fab Motorsports. The most recent equipment acquisition was a high caliber state-of-the-art Douglas Motorsports Pro-4 built by Pro Fab Motorsports in 2008. This new vehicle weighs 600 Lbs. less than the old PMG Pro-4 and as usual features a 900 HP ProPower Engine. Douglas Motorsports would support the Round 13&14 efforts with crew chief, mechanic and Scott Douglas spotting for Merrell.
During Fridays practice, which was also the first time driving the new truck, Josh proved to be 2nd fastest in the field. The last time this particular vehicle raced at the Las Vegas Track, Scott Douglas dominated the Pro-4 field, winning on Saturday and nearly swept the weekend but faltered on Sunday’s final laps due to a blown tire.
For Qualifying, Merrell would score the 3rd fastest lap time with a 1:07.673 nearly matching Carl Renezeder’s pace and slightly behind pole setter Kyle LeDuc.
The Las Vegas forecast called for a winter storm to move through the area, although the conditions were chilly, the weather seemed to hold out which felt like divine intervention. The opening ceremonies featured a special tribute to fallen hero and Pro-4 Champion Rick Huseman, with a moving video piece by Mad Media and the #36 Huseman Pro-4 leading the field around the track and no doubt warming the hearts of everyone in the packed grandstands.
With a 4 position inversion, Merrell would start from the front row on the outside of Todd LeDuc. As the green flag dropped, Josh powered ahead to the lead which soon turned into a near 20 truck cushion over 2nd place. By Lap 2, Carl Renezeder finally got by Todd LeDuc with Merrell still stretching the lead out. At this point the only thing that could hinder forward progress was a full course caution when Curt LeDuc flipped upside down in Turn 1.
After the truck was pulled off the track and the field collected for a restart, Josh would again pull ahead as the race leader. Renezeder, a viable contender in the 2011 Pro-4 Championship, used his driving precision to pour on the pressure and was all over the back of the #22 Hart and Huntington / MAV TV Truck. The mistake came when Josh’s foot slipped off the throttle in Turn 4 which would result in a complete roll over and landed back on the General Tires. Merrell immediately got back on the gas and the Grabbers found traction accelerating the truck forward and resuming the race in 4th position.
The Competition Caution soon came around less than 2 laps later. On the re-start Josh charged hard behind race leader Renezeder and the two LeDuc boys. As the laps trickled down Josh was able to drive around Todd on the white flag to assume the 3rd place position and would maintain to take his first podium finish also securing the fastest lap/speed of the race.
On the podium stage, Josh’s normally reserved demeanor came alive. “I am so stoked to finally be up here. I cannot thank everyone enough. We are so grateful to General Tire, Lucas Oil, MAV TV, Liquid Graphics, and LunarPages.com. A very big special appreciation goes out to my wife Kim, our family, Ryan & Erin Busnardo, Scot Demmer, Scott Douglas & his crew, and everyone at Hart and Huntington. Thanks for believing in us!”
Sunday’s Pro-4 Event would start out much the same but without Merrell’s hole shot to the front. As the first race after opening ceremonies the track conditions were rather sloppy. A field of Ten Pro-4 trucks would roar around the Las Vegas Track. As the group chased each other on Lap 1 heading through the rather tricky chicane, Merrell was eating a face full of mud from the traffic ahead. As Josh pulled a tear-off, another glob of mud found its way right back on to his visor leaving no vision and was forced to quickly pull another tear-off. By the time Josh was able to see, the #22 Truck’s right front wheel had slightly climbed up the chicanes inside K-Rail putting Merrell up on two wheels and into a spinning nose stand to cart wheel, nearly toppling backwards as it came to rest right side up. There was no get up in go left in the truck this time and Josh was feeling it as well. The Lucas Oil Off Road Safety crew was on the scene in no time and made quick work to assess that he was in good health. No stranger to crashing, Josh mentioned later “This one was probably a 8 on my scale.”
“The team morale is upbeat and we are looking forward to closing out the season on a positive note,” claimed Premiere Motorsports Group Team Leader Ryan Busnardo. “I dont think we would still be here if we did not have a competitive performance to offer. I really believe this team is capable. We are developing the drivers and putting in the work. I am looking forward to the future and following my strategy to get us there.”
Hart and Huntington Off Road is now undergoing preparations for Round 15 and aiming for a great finish in the Lucas Oil Challenge Cup. Make sure to share the Facebook Events with your friends and tune into Lucas Oil Off Road Racing on TV
If there was someone that probably nearly everyone is rooting for as a potential Comeback of the Year, it’d be Josh Hill. After a huge backflip-gone-wrong, and then complications on other body parts due to reactions from his surgeries, it’s been a long, tough year for Josh as he struggles to recover and get back on the track. When we talked to him this week, he’s been back on his Hart & Huntington/Dodge/Kawasaki, and is working his way back up to speed. But better than that, he seems happy and pumped to be out there.
Vital MX: All right, Josh. Where have you been at and what have you been up to?
Josh Hill: For like the last year and a half I’ve just been trying to get better. Trying to do everything I can in rehab. I had to have a lot of surgeries. A little over three months ago I had to get my Achilles Tendon, the tendon below that clipped. They had to break all the ankle capsules in my ankle. They cut all the tendons in my toes. I had to rebuild my ankle because it was just paralyzed for so long that it kind of fused together. Luckily that surgery took and I’m able to move my ankle. I’m gaining feeling pretty much everywhere except for my toes are pretty much paralyzed still. But everything’s going good; I’m able to work out and just keep doing my stuff and try to make baby steps at getting back up there.
Watching you out on the track again it looks like you’re having fun again, and that didn’t always seem to be the case.
I’m having a blast. I’ve definitely had a lot of time to sit back and look at what I want to do with my life and it’s definitely riding dirt bikes; there’s nothing better than this. There have been times where I’ve taken it for granted and now all I want to do is keep getting better every day. It’s easy to have fun when you haven’t done anything for a year-and-a half.
What flipped that switch for you?
Things happen. I feel like everything happens for a reason. Basically I just have a whole new perspective on racing and what I like. Even the people I like watching ride have probably changed. The people I have respect for has probably changed, just because I’ve got a whole new outlook on everything. When you’re kind of caught up in things and you’re in the scene every day sometimes you need to take a step back and see how cool the things are that I was doing. There’s probably nothing better than racing a dirt bike. I probably was just taking it for granted.
Do you wish you could go back and redo some of that stuff from the past?
Oh, man, yeah. If I had a time machine that would be sweet. Maybe just pull a little bit harder on that one flip… Just do a bunch of things. Obviously, yeah, I wish I could change a lot of things but at the same time I’m only 22 years old. I love riding and this is what I love to do, so I think I’ve got plenty more years in me as long as I can keep making myself stronger without having any big injuries.
What do you have to work on between now and the start of the season?
I’ve got a laundry list of things I need to work on. More than anything right now it’s just keeping my physical therapy going, keeping working out, and not getting discouraged. I always used to be one of those guys who just wanted to go to the track and wanted to be the fastest guy out there. Now I kind of have to swallow my pride a little bit and just cut my teeth and go out here and try to get a little bit better every single time I ride the bike. I’m just definitely looking at it a lot differently than I used to. I’m looking at it as every single day I want to build and I want to get just a little bit better and get a little bit closer to my goal of being at the front of a Supercross race. I have a long ways to go but I’ve got two months and I’ve got the right attitude. I think I’m ready to just keep putting in the work. I think I can – maybe not at the very beginning of the season – be up there battling with those guys, but if I keep chipping away and just keep getting stronger hopefully mid-season I’ll be running up there with those guys.
What does it mean to you that a team like Carey and the Hart and Huntington crew have faith in you even as injured as you were and kind of as down as you were?
I can’t even thank those guys enough for stepping up. They came in when I was so down and out. I was barely walking and able to do anything when they came on board. So, for those guys to have faith in me and to keep that faith in me the whole time I’ve been hurt and just be positive… I definitely wouldn’t be in this situation I’m in right now if it wasn’t for those guys. I probably would have lost faith in myself because between Carey and Kenny Watson, everyone at the Dodge/Hart and Huntington team, between them and DC Shoes and Dragon, I would have been struggling in life. Those guys kept me afloat. They kept me going, and made it to where I could do everything I needed to do financially – have the surgeries I needed to have, have the training and physical therapy… They’ve just been a huge blessing.
Do you have to keep one eye in the rearview mirror now because you’ve got your brother Justin coming back there, too?
No, he’s already past me. It sounds funny but he’s already so good on a bike. He has already jumped stuff out here that I haven’t done yet, and I think most of the 250F guys haven’t done. He’s gnarly. When he comes in I think he’s going to be at the top of his class I believe. He’s an animal, too. His whole training outlook on everything…he’s an animal. He’s got the more Ricky Carmichael mentality; he just wants to do everything he can. Just a good old boy living up in the country.
Does that motivate you, too?
Oh, totally. I cut my hair to try to look like him. I’m doing everything trying to follow in his footsteps. (Laughs)
Ivan Tedesco was a solid competitor in the Supercross class season…well, at least until a couple races to go when he suffered a pair of injuries. First a knee, and then a hip, that sidelined him before they got to Las Vegas, and he just missed finishing in the top ten overall for the season. He and the rest of the Hart & Huntington/Dodge/Kawasaki crew were working with Bones at Pro Circuit to dial in their suspension when we caught up with him.
Vital MX: I think last time I saw you in action it was sitting in the Hart & Huntington/Dodge/Kawasaki rig in St. Louis, and you were working with Dr. G afterward to try and rehab your injured knee. But you at the next race you got hurt even worse, and had to call it a season. Are you back to full speed now?
Ivan Tedesco: Yeah. I tore my ACL at Toronto and I rode a few races on it. Then I tore my hip up at St. Louis. Then I raced Seattle, the following race, on both injuries and it was just too much for me to handle. So, I pulled out of the series, got surgery, and six months later here we are. I started riding two weeks ago and things are good. I’m stoked.
I hate asking the “Are you 100%?” question because I always figure everybody has always got little dings and tweaks and limitations from previous injuries. How are you feeling?
I feel good. As far as skill or comfort on the bike, whatever you want to call it, I would say I feel normal. The only thing that’s lacking is a little bit of fitness, but that will come with time. So over the next couple months I’m going to have to put my work in. We just started testing today. I feel like everything is coming into place. I’ve just got to put the work in and have a good off-season. I’m having fun with it. I’m glad to be back out here.
It seems like Carey, Kenny, and the whole Hart and Huntington crew, they kind of step up the program a little bit every year.
For sure. From where they started three or four years ago to now, it’s a legit race team. We’re here to do the things right. We’ve got some good sponsors and good people behind the program. That’s the most important thing; is having the people and the equipment. We’ve got all the tools to go be successful, now it’s just time to go to work and make it happen.
Do we see you do Outdoors again or what’s the deal? Is it still a Supercross-only team?
My contract is Supercross only. I don’t know. I’m going to race Supercross and worry about that later. Maybe I’ll show up at a couple, maybe I won’t. I don’t know. I do miss the Outdoors a little bit. It’s fun. We’ll have to see. Only time will tell.
Don’t miss that heat though, right?
No. I don’t think anybody misses that heat. If I did race and I was sitting on that line at Texas I’d be asking myself, “What am I doing here?” But I love Outdoors. Outdoors are gnarly. You can’t go race Outdoors half-ass. You’ve got to be in shape. You’ve got to have the equipment, test time…the whole package. So, we’ll see. Maybe I’ll show up at a couple. Like I said, only time will tell.
Where do you feel like you’re at in your career? Do you feel like you’re still improving all the time? What are the expectations for this year?
My expectations are the same as always. Go out there, put my work in, and do the best I can. That’s really all I can do in the end. Last year was kind of a bummer. I felt like I have a lot more to offer than my results were showing last year. Just too many crashes and injuries. That stuff holds you back. This year I just want to stay healthy and build on it. I know I can run with those front guys, I’ve just got to get the confidence and get that swagger back.
Apparently the injuries weren’t holding you back on the starts. Even on some of those races where you were hurt you were killing it on starts.
Yeah, my starts were awesome, especially there towards the end. But it sucks because I wasn’t able to put them to use. I was basically in survival mode towards the end there. I’d get the start and just kind of survive because I was in so much pain. But this year hopefully I can get some more starts like that and use them. Be up there and battle and if not to be up front finish close to the podium or on the podium a few times would be nice.
Privateer life isn’t easy for sure. During Supercross last year, Kyle Partridge had one bike that he used for both practice and racing, which meant that he didn’t do all that much practice or training, in an effort to keep his equipment fresh. For the outdoors, the lanky Las Vegas resident hooked up a sponsorship with the Sycuan Casino (www.sycuan.com) in El Cajon, CA, and hooked up with the DNA Shred Stix / Star Racing / Yamaha crew for the outdoors. That gave him a good place to pit from and made travel to and from the races easier, but being a 450 guy on a 250 team, he apparently wasn’t getting much in the way of testing and support.
For 2012, he helped bring the Sycuan support over to the Hart & Huntington/Dodge/Kawasaki team, and turned some heads with a solid ride in his heat race at the Monster Energy Cup. Now he’s prepping for the 2012 Monster Energy Supercross season, and will be working with Ivan Tedesco for get really dialed. There’s no doubt he’s got skills, and the upcoming season will definitely be his best chance yet to showcase them.
Vital MX: Okay, Kyle, so tell me about your deal for next year.
Kyle Partridge: It’s kind of a little bit different than what I’ve had in the past. Just a good group of guys and good equipment with Hart and Huntington and Carey, everybody out at Vegas at the shop, Watson… It’s kind of good. I’m happy for once. I have a good bike and I feel really good actually so we’ll see how everything goes.
I was going to say… Monster Energy Cup, you were duking it out in there for a while, and scored a direct transfer to the main events.
Yeah. My heat race…I don’t want to say that I rode great, because I didn’t, but I rode good. I rode better than I have in the past. I think that kind of shows what I can do with good equipment and good people. I rode a lot before Monster Cup, probably more than I rode all year Supercross last year, with only having the one bike. Now being out here in California with Ivan and him helping me out, it’s going to make me ten times better than I was at Monster Cup.
Do you feel like you’ll be able to finally show your true potential there?
It kind of fires me up because Matthes seems to talk a lot of crap about me being on the team. It almost is like, for me when I passed Alessi and I started catching Townley, after the heat race I was like I know where I can be now. I know I can run with these guys. I just need to get in a little bit better shape. Not even a little; I need to get in a lot better shape. But it should be good Anaheim 1. Working with Ivan, like I said, is going to be huge for me. He’s somebody that I’ve looked up to my whole life. He has obviously won championships and won races so he knows what it takes and is a top-ten guy. So, it will be good for me especially with Ivan and Hill and Hansen and those guys helping me out will be big.
I know the Pro Circuit guys have used Ivan in the past to, “Hey, go out and push our guys around and help them.” So in a way, that’s not a new thing for him.
No. And his biggest thing with me is… And he told me the other day, “I don’t want to have to babysit you.” And I told him I just want to be able to do twenty laps. I’ll do whatever I’ve got to do. You don’t have to worry about babysitting me. Just tell me what I have to do. So far it’s good. We’re just kind of doing riding stuff right now because he’s still trying to get in shape as well. We’re kind of on the same page as far as where we’re at together as our conditioning goes, just because he’s been out. We’re going to start doing a lot of gym stuff I think here pretty soon just to get us both a lot stronger. It will be cool hanging out with him and going to see Dr. G, and just getting the whole program together.
Tell me about your deal with the Sycuan casino – how that came about, what that brought to Star last year, and then over to Hart and Huntington this year?
I was at Davi’s house last year and I got in contact with an old friend of mine that I’ve known for seven or eight years and her mom happens to be the general manager of the casino. And we just kind of started talking and she was asking me what I needed through Supercross on, from Jacksonville on. They kind of just were dabbling in it. They just paid for my flights and hotels and entries and stuff like that, which was huge because I was having to pay for all that myself. They bought me a bike right before outdoors started because I was just going do them on my own. Then the whole deal with Star came about. Obviously they gave Star quite a bit of money. I think a lot of people that looked at that deal as me paying for my ride don’t understand that in a sense, yeah, I kind of bought my ride but at the same time I’m trying to get a sponsor involved in our sport. They battle with San Manuel as far as advertising and marketing. So, all outdoors the guys at Star were telling the casino we’re going to run ads and stuff like that. They never did and the casino wasn’t really too happy about it. So, I went down to the shop and talked to Watson about a completely different thing and then it just got brought up with (Carey) Hart and we just kind of took it from there. I literally just the Sycuan people a text message with a link of a video of Hart’s wrap-up of the year and said, “Here’s another option.” And she said, “Have Hart call me.” It kind of just took off from there.
In a sense, I want what’s best for the casino as well as Hart. No offense to Star Racing or a lot of other people that were approaching me trying to bring it, but Hart’s marketing and Hart’s ways of going about getting their brand out I think is one of the best in our sport. And they do a lot of stuff for the casino. Just with giveaways and Dodge and the casino having cars for giveaways at the casino, and having Hart come down… It’s just a better business plan for the casino, because their ultimate goal is to get people into business. Having Carey Hart, or hypothetically Pink come to the casino is going to draw a bigger crowd. They’re trying to put together a deal with the truck team right now to have an off-road race at the casino. I think that will be huge. It’s just a good deal for me. I want what’s best for them just like they want what’s best for me. They’re going to be co-title sponsor with Dodge. I think it will be a good relationship with Hart and the casino. I know it’s for a couple years. That will line me up for the next two years and it will be good.
Being co-branded title sponsor with Dodge, that’s huge.
I know that they’re really excited about that because, like I said, Hart is really good at trying to get his sponsors to work together. That’s stuff that Hart does that not a lot of other teams do. I think that that’s what’s really appealing for the casino to have Dodge and to have Sycuan t-shirts made with Hart and Huntington logo on it and sold inside of Zumiez. We’re doing a big autograph thing on the first of December down at the casino. They’re advertising all of it in every store that Hart and Huntington is sold in and there are eighty stores in San Diego county, forty in Inland Empire. They’re trying to get a big crowd to go to the casino. It’s just little things like that that I don’t think a lot of people see, or if they do they overlook it. Kind of like the whole deal with Star. I kind of felt like they took advantage of the situation and they got their money and that was it. I don’t want to talk bad about Star because they’re a good team and Bobby took good care of me. It was just really frustrating because I didn’t get a lot of time to test…actually I didn’t really get any time to test. I was promised that I was going to test a lot and I never did. I think it just worked out better for Hart. Obviously for me because Hart is at home and I don’t have to move. The shop is twenty minutes from my house; our track is thirty minutes… It will be good I think.