As team manager for the Dodge Motorsports/Sycuan Casino/Hart and Huntington/Bel-ray Kawasaki, Kenny Watson is one of the busier people on the paddock. Running a team for easily the most famous motorcycle team owner in the sport, he must walk the line as not to blemish the image of Carey Hart and his many endeavors. While at the team’s release party at the aforementioned casino, we caught up with Watson and discussed just how much the team has changed in such a small time period and what the future holds for Hart and Co.
We are five weeks out from Anaheim One as of now. With full support from Sycuan Casino, Dodge, Bel-Ray, and many other companies, it has come a long way for you guys from what it was a few years ago.
When Carey and I first started this program, we just went racing. We didn’t know where it was going to take us, but Carey said, “We are going to do this smart and it will be a business. It is not going to be us getting money from our sponsors and funding it to go racing. I want the sponsors to have a return.” That is what we have tried to do, and this year we have Dodge returning for two more years and Sycuan Casino is also on for two years. We have Loc-Tite and Bel-Ray for two more years, also. We have a solid group of sponsors and we couldn’t do it without them. We are not about getting the hundred and fifty grand from the clothing company and the thirty thousand dollars from the tire company. We are not here to take money from the industry, but to help it. Get money from the outside to buy your product and put money back in your industry and make things work. That is what we try to do and what we have been working on. Going in to 2012, it will be very interesting. We have a really good line up of guys, and if they stay healthy and do what they can, we should turn some heads.
How have things come along in the last few weeks? Josh Hill is coming back from a major injury, Tedesco had his knee and hip issues, and Hansen’s hand is on the mend, and Partridge is the new guy. Has everyone made strides from where they were in the middle of the summer to now?
You can start with Hill first; four months ago he was having trouble walking and had so much nerve damage in his leg. He has been so dedicated and I remember talking to him, and he was so intense and wanted this so badly. He has pictures in his house of Villopoto, Dungey, Reed, Stewart, and Canard. I think it will be a long road for him, but I will be happy if he can makes the first few races and we get some top tens out of him. For Ivan, a lot of people didn’t know his struggles from last year. He blew his knee out after six races and rode it while they were taping his knee. They taped he knee so tight that he put his foot down and it dislocated his hip and tore the labrum in his hip. He couldn’t ride through the pain and had to have the surgery. He is probably in the best shape I’ve seen him in the fourteen years that I have known him, but he is not a kid anymore, he is thirty, so this may be his last hurrah. Hansen, you never know what you will get with him. It all matters on how much he wants it, and I think that he does now. For Partridge, he is going to be a big surprise to people, and that is all I will say there.
You have managed many teams over your career, such as Plano Honda years ago. Is it more stressful to manage a team like that, which was smaller and with a more limited budget, or this team that has so much riding on it?
Back then I didn’t have a stress level. I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t know on a business level, if that makes sense. I knew how to call and say, “I need twenty sets of plastic.” But I never looked at it like a business. I remember when Carey hired me, I went in and he said, “I know you think you know what you are doing, because I know you,” because I sponsored him for years. If you see the backflip we gave the casino, there are Plano Honda stickers on it. He knew my background in business and said, “When you come to work here, you are going to throw everything you know out the window and I am going to teach you about how to run a business. Not how to manage a motocross team, but a business.” One thing leads to another and I learned how to do it. It is stressful at times, and there are times where I can’t sleep at night and I am staring at the roof thinking, “Man, did I do this yet? I’ve got to do that now, too.” It’s not my team, but I take it in to consideration that it is. I look at it as my deal. I have nothing to lose if it fails, I have no money on the line, and realistically it’s not Hart’s money on the line either because we are pretty well funded, but it is his reputation. He said to me a long time ago, “I don’t care how good of a job you do, but if you embarrass me, my brand, my family, anything, I will fire you.” He has been my friend for a long time and I have a lot of respect for him and what he has done, and this has turned in to more than a job for me. It is my life.
Is it difficult to manage a team based out of Las Vegas, even though it is only hours away from Southern California?
No, not really. This year is the first year that we have tried something different. We have a partner, PMG Motorgroup, and they have an off-road truck team that is sponsored by Hart and Huntington, so we teamed up with them. We share their race shop in Southern California, and all of our testing and developing, and practice bikes are kept in Southern California. Our race shop, where the bikes are built, is in Vegas. It is a two and a half to three hour drive from Corona, and two days out of the week they come to Vegas, and two days out of the week they are in riding in California. It will be interesting to see how it works out, but we will see. A lot of people think of Vegas as distractions, but there really are no distractions. You don’t see anybody else and you are not caught up in everybody’s drama, who is humping who’s girlfriend, going to the supermarket and seeing the guy you are going to race against. We are at the track doing our thing every day and we don’t see all that other bullshit.
How is the equipment now compared to when you started out on Honda, when Hansen was on his first go around?
Leaps and bounds. It was one of those deals where we didn’t have the big outside sponsor and we had to get a lot of our money from in the industry. We were using things that weren’t up to par, they were just money. The exhaust pipes weren’t that great, our engine technology wasn’t there yet. We knew that are results weren’t going to be there, so we were all about the show in the pits and hoped the guys did well. Coming to last year by bringing Pro Circuit on board and having them run our deal from fender to fender, Mitch said, “I want to work with you, but you have to do what I ask. I can’t have you running shitty products to make twenty-five hundred bucks.” He is a crucial part of our program. A lot of people don’t realize there is a goal that we have, and it is with Pro Circuit and Kawasaki, that we want to be the feeder team in to the 450 class. Let’s say three guys are moving up out of Mitch’s team and they all ride Kawasaki, well there are only two spots open on the factory team, if two. They don’t want to lose a Kawasaki rider that has been winning championships that they raised from grass roots. So the goal is for Kawasaki, Mitch, and us, is if they can’t go to the factory team, they can come here.
Do you get to separate work from your personal life? Even tonight, which should be an “off night,” you are still making calls about what you have to do this week. Is it hard to find the balance and avoid burnout?
For the past three years, I have been very fortunate that my team owner never liked to ride the outdoors, so we don’t race outdoors. And our sponsors are happy with what we do. Hart and Huntington has never been to an outdoor race, and I am not under the grind like those other teams who race until September. I am done in May. I still work and finalize things, and we go to Mammoth and Powder Mountain to race, but I’m not on the grind. I’m not traveling as much, going to the race. It is a lot easier on me than it is for other people.