Podcast featuring Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D, J.D., Faculty Director, School of Business and
AJ Catanzaro, owner, Moto-X Academy
Motocross has become an increasingly competitive and technical sport in the last 10 years. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Gary Deel talks to professional supercross racer AJ Catanzaro about turning pro when he was just 16 years old and how the sport has changed during his 10-year career. Learn about the evolution of course layouts with increasingly dangerous elements, technological changes to motorcycles and protective gear, and why he hopes electric motorcycles will soon be an option in professional racing.
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Dr. Gary Deel: Welcome to the podcast, Intellectible. I’m your host, Dr. Gary Deel. Today, we’re talking about the world of professional motocross and supercross racing. My guest today is AJ Catanzaro. AJ is a professional supercross racer and owner of the world’s number one traveling Moto-X Academy. AJ has been racing professionally for 10 years and has been teaching for the last decade as well, earning top five finishes at the pinnacle of the sport and traveling the world to teach riders of all abilities. AJ, welcome to Intellectible, and thank you for being our guest today.
AJ Catanzaro: Thank you for having me.
Dr. Gary Deel: Absolutely. For the sake of our listeners who probably don’t know this, I am an amateur, novice motocross rider by hobby, and I’ve been racing since I was little on and off, but you’ve obviously taken this sport to a whole new level in the professional world.
But for our listeners who may not really have any idea what that’s like, maybe they’ve never seen a race televised or in person. Can you give us a sense of what motocross/supercross, what the sport is, what it consists of, what some of the skills involved are for professionals at your level?
AJ Catanzaro: Yeah. To dumb it down, for lack of a better term, as much as possible, motocross is just racing motorcycles on dirt. What I do specifically is supercross, which is stadium racing. It’s a bit tighter environment. We don’t do tricks, but we’re in the air more than we’re not, and it’s a race, but there’s a lot of jumping involved. Speeds aren’t as high. I would say top speeds are maybe 50 miles an hour, but we’re getting there in half of a second. Where outdoor motocross, we’re on the same exact bikes, but you’re going higher speed, 60, 70 miles an hour.
Still tighter course if you’re comparing it to something like NASCAR or car racing. I would say it’s more technical, definitely more dangerous. But, yeah, I think that’s why we love it and why people get addicted to it the way they do. Nothing I’ve ever done in my life can quite match that adrenaline level.
Start a Business degree at American Public University.
Dr. Gary Deel: That’s perfect. I’m glad you gave a point of comparison there that I think a lot of people can relate to, because I’m sure most have seen a NASCAR race, or even within the motorcycle world, you have these different, and you touched upon it with the mention of tricks people may have seen like the X Games, where guys on dirt bikes are doing backflips and flying through the air, doing crazy stuff. I think it’s good you touched upon the point that, that’s not really the purpose of this, although I guess in theory, you can do some stuff if you have the time and the ability on the track, but it’s more about obviously the race itself.
Comparing it with even like MotoGP, where people have seen motorcycles riding on the road, speeds are much higher, but that’s an asphalt sport as opposed to the dirt, what you do. Even with like a flat track or dirt track, which is on the dirt technically, but it’s sort of a big flat oval as opposed to what you’re on, which is a lot of different obstacles and jumps of different kinds.
AJ Catanzaro: Right. When I say motocross, everyone’s first question from the common person is, “Oh, so you do X Games, right? Like the tricks? I’m like, “No, no, we race.” Then, when you’re talking to people that maybe are more familiar with other motor sports, like MotoGP, which is the street bike racing, or NASCAR, or rally car, or any of those supermoto, which is a motocross kind of style bike, but more on tarmac. It’s all relative. It’s all scary in its own right.
When we say we’re only going 40, 50 miles an hour, I think some people immediately can write it off as being not as scary as the MotoGP guys that are going 200 miles an hour, but it’s a different thing. Like I said, we’re in the air more than we’re not. When you have 22 other guys on top of you, when you’re trying to do that, it can get a little scary.
[Podcast: The Life of a Stuntman]
Dr. Gary Deel: That’s a really interesting point of comparison. I don’t know if there’s any hard statistics that has ever analyzed that, but I wonder what the comparison in terms of actual injuries are between, for example, road racing, where unfortunately, if you do fall, you’re likely to be pretty severely injured at maybe 200 miles an hour, but I would say that the falls in motocross are far more frequent by comparison. So, is it a lot of little injuries compared to maybe a lower risk of one really big injury on something like MotoGP? That’s an interesting question.
AJ Catanzaro: Those guys, believe it or not, get away with a lot of crashes just fine. Even high speed ones going 140, 180 miles an hour, they can walk away totally fine. They have actually protective gear that when they crash, it has like a telemetry system that knows you’re crashing before you do. So, before you hit the ground, it’ll expand and you’ll have a protective layer to help you in those situations, and then as long as you crash on the tarmac, you have leathers on so you slide. In motocross, you don’t have any of that. When you hit the dirt, the dirt can be pretty hard and you don’t slide, you more so stick and tumble.
Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah. That’s an interesting point. I’m familiar with the road race gear, and it’s almost like an internal airbag system. I know we’re off on a little tangent here, but what are your thoughts on that as it pertains to like a dirt sport? I mean, is that a possibility or is it too restrictive in terms of your ability to move to be practical?
AJ Catanzaro: I always think about that. I wonder if it’d be an issue because we do hit the ground a lot and sometimes it’s small impacts. I know nothing about it. It’d be interesting to look into that more. Maybe you could set it up to where it’ll only activate upon a crash at a certain speed.
Dr. Gary Deel: Right. I’m imagining the kind of car crash where you don’t want your airbags to deploy, but it does where you like touch somebody at two miles an hour. And you’re right, if you take a small fall at low speed, you don’t want your airbags to deploy and completely ruin your race.
AJ Catanzaro: Right, and it cost you a lot of money because I know those things aren’t cheap when they explode either. But it’d be something to look into for sure, because I think at our level, of course, the helmets that we wear are absolutely top-notch, the boots that we wear, the knee braces that we wear. But other than that, I don’t have elbow pads, I don’t wear a chest protector, I don’t wear any of that. There’s a fine line between trying to be comfortable and being able to maneuver and do all the things that we do on the dirt bike, and then having obviously safety as well.
Dr. Gary Deel: Right. That’s interesting how it’s evolved over the years, because if you look back 20, 30 years ago, external big bulky chest protectors were far more common. I mean, I got into the sport from my father who was a professional dirt track, flat track racer back in the day, and the gear that people were accustomed early in motocross has changed quite a bit. If guys wear a chest protector at all, it seems to be just the internal kind of slim line one. Then I have seen a lot of the head sort of stabilizing, avoiding the breaking of your collarbone apparatus, which is relatively new to the sport as well, but I know that’s also restrictive in terms of head movement.
AJ Catanzaro: Yeah, and a lot of the pro guys have gone away from the neck brace systems, where in 2011 to 2013/ 2014, they were popular and almost all the pros were starting to wear them. Now there’s only two or three guys off the top of my head I can think of that wear them, which is kind of crazy, if you think about it.
Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah. Is that a product of a safety issue or just not trendy or?
AJ Catanzaro: I’d like to say, it’s not because it doesn’t look cool. Personally, I can speak for myself and say that I don’t wear one because all of the neck braces I’ve worn in the past have limited my movement just enough to where it’s a little bit of a factor. If it’s a 2% thing, then I get rid of it. If it’s on my mind at all, if it’s affecting me in one little section on a two-minute track, but it’s two seconds that it affects me, then that’s a big deal. I have to get rid of it.
Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah. At your level, everything is critical, even the smallest amounts.
AJ Catanzaro: Yeah, but safety is critical too. I’m somewhere in between on that where, of course, I’m open to, and I’d like to always be open to, wearing more protective gear, just about something that doesn’t affect your movement, because if it affects your movement, then it changes the riding position you’re in and then it makes you more dangerous the way that you’re riding the bike.
Because then you’re trying to change your riding position to adapt for whatever type of malfunction you have going on, and then all of a sudden, you’re making yourself way more dangerous, way more likely to crash in the first place.
Dr. Gary Deel: Now, circling back to sort of the basic definition for those who are not familiar, what kind of bikes are you riding? Obviously, you have a 250 and a 450 class, and how does that compare with a bike that someone might be familiar with maybe from the street or what they’ve seen on TV, that kind of thing?
AJ Catanzaro: Yeah. The two premiere classes are 250 and 450. They’re the same height. They look the same to the common person looking at them. You wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. It’s not like the 450 is twice as tall or twice as large as the 250, just motor displacement. I’m trying to think what to compare it to. What would you compare it to?
Dr. Gary Deel: I ride a 450 myself. I guess a rollercoaster or a really fast sports car in terms of the acceleration. If you’ve never been on a motorcycle, it’s pretty hard to create a relevant point of comparison, but I guess that would be my best guess, because when you tell someone that the horsepower, for example, of a 450 is maybe in the 55 to 60 range or more, depending on what kind of work you have done to it, that sounds low when you think about like a Corvette having 500 horsepower or something. So, it’s difficult to put it in the minds of someone that, yeah, but this bike weighs 240 pounds and the acceleration is incredibly fast if you’re hooking up.
AJ Catanzaro: I would say that putting it in horsepower terms, relative to a car, the acceleration off the bottom, like out of a corner that you experience on a 450 race bike that I race would be equivalent to, I don’t know, probably a car that was 800 to 1200 horsepower, maybe something equivalent to like a Tesla, right?
Dr. Gary Deel: Right.
AJ Catanzaro: Have you ever been in a Tesla driven one where it’s like, it takes, your stomach falls out your butt when you accelerate?
Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah. I have a model three, so I can definitely relate to that.
AJ Catanzaro: Yeah. Fast people that haven’t been in one, or haven’t been in an extremely fast car, or haven’t been in a roller coaster, not a normal roller coaster, like a crazy roller coaster that goes like a hundred miles an hour and it gets there in two seconds. It’s a lot of bike to handle. The technology is amazing for how much power it is. It’s very light, which if anything, just makes it even a little bit more scary, but also I’m only 150 pounds, so it doesn’t feel me on it.
Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah. That brings me to another question, which is with regard to the professional athletes who engage in the sport, like obviously to look at someone like yourself, or Ken Roczen is currently the points leader in the series right now for the 450 class. These guys are not bodybuilders. They don’t look like Olympic athletes, and I don’t mean that as an offense to anybody, you included, but it’s obviously not a sport that requires the traditional kind of musculature that you would see like in a football player or basketball player. What are the training sort of routines for someone in motocross? What are the muscles that are most important? What kind of practices do you engage in to prepare your body for it?
AJ Catanzaro: Yeah, that’s a good point. It’s very specific. I would say it’s close to what a professional cyclists would look like in that their core in their lower body is extremely built and muscular, and then their upper body kind of looks just like just some skinny guy that plays video games or something. Now, everybody’s body’s different. There are some people that of course have to work more in the gym. Especially in the 450 class work more on building upper body strength to be able to hold on to the machine.
For myself, I’ve always had a really strong upper body, so I have to be careful because we get what’s called arm pump, which is almost like compartment syndrome in that the blood goes into your arm and then it can’t get out. So, our muscle fascias basically bound so tight around, I’m sure I’m botching all of this and you probably know more about it than I do as far as the actual definition, but it gets to the point where you can’t feel anything. You can’t feel your hand on the throttle. You can’t feel your hand on the clutch, your hand on the front brake.
So, we can’t build that much upper body strength. Controlling the bike comes from, I always say, your belly button down. So, you need that leg strength, you need that core strength, and most importantly, honestly, you need cardio.
Dr. Gary Deel: I think that was an excellent description. Obviously I’m familiar with arm pump not nearly at your level, but just, if you’re riding hard to your limit, regardless of where that is on the scale of speed and ability to go fast, you’re going to get that arm pump.
I think you described it accurately and it’s really counterintuitive, which is interesting, because someone on the outside might think that if you’re suffering from an ability or an inability to hang on for long periods of time than what you need to do is train and build up your forearms. But that’s actually the opposite of what you want to do because of that compartment syndrome that you described.
AJ Catanzaro: Right. That’s a frustrating thing too, because that is everybody’s first answer. Oh, well, just do a forearm workout, strengthen your forearm. It’s the exact opposite really. I think somebody was asking Ken Roczen about his arms, and Ken Roczen, for those of you that don’t know, he’s currently the best racer there is. Crashed and broke his arm in however many places, had 14, 15 surgeries, almost lost his arm. Everybody was concerned about grip strength and forearm strength, and his answer to that when he came back was listen, you don’t want that anyway. That’s actually a positive. If anything that’s come from this is I have less grip strength in that arm.
So, it’s tough. I’ve struggled with it. I’ve had surgery to cut open my muscle fascia and try to make my arms a little bit more like jello. I think cyclists sometimes do that same surgery for their calves, but it’s tough.
Then, talking to the everyday person as well, the misunderstanding in that how athletic the sport is and how much cardio and strength and how physically demanding it is can be frustrating to explain to the normal person as well. Because if you think about it, “Oh, well, you’re just twisting the throttle, right?” It’s like, “No, no, there’s quite a bit more that goes into it than that.” I’m very athletic all around and I train on a road bike. I go for runs every day. I’m in the gym. Nothing can get my heart rate where it gets on the dirt bike.
Dr. Gary Deel: That’s really interesting, that every motocross rider, whether they be a professional such as yourself, or just an amateur, if they’ve done it for a lengthy enough time to have conversations with non-motocross riders in their social circles, it seems like we all have encountered that from someone who’s never thrown their leg over a bike. I had this in high school with a friend, I’ll never forget. We were in the cafeteria, and she said, “Well, I don’t get it. It has a motor, like you’re not peddling anything, so what are you doing?”
It’s so difficult to explain to them how hard it is when you’re out there, especially with the arm pump and the fatigue, and like you said, the cardio. Again, I don’t ride nearly at your level, but just, if you’re pushing yourself like that, it is exhausting.
AJ Catanzaro: It works every muscle group you can think of. Then on top of that, it is one of the most physically demanding as far as cardio goes. Just to give an idea of this, in supercross, we’re out there for, we’ll call it 12 to 15 minutes in outdoor racing. We’re out there for 30 minutes. We’ll just say outdoor racing. We’re out there for 30 minutes, plus two laps, that’s 34 to 36 minutes. Our heart rate average is 182 to 195. Some guys are even higher than that. Some guys are 198 to 205 sustained for 35 minutes.
Now, for a lot of people listening and anyone that knows anything about heart rate, that might seem impossible. Typically, I would say it almost is impossible, because on a road bike, I find cycling for me to hit 180, it feels like I’m about to have a heart attack. But I can sustain that, and higher, for 35 minutes straight on the dirt bike.
Now, I’m sure some of that’s adrenaline for sure, but there’s just something about it. It’s like picture doing 500 pushups while simultaneously doing a thousand squats while simultaneously doing a sprint run. It’s like, there’s so much happening at once.
Dr. Gary Deel: Right. And the stress that’s on you in the sense that, obviously you’re trying to place as high up as you can, so you’re going as fast as you can, but you’re also thinking about the consequences of, if I do this next jump wrong, especially on the tracks you ride and the distances you’re covering in the area, I mean, that’s 90, 100, and it’s a long time to think about, I took off the wrong way because I wasn’t well-prepared for that jump or whatnot. But it happens at every single race to somebody, so you know that, that is real and you’ve got to suppress that fear while your heart’s pumping at that rate.
AJ Catanzaro: It’s very difficult to get in a consistent breathing pattern with being that scared all the time. Because when you get scared, what do you do? You hold your breath and you take kind of that slight inhale and you’ll hold that inhale.
Now, imagine being terrified the entire time you’re out there in a situation where your body’s like, okay, or your mind is going, am I about to die right now? Am I about to die right now? And that’s happening 15 times in a one minute lap.
It’s hard to remember to breathe, as silly as that sounds. I’ll catch myself holding my breath for three laps, and all of a sudden I go, oh man, I just let out that big exhale. I’m like, I didn’t breathe for three and a half minutes.
Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah. It’s really unnerving. I do the same thing on the amateur races here where you forget to breathe because you’re constantly just puckered up waiting for the impact that you hope never comes, but you’re on the edge of what you’re capable of doing, whatever that limit is for the individual rider.
Then to add to that, as we mentioned earlier, the arm pump where you get to the point where you can’t feel your hands, so you don’t have the capacity to fix what you don’t know is wrong until you land and you end up with this phenomenon that riders call whiskey throttle. Well, I’ll let you explain what whiskey throttle is from the experience perspective.
AJ Catanzaro: Yeah. Whiskey throttle for a beginner would be basically turning the throttle and then a panic ensues. For some reason, it is very hard instinctually to know to turn your, I know it sounds obvious, but to turn your wrist to get the bike to stop going. I think some of that is just pure panic.
Some of it is, as you accelerate, your weight shifts back. As your weight shifts back, your arms extend, the weight goes into your arms, and it’s really hard to then twist the throttle off because all of your weights into your hands.
At a pro level, whiskey throttle, wouldn’t be that, where if I sat my wife on the dirt bike and said, “All right, go down the street.” She could get whiskey throttle just trying to go down the street.” For us, when we get arm pump and you can’t feel the throttle anymore, whiskey throttle I can describe it as to jump 85 feet in the middle of what we call a rhythm section, where there’s a sequence of jumps back to back to back. That 85-foot jump might only require one, we’ll go percentage here, maybe 10% throttle.
That is so hard to do and it is so precise, and it’s such a small twist of that throttle, that when you don’t have feeling of your hand anymore, how the heck are you supposed to gauge that? That’s what whiskey throttle it could be, because if you’re going 60% throttle, when you’re supposed to be going 10%, you’re going to get yourself hurt, because you’re going to jump one or two more jumps past where you intended on going. That can get really scary.
Dr. Gary Deel: I agree 100%. I think it’s a product of that panic of trying to hang on to the thing that’s running away with you, and because it’s a twist throttle on the handlebar, it’s a natural, like an ergonomic design to make it worse.
I’ve often thought about what if you tried to put a thumb throttle on a dirt bike? Would that alleviate some of the problem, also with the, obviously the riding attack position of keeping your elbows up. But if you’re twisting the throttle on the right side, you have a tendency to put that elbow down. I’m sure there’s a good reason why they’re not built like quads, but I’ve often thought about that from the whiskey throttle perspective.
To your point, a lot of the tracks, the big tracks that I ride out here, I don’t ride in the stadiums where it’s so tight, but out here, if you have one jump, you usually have a decent ramp and a decent ramp down so that there’s a margin of error there that’s pretty healthy.
But for what you guys do, yeah, the 10% differences, I mean, there’s just no pocket there for you to get it wrong. If you’re too short, you’re casing it, and if you’re too long, you’re landing on the next jump that is equally painful. That’s got to be an incredible experience.
AJ Catanzaro: Yeah. This sport is scary to begin with, but supercross, some people say, even those that race professionally outdoors in motocross, consider supercross a completely different sport just because the timing is so specific and there’s so many jumps involved while still trying to race and still trying to go fast.
For anybody listening that isn’t familiar, I recommend just go on YouTube when this podcast is done, and just type in, Monster Energy supercross, or supercross racing, and just watch a video of it and create a little bit of an understanding of what’s going on. It’s pretty hectic. I know I’m biased, but it’s a darn cool sport.
Dr. Gary Deel: I would agree, but I’m probably biased too. Well, when we come back, I want to ask you how you got into motocross and supercross, and also what the current state of the sport is and how it’s evolved. I want to ask you AJ from sort of your life history, how did you end up with motorcycles and what was the road like going from, what I assume was maybe riding and racing as a child into adulthood and eventually working your way into professional competition?
AJ Catanzaro: I will say that as the sport has developed over the last, we’ll call it 15 years, it’s turned almost like an Olympic sport where you see the athletes getting into it really, really young. I started riding when I was two. I don’t even think I could talk yet. My parents quickly realized that age four, five, that I was pretty good.
Then, so what we began doing was traveling the country and racing all of the amateur national events, at which point I started winning a lot. It just snowballed into you upgrade from a 50 CC, to a 65, to an 85. When you’re 13 years old, you get on what’s called a super-mini, which is kind of an in-between stage between a child’s bike. I say, child’s bike, but they’re still really fast, and a bike that an adult would ride.
Then, when I was 15, my dad basically said, “Hey, I’m out of money.” Either we quit this thing, or I’m going to send you down to Georgia or Florida, and you can try to figure it out and train and see if it works out.
So, I went down with a buddy and slept on his couch in his RV for that whole year when I was, I think I was 14 turning 15, and that was at a facility called Millsaps Training Facility in Georgia. I was riding with a bunch of really high-level riders on a bike that was slightly outdated.
I had a lot of time on it and I didn’t know really what I was doing still, even though I’d won a lot of amateur titles. I was just a young kid that was sleeping on a couch and trying to figure it out, and I ended up signing to an Arenacross team, which is basically arena racing, which has even tighter quarters than what I currently do. Won the championship in my very first year, and then I signed to a supercross team when I was 16 years old.
So, I turned pro when I was 16, and just been doing it ever since. 10 years pro at this point now. Life goes by quick and it’s been a whirlwind, and every time I tell that story, it’s like, holy cow, I can’t believe this all actually happened.
Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah. That’s a long road for such a young career still.
AJ Catanzaro: Yeah. There’s been a lot that transpired.
Dr. Gary Deel: But the average racer today, I don’t know what the average age is, but I’m sure it’s pretty young.
AJ Catanzaro: Yeah, it’s crazy too, because what’s tough is I’m smarter now than I’ve ever been. I’m more mentally mature, but your body goes away quick. In this sport, with injuries, a lot of the top guys retire when they’re 25, 26, which is my age.
I don’t feel like I’ve quite reached my physical peak. Knock on wood, I’ve been very lucky with keeping the injuries to a minimal. Now, that’s relevant to our sport. When I say to a minimal, I could list off 20 broken bones that I’ve had and 15 concussions, but for most people, that’s not that bad in this sport.
I see myself doing it for, I don’t know, four or five more years, but a lot of the top contenders in this sport are 19, 20, 21 years old, which is so young. It’s so young. It’s crazy to think that I was 16 years old and racing professionally. I didn’t know anything when I was 16 years old, but maybe that’s good because I wasn’t scared of anything.
Dr. Gary Deel: Maybe it’s required to have that fearlessness. I wonder, I don’t know how that compares to average ages for elite athletes in basketball, football, baseball, that kind of thing, but I know that obviously college recruitment is big and whatnot, so you can assume it’s going to be, if not in the late teens, then in the early twenties, for sure. That seems to be the stereotypical physical peak for a lot of it. In the 10 years that you’ve been doing the sport, have you seen the sport itself evolve a lot?
AJ Catanzaro: Yes. I was right in that early stages where, when I said I went and lived at a facility, facilities didn’t exist about three years before that. When I was a kid racing competitively, amateur racing, living at a training facility with trainers and private tracks and fitness coaches and mental coaches and all of this at your disposal, that didn’t exist.
Now, to be at the top level, I don’t want to say you have to do that, but 99.9% of the riders that are making it in the sport now are going through that facility at a really young age. Where I was one of the last generations that could kind of get away with, I went to public school up until 10th grade.
I lived in Connecticut, so I didn’t ride or race in the winter time. So, I would take five or six months off the bike. You can’t really get away with that anymore. You to be on a dirt bike five days a week and doing it all year round. You can’t take a five month hiatus because you lose out five months on somebody at 12, 13 years old, it’s very unlikely that you’ll ever get that five months back.
Dr. Gary Deel: Now, by the time you had gone pro, going back even 10 years, if my memory serves, that was already past the point where competition water-cooled four strokes had dominated the scene over what used to previously be the classes. When I was a kid growing up, were the 125 and the 250 2-strokes, but now today, it seems like, technologically, nobody’s on a two-stroke out there. They’re just not competitive. Had that transition at the pro level already completely taken place?
AJ Catanzaro: Yeah. So I was just thinking as far as competition goes, but yeah, as far as technology and equipment, I turned pro on a four stroke, which is what we’re all racing currently. The biggest change I would say is that when I turned pro, I want to say I was pro for maybe one year on bikes that were not fuel injected.
Ever since, I think 2011, yeah, I would say 2010, 2011, all of the manufacturers now have a fuel-injected bike. Other than that, really, companies and manufacturers have played around with going from spring forks, spring suspension to air suspension, and the bikes, you don’t have to kick them to start them anymore. They’re electric start, which is really convenient. Hydraulic clutches, as opposed to cable clutches.
It’s little stuff, little stuff that compounds and makes a big difference and makes things really convenient, but nothing huge like the jump from going from two strokes to four strokes. I think the next big jump is going to be the wave of electric bikes, which I’m all for. I love electric stuff.
Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah. I was going to ask you about that because I remember I had the first-generation YZ426 four strokes that were ridiculously hard to start if they were hot.
AJ Catanzaro: Yeah, that was like a tank.
Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah. Manual compression releases on the handlebar. Today, I mean, the electric start, in and of itself, they’re easier to start just by having that built into the cam. But yeah, the movement to the electric bikes, it’s interesting because, of course, there was Alta Motors at one point that had the, what they called the red shift, was a competition motocross bike they’ve since gone out of business, as I understand, and they wanted to be bought out by someone else, but my understanding is they couldn’t find an investor to carry them.
I don’t know of anybody that’s really seriously building an electric motocross bike, although there seems to be all kinds of transition bicycle/motorcycle/mopeds/scooters. I mean, there’s all these different play machines that are available.
Are you aware of anybody at the current moment? Because you need to reach that amalgamation to get a bike that’s eligible to compete at pro -racing level, that has sold enough units in production. Do you know of anybody who’s preparing to do that or getting serious, the Japanese brands or anyone else?
AJ Catanzaro: I know KTM is. From my understanding, KTM is developing it with the generation that they’ve now developed the KTM 50 electric bike with, which is genius if you think about it. Then they’ll develop the electric version of the 65, the 85, the super-mini, the 125, so on, and develop it as that age group reaches that age so that they’ll always be on electric bikes. Because you think about it, any human being is, for the most part, is kind of opposed to the change, especially in motocross community, people don’t like change. People are still hung up on the two strokes, forget about hopping to something that doesn’t make any noise.
No 30, 40 year old for the most part is going to want to make that jump. So, they’re developing it with that new generation. I think maybe something will come out sooner, but I think that’s their play for selling large numbers of those things. I’m all about it. I rode the Alta a few months ago, and it was the best bike I’ve ever ridden in my life.
Dr. Gary Deel: Wow.
AJ Catanzaro: That was basically a gen one version of electric race bike, and it was still amazing. What was cool about it is it was the size of a 250F, it had four maps. The difference between map one and map four was the difference between like a 250 and a 450. That’s what made it fun is you could have, with the four different maps, you could have four completely different motorcycles that you were riding.
It’s not like on a four stroke, we have fuel mappings that make a little bit of a difference. I would say it’s equivalent to changing a counter sprocket or something like that, where you notice a subtle difference in low-end power.
Maybe you could map it so that it pulls a little bit longer so it goes faster down a long straightaway. But these four maps on the electric bike was night and day difference. It was so cool.
Dr. Gary Deel: That’s interesting. I didn’t know you had ridden the Alta and that your opinion was so high of them. I’ve never ridden one, but I’ve read the articles and watched videos.
AJ Catanzaro: I made a YouTube video on the day I rode one and tested all four maps. You’ll crack up watching this video.
Dr. Gary Deel: That’s awesome.
AJ Catanzaro: Because you can hear me narrating and talking about how much I’m loving it as I’m out there riding it. It’s pretty cool.
Dr. Gary Deel: That’s that is cool. Now, do you think that, if and when that amalgamation reaches the level that they can compete in the professional supercross series, that those bikes will be, because again, I have a Tesla, so I’m familiar with how far superior an electric car is to a gas-driven car. Do you think that they will immediately out-compete by leaps and bounds anything else that’s out there, to the extent that a 450 just won’t be able to hold a candle to the electric bike that’s riding alongside it?
AJ Catanzaro: Yeah. I would say 100%. It does become legal in professional racing. It’s going to have to be its own category. But I’m all for it. I’m pretty open-minded when it comes to change and trying new things, and I think the technology is just so far above and beyond any type of combustion engine.
But also, what I like the idea of is that you can of level the playing field and you could have more restrictions. I don’t know the adjective or the word I’m looking for, but it’d be easier to just put everybody on the same setting. I don’t know if they would do it that way, but they would just because right now-
Dr. Gary Deel: Leveling the playing field.
AJ Catanzaro: Yeah, for those listening that may not know what I’m talking about. Let’s say I’m a 25th place rider right now. I have other responsibilities. I’m not training full time, so I’m 25th, not too bad, but not the best.
The guy winning, the guy in fifth place is not on an equivalent machine that I’m on. They’re riding factory equipment. There’s so much R&D, research and development into these things that their bikes are worth a couple $100,000 and my bike’s worth $10,000. It makes it difficult to compete. Now, if we were all on the same bikes, would they be better than me? Yeah. But the playing field would be a lot more even. I think, with electric bikes, you could do that.
Dr. Gary Deel: Right. Well, I was going to ask you, in the vein of the electric bike, if the major point of differentiation or advantage that you see would be obviously the not having to shift or clutch. Now, is it legal in the sense that, I don’t even know at professional level, can they run like the Rekluse centrifugal clutches on the factory bikes if they want to?
AJ Catanzaro: Yep. You can run them. I don’t think many guys do because what the old recluse clutches would do is. The recluse, it was an automatic clutch so that means that you could click it into gear without using the clutch. You could hit the brakes without using the clutch. You could come to a dead stop and not pull the clutch in. Where if you were driving a car and came to a dead stop in a manual car, it would stall without pulling the clutch in.
Dr. Gary Deel: Right. That’s the key difference is you can’t afford to stall at that level, for those who are listening and don’t know like, why is that important?
AJ Catanzaro: Right. But the one major fault of the automatic clutches is that they didn’t allow for any engine brake. When you would let off the throttle, the bike would just freewheel and coast. Engine brake, for those of you listening, I’ll try to describe it. I’ll just explain in a car. If you were driving in a car, in a manual car in fourth gear and threw it down into second gear and just let go of the clutch with no breaks, no, nothing, the car would woo, it would rev up loud and it would throw you to the front.
That’s stopping power. That’s engine brake. We utilize that to stop. I mean, obviously we’re using the brakes, but we’re using a lot of that engine brake to stop. With the automatic clutches, the bike would just freewheel and you couldn’t stop as quickly.
But I think that with the new version of those, I’m pretty sure that they have somehow, you can utilize engine brake as well. I don’t know if those guys have it or not. You would think they do because you see them crash and their bikes will be on the ground forever.
Then they just get on and the bike somehow is still running, and it’s like, well, hang on a second. How did that thing not stall?
Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah. I think that’s probably the case, but I’ve thought about that in the vein of not just centrifugal clutches, but also the electric bikes, if, and when they get here. I think it’s a matter of when, obviously, because I rode a Surron. I don’t know if you’ve seen these things, they’re like super-duper mountain bike, not quite dirt bike, hybrid electric bike.
One of the things I really loved about it, just playing with it, because it can’t manage like a motocross track, it just doesn’t go fast enough, but the brakes are front lever, on the right-hand side is your front brake, but left side lever, because you don’t have a clutch, is rear brake.
I really found that to be awesome, because of course, if you’re in a right-hand turn and your foot’s out, you can’t break and have your foot out at the same time. So, having that break on the handlebar as opposed to on the pedal was really an advantage. I thought, well, if you didn’t have to clutch, there’s an empty place you could put your rear brake.
AJ Catanzaro: The Alta that I rode, the owner of that set his bike up that way. It came with a foot brake, but he put the handbrake on it. Now, the benefit of that is it makes you just feel more attached to the bike because your feet typically on a dirt bike, your feet are moving a lot because you’re having to up-shift and downshift on the left side, you’re having to use the rear brake on the right side.
So, your feet are constantly sliding forward and back to get to the controls. On electric bike, you just leave your feet on the balls of your feet tight to the frame and position where they were normally be. You really don’t have to move them. Modern-day riding style, as well, is starting to become, you don’t take your feet off the pegs as much as back in the old days people think you had to, putting your foot out for a turn is becoming a little bit more old school.
You can kind of just stay attached, leave your feet on the bike. I always say, man, if I could have like some mountain bike clips and just clip my feet into these foot pegs on a dirt bike. There’s a lot of times where I almost wish I could do that.
Yeah, I’m all for electric bikes, and also, think about it, the big benefit of electric bike is that it’s silent. So, a lot of motor cross tracks nowadays are closing down because of lawsuits and neighbors and people complaining about noise. If you can eliminate the noise factor, then the only thing you’d have to worry about for a motocross track would be liability and dust factor.
Dr. Gary Deel: Right.
AJ Catanzaro: The noise is a big one. So, that would be awesome.
Dr. Gary Deel: I think the experience on the track would be unique too, because you’d actually be able to hear if someone is yelling at you to get out of the way, or vice versa, whatever the case may be on the track.
AJ Catanzaro: Yeah, and you can hear the bike working underneath you, which is a strange thing. You can hear the chain slapping, you can hear the tire gripping the ground as you accelerate. It’s different. It’s different in the same way that driving a Tesla, it’s not the same experience as driving any other car. It just feels so far above and beyond. I’ve driven Lamborghini’s, I’ve driven Porsche GT3 RS. I’ve driven every nice car you can imagine, and a Tesla still blows absolutely everything out of the water.
Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah. I can definitely relate to that. Now, one other question I wanted to ask you is, because we covered the bikes, but the tracks. You watch a motocross or supercross race from 30 years ago and you compare it to what exists today, it seems like the ante keeps being upped for the sake of entertainment, which I get, but do you think we’ve reached a limit to that in terms of what the sport is willing to weather?
Because obviously the more difficult and challenging and insane these jumps get, the more injuries occur. I’m just wondering, is it reaching a breaking point, or do you think they’re just going to continue to go bigger and bolder and more dangerous as more and more people flock to this for that sort of shock factor?
Because to face the reality, there are some people who are watching it, and right, wrong or indifferent, they’re most excited when somebody crashes because they want to see that sort of footage. But when we hope it doesn’t happen, but in the same vein, where like those are the videos we watch on repeat because they’re the most interesting.
I’m curious to know if you’ve seen that evolution just in the last 10 years of your professional career and if you see it continuing to bigger, longer, steeper, uglier, more dangerous obstacles.
AJ Catanzaro: Good question. This is tough because what happens is, not only is the equipment getting way better, the riders are getting better. And there is a fine line between making a track that you would think would be easier, so whatever easier means. Most people’s idea of a safer, easier track would be what? Okay, let’s make these jumps a little smaller, right? What happens when you make the jumps smaller? Is all we’re going to do is jump more of these jumps at once. If you have two jumps back to back that are small and you’re like, oh, these are safer. Guess what we’re going to do? We’re going to jump them all at one time, which is now more dangerous.
Or, if not doing that, we’re just going to override the obstacle for what it is. If you give us a bunch of, let’s say 60-foot tabletops, which is extremely basic all in a row and we’re forced to only hit those tabletops for what they are, we’re going to ride the crap out of them and hit them way faster than what we should be. Therefore, the speed on the track is going to be higher and the crashes are going to be worse.
My view on it has always been, if they build steeper, bigger obstacles that are more technical, at least, that it will slow speeds down, so even if there’s more frequent crashes that the speeds will at least be lower.
Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah. That’s an interesting point.
AJ Catanzaro: It’s all about keeping speeds low. Whatever that looks like from a track layout perspective, I think, there’s an obstacle called a whoop section, which is just a bunch of like, it’s almost like moguls for skiers, where you have to skim across the tops of them.
The trend lately, the last couple of years has been making the whoops smaller. But what happens with that is next thing you know, we’re going 50 miles an hour through a set of whoops, so when you do crash, these guys are getting annihilated.
Where if you built the whoops three feet taller, would people crash more frequently? Yeah, sure, but they’d probably only be going 18 miles an hour. That’s always been my outlook on it. It’s tough. It’s a topic of debate within the sport, big time right now.
Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah. It’s interesting to see how the sport, not just the tracks, but also the riders have evolved. It’s almost like a creativity. I don’t remember again, I grew up watching the era of the Jeremy McGrath reign, and I don’t remember scrubbing being such a big thing at that time. I don’t remember that being such an integral part of the sport, but today, the level is, when you said that earlier that the riders are getting better, it made me think it’d be interesting to see Eli Tomac or Ken Roczen against the Jeremy McGrath at his prime to see if they really are that much faster.
I think there is an element of that, because again, riders are finding these unique ways that almost defy the laws of physics. The scrubbing of a jump to get further faster just to that extra 1%, that I just don’t remember seeing, maybe I’ve just forgotten, but I don’t remember it being quite to that cutthroat level like it was 30 years ago as compared to today.
AJ Catanzaro: When you watch a guy like Ken Roczen do a time-qualifying lap, where he’s doing one lap as fast as possible, and this is coming from a professional rider, it does not seem possible what they’re doing. It really doesn’t.
When you go to Orlando, I highly recommend getting their watch time qualifying. It is ridiculous to watch those guys throw down a fast lap. Like you said, it defies what you would think is even possible. Now, Jeremy McGrath, who’s statistically, the best supercross rider to ever live, was in his prime 25 years ago?
Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah, ish.
AJ Catanzaro: Holy cow. That’s crazy to say.
Dr. Gary Deel: It’s been little while.
AJ Catanzaro: Was amazing on a dirt bike, but things have changed a lot since then. Back then, when he would do a jump, they’d be like, “Oh wow, he tripled it in a rhythm section.” People are jumping four all the time now. People are jumping, we call it quads, jumping four almost every single race.
You look at the obstacles and you’re like, 25 years ago, no one would have even considered that an option, and fast forward 25 years, if you don’t jump that quad, you’re not going to be competitive. So, the track designers have to be very careful in that sense.
Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah. I remember him doing knack-knacks and tricks and making it look easy and everybody was so excited, but like you said, the bar is continually raised as the sport evolves. Well, I know we’re at time here and I want to be respectful, and thank you for being on the podcast, but before we go, is there anything else that you wanted to cover topic-wise, or anything else that you feel is relevant to the discussion of just giving someone who’s never seen the sport, never thrown their leg over a bike, sort of a bird’s eye view of what this looks like?
AJ Catanzaro: I could sit here and talk with you about dirt bikes all day long.
Dr. Gary Deel: As could I, for sure.
AJ Catanzaro: Yeah. No, not off the top of my head. No, thank you for having me. We’ll have to hop on here again sometime, and one hour flew by.
Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah, it definitely did. I’d like to follow your career and hopefully have you back. Before we go, tell the people, where can they find you on social media and YouTube? Just so folks know if they want to check this out, where to look.
AJ Catanzaro: Yeah. Guys, I would go to YouTube and just type in AJ Catanzaro. Hopefully, the spelling of it is somewhere wherever you clicked into this podcast so you can find it. But yeah, just go on my YouTube.
I teach for a living now and I actively race as well, so I juggle the two, but I think for anybody dipping their toe in the sport, or even just casually looking it up to see what it’s all about, my channel would be an interesting one to watch because I’m able to make sense of it from a teacher standpoint, and then you guys can check out the racing and the riding as well. Again, I’m biased, but dirt bikes are awesome.
Dr. Gary Deel: I think that’s a good encapsulation. As someone who’s followed your videos for quite some time before getting to talk with you, I can definitely say, I think you’re a good teacher in that respect, anybody who can sort of convey what the sport is about and what to do over a video. It’s difficult enough to do it yourself, let alone to teach it. I think you do a good job, so I wish you much success with it, and thank you for being here.
I want to thank you for sharing your expertise and perspectives on these topics. Again, AJ, thanks for joining me today for this episode of Intellectible.
AJ Catanzaro: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.
Dr. Gary Deel: Thank you to our listeners for joining us. You can learn more about these topics by visiting the various APU’s sponsored blogs. Be well and stay safe, everyone.
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