By Eddie Graveline
Now that Freestyle Motocross has become a major sport in its own right, new riders are springing up from every part of the country. As the new blood comes in, guys like Dustin Miler and Nate Adams are replacing some of the sport’s founding fathers, names like Metzger and Hart, on the podium. There’s one guy, though, that’s been there since the beginning. Each time that the sport has gone up a level and the tricks get harder, he’s been there inventing some of the toughest. His name is Mike Jones. He hails from the steel mills of Pennsylvania. He made a name for himself as a professional racer on the AMA National and Arenacross scenes. He is one of the pioneers of FMX and a fan favorite wherever he goes. This year he has the backing of Answer Racing Apparel, Red Bull and Moto XXX among others. They call him “Mad”, and if you’ve ever seen him ride or even better, had the chance to talk to him in person, it’s easy to see why. Mike Jones is one of a kind and I had the pleasure of talking with him for a few minutes at a recent stop of the IFMA series. Enjoy.
Mike, the first thing I want to ask you about is the Big Air competition at the Summer X Games this year. You did a “Nothing Superman” and the bike started to drift away from you. You barely got it back in time to land on two wheels. That had to be a little sketchy, even for you.
“Yeah, it was. No one had ever done a “Nothing Superman” ever before. I had done it a few times at home and it was really sketchy. I didn’t really want to do it anymore. Not that I’m afraid of crashing, but I didn’t want to get hurt. At the X Games, though, I just said, ‘heck, it’s the X Games, it’s one trick and I’m going for it’. I went for it bigger than I’d ever done it before. I pulled myself above the bike, missed the handlebars, grabbed the back panel and pulled it back. Actually, I’d say I was pretty lucky to get the bike back.”
You’re probably the strongest guy out there and had it been another rider, they might not have been so lucky.
“That’s what the word was. Plus, I didn’t panic. Watching it on TV myself, I saw that I went for the handlebars, then I immediately went for the back panel instead of trying to go for the bars two times and ending up totally away from the bike. Yeah, I pretty much muscled it back. The bummer was that the judges said that it was a “Nothing” to a “One Handed Lander”, but it was a “Nothing Superman”. When I landed, my one hand came off. Obviously, they didn’t see the trick. I think they were chewing on hotdogs or something and not watching.”
Judging is always a good topic of conversation with riders. How would you say that judging in FMX is now, versus a year or so ago? Is it getting better or is it still way out there?
“It’s up and down. It seems like I never get a break, let alone get the score that I really deserve. I think it’s just one of those things where they want the underdog to win. The judges are rooting for the newcomers. Obviously, the fans are behind me so that’s all that really matters. (Note: here comes some of that famous Jonesy sarcasm) I’ve been carrying a portable picnic table around with me. I set it up and just tell the judges that the picnic is afterwards. Then they know what’s up.” (laughs)
I want to know what you think about the winners at Summer X. Specifically, did you think that Travis Pastrana and Kenny Bartram deserved to win the events that they did?
“No. I’ve already been to Europe since then and some of the promoters and riders over there couldn’t believe that Kenny Bartram won with a “Shaolin” to “Sterilizer”. You know, it was a new trick that no one had ever seen, but it’s not really that difficult if you can put your feet through the bars. I did a “Kiss of Death/No Hander Lander”. My second jump was a “Nothing Superman”. My third jump was a “Kiss of Death/No Hander Lander”. My third jump wasn’t even as big as my first jump, but they gave me a better score on the third one. The judging was definitely screwed up. I tied for second with a 94. Then they went to my next jump, which was my “Nothing Superman”, and they gave me a 90, so I ended up fourth. As far as regular freestyle goes, Travis Pastrana has it won before he gets there. His name is that big. He’s the quote, wonder boy and it’s already in the judges’ heads. I really don’t feel that he won either. I don’t feel that he won Gravity Games or X Games. I think it was probably Clifford Adoptante that should have won one if not both. I think I should have done a little bit better in X Games. At the Gravity Games I got hurt. I over-jumped and basically broke my bike in half. Those are the ups and downs of the sport.”
Are there any riders beside yourself that you think are really riding well right now?
“There are four or five guys that are really on top of it right now, at least in the IFMA series. Nate Adams is doing real well. Drake McElroy was doing real well the last few weeks. Ever since his injury he’s come a long way. Dustin Miller, Jake Windham, myself, Kenny Bartram. There’s five or six that can win on any evening. The only one that can’t win is me. The judges don’t like me (laughing). The announcer used to say that I was ‘one of the favorites to win’. I made him stop saying that because I know I’m not the favorite with the judges. But I always have the crowd behind me so that’s what’s number one.”
Hasn’t it gotten to the point now, though, that your income is based on your image and popularity with the fans rather than how you do in the competition?
“Yeah, you know, I’m riding for Answer Racing and they’re really behind me for the next two years. Them and Red Bull are my two biggest sponsors. I don’t have to go to the contests and get top five to make enough money to get to the next round. My salary is already based and that’s how I get to pay my mechanic and go around in the big truck. Back a few years ago, when I didn’t have the big sponsors, I would get bummed out if didn’t win and got third place because I’d lose out on six hundred bucks. Nowadays I just blow it off. I am out there for the crowd. I sell five times more t-shirts than any of the other riders in the series. As long as they go home “Mad” Mike Jones fans, that’s what the sport is all about.”
I know that the money is getting better each year. Right now, how many guys would you say are making a good living doing FMX? I mean, guys that don’t have to worry about making enough money at one show to make it to the next.
“Income wise, I’d say that there are at least ten guys that can make a living. Guys that have houses, cars and all of that stuff. Obviously, some of the young guys coming up like Nate Adams are sixteen, they live at home and still go to school. For them, if they make five hundred bucks a week, that’s an income for them. On the average, Dustin Miller and Drake McElroy, those guys are making two or three grand per weekend. Twenty-five weekends a year and that’s fifty to seventy five thousand dollars a year. I’m the only guy making over a million dollars a year so I’m pretty happy (more sarcasm followed by laughter). That’s a joke.”
I’ve talked to some other riders and they say that there are probably three or four guys making six figure incomes. Do you think that’s true?
“Yeah, maybe three or four. I would say salary wise, before the year starts, myself and Tommy Clowers are the only ones. It has to do with our clothing sponsors, mine being Answer. That and Red Bull (Clowers is also sponsored by Red Bull) together, they both pay really good. We’re probably the only two guys that earn six figures as far as salary goes. The other guys are doing good, though, probably making twenty to twenty five thousand per year for clothing. Still, that’s good money for what we’re doing.”
A lot of the big name riders have shunned the IFMA series, but you haven’t. Are you contracted with them or do you just pick your schedule based on what you want to do?
“I sort of have a buddy deal with the them (Clear Channel Entertainment). They take care of me and I take care of them. They let me jump at Supercrosses. They pay me a little bit of money, but I do it for the exposure. There’s fifty thousand people in the stands and I’m out there by myself. It’s really good for me and my sponsors. In return, whenever I don’t have something that pays a lot more in Europe or something, I come to their events. I really don’t have a deal with them. They put me in a room with Robby Floyd, the announcer, which saves me hotel on the weekends. Other than that, I just go out and ride for the fans. I almost said for the prize money because I don’t have a guarantee. But I don’t have a set deal with PACE. Basically I’ve just had a real good relationship with them and I just want to keep that going. Maybe when I’m done riding I can get into something else with them.”
Kornel Nemeth showed up on the IFMA circuit from Budapest, Hungary. I had never heard of him, but that guy has some pretty sick moves. It sounds like you’ve known him for a while, though.
“I’ve known him for about three years now. He’s a super nice kid. His dad’s real nice. He would always come up to me a few years ago, back when he wasn’t doing tricks. I think he was a fan back in the day, a few years ago, you know. He started getting into freestyle and would always just come up and talk to me when I went to Europe. You know, ‘Hey I learned a new trick this week’ and stuff like that. He’s a good kid and a real hard worker. He’s got a strong will to be one of the top guys. I’m glad to see him over here. No other European guys come over here to ride the whole series. Him and his dad have a vocabulary of about thirty or forty words of English between the two of them. When you ask him something, he says what he wants. He already has it in his head what he’s going to say before you ask him the question. ‘Yeah, I have good tricks’, you know. But, he’s from Hungary and I don’t speak anything Hungary except that I can eat. He’s really impressive and I think he’s only going to get better.”
You started your career as a racer and you were a regular on the Arenacross series as recently as two or three years ago. How did you get started in freestyle? Was it something you always did for fun or was it a result of the jump contests at the Arenacross races or what?
“Shoot, I’ve got pictures of myself from 1987 doing “No Handers” in intermission jump contests in Canada and Australia in ’89. I’ve really been doing freestyle intermission shows since 1988. So I’ve been doing that for thirteen years. At the Arenacross races, I’d get in trouble with my mechanic because I’d be leading a race and I’d be whipping it and doing “Heel Clickers” and I’d get passed on the last lap. He’d be like, ‘Why were you screwing around? You could have won that race.’ I rode better and looser when I was having fun. Having fun for me was putting on a show. I won pretty much all of the jump contests in Arenacross. Then once freestyle grew enough to be its own sport, sponsors got involved and the money got a lot better. It’s what I’m all about. I was always wanting to put on a show when I was racing too. To mix both of them, it was pretty hard to win. I just elected to totally quit. I was trying to do both. Last year I was racing against McGrath in Italy and went over the bars and broke two ribs. I raced in Costa Rica and hurt my knee. Two races last year and I got hurt in both of them, so I just said, ‘You know what, I’m done’. I was riding over my head. I just put myself into it a hundred percent and I want to be the top guy in freestyle.”
For a lot of new fans to motocross, they see the high jumping in freestyle and think that it is more dangerous than racing. I feel that the opposite is true. How about you?
“It could go both ways. Obviously, we do big jumps and in the last month, the jumps we’ve been doing are dangerous. It’s not just seat grabs. Now we’re doing “Nothing Supermans” and “One Handed Hart Attacks”. Nowadays the jumps are dangerous. It’s not like every jump is safe as long as you know what you’re doing. Clifford Adoptante is doing “Nothing Catwalks”, which really impresses me. In racing, what impresses me there is that you’ve got forty guys in outdoor and twenty in indoor on the track at the same time. If one guy goes down in front of you or bumps into you in the first turn, you’ve got a pileup. I’d say it could go either way.”
At Summer X, we saw freestyle course design evolve with the new kicker jumps that they used. My friend and your teammate on Moto XXX, Jeremy Carter got pretty torn up on that jump and I know that a few other guys crashed on it as well. Do you think that course design is going to start evolving just like the tricks and if so, will that add to the danger of the sport?
“I’d say it adds to the danger element because everybody’s used to pretty much the same ramps at seventy five, eighty feet. I mean, that kicker ramp was gnarly and it was set at fifty feet. Obviously, no one had ever jumped it before and it was hard to judge. You’d think that it’s fifty feet and it’s pretty steep so you have to hit it pretty hard. I was there and that was actually my first jump of the weekend because Brandon at SMP bet me that twenty bucks that I wouldn’t do it first. But, I think that’s what makes this sport freestyle. You go out and you hit this jump and that kicker and variety is freestyle. So I think it’s good that they have those ramps. Actually, I bought that ramp. It’s at my house. So I already told Jeremy that I bought his ramp, that’s what I call it.”
Both Supercross and FMX have grown immensely in the past couple of years. This was only the third year that motorcycles have been included in the X Games and already they get more TV time than any of the other sports. Does that growth surprise you or could you see it coming?
“It doesn’t surprise me now after the first year or two because once I saw freestyle and where it was going and the crowd response to it, I knew it was going to get bigger and bigger. Even Supercross has grown a lot bigger, but already freestyle has done way more than Supercross has TV wise. I mean, we’re on ABC’s Wide World of Sports two times a year. We’re on NBC four times this year with the Gravity Games and the three rounds of the Vans Triple Crown. We’re on ESPN all the time with the X Games. They show the X Games every other hour for two weeks after it’s over. Then they show it three times a week for the next three months. I really think that we get more TV time than the whole sixteen round Supercross series. That says something. Supercross has been around since the early seventies and we’ve been around for three years and already have more TV coverage than they do.”
Jeremy Carter and I talked a while back about how there are a lot of teenaged kids that are now setting their sights on a career in freestyle and not even thinking about racing. They learn how to do a bunch of tricks, but they don’t learn the riding skills that the racers have. When they get into these tight arenas, they don’t have the fundamental riding skills to corner and get the speed they need for the ramps. As a result, you get injuries and it may get worse as more guys come up. Do you think that’s a potential problem?
“Yeah, we see a lot of that. T.D. Lovett, from Clear Channel, says, ‘I’ve got five new guys coming this weekend’. I said, ‘How are they?’ and he said, ‘Oh, I’ve seen videos and they can do this and that’. But they get to the course and they don’t do one trick because it’s indoor, and you’ve got thirty foot run-ups to seventy foot ramps. They’re used to one hundred-foot run-ups at their house and maybe not even a metal ramp. So they pay the price. They think they’re ready, they get here and they want to be one of the boys. They realize it’s not that easy. I don’t like to see anybody get hurt, but again, that’s the sport. They let them get out there on their bikes and try it and it’s always a possibility.”
How old are you now?
“Twenty eight (More B.S. After he’s done laughing, he looks around as if to make sure no one can hear him). Thirty five.”
At thirty-five, what do you see in your future? How long do you plan to keep riding and then what will you do afterward?
“Well, I did sign a two-year deal with Answer through the year 2003, and with Red Bull also. So I’ll probably do it at least until then. I want to go maybe three or four more years. That all depends on my health and if I’m still having fun. After that, I want to maybe be a team manager. I think that in a few years, there are going to be semis and big outside sponsors getting involved. I’d like to run a team. If I’m making decent money, managing a team and helping out the riders, helping them with their runs and going to the events, I want to stay in the sport. Even if it isn’t freestyle, as long as it’s Supercross or Motocross.”
Nice. Any parting shots, words of madness or wisdom?
“I always rip on the judges so I’m going to skip that part. I was going to say, ‘Hey judges, I got my Vaseline ready, it don’t hurt’. The main thing is that I want to thank Answer Racing and Red Bull, my two biggest sponsors and all my fans out there.”