Welcome to our weekly web-exclusive column, Transmoto USA Insider Presented By Answer. Penned each week by our man on the ground, Transmoto's US Correspondent, Jason Weigandt, USA Insider presents the story-behind-the-stories of the AMA supercross and motocross scene.
Mitch Payton's Monster Energy Pro Circuit Kawasaki team has set the standard for success in the U.S. sector of this sport, and chasing them, let alone beating them, isn't easy. But the Factory Connection Honda team – called GEICO Powersports Honda thanks to title sponsorship – is determined. They have slowly, steadily built their own winning formula with the expressed goal of winning championships in the Lites class, and that means they have to take on the formidable task of beating Payton's squad. It's been a long journey, but their hard work is paying off.
This Factory Connection team actually began with a totally different goal back in 1998. Veteran Mike LaRocco was looking for a new lease on racing, so he teamed up with Factory Connection, grabbed some Hondas and built a small effort. LaRocco did well, so Honda offered up factory parts and support to help him in '99. Even as the years piled on, LaRocco seemed to get stronger each year, and Honda recognised the success of the program by handing its factory 125/Lites program to the team, while also supporting LaRocco and Kevin Windham in the big-bore class.
But while LaRocco and Windham had been around long enough to handle their own business and deliver solid results on their end, the 125/Lites effort seemed more hit and miss. One season, FC would crank out wins and even a 125 SX Championship, but at other times, they struggled. They could not mount a consistent effort against Pro Circuit's well-oiled machine, so changes were needed, and those changes started from the ground up.
Factory Connection owner Rick Zielfelder reached down in to the amateur ranks and started grabbing talent. He started with Trey Canard, essentially making Trey a teammate of the pro riders through his final year in the ams (Juniors) and allowing him to soak up some guidance. It was a big commitment, as this was not a Honda amateur program – the budget for Canard and future amateur support came straight from Zielfelder's team, as they basically took money out of their pro program to bet on the future. It paid off big when Canard won the 2008 Lites East SX Championship in his rookie pro season. The amateur-to-pro program continued with Blake Wharton, Justin Barcia, Eli Tomac and now Justin Bogle, and the results came from each of those riders, too.
Management changed along the way, also, when Team Manager JC Waterhouse was abruptly let go a few years ago and replaced with LaRocco, who the team convinced to come back to the races and share his knowledge. With LaRocco's guidance and fresh, well-groomed amateur talent, the FC team made big strides. Canard won the 2010 AMA 250 Motocross Championship in a stirring come-from-behind effort, and last year, Barcia collected the East Lites SX Championship while Tomac came within just a few laps of taking the West Championship.
The team was now competing wheel-to-wheel with Pro Circuit's Kawasaki squad, but one strange fact remained: Pro Circuit was actually building its engines and supplying exhausts! Seems strange to let a competing team build your most vital component, but the fact is that Pro Circuit's rep for building fast, reliable four strokes made it just too easy to pass up. The FC team employs an in-house engine man who can further fine-tune the setup and make sure they get good stuff, but taking on an entire engine program from top to bottom was ambitious – after all, Pro Circuit builds motors all day as an aftermarket engine company. For Factory Connection to do the same, they would have to create an engine program exclusively for their team. This year, though, in order to take that next step, they did just that. Yoshimura moved over to handle the exhaust work, but the team stepped up on the engine end—a huge undertaking.
So far this year, Barcia repeated his East Lites SX Title, and now Tomac completed the deal with the West SX Title. A showdown in AMA Motocross looms. So far, so good.