The 2019 TCE SX Internship Program has been a huge talking point amongst the industry over the past season. We have been very fortunate to have had such a huge impact on fans all over the world. Our interns have made memories that they’ve never dreamed of having and the opportunities that they are partaking in are second to none. This past weekend at the Seattle Supercross race we had the pleasure of interacting with a new intern, Jesse Smith. Jesse filled in as AJ Catanzaro’s mechanic along with many other roles that got him fully immersed into a professional program. Take a peek at his recount of his time in the program and how he was able to make his dreams into a reality….
Jesse: Motocross has been a major part of my life ever since I first dropped the clutch on my childhood 80cc. This sport has inspired me since the beginning; from the sound and smell, to the excitement of watching my favorite riders rail berms and fly through the air. As I grew up, my appreciation for the sport of motocross deepened as I became aware of the sheer skill and devotion that goes into being a professional racer. So, when the opportunity arose to apply for an internship with AJ Catanzaro and The Collective Experience (TCE) at a professional race, I could not pass up the chance.
The word “internship” can mean different things in different industries. After completing my application materials, I began to ponder what duties or responsibilities I might be saddled with should I be chosen for the spot. Much to my excitement, I was chosen to intern during the 12th round of the Monster Energy Supercross series in Seattle, WA. In the weeks leading up to the event, my imagination often drifted off to the possibility of something incredible like being allowed on track during practice, but my practical side quickly retorted with the reminder than I’d probably be doled out menial tasks like cleaning mud off boots, or sorting pre-race food. This tempered my excitement somewhat, but I eagerly awaited the day. I could have never anticipated how that day would play out!
Arriving early to CenturyLink Field, I received my entry credentials and waited as team personnel began to arrive. I marveled at the dichotomous nature of this sport. While much of Supercross is experienced at the fan level – pyrotechnics, TV personalities and race action – a Supercross race for these people is merely another day at work. Soon thereafter AJ and the TCE crew arrived. After a quick greeting, AJ turned to me and said, “I don’t have a mechanic today, how mechanically inclined are you?” After a brief pause, I told him I was more or less able to do basic work, but nothing involved, not fully grasping what he was actually asking me. To that he replied, “Ok, we’ll figure it out.” As we made our way to the pit location, it hit me – I was going to be AJ’s mechanic for the day!
Luckily for me, I had been a fan of this sport long enough to know roughly what a mechanic does. I had seen the famous team mechanics for Jeff Stanton, Jeremy McGrath, Ryan Dungey and Ken Roczen go through the motions to prepare their riders for each race. I had a conceptual idea of what my duties might be, but my practical experience as a mechanic for a professional Supercross racer was exactly zero. This was going to be an interesting day!
The day began with track walk, a ritual of race day where riders and their mechanics converge on the track in its virgin state to size up the layout and develop race strategy. AJ, Mike from MotoTape, and I made our way out of the tunnel and onto the damp soil. The stands that surround CenturyLink field towered above us. As we neared the end of the start straight, AJ looked from left to right with a confused look on his face, and finally said, “Where is the first turn?” I was thinking the same thing as I tried to make sense of the unconventional layout of this Seattle course. Finally we decided which way the first turn went and headed out in that direction. AJ exclaimed “Not a good start to track walk.”
Track walk is an ambling, relaxed social experience as competitors stand shoulder to shoulder in street clothes discussing track layout and industry matters. After seeing track walk, you might never guess that these guys would dawn their riding gear later that day and battle fiercely for the top step of the podium. AJ is a well-respected member of the elite Supercross fraternity, which is evident as racers and media personal actively approached him. I divided my time filming video for AJ’s vlog, staring slack-jawed at the sheer size of the jumps, and trying to avoid slipping and falling on my butt in the freshly watered dirt.
Returning back to the pits, we prepared for the first free practice session. AJ and I looked over the bike while he discussed which tasks he needed done and when. After the bike had been prepped, we discussed how free practice would go. My job was simple: record lap times and position and relay those to AJ via the pit board. Once practice was done, I would clean the bike, inspect it, gas it up and organize his gear for the next session. Simple enough in concept, but this task would turn out to be a bit more complicated for the uninitiated mechanic.
I spent the first free practice session juggling AMA live timing on my phone, a pen, rag and pit board while trying to keep an eye on AJ. Keeping time and displaying it as AJ passed the mechanics area was tricky enough, but knowing that I had to be constantly vigilant of him coming into the pits to make bike adjustments had me on high alert. The first free practice session soon led to the first timed qualifying session, where I again found myself in the mechanic’s area trying my best to track AJ. By now, I had figured out a system that worked fairly well. I would hold the phone and pit board in my left hand and the pen and rag in the other, when AJ crossed the line I would record lap time and position, throw the pen in my mouth, switch the board to my right hand and quickly display it before he sped by. I often missed him since the mechanic’s area was just 50 yards past the finish line, so his laps times often came a lap late. In a blink of an eye, each session came to an end. As AJ pulled off the track, he rode along side me, stop the bike and sat unusually far forward on the seat, the unspoken signal for “hop on.” We rode back to the pits along with the rest of the 450 A group. AJ had a mixed qualifying session battling with a very difficult whoop section. Despite the pressure of qualifying in the 450 A group, he turned in a handful of fast laps that landed him in 25th position. It was time to prep for the night program.
After a long wait and a sushi dinner in the pits, I once again found myself lined up with AJ in the tunnel leading to the track with the rest of the riders in Heat Race #2. A stoic quiet replaced the casual interactions among riders that I witnessed during track walk. A few conversations took place, but for the most part everyone was wearing a noticeable game face. As the first heat race ended, riders began to file quickly off the track, mechanics in tow. As they passed us in the tunnel I could see the skin on their neck was red, and their jugular veins distended, which along with the mud shrouding their front number plates indicated that each racer had just completed their own strenuous battle for a spot in the main event.
Once all the riders were past, an AMA official released each rider by qualifying position to make their gate choice. After the official flagged me out on the track, I started the bike and gave it a few short revs to make sure it was warmed up and pushed it out to where AJ was standing. As I aligned the bike on the gate, I noticed we were positioned directly to the left of Eli Tomac. His green Kawasaki shone under the lights, fresh tires had been placed on the machine and his gear was crisp and new highlighting the vast difference between factory riders and privateers like AJ. All of the things privateers struggle with (transport between races, mechanical issues, gear and race support) are provided to a factory rider like Eli Tomac. AJ was obviously pleased by his gate pick, remarking that he “had no idea how this gate was left open.” Standing to AJ’s right, I felt noticeably out of place, but somehow connected to my duties. I was vigilant to the key needs of that moment. I listened to make sure the bike was running properly, inspected AJ’s goggles for debris, set his holeshot device and cleared the start gate of dirt. As the engines started and the 30-second board went up, I patted AJ’s shoulder to say good luck, grabbed my backpack and pit board, and took up my place among the other mechanics to watch the start. The revs went up, a pause and the gate dropped. The race was under way!
The heat race was a challenge for AJ. While he rode well, bad luck kept him out of the top 9. The bike stalled as he slid to avoid the pack as they crammed into the tight first turn, and throughout the race a couple false neutrals hindered his progress. In the end, he would have to complete for a spot in the main event in 450 Last Chance Qualifier (LCQ).
AJ opted to stay at the track and wait for the LCQ, which left me riding his machine back to the pits to do a quick inspection, oil the chain and prep another pair of goggles. I labored over how much gas to put in the tank. Too much would add unneeded weight, but I was terrified of the prospect of him running out of gas on track. After refilling water bottles and making sure I had everything he needed, I looked at my watch and realized his race was starting in 7 minutes! I grabbed the bike off the stand and took off toward the track, realizing part way that I had forgotten my backpack and pit board. A casual onlooker would have seen me skit to a stop, let out a quick expletive, heave the bike 180 degrees and race back toward the truck to retrieve my gear. I arrived in the tunnel just in time for the AMA official to give me our gate position and rush out to the line. AJ selected the gate farthest to the inside to avoid the outward push of the group as they crowded into the first turn. His choice paid off, as he was 5th out of the first turn. Ahead of him, 5 riders jostled nervously for position in the 4-minute race. Crashes, block passes and cross-jumping are a common occurrence in any LCQ and this race was no exception. Despite a hard fought effort, AJ ended up just two positions out of the top 4. His bid for the main event was done for the night. Heading back to the pits, AJ was surprisingly upbeat about the race. He found positives in his riding, and felt strong about his standing. I was impressed by his mindset after a challenging race.
As we packed up and organized gear, we all chatted about the race and the events of the day. Once things were all loaded, we made our way to the stands to watch the main event. It was fun to watch those riders compete, but as I sat in the stands all I could think about was the fact that I had spent the day as a mechanic for a professional Supercross racer. I could hardly make sense of everything I had experienced that day. I had learned so much about what happens on the ground level of this sport. I was able to see how devoted these riders are to their sport, and the camaraderie felt between riders and teams alike. As the 450 Main Event concluded, we made our way among the throngs of fans back to the pit entrance. Once our things had been gathered, I bid the team farewell and walked through the cool Seattle night back to my hotel room. The day, which began with excitement and modest expectations, had exceeded the latter beyond anything I could have imagined.