John Ethell Knows The Way

Crew chief John Ethell chats with his star rider JD Beach. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

John Ethell knows his way around a motorcycle, he knows his way around a motorcycle road racing paddock, and he also knows his way around motorcycle road racers. For Ethell, the colloquialism “been there, done that” is an apt description of his career, and it’s precisely why JD Beach recruited Ethell to be his crew chief on this year’s one-rider Monster Energy/Yamaha Extended Service/Graves/Yamaha team that competed in, and won, the 2018 MotoAmerica Supersport Championship.

Former racer and now race commentator for beIN Sports’ telecast of the MotoAmerica series Jason Pridmore is the man Ethell credits for originally getting him involved in professional motorcycle road racing. And, from his start with Pridmore, Ethell went on to work with a veritable who’s-who of top riders, including Jake Zemke, Nicky and Roger Hayden, Miguel DuHamel, Aaron and Alex Gobert, and Josh Hayes, along with a host of well-known Supercross riders like Davi Millsaps, Kevin Windham, Ernesto Fonseca, and Jeremy McGrath.

Ethell’s work with Beach this year not only netted the “Jiggy Dog” a MotoAmerica Championship, but Ethell himself was honored as Supersport Crew Chief of the Year at MotoAmerica’s recent Night of Champions.

We checked in with Ethell to talk about his career, hear his thoughts on returning to the road racing paddock after a hiatus of several years, and get his insights on what it takes to be a successful crew chief.

John, how did the whole thing come about for you to return to the road racing paddock after several years away? Did it start with Chuck Graves? Was it Beach? How did that happen?

It was actually JD. He called me on the phone. I guess there were some changes that had happened within JD’s team. I didn’t know anything about what was going on, but JD’s crew chief Mike (Canfield) had gotten hired to work for Yamaha’s factory Superbike team. JD called me on the phone and said, “Hey, would you?” In the past, I’ve pretty much always told everybody no, but in his case I knew JD well enough, and I told him that I’d be his Huckleberry if he could get Chuck (Graves) and Keith (McCarty, Yamaha Motorsports Racing Division Manager) to sign off on it.

Wow, so JD is the one who got the ball rolling. You guys obviously knew each other. Tell us about that relationship.

Our relationship was nothing other than to say hello to each other and knowing who each other are. Obviously, from my time working with Nicky and Roger Hayden, and spending time out at the Hayden house with Jake Zemke and those guys back in the day, we’d run into him. I’m sure he also knew me from when I worked with Jake, but it’s not like we were best friends. To be honest, I didn’t even know he had my cell phone number, so getting a call from him was a pretty big surprise.

I think it’s one of those things, John. I never really met you until you came into the paddock this year, but I’ve known about you for years. You have a huge reputation in the sport, and you jumped back into the paddock. How did it feel? Was it like riding a bicycle? I know the preseason test at Barber was kind of a rocky start for you guys. Can you talk about that?

It was definitely different, for sure. In the end, it was like getting back on a bicycle, but in the beginning, it was tough. I have a lot of history working in the road racing paddock, so I was familiar with the trucks, the bikes, the crew, how a race team functions and interacts, all that. We went to the Barber test, and JD and I had a solid plan for what we were going to do and how we were going to go about doing it, but that obviously didn’t go the way we had anticipated it would. Also, the team got thrown a little bit of a curveball because they were responsible for Yamaha’s R3 Junior Cup support program. So, they had people getting pulled away from the Supersport team, which made the team smaller. It was just my mechanic Jorge (Artola) and me. Barber was kind of like getting thrown right into the fire. We got singed a little, but we didn’t get burned, and we ended up okay.

It was completely different because you had mentioned that Mike Canfield switched to the Yamaha Superbike team, and he had been with Beach for a while. Beach’s mechanic Dave Presler went to work for Honda. So that’s a pretty big change. Then, after the preseason test at Barber, you went to Road Atlanta for round one of the season and, at least from Beach’s point of view, he had that look of a deer caught in headlights after Rickdiculous Racing’s Hayden Gillim did pretty well there. Did Road Atlanta feel like it was starting to come together for you as a team, or was it still a little bit tough at that point?

In Atlanta, I’d say we started to get into the groove a little bit, which is showing up in the morning, getting prepared, getting to the wall, doing the things you need to do to be prepared to go out and do the job. So that part of it got a little bit better. Obviously, the Yamaha R3 Junior Cup support program was getting into full swing, too, so that had its own dramas. Some new stuff popped up with me, the bike, and the team that I wasn’t familiar with, so we had some struggles. But, in the end, we finished the weekend okay. Hayden Gillim did well at the Barber test, and he was competitive straightaway at Atlanta, which was a good thing. Obviously, it was an eye-opener for me as far as understanding who JD’s competitors were and what we were going to have to do. Road Atlanta kind of set the bar for the season, which was good.

Beach won 11 races this year, including a string of 6 wins in a row. He did really well despite a bit of rocky start. Was there a turning point in the season? Anything you can point to as the moment when it all came together for Beach, you, and the team?

JD is JD. He’s a stellar rider. He’s got plenty of skills. He’s definitely got the heart and the drive. I’ve told him and several other people that, in my opinion, he’s the same as Nicky (Hayden) was. You won’t find anyone else who will put in more work than JD does. When he called me and asked me to go to work for him, I knew, without question, that I was going to get 110 percent effort out of him and that he would work his butt off. It was a huge deal for me to walk away from my family commitments, my business commitments, all those kinds of things, and go spend that amount of time racing. I wasn’t going to do it just to say I was involved in MotoAmerica. I was going to go do it with somebody that I knew was going to put in the effort and work. I knew he would. The trick with any rider/crew chief combination, you have to be able to communicate and you have to be on a level field. You have to understand each other. You have to respect each other. And, you have to be able to call each other out when each other is full of crap, too.

It’s a crazy position, crew chief. Obviously, you have a huge amount of technical aptitude and understanding of the mechanics of a motorcycle, but as a crew chief, you also have to be a little bit of a psychologist, a little bit of a counselor. You have to work well with people. Would you agree with that? Tell us what it’s like to be a crew chief.

Yeah, I would agree with that. You’re a salesman. You’re a best friend. You’re a technical influence. You have all these hats that you wear. To be honest, that’s the part of the job that I really enjoy. I really enjoy the mental side of that, and the connection between the rider and the crew chief. Being able to put whatever the needs are of the day into a message that you and the rider can understand. I’ve always said that my job is to take the emotions that the rider has and turn them into emotions on the motorcycle and try and focus them on being productive. Sometimes it’s just a matter of the rider fighting the bike. Sometimes it’s a matter of, “Okay, the bike is really that screwed up.” You have to be able to figure out what you’re dealing with that day.

At Utah, we had a brake issue in the very first practice session. JD went into turn one, and he had no brakes. Well, as anyone can tell you, going into turn one at 160 miles an hour with no brakes, that will make you pucker. It certainly puts a chink in the mental armor, but to JD’s credit, he was able to pull himself together and put the mental game back together, because it is mental. From my side of it, we had to talk our way through it. I had to let him know that our qualifying was not as good as it could have been because of the situation we put him in with the brakes. It’s just part of the game, but I enjoy that part of it.

You mentioned about Nicky Hayden and JD, and obviously, both of them have a huge amount of natural talent. The work ethic is through the roof for both of them, and certainly, all the Hayden’s are that way. Roger still is that way. Tommy, I know, was committed to hard work when he raced, too. And JD is that way, without a doubt. Natural talent combined with a strong work ethic. Do you think with JD or with any of these riders, it’s possible for them to actually work too hard? JD is so committed to racing, but I just wonder if he takes it too far sometimes. What do you think?

Absolutely. I think it’s possible for anyone to work too hard. In JD’s case, he told me – and I don’t remember what season it was – he was trying too hard. He lost too much weight, was training too much. Wore himself down and didn’t have the endurance that he needed. He thought he could do it all through training and diet. This year, I knew that JD was not going to rest. He doesn’t. When we got to New Jersey, I said, “Promise me when you go home you’ll spend a day just cleaning your barn.” Just spend a day. Just relax. I remember being at the Hayden house on more than one occasion, and it was just motorcycles all day, every day. If they weren’t on the motorcycle, they were out pedaling. They work their butts off for this sport. They devote their lives to it, and they put in the effort. To their credit, they’ve all done a stellar job. But I think it is possible to overtrain or to overdo it, for sure.

It’s funny about JD. I actually called him this year at one point between rounds. He answered the phone quickly, and I could hear something in the background. A lot of times I think it’s wind noise from these guys riding bicycles. So, I said, “JD, what’s that noise in the background?” He said, “Oh, I’m on the lawnmower. I’m mowing the lawn.” I said, “Come on, you’re mowing the lawn? Do you ever not do anything?” He just had to laugh. If he’s not training, he’s doing something around there. Working on that turn track or mowing the lawn or something.

Tell me about coming back into the paddock and racing in MotoAmerica Supersport. Contrast it, if you would, or compare it. I know you worked on those crazy Formula Xtreme 600s. You did SuperSport, as well, during the previous era. Compare the middleweight bikes in MotoAmerica Supersport nowadays to, maybe, Formula Xtreme or the old SuperSport class.

The new, modern 600cc sportbikes are good. They’re plenty good. The rules package being what it is, it’s odd for me to show up… We would go 1500 kilometers before we’d cycle out an engine. That’s an oddity for me. In the past, on those Formula Xtreme motors, we’d change those out every 320 kilometers. It’s different to have bikes that are that good, that stay together that well, and you can go that amount of time on them.

The Formula Xtreme bikes, compared to what the MotoAmerica Supersport bikes are now, those FX bikes were truly middleweight Superbikes, weren’t they?

They were awesome. They were a lot of fun to build, and they were extremely powerful. I loved listening to them rev because, obviously, we revved them really high. Those were really fun bikes to work on and play with.

I remember distinctly that, when Miguel DuHamel would be on TV, on the podium or after winning, he would always thank his crew. I remember, for a while, he would thank Joey Lombardo. I remember he used to thank John Ethell. I remember thinking, that last name Ethell is kind of cool because, back then, I thought it was spelled “Ethyl” and I thought you had ethanol running through your veins or something. Then I found out that “Ethell” is spelled different than I thought. But obviously I learned from back then that you were somebody aligned with Miguel. You worked with a lot of riders. You mentioned Nicky. You worked with Roger, and Jake Zemke. Tell us about your previous stint in the paddock and who you worked with.

This was all by accident. None of this was planned. It wasn’t my life goal or anything. Back in the day, I was a motocrosser. I was going to be the next Ricky Johnson. That was my goal. But then, I found myself hurt and unemployed. Lost the good job that I had locally and ended up taking a job with a watercraft manufacturer doing in-field product development and testing and R&D. I was living in Lake Havasu, Nevada, having a fun time. They called me up one day and said, “You’re doing a great job. We want you to move to Valcourt, Quebec, to be closer to the engineers.” I said, “Absolutely not.” So they said, “Well, we’re going to cancel your contract.” So I came home, and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do, and I got a phone call from this kid that I didn’t even know. His name was Jason Pridmore. He was a local racer. So he said to me, “I heard you’re pretty good with motors. Can you come help my crew chief out?” So I did. Obviously back then, in ’82, ’83, ’84 and ’85, we were all broke as a joke. There was no television coverage. We were lucky if Cycle News had a photo or whatever. We’d always have results, but there really wasn’t much notoriety to it. I remember going on the road and Jason saying, “Hey, I can’t pay you, but I’ll cover your expenses.” That was how we made it. We would get to a gas station and the gas card wouldn’t work. Jason would call up his girlfriend Suzy and say, “Hey, could you put some money on my card for me?” because she had a job. But it was great. I got to work with guys like Jason and Fritz Kling and Gerald Rothman and Owen Weichel. We helped a lot of those guys out of that little shop back then. I started in the 1997 championship with Jason at Hyper Cycle. Then I got kind of burned out at Hyper Cycle. So, in 1998, I was helping Glenn Cook at Zero Gravity with the Aprilia program and trying to bring the Mille and the RS250 Challenge Cup to the U.S. In the process, I needed a test rider to run miles on the Mille. I ended up running into Jake Zemke. He asked me, “If I buy a bike, would you build it and go to a couple races with me?” So I did, and I ended up over at Cycle Gear. Worked with Roger Hayden during his first year of AMA racing. Got to meet the Haydens and hang out with them at their house for the first time. I went from that to Jake Zemke, then Aaron Gobert, then Josh Hayes, then Miguel DuHamel, then Nicky Hayden, and the list goes on and on. I’ve been very fortunate.

So it started with Jason Pridmore, and you ended up on the American Honda factory team. When you were with Miguel DuHamel, were you working with him in both 600 and Superbike?

When this whole thing started, I was working for Cycle Gear in 1999, and I got a phone call from Ray Plumb at American Honda. He said, “We’d like to interview you.” I told my dad, I said, “I don’t do well in corporate environments.” He said, “You’ve always wanted to be a Honda guy, so go see what it’s like.” So, I started off down there and I was Miguel’s 600 chassis guy. Then, the following year, we had the RC51. So, I went to Japan, built the motors there, and I ended up being the chassis guy and the engine builder for the 600, as well as Miguel’s engine guy for the RC51.

Tell me about your relationship with the great Merlyn Plumlee.

I was very blessed. I didn’t actually work hand-in-hand with Merlyn at American Honda. He was the crew chief for the other side of the garage. In my time, Merlyn and I just got to be good friends. I was kind of the square peg in the round hole there, and Merlyn knew that. So I was there early in the morning and late at night. He would take the time to talk to me, educate me, and share things with me. We would converse on what I was doing with the engines and that kind of stuff because at the time he was the engine guy there. He was the guru. So he was nice enough to question me on what I was doing and why, and he let me go down certain roads and then come back to him with some more questions. He would kind of correct me. In the end, it was a good relationship. He was just a great man. I learned a lot from him.

There’s a lot of rumor and speculation about JD Beach for next year, and what’s going to happen with Graves/Yamaha’s Supersport program. I don’t know how much you can say, but what’s next for you?

Honestly, I don’t know yet. I told my wife that I owed it to JD to go do this. I wanted to do it for myself, as well. But when I did this, I told my wife that I would do it this one year and help JD get to where he needed to be. I knew that I was kind of like a fill-in, for lack of a better term. JD and I ended up having a pretty good relationship out of this and a pretty good rapport. I think, if everything were to stay status quo, I would probably come back with JD and do the same thing again. Not knowing where he’s at and where he’s going and what he’s doing, I don’t know. I’ve had other people approach me about coming back. I didn’t really plan on coming back and staying in the MotoAmerica paddock. I just planned on doing the one year. If the right opportunity presents itself with the right rider, and I know they’re going to give me 110 percent and it’s worthwhile for me to take time away from my family and my shop, then I’ll entertain it.

I’m sure there are a lot of new faces for you in the MotoAmerica paddock, but you think about your very first rider Jason Pridmore up in the broadcast booth and doing commentary for beIN Sports. Jake Zemke is now working with Cameron Beaubier and is an agent for Wasserman. Your guys are still around the paddock but now in different roles. I’m sure there are some colleagues who are still in the paddock from when you were here before, but there are probably a lot of new faces, too. What was that like for you? Does it feel like all this time has gone by?

You don’t realize it until you go back. I stay in contact with a lot of the old guys. We’ve talked about doing an old AMA revival out at Vegas to go get reacquainted. The camaraderie that we had was pretty special. We weren’t rich and famous. We weren’t flying around everywhere. We were all driving trucks and getting from race to race as best we could. So, that camaraderie is the good part of the paddock that I really enjoy. There are a lot of new faces and there are a lot of old faces. There are guys who I spent a lot of quality time with. There are guys, and I have no idea who they are. It’s different. It’s a more politically savvy world out there, I guess. We were just roughnecks trying to make a living and win some races.

The world certainly has changed. Give me your assessment of MotoAmerica compared with what used to be AMA Pro Racing.

I think MotoAmerica is doing a good job. I think they were handed something that had a little bit of tarnish on it, unfortunately. There are some things that I would love to see them do differently, as far as trying to reach people. But as far as the rules package goes, as far as the accessibility to the people you need to be able to talk to, as far as tech inspection, the way the races are run, scheduling, all that is really good. They’ve done a really good job. There were competitors on other teams when we would be in Victory Circle, and they would offer to help me because of my big, old limp. They would volunteer to carry my bike stand to the tech garage. So that part of it is really cool. Having Paul Carruthers be willing to help me with a couple of things because I couldn’t get around, that was nice. Niccole Cox made exceptions for me on a couple of occasions to let us drive the car in and drop me off. So, as far as being part of the group, I feel like they’ve done a good job to keep everybody in the family.

Tell us about your company, Jett Tuning.

I started Jett Tuning 15 years ago. I decided I was going to retire from road racing and just be me. So I started that, and I had these grand plans. It was going to be a national name and whatever. In reality, I created the job for myself. We work on everything. We do a little bit of everything. We do streetbikes, dirtbikes, side-by-sides, quads, and watercraft. We do a little bit of everything. We have a dyno, so we can tune pretty much anything that needs to get done.

How many employees do you have?

I’ve had as many as seven and as much as 6800 square feet. I’ve toned it down, though, and this year, I decided that I’m going to make it a “me” program, and it’s going to be a little shop down the street. So, when the sign’s on the door, I’m gone fishing.