Photo by: Todd Gutierrez
At the 2013 Washougal National, Ryan Villopoto and Eli Tomac carried the day’s racing with overall wins in the 450 and 250 class, but it was a laser pen and the Alessi family that carried the news of the day. In the first moto of the 450 class, Ryan Villopoto, Malcolm Stewart and—we are told in this interview—Mike Alessi were all hit with a green laser light on the starting line just before the drop of the gate.
It was later discovered that Jeff Alessi was the man behind the laser light, and the craziness that ensued after that discovery is a perfect example of truth being stranger than fiction. From the argument between Jeff’s father, Tony Alessi, and journalist Steve Matthes in the pits to the unprecedented fines and suspensions handed down by MXSports and an ill-advised call Tony Alessi made into the PulpMX, show it has been a crazy week.
All professional sports have a myriad of characters, some more polarizing than others, and in professional motocross, Tony Alessi is definitely one of those over-the-top characters. I’ve known Tony from way back in my Indian Dunes mini bike days, and I’ve always gotten along the man. I may not agree with the method of his madness, but there’s no doubt we have two huge things in common: a passion for dirt bike race and a love for our kids. This week, Tony definitely lost his head while displaying that love for one of his kids and, for that, is paying a big price for a man who has spent the last 24 years at the races with his kids every weekend; he’s banned from the races for the rest of 2013.
In response to that ban, Tony did and said some things that were even out there for him, so knowing Tony, I gave him a call to find out if he wanted to talk about it. Tony not only wanted to talk, but wanted to try to make amends for his actions and words over the past few days. Tony and I talked about everything from the start of the Washougal National up until today, and while I, like most of you, thought he lost his mind, I was amazed at the humility and regret he showed. You can read the very candid interview with Tony below.
First off can you take us through your race-day at the Washougal National and then take us through when you first heard about the laser incident with Jeff?
Washougal is one of our favorite tracks we go to every year, and we have been looking forward to going to Washougal for several weeks—you know, thinking about the race and that we had a great race there last year. The people are good to us there, and the track owners are awesome. The Huffman’s are great, and they even put us on the Washougal National T-shirts. We had a great press-day. It was positive. The bike was great, everything was good, and everything was building up to be a great weekend. Mike was doing the “Spotlight” interview with Racer X—which is kind of ironic now that they called it the “Spotlight” for Racer X. (Laughs) That was great, though, because he was getting a long interview.
As far as the racing goes, it was going as good or better than expected. The first moto had just been completed, and we had a new rider for the weekend—which was Vince Friese—so I was making my way over from the end of the 450 race to the start of the 250 race, and I was heading over to see Vince to see if there was anything I could help him with at the line. So I had taken care of that, and shortly after I did that, I heard on the radio somebody calling me saying that your kid’s in trouble right now and there’s a dispute going on. I said, “Okay, where and what’s going on?” He said, “It looks like it’s getting physical. You better go figure it out.” So I got there, and it was a high intensity situation when I got there. It was already on fire. And I was still in race mode, so I was not nearly up to speed, and this was a gnarly thing going on. So when I get there, I hear Jeff saying, “I didn’t do it,” and I hear Davey [Coombs] saying, “You’re suspended. You’re out of here. I’m dragging you out of here. You’re gone. Get off the property.” And I’m thinking, “Wow, what just happened here?” It obviously escalated from there ’cause Jeff is telling me he didn’t do it and that he found the thing.
Yeah, you gotta be thinking what the heck did Jeff do to start this kind of craziness?
Yeah, definitely. At that point, I asked Davey if he had any kind of video surveillance—you know, normally they have some kind of overview camera from at the start so you can see the whole start, so I thought there must be something we could look at. Then, maybe we could know beyond a shadow of a doubt whether it was Jeff or not. Jeff’s saying it’s not him and you’re saying it is him, so I thought the easiest thing we could do was go look at a video and find out and have this thing done one way or the other. I think, at that point, Davey agreed with me. He didn’t say he agreed, but he took off, I assumed to go look at the video.
What did you do after Davey took off?
This year, we only have forty-minutes between moto one and moto two to get our bike and rider and everything else together for the second moto. People don’t know how hard that is to do. Between washing the bike, switching the clutch, changing tires, tightening the chain, and everything else, you have to be unbelievably efficient. So it was a short amount of time, and I had to get back into racing focus.
What did Jeff do at that point?
I put Jeff in the motorhome and told him not to move. Yeah, at this point, I had no idea what happened, and I wanted to get to the bottom of it so I said, “You, don’t move. Just stay in here.”
After that, I assume you just went back to getting Mikey to moto two and resuming the race day, but this insanity had to be on your mind
Definitely, we did the race. Mike rode great. He rode his ass off and had a terrific race. He came from outside the top fifteen, passed some exceptionally good riders to finish sixth. Then, when the race was over, I went back to dealing with the situation with Jeff. In the midst of dealing with it, I’m asking Jeff to tell me everything he knew and, at the same time. I’m hoping Davey and the MXSports crew would be on their way over to talk to us and tell us “Hey, this is what happened.” At this point, I was hoping they would come over with a video or something so we could settle this. Until I hear proof, I have to give my kid the benefit of the doubt.
When did you read the tweets from Steve Matthes that set you off?
Yeah, it was right about that time that I saw Matthes in the pits talking, and I was getting information in my ear that he was posting stuff on the internet about it, and I was thinking, “Wait a minute, I haven’t even heard from any officials yet that they had any proof it was Jeff Alessi, and Matthes is posting it all over the internet as fact.” It was already all over Twitter, PulpMX and VitalMX, and so I went up to Matthes wanting to know why he did that. I’m still waiting to hear something from an official to tell us what the situation is, and you’re already reporting it as fact. He said he got the information from an official, and we had not even been talked to yet. I felt the reporting was rash and premature at that point, but I regret the way I reacted.
To be honest, I’ve been getting along with Matthes great for the last two years now, and to be honest, at some point in the conversation I lost it, and I’m very sorry I did that. If I could take back the stuff I said and did, I’d do that. I would try to be like I’ve been the last two years. In that time, I haven’t had any incidents or problems. I do have a history of losing it at times, but that’s something I’ve focused on changing. I’ve been trying to do a good job, and I have a lot of pressures from different sides, and without making any excuses, this situation momentarily put me over the edge.
I know I got vocal and pushy with Matthes, and I’m sorry for that. I wish I could live that over, and if I could live that moment over, I would have just walked away and dealt with it later. I’m embarrassed that I made a scene at the MCR rig. I’m embarrassed for myself and the team, and I really feel bad for Matthes. Honestly, I was out of my mind.
Yeah, I was right there for all that, and it didn’t look fun for anyone. At this point, though, Jeff is still telling you he didn’t do it, right?
Yeah, Jeff’s still telling me he didn’t do it, and a few more hours go by and I still hadn’t heard anything from MXSports. We wanted to tell our side, but they said they didn’t want to talk. At this point, I still don’t know what to believe.
I know Jeff was blaming his ex-girlfriend, which we all now know was a lie, but was she even at the race?
Yeah, I did see her there, so that was still absolutely a possibility. They’re one in the same. They’re both characters. Mike and I are both pretty serious, but Jeff is not a serious guy. Mike and I are all business. Jeff is silly, kind of like the guy Loki from the movie “Mask”.
So what happened between you and Davey Coombs later?
Yeah, I got into an argument with Davey later as we were leaving and we had tempers. Davey is a passionate guy that loves the sport, and he wants to do what’s best for the sport. He was protecting the sport—which is what he’s supposed to do—and I was protecting my kid—which I feel I’m supposed to do—and we clashed. We were both feeling passionate and right about what we were doing, and neither one of us were giving any ground.
I talked to Davey afterwards, and I apologized. I said, “You know what, I am sorry.” By that time, Jeff had told the truth about what happened and I felt worse. I was sorry I didn’t handle it differently.
Did Jeff file criminal charges after the race on Davey?
After the race was done, there were some discussions about how Jeff was handled a little bit hard. We all talked, and I think that was something Jeff decided to do in the heat of the moment, but at the time, I think we were all out of our minds and not thinking straight. I think once you cross that line of insanity—whether temporary or permanent—you just lose it. That was kind of what was going on: insanity.
So at this point in time, is that all squashed?
Yeah, absolutely! I think Davey has his heart in the right place for the sport, and I’m sorry we reacted that way. When you got a guy out there trying to do the right thing for the sport and we find out our guy was actually shining a laser at riders, we know definitely that Davey was in the right and we were in the wrong. So, for sure, I’m sorry about that. I just wish I had the real information sooner. I do wish they would have had security handle it and neutralized it more, but either way, I reacted wrong.
So after this you have a long day of travel and no sleep worrying about this. When you thought about what might be the repercussions, did you imagine they would be this severe?
No, I didn’t think they’d be anything like that. In terms of was I up for a long time with no sleep, I think I was up for 100 straight hours. That’s the truth. Honestly, I thought for sure there was going to be some penalties towards Jeff, and at the time, I knew I was out of line with my argument with Davey and Matthes, but I didn’t think the penalty would be as severe as it was. I would have for sure thought that nothing would have touched Mike Alessi, because he didn’t do anything wrong. All he did was race and work his ass off. He did great all day, did great interviews and, as always, was a great ambassador of the sport as was Mike Genova. I didn’t think either one of them would be affected. I was blown away when Mike was given a $15,000 ($5,000 suspended) fine. I was blown away. It’s gotta be one of the biggest fines in history. My gut just dropped, and I felt so bad for both of them. Both work their butts off and go out of their way to do the right things for the good of the sport. I was gutted to think mine and Jeff’s misconduct created that situation.
What was Mike Alessi’s immediate reaction to the penalties?
Yeah, I talked to Mike, and he was in a big depressed state. He just could not fathom what happened to him. It’s like doing everything you can do to be perfect and out of nowhere getting in the most trouble in AMA history. Unfortunately, if you’re the rider, the rule is that you’re responsible for your crew, your family and your friends even if the rider has no knowledge of anything they’re doing.
I 100% believe that nobody but Jeff had any knowledge of what he was doing, but what would you say to those people who think you might have had any knowledge that Jeff was going to laser riders?
Look, we are not in the same race as Ryan Villopoto. Villopoto is in a much different race than we’re in. That guy is beating everybody, including us, by over a minute, so we’re not racing him. Our group is trying to catch the factory Honda guys and stay in front of Andrew Short, Josh Grant, Broc Tickle—that’s who we’re racing. Let me make sure we make that clear. Also, most people that know me and how dedicated to the sport I am know that’s something I would not even consider. If I had any knowledge, I would have squashed it. I’ve worked too hard to get to the position to run a team my son is on. This is what I’ve always dreamed of, and I would never put that in jeopardy.
After finding out about the fines, you called into the PulpMX show to talk about it, and things got a little crazy on the show. Do you want to talk about some of the things that were said on the show?
Yeah, Mike Genova was going on the show, and I asked if I could go on after him. Genova asked me to keep my cool, and I made a promise to keep my cool. I did a good job for about the 90% mark, but then I lost it. I was gutted I broke that promise to Genova. At that point, I was out of my mind, up for 100-plus hours, pretty close to a nervous breakdown and just an absolute mess. They were making some pretty strong comments and accusations, and that pretty much brought on the continuation of the same madness—just more mini-bike dad stuff coming out like crazy. Again, I regret and feel bad for a lot of the things I said.
Check out Ryan Villopoto’s visor right before the gate drops for moto one. You can clearly see the green light dancing on his visor.
I won’t pick apart everything you said, because it’s clear now that a lot of it was just a man feeling his world is crashing down and lashing out, but one thing you said caused a lot of reaction, and I wanted to give you a chance to clear it up. You spoke strongly about a drug problem in the pits and insinuated that MXSports was a part of that problem. Some took it as you saying MXSports is running a drug ring. Do you want to comment on what you said?
Yeah, I didn’t say that they were running a drug ring. If it came out that way, I want to say sorry to Davey Coombs and to everyone at MXSports. That was not what I wanted it to sound like. To clear that up, I said I was in an AMA meeting earlier that week and it was brought up that there is alleged performance enhancement drug activity happening inside the paddock, and one of the members in the meeting was very serious about wanting something done. They were reciting article 23 and that they want federal marshals to come into the sport and do more than just ask questions. I think the purpose of that was to send a clear message to the promoters and organizers that they want something done about it. Honestly, though, I feel bad because the promoters are aware of this, and I think they really want to do something, but they’re bound by the AMA Pro Racing rule book, and I don’t think they have the right wording inside that rule book to do anything about it. I’m not the smartest guy out there, so I’m sorry if I don’t have the wording right. They did say they were aware of the problem and trying to find a way to change the wording and somehow figure out a way to handle the cost associated with testing. It’s very expensive, and if they want to test 1st, 2nd and 3rd, they’re looking at something like $10,000 a weekend.
It’s too bad it didn’t happen before the PulpMX show, but when did Jeff finally tell you, “Shit, Pops, I messed up?”
You know, he called me—I don’t know where we were, but we were driving—and he called up and talked to Mike [Alessi] actually first. He apologized to his brother and asked “What do I gotta do to make it up to you?” I think Mike told him he had to cut his lawn for a year or something like that. Then I talked to him afterwards, and he was really sorry. I don’t think I ever recall Jeff ever being that humble to me, but I think he respected that I stuck up for him until the end and basically took the knife for him. I think that he didn’t want that to happen and he wanted to assume the responsibility and decided that he was going to tell everybody that he did it. I was proud of him for that. I don’t think one time I came down on him hard, and in the end, I was proud that he took responsibility for his actions. I’m not sure, but I think he even called Davey and apologized and cleared some of it up.
Was there a part of you that was mad he let it go this far before coming clean?
No, not really. Even though it was late, I was pretty proud that he took responsibility. I understand, and I think throughout the whole thing he was scared and didn’t want to disappoint me. Jeff doesn’t live with us, and he’s been away from our home for four years. I rarely see him, and we wanted to help him get back on a bike and race that race at Portland International Raceway he likes to do every year. He likes to hang with the people there and likes the owner of the track. It was the first time I’ve actually seen Jeff in months. I think he just didn’t want to let me down and that’s what caused him to lie. He knows how hard we have been working on that team and how well it’s been going and he felt like he ruined everything—from mechanics, to truck drivers, to his brother and his dad. That had to be hard.
Did you see Ryan Villopoto’s GoPro video yet?
No, I have not seen the video yet.
Yeah, it’s pretty bad Tony. I gotta say, it really looks like he was going out of his way to mess with RV—not hurt him, but definitely distract him. A lot of fans want to know what Tony would you have done if it was Mikey that was hit with the laser?
Well, it actually did hit Mike. Mike told me after the first moto that he had a laser shined in his eyes as well—another reason why I didn’t think it was Jeff. He said he was waving his arms ’cause he didn’t know where it was coming from—so was Malcolm Stewart, who was right next to him. Both those guys got a laser shined in their eyes and didn’t know where it was coming from. Mike said it was bugging him. I can see that it would be irritating and annoying for sure. Both those guys were waving their arms because they were irritated by it.
Well, what’s done is done at this point, and now all that’s left to do is take your punishments and move on. What are Tony Alessi’s plans for the immediate future?
Well, obviously I have a four-race suspension from MXSports, so I’m in the penalty box for that. There was also a four-race suspension that MCR levied that means no involvement with the team and some financial consequences. And that’s pretty difficult for me because I do every element of that motorcycle for Mike Alessi, and he’s a very hard guy to make happy with the bike. I know the specs, and we have a new mechanic—Dave Dye—in there now, which makes it even harder. He doesn’t know the specs of the bike yet and is learning as we go. Dave’s a great mechanic, but it may take him a little while to learn the specs. There’s a lot that goes into getting Mike’s bike right. That’s gonna be difficult for those guys this week and the rest of the series.
How difficult will it be for you? I know you haven’t missed one of Mike’s races in a while.
I’ve only missed one of Mike’s races in his entire life. Since he was four years old until now—twenty-one years—I’ve missed one race. So, yeah, it’s not going to be easy. I mean, I wish I could go hide under the bed of the motorhome. I know I can’t, though, because obviously I don’t want to make things any worse at this point. It’s going to be one of those things where they’re going to have to figure it out, and Mike is high maintenance on a bike. One pound of air pressure one way can be a problem, but I feel like I put the right people in their to help me while I’m gone. Clark Jones is the former team manger for the Noleen Sizzler team, and he’s been in the sport for over forty-five years. He will be filling in as team manager, and I trust that he will do a great job. Dave Dye will do a great job as Mike’s mechanic, and I have to just sit at home with my fingers crossed and put my faith in those guys. I believe that they can get it done.
On Monday, you and I talked and you said you guys were done with the series. Mike Genova also told the PulpMX Show you were done for the year. What happened between Monday and Tuesday that has MotoConcepts heading to Millville?
On Monday, Genova told me we were done. We weren’t taking the rig to any of the races, and that’s the end of it. I was like, “What do we do now? Do we go to Canada? Do we do a couple GP’s?” I know there were a couple fill-in rides available in the GP’s. But then, I thought, through this entire thing, nobody asked Mike Alessi what he wanted to do. We just kind of told him this is what we’re doing. Nobody asked him, myself included. It was wrong. So I asked him, “What is it you would like to do?” He said, “I love racing the motocross series. I love going to these tracks and being part of this whole thing, and I’d really like to find a way to get it done.” So I suggested he talk to Mike Genova and get it worked out, ’cause I can’t do anything. So Mike called Davey and expressed his desire to stay in the series, but it’s Genova’s call, and I think Davey really lobbied to Genova to make sure Mike got to races.
So what are you doing with your free weekend now? I know you, and I know while you’ll be on the couch at home watching, I still assume you’ll probably have two-way radio into Mike’s helmet. (Laughs)
Well, Friday would normally be a travel day for me, but I think I’ll work on the track all day tomorrow. Then my girlfriend, Stacy, is going to take me on a thirty-mile bike ride to get me at some sane level. Then Saturday I’m going sit home, watch the races and root for Mike Alessi.
One last question. Now that you’ve had a few days to sleep on it and see everything on a level head, are you okay with the punishments and how MXSports handled the situation?
Absolutely! Like I said, I’m sorry I crossed the line with Steve Matthes. I want to apologize to the promoter of the event and the whole staff at MXSports for losing my cool and losing my mind. I hope at some point I’m forgiven, and I hope that they understand that there’s another level of emotion that happens when you’re defending your kids. I don’t want to make an excuse, but I hope they understand it’s different when it’s your kid.
Well, Tony, thanks for doing this interview and doing your best to clear most everything up. I definitely didn’t expect or want to type this much. (Laughs) I hope we can see you back at the races soon.