PJ Larsen’s story has the makings of a feel good story of the year. PJ came out of the amateurs as a co-winner of the most prestigious award in Amateur MX, the Horizon award, which he shared with Darryn Durham. Highly touted as an amateur, PJ was signed to the Canidae/Kawasaki team in 2009 and hit the ground running as a professional SX/MX racer.
Photo by Hoppenworld
In his rookie year, PJ didn’t exactly light the world on fire, but he had a good season for a rookie. PJ hovered around the top ten for most of the year and had some injuries, but for the most part seemed to be having a good enough year to build off of for 2010. Like a lot of other young kids trying to make it in our sport, though, he was let go by his team after one season and left out to pasture by all the other teams. Of course, the economy was and is bad, but let’s be honest. Many of the guys that were older and finishing far behind PJ got rides for 2010.
So PJ–not getting any calls in the US–headed to Australia where an upstart Australian team, JDR/KTM, had a job and a bike waiting for him. A lot of kids may have been bitter and not taken the chance in another country seriously, but PJ did exactly the opposite. He landed in Australia, put his head down and charged his way into two Australian national titles in only two tries. After winning his two titles, PJ and his JDR/KTM team did a complete 180 and headed back to the States to take on the AMA SX and the East and West Lites Class.
PJ started his “Coming Back to America” campaign in Houston this year and has already shown he has the speed to be in the States, even putting his JDR/JStar/KTM in the top five this last weekend at Daytona. I talked to PJ after the race about his whole journey thus far.
Photo by Brian Robinette.
Thank you for talking to MotoXAddicts, Mr. Larsen. I know you are a busy man these days.
No problem, Mr. Lamb. (Laughs)
It’s funny how quickly things change. Coming out of the amateurs you were pretty hyped, and one year later you’re in Australia winning titles. Now you’re back in the States, and the people that don’t know think you’re some kind of three-digit rookie. Tell the folks where you’re originally from.
I’m from South Carolina—Charleston, South Carolina—but now I’m living in California. I moved to California back in 2008 when I was riding for the old Canidae team. I obviously had to move to Australia when I raced over there, but now I’m back in my old place in Murrieta, California.
Speaking of your old Canidae team, what happened with that deal?
I’m not really sure what went on there, other than my results not being extravagant. I’d say I actually struggled some that year, but it was my rookie year as a pro. I was told at the end of the year that I would be on board for 2010. They even told other people in the industry that I would be there in 2010, so come off-season time, not only was I surprised, but a lot of other people were when they saw I wasn’t picked up for the following year. The only thing I can come up with is they changed their minds. Problem is, they left me hanging. I was kind of hung out to dry. I wasn’t really looking for anything else because they said I would be there. By the time they said I wasn’t coming back the next year with Canidae, there weren’t any real options for me.
Were there any American teams at all knocking on your door, or was it just really too late by that point?
Well, I did talk to a few teams here in the States, but with the economy and the political games being played nothing really worked out for me here. A lot of teams were telling me that if one of their riders got hurt, they’d call me, but I couldn’t just sit around and hope to be a fill-in rider because in doing that you really have no income, and this is my living. If I don’t get paid to race, I don’t eat or pay bills. I was 19 years old, on my own and 2000 miles away from my family. I couldn’t just move back in with my parents.
I don’t want this interview to turn into a rant session about the industry, but one thing that has always bothered me is the lack of time a rider gets to come into his own. You get one, maybe two years to get results out of amateurs or you’re gone. It seems like a lot of good talent might slip through the cracks. What are your thoughts on that?
I think that a lot of teams will only give you one year. Then there are those guys that get no results, and you see them back the next year. I just think to myself, “Damn. Who do I have to know to get that treatment?” There’s a lot of politics—who you know or how much money you have—that goes into decision-making for rides in the industry at times. What I’m saying isn’t really a secret, though.
So while this is going on, the Australian-based JDR team came a calling. How did that come about?
Yeah, they came to me talking about coming on board and moving to Australia to race. I’ll tell you, first I was kind of indecisive on the whole deal, but after I talked to Jay and Derek Rynenberg a little more, and realized the kind of program they were putting together, I knew I should take it.
Photo by Brian Robinette
So you took the gig with JDR and moved to Australia to work with Jay and Derek Rynenberg. What are those guys like?
You know what, I am so happy to be with the JDR Motorsports team! They really took me under their wing when I got to Australia. They took a chance on me, and I’m really happy I got that chance. I mean, how many 19 year-old kids can say they got to up and move to Australia with all expenses paid to live there for eight months? Not to mention, all the cool people I got to meet and all the new friends I have. The place is unreal! For them to have given me the opportunity to come live in their country—and to grow into being a part of their family—is just awesome. I love them to death for it! It even goes deeper than the Rynenbergs, though. There were all the aunts and uncles that go to the races to help. It was everyone. I really enjoy the family atmosphere, and hope to stay with them a while.
Whatever they’re doing over there, it seems to work. I’ve noticed how much they raise the level of the riders that go there, even like Ryan Marmont this year. Nobody expected him to do what he did in SX, and he killed it. I was bummed to see him go back home to Australia.
How can you not be happy and ride better when you feel like you’re part of a family? We do a lot of stuff together “as a team,” and I think that’s how it should be. You can’t have a good team if people don’t get along, and we all get along, so the team thrives. With Ryan, though, the kid has always–like a lot of Australian MX racers–wanted to race in the U.S. It’s been his dream! He was happy, but still really nervous. I think the way they brought him in—with no expectations—and how they treated him, helped him out a lot. Like you said, he killed it. I’m really happy for the guy.
While you were in Australia, you did kind of bad I guess. You only won two titles in two tries? Horrible! (Laughs)
It was awesome. The support the team got from factory KTM was a big reason we did so well over there. They treated us great while I was there. We worked closely, obviously, with KTM Australia, but we also worked with the big wigs from KTM Austria as well as KTM USA. That got me working with guys like Stephen Everts and Pit Bier. Those two titles were a huge, combined effort from everyone from KTM. It was really cool watching the effort evolve and work out to where we had three different countries of KTM.
Photo by Russ Erbe.
With that effort you won the Australian 250 outdoor national title and had a close battle with Matt Moss for the 250 Super-X title. For those that don’t know, the title was first awarded to Matt, but—after a review of the rules and the points based on those rules—you were awarded the title. I know it had something to do with him not completing enough laps one race to be eligible for points. Really weird situation. How was that to deal with?
Well yeah, it was really weird. At first, they were telling us we didn’t win it, and my team felt we did. When it first happened, I just left and went back to the U.S. I figured I’d go home and let them figure it out. I just didn’t want to worry about it. Then, when I got back to the U.S., I started thinking about it and really got the feeling that we got betrayed a little. As a team, it felt like we were being treated unfairly. It was obviously Motorcycling Australia’s mistake; they had messed up on the points, and I was hearing many different scenarios, one being that they knew, but didn’t tell us that night, and also maybe that they didn’t know until we brought it up. I guess nobody will truly ever know but them if they knew that night or not. In the end, it was a month later I was told I won.
If they knew, they completely took away the joy of the celebration of winning the title for you and the team?
Exactly! It was a month later when they made the announcement. Who really cares at that point? By then, Suzuki Australia was still publishing in magazines and making videos announcing that they had won it. It just really ruined it for me and the team. If you don’t get to celebrate it on the night it happens, it’s like it never really happened. There’s a lot behind the scenes as well with the whole Australian racing community and how JDR has been received in that community. Let’s just say there isn’t a welcoming committee for new teams in Australia, and there could be a little jealousy at play in how it went down with JDR being new and doing so well. We can leave it at that. (Laughs)
Sounds like fun.
Oh yeah, good times. Overall, though, the team welcomes the controversy and the challenge, and I hope they keep their Australian based team for a long time to come. The way they envision it is to help a lot of young, talented Australians succeed not only in Australia but also in America, if that’s their dream.
Well, JDR/JStar/KTM already made history in America. They are the first Australian-based team to put a rider in both the Lites and 450 Main Events on the same night: Marmont and Simmonds in the West, and I’m sure they’ll do it plenty more with you and Simmonds on the East.
JDR is really just accomplishing what they’ve known to be true for a while. There are a lot of fast, young, talented guys in Australia that can come over to the U.S. and succeed, if they have that chance. They’re showing that you don’t have to be a Chad Reed caliber Australian to succeed here. Every Australian rider I talked to while I was there dreams of either racing in Europe in the GP’s or here in the States, and with a team like JDR/JStar/KTM around, they might have that opportunity.
I know there’s been talent there–beyond the Reeds and Metcalfes–for a while now. Hanny went over there and struggled, and Billy Mackensie–who has won two GP’s–isn’t exactly dominating the Australian nationals while there. Still, I’ve heard more than one person say it’s no big deal that you won there. How much does that bug you?
You know, I’ve had so many people tell me that. I constantly hear “Who cares if you won there? It’s just Australia.” I always think let’s put this in perspective. Why don’t you pack your bags with whatever you can fit in them, head across the world to Australia, line up against a gate of ultra-talented kids you have never raced before and see how good you do. Then after you have been there eight months, tell me how you feel. You are so homesick and so tired of being away from everything you know and love that it wears on you. People don’t understand all that goes into doing what I did over there. It’s not just the lining up and winning.
How were the fans? Were they welcoming?
The Aussie fans were awesome. I met so many great people while I was there. I really want the fans of Australia to know I love them and their country. They would sit in long autograph lines, and when they got to me, tell me how cool it was to have me racing over there. Fans over there are really knowledgeable fans that follow the U.S. amateur scene. A lot of them said they had followed my amateur career.
On to this year and being back in the US: so far, you’ve had winning speed, but have struggled just a little. How do you feel it’s going so far?
Realistically, I’m bummed with the results so far. I have such a great team, and Nathan Ramsey is a great team manager. Thus far, I’m a little disappointed in what I’ve given them. Last week in Atlanta sucked. I would like to just erase that race from my memory. Houston wasn’t bad, but I had some bad luck that was beyond my control, and then there was this week.
Photo by Brian Robinette
How did Daytona go?
I got about an eighth place start, worked my way up to sixth and never really felt comfortable. Then late in the race, Lemoine went down in the back section putting me in fifth.
Were you happy with a top five in Daytona?
No, not really. (Laughs) Like I said, it was decent, and definitely better than the last two races, but still not where I want to be, not where the team wants to be either. We know we’re better than that. I just felt off and wasn’t having a good weekend, but the results ended up okay. We need to build off of it, keep working and get better and better.
How did you like the Daytona track?
It was so brutal! I can’t believe how brutal it actually was, more like a brutal outdoor track.
Speaking of Outdoors what’s the JDR/JStar/KTM’s outdoor plans this year?
JDR is 100% just like any other big team outdoors. We will be at every outdoor race, and every sponsor is coming with us. We have so many great sponsors on board for the whole year indoors and out with Answer Gear, Skullcandy and JStar Motors, and everyone will be at Hangtown ready to go. I’m looking forward to racing the 250 outdoors.
I have to tell you, JStar Motors is a nice sponsor to have. I saw some of their whips in that “Coming Back to America” show you guys have been doing with JDR.
It’s awesome. I was just on the phone with Jared from JStar, and just bought a new car from him. I’m so pumped on my ride. I just picked up a Lexus IS250 from him, and I love it. No more driving the big van around town.
I’m thinking you probably got a better deal from them than I could. (Laughs) How do you like doing the “Coming to America” videos?
I think the video and the whole idea is awesome. I love it! I think a lot of fans love it too, because it shows them that behind-the-scenes stuff they normally don’t get to see. There are some people that think there’s not enough riding in it, but overall it’s really cool, and it produces a lot of great content and hits for our sponsors.
Well, thanks for doing this interview PJ. Good luck in the rest of the year. Anyone you would like to thank?
Well, of course, the JDR racing team, JStar Motors, KTM factory racing team, VonZipper, Answer Gear, Skullcandy and anyone and everyone that helps out. They all mean the world to me right now, and I couldn’t do it without any of them.
You can find PJ Larsen on Twitter @pjlarsen927. Follow @dandunes818 and @MotoXAddictsCom for any and all racing news and info. Also, check out PJ’s sponsors: JDR Motorsports, JStar Motors, VonZipper, Answer Gear and Skullcandy.