Photos by: Chase Yocom
These “Privateer Showcase” interviews presented by Race Tech Suspension at MotoXAddicts tell the stories of the guys in the trenches week in and week out trying to chase their dream of racing professional motocross and Supercross. While the riders at the front of the pack get the money, the T.V. time and the glory that goes with it, there’s a huge pack of guys just hoping to get a spot inside a factory semi. We tell their stories.
Every once in a while you witness a special rider walk away from the sport long before their time and Blake Wharton was one of those guys. Blake was a standout amateur who graduated into the pro ranks as a teenager in 2009 with the GEICO / Honda team and he was immediately a threat in the class. In his rookie year, he had two podiums and a win, and the podium expectations quickly changed to Championship expectations for the Pilot Point, Texas rider.
Inconsistency and some injuries prevented Blake from ever winning a title, but there were definitely nights where “Slash” was untouchable. In his six years in the 250SX class, he landed on the podium 13 times with three of those podiums being on the top step. Blake had the best season of his career in ’13 running the #13 Rockstar / Suzuki—racking up five podiums and a win on his way to finishing third in the 250SX East title chase. Strangely, though, that was really the end of his career. He got injured half way through that outdoor season, returned as a fill in rider for GEICO in ’14, got injured again and has been gone since.
With the IBCorp / Racetrack Supercross / Yamaha privateer team behind him, Blake showed up for the first time in four years for the East / West Shootout and qualified 6th overall with all the factory talent from both coasts in the lineup. In his West heat race, he also qualified sixth and it was obvious to anyone paying attention that the sport had not left Blake behind. In the main, Blake got off to a 12th place start, but quickly moved up to 9th. It looked like he was on his way to a top ten, but the lack of fitness and a long 21-lap race got the best of him. In the end, he left Indy with a 14th and some solid race time under his belt.
After Indy, we decided to give Blake a call and ask him a few questions about the race, why he came back and some of the changes he noticed in racing today. If you know Blake, there’s no such thing as a short answer, so grab a coffee and check out what Blake and I talked about below.
Slash is back! I typed that so many times this week. Do you even like the nickname “Slash?” (laughs)
I like it. Fortunately, all my nicknames are pretty good, so I’ll take it. Prince, Slash, Purple Rain, Russell Brand—I’m whatever you need me to be.
What have you been up to for the two weeks between Indy and Seattle this weekend?
We’re doing just the same thing. We’re not going to reinvent the wheel right now. Two weeks is a good amount of time to make progress, but it’s not a huge amount of time to really change up a lot. We need more racing. We need to just log the hours and fine tune a few things we think we need to work on from Indy.
I don’t think anybody expected you to make your debut at the Shootout in Indy with both coasts there—kind of thrown to the wolves after 3-4 years off—but was that kind of the thought process: we’ll race Indy and then we’ll have a full two weeks to work on what we’ve learned before we race just the West riders in Seattle?
We knew that Indy would be a tough round to return to, but we didn’t want to waste time and skip it just because everyone would be there. We knew it would probably be a good one because it really doesn’t get more challenging on paper than that race. We haven’t been racing on soft dirt. We haven’t been racing against the guys on the West, let alone the guys on the East. Let’s go qualify well. Let’s go race well, and let’s just do the best we can. The Shootouts are always kind of wild if you look at them historically.
While you were gone you kind of went on a sort of moto humanitarian mission bringing motocross to random small and third world countries that would otherwise never have a clue what motocross is. You also did the music thing in Nashville. You’ve talked a lot about that stuff in other interviews, but I wanted to ask you what your specific reasons are for wanting to come back. Is it just you have some unfinished business?
A few reasons, but like what you said is the gist of it. I felt like I could do more on a bike, that I could still ride, I could still race and I could still go fast even after being off for three years. I don’t think a lot of people understand, but I was spending time completely away from the sport. I wasn’t riding the whole time. In order to get away from the sport, you have to completely stop doing it for some time. I was involved, but I wasn’t riding every day. I didn’t have a mechanic. I didn’t have a trainer to pursue that. To come back, it was a challenge to get the logistics together. Why come back? I feel like this is the sport I’ve done for so long—my trade, if you will. I have passions outside of it, but I like staying involved in the industry and I can see myself in some ways sticking in the sport even after I retire. I have a passion for the extreme sport aspect having done it my whole life. The racing element is also very interesting to me. The how to improve or how to get better while looking at it from a curriculum standpoint is interesting to me. Also, more to prove. If I could make money at this thing one of these days, that would be incredible too at the end of the day.
Yeah, moto is almost like an addiction where to get away from it you really have to move away and completely change your friend groups and everything. Following you online, I noticed that you were around people at times that had no clue who Blake Wharton the SX racer is.
It was tough to get away from it because of social media now, because I have this identity online and expectations of me. They see me posting a picture of me in the Middle East with a guitar in my hand and they’re just not having it. Unfortunately, a lot of the fans want you to be that guy they remember you as, so it’s tough to leave that persona ultimately. I kept tabs on the sport, but I did try to take the time to actually do something else. They say you’re only young once and I wanted see a different part of the world and a different way of life. I’d say motocrossers are people who travel a lot but see very little. I saw more in the last three years than I did in all the years before that. You’re going to races in Canada, Florida or Europe, but that doesn’t mean you’re actually seeing anything.
Let’s talk about the return in Indy because I think you blew some minds. In qualifying, I don’t think anybody was surprised that you were fastest in the B group, but how much faster you were and the fact that you were 6th overall did surprise just about everyone. Were you surprised at all at how good you were in qualifying? Was that what you expected out of yourself?
That’s kind of what I expected out of myself. It was kind of a surreal feeling because here we are back at the races and I really didn’t feel super nervous, super anxious or super surprised. I was glad it worked out the way I liked or kind of foresaw it to be, because you never really know. You’ve been away for so long and want to think the think the best, but you never really know until you do it. I felt pretty calm most of the day. I was just trying to manage the long day. It wasn’t necessarily the riding; it was the long days, especially at Indy where you’re walking a lot and on your feet all day. Very different than being at the practice track. I tried not to expect certain results or a number, but I did put emphasis on going fast.
The first gate drop, how was that? Did the old butterflies come back? Did the muscle memory just take over?
Yeah, a little bit of that muscle memory. The gate is a little different because that’s what’s changed the most. The tracks have changed a little bit since ’14; they kind of evolved. You’ll see some new obstacles that are a slightly different, but a variation of the same thing we used to have. Whereas the starting gate—I mean, you still let the clutch out and you still try to get traction—is fairly different. Some of the elements have been removed, and I’m still getting acclimated too.
That’s right, you’ve never started on the new metal grates. Do you think they’re a good addition to the sport?
I don’t know if it’s a good addition to the sport, but I like them. I think they’re neat. I think it changes things up a bit. I think that dirt provides a chance for someone with a slower motor to get off the gate faster than someone with say a big motor. With dirt, you always have the chance that you’ll spin, and when you spin there’s no power on the ground. My brother [Tyler Wharton] got a holeshot in his very first SX in Houston in 2009 and he was a privateer. How did he do that? It was a relatively short start and he utilized traction. If you look at it from that stand point, dirt might be better for privateers. If you look at it from a logistics or an evolution standpoint, the grate is probably better.
This was also your first 15 min + 1 lap main and you guys did 21 laps. After being away from racing for so long, how was that for you?
You know what, when I got done with it, I was like, “Dang, I’m tired. That was long.” Then I found out it was 21 laps. It had been four years since I raced and I had never even done 20 laps before because I never had raced the 450 SX. 15 laps was really our pocket back in the day. If you look at where I was at lap 15, I was still inside the top ten. I’m pleased with it, though. There again, that’s what I was conditioned for before. That was sort of my muscle memory. We have been doing 15 minute practices, but nothing really is the same as racing. Not just me, it was a fairly brutal round. You saw guys that were leading the points in the East and West coming through the pack. It wasn’t an all out sprint. I wasn’t surprised by the pace when I got to mix it up with the guys because it was a fairly brutal and technical long race.
You were 11th on the white flag but finished 14th. I didn’t see it. What happened?
I made a mistake and kind of almost went off the track, and I missed the last rhythm—just a few mistakes. Some fatigue setting in maybe. You couldn’t let up because you had five guys in front of you and five guys behind you and you were all relatively close in speed. You were never able to settle in. Ultimately, I’m not upset. The fact that we’re even racing with these guys is the goal; then we’ll work on the cardio vascular or maintaining it throughout the race.
How pumped was your new IBCorp team on your ride? I just started watching that Racetrack Supercross show that follows the IBCorp Team, and they’ve had a rough go of it, so your ride had a be a sigh of relief for those guys.
Definitely. It was a tough round for them in San Diego, and if you guys watch Racetrack Supercross, you saw how tough it is. It’s easy to get down. I’ve been on a lot of teams and sometimes things can turn and it’s hard to turn that vibe around. They were definitely needing some results or something that would be a shot in the arm, and I think the heat race was that for them. The heat race was basically a West Coast main and that was that for them. They’re pretty stoked just to be back up there. The results haven’t necessarily reflected what I think they’re capable of—both the riders and also the equipment. The equipment is very good with Twisted Development. Jamie Ellis is very capable of building a good and really competitive bike. I think the results more reflected what people wanted and maybe expected out of them.