This article appears in the March 21, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
It's 30 minutes before a February Supercross Lites race at Angel Stadium of Anaheim, and the pit area of team Monster Energy/Pro Circuit/Kawasaki is pin-drop quiet. No blaring music, no dancing girls, no trash-talking among riders. Inside the team's air-conditioned trailer, riders Josh Hansen, Broc Tickle and Tyla Rattray pore over track maps and study video shot during practice laps.
Sound tame for the rock 'n roll world of Supercross? Sure. But the resume of the Pro Circuit team is serious business: 116 wins and 18 series championships in the past 20 seasons, with an alumni roster that includes legends Jeremy McGrath and Ricky Carmichael. The mood in the trailer reflects the team's reverence for racing.
The Supercross Lites division, for bikes with 250cc engines, has long been the stepping stone to the main event, featuring 450cc bikes. And a seat on a Pro Circuit ride has become a golden ticket to prime time for young riders. Credit team owner and manager Mitch Payton for building the dynasty. "We put a tremendous amount of preparation and focus into making sure we have the best chance to win each weekend," says Payton. As a teenager he rode dirt bikes in the desert, but after a 1977 racing accident left him paralyzed from the waist down, he shifted focus to mechanics. In 1978 he opened a performance shop called Pro Circuit International, in Anaheim. Soon, Payton's crew began manufacturing exhaust systems and other performance components, and it wasn't long before Pro Circuit was the first stop for any bike owner seeking more horsepower and improved handling. (The shop has since moved operations to Corona, Calif.)
Payton formed his Lites team in 1991 and began field-testing ideas for squeezing every ounce of power out of a bike. Backed by sponsors Kawasaki and Monster Energy, Payton now pours nearly $10 million a year into R&D. He's even hired a Formula One firm to custom make transmissions. Whenever he wants a better ride for his Lites team, Payton and his crew of 20 mechanics, engineers and technicians strip a factory bike to its frame and make hundreds of modifications, from hollowing out parts to replacing metal with carbon fiber. The rebuilt bike is then hooked to a dynometer to measure horsepower and torque before it is test-driven on the track.
The rider feedback for this season? Glowing. "Every week I'm on the fastest bike in the field," says Hansen, 27, who sits atop the Supercross Lites West standings; his teammate Tickle is No. 2. "That just gives you so much confidence, when you have an advantage like that." Look for Hansen, a precise rider who has a knack for great starts, to make the jump to the premier class next season.
But first, he has to cram for a race.