By Eric Johnson
"I just want to be as ready as possible," offered Austin Forkner a week before what would be the first professional race of his career – the GoPro Hangtown Motocross Classic. 'I just really need to see where I kind of fit in with those guys. I just need to get through the first round and see where I fit in and make some goals from there. I'm just going to go in and try and run with those guys." And four rounds and eight motos into the 2016 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship, the seventeen year-old has, in fact, been able to run with those guys. One of the more hyped and anticipated amateur graduations in recent memory, Forkner had a hell of a lot riding along with him up and down the rolling hills of the Prairie City SVRA. The Kawasaki Motor Corp., USA, the Monster Energy/Pro Circuit/Kawasaki race team, not to mention a litany of other sponsors, saw the multifold Loretta Lynn's Amateur Champion as a great hope to galvanize the entire Team Green organization and had invested handsomely. And so far, so good. A consistent challenger, Forkner has raced in and around the top ten, and in more than a few instances, challenged for the lead and even overall victories. With an average moto score of 7.75 in the first eight thirty-minute-plus-two-lap encounters of the summer, by all accounts, the KX250F motivated rider is the real deal. 72 hours out from the Muddy Creek National in Blountville, Tennessee, Austin Forkner talked about what it's like to be tossed in the deep end of the shark tank.
Austin, what are you up a few days out from Saturday's Muddy Creek National?
Today is my off day so I did some yoga and a bike ride and stuff and just kind of rested up a little bit. We're going to ride a little bittomorrow. It won't be a super-hard day, our hard day was Tuesday. We're just going to ride tomorrow and get some motos in then we'll rest up on Friday and get ready for the race on Saturday.
Are you in California?
No, I'm in Oklahoma at [Robbie] Reynard's.
You are now four rounds into your rookie season in the 2016 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship. I remember talking with you the week before Hangtown and you were keen just to get out there and see where you fit into the grand scheme of things. You know where you're at now, huh?
Yeah. I think I'm a pretty much a solid top five guy now. A good moto, I think, is a top five right now and a really good moto now would be to podium. Top ten, I think that's where I should be, and if I don't get top ten, I'm not going to be very happy. Even if I do get top ten, I think that I should be farther up. I kind of figured out where I fit in; I kind of figured out what guys are going to be really hard to beat and what guys, if they're in front of me, that I know I can pass them. And I think my fitness has gotten better since the first round. The heat is now picking up, so that's going to make it a little bit tougher, but I'm getting used to the thirty-minute motos now as well as the guys I'm racing with. I think it's been good.
I've heard a lot of talk within the sport that people think you warmed into things very quickly; that you looked comfortable almost immediately. What do you think?
Yeah, Hangtown was okay. The second moto was definitely better than the first moto. The second moto was pretty good, I got seventh. That's where I thought I would be. With the first moto, I rode tight and fell and just did some stupid stuff and got thirteenth. But after that, I rode good in the second moto. So far my results haven't really been that amazing, but I feel like they've been really solid. I've made some mistakes, like some falls and stuff like that. A fifth overall (High Point) and a fourth (Glen Helen) have been my best finishes so far. I've been four and five, and eight (Hangtown) and nine (Thunder Valley) so far. That's pretty solid. I've been in the top ten so far, and I'd like to keep it that way. Hopefully, I can get some more top five finishes, and maybe get a podium, and maybe even win a moto later on this season. Who knows?
You were third in the opening moto at Glen Helen, so you know you can be a third place guy, huh?
Yeah, that was a really good moto for me. I rode really good. I even rode better in the second moto, but that fall put me back. I was in second and actually catching [Jeremy] Martin a little bit and then I fell. I got back up and I rode really hard and I charged to the end of the moto and ended up fifth. I got third and fifth that day for fourth overall. That was good. I think if I can put two solid motos together, then I think I'll be a consistent top five guy. Even last weekend at High Point, I got fifth in the first moto and then in the second moto I was in third off the start, but then I fell in the third turn and went back to last and came back to eight. That was pretty good and with that I got fifth overall. I'm just working on getting two consistent motos at each race. I want to keep getting top five finishes and be up there racing with those guys.
You haven't even raced at most of these National tracks, have you?
Nah… I've been to Thunder Valley once, but it was a long time ago. I've also been to Muddy Creek. I've obviously ridden Glen Helen whenever I've been in California. I hadn't been to High Point and I hadn't been to Hangtown. Basically, and other than that, I've been to Millville and Red Bud. So Ironman, Washougal, Southwick, Budds Creek, Unadilla, they're all going to be new. Basically, I've ridden about four or five of the tracks out of the schedule. In the practice when we run a new track, I'm basically just trying to learn the track. Like in qualifying at High Point, I was trying to figure it all out in qualifying. Not only did I have to go out and figure out the jumps and figure out how the track even goes, but then by two laps in, you have to try and put in your fastest lap of the day. It's tough to qualify really good whenever you haven't been to the track, but usually by the first moto I have it somewhat figured out. I still think the guys that have been there before still have the advantage. They just know the way the bumps are going to form and how the ruts are going to form on that track. At High Point last weekend, I mean we started out with pretty smooth tack and by the end it was just brutal. It's going to be kind of a learning thing to learn every track, but we're all riding the same track.
I think the gulf between amateur racing and pro racing now is far bigger than it once was. Did anything really shock you when you ran those first few motos? I mean was there anything that you just weren't prepared for?
Honestly, the guys in the pros are really fast, but I'm not far off their pace. That was a little bit surprising to me. I thought that I would be a little bit more off their pace, but what they're really good at is running that pace the entire race.
What I've noticed, as have many other people involved in the sport, is that you looked calm and methodical on the motorcycle. You appear to be pretty relaxed and efficient and in control and you don't look like you're every freaking out or out of control. To me, you seem to have more of a Ryan Dungey approach out there on the track. What's your take on all this?
Yeah, kind of what I've made up my mind on this year is that is someone is behind me and they're going faster than me – and it's easy to say this while I'm not on the track – I'm going to try not to push over my head and just end up crashing. It's good to run up there with those guys and to try and hold them off, and I'm going to try and do that as hard as I can, but if it's late in the moto and I'm getting tired and they're going a little bit faster than me and they do end up passing me, I don't think there is any reason why I need to just freak out and try and get them back and take a chance on crashing and getting hurt. I mean you need to try and hold them off the best you can, but some of those guys out there are just a little bit more fit than I am right now and they've been doing this longer than I have. If I get passed every now and then, that's okay. I just feel like getting through the whole season safe and healthy is a big part of this season. I'm trying as much as I can to not to ride over my head.
What have the people closest to you and your racing been saying to you about your performance thus far?
I was talked a lot about at the beginning of the season because I was coming in as a rookie, but now I feel like I'm doing solid. I'm not doing bad, so I don't really have anybody just ragging on me and saying I'm this washed up amateur or whatever. I'm not really doing bad, but I'm not coming out and just absolutely destroying it. I just doing solid riding and getting solid finishes. On social media and stuff, it's kind of starting to calm down. Everybody still wants to see me do good and people still talk about me, but everybody kind of sees about where I'm going to fit in. Mitch [Payton] just wants to see me get through the season safe and healthy and get some solid rides in. I know that he wants to see me win, but he knows for a rookie that's pretty tough to do. My mechanic Olly, he knows all that stuff too. They want to see me do good, but they want to see me get through the season and to get to every track and get experience riding with those guys. That's what they want to see me do, but whenever I do good, they're pumped and everything and they want me to keep doing that. That's what I want to.
Muddy Creek this Saturday. If all goes to plan, what are you hoping to achieve when you walk out of that place?
I'm looking top five. I want to put two solid motos together and I think a podium is possible. There are some fast guys up there. Those top five guys, even the top six or seven guys, Savatgy, the Martin brothers, Webb, Plessinger, and even some more guys… All those guys are really solid. If I can beat a couple of those guys and get a top five or even a podium, I think that's a good day. So that's what I'm looking for from Muddy Creek. The rest of the season is to keep running up there with those guys and getting as many top fives and keep staying inside the top ten. I'm going to have bad motos. That's just the way it is. It's going to happen. I'm trying to minimize the really bad motos and stay in the top ten and get to the finish.