Yamaha Motor Canada Presents MXP Chatter With Justin Cooper

Racing in only his third year as pro rider, Star Racing Yamaha rider Justin Cooper has had a remarkable start to his career. Not only has he consistently been on the podium in both supercross as well as the outdoor series but he has also won races, and last year he represented the USA at the 2019 MXoN. Cooper kicked off the 2020 250SX West Series with a win in Anaheim, and since then he’s been battling hard each weekend for the points lead. Last weekend in San Diego he once again finished third overall, and now he and his fellow 250SX West riders have six weeks until their next race. To get his thoughts on this season and more, we caught up with Mr. Consistency, Justin Cooper.

MXP: Hey Justin, how are things going?

JC: Things are good, just taking a few days here to relax and then we’ll get back to the normal grind.

The 250SX West class now has a long break until your next race. Other than maybe taking a few extra days off to recharge, what will you be doing over the next few weeks?

We will definitely be starting up our outdoor testing here very soon. I haven’t ridden outdoors for almost five months so it will be good to do that to get a head start on our set-up for this summer. Once the supercross is over there isn’t a lot of time for testing so this break is perfect to do that.

Five months is a long time to be away from a wide-open outdoor track. When you do have to go from SX to MX, and what do you find is the hardest adjustment?

Mostly just how much more demanding it is on the body. The first week of outdoor riding is really hard on the body and you’re a lot more sore at the end of the day. Supercross riding obviously involves sessions that are a lot shorter so it’s not really hard on the body. Outdoors, though, is a different beast and it takes a little bit to get used to it.

Justin Cooper battled hard in San Diego and found his way on to the podium once again.

With the 2020 YZ250F being mostly unchanged from last year, is there much testing to do or will it be mostly fine tuning?

I had a great bike last year and I was really happy with it. I don’t think there will be too many changes, but there is always new stuff to test and there’s always room for improvement. Whether it’s with riding, training or with our bikes, we’re always trying to improve. So yeah, I’ll start riding some outdoors soon and then it’s back to SX for our next round.

Looking back to the last month and the opening six races of the 250SX West Series, are you feeling good about how things have gone?

Overall, I’m happy with how everything has gone. There have been a few moments on the track that I wish I could take back, but I was able to get my first SX win in Anaheim and I’ve been on the podium a few times. I made a mess of two of the three main events in Glendale and gave up a bunch of points there, and then the last two weekends I’ve struggled with my speed in the early stages of the main events.

I watched the last two races on television, and during your podium speech in Oakland you looked relieved to finish on the podium after having to transfer through the LCQ. However, this past weekend in San Diego you looked pretty bummed with your podium finish. Was I reading those two speeches correctly?

I think so, I definitely had mixed emotions with those podium finishes. I wasn’t really feeling well in Oakland so I was happy to get through that night in one piece. I had some bad luck in my heat race and had to ride the LCQ. In the main, I got a great start from the outside and rode well to finish in third. Then in San Diego I got off to another good start and I thought things were going to be different, but I really messed up my first few laps and those guys got away.

When you say ‘messed up,’ what do you mean?

I had the chance on the opening lap to be more aggressive and pass for the lead. I should’ve done that and then I think my race would’ve gone completely different. After I didn’t go for the pass, I was thinking about it for the rest of the lap, and then I messed up a rhythm section and lost the two leaders. From there, I just couldn’t get it back and I had to settle for third. Austin and Dylan are riding really well right now, and you can’t give them anything, you just have to go after them. I should’ve but I didn’t.

Was the track as hard to pass as it appeared? And were the whoops as tough as they looked?

The track was tight and tough to make up time. I wouldn’t say it was tough to pass on, but if you made a mistake then it was hard to get it back. The whoops were really difficult as the main event went on. They reminded me of east coast whoops as they broke down quickly. I had them pretty good early on, but I think I struggled with them in the second half of the main.

After winning the opening round of the 250SX West Series, Cooper held the red plates for three weeks. Photo by James Lissimore

Like you said, other than Glendale you’ve been your usual, consistent self. On one hand that must make you happy as you have to be consistent to win championships, but on the other hand, after winning in Anaheim, as well as the final main event in Glendale, are you a little frustrated that you perhaps haven’t won more?

I think that’s exactly it. I had the red plate for a few weeks and now I’m a few points back of my teammate, so that’s a little frustrating. Right now, Dylan has the momentum in the series, but now I have a few weeks to improve and hopefully come back a little better.

You appear to be a rider that rides with a lot of thought and purpose. You obviously have a comfort zone that is very high and efficient. We’ve seen some riders that don’t mind getting out of their comfort zone and taking chances; sometimes that strategy works but most times it doesn’t. Is getting out of your comfort zone occasionally your biggest struggle?

Definitely! It always has been, even throughout my amateur career. There are days when I feel really good and at the point as a rider you feel like you can do anything. On those days I don’t mind pushing the limits and really going for it. On the days when I don’t quite feel ‘on,’ that is when I try to find that comfortable pace and try to get on the podium. As you said, certain riders try to push through but things don’t always work out.

Well, looking at your stats since you turned pro in 2018, you have about an 85% podium finishing rate. There haven’t been too many young riders who can say that. I think it’s a stat that you should be proud of.

Thanks! I definitely am because it’s good to know that I’m able to be a consistent rider. Hopefully that consistency pays off here soon and I’m able to win some titles this year.

You seem to me like someone who is very hard on yourself. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, it just seems like that.

I am, for sure, and sometimes I’m way too hard on myself. I’ve always been like that because growing up my Dad didn’t really care how I did, as long as I was working hard and having fun then he was happy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad he was like that because you see dads who are completely the opposite. However, because he wasn’t hard on me, I made up for it by being really hard on myself.

Justin warms up before the main events in Glendale. Photo by James Lissimore

I think that trait is common among champions in any sport – that and the ability to be self motivated.

I would agree! All professional athletes are hard on themselves because all we want to do is find success.

I’m glad you mentioned your amateur career because that is what I’d like to talk about next. You grew up in New York State where they have all four seasons of weather. Did you start riding at a really young age?

Yes, I began riding when I was really young, and for most of my amateur days I would just ride when the weather was good, because we didn’t really travel. I definitely wasn’t one of those kids that went down south for the winter to ride and train. My Mom was really strict with my education and she would always make school a priority for me. I had to get good marks and stay focused during the week on school. Looking back, I think that really helped me as I never felt burnt out on riding, and I remember always being excited to go riding. To me, the worst feeling is not really wanting to ride and feeling bored with it. When I was young, I’d always be excited to ride and I think that was really good for my development.

I think you make an excellent point as these days all some kids do is ride and train. It’s easy to get stale, and when you’re bored with something you aren’t capable of learning. Obviously, whatever you did growing up has worked because you’re first few years as a pro have been incredible.

Thanks! Yes, it worked for me. Maybe it isn’t that way for everyone, but I know when I turned pro, I still felt fresh. You see some riders who turn pro that have been riding non-stop for so many years – they’re burnt out.

The first time I saw you ride was at the Baja Brawl in 2016 and I remember thinking that you had a bright future ahead of you. Even on a big 450 your riding was flawless that weekend, and since I pride myself in being somewhat of a “motocross talent scout,” I made some calls and tried to get you a ride in Canada for 2017. I remember talking to you and your dad, trying to convince you to come to Canada, but you wanted to stay in the USA. Looking back, I think you made the right decision (lol).

Yes, I remember that. That race was my first race back from a broken wrist and we just went there to try to get back into racing. At that point I knew I had the speed to win Loretta’s, so I wanted to remain an amateur in the USA for 2017 and try to get a factory ride for when I turned pro the following year. It all worked out, though.

Even with a broken hand Cooper still raced the final 250 moto at the 2019 MXoN.

Recently, I watched a Red Bull video from the 2019 MXoN in Assen and it really showed what gutsy ride you had in that final 250 moto. You had a broken hand but you still went out and rode. Overall, despite not doing as well as you wanted, how was your first time as a member of Team USA?

It was incredible and really a dream come true. It’s too bad it rained so much as the track wasn’t even a track on Sunday, it just wasn’t able to take all of that rain. The race, the fans, even spending two weeks over there preparing for the race, was fun. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. As you said, the injury wasn’t ideal and I probably shouldn’t have even ridden that final moto because all I could was ride around. They injected me with some freezing, which helped with the pain. At least it allowed me to ride, but it wasn’t great and I wish could’ve done better. As a team we all tried our best, but it was just one of those days.

Well, I think one of the reasons you were chosen was because of how tough you are and you certainly proved it. I don’t see why you won’t get another chance this year in France.

I hope so! Like I said, it was a cool event and one that I’d love to do again.

Justin, before I let you go, what advice would you have for young riders out there who, like you, maybe aren’t able to go south during the winter to train but still want to be competitive when their racing season begins?

Good question! I think they should just make the most of their time off the bike and work hard, and even try to play other sports during that time. Sometimes having a break is great. I know that after I took breaks from riding, I’d come back and feel even better on the bike. So, train hard when you can and make the most of your time off with school and doing other things. That way when the season does begin you can give it 100% for the entire season.

With your current schedule, do you find it hard to take time off and keep that fresh feeling?

Not really, our schedules are pretty busy but we do get enough time off to recharge and do our own thing. It’s not too bad!

It was great to see Cooper grab his first ever SX win at the opening round of the 2020 Monster Energy Supercross Series in Anaheim. Photo by James Lissimore

What things do you like to do with your spare time?

Actually, I’m a big gamer so most of my spare time I’ll just chill at home and play X-Box. Other than that, we go to the beach sometimes or hang out with friends. Nothing too crazy.

You’ve lived in California since you turned pro – any thoughts of moving to Florida like a lot of other riders have?

I really like it here and I have a really good program going in California. Everything is close and there are things to do when you’re not riding or training. Maybe in the future I’d go and live in the east for a few weeks in the summer to train in the humidity and shorten the travel time to the East Coast Nationals, but I do like it in California.

Apparently it works for you because you haven’t appeared to suffer at all in the east Nationals that have been really hot.

Some of them have been tough but I’d rather have to put up with it for one day as opposed to living in it all week. I grew up where it was humid during the summer and I don’t like it. On race day I go from the AC of the trailer to the track and then back to the trailer. I don’t mind suffering for 35 minutes at a time, it doesn’t bother me.

Well, it’s been working for you so why change it!? Thanks for giving me some of your time tonight. Enjoy this break and good luck for the rest of the season.

No problem! Thanks for reaching out.