Skip Norfolk needs no introduction for anyone that followed the sport of Supercross in the mid-1990s. The Championship-winning mechanic spun wrenches for Jeremy McGrath during “The King’s” heyday. Believe it or not, Norfolk now looks back on those record-setting years as a time when he was merely tying the laces of the Michael Jordan of Supercross (his words, not ours). These days Skip is at the helm of the Traders Racing Yamaha 250 effort. The team, which consists of riders Luke Renzland and Nick Gaines, is set to contest the Monster Energy 250 East Supercross series beginning this weekend in Minneapolis. This will be their first year on the Yamaha YZ250F, and also their first time having the JGRMX motor department (www.jgrmxstore.com) modifying their engines. Look for the #50 of Luke Renzland and #78 of Nick Gaines leading the charge on Saturday night.
We caught up with Skip Norfolk to talk about the Traders Racing team, the switch to Yamaha, his time with Jeremy McGrath, the fabled 1993 Honda CR250 chassis, and much more.
Skip, how long have you been involved with the Traders Racing effort?
I’m going into the second year with the race team. Kenny Day, the team manager, started it in 2014 with Tony Archer. Tony won the East Coast Lites Arenacross title. That was the first year. Initially it was a very minimal operation. We had Tony Archer and Chad Wages. We were successful in Arenacross. Gary Luckett, the guy behind Traders, was putting up the money for us to go racing. After we won the championship Gary decided he wanted to start a team. From there it evolved into racing Supercross and the AMA Nationals. Every year things have improved. This will be our fourth year.
What exactly is Traders?
Gary [Luckett] has a few businesses, but the one that runs our program is Traders. Traders is a steak and seafood restaurant that’s right on the Chesapeake. You walk out his door and across the street and you’re at the bay. He has Eagle Amusements, which has a casino aspect of the facility. Gary has been a huge supporter of amateur racing for the longest time in the mid-Atlantic area. After I spent some time in the apparel side of the business and working with kids on the amateur side, I noticed a gap between ‘Professional Amateur Racing,’ as I like to call it, and professional racing. There are very few guys that have the ability to make the jump up to a Pro Circuit Kawasaki, Geico Honda, or any of those high-pressure, gotta-win-now scenarios. It’s pretty rare that a rider can jump in and keep progressing those first years as a Pro. It’s pretty brutal. Amateur guys don’t ride and train all of the time. They do six big amateur events a year, and that’s it. I was seeing these kids who would finish third at Loretta’s or win a moto, but not land a Pro ride. There were a lot of small teams years ago that would sign these kids, but there was a massive gap between a factory amateur rider and a factory-supported team. I called up Gary and told him that I was thinking about starting a Pro team based around helping kids bridge the gap. I wanted to offer them the opportunity to learn how to test and figure out the motorcycle so they could become better racers. I was interested in passing off the experiences I had throughout my career by helping some riders reach the next level. Gary and I ended up putting a program together in a matter of a few days.
How did you first meet Gary Luckett?
Believe it or not, Gary and I went to high school together. We raced together as kids. It has been a pleasure to have his support. After one phone call we both realized that we wanted to do the same thing. I wanted to help kids, and he was in a place financially to where he could help. As a result, we’re able to build good motorcycles. That has been our main focus the last two years. I can look my riders in the face and say, “It’s not a Geico Honda or Pro Circuit Kawasaki, but our bike is going to be good. What you go to the first race on, that bike will run just as good for the remainder of the season. It’s not going to fall off on power or deteriorate.” We invested every dime we had into the motorcycle. When we go to the races we try to have hospitality services, but if our budget is only for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, then that’s what’s on the menu [laughter]. However, our bikes are going to be solid.
Last year the team rode Kawasaki, but for 2017 Traders Racing switched to Yamaha. Why?
Making the jump to Yamaha was definitely unexpected. It came together really late in the year. To answer your question, the Yamaha is a good product, and it’s easier to get that first ten percent. We’ve also been able to find that little extra to be very competitive. So far, with the work we have been doing with the JGRMX group, it has been really good. The bikes were an elevated base compared to what we had to work with last year. The experience the JGRMX guys have had with Yamaha has definitely shown. I think the Traders Racing group and JGRMX are good for one another. We both want to improve on what we’ve already done. JGRMX has been willing to push the limits and do more in order to give us the best possible engines. When I met with John “Bundy” Mitchell at the beginning of our deal I told him that I had a budget, but that I basically wanted a five-hour motor. We’re going to find out shortly where we stand when the 250 East Supercross series kicks off, but I’m confident that we have a very competitive bike. Bundy and I talked a lot about starts, because we want to rip some holeshots and get the guys out front.
How did you meet Bundy, who is JGRMX’s retail department engine guru?
I met Bundy in 1995 or so. He was just a kid. I couldn’t understand anything he was saying, because he had such a thick southern drawl. In those days we drove around the circuit in box vans. We traveled like gypsies [laughter]. As long as you could drive 400 miles without stopping for fuel you could be part of the group. Some of the guys were eliminated, because they couldn’t go that far between filling up. Their box vans didn’t have dual tanks. We’d leave them behind [laughter]. It was different in those days. The racing part hasn’t changed a bit, but how you get to the races and how you prepare have changed completely.
Describe the 1996 Supercross series when you wrenched for Jeremy McGrath. He was one win shy of completing the perfect season indoors.
It was a bummer how things worked out. St. Louis was the one race where I let Jeremy down the most. I didn’t do my job that day. Honda didn’t, either. We weren’t able to shelter him from all of the stuff that was going on. At that point he had won 19 events out of the first 21 weeks in the year. He hadn’t really lost any time he was on the track. Everybody knew that he was close to being perfect, but we didn’t talk about it. At St. Louis we had to park inside and were cramped in a little hallway. Jeremy had his ritual where he would hide for an hour or so to sleep or relax. Well, Coca-Cola was one of the big sponsors at St. Louis, and they wanted us to meet some of the high-powered executives. Jeremy was in full gear, and we had to walk to the other side of the stadium before the night show. It threw him off his game. I should have sheltered him from that and minimized the chaos around him. I think it cost him a perfect season.
What was it like going racing every weekend knowing that you were going to win?
It was really different. Looking back at it, I still can’t truly understand that feeling. We were so confident. He had 18 guys beat before he stepped foot on the plane to go to the race. That was the bottom line. I changed a lot during that year. I wasn’t going to be the guy responsible for failing in that situation. There was a lot of pressure on me, and that affected how I acted. I feel really bad for the guy that was in charge of parking at Sacramento. It was early in the morning and we were all in box vans. I had to dig around the box van to level it out, and I unleashed my anger on that poor guy. He caught everything that was built up inside of me. I lit him up. I still feel bad about that incident. I lost it, because at that point we were perfect, and we had to be perfect. I now know that’s never going to happen. That year was definitely challenging mentally, and also in trying to stay true to who I was. I changed, and it was for the bad. I was short with people and didn’t have time for anyone. I lived in a tunnel. I worked so hard to keep all of the distractions out, because there wasn’t any room for it. I ended up becoming a jerk. It taught me to make sure I never act that way again.
The summer of 1996 you and Jeremy were so close to defending the 250 National title, but ended up losing by ten points. What led to the demise?
The crash at Washougal ultimately cost us the outdoor title. It was a tough one. Jeremy wishes he had continued racing, but to this day I stand behind the decision to pull off. He came off the track after he crashed, and he wasn’t all there. He hit his head hard. Back then nobody knew the severity of concussions, but I looked in his eyes and he wasn’t all there. Who knows what would have happened if he had gone back out? I don’t want to put words in Jeremy’s mouth, but I know he wishes he would have gone back out. If he had scored some points in that moto he would have won the 250 outdoor title that year. Knowing what we do now about head injuries, I firmly believe he made the right decision in pulling out of the race at Washougal. I can sleep at night knowing I cost him the outdoor title, but that he’s healthy and enjoying life with his family now.
What was your biggest fear as a mechanic?
Knowing that if I made a mistake in my duties of preparing the bike, that it would end up hurting Jeremy to the point that he would never be able to walk again. That motivated me to never make a mistake.
What was it like working for factory Honda in their heyday?
At Honda I was very fortunate. There was a supermarket full of options. I could go down the horsepower aisle, the chassis aisle, the fastener aisle, or just the cool stuff aisle [laughter]. We had every resource available. At that particular time there wasn’t a better program out there. It afforded us the opportunity to do a lot of different things. Jeremy was the type of rider who could tell what he needed out of the bike in order to do better. We would figure out how to give him that missing piece and he would elevate his game. Jeremy had the unbelievable ability to shine. Of course, he did shine on the track with his results, but also off the track. He made an impact on every person he came in contact with. He’s a good guy. You wanted to give your best for him. He would show up early and help set up for testing. Every now and then he would clean up after testing. Those things went a long way. Everybody would bend over backwards for him. As I said, we had so many options at factory Honda. Still, we always had a base setting that we knew was perfect. It gave us the opportunity to try a bunch of different settings and parts. We got to the point where Jeremy would use heat races as test sessions. The only thing that mattered to us was the main event. There were a couple of times where it seemed like we tried to screw his weekend up by having him run different settings. He would speak up and tell us that the setting wasn’t working for him, so we’d put it back to old faithful. Then he would get the holeshot in the main and win.
It was no secret that Jeremy used the 1993 Honda CR250 chassis all of the way through 1996. Please talk about the bike.
In 1994 there was a big geometry change with the bike. Jeremy wasn’t a fan of it. We ended up learning quite a bit about what was actually different, and what he didn’t like with the geometry. Halfway through the 1994 season things started to change. In 1995 and in ’96 a lot of things that Jeremy liked about the 1993 chassis came back into the motorcycle. Even so, we had the option of building whatever we wanted. There were some incredible people at Honda, like Cliff White, Dave Arnold and Dan Betley. It was an unbelievable wealth of knowledge. They could turn an idea into a part that made an effective change. I was happy to be along for the ride.
Was it strange seeing Ken Roczen paying homage to Jeremy McGrath in Red Bull’s “Terrafirma 94” video?
It was kind of cool. I haven’t had a chance to watch the video or talk to anybody about it, but hopefully they captured it well. That was a good time back in those days.
What is your proudest accomplishment with regard to your career?
I’ve been very fortunate in my career. I’ve had the opportunity to be around some great people. There’s no doubt that I cherish the time I was able to spend with Jeremy in racing. Those highlights of being at the top of the sport stand out. I guess my biggest accomplishment would be that I was at the highest point in the sport without actually throwing my leg over a motorcycle. I take that whole timeline as being outstanding. I was part of a great group. I hope we can reach new heights this year with the Traders Racing team. I want Luke [Renzland] and Nick [Gaines] to achieve their personal best every weekend. However, that’s not anything I will have done. I’m just a small part of it. This is a group effort. As for my time with McGrath, I was no different than the guy who was tying Michael Jordan’s shoes before every game. That’s all I did. I just happened to be tying Michael Jordan’s shoes in Supercross.
Who helped you achieve success?
I’ve worked with some brilliant people. It started back with my dad, who allowed me to work on bikes and let me fail so that I could learn. Mark Johnson was critical for me as a young kid. He’s why I learned racing and mechanics. My years with Mitch Payton are invaluable. Having the opportunity to work shoulder-to-shoulder with Roger DeCoster developing a motorcycle was amazing. How can you not get better working around that guy? Dave Arnold was brilliant with the motorcycle chassis. Cliff White was amazing. The biggest thing I took from him was that he did immaculate work. I would go into his work area and it was so clean. He believed that everything had to be perfect. I was fortunate that all of those guys rubbed off on me.