Natural Progresssion: Eli Tomac Interview

    Sep 15, 2011

Since the inception of factory contracts, there has been a formula for building a
racer. Parents birth a child; that child is set on a PW50; dad sees natural ability
and enters him in local races; child develops hunger for winning; dad sees part
of himself in his child, begins vicarious life through child; family devotes life to racing;
child becomes responsible for family’s livelihood; child wins championships at
Loretta’s; child signs deal with factory team with parents peering over shoulder; all
is right with the world.
It has worked—and failed—for decades. As an audience, we have watched as
race families transform from a nuclear entity into a structured business built on contractual
obligations, suppressing any inherent desires of the individual. Racing is life.

I thought this to be the story for every fast rookie I would meet.
Then I visited the Tomac family outside of Cortez, Colorado. The family’s
choice of residence, alone, told a new story. They don’t live in
California, or Florida, or Texas. In fact, they don’t live anywhere close
to a traditional motocross scene. They do have a large amount of
land, but a track is not the epicenter of their real estate. Instead, a
gargantuan red rock formation serves as the gateway into an agricultural
heaven striped with alfalfa fi elds, manicured horse pasture, and
vineyards. If Moab, Utah, and La Grande, Oregon, had a love child,
it would be Cortez.
Upon my arrival to the Tomac estate, Eli, his mother Kathy, and
their three dogs greeted me. Instantly, I felt I was a houseguest, not
a journalist prying into their world. As John, Eli’s father, put the fi nal
touches on the practice bike, I meandered around the garage taking
in both John’s and Eli’s racing memories while Eli got distracted from
fi lling his fuel can and played with the dog. John is a racing legend.
He won national championships in BMX, cross country, and downhill
mountain biking, and is unmistakably the most versatile and dominant
cyclist ever to pedal on dirt. Eli’s mother is no slouch in the saddle
either, be it bicycle or horse. A cyclist herself, Kathy tackles the trails
that slither throughout the Colorado canyons to this day. So racing is
life with the Tomacs, right? Same ol’ story, just new characters…
If the Tomac household wasn’t enough to tell another story, then the
family dynamic is. Racing is not life with the Tomacs; it is just something
they love, and happen to be extremely good at it. After declining
breakfast (which I soon regretted), I joined John on the Mule, so we
could meet Eli out on the track. Behind the alfalfa fi eld and adjacent
to the neighboring Indian reservation, the Tomac track is nestled in a
cradle of red rock, and is nothing short of epic. The track zigzags up
and around small hillsides, through trees, and aside protruding rock.
Soft soil, sprightly layout, interchangeable routes, and a picturesque
backdrop provide Eli with his isolated training venue.
Before I wandered out onto the track, Kathy warned me of the
month-long infestation of biting midges (or no-see-ums), and proceeded
to coat me in bug repellent. Throughout the day, she made sure I
was as protected as possible, repeatedly reapplying repellent while I
snapped photos.

John, meanwhile, manned the pit board for Eli and
his two young friends who like to join Eli on the track when they can.
In between shooting photos, Kathy and John showed me where they
like to hunt (including where Kathy had shot her first elk), and told me
about the charter schoolhouse Eli attended down the road and how
proud they were of their eldest son, who is a fighter pilot and a graduate
of the Air Force Academy. With each passing moment, I felt less
a witness of a motocross world and more a part of a proud, happy,
content family. Never once did I hear a negative or domineering exchange
between father and son. I watched, as John would marvel at
his son’s low lap times and his line choices. Eli works hard, and his
father is proud of him.
After Eli finished his motos, we meandered back to the house,
and Kathy made us lunch. As I gobbled up a turkey sandwich, Kathy
showed me pictures of Eli with his first elk. She showed me the elk
and deer trophies on the walls, as well as John’s wall of bicycle magazine
covers (and it’s definitely a full wall), before she drove me down
to the schoolhouse where Eli attended school. The one-room edifi ce
dates back to 1915 and sits at the foot of giant slick rock.
By day’s end, it occurred to me that Eli is, indeed, a product of a
racing family, but by no means the traditional sense. His upbringing,
his rise to professional racing, is not the result of a formula. Eli has
the genes of an athlete, from his mother and his father, as well as their
undivided attention. But, racing is racing, and life is life. If Eli doesn’t
want to race, he doesn’t have to. If Eli gets 10th at a race, he will not
pay for it at home. If Eli loses a sponsor, the Tomacs will not miss a
meal or a mortgage payment. No, if Eli doesn’t race, he and his father
will probably grab their bows and go hunting.
After watching Eli attack Hangtown at the opening round of the
Lucas Oil Motocross Championship, it cemented what I had already
assumed. The key to winning in motocross is to know, and embrace,
that there is more than motocross. So what about Eli? Let’s meet the
rookie sensation himself.

TWMX: What made you get on a dirt bike? Was it your dad?

Tomac: Yeah, he used to ride for fun. I guess I used to putt around on his
bike, and I would sit on his handlebars. They ended up getting me a
PW50. At that age, I was doing some BMXing, too. So, I obviously
liked being on a bike. I guess they thought it would be fun for me to
be on a motorcycle. I must have had a blast, or something. You know,
you can’t really remember that much when you are little. A couple of
years ago there used to be more local stuff around here, but those
tracks kind of faded away, which is a bummer. When I was in those
early stages in my moto career, I had a ton of fun.

TWMX: Tell me a little bit about coming up as an amateur.

Tomac: Well, for the amateur stuff, I didn’t really get to the top level until I
was about 10 or 11. That’s when I got some help from Suzuki. From
there, I won my fi rst Loretta Lynn’s title, which was awesome. I also
had an awesome 80cc career. That was good enough to get me a
Factory Connection amateur ride, which was also a pro deal. That
whole program was super awesome, and now their pro part of the
program is even better.

TWMX: You basically inked an amateur program, and a pro program all at once,

Tomac: Yeah, it was a signed deal that was two years amateur, and two years

TWMX: Knowing that you already had a pro deal, was there more or less pressure
for you during those last two years as an amateur?

Tomac: I would definitely say less. A lot of the guys don’t know what they’re
getting until after Loretta’s, and then they go and race the last three
outdoor Nationals. It was super helpful for me to already have a done
deal. I didn’t have to go out there and be like, “Oh my gosh, I have
to win.” That would just end in me crashing. It’s awesome to already
have a deal under your belt.

TWMX: As an amateur, you didn’t have the hype like, say, the Alessi brothers,
Justin Barcia, or Trey Canard. Is that accurate?

Tomac: Yeah, totally. I didn’t have a bunch of hype on me. I think it’s more so
because I’m kind of a mellow guy, and more of a mellow rider. I wasn’t
crazy dominant, like Stewart or RC [Ricky Carmichael] in the amateur
ranks. The only races I was really dominant in were the last two
amateur Nationals in Texas earlier this year. But before that, I wouldn’t
win every single race like most of the other guys did. That defi nitely
helped me, I think, for my fi rst pro race because there wasn’t a ton of
media, nor was there a bunch of talk in the pits about, “Oh, how fast
is Tomac going?” I was kind of like the undercover dude.

TWMX: So, flying under the radar, was that by design?

Tomac: You know, we just wanted to get a whole outdoor series under our
belt, instead of doing just the last three [Nationals], and going to
Supercross. So yeah, we wanted to make sure we had the whole
season so I could blow out all the cobwebs for being a pro this year,
and just try to take it easy.

TWMX: Tell us a little about your program. Your dad is obviously a mountain bike
legend, and he’s been like “the guy behind the guy” for you. Talk about
your relationship with him as his son, and as his student.

Tomac: My dad is my trainer, my riding coach, and he’s also my dad, too. We
still have a lot of fun together; but when it’s time to get serious, we
get serious. It seems like we’ve been working together well, so far. A
lot of the times, that doesn’t really happen with kids. They get sucked
into the limelight or whatever, but we seem to get along really well.

TWMX: How important is having extracurricular stuff like bow hunting, mountain
biking, and fi shing together to maintaining a good work relationship?

Tomac: We still get along great, and we mountain bike together, hunt, and all
that stuff. There’s one thing that my mom and my dad really wanted
me to do as a kid, and that was to be a kid. You know, going out with
my buddies and not always having to worry about motocross, motocross,
motocross; which is what a lot of these motocross families are
doing. I mean, it’s kind of crazy to see these parents quit their jobs
to buy this $250,000 motor home, and just live on the road. Or they
go and spend a whole year at MTF [Millsaps Training Facility]. That’s
just one thing my parents didn’t want me to do; they didn’t want me
to burn out on the sport.

TWMX: Speaking of being a kid, tell us a little about that schoolhouse down
the road.

Tomac: When I was in elementary school, my school was like a half a mile
down the road. It was actually a pretty laid back school. They would let
us go up on the hills, jump off of rocks—just let us do all this fun stuff.

TWMC: So that school has been around since like 1913...

Tomac: Yeah, like early 1900s. Everyone that’s from McElmo goes to Battlerock
Elementary School.

TWMC: What were your honest expectations going into Hangtown?

Tomac: Honestly, top five would have been good. I would have been pretty
excited. I mean, that’s awesome for a fi rst rookie race. But like I said, a
win was always in the back of my mind, and my dad really wanted me
to be prepared to show I was good enough to win races or a championship.
That’s what we wanted to do, and that was to be prepared to
do that. I ended up doing it, which was crazy.

: What went through your mind when Christophe Pourcel went down in
the first moto? Did you tighten up, or had all of your preparation readied
you for such a great start?

Tomac: I definitely got a little excited, and I didn’t really get too tight. I didn’t
get arm pump or anything, but it was kind of crazy. I could hear the
fans in all the corners. It was an awesome feeling. I might have been
a little nervous, and I don’t know if I crashed because I was nervous
about thinking, “You’re in the lead, don’t crash, don’t crash.” My bike
got pitched up a bit, and my front just kind of washed out. I feel like I
would have done that out here at my practice track. It wasn’t a tight
or nervous deal.

TWMC: After that first moto out of the way, what, if anything, changed in your
mindset between motos?

Tomac: It definitely gave me that boost of confidence that I could run with the
front guys, and even pass a couple of them. So, I definitely felt better,
mentally, going into that next moto. Luckily, I got that red flag start,
but I felt even better the second moto.

: How was that track? When you knew the track was rough, and it was
hard to pass on, did you think, “Okay, I have to get a good start”?

Tomac: The Lites class is just super gnarly, and if you don’t get a top-10 start,
it’s going to be hard getting into the top fi ve by the end of the moto because
everyone is just wide open. The Hangtown track was probably
a little one-lined in a few corners, but it got rough and rutted. There
were a couple lines out there for sure, but it was a gnarly track.

TWMC: Now that the season is underway, have the nerves subsided?

Tomac: I feel ready to go. The nerves don’t really seem to be there with me
anymore. I feel like I’m just a regular guy like I was on top of my game
in the amateur stuff. I’m not really nervous at all right now.

TWMC: How about your parents? How are they at the races?

Tomac: I would say my mom is out of control [laughs]. I had a buddy that took
some video of me racing, and you could hear my mom in the background
saying, “Oh my god. Did you see him hit that jump? Where’s
he at?” Then she was asking my dad, “How much longer is it?” and I
was only done with my second lap. She was saying that it is the longest
30-minutes of her life. My dad is defi nitely a little more relaxed, I
think, because he watches me practice every day.

TWMX: Does your dad give you advice, or does he sort of let you…

Tomac: Well, I haven’t had a ton of podium speech training, or anything like that
[laugh]. He’s actually more of a shy guy himself. I’ve talked to a few
guys, like a couple of his buddies. One of his old mountain bike buddies,
Greg Herbold, has tried to help me out a bit, which is awesome.

TWMC: What is it about racing that attracts you?

Tomac: I don’t know. I guess I just like to compete and,
obviously, win. When you get second, you get extra
drive to win. So I guess I would have to say it’s to win.

TWMC: Even though the local scene faded around here, and you didn’t
really have the opportunities in rural Colorado like some kids in Texas or
Florida; what do you feel gives you the advantage?

Tomac: I would say just having my own track is very helpful because you can go
out here and get your work done. Then you can also have fun, and there
are no worries about other people watching you. So I’m pretty lucky to
have property to ride on.

TWMC: What else keeps you busy?

Tomac:  I pretty much do everything outside around here. I don’t have highspeed
Internet to play X-Box Live or anything like that [laughs]. When I
go out to Cali, I do some of that. But being out here, I do some RC car,
paintball, and I’m a big hunter.

TWMC: So, you like to kill stuff?

Tomac: [Laughs] Yeah, I like to kill stuff. Many people probably won’t like to
hear that, so…

TWMC: You could hang out with Villopoto.

Tomac: Yeah.

TWMC: Being out here, you’re pretty isolated. Do you prefer that? You’ve been
out to California for testing and such; do you ever prefer that more?

Tomac: Yeah, you kind of go crazy here sometimes. Luckily, I have my driver’s
license now, and I can go hang out with a couple of my buddies in town.
But yeah, I think it’s better to be isolated because you can stay more
focused when you’re actually riding. But it’s defi nitely fun when you go
to bigger cities where you can go shopping. I think it’s actually better for
me to be isolated.

TWMC: What Supercross experience do you have, and is that something you’re
looking forward to, or is motocross more your discipline?

Tomac: I really like both, and I’ve done both. I did the U.S. Open on my 80cc,
and that was a ton of fun. We’ve built an Arenacross/Supercross thing
here. It’s definitely not a legit track, but I definitely think it will help me
be more comfortable when I actually race a real one. I have a little bit of
experience I guess.

TWMC: Do you like one better than the other?

Tomac: I don’t know if I really have a big preference, but it’s definitely fun to
change it up and go from Supercross to moto throughout the year.

: Tell me how you would like to see the rest of the season go. Obviously
you know you can win. What are your expectations?

Tomac: I would like to maintain top-fi ves and top-threes throughout the season,
and not have a DNF moto or something. If you can earn points every
moto, you can have a good chance at winning the championship. So just
earning points every moto, and getting those top-fi ves or top-threes…

TWMC: How do the other guys react about you winning your first race? Was it
like in the movies where people are like, “Oh, the rookie,” and they’re all
mean; was it anything like that?

Tomac: I think I was so undercover that no one even knew or worried about me
at all. So, I never had any issues. I didn’t really have any rivalries coming
in. I was kind of the calmer rider in amateur stuff, so I didn’t have a big
target on my back. I think I came in unexpected to win.

Did you get much reaction from your teammates? Trey Canard and Barcia
have already experienced success in the class. Even though they
are still young guys themselves, did they kind of have a feeling this was
going to happen?

Tomac: Well, we did a couple team tests, and I didn’t actually win the races in
the team testing that we did. After the race in Hangtown, Canard was
super pumped for me and he just kept congratulating me. He even had
to show me how to open up a champagne bottle [laughs]. I was trying
to spray it without my thumb on there, so it wasn’t even doing anything
[laughs]. But yeah, everyone on the team is super relaxed and chill, so
it’s nice that no one is after each other.

TWMC: Did you try to sneak a sip?
Tomac: [Laughs] I didn’t sneak any sips.

TWMC: What do you think about the other guys that are in the Lites class. Do
you have any interaction with Pourcel, or…

Tomac: I mean, Pourcel is just Pourcel. I don’t really talk to him, and I don’t think
anyone really talks to him. It is what it is. I don’t really have any problems
with anyone.

TWMC: With your dad having the background that he has, would it be correct to
say that you’re super fit?

Tomac: I’m definitely not a freak of nature like he is. I ride my bicycle like once
or twice a week, and he’ll go out there one time out of the month, and
he will be right there on my butt. He has some freaky genes in him or
something. On the cardio side, and the bicycle side, his skills are just
insane. I think I’m pretty solid, though, physically.

There are guys who were mini-bike kids when they were young, but
never cut it, so they live through their kids. Your dad, on the other hand,
had a very successful career as a mountain bike athlete. Was he a mini
dad, or was he pretty mellow?

Tomac: He definitely wasn’t a crazy, psycho mini dad. You know, my parents
would get on my butt if I wasn’t putting in a 100 percent, but most of the
time they knew I was. If I were to get a 10th or something, they would
be fi ne with it. They definitely weren’t screamers. I mean, I’ve even seen
dads throwing dirt clods at their kids. So, they’re definitely more on the
relaxed side.

TWMC: Has it always been a mission with motocross? So has it always been, “This
is what I’m going to do”? Was it a hobby? When did it get serious?

Tomac: It pretty much was a hobby. I guess I was pretty serious when I was on
my Suzuki 80cc stuff. I had a ride, and I got bikes, but you kind of never
know how it’s going to pan out until you get on the big bikes. Once I
got on the big bikes, and I started winning some, then obviously you’re
going to think that you’re going to be pretty good. When I was little, I
just kept an open mind and I would go golf. Some days, I wouldn’t even
want to ride.

What’s the hardest thing about being a professional?

Tomac: What’s hard for me is going out on my track by myself two or three times
a week, and having that drive, but it helps to invite a couple of buddies
down to ride. The hardest thing, though, is the riding by myself part.

TWMC: Every girl we interacted with here in Colorado has either been really cool
or super cute…

Tomac: I would say that people around here are a little more laid back, not like in
Cali where they have full-on road rage. I didn’t think there was a ton of
chicks down here, but I guess there are [laughs].

TWMC: Have you tried walking down Main Street and Durango with that big
trophy you got to pull the chicks?

Tomac: [Laughs] You know Durango, they probably have those hippie chicks
down there. That’s more of a mountain town.

TWMC: In our opinion, your riding style is textbook. Where do you see yourself
fitting in under the grand scheme of things with your riding style and
skill strengths?

Tomac: I’d say I would be more of the Reed/McGrath kind of guy with the more
precise and smooth riding style, so I don’t blow energy by being all wild
on the bike. You know, we really worked on the technique stuff when I
was little; that’s where you have to start out. It’s easiest when you are
a little guy. We still do circles and fi gure eights. Technique is a big part
of my program.

TWMC: At your level, and when you are as good as you are, do you worry about
how you look? Or are you just in it to pin it? How important is having a
cool style?

Tomac: I’m not a guy that really likes to throw huge whips or huge fi st pumps; I
just try to ride smooth and ride like I do at my practice track here.

When you started to do the big amateur stuff, and you saw the crazy
mini dads, were you kind of blown away since your program isn’t really
like that?

Tomac: A lot of the times you just think that the people are whacked. A lot of
the time I thought, “How could a human being even act like that?” Yeah,
I guess some of the parents want to do it more than their kids. They
almost want more fame than their kids themselves. We just really kept
our cool, and we tried to stay out of the crazy scene.

TWMC: Were there any groups out there that weren’t that extreme?

Tomac: Yeah, totally. We have a couple good family friends like the Paluzzis
and the Schmokes. Those guys are kind of like us. They just do their
own thing. Those are the main guys I really hung out with during my
amateur career, because they’re really just in it because their kids
want to do it.

TWMC: Did you have a normal childhood, or have you missed everything
because of racing?

Tomac: I went to school up until I finished middle school, and I don’t think
I really missed much with high school. I don’t think that was a
bad thing because our high school around here is pretty hoopty
[laughs]. Obviously I missed out on the school dances, and a little
bit of the socializing with other people, but I think I had a pretty
good childhood.

By: Chris Kinman
Originally published in the June 2010 issue of TRANSWORLDMX.COM

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