Meet Jonny Oler, the man responsible for ensuring that Autotrader/Suzuki/JGRMX riders Justin Barcia and Weston Peick are getting the most out of their works Showa suspension. Oler has been with the North Carolina-based Joe Gibbs Racing motocross team since its inception. Through the years he has worked with some of the most talented and fast racers on the planet. Jonny was instrumental in helping JGRMX develop a proprietary shock. He has experienced the highest of highs and endured his fair share of tough moments. He is, without question, one of the most interesting personalities in the paddock. Find out what Jonny Oler thinks about suspension technology; which riders are best at providing feedback; building the JRI shock; and how to get the most out of your suspension.
How does a kid from Wyoming end up in North Carolina, starting on the ground floor at the then-upstart JGRMX race team back in 2007?
My grandparents opened a motorcycle dealership in Wyoming way back in the day. It was open in the summer months. They sold old Harley-Davidsons, BSAs, and a bunch of the English brands. Then, in the winter time, they had a taxidermy service. My dad grew up racing, and eventually he wanted to start his own motorcycle dealership. He opened a Rickman and Husqvarna dealership that, in a way, was in competition with my grandfather. That caused some friction, as you can imagine! My dad was pretty successful, and my grandpa finally retired, so now there aren’t any more issues [laughter]. I grew up spending time in the dealership, and like most motocross nuts, I began riding motorcycles at the age of three. I had a new bike every year, which was a great advantage. Unfortunately, the weather in Wyoming isn’t so good for riding, because of all the snow.
Where did you learn your mechanical skills?
I learned a lot about motorcycles through my dad and grandpa. My grandpa passed down his knowledge of motorcycles to my dad, and then he passed that down to me. My dad was always into vintage motorcycles. I had a lot of motorcycle history with regard to the development of different bikes through the ages. Also, I was an avid racer. I tried to take racing as far as I could. Once I turned 18 years old I wanted to get the heck away from my parents, like most kids do. I packed up my bags and went by myself to California, but it was a dumb idea. I didn’t have the support of my parents after I moved. I wanted to live the dream, turn Pro, and dethrone Jeremy McGrath in Supercross. That was the plan anyway. I rode a few Supercross races, but I just barely made the night program.
What did you do after realizing that racing professionally wasn’t going to work out?
Fortunately, I had a few friends that were working at Yamaha Motor Corporation. I got a job at Yamaha building bikes for the testing program. On the side I would ride and race, but that fizzled out after a while. About that time my mechanical skills took over. After working for Yamaha for a few years I took a job at RG3, selling triple clamps and making service calls. That allowed me to learn the suspension end of things through Rob [Henricksen] at RG3. At a certain point I was getting fed up as a sales person and decided to quit. Rob, being the awesome guy that he is, asked me what I was going to do. I told him that I was going to work at 7-Eleven, because I was so burned out on the job [laughter]. He told me that I was making a bad choice. He proceeded to ask me if I wanted his help in getting a job. I thought it was strange that someone would want to help me after finding out that I planned on quitting. Rob is just that kind of guy. He knew of a job opening at Showa. With Rob being well respected in the industry, he could basically just tell Showa that I was interested and I’d have the job. I was thinking the job would involve collecting data and building spreadsheets, which is something I really enjoy. It turned out that the only job open was as a suspension technician for factory Honda. The title sounded pretty neat, and I figured it would be a good way to get my foot in the door.
What riders did you work with while you were doing suspension for factory Honda?
I came in right at the end of Jeremy McGrath’s career. I also worked with Travis Preston, Davi Millsaps, Andrew Short, Tommy Hahn, and Kevin Windham. I didn’t really enjoy the job, because I was basically just a monkey rebuilding suspension all day long. I was always elbow deep in oil and contact cleaner. My job as a Honda suspension technician wasn’t the most fulfilling job, but the challenge of suspension was awesome. Showa had me fly to Japan for an educational trip so I could learn the fundamentals of suspension. I was able to visit Showa, and that was an eye opener. To see how they manufactured suspension was amazing. Then I came back to the U.S. and was back to the grind.
How did the opportunity to work for JGRMX come about?
Before I answer that, I have to tell a back story. One of the race team semi truck drivers, Tom Gildea, had asked me where I wanted to move. He knew I was tired of living in California. Having traveled around the U.S. for a while and going to the races, I realized that I wanted to move to the east coast. I liked the country feel around High Point, which is in southern Pennsylvania. Tom told me that I should look at North Carolina. He said they had the Lake Havasu of the east coast, which is Lake Norman [note: a popular lake located northeast of Charlotte]. I kind of brushed the idea off. Then, a month later, Jeremy Albrecht called and told me that Joe Gibbs was starting a motocross team in North Carolina. He asked what I thought of working for them. Little did Jeremy know that I was ready to make the move regardless of what happened.
Were you shocked that the Gibbs wanted to start a motocross team in North Carolina?
To be honest, the name ‘Joe Gibbs’ didn’t click right away. I was aware of who he was, but I didn’t grasp who he actually was. The father of my girlfriend at the time found out about my job opportunity and told me that I had to take it. He went on and on about how he was a Super Bowl-winning football coach and was big in NASCAR. Like I said, I was convinced that I was moving to that area anyway, sight unseen. I told Jeremy that I was into the idea, so they flew me to North Carolina and I checked out the place. I was awe-struck by it all. At that point it was a done deal. I started at JGRMX pretty much right at the beginning.
Is it hard to believe that you’ve worked at JGRMX and have lived in North Carolina for almost ten years?
It is crazy to think about. There have been highs and some lows, as well. You take the good with the bad.
Talk about the proprietary shock that JGRMX developed a while back.
That came about because the new Yamaha had that goofy shock with the reservoir pointed sideways. It meant that we couldn’t use our existing works suspension. We had to update and get new stuff. At the time, the asking price for works suspension was astronomical. Coy [Gibbs, JGRMX team owner], being from the car world, asked why we couldn’t just build our own shock. I snickered and thought it was foolish. However, Coy contacted some shock manufacturers that worked in NASCAR. They approached us, and we started working on some drawings. They wanted to know what features and dimensions we were looking for. They had a prototype built in about a month. It was crude, but it was in the ballpark. Going into 2010, we decided that we were going to take the plunge and make our own shock. Luckily we had a Roehrig suspension dyno, because it probably would have been an impossible feat. I wouldn’t say the settings were great right away. Justin Brayton could probably attest to that [laughter]. Some of the shock’s features were from the car world, so those parts weren’t as dependable as they needed to be for motocross. We tested each little part and continually made improvements to the seals, pistons, bodies and shims. The JRI shock really evolved quickly. The first year it was pretty good, and by the third year we were really far along. The JRI had become something that looked nice, was very light, and we could fine tune it. At that time we had James Stewart, and in early testing he preferred the shock we had built over something different.
JGRMX was one of the first in the industry to obtain a Roehrig suspension dyno, which is a very expensive piece of machinery.
We were probably the first non-factory race team in motocross to purchase a Roehrig. Honda had one while I worked there, and of course Showa has long had one. Coy is a funny guy. He tends to not want something, but when he finally decides to do it he goes full bore. He bought the $250,000 machine. There was a learning curve on how to use it, but as the years have rolled on we find that it’s more and more useful. We have a huge amount of data from the past that we can use to support our future data. It’s an amazing tool. What other team is able to spend quarter of a million dollars on a tool? We’re lucky.
Do you use the Roehrig suspension dyno for every set of suspension that you build?
I use it for probably 95 percent of the suspension that I build. After I develop a setting at the track with the riders I come back and confirm on the dyno. If I still have some lingering issues then I’ll tune the suspension on the dyno before taking it to the track and have the riders test it.
Last year the team was using Kayaba suspension components, but with the switch to Suzuki for 2017 you’re again with Showa. Has it been difficult getting suspension settings dialed in for the team riders?
This year has actually been the easiest of all. The bike is a pleasure to work with, because it takes to the changes and is easy to see the changes. Looking back at the team’s history, we started with KYB, went to Showa, and then built the JRI shock. After that we went to KYB, and now we’re back with Showa. Being an ex-Showa employee, I tend to favor Showa anyway. With the Suzuki being easily tunable and the suspension offering infinite possibilities, it has been a pleasure. Having only about two months on the bike heading into the 2017 season, we were, and continue to be, farther along than we ever were in the past. This year has actually been pretty easy.
You’ve worked with a lot of different racers. What percentage of those racers would you consider to be really good at testing suspension and providing accurate feedback?
I would say that only 5- to 10 percent of racers have been really good. In my experience, I find that a rider who was a phenom as a kid doesn’t generally offer as much feedback. I think that’s because they have gotten catered to and are taught how to complain about a bike. Their job in developing a bike is that engineers ask them what’s wrong with the bike as soon as they pull off the track. In those situations, the rider tends to not think about what’s really going on with the bike or how to fix the problem. On the other hand, a rider that didn’t get support and had to do his own adjustments at the track is more in tune with what’s going on with the bike. They learn how to diagnose the problem and come up with a solution. The less support a rider has had in the past tends to give them the upper hand when it comes to testing and giving feedback. We’ve had some really big names on the team, and also some lesser-known names. It seems like the lesser known riders are usually pretty good at providing feedback.
Are you surprised with how quickly suspension technology has changed in the past decade?
Yes, and no. It seems like the technology in suspension has been the same for quite some time now. There is still a damping system with some type of spring system. I read an article about 15 years ago where they asked the top suspension guys what they thought was going to be the future of suspension. A lot of guys mentioned coatings and improved valving systems. One guy brought up computers, and I laughed to myself. Then I thought that it could be possible. Now, 15 years later, suspension is still basically the same. However, the tolerances have gotten really good, as have the coatings. The ability to tune the damping system is really intricate. Now there are so many areas of tuning that it’s very easy to screw up.
What about all this talk surrounding air forks?
Suspension manufacturers tried to do the air thing for a while, but there was air suspension back in the 1970s. It’s not turning out to be something that people are liking. I don’t know if it’s more of getting a reputation, or it truly doesn’t perform as well as conventional spring-style forks. The systems that most everyone is on right now is pretty old technology, but it’s getting more fine tuned.
Everyone makes a big deal out of works suspension. Would works suspension make a significant difference to the average rider?
It comes down to tuning the suspension for the rider. As long as you have your works racer on works suspension, and that suspension has been developed and tuned for that racer, then it’s a really good package. If you put a Novice rider on any generic setting, then the works suspension may work worse than OEM/stock suspension. Production components are really good. The settings are chosen so that they work for pretty much everyone. I don’t think it’s necessary for anyone other than the top riders to have works suspension. That is, unless they have the time and support crew to develop the suspension specifically for the rider.
What’s the number-one piece of advice you can offer someone with regard to suspension?
It all goes back to the basics. Bleed the air out of your forks every time before you ride. Check your sag regularly so that it’s set up properly. The bike does perform best when it’s at the right angles. If you want to get into tuning, learn how suspension works. In almost every component a clicker is essentially a needle closing off a hole. If you figure that oil is flowing through a hole, and you close that hole off, the oil doesn’t flow as easily. That will slow the oil movement. Understand that going in on the clickers makes things go slower. Take notes where the clickers are at. Make small adjustments, and always take notes on where you’ve been. That way if you’re going the wrong direction you can have notes to show you how to get back to square one. It’s the simple stuff that makes a big difference. Also, don’t be afraid of your suspension. I find that a lot of riders are scared to touch their clickers.
Sometimes riders mention late in the season that they’re still working on getting suspension settings dialed. How is it possible that teams haven’t mastered their settings after so many races?
There are two ways to look at it. If you’re changing the bike too often, the rider is never comfortable. That’s because the bike doesn’t ever feel the same. That can be a negative. However, if the rider is having problems with how the bike is performing, the team should definitely be working to improve it. Each and every race offers new circumstances and challenges. Racing constantly tests your settings. I like to try and improve throughout the whole year. At the same time, if you find that the rider isn’t sure what he’s on anymore because he’s so confused, then it’s a good idea to let the rider stay on a certain setting for a while to find comfort. Sometimes if you’re changing settings all of the time and improving things, the rider might not know it’s an improvement, because the bike feels different over and over again.