Mitch Payton’s life in motorcycling began like many others. The son of motorcyclists James and Norma Payton, Mitch, along with his brother James Jr., started riding at a young age. By 10, he was competing in family enduros and a few years later he was a rising star in the active desert racing community of AMA District 37. By the age of 17, he was the District’s 125cc class champion in desert racing.
Where Mitch’s career went from there, however, has earned him accolades matched by few of his contemporaries. By some measures, Mitch Payton is the most successful race team owner in the sport of motorcycling. As a privateer effort, Payton’s teams have collected 26 AMA Pro Racing Championships in Motocross and Supercross since 1991.
Payton’s career as a tuner did not come easy, however. In 1978, the year after his AMA District 37 championship, Payton suffered a debilitating crash in the desert. Instead of letting the discouragement of never being able to ride again turn him away from motorcycling, Payton refocused his efforts on the business side of the sport.
“When I got out of the hospital, I wanted to stay in the industry doing something, so we looked at this little Husqvarna shop that was not doing very well, and I thought, ‘I can run that,’” Payton remembers.
Only 18 years old, he bought and ran Anaheim Husqvarna. Meanwhile, Payton’s skill and reputation as a tuner grew.
“Maybe it started with the art of how to jet a bike properly, then working on some porting, then maybe building a pipe,” Payton says, regarding his move into tuning. “Making a two-stroke pipe was a real black art back in the day. There are some very vague formulas that will get you in the ballpark, but at the degree of tune of a national two-stroke, the power you’re looking for is not available just by punching in a number.”
Within a few years, Payton’s products and services were being used by some of the biggest motocross teams of the mid-1980s.
“We had supplied performance parts and did some porting work for some of the factory teams, then we starting really got it rocking in ‘84, ‘85 and then in 1986 when the AMA made the production ruling [requiring factory bikes to be based on production models], we were coming off a year, in 1985, when we were the guys who had the really fast production bikes. Some of the teams knew that because we’d been doing production bikes for some time, so they came to us. Honda ran our pipes. Suzuki ran pipes. Yamaha ran our cylinders.”
In 1991, Payton got his big break. Honda asked him to run its 125cc motocross team. Payton accepted, and over the next 19 years, fielding other motorcycle brands as well, Payton’s teams won more championships than any others -- privateer or factory.
“When Honda asked if we wanted to run a 125 team, I asked the guys at the shop because I couldn’t do it by myself,” Payton says. “We tried it, we stuck with it, and it has been really good for our sales because I think it proves that the products that we make can compete with the best out there.
“It was a gamble, but it was an awesome challenge,” he continues. “The fear of failure was so high that losing wasn’t an option.”
While winning on the track was a major goal, Payton still had to pay the bills. He did that by selling products and services, from exhaust pipes to bolt-on hard parts to suspension modifications to engine work. His customers ranged from professional race teams chasing results on the national circuit to recreational riders emulating their heroes. Payton’s marketing plan, which ultimately became one of the industry’s most successful, was simple. He built and sold aftermarket parts that appealed to him.
“I would build something that looked cool, and I assume that if I liked it, then other people would like it,” he says. “I didn’t do market surveys. I looked at something and said, ‘This would be cool.’ Not everything I thought up has been a hit.”
One of the most-telling endorsements of Payton’s accomplishments comes from Tom White. The chairman of the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Motocross/Supercross committee at the time that Payton was inducted, White is a founder of White Brothers, one of the first distributors of Payton’s products.
“I’ve known Mitch from when he was racing to when he was starting his company,” White says. “It is one of my proudest moments to see somebody who overcame what some might see as a major disability and not only build the best motorcycles, but to be able to pick the riders and bring them up to a level of performance that makes them better than they ever thought they could be. Mitch Payton is absolutely what the Hall of Fame is about -- recognizing the people who have made the best and most lasting contributions to motorcycling.”
There is no question that Payton has left a lasting impression on many who work in the industry. Although he has a reputation as a leader who demands a high level of performance, he clearly has earned the respect of his employees and competitors alike.
“The success part of it has to do with whether you can motivate people and bring the best out of people,” Payton says. “Myself, I played baseball. I raced motorcycles. After I got hurt, I raced cars. When I started, I wasn’t good at it. I was always a guy who had to work harder than guys who were gifted, but those of us who have to work hard, we get more out of it.
“Nothing comes easy, and good things happen to good people,” Payton says. “Good things may come, but nothing good comes easy. Nothing falls in your lap. There are days where we’re trying to get more power, and everyone’s looking at me. We’re in the dyno room, and you’re tapped, and some people get to the point where they say, ‘That’s all there is,’ but I’m like ‘bull.’ If you have to try more things to get the results I want, if you have to burn up a lot of parts, that’s fine. I don’t accept failure easy -- but I don’t stay angry very long either.”
Payton, an AMA Life Member, says that while he’s honored by his induction into the Hall of Fame, the legends he looked up to in his youth are the true heroes of the sport.
“I look around the industry, and there are a few guys I hold in real regard,” Payton says. “One is Malcolm Smith. When I was a kid, we’d go to Malcolm’s shop, and I was the 10-year-old punk who would bother the guys at the counter for stickers and sit on all the bikes. Another is Roger DeCoster. Those guys are just awesome.
“So, to be in the same Hall of Fame, for that honor, I’m really proud about that,” Payton continues. “It’s there forever. It means that anyone looking back on history years from now will see what you’ve done.”
Mitch Payton was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2010.