Jo Shimoda has practically dedicated his entire life to the dream of racing as a professional in the United States and that dream will finally be realized at the opening round of the 250SX East series in Tampa. He began traveling alongside his parents to the United States to race the big amateur events when he was only on 65s, packing his bike into a suitcase to give him the opportunity that he needed to succeed. Shimoda moved to California full-time around five years ago and has since made quite the name for himself in the amateur motocross scene, but it won’t be long until he’s a commonly known name on the professional scene as well. The Japanese native earned a spot on the AMSOIL Factory Connection Honda team which serves as a direct feeder into the GeicoHonda team, setting him up with a great program to get his professional campaign started on the right foot. Shimoda raced the last three Pro Nationals of the 2019 season and showed steady improvements throughout, displaying top ten speed and recording finishes inside the top fifteen. The Honda rider had a lot of success at the Monster Energy Cup throughout his career as an amateur, winning the overall in the Amateur All-Stars class a couple of years ago. Although it’s not an all-out supercross track, it’s a good indication that his skills on the bike translate well to the precision and timing that is required on a supercross track. Shimoda claims he is working harder than he ever has in his life with his new trainer Jeff Ward coming into the new season, so he’ll be aiming to make all of that hard work pay off when the 250SX East season gets underway.
You’re only a couple of weeks away now from your first professional Supercross, debuting with the Geico Honda team at Tampa in the 250SX East class. As a kid from Japan that moved to the United States at a young age with a dream of racing professionally, how does it feel to finally be so close to living out that moment?
Yeah. First of all, I don't really care that I'm going to be the first one (from Japan) to actually be on a factory team and make their pro debut, because I just do it for myself, not for the Japanese. I'm super excited that I finally got to this point. I've been training to make my pro debut here, so I've just been kind of waiting since the west coast started because I didn't know which coast I was going to be racing.
You got a taste of the pros last year by doing the last three rounds of the season. Unadilla was a little bit rough but you finished inside the top fifteen overall at Budds and Ironman. Talk a little bit about that experience.
Yeah, Unadilla I was just so nervous and everything just didn't go right. Press day went so good but the racing was just so much different. Everybody said the last three nationals are the gnarliest tracks that they have on the schedule and I still wasn't expecting that many ruts and bumps and stuff, so that kind of put me down at Unadilla. The next round, I did pretty good -- I had top ten starts and I was running 6th or 7th for a while and I dropped back, but it was such a good experience just to be racing and being in that environment. It makes the feeling much better now, so it helped a lot going into supercross because I can be a little looser now.
Was there anything that surprised you about racing the pros that you weren't expecting?
No, I wasn't expecting anything really. I was just thinking just go out there and do my best, I was just using it as a learning experience.
You and your buddy Jett Lawrence got to make your Lucas Oil Pro Motocross debut at the same time which must’ve been pretty cool. Did you two kind of have your own little competition going on trying to beat one another?
No, I only saw him on the track at Budds Creek and Ironman really and there's no competition with him, it's just racing. He's just any other guy out there on the track really.
I’m sure you’ve been at a few of the west coast rounds so far, have you sort of been paying attention to the 250 class more than usual this year to get prepared for Tampa?
Not the riders, I went to A1 and A2 to do the track walk and stuff and learn the process, so when I get to the races I don't have to worry about what I'm going to do next.
At this point, you’ve spun tons of laps with Jett and Christian at the test track. Does it give you a good amount of confidence to see where their speed was at the first few rounds in order to kind of gauge your own speed?
Yeah, now I know that Jett and Christian are top three riders so if I can stay with them or even go faster then it's better and for sure that's going to build up some big confidence in me.
Jett obviously surprised a lot of people as a rookie with his ability to run up front that quickly. Did that surprise you at all as someone who knows him well and rides with him often?
I mean, he is fast but I was still surprised. The first round, he had food poisoning, but he was running in 9th I think. Yeah, I thought maybe he was having a hard time but he came around next week and had almost the best start and was running 2nd, then at A2 one week later he was almost winning.
Over the course of your amateur career, you had some really solid performances at the Monster Energy Cup. You finished 4th there on the Supermini, and then 3rd in Amateur All-Stars, and you won Amateur All-Stars the year after. I know it’s not a full-blown Supercross track, but do you feel like SX sort of fits your riding style?
Yeah, there wasn't a whoop section at Monster Cup and everybody says that the whoops are the hardest part of the track. At first, I was so bad in the whoops but now I'm two months into supercross training and I'm feeling so much better. Monster Cup is for sure a good race to do and I think my riding style fits better for supercross. I enjoy it!
How's the process of learning the whoops been?
Just the first time you go through is the hardest thing. It takes so much courage to do it, so when I went through the first time it was the scariest thing and the second time I went through was already much better. All my stress went away and it keeps getting better and better.
What was your reaction when you found out that Ryan Dungey was joining Geico Honda as a part-owner and would be there to help out with the team?
It was surprising for sure. (laughs) He gives us some good advice on the track walk and that sort of thing. He doesn't really come to the practice track, he's only really at the races. He helps us with the lines and stuff, what rhythm to take, and starting gate position. He has such good experience in everything, so it's just good to have him on the track and it helps us a lot. It's a big, big thing for Geico.
Have you enjoyed the process of grinding away at the test track and trying to dial your bike in?
Yeah, since I turned pro there have been many, many tests going on with my bike. I have a new trainer now, Jeff Ward, and we're working together pretty good now. I actually never worked hard like this before. I'm working harder now than I ever have.
Wardy is no stranger to hard work, that’s for sure!
Yeah, Wardy is gnarly. There's a bike trail out here called skyline and we were gonna go Wednesday when we weren't riding. I was waiting in the Geico shop ready to go for the climb and Wardy came by with his mountain bike and he's like "I went to check the skyline trial, I just went up to the bowl and came back. We've gotta do it again," and I was like "No way, are you serious?"
Were you familiar with him as a racer growing up or are you too young?
I didn't really know who Jeff Ward was at first. I'd seen him at the track when he was riding a KTM when I was on the 65, but I never met him or talked with him before.
Did you have time to go back to Japan over the holidays and spend some time at home with family/friends?
I did go back to Japan for a month after the Pro Nationals and then I started riding supercross. One month ago, I had to renew my visa so I went back for two weeks.
Was that an easy process? I know sometimes riders can have issues with that.
Yeah, it was good because having the Geico team in the background is pretty huge for getting an athlete visa, so the process was pretty easy.
How much of your family lives here with you in the States?
Just my mom and little sister and then everyone else is back in Japan.
What was the hardest thing to adapt to and the experience of moving to a new country now that you've had some time to settle in here and gain a new perspective?
Honestly, I go back there like every year so there's it's not too hard. If I go back there, I just live normal and when I come back here I'm a little bit better than staying in Japan because I've been here for five years now so it's more comfy to do everything here than Japan a little bit now. It's about the same though. Japan is easier because my language barriers are not there so everything I do is easier, but my English is getting better.
I heard when you first came to America to race on little bikes that your parents used to pack your bike into a suitcase. Is that true?
Yeah, it is! It is what it is, sometimes you've just gotta do it. In the first year, maybe more, we had to live in a hotel the whole time. We put our bikes and stuff in storage and that was the craziest thing. It was tough.
Any plans to bring back those legendary videos of you riding with the Japanese narration over them?
Oh yeah, I gotta bring the guy over from Japan. His name is Takumu Yokosawa and he races professionally in Japan Nationals; he's such a funny guy.
What’s your favorite American food you’ve had since moving here?
It's not really an American food, but it's a kind of sushi. We don't have like California rolls in Japan with the sauce and everything on top of sushi. I like that so much! It's something very unique for me.