Ronnie Jones retired from full-time racing back in 2000, but the multi-time Grand National winner never quite hung up his steel shoe altogether. Fast forward nineteen years later and he’s still lining up in the premier class of American Flat Track. Jones, who turned pro in 1979, is looking to achieve a personal goal of being the only rider to make a Main Event in six different decades, and make history in the process. The Oklahoman already added his name to the record books last year with five decades of making a Main Event, which he did at all three Miles he competed in last season – Sacramento and both Springfields. This year marks his 40th anniversary of turning pro and so far, the 58-year-old shows no signs of slowing down yet. He qualified for two Main Events, once again on the big tracks – Springfield Mile I and Sacramento – and at the latter, he scored a season best result in the top 10.
We had a chance to sit down with Jones and talk about adding his name to the record books, his goal to reach six decades and his 2019 season so far.
You and Tim came together last season to set some records in the sport of American Flat Track. How did that all came about?
Tim has been very supportive of the Rookies of ’79 charity that helps injured riders. So we were in pretty constant communication and we’ve become pretty close friends. Scottie Deubler pointed out that when I made the Main in Springfield in 2017 that I’d been the only rider that had made a Main Event in five different decades, starting with the ‘70s. The first main event, the first national I made was in 1979 when I was a rookie. So I had made it in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, ’00s and the ’10s.
What are your thoughts on the season so far?
“All in all, I’ve had a great time this year. It’s been kind of rewarding, I guess, for me on whatever small level to help a little bit with the development of the Yamaha. It’s a streetbike engine that we’re trying to make competitive in dirt track, or make it more competitive, I guess you’d say, because it’s already competitive. It’s won a couple of races. But, also, to make a couple of Nationals on one, for me personally is kind of a rewarding feeling.”
How many different brands have you made a Main in?
The first Main Events that I made were on a Yamaha, and actually the first two Nationals that I won were on a Yamaha in 1980. Then I made Main Events on Hondas, on Harleys and then on Indians. Now it’s full circle back around to where I was when I first started in 1979 and ’80 on Yamahas.
What have you done to prepare for this season?
Last year the rules stated that you had to ride three races. Riding three races, I kind of felt like I could make the Main. I was able to do so on a Harley the year before. When Tim offered up the Indian I thought I could make the Main, and I did. I made all the Mile Main Events that I rode in 2018, but I noticed that my fitness wasn’t where it needed to be in a 25-lap race. When I was just riding three races, it was kind of hard to commit the time and energy and everything that it takes to be in shape, when you’re twice the age of the kids out there. I’m almost three times the age of some of the guys in the field.
This year when they upped the rule to six to keep your license active, I decided that I was going to put some effort into it and started working with a personal trainer who trains a lot of motocross kids from this area – Austin Forkner and Benny Bloss and some others. I’ve been working out with him, and it’s certainly helped. I really wanted to make the Main Event so I wanted to make sure that my fitness wasn’t the excuse for it.
Tim’s team really expanded in a big way this year. How has it been to be around all of these different guys? Jake Johnson, JD Beach, Roger Hayden, Dallas Daniels, Kolby Carlile and Ryan Wells?
It’s been awesome. I’m in kind of a unique position where there really isn’t any pressure from the team. Any pressure on me is only put there by me. Tim is totally supportive. He’s happy when I do well, but of course there are no expectations and no pressure. For me, it’s been unbelievably fun. One of the most fun seasons that I’ve had, really. Certainly, since I retired from full-time racing 18, 19 years ago. It’s great to be able to hang with these guys, and try to do as much as I can to help them develop the bike and make it a better bike for everybody on the team. Even though I’m just riding a few of the races, I’ve been able to use my experience a little bit to hopefully help the team. So it’s been a fun, fun season for me.
It’s got to be kind of cool, too. Roger Hayden when he was growing up, you’re one of the guys he idolized, and you guys had the opportunity to race on the same track.
I don’t know if I got to race with Roger before this year. I don’t think I did, actually. I did race with Tommy when he was a rookie expert. I got to race with him and, of course, I raced with Nicky. Nicky was my teammate at TC Racing, Tommy Cummings Racing, back in ’99. The last year that I raced full-time was riding for TC.
It’s so funny. When Roger was about four years old, five years old he sent me his resume and a hand-written letter. He couldn’t have been more than kindergarten age. I could show you the writing on it. I kept it. I keep threatening to bring it out and show it sometime to everybody. He laughs about it. He told me that I was one of his favorite riders and he was hoping I would win the championship that year. It was real sweet. He was just a young guy. He even sent me a little cassette tape that they had done. It was like a racing song on it. I’ve still got that somewhere, too. I don’t know that I have a cassette player to play it on, but I’ve got the cassette. So, getting to race with Roger this year, I don’t know how he felt about it, but that was fun.
You already have a pretty accomplished career. What does achieving these records mean to you?
I know this sounds kind of strange, but I would not care one bit if anybody ever mentioned it or it was never even discussed or brought up. For me it’s more of the personal challenge of how long can I do this? How long can I stay strong enough, stay fit enough and stay fast enough to go out and even if I can’t compete for a win, can I go out and compete for a top 10? Even though I’m getting older every year, when I ride, the more I ride the more it comes back. The more rust comes off. As long as I’m staying fit, and I’m able to go pretty fast for an old guy, even around a lot of the young guys. So for me, it’s just about the personal challenge about it, not for any record book.
I was actually glad that Gary Ketchum who’s ten months older than me made the National at Sacramento because he can have that record as the oldest guy. I’m fine with that. That’s the only Main that he’s made in his entire lifetime, so that’s not only the oldest person to ever make the Main, but he’s also the oldest to ever make his first Main.
Then of course the crazy next thing, which is not really any kind of a milestone, but I’m 58. I’ll be 59 in October. If I made a Main next year in 2020, that would be six different decades but then I’d be one year away from being 60. So could I be the first 60-year-old to make the Main if I went to 2021?
All these things come up, but I just kind of take it race by race right now and see what happens. The rules may change next year, which may not allow me even to have an opportunity to make a Main in 2020. They may change the format where it’s kind of a predetermined set of guys who are racing in the Main Events. So if that happens, then this might all be for naught as far as trying to make six decades. But I’ve still had so much fun, I wouldn’t change it.
It doesn’t really sound like you plan on slowing down anytime soon.
Well, Tim has been so gracious and so supportive and encouraging for me to do this, to offer me a bike and say, “Here you go.” You said a little while ago, being involved with this huge team and all these great guys, the riders, mechanics, everybody. But for them and for Tim, they bit off a huge chunk this year. I felt humbled a lot of times this year by the fact that with all that they had going on, they were still providing me with a bike to ride. They were helping me achieve my dream, helping me reach my goals in the middle of putting together a monster team, which is no small undertaking. I’ve gotten nothing but support and encouragement from everybody on the team. They could have all been looking at me like, ‘Here’s this guy just rolling in and showing up and acting like a rock star. He rolls in five times, races, and then is out here and we’re all working hard.” If that’s how they felt, nobody ever made me feel that way. So that was really cool. Their support was just amazing.
Story and photos by Andrea Wilson