In our never-ending quest to speak with the most interesting people in the automotive and motorsports industry we have had the opportunity to cross paths with a lot of celebrities, designers, collectors and other amazing car and motorcycle people. Tony and Janet Blackall fit that bill and then some. They are both military veterans that happen to own and ride for a Supersport team in the MotoAmerica national championship road race series. This husband and wife racing team use their platform to help other veterans throughout the country and active duty soldiers deployed overseas. Thank you, Janet and Tony, for spending some time with us to shine a little light on what it’s like to own a race team and be a professional motorcycle racer.
Let’s start at the beginning, you both have served in the military but in different branches. How did you guys meet?
[Janet] Well, we actually served in the military 15 years apart. I went right out of high school and it was after I met Tony that I kind of encouraged him to pursue his dream which was to join the military. So, he joined a little bit later in life.
How we met was actually at an ice luge party. We live in Michigan and one of Tony’s best friend’s dad owned an excavating business, and I happened to be best friends with his best friend’s sister. She said you’ve got to come over, we do this ice luge thing every year. So, I show up, and we’re riding these ice runners down all these hills and it was super fun and I see this guy behind a dirt bike in a recliner wearing a helmet. That was Tony. He ended up chasing me around the hills that night, the rest is kind of history.
Have you always been fascinated by motorcycles?
[Tony] Going back to my best friend, he was a flat-tracker and ice racer. Everything along those lines. My family wasn’t as privileged, you could say we were dirt poor. So, the only time I got to be around motorcycles was when I was with him. It drove my mind wild. It was an adrenaline rush just watching. I always wanted to ride. Then I grew up, turned 18 and got a job. I went out and bought my very first bike and it was a rocketship from there.
[Janet] I’m a little bit more trucks and mud-bogging. That was my childhood and upbringing. When I met Tony, we started pushing the motorcycle racing after his military service. He took me to my first pro race at Road America in Wisconsin last year (2019). I fell in love, I thought it was amazing. I love the fan interaction, the openness, the environment, and camaraderie. I thought “this is amazing, we’ve got to do this!” I was sold early on.
What was the first bike you bought?
[Tony] It was actually a 2006 Kawasaki ZX6R.
When did you decide you wanted to go racing?
[Tony] Back when I was in the military, it was really a way to get off the street. I lost a couple friends over riding and being invincible until they weren’t invincible anymore. That got me off the street. I got lucky to have a friend that was well off in life and he talked me into getting on the track and I followed. It just bloomed from there.
How did the racing team come together?
[Janet] When I met Tony he was not racing, he had retired. We started a family, encouraged him to chase his dreams and join the military and that was unexpectedly over sooner than he ever hoped for.
When he came home, he struggled with the transition from military life to civilian life. Since I had gone through it 15 years prior, I knew we had to do something different or this doesn’t end well. So, that’s when we bought a motorcycle, the Yamaha R6. He started just getting on the track and the more he road, the better dad and husband he was. So, he started doing track days and a little bit of coaching and realized he was keeping up with the guys he used to race against. Then he wanted to race, and I was like “go for it, it’s definitely helping your mental state of being and our relationship.” He set his own goal to get his professional license and, like I said, took me to Road America and I fell in love with it.
The stars aligned because I always wanted to run my own business and was at a crossroads in my career. I said let’s do this. We can help veterans and give back, try to spread some good old American love.
What’s the biggest challenge running a race team?
[Janet] For me it’s the self-doubt, that’s a huge one. Always unsure of your confidence, your brand’s confidence, the company’s position and continually being told no. When you’re in an unfamiliar position and everything is new, you’re reaching out for sponsorships and trying to gain some traction and you just keep getting told no, no, no. It’s definitely discouraging to stay at it. It takes some resilience for sure.
Any unplanned surprises along the way?
[Tony] I can answer that from a rider’s perspective. Having to have inventory as crash replacements. When I first raced, I was never known as a crasher but when I came back that’s all I could do [laughing]. So, I had to be that guy that sort of had to walk around, introduce myself and ask for parts. Luckily, I met this great team called Motohana Racing, and they’re on the same bike. They kept me in the game, kept my head straight. We just went from there.
The other hard part is you’re having your friends come out and help you and everyone has a little bit of knowledge, but no one is exactly confident in doing everything without asking first.
This is your second year racing in the MotoAmerica Supersport series, correct? Tell us a little bit about the difference between racing in a national series like MotoAmerica and local or regional club racing.
[Tony] This will be our first full season so, yes, year two. We did 3 rounds in 2019. I would say the difference between MotoAmerica and something like WERA is you can tell it’s a lot more professional, as in 100% of the paddock compared to maybe like 80% of the paddock. WERA runs a great organization, it definitely has new, young riders who are learning as they’re going. Then, when you get to MotoAmerica, for the most part everyone has a nice program, they know what they need to do, they know how to be professional.
[Janet] I enjoy the details and really entertaining, putting our best face forward. Luckily my husband is a fuel mileage guru so it’s been interesting to balance what we must have in the rig to travel 3,000 miles because if I add an extra 300 pounds of weight we’re losing this much in gas mileage. That has really been a huge learning curve for me. I think we’re finally getting streamlined so we have exactly what we need, nothing more. It’s taken a lot of teamwork. I’m not an expert in the motorcycle world, I’ve managed and grown small companies, but motorcycles were new.
Do you have a favorite track in MotoAmerica?
[Tony] My favorite one is Pittsburgh. We had mechanical issues there last year that kept me out of the races, but we still hung out for the races and were a part of the fan club. We didn’t go home with our heads down or anything. We stayed the whole weekend; we celebrated and watched every race. I can’t wait to get back.
Tony, has your military training and background helped you as a rider?
[Tony] Oh absolutely! Besides the physical part, I would say the mental. The mental part is huge. At the end of the day, I’m not necessarily physically beaten but mentally beaten. Going into a corner around 130 or 150 miles per hour, you don’t think it takes a lot out of your mind, but it does. When everything settles down and the adrenaline leaves, you’re sort of looking for the next fuel station. It’s amazing how they correlate, the military community and the racing community with that vibe.
[Janet] Yes, absolutely! Being told you’re not good enough, definitely been part of my background. My MOS actually thought I was a male when I checked into school. So, I was the only female in my whole MOS. I excelled but it was definitely not without challenge, that’s for sure.
If someone wanted to support your mission, how can they get involved?
[Janet] Our website has a lot of opportunities to purchase merchandise. They can reach out to discuss sponsorships or just donate to either our team or our patriotic packages initiative which is a personal thing we are doing this year. It’s something we both wanted to do and that’s send 200 care packages to forward-deployed troops at the end of the year.
We thought it would be really cool to interact with the fans with a purpose. We invested in our hospitality suite at MotoAmerica and we’re asking fans to come in and pack a little care package, write a little note and then at the end of the season we want to send those to a unit we’re in touch with in Afghanistan. Fans can go to our website to learn more.
Do you ride motorcycles on the street as well?
[Tony] I have ridden on the road one time since I’ve been home and that was just to test a buddy’s bike out after I worked on it. It’s a kind of forgotten world for me. I view it as sometimes more dangerous than being at war.
If I were to open your garage door at home, what would I find in there?
[Tony] You’d find a race bike, an off-road quad and a couple little dirt bikes that the kids are learning and growing up on. And a 1978 Pontiac Grand Prix that we’re restoring for old times’ sake.
What do you like to do away from work, any Hobbies?
[Tony] Oh yeah, definitely. First and foremost, I love getting out with the kids. As long as we can get out, I like to do some fishing. We definitely do camping and we love to play sports. We do a lot of frisbee, if you can call that a sport. Other than that, mud-bogging we can get out to. We do some shooting, playing catch and just try to be part of the community. I guess we’re just living the dream [laughing].
Any final thoughts.
[Tony] This is my first go around (interview) so I’m learning more than anything. This is pretty amazing, and we just wanted to say thank you for the opportunity to tell our story.
[Janet] Yes, thank you.
Janet, Tony, this has been very informative and entertaining. Thank you both for taking time to sit down with us and let us into your lives a little bit. And thank you for all that you have done and are doing for military veterans across the county. Best of luck the rest of the season, we’re sure we’ll bump into you in the paddock sooner rather than later.