Damian Jigalov is a young, but already very seasoned, motorcycle racer from the Chicago area. He just turned 14 at the end of June, so he is now eligible to race in MotoAmerica, and he’ll make his debut in the Liqui Moly Junior Cup Championship next weekend at Utah Motorsports Park where he’ll be aboard the #78 Biothermal Racing Yamaha YZF-R3. We got in touch with Damian to find out a little bit more about him.
Damian, even though you’re still only 14 years old, can you tell us what you’ve been doing for the past couple of years as far as racing goes?
DJ: Ever since the KTM RC Cup series first started in MotoAmerica, I’ve always wanted to be part of it. Unfortunately, I haven’t been old enough to race in it. So, in the meantime, I started racing a KTM RC 390 in 2016 with WERA. I was racing with WERA, and a lot of the MotoAmerica guys from the RC Cup would come to WERA, and we would race against each other. The last time, I was able to beat them. So I knew that I’d be able to be competitive in MotoAmerica. I just wasn’t old enough. Then, the following year in 2017, I started racing a Yamaha R3 and that was my first season racing in the CIV pre-Moto3 Championship. I was racing for the RMU Racing VR46 Riders Academy team. I had a bunch of top-five finishes. I also had some crashes and DNF’s, and I ended up eighth in the championship. This year I’ve been racing a Biothermal Yamaha R3. This is my second season now racing in Italy for the same team.
One of the things we’ve seen this year with our Liqui Moly Junior Cup series is the balancing procedures that the FIM administers to make sure there is parity among the various motorcycles. In the early rounds this season, they’ve put some limits on the new Kawasaki Ninja 400 and the new RC 390 R to get everybody kind of on a level playing field. Have you had to experience that sort of thing in CIV this year?
DJ: In CIV not as much because I’m racing in the pre-Moto3 prototype series, but in the 300 series in the Italian Championship, they have had some changes. Before this Utah round, we’d been debating, and we weren’t sure quite what we were going to race yet because of the balancing rules in MotoAmerica trying to make the bikes as even as possible. At the beginning of the year, it looked like the Ninja 400 was the bike to be on. That, and the new KTM was also really fast. So then, we were like, “Maybe those are the bikes to be on.” But then, they slowed those down. So what I’m going to be racing in Utah will be my Biothermal Yamaha R3.
Is it the same motorcycle that you’ve been racing?
DJ: Yes, the one I’ve been racing in WERA.
How different is your Yamaha R3 from the one you race in CIV?
DJ: The biggest difference between the prototype bike is it’s a 250 four-stroke and it’s a TM engine, which is an Italian dirt bike company. The frame is made by my team RMU Racing. They make their own frames and chassis. So for that, the biggest difference is, with the prototype bike compared with the production-based bike, the prototype bikes are really hard bikes to ride, but they can do amazing things compared with the production-based bikes. Such as, at Mugello this year, there’s a corner where you’re full throttle, over 100 miles an hour and dragging your elbow, which is crazy because you can never do that on a production-based bike.
Since you’ve raced quite a bit in WERA, what tracks have you competed at in the U.S. thus far in your career?
DJ: I’ve ridden at Barber Motorsports Park, (WeatherTech Raceway) Laguna Seca. I’ve also ridden at VIR and Road America, plus a whole bunch of tracks that are not on the MotoAmerica schedule.
So, Utah will be new for you, then?
DJ: Yes. It’ll be my first time. I’ve never been there before.
I’m sure you’ve gotten a look at the layout of the track and understand the setup of it. Have you talked to anybody about the track at all and what it’s like to race there?
DJ: I’ve been actually studying the track. I’ve been looking at track maps. I’ve been watching a bunch of older races. I’ve been watching on-board videos. So I’m familiar with the layout now, but I’m just excited to be able to see it for myself on the bike.
One of the things that’s interesting about that track, as I’m sure you know, is the altitude there. Have you considered that as a factor at all?
DJ: Because it’s in the desert, it’s more dry than it is where I live in Chicago. So, I think hydration will be a big factor going into there, drinking a lot of water and such. The track looks pretty flat besides a couple of corners that have some elevation. But I think that hydration is just the biggest thing.
It sounds like you’re pretty tuned in with your training. Can you talk about that a little bit? Do you ride bicycles? What do you do to stay in shape and work on your cardio?
DJ: For me, training is a big part of my racing. It’s so physical. So, I do a lot of cycling, and usually, I’ll go about 50-60 miles per day on the bicycle. Or I’ll go to the gym for two and a half hours and I’ll do mixed strength training, which is cardio incorporated with strength training.
When you race in Europe, since your dad is from Romania and your mom is from Poland, do you have relatives or friends that you stay with when you’re over there? How does that work?
DJ: We do have relatives, but Italy is kind of far from Romania and Poland, so we usually fly out on Tuesday. We get to Italy Wednesday because of the time change, and then I ride from Thursday to Sunday. Then we fly back Monday morning. Because my parents work, I don’t have time to go to my relatives’. But one of these times, we’ll have to try it.
When you go over there, do both your mom and dad go with you?
DJ: Usually, only my dad goes with me because of work, but sometimes my mom also goes. So they trade off because of work.
You’re a seasoned veteran at such a young age. It’s been a couple of years that you’ve road raced. Prior to that, did you race any motocross? Do you still ride motocross or dirt track?
DJ: Yeah. I first started riding dirt bikes. I never raced motocross, but I started out on dirt bikes on motocross tracks. Now I do a lot of flat track, I do a lot of motocross, and some supermoto also. Flat track I probably do the most, and then motocross.
Now that you’ll be making your debut in MotoAmerica, in the Liqui Moly Junior Cup Championship, what are your plans short term, and even long term, with regard to MotoAmerica? Are you going to make the switch to MotoAmerica, or are you still going to try to do some things in Europe?
DJ: Right now, because it’s so late in the season and I just turned 14, I’m taking it one step at a time. I’m not so much worried about next year when it comes to racing in Italy or MotoAmerica and focusing on one, but more so, I’m really focused on this weekend for Utah, and I’m focused for the rest of the season. I don’t want to go in and just be a frontrunner. I want to go in and win. I want to be the top Yamaha. I want to be the top guy. I want to really prove my talent.
You’ll be at every one of the MotoAmerica rounds for the rest of the season?
DJ: Yes, I will be.
And, you’ll be racing a full season of Liqui Moly Junior Cup next year in MotoAmerica?
DJ: Yes, that’s the plan.
And, Supersport and Superbike? It’s down the road a little bit, but that’s the thought?
DJ: For next year, I’d like to also stay in Europe just to get that feel of racing in Europe, but I definitely plan on racing in MotoAmerica. I want to use both of them as a tool and, as I get older and as I develop more, depending on how fast I get or how much I improve, that’s when I’ll decide whether to go the MotoAmerica or the MotoGP route.
Do you have any brothers or sisters?
DJ: I have an older brother who’s 30 years old. He doesn’t race, but he likes to ride on the street.
That may explain why you sound like you’re 14 going on 24, because you have a much older brother. It sounds like you’re maturing pretty quickly. What’s the school situation for you? I assume you must be homeschooled?
DJ: Yeah. I do online school. I’ve been doing online school for two years now with a program called Keystone. It’s a really good program because when we were signing up and looking for online schools, this program is set for athletes and a lot of Olympic athletes also do this because, the way it works is, the assignments aren’t due at a certain time. It’s just you have one year until the next school year to finish. This way, you have a lot of leeway in-between so you can kind of do it whenever you need to.
Where are you at in terms of your grade level? Are you ahead of the game? Where are you at as far as a student?
DJ: Right now, I’m in eighth grade. I’ll be going into ninth grade.
That’s about right, isn’t it?
How about the fact that you come from a multi-language family? Can you speak Romanian or Polish?
DJ: I do speak Polish, ever since I was little because my grandparents from my mom’s side, they don’t speak English. I spent a lot of time at their house when I was little. So I’ve spoken Polish my whole life.
Has that helped you at all over in Europe? I know you’re racing in an Italian series, but do you ever speak Polish when you’re over there racing?
DJ: Not so much in the Italian Championship, but just in everyday life sometimes on the street I’ll see someone. Some people don’t speak very good English, but I’ll be able to speak Polish with them. That’s helped before.\
You’re so busy with everything that’s going on in racing, but, being that you’re from Chicago and Roger Hayden is such a huge Chicago Bears fan, do you follow any of the Chicago stick-and-ball sports?
DJ: I’m actually a big basketball fan, and I do follow the Bulls. I also do follow the Chicago Bears, but I am a big Bulls fan.
You clearly have a passion for this sport. It burns pretty deeply in you. Would you say that’s true?
DJ: Yes, for sure. Ever since I remember, motorcycles have always been a way of life for me. Every day, when I’d come home from school, I’d think about motorcycles right away. Even now, whenever I’m on the Internet, I’ll always be watching old MotoGP races and replay them over and over and just study and learn from them.
Who’s your favorite rider?
DJ: Valentino Rossi because he’s my boss for the team I ride for, but I really like Marc Marquez, too. Not so much for the controversial stuff in the paddock, but moreso just on track. I really love his passion and his talent. I just think he has incredible talent. I also like Moto3 riders like Jorge Martin who’s been dominant this year. In Moto2, I like Pecco Bagnaia. He also rides for Rossi’s team in Moto2.
Do you follow World Superbike much? Anybody in that series?
DJ: I do. I like Chaz Davies because my manager at Wasserman, Rhys Edwards, he also manages Chaz Davies. So I’ve gotten to meet Chaz a couple times.
How tall are you at this point?
DJ: I’m 5’5”.
Some of these riders who are your age, it’s amazing how tall some of them are. Are you going to be a tall rider?
DJ: I don’t think so. I think based on how I’ve been growing and the way my family is I’ll probably be max height maybe 5’10”. My dad is 5’8” and my mom is 5’4”. The doctor has said that, based on how I’ve been growing, I’ll probably get to maybe 5’10”. I’d be happy with that height because it’s not too tall, but it’s not too short, which means I could ride any bike, like a Superbike no problem.
Thanks for taking the time to talk, Damian. Are there any sponsors that you’d like to mention?
I’d like to thank Arch Motorcycles, Barton Construction, Biothermal, WERA, Dainese, and AGV.
You mentioned Arch. You’re a Keanu Reeves guy?
DJ: Yeah. Keanu Reeves and his company, Arch Motorcycles, they’ve been sponsoring me since last year.
Have you met Keanu?
DJ: I’ve met him a few times now. I’ve also ridden with him a couple times. He’s a really cool guy. You wouldn’t think he’s a movie star if you haven’t seen his movies.
He’s got a pretty serious passion for motorcycles too, huh?
DJ: Yeah, he definitely does.
Good luck in your MotoAmerica debut next weekend at Utah Motorsports Campus.
DJ: Thank you! I’m really looking forward to it.