Eight years after becoming a professional, Graeme Irwin is now a British motocross champion! The charismatic Carrickfergus talent always had the speed and won British championship races as a teenager, but several injuries and inconsistency meant Graeme never quite got the title he so badly wanted until now.
Riding with maturity, a smooth style plus his famous raw speed, Graeme powered his Buildbase Honda to a dominant season to clinch his first ever British title with his fourth double victory in a row!
Graeme is also the first Northern Irish rider to win a British title since Gordon Crockard back in 2003 and it meant he has been getting mainstream media coverage on the BBC back home, demonstrating just how big of a deal his achievement really is.
We caught up with Graeme, still on cloud nine, to talk about his achievement and the long road to success he has travelled to finally fulfil a life-long goal.
How does it feel to be British champion?
It still feels so surreal. The road to this has been long, it has a been a lot of hard work, it’s crazy. When you do look back at it, my days at the start from McCullough right through, it’s been a long road.
How realistic did this seem when you where a child?
Well as a kid I just wanted to be a professional motocross rider. Obviously if someone asks, you say, ‘ I want to win the world championship.’ But as time went on, the training, what we have been training for is to win a British championship, that has been the goal for many years. We have always came up a little bit short. I had really good speed, I would win races but just not consistent.
Last year with the team was really good, we won the two national championships in England but we didn’t win the big one. We knew we had a lot of work to do to do that. Staying with the team I knew this year was good but the only problem I injured my shoulder at the Nations and had to get surgery.
It was a long, long winter because I didn’t start riding to the start of February and even then is was a couple of days and it would be sore and I was just trying to build my shoulder up with the riding strength. The first race came and I wasn’t ready for it and I had a rough start.
Once I hit Lyng, I should have really won that first race, me and Jake were miles ahead of everyone else we had a good battle. The second race we had a really good battle between me, Krestinov and Jake, right to the flag. I wasn’t feeling 100% but it was starting to come round.
Canada Heights was a bit rough, I had some bad luck with the race being red flagged, I crashed trying to pass for the lead and then the race was red flagged the next lap. In the second one we had a small, small problem with the bike, the throttle cable. But from then that was the kick up the ass and I started to put the pieces of the puzzle together and I have won eighth British championship races in a row.
Your riding style has changed a lot, you are very smooth and carrying so much momentum and flow around the corner and less on the throttle, was that a conscious decision to change your style or just the evolution as you got older?
Yeah, you have to learn to go fast, know where you are slow and where you can improve. It’s not that I think I come in any slower, I think I am just putting the pieces of the puzzle together. When I ride my best I am really smooth but also really fast. That’s something that has taken me a lot time – I was the complete opposite in the past! I would be fast in, busting the berm in the middle and clutching it like hell on the way out! But it wasn’t working. I think the big thing too was I had the tools to do the job, I spent a lot of time in Belgium and it’s been a hard year.
We only have eight rounds of the British championship and six rounds of the MX Nationals, and after the cancellation that is now five rounds. It’s hard to stay fresh and prepare for every single race when you have a couple of weeks in between, a race then another break. it’s hard to keep yourself sharp, so I stayed in Belgium to ride with as many GP guys as possible to keep me going.
Just on the day itself, when you were racing how much of your mind was on the championship and how much were you able to keep it on you lines and lap times?
It was strange because I had a 52 point lead and I guess now I can say the truth of how I was feeling. Looking back now, yeah I really wanted to win on Sunday because it’s another four weeks to the final round of the championship and anything can happen.
In qualifying the track was a bit soft after the rain and it could catch you out a bit. I was second then went pole and I was thinking this is perfect but then I dropped to fourth and I just settled with it, I thought it was enough and I could holeshot from there. In my mind, Krestinov qualified second, and he was the main guy I needed to beat. So I didn’t know whether to try and beat Krestinov or try and win the race.
The holeshot the first race but Brad nipped up the inside of me in the second turn, I thought. ‘no way, I don’t want a repeat of Blaxhall where we banged bars the whole way.’ So I put the hammer down and passed him in the next corner and then I just rode my own race and found my rhythm and I could control the race.
After that moto I heard Krestinov only got seventh so then I was wondering where I needed to finish race two to win the championship and the team said tenth. Then the nerves started to hit, because it was looking really possible, I didn’t know how to look at it, go win the race or just do enough for the championship. I was told some wise words during the season, ‘focus on the feeling of winning.’ It was something so simple but if you focus on winning that’s your goal, if you focus on a podium then a podium is your goal. For me that really works, so I focussed on winning it.
I holeshot but had Nathan Watson behind me, but I had a two or three second lead, I didn’t know whether to let him by and focus on the championship or go for the win. It only last two or three corners because I thought, ‘he’s an enduro rider, I can’t let an enduro rider beat me!’ I put my head down and focussed on my laps and opened up an 11 second lead and actually rode really nice.
Probably the last three laps I started to ease off and it started to hit me, ‘I’m going to be British champion, I’m going to be British champion!’ Before the last lap I saw my mechanic didn’t have the pit board out so I knew he was running somewhere to probably celebrate. On the last lap I just wanted the bike to get me home, listening to the bike, it sounded sweet, no dramas, no dramas! Then when I crossed the line to see my family, brother, best mates, guys from home had the Northern Irish flags there – it really was amazing. But even when I crossed the line it still felt unreal. It was amazing, a moment that I will never forget.
Just on your family, it is been a pretty big year for you all, Andrew going well in the British supersport, Glenn winning at the NW200 and you trumped them all by wining the British motocross title!
That’s it I had to step it up! Glenn won the NW so I had to step up my game, he won one race and a BSB race so I think the British championship carries a bit more! I get the title of fastest Irwin again! (laughs).
How competitive was it growing up, you all raced motocross at one stage and are all so competitive?
It was unreal, but even now it’s just as bad! It is the most competitive -I think we are the most competitive family ever, it’s crazy! But I think it’s good, it’s healthy. We all want each other to win but we just don’t want the other person to beat us. I was over the moon with Glenn and his results and the same with Andrew, he should have won a race but had that issue with a yellow flag, and he has a bright future. Glenn has amazing talent and he has been a bit unlucky with his injury because I’m sure he would have been in the BSB showdown at the end of the year.
In Northern Ireland, like England the road racing/short circuit scene gets a lot more coverage but you were at BBC NI today, was it nice to get that coverage for yourself and the sport?
Yeah it was, I have a lot of time for Stephen Watson, he is the kind of guy we need on our side to help push the event. But we need to get the results for them to put it on. It was the second time I was on this year, I was on before Desertmartin and again today when I won the title, it would be nice if we can give them something to put on a keep pushing the sport. It is a sport we all love.
To me it is the best sport in the world. It’s a father son thing too, you have that bond with your dad, he teaches you how to ride the bike, you go racing, you get some results and you get better and better. It’s also probably one of the most adrenalin packed sports you will ever do or see. You are on your own, jumping the bike, you are pushing, you are racing, you have adrenalin pumping through your body, you are competing against others, you have rivalries, it’s all healthy and an amazing sport.
Your dad was obviously a top road racer in his day, when you were schoolboy racing was he hard on you or was he laid-back and let you do your own thing?
No he was never hard on us, I would love to say something to wind him up but he was never hard on us! The only thing he would have ask, but we never had a problem, we never argued, he never shouted or anything. The only thing he said he would always supported as long as we gave 100%. We loved it, my parents probably wondered why they got us into it at times, they were spending all their money to get us to British youth races or even just Irish and Ulster championships. There was a season there was four of us riding motocross! That’s four motorbikes, two cans of fuel, tyres, it was crazy. I appreciate it so much what my dad and mum have done.
As we talk about it now I get a bit emotional about it because my mum and dad did sacrifice so much to get us here. I don’t think people understand what they have done, my mum didn’t have carpet in the kitchen floor, she wanted something but sacrificed it to put it towards the bikes. I’m just ever so grateful because I wouldn’t be in this position without them.
Do you know what you are doing next year?
Nothing is confirmed but I’m hoping to ride the British championship and MXGP. But for now I just want to have a really good Motocross of Nations at the end of this year!
I saw Stephen Sword congratulated you along with Gordon Crockard, is it nice to get that support from some of the historic champions of the sport?
It’s really nice. The story with Stephen ( a former teammate) , when I first moved to England, I was driving about in the my van and had nowhere to stay or anything. Stephen rang me got me organised with somewhere to stay and let me ride and train with him, he basically took me under his wing and I appreciate that so much because I learnt so much from him.