In-depth interview: Roger Magee on Hitachi KTM fuelled by Milwaukee

It’s always nice seeing people from Northern Ireland in the MXGP paddock and Rogee Magee has plenty of experience running the Hitachi KTM fuelled by Milwaukee. Magee has been in the paddock for a number of years and knows about how it all works in the Motocross world.

We recently caught up with Magee to discuss his team and much much more.

GateDrop: Let’s start with last year, there was a lot of uncertainty in the world with COVID-19, you could say we were lucky to get any racing at all. Under the circumstances I feel like Infront did a really good job. What was your thoughts on the job they done with the triple headers and one day formats etc?

Magee: As I’ve said earlier this year in interviews, Infront did resurrect last season when we thought it wasn’t going to happen at all. The triple headers, once the riders got into the different way of preparing for three events in seven days, there was certainly a lot of good racing. There was also quite a variation in the results which goes to prove there’s a very high standard in the MX2 and MXGP World Championships. That came out in the racing during the year which was very good.

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GateDrop: Last year, Mewse started the season quite slowly and after missing so much racing in 2019, that was probably understandable but, in the end, he ended up 8th in the world, you must have been happy with that?

Magee: Certainly, on the comeback in Latvia it was not one of his best days shall we say! I think that was the wake-up call that we needed to do something to rectify the situation with all the team members and Stephen Sword who is now the team’s riding coach. We gradually saw the progress week on week to the extent in certain races he was only 4-5 seconds off the win even though he maybe only finished fourth – it showed the level of MX2. We can all take positives from it, we saw general improvement all year and the lay off at the early part of summer, it didn’t help any of the riders but now we know to participate something similar to that this year. He certainly has even more in the locker than what he showed in 2020.

GateDrop: Just on Mewse, he has bags of talent, everyone that works with him will tell you so but he still hasn’t got his first podium and he hasn’t brought what he can do at the practice track to the GP’s yet I would say. Do you think it’s a mentality thing and is it frustrating? At the same time, he still has so much potential.

Magee: That’s the one side we have been working on a bit but it’s like waiting on a bus, after waiting so long for the first one then the second one comes along and that’s what we are anticipating this year hopefully at the early part of the season. I know for a fact and we have proved at the practice track in recent weeks that he is the quickest MX2 rider out there based on what we’ve seen at Dunkirk in France over the past few weekends in very poor conditions.

We aren’t going to get ahead of ourselves, we know it’s going to be very tough as all the riders are very talented in the top 10 or 12 in MX2.   We know he has the potential, but I think we have the key now to open that lock that we’ve been trying to for the past couple of years. Hopefully, we can see his full potential this year.

Pic: Ray Archer

GateDrop: On Vaessen, obviously he had a big injury in Indonesia in 2019. I believe that injury was actually really bad and worse than maybe it was let on. He’s showed great mental strength just to come back from that injury!

Magee: Bas is a very determined rider, is very focused and is very well organised. The injury in Indonesia was potentially bad but after a short time when he got back to Europe, he got several different scans and tests he needed. He followed all the doctor’s directions and he’s made a full recovery now. I think it took a wee bit longer last year to get back into the groove and he had a couple of small minor injuries which didn’t help things. He had a trapped nerve in his back which was difficult to get rid off as well. Towards the end of the season, he showed the potential he has and as we saw at Valkenswaard last year as well, on his day he can be on the podium as well. It’s very exciting going into 2021 with that potential in MX2 alone, we look forward to the first GP when and wherever that may be.

GateDrop: He showed last year he has the speed, at Valkenswaard he was fantastic before a bike issue and then injuries didn’t help the rest of the year, but I imagine it’ll be important for him to have a good winter and head into 2021 fully fit and confident!

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Magee: Certainly, over the past few weekends he has showed that he is back on the pace whereas in previous years he was maybe in America for pre-season in less challenging conditions. That obviously wasn’t an option this year because of COVID-19. They’ve had to get used to the European type of weather in winter and at the end of January they will head to Redsands in Spain for more pre-season testing. Hopefully it’ll be better weather conditions and also WP will be there for suspension settings.

GateDrop: Just on the MX2 World Championship, I feel like it’s under-rated, everyone always talks about MXGP which is obviously incredible too but MX2 has a lot of talent as well!

Magee: I think the purist Motocross enthusiasts would always say the racing is much better in MX2 because you’ve got younger riders who maybe haven’t got the same experience as the guys in MXGP, but they do have that youthful exuberance. They certainly put it all on the line whereas MXGP maybe in previous years, but maybe not so much last year, it’s more measured racing and you don’t get that fight in amongst all of the top ten – although in 2020 we did see a change in that, there was a lot of good racing. With Herlings being out it didn’t help the overall mix but there was certainly a lot of surprises in the different races throughout the season.

GateDrop: The team obviously didn’t start 2020 with an MXGP rider but then Adam Sterry became available and you decided to sign him up, why did the team make this decision?

Magee: What we thought was that because of the slightly reduced calendar that if we had representation in both classes then it gives sponsors – many of which have been very loyal to us over the years such as Hitachi and Milwaukee –  additional coverage in MXGP. We really used it as a foundation six months to try and get Adam used to working with the team and get bedded in. We knew with some new sponsorship we had acquired through Asian Design and some other companies that he was going to be offered a full contract in 2021 to contest all the GP’s.

We also have Ethan Lane in EMX250, we felt that he is old enough and  big enough now to warrant a 250cc instead of spending another year on the 125cc which I think will be a much better career path . He will start to gain good experience in the EMX250 class and if the opportunity came around and he was progressing towards the end of the season, we will look at some wildcard rides in MX2 when it doesn’t clash with EMX250.

Pic: Ray Archer

GateDrop: Stephen Sword joined the team last year as a rider coach/trainer. What’s it been like having him involved? He seems to have had a positive effect on Mewse.

Magee: Going back twelve years or so ago, Stephen came to the team back in 2009 when we were with KTM and he took another British Championship for us. Sword and Jake Nicholls competed in MX2 a couple of years for us at that time. I’ve known Swordy for quite a while but whenever he came to the team then you could see the professionalism that he had acquired over the years. You didn’t need to tell him to make sure he turned up, to wear the right clothing, it was all done. You just had to tell him to be there at a certain time and you knew for sure that he was going to be there.

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He’s brought that professional side to the team riders. They’re learning week on week from him how to conduct themselves that bit better, how to prepare much more comprehensively and the training schedule he’s giving them are being adhered to and everything is working well at the moment.

GateDrop: Bryan Connolly worked as Graeme Irwin’s mechanic in 2018 but he obviously impressed you as his role change and he become team manager last year. What did you see in him to give him this promotion in the team?

Magee: I’ve known BC for a while but certainly more so when he specifically came to work for us in 2018 as Irwin’s mechanic. Just the way things progressed, it became natural progression for him. We felt he had the enthusiasm and the will to win as our riders have, never mind being a mechanic that he was then. He’ll give 110% in everything that he does, and it’s been a learning curve for BC over the past couple of years as his role has changed somewhat.

He’s not as much hands-on bike wise although at the end of the day he has the final say in a lot of the things we do that way. There’s more admin stuff for him to do with the sport now a days with logistics for making sure parts are there on time when they need to be, liaising with other sponsors and suppliers to make sure we have all the material that we need at the start of the season and to continue effectively for the rest of the year.

With the lockdown for a few months last year, that caused a few problems with suppliers as they had stopped production which meant material because quite scarce. I think all teams are suffering with that at the moment while everyone is trying to catch up. BC has really done a remarkable job and we are all learning at this job week in and week out, but he’s on a fast-learning curve for the past eighteen months or so!!

GateDrop: I’m not sure exactly how many years you’ve been running the GP team and when it started – maybe you can tell me more about that, but it’s been a long time. You must clearly love being involved, where does the motivation come from to continue running a team?

Magee: The first year we ran was in 2005, we got very limited support from Honda and that improved in 2006 when Gordon Crockard came on-board. Okay, Gordy was probably at the twilight of his career then but the standout performance that year was the fourth place in Sweden. He was passing Coppins along with other podium regulars and showing the old Gordy to us, but it was a very memorable year.

The support increased the following year through Kawasaki but once we got on the KTM in 2008, that was sort of the key to the lock for rapid progress. We have continued to do that year on year and we try and do it better every year. It’s taken a period of time because of the investment required, but I can probably say now that we are on par with the factory team setups. The presentation is so important now in modern sport and not just in Motocross. Once you have the right image, or the right “look” if you like, the additional sponsors then tend to come on-board.

The COVID-19 situation has caused some of that to stall now so it will be interesting to see how sponsorship will evolve over the next 1-2 years, certainly in the short term and in the long term, who knows.

GateDrop: So that’s sixteen years you’ve been in the GP paddock, during that time in terms of owning a team, have things changed that much?

Magee: It’s changed a lot in relation to the overall costs and the costs can vary from year to year. For example, in 2020 we didn’t have so many expenses with no fly away GP’s, but that was then overtaken by the amount we had to pay out for the COVID-19 testing. Before you went to a GP and during a week of the three GP’s, the costs were quite significant for each team to get all the staff and riders with clear COVID-19 tests.

Certainly with the venues, as long as we have a mix of old-school and more modern facilities, I would be happy enough. There are some tracks that we should not be going back too perhaps and there are some others that if it were feasible, it would be nice to bring those back into the calendar to mix it up a bit instead of the same venues we’ve been going to for the past fifteen years.

GateDrop: Obviously having a Northern Ireland based team in the paddock is great to see! But how many more years do you realistically see yourself being involved with the team?

Magee: (laughs) that’s a good question, Andy. We’ve won 12 British Championships, we’ve won several MXGP’s, we’ve had a number of podiums in MX2 and MXGP. The one thing that we haven’t done is win an MX2 GP overall so that would be target number one for this year which will hopefully happen sooner rather than later.

With Bas and Conrad, we do feel we have a genuine chance of the 2021 MX2 World Championship title, that said it’s never going to be easy against the factory teams. We are still a smaller satellite team  but we have got the personnel and the riders now to carry it out now. What we need is that little bit of luck that any sportsperson needs. Once we have that, who knows what can happen. If you don’t dream big you will never achieve your goals, so we have to be right up there and say we are ready for this in 2021. That’s what drives myself, the sponsors, the mechanics and the riders to give their best so we will try to be on top of the pile at the end of the season.

Pic: Nigel McKinstry

GateDrop: Just looking ahead to 2021, on a domestic level I imagine both British titles in MX1 and MX2. In MX2 you’ve two good chances with Conrad and Bas and in MX1 with Adam…

Magee: That is obviously the goal. We did it back in 2012 with Kevin Strijbos and Elliot Banks-Browne – I think we were the first team to ever do that and no other Team has managed it since. We want to do it again but there are a lot of good teams in the paddock, but we think we have the ingredients to do the double. Again, you need the luck and like a lot of other sports Motocross can give you a lot of elation and a lot of highs, but it can also give you some lows. Hopefully, we can reduce those to the minimum, if any, this year.

GateDrop: What’s your thoughts on the MXGP calendar for the 2021 season? I was surprised to see as many fly away races considering the circumstances at the moment. What would you like to change if anything?

Magee: I know that Infront are in a certain situation where they have to announce a calendar for the FIM, but as we all know with the way circumstances have gone since it was released that it’s looking less and less viable. It’s unlikely some of those GP’s will be held on the dates they’re scheduled to be on. As Mr Luongo said in his interview a few weeks back, if he has to wait a month or two then they will do that. With the travel situation at the moment nobody knows at this point in time. Our riders are preparing for when it’s meant to start, but my own personal assessment is that we’ll probably not start before May in Europe at the earliest but who knows.

GateDrop: There’s been a lot of talk about rider salaries since Gautier Paulin’s recent retirement from the sport. I feel like the top riders make more money then ever but perhaps it’s tricky for the riders on private teams. What’s your thoughts on the situation?

Magee: Certainly, the riders deserve a realistic salary, but some of the people that were making the criticism whenever they’ve left the sport, it’s a little bit condescending because some of those riders allegedly made seven figured sums from some of their contracts and in all honesty they didn’t deliver the Championships that they were being paid to win. If you look back in hindsight, they weren’t worth those sorts of salaries in my opinion.

I know you can’t compare to professional footballers whose salaries are really scandalous compared to the ordinary person, but at least Motocross guys are putting their life on the line every time they go out unlike someone kicking a ball of air around a football field.

That said, my view is that the top riders should get a realistic salary but perhaps the way forward should be on more of a bonus structure. This would mean whatever they achieve, they then get paid accordingly – so the harder they’d work and achieve, the better they’d get paid. Certainty I would not begrudge one rider money and if that’s the market value for them, then so be it.

As we can see with a certain F1 driver at the moment, he’s maybe trying to price himself out of the market and that could happen MXGP and MX2 in the future, albeit at a different level.

GateDrop: Overall I think Infront do a good job but with anything there’s always improvements that could be made. Do you think they could do anything to help – perhaps prize money or lower the entry fees?

Magee: I don’t think prize money alone is just the answer, although it would be beneficial to some of the riders and if you take it in the overall context unless it’s significant prize money, it wouldn’t make an awful lot of difference. I do think that things such as the annual entry fee perhaps could be looked at. At the end of the day if the riders are part of the circus, they shouldn’t have to pay to get into the circus. If Infront could come up with an additional sponsorship that would allow those riders, or perhaps non factory team riders at least to not have to pay that 10K euros each. In  our own Team situation, we pay it on behalf of the riders deal but then we still have to find that from our budget and it would certainly help the smaller satellite teams to exist. Certainly, some teams have been going by the way-side this year, but there have been some new teams come in as well to replace them – but who knows what will happen by the end of 2021? The economic situation of the World has changed significantly over the past 12 months.

Interview: Andy McKinstry

Pics: Ray Archer/Andy McKinstry