Interview: Christian Burnham discusses his GP career and a wonderful childhood

Christian Burnham was always on the move when he was a youngster, born in the UK but then moved to South Africa and Sweden. Being pretty good on a Motocross bike meant he could then race the World Motocross Championship to see even more of the world.

The Brit had a good GP career and was a solid rider posting some good results throughout his GP career, he’s also got a lot of memories to look back on. After his Motocross career, he sadly hit rock bottom and suffered from a drink addiction but he’s battled through that and is now happy with life in Belgium working as a Carpenter.

We caught up with Burnham to discuss his Motocross career and much more.

Gatedrop: So, you had quite a strange childhood, let’s say, born in the UK but then moved to South Africa and then Sweden. What were the reason’s for that and being so young, how did you find all that?

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Burnham: To me it doesn’t seem strange. I had a wonderful childhood and I just had really adventurous parents, I remember my mother working as a deep sea diver collecting samples from the sea bed for a lab in the ice cold Baltic sea. But I think they just loved travelling and living in different places. We often moved because of the work my father did (construction site manager) but also because they just loved exploring new places.

Being born in Eastbourne (UK) and growing up in South Africa and Sweden taught me a lot about the world already at a very young age. I’ve always felt like a global citizen and the man made concepts of borders and nationalities mean little to me, we are all one! Like with all schoolboy motocross families it is a lifestyle that brings families together. It is something quite unique, I think.

Gatedrop: Since retiring in 2005, what sort of things have you been up to away from the sport?

Burnham: Well, my retirement came very suddenly and unexpected and I was totally unprepared for it. I was planning on at least another 2 or 3 seasons at least. I felt I was on track with my preparation for the ’05 season but when the ‘Chambers team’ found themselves in difficulties and had to make the undoubtedly very hard decision to stop the team, I found myself without a ride with the start of the season just around the corner.

At the very last minute I set my own private team up but it was just to hard so I retired in June of that year. I started doing testing for Jan De Groots factory Kawasaki team and got to test some pretty trick stuff, like the horizontal shock running under the frame. I also partnered with the CEO of United Telecom at the time to set up a sports marketing company that would go on to promote the Belgian MX championship for a few years which was great fun. Today I work as a carpenter.

Pic: Nigel McKinstry

Gatedrop: At 17 years old you decided you wanted to race the 125 Grand Prix’s, how was it being young and trying to make a name for yourself in the Motocross world at that time?

Burnham: It just felt like the natural thing to be doing, I remember being 14 years old telling my teacher why I didn’t need to study as hard as she thought I should – I was going to race mx for a living. Things were really different though at that time compared with the MXGP today. We would go to the GP’s as a family in our Mercedes 613 wide body truck (my generation knows) try to qualify for the Sunday racing make some money and head off to the next GP and do it all over again. It was a great era and it is something I will always be thankful for having been a part of.

Gatedrop: After a couple of years you moved from the 125cc to the 500cc, what was the reason for that as the 250cc would have been the natural progression?

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Burnham: I was riding for the Belgian ‘Banden de Ring’ team in ’92, in what was my second season of 125 GP’s. At the end of that season the team decided to focus only on the 500cc GP’s for the ’93 season. So, I was left with the choice of moving straight up to the 500s or finding myself another ride. I loved the big bikes from day one so it was an easy decision to make. It was also a great team to be in as an upcoming rider. My team mates were guys like Darryl King, Pekka Vehkonen, Billy Liles and Kurt Ljunqvist, Jo Martens…some pretty big names there.

Gatedrop: In 1999, that was a pretty good year for you finishing 10th in the 500cc World Championship against some big names! Where you happy with that season or a bit frustrated because you wanted more?

Burnham: I did actually get that 10th place in the championship that year but yes I was a bit frustrated at not getting that single digit number on my bike. My goal that season was top 9 and going into the very last moto of the season at the Dutch GP in Lierop I was sidelined with an injury from the first moto. I thought my 9th place was safe but I hadn’t counted on Willy Van Wessel riding one of his best races of his career. Willy went on to win that final moto and grabbing that 9th spot off me.

But overall 1999 was an awesome season with a couple of GP podium finishes, German titles in 3 classes and 10th in the world. I would though make the biggest mistake in my career at the end of ’99 by leaving the Sarholz Honda team for the Factory VOR. In hindsight I should have stayed were I was. The bike and the whole team were perfectly set up for me and I was in the perfect position to continue building on my ’99 season and maybe breaking into the top 5 in the world championship in 2000.

Gatedrop: You only raced the British Championship in 2003 and 2004 as far as I’m aware. What was the reason you didn’t contest the series more and does part of you wish you did now you look back?

Burnham: Yes I only came back to do the British right at the end of my career and I really enjoyed those 2 seasons. I was looking to ride the British championships for many years and spoke with British teams at the end of nearly every season but for various reasons it didn’t happen until 2003 when I rode for Jim Redfords Y-bike team. Jim had me really well set up that year and it was great having Keith Thorpe as my mechanic that year. We were having a great season, running top 8 in the MXGP class and winning a couple of British championship moto’s. But that all came to a dramatic end when I broke my pelvis at the British championship round on the Isle of Wight.

Pic: Nigel McKinstry

Gatedrop: You decided to base yourself in Belgium and you now live there, why Belgium?

Burnham: Belgium was an awesome place to live in during the ’90s for a motocross rider. We had tracks everywhere and there were so many international riders basing themselves here at that time. It really was a fantastic time riding and training with guys like Albee, Mike Healy, the King brothers, James Marsh – the list goes on. Add this to the endless list of Belgian GP riders and we would have mini GP’s at the practice tracks during the week. So coming from Sweden it was just the obvious place to be based.

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Gatedrop: I believe after retiring from the sport you developed a drinking problem but showed how strong you are to come through it. How difficult was that time in your life and you must be thankful you had the strength to battle through it.

Burnham: I can’t begin to describe how hard that period in my life was, it’s really difficult to put into words but I’ll have a go. When you hit rock bottom like I did and when you are waking up at night with withdrawal symptoms so bad that the only thing you can do just to barely function is drink half a bottle of hard liquor, having sworn for the 1000th time the night before that you were done drinking and watching everything around you fall apart…well that is the closest to what we might call hell that I have ever been. But as you say I am extremely grateful that I came through on the other side and got a second chance at life. An addict is the last one to admit or acknowledge the seriousness of their problem and that’s what makes it so hard for an addict to brake the viscous circle they are stuck in. I was this person.

People close to me were begging me to seek professional help but it was not until I finally asked for help myself that I even had a chance at recovery. As an addict you must want to stop for yourself if you want a chance at a stable happy sober life. If you know that there is only around 5% of addicts that come out of rehab and go on to live a sober life, you will understand how important it is to do it for yourself. In 2014 I spent 8 months in rehab working hard every day to change the way I thought, lived and how I stood in life. Without a doubt the best decision I ever made. But it doesn’t stop there. When I left rehab I had to start dealing with all the shame and anxieties that I had from my past as an addict at the same time as I was rebuilding my life from scratch and most importantly staying sober. The anxiety would get so bad that I again sought professional help but soon found that medication was not a sustainable cure for my anxiety. Especially with the addictive nature in me. It is at that point I got introduced to meditation and the power of now.

I learned to live in the present moment and all my anxieties disappeared. That was also the beginning of my Buddhist studies. Buddhism would also teach me to stop identifying as Christian the MX rider but instead just as I. I have found inner peace. This might sound strange but part of me is grateful for having been through this. It has made me a better person. It has taught me how to enjoy life just as it is and shown me what’s really important in life.

Gatedrop: When you look back on your Motocross career, what races do you have good memories from and why?

Burnham: I’ve said this so many times but the Namur GP was always my favourite, a combination of track and atmosphere that was second to none just made it a great GP. I guess getting a podium (moto) finish at the ’99 Swedish GP also scores high. You know after having spent a lot of my childhood in Sweden it was great coming back and getting that podium finish. But most of all I remember all the fantastic people I met over the years around the world all with different cultures and beliefs but all with one passion, awesome!

Gatedrop: Are you still up with the sport and watch the GP’s? What’s your thoughts on MXGP at the moment?

Burnham: For sure, I never stopped following the racing…it’s in the blood. I’ve really enjoyed the intensity of the AMA supercross the last few years and having been to the Valkenswaard GP it looked like we were in for a good MXGP season. The MXGP field is stacked this year. Let’s hope we can all get back to racing soon.

You know, I was very outspoken when Youthstream/Infront Moto Racing came on the scene and they made some pretty big changes. It actually got me into trouble and I was called into the YS offices at the Belgian GP in 2005 and told by the FIM to keep my mouth shut if I wanted to continue riding GP’s. A lot of my thoughts about the MXGP series are still the same today as they were back in 2005, I just wonder who really benefits from the new professional looking paddock and pretty tracks? Is it the organizers, the riders? I don’t think so.

Interview: Andy McKinstry

Pics: Nigel McKinstry