Interview: Philip McCullough on Ireland’s Des Nations team!

With the Irish Des Nations team recently being announced and the event coming closer we decided to catch up with Ireland’s team manager, Philip McCullough.

McCullough, who himself is a multi-time Irish and Ulster Champion, has also represented Ireland himself at the Motocross Des Nations but last year he took on the role of Team Manager.

We recently caught up with McCullough to discuss the fast approaching Motocross Des Nations.

Gatedrop: Can you just confirm the classes the riders will be contesting at the Motocross Des Nations this year?

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Philip McCullough: MXGP, Stuart Edmonds. Martin Barr in MX2 and Graeme Irwin in the Open class.

Gatedrop: What’s the reason behind those decisions you made?

Philip McCullough: One of them is a personal reason for Graeme Irwin, I was speaking to him along with the other two and we were thinking that Stuart would get a break between races one and three. Obviously with Graeme’s and Martin’s fitness being that wee bit higher.

No disrespect to Stuart but Graeme is on his best at the moment and riding better than he ever has, he’s going to do races two and three. It’s not that Stuart would have suffered but I’d say Graeme would just have that wee bit more level of fitness and capable of going back to back in the races, the same as Martin. It will give Stuart a break between race one and three.

Gatedrop: There was a rumour that Stuart Edmonds would race in the MX2 class with a factory TM, is that something you looked into?

Philip McCullough: Yes, that was the case. We contacted TM and there was a possibility with Bernardini injured. TM were looking a lot of money for the factory bike, we wouldn’t have got it until a week in advance so Stuart would have had no testing on it. We were still thinking to go along with that even though he wouldn’t had much testing, he would have still been practicing on a 250 but the machine wasn’t going to be able to leave TM which meant the three riders wouldn’t be together in the awning. I think that last year we had a massive trust because we always had the three riders together. The comradery was very good between the riders, the team members and the mechanics. We didn’t want to lose that as myself and the three guys got on really well.

We’ve got quite a good relationship going and as I mentioned Stuart would have been working out of the other awning in the other side of the paddock. The money wouldn’t have been an issue, we could have got it covered, it would have been nice for Stuart to ride a factory bike and he’s done it before but we’d have zero time on it until practice on Saturday morning. I didn’t think it’d be fair, just with doing figures and time.

Gatedrop: Team Ireland have a habit of going to the B Final and winning it more often than not! But what’s your expectations for the team at this year’s event?

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Philip McCullough: Honestly, this is probably going to be the closest we get to a home Nations. The three riders like the track and they’re probably all on the best form they’ve been on ever. I had high hopes last year but they were obviously dashed when Graeme dislocated his shoulder in practice.

But with the three riders, I don’t want to put the cart before the horse but with the three riders and the calibre they’re riding at the minute, I would like to think Ireland are in for their best ever finish at the Motocross Des Nations. Hopefully if things go to plan and we have a bit of lady luck on our side I will be looking at doing better than we have ever done.

Gatedrop: Some of the smaller European countries have world class riders now. If you look at Denmark they have Olsen, Slovenia have Gajser and Puerto Rico have a strong team this year. Does that make it harder for Ireland?

Philip McCullough: I don’t think it makes it any harder. We have two world class riders in Martin and Graeme. Martin just hasn’t had the chance to get Grand Prix’s with his age and riding an MX2 machine. Graeme is the same but he has signed a deal next year for Grand Prix’s I believe. When our two riders do get the chance to do Grand Prix’s, they always excel and they’re in the points. I expect Graeme Irwin next year to set Grand Prix’s quite on fire to be honest, he’s really kick starting his career again. He had a few years in the wilderness until he signed with Dave Thorpe and he’s got him back to riding the best he’s ever rode. I believe we have a top ten World Championship rider in Graeme Irwin.

Obviously, Martin is that wee bit older can’t ride MX2 but these two guys probably are top 10, top 15 runners in the world if they got the chance. Stuart, he is no slouch, he can definitely ride a motorbike and obviously, his Grand Prix days are over but he’s knocking out top 5, top 6 in the British championship and you can’t turn your nose up at that. It’s a great achievement for him. We do need a bit of luck on our side, obviously last year with Portugal, Rui Goncalves who’s a GP rider and was a factory rider years ago. Then Martin and Stuart were able to run with Jacobi for Germany and stuff. They were battling bars with Grand Prix riders and no doubt I think it’ll be the same again this year.

Gatedrop: Have you concerns about the mesh start gate? Obviously none of the Irish riders have experienced that yet..

Philip McCullough: I’ve done my research on it and I’ve personally purchased one and we’ll have it at Magilligan at my own practice facility. I took the bull by the horns and ordered it direct from the people that supply them for MXGP.

The three guys are going to have the same mesh start mechanism to practice on. I just took it on myself as it’s going to come in handy for Graeme, Martin, Stuart and any other riders over the next few years as this is probably the procedure MXGP and MXDN will use so I purchased one and it’s on it’s way to me at the minute. I should have it at Magilligan this week and the three guys will then get the use out of it. It was something I thought about a few weeks ago and instead of trying to get a mock up of something similar I spoke to Wilvo Yamaha, the team Shaun Simpson rides for as they’re the company that make them for MXGP.

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Gatedrop: The team ran Fox gear last year, will it be the same for 2018?

Philip McCullough: Yeah, I done a deal with FOX about two months ago. I got the images through, the riders are happy and I’m happy. There’s a wee bit of design work with FOX, a guy Austin Hoover who’s in charge of Fox Europe now. I’ve been back in touch with him, the last image came through a couple of weeks ago, I got the go ahead so we’re good to go and the gear is being made now in the US and then will be sent over.

It looks smart, last year was nice but this year I would say it’s even nicer. We are more than happy Fox have come on board and we have had a great relationship with them so far, we hope for that to continue.

Gatedrop: Last year was your first year being team manager for Ireland. Reflecting on your first year is there anything you’re going to do different to prepare for this year’s event?

Philip McCullough: When I came back last year I sat down with a few of the Commission guys and they were very complimentary on how I conducted myself. I took the role on to do everything, it’s not that I didn’t trust anybody but I just didn’t want to turn to someone and ask them ‘did you do this? Or ‘have you this organised?’ and it not being covered. I took the role on to do everything – team clothing, riders clothing, the logistics, the flights, the hotels, the car hire, everything.

It’s quite a workload for me especially in the month of September, it’s going to be hectic but I’ve took that role on again so it means if something isn’t done or something is done wrong I can only blame myself. The comments and compliments I got from riders, staff, Dave Thorpe, mechanics, sponsors was very good. I just published today, we have all the same sponsors back on board plus a few more for 2017. I hope I done something right, I think I lifted the profile in Ireland again and helped with exposure in the paddock with how we presented ourselves. The riders did what they could on the track. We were just unfortunate with Graeme getting injured but I have big expectations for the team this year.

Gatedrop: I was speaking to Graeme Irwin at the Ottobiano GP when we were both over spectating. He was slightly worried that after Foxhill it’s over a month before the Nations and he had no races planned. Do you know if Graeme or the other two have planned races so they don’t lose race speed as they’re in the same situation?

Philip McCullough: Yes, that was a big surprise whenever the three of them told me, well Martin and Graeme, that there season is over before September started, that was news to me. There was a possibility of them doing something in Europe and they still have. I think all the other series are over so everyone is probably in the same boat.

It’s not worrying as no doubt Thorpey will have something lined up for them to get their bikes out and get the riders involved in racing.  A week or two break maybe, Graeme suffering with the flu and Martin with his injury, maybe a week or two off the bike and then put the hammer down for the Nations could be a good thing in hindsight. It usually worked for me and they will have a lot of bike time with practice and training. I would think if they want a race then they’ll find a race somewhere. I know that when the start gate comes to Magilligan they will spend quite a lot of time in their dialling in the starts.

Gatedrop: Just on the final AMA National round, did you watch it and what did you think of Jeffrey Herlings performance?

Philip McCullough: I saw the highlights of it. I’m not a massive Jeffrey Herlings fan but I was really pleased to see the performance and how he was able to show the Americans that the Europeans are no slouches. I don’t think anyone can say Tomac wasn’t riding at his best because any of those riders riding at that level don’t want to be beat.

I do think that the American team this year is very weak, probably one of the weaker American teams I can ever remember. They’ve still got three good calibre riders but I was pleasantly surprised seeing Herlings do what he did at the weekend. Even in the second moto to come back from the back and to come through and more or less dominate. The Europeans have stepped it up. Villopoto came here and didn’t succeed. I think gone are the days  the Americans standing out when they go to these events. The Europeans have raised the bar a wee bit – I’m looking forward to seeing where Ireland are at the Nations come a few weeks’ time!

Gatedrop: This year’s event is closer to home meaning there should be a lot more Irish fans there that usual. What’s your message for all the Irish fans making the trip over?

Philip McCullough: It doesn’t make it any easier for me because there’s a lot of friends going. I have a role and a job to do as team manager of the three riders. I’ve a job to do, yes we will still mix in with the public and all the Irish fans and it’s good to see them in their leprechaun shirts. I’m trying to get Irish team clothing published here soon to take orders because it’s hard to judge what I need to make for the amount of fans that are going to travel.

This year a lot of people contacted me about where the riders are staying and stuff, we try to keep that, not a secret but there’s a job to be done. After the event is over on Sunday night the riders will obviously be there to mix in amongst everyone but until then we have to keep focused on what we’re going to do and get the job done.

It’ll be great to see a lot of fans, I’ve told them to get their flags ready and I’d say it’s our best chance of a home nations. I’ve no doubt the fans will be great, they always are every year. Even talking to you now, I’ve goose bumps about seeing guys cheering and the air horns going when the three riders go past. One of my proudest achievements was standing and watching the three guys go past and being manager of them. It’s going to be even more so with it being at home with more people there and I just hope the riders will live up to my expectations and the public expectations in getting a good result for us.