Interview: Philip McCullough on Team Ireland’s chances at RedBud

Philip McCullough has been a busy man the past few months preparing everything for the Motocross Des Nations that will take place at RedBud next month. The Irish team manager also got the bad news last week that Stuart Edmonds picked up an injury and has been forced out of RedBud.

McCullough has drafted in a good replacement in the form of Richard Bird who will represent Ireland for the second time at the highly prestigious event.

On paper Graeme Irwin, Martin Barr and Richard Bird is a pretty strong team and with a lot of the smaller European countries not travelling, there’s no reason why Ireland can’t push for a top ten result.

We caught up with Philip McCullough to get his thoughts on the event.

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Gatedrop: Philip, we’ll just start with the recent news that Stuart Edmonds got injured again so your dream team won’t be heading to RedBud. You’ve decided to draft in Richard Bird, what’s your reasoning for that and did you consider putting Barr on a 450 and pick a younger rider like Jason Meara or Glenn Mccormick?

Philip McCullough: No, that was not an option. The team was selected back in May at the Motocross commission meeting. I proposed my three riders and who my two reserve riders were going to be. The commission agreed with me 100%, I got full backing that the three riders were Graeme Irwin MX1, Martin Barr MX2 and Stuart Edmonds in the open.  My two reserve riders specifically were Richard Bird for MX1 or open and Jason Meara for the MX2 class.

Gatedrop: Just on Meara and Mccormick, if one of the big three riders get injured I’d like to see them racing the event to gain experience for the future. How close would you say they are to being selected?

Philip McCullough: Glenn is now obviously too old for the U21 team but Jason can ride for the U21 team. Unfortunately, because the two dates clash Jason isn’t able to make it in the U21 team. It’s very unfortunate and there’s been a bit of controversy over it as well which is quite sad. I am surprised by a lot of the comments being made. Jason in my eyes is an excellent and would by my first MX2 rider for the event. You have him, Glenn Mccomick, Jake Sheridan and James Mackrel, that’s four riders off the top of my head who are up and coming.

They’ll be knocking on the door for the Motocross Des Nations team, there’s no doubt in the next few years. Jason doesn’t ride a 450 so Richard Bird was picked for the 450 class and it’s not the case for me to switch Martin Barr to the 450 class to accommodate Jason. If Martin Barr, does god forbid get hurt then Jason would be straight in. Likewise with Graeme and Stuart at the time, Richard was the MX1 reserve, that’s why I specifically named two reserves. one to ride a big bike and one to ride a wee bike.

Contrary to what people are saying Jason doesn’t ride a 450 and he’s never raced one so there would be no way he’d step in to ride a bigger bike. Until the time an MX2 rider is needed, Jason will be a reserve. Last night (Wednesday) in consultation with the Motocross commission I named Gary Gibson as my new MX1 reserve rider so if anything happens Graeme or Richard, I have another good replacement at my disposal.

Gatedrop: Just on the event this year, a lot of the smaller countries aren’t going. There’s Latvia, Lithuania and Denmark off the top of my head, they’ve all got at least one world class rider. That should surely help Team Ireland! What’s your expectations for Ireland?

Philip McCullough: There’s no Slovenia going either with Tim Gajser and he’s an ex world champion. Our three riders are riding as well as they did last year with Richard obviously new in as he steps in for Stuart. He’s the best replacement I can have available. Graeme and Martin are riding very well, if not as good then better than last year. It’s going to be tough and it’s going to be tough to get there never mind to race. When the guys are there hopefully everything falls into place.

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Last year I did say and I will repeat it again, I was slightly disappointed with our overall result after the performances we had on the Saturday during qualifying. Again, my expectations are quite high, I would like Ireland to finish in the top ten at RedBud. If I was to say I wouldn’t be disappointed finishing outside the top ten, I would be telling lies. I would like for all three riders to give their all, 100% effort and they don’t go there other than to ride for team Ireland. I’ve no doubt on their abilities and hopefully they can fulfil my expectations and hopefully get Ireland in the top ten this year.

Gatedrop: Just when will the guys be flying over to America? Ideally at least a week before would be good but I know that’s not possible with Graeme because he has Imola the weekend before. Will Richard and Martin fly any earlier or will they all fly out together after Imola?

Philip McCullough: Myself, Martin, Richard and respective team members including mechanics, will fly from Dublin on Wednesday the 3rd and we will arrive there on Wednesday afternoon. Graeme is flying back from Imola on the Monday, he’s then going to fly out from the UK on the Wednesday as well so we will all be arriving on the same day. We did talk about going earlier to ride the bikes out there. It’s quite difficult, I went out there with Wayne Garrett in 2007 at Budds Creek, we arrived on the Tuesday I think and did do one day riding but with the way things have changed now makes it hard.

The budget and the price to fly out and stay, it wouldn’t be possible financially. It’s a tight budget I’m working with, we are still trying to raise money to cover costs. I spoke with the riders, it was obviously Stuart at the time but we agreed to fly on Wednesday and there will be no riding out there. The bikes won’t be arriving until the Thursday or Friday so there will be no bike riding time. I don’t think it will affect us, I read this week that it’s been raining over there at RedBud. Yes, we are in America but I can’t see the temperatures and things affecting Graeme and Martin too much. They’ve had quite a lot of European races with quite high temperatures, I don’t see that being an issue.

Pic: Nigel McKinstry

Gatedrop: Just on a personal level, you mentioned you were in America for the Des Nations at Budd Creek, is that the only time you’ve been in the US before?

Philip McCullough: I’ve been to America a few times on holiday. I was at Budds Creek with Wayne Garett in 2007 as he was riding for me that year. He was picked to ride the 450 and I was on mechanic duties. It’s a great event and I am looking forward to it. To say I will enjoy it would be telling you a lie, I enjoy the build up to it. The build up and the getting everything ready but the controversy of it between the North and South over flags, over the colour of helmets. It’s quite ridiculous and sometimes quite embarrassing to read some of the comments, people from the South especially. That part of managing the team, I take it on the chin.

When I get to the race it’s probably the worst few days of my year. You don’t sleep, you don’t eat, you’re just running about making sure the three riders are okay, mechanics are okay and that team Ireland are presented in the best possible way for all the people travelling to see us and also for the sponsors involved. It’s probably the worst three days of my year when I get there. It’s more when you come back after, it’s a massive anti-climax because you’ve been running about the previous three months from morning to night with bits and pieces to do. This year is even worse because of the logistic situation trying to get bikes, trucks and things organised. It’s not just a case of putting it in a sprinter van and taking it with us. What we arrive with is what we’ve got to use, if I don’t pack something and arrive with it then we won’t have it. It’s quite a lot of pressure but I enjoy it and hopefully it’ll all pay off in the end.

Gatedrop: Just on Martin Barr and Graeme Irwin, they’ve been competing in the EMX250 and MXGP championships respectively. It’s not easy but what have you made of their performances?

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Philip McCullough: I see the guys every week usually. Martin Barr was down at my track today (Thursday) practising. People don’t realise the intensity and the level the European and MXGP Championships are at. People have been slating Graeme for his results but they’re from far disappointing when you see the calibre of riders he’s racing against. He’s had a few bits of bad luck, I think he’s waiting on a bus to arrive and once the first bus arrives then they will keep on coming. I have no doubt his results will come better. I feel his pain sometimes when I see his niggling injuries he’s had because he’s 100% committed. He’s working his ass off week in and week out. His speed even compared to last year is phenomenal. From lap times around my own circuit, I’d always keep an eye when he’s down testing. His lap times compared to last year and his riding style, personality as a rider and as a person, I see a massive chance in Graeme this year. The maturity he’s showing is unbelievable. No doubt another year or two-three years in MXGP, I think the best is yet to come for Graeme Irwin. I believe he’ll move his way up to the top ten and further with the right backing and right people behind him.

Martin also, he’s riding very well, he’s 31 one now and still massive talent and massive amount of experience. That will only benefit him, not only his own career but for us as well when we get to RedBud.

Gatedrop: Who do you seeing being favourites for the Des Nations as a Nation and individually?

Philip McCullough: I think the team that will finish in front of America will be the winners. I do see America winning it on home soil. I think Jeffrey Herlings will dominate MX1, that’s going to be the battle of all battles. They talked at the start of the year about the battle between Herlings and Cairoli, Jeffrey has stepped it up another level – there’s no one in the same class as him. Tomac is the only one who has the possibility of taking it to Herlings in RedBud. Ken Roczen isn’t going to be far away either.

It’s going to be a massive spectacle and going to be one of the biggest races I’ll ever be at, most people will be able to say the same. If France had have took Musquin along with Ferrandis and possibly Febvre, that would have been a team to knock on the door with America too. But I think America are the run away favourites. You’ll probably have France for second and the Dutch for third.

Gatedrop: Last question, the racing at home at the moment isn’t in a great way. The Ulster and Irish Championships aren’t being very well supported. What do you think needs to change to improve the racing here?

Philip McCullough: I don’t know. I know what you’re saying that it’s not well supported, I haven’t personally been to an adult race from Easter time just with work commitments and with my son’s racing. Possibly we have a shortage of good tracks. We have got good up and coming talent in the names like the Meara’s, Mccormick, Sheridan, Mackrel and even young Ben Kennedy. We don’t have many big bike riders, John Meara would probably be the only one coming through which is sad because Richard Bird is 31. If it wasn’t for John he’d have probably walked the season this year in both the Ulster and Irish.

Personally speaking, the sport is not in a great place when you see the line ups but it’s down to individuals. If guys don’t want to race motorbikes for whatever reason, we can’t make them. I’m the vice chairman of the MRA and it’s an issue that comes up quite regularly but how we solve the problem, I don’t know. We have got good riders and I’m not struggling to pick good riders to go to America and ride for their country. Maybe the line up’s aren’t good in the Ulster and Irish Championships but we still have a good quality of riders. The future isn’t bad for the ability of our riders but it’s looking bad for the racing because we don’t have good line up’s in our domestic championships.

Years ago when I raced Ulster Championships or an Irish, it held a bit more weight. At the moment I don’t think people value them. I can honestly say I’m proud that I won 15 Irish and Ulster Championships in my career, that’s something I can say very proudly. Today, I don’t think the Ulster Championship holds as much weight as it did and especially when you go to a potential sponsor. They’re wanting to know how you’re doing in England, Europe and want to know if you’re going to progress to world championship level. The sport is a business now for a lot of people, when you see the way MXGP is run, it’s all business orientated.  I’m afraid I can’t give you a straight answer on that, Andy. I still believe we have talented riders in the country and as long as that remains it will make my job easier.

Interview: Andy McKinstry

Pic: Nigel McKinstry