Interview: Tinus Nel on working with Ben Townley & Tyla Rattray – Comments on Infront

During Nel’s time running the Vangani Motocross team he worked with a lot of talent. Two riders particularly would go on to have amazing careers. Nel was close with Ben Townley and Tyla Rattray, with both going on to win world titles we had to get his thoughts on what it was like working with them.

Both riders had similar careers as they both went on to America after winning world titles and would then later return to the MXGP paddock. Get Nel’s thoughts on the pair as well as his thoughts on Infront who run the MXGP World Championship.

Gatedrop: Ben Townley – a big big talent. What was he like to work with? Coming from New Zealand was it difficult for him to adapt to the World Championship and travelling all around the world?

Nel: Ben actually landed with up by default – that was one rider that I never actually approached to join the team. He came over from New Zealand and was with the PHASE Suzuki team from Germany. Halfway through the season Josh Coppins contacted me and asked me if the manager that he and Ben shared could contact me. Ben was unhappy with the team, but had already put down a few markers, and before they had spoken to me, KTM had already agreed to give some assistance if he could slot into a team.  SO we made a deal mid-season. I had to make a very awkward phone call then. I knew the team owner of the team Ben had been with, as we had actually worked together before and were friends. Ben’s first race for me would be at a DM event, so there was no way of avoiding the obvious, so I had to phone them and tell them that Ben would be riding in our colours at the race. But all worked out well.

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I think in a sense, it was fortunate for Ben to end up with us. It was quite a familial atmosphere, and Tyla was also far from home. Moreover, we are also from the Southern Hemisphere and have similar cultural backgrounds, with the rugby and cricket and driving on the left side of the road, and all that. Our team always had a really friendly atmosphere, and in earlier days, it was actually funny that some riders preferred to travel with us to the GP’s rather than with their own parents, going back to the European Championship days.

Ben had made his mark purely on his riding ability, and was, respectfully speaking, not in the best physical shape. He slotted in to our training program with Yves Demeulemeester in Belgium who also worked with Joel Smets, Josh Coppins, Tyla and others, and, like Aldon Baker had wrought with Carmichael, the change was just phenomenal. Ben was a chatterbox and a fun kind of guy, and the perfect foil to Tyla who is also a fun guy but a bit more reserved, and Tanel, who was completely in his shell back then. Ben was an immensely naturally talented rider, and sharp and inquisitive, so he kept everyone on their feet. Him and Tyla immediately got on like a house on fire.

Townley gets on the podium! Valkenswaard 2002.

Gatedrop: In the end injuries weren’t kind for his career. Do you think it was the right decision for him to go to America? There’s more chance of injury at SX than MX..

Nel: Again, with respect, Ben was somewhat prone to crashing, almost as if he got ahead of himself sometimes.  At the 2002 GP of Italy, he was so blindingly fast, but kept crashing, and I said to him at one stage that at the speed he was going at, one of these crashes might turn out to be a big one. The same at the Belgian GP at Genk, the one where Tyla got his first GP podium. Ben had a strange, front wheel down kind of way of jumping, which, for instance at Bellpuig, where you come down the hill and hit the tabletop, looked massively scary. He always had that under control, though.  I didn’t personally see any of his supercross races, so can’t really voice an opinion as to the contribution of that to the premature end of his career. Of course SX injuries must have played a role on that decision.

Gatedrop: Tyla Rattray, what was he like to work with? He seemed a real hard worker. Again, he went to America but perhaps had a much better Motocross style than Supercross?

Nel: The way the relationship with Tyla came about was special, really.  After Grant had moved on to Europe to do GP’s, I continued with my Honda team in South Africa. The team had grown in riders quite a bit, and before the start of the 1998 season, I got a very charming handwritten note from Tyla asking if he could be in my team. He was in the Yamaha team at the time, a good team, but I don’t think with much financial support for the riders. It broke my heart, but I wrote back that my team was already full and that I would keep him in mind for the next year.

I always had respect for the family’s efforts. Tracey was a single mom balancing work and family and keeping Tyla racing. It means no disrespect to them when I say that sometimes, a few days before a race, they did not know how they would get there, and Tyla almost had to perform well to get the funds to travel back home. And for this pluckiness I respect them a lot.  So, midway through the season, at Hammarsdale in their home province, I went up to Wayne, his mechanic (now his stepfather), and asked what the deal was they had with Yamaha. I could see the buzz in their group with the thought that something was now happening.

Nel with Rattray at a Dutch event.

Then at the final national of the year, I think, at Bloemfontein, I invited them to come to dinner with me after the race, where I was about to offer the deal. They accepted, but asked if we could make it early-ish and quick, because they had to travel back home, some 600 km. Remember that their group consisted of Tyla, his mom, Wayne and Kelly, Wayne’s brother, travelling in a Ford Bantam pick-up. Wayne and Kelly also raced. I said, no worries, I’d booked you into the hotel here, tonight we can discuss at leisure, and you can rest up.

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Tyla was a delight to work with. You never had to nag him to get something done. In fact, the first time I’d actually taken notice of him was when Gerald Langston told me that if he could combine a rider with Grant’s natural ability and fighting instinct and Tyla’s work ethic, he would have the ultimate unbeatable rider. Tyla would just ride the bike until the fuel ran out in practice, he’d do his runs and fitness, whatever he thought would get him to the top – he took the long view. I used to film all the races, and after a race, he’d always ask for the camera, look at his race critically, then fall asleep on the way home.

Although dead serious on race day, he also had a very playful sense of humour, and that helped a lot to pull through tough times. His toughness and never-give-up attitude helped a lot too. I particularly remember the Belgian GP at Neeroeteren in 2004. Tyla had dislocated his shoulder cycling earlier in the week. He was in such pain just putting on his riding shirt, but once the adrenaline kicked in, it was another story. I remember Jeff Dement was really on it, that weekend, but Tyla gritted it out, and won the GP. Come to think of it, you can add this one to my memorable races list as well.

Tyla did something for me once that had a great impact on my sanity and sense of direction. I was stuck in Belgium alone over the end of year period, looking after the bikes for the next season. It was pretty miserable, drizzly weather, cold, and I was actually re-evaluating the sanity of it all. Then I got an unexpected call from Tracey, his mom, to say how would I feel about coming back to South Africa for a week or two? I was waffling a bit, and she said, “No you don’t understand. You’re coming back to South Africa. Tyla is buying the tickets, just tell us when.” And that gesture did a lot to put a spring in my step again at the time.

Gatedrop: When you look at the sport these days, what’s your thoughts on the MXGP World Championship and the job Infront are doing?

Nel: Like many in the industry, I had reservations as to the direction that Youthstream (now Infront) was taking. My main reservations revolve around two issues – accessibility to the GP’s for riders, and rider remuneration.  I was (and  am) a big fan of the old system where riders could pitch up, try to qualify, and maybe ride themselves into prominence.  In these days of promotor-decreed starting lists, that opportunity has fallen away, although it has to be said that now that the European Championship races run in conjunction with GP’s a bit of those opportunities have been recovered. Riders can ride on the same tracks as the GP riders, compare lap times, be seen by team managers, etc. But still a bit of the magic is somewhat gone – the chance of discovering a rough diamond through a wildcard ride.

The second, and more serious issue for me is that of rider remuneration. When I got into the world championship scene, riders got a fixed amount for qualifying and points money. It was not huge, but for independent riders it sometimes meant the difference between getting to the next race or not. One sees all these shiny set-ups and well-turned out riders, and sometimes we don’t realise that many of them are sailing very close to the wind.  The series promotor charges huge fees for an organiser to host a GP, and i truly think some of those funds should be utilised to remunerate riders who, after all, are what it is all about.  This is one of the very few sporting codes, and an extremely dangerous one at that, where the participants at top level effectively have to pay to perform. MotoGP, for instance, has just announced financial support measures to tide independent teams over during the Covid 19 crisis.

With that all being said, I definitely have to say that Youthstream/Infront has brought a superb level of professionalism to the sport. The facilities, TV production, lap-timing, presentation, social media and all of that are all spot on, so in that sense they have definitely done a lot to elevate the sport. Attending a GP is an exciting event in your life, albeit perhaps a tad expensive. For a family man to take his household to a GP takes a bit of consideration and quite a lot of disbursement, but in the end I guess it is regarded as a form of entertainment and you’d fork out the same for concert tickets.  I just hope that people continue to support local racing, much like I always preach that people should support their local musicians. These are the salt of the earth participants.  I have always told my riders to never disrespect another rider, at whatever level. If it weren’t for those riders feeding the sport at their level, the top guys would not be enjoying the benefits that they are. I distinctly recall, for instance, Glenn Coldenhoff and his brother Kay coming to our truck asking for stickers, t-shirts or old goggles.  We always helped where we could, tried to create a friendly and accessible atmosphere, and now some of those who came autograph hunting are top riders themselves.

We have another article coming next week on Nel as he will focus on his favourite memories – you can find the previous stories with Nel below.

On a number of other riders Tinus has worked with
Nel reflects on his favourite races
On running the Vangani Motocross team

Interview: Andy McKinstry