Monday Conversation:  Kailub Russell

Monday Conversation: Kailub Russell

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FMF KTM’s Kailub Russell came out on top of the winner-take-all finale of the Amsoil Grand National Cross Country Series, topping his teammate Charlie Mullins to nail down his first XC1 pro title. It wasn’t without drama, as KR started his bike early on the dead-engine starting line, which resulted in a 15-second penalty. He clawed back through to get the lead and win. During his drive back to his North Carolina home today, we gave him a call.

Racer X: How crazy was this? Going down to the last round is nuts as it is, but the whole race was close, wasn’t it?
Kailub Russell:
Um, yeah the whole race was pretty close. The last couple of laps I opened up a little gap, but the whole first half it was me and him [Charlie Mullins] neck and neck, just like it has been all season. I knew it would be hectic, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to pull away without a mistake from him, and he wouldn’t be able to gap me, as well, because we’ve been so close on speed and fitness all year long. Neither one of us has a real edge, maybe just at certain tracks, but I knew coming into this one that it’s a track we both like. About halfway through he made a mistake and I got little gap, but I didn’t even know it. A quarter mile later I got into a lapper and had to take a new line, and that slowed me up. We had to ride up on this ridge and I could look over, and I saw he wasn’t right there. I knew I had better get going! I lowered my lap time on the next lap, and I knew as long as I kept my pace up, I’d be okay. On the last lap, I was able to bring it home and take the win. I was pretty pumped on that!

On that last lap, were you starting to think, “Don’t throw this away?”
I didn’t make any huge mistakes all day, just a few small ones, and that’s going to happen in an off-road race because of all the variables out there. Going into the last lap, I just wanted to keep my head down because I knew he’d still be charging. The last three miles were pretty open, so I backed it down a little bit. I knew he couldn’t make up 40 seconds on me there because it was an easy section. So I got to take it easy coming into the finish and kind of soaked it up—it was a big sigh of relief coming into the finish and not having to battle for it.

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Russell captured his first XC1 title over the weekend.
Ken Hill photo

That’s amazing how you guys do that. All week everyone is talking about how close it is, but you’ve got to treat it like it’s just any other race. Were you able to do that?
Everybody asks me, “Do you ever get nervous or anything?” And I tell them that I really don’t get nervous at all, it’s just a dirt bike race. The nerves weren’t there for me, I was really just anxious to get it going, and that showed on the start when I started my bike early. I usually count down to the start, and I got to one, and I had just a little too much pressure on the starter button and it hit before he waved the flag. My bike cranked up, and I immediately shut it off, and then everyone fired their bikes up. I fired mine up, and I looked to my left, and Barry, the course official was right there. I said a few choice words. I couldn’t believe I did that! I talked to him after the race, and he said he couldn’t believe it, either! So after the first lap, they pulled me in at the finish line there and held me as a penalty. I knew I had to get back going because Charlie is pretty good at sprinting on that second lap. I knew if I couldn’t catch back up to him there the race could be over. Luckily I was able to catch back up.

Last year you had a disaster in the first turn with a crash. Were you thinking, “Oh no not again?”
Yeah but last year the circumstances were different. I crashed in the first turn, but I got going and caught right up like I did this year. But during the off-season I went and had arm pump surgery, and that did wonders. It was a huge benefit—last year I got arm pump so bad. Everyone says arm pump is mental, but it’s not mental. Some people are blessed not to get it, but some of us, I guess you could say we’re terribly infected by it! The arm pump surgery went well for me, it brought a whole new level to my program. It’s sketchy to ride off-road with it, and sometimes I’d have it for an hour and a half. That’s half the race! I wouldn’t even want to practice during the week because I would just get arm pump. It got to the point where I was so frustrated and pissed off about it that I was honestly considering just quitting racing. If I wasn’t going to be able to ride to my potential, why do it?

I can’t say enough about having it done, and the guy who did it did a great job. I know a lot of people have done it and have said it doesn’t work, but I guess I had it done right. Now it’s almost nonexistent. There are certain occasions where I still get it a little bit, but it doesn’t affect my hands. I might ride a little tight, but before I had no control over the controls.

When you started this win streak mid-season, you said you did better when you stopped riding as much during the week. Are you still doing that?
Yeah before the race I was joking about it with my mechanic and my team manager. I know Charlie and I both have two practice bikes, and he swapped one out mid-season, and the one he has now probably has close to one hundred hours on it, or at least seventy hours on it. But I probably don’t have 70 hours on both of my bikes combined.

So you’re sticking with it?
Yeah, but I’d like to ride a little more than I do. In the off-season I always ride more. But I don’t live that close to Charlie and Josh [Strang] and the other guys that live here in North Carolina. And they’re not necessarily the guys I want to ride with during the week all the time, anyway. All my buddies I used to ride with, they have either gotten jobs or have gone to college. So I’m kind of by myself. My brother in law just bought my old 125 so I’ve been riding with him a little bit. He’s still young, and another good thing about riding with him, we have this trail out behind the house, and he’ll never let me by! I’ve got to work my way around him, which is good practice.

Okay so you don’t want to keep this program going forever, you’d like to ride more.
Yeah like I said, I always ride a lot more in the off-season, during the winter. It’s a different mindset; you’re not riding thinking about your next race. You’re still carefree, and it takes the job aspect away and brings you back to why you started doing this. But when it’s the week before the race, you’re always trying to do something, something to get faster, to make the bike better. Now I get to just go out and have fun.

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The easiest part of the day!
Ken Hill photo

Last year was so close and you didn’t get it. Did that add some fuel to the fire for this year?
It definitely did. I look at it like I’m two DNFs away from what should have been back-to-back championships. If I can put the results together like I have the last two years, though, there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to win more championships. I’ve been the most consistent rider over the last two years. When I was coming up through the series, I saw Juha Salminen and David Knight winning the championships, and those guys came over here with World Championships. I looked up to those guys, and it’s a huge honor to be up there with them.

Yes, you grew up in this series.
I did, and like I was saying yesterday during the live coverage we have on the internet [Racer TV], I learned from them. I’m not always the fastest guy but I think just being there and watching those guys, and coming up through the GNCC amateur program, I’ve tried to mold myself into a good racer. It’s not just about going fast, it’s about getting up front, laying out a plan and knowing how to make the race go your way. I feel like I have a mixture of styles after watching those guys growing up.

You’re still the young guy in this XC1 class. Usually you think of the young guy as the one who comes in with balls-to-the-walls speed but isn’t consistent.
Yeah, it’s not like I start the race saying “This is exactly what I’m going to do,” but I feel like once we’re out there, I know how to get to the front and try to control the race. The hardest thing to do in off-road is not to do something stupid, and let the race unfold in front of you. But you have to go fast, too, and it keeps getting faster. Next year, everyone will be back to square one.

And this is the first GNCC title for the KTM 350.
Yeah, might be the first title for it in the U.S., I’m not positive. It’s a great bike, but I might get a 450 in the off-season just to try something different. I love the bike, but I’ve been on it for three years now and maybe I’ll try something new just to keep it fresh. At least at KTM we have plenty of options. Maybe I’ll try a 500!

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Russell (center) and the rest of KTM celebrate their three titles clinched over the weekend.
Ken Hill photo

What was the ISDE like?
It was good—definitely an eye-opener for me. People ask me why I don’t do the National Enduros, and I tell them, “Because I’m a racer and I like to race.” I’m not that good just racing against a stopwatch. Enduros are just based on time, you’re racing other people but you never see them. It’s really tough for me to get going when I don’t have anyone out there. So ISDE was really an eye-opener for me, and I want to go back there and try to get better at it. I was pretty disappointed where I ended up this year, I was trying to compare myself to Charlie, but he had one bad day and still ended up top ten, and I wasn’t really that close to that.

Sounds like it’s similar to practicing—your best stuff only comes out when you’re racing bar to bar.
Yeah, I don’t know, I like the competition part of it. You’re racing people heads up; it’s a lot more fun for me, and more of a rush.

We all hear about the dudes that kill it during the week in practice, but struggled to bring that to the race days. You’re like the exact opposite.
Yeah for sure, I’ve always been like that.  I’m not real positive where it comes from, but like I said, I’m not always the fastest guy, but I know how to make it happen when we’re racing.

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