The numbers say that Kailub Russell, 27, is the most dominant rider in the history of Amsoil Grand National Cross Country racing. He’s the first to ever notch five-straight titles, and over the weekend he became the all-time GNCC bike overall wins leader with his triumph at Sunday’s Amsoil Ironman GNCC.
It wasn’t as easy as it looked. A mid-season run of bike problems, coinciding with Thad DuVall’s surge, left the title in the balance as the series’ took its annual summer break. Then Russell and DuVall had to team up together for Team USA at the International Six-Days Enduro, where DuVall broke his wrist, ending the GNCC title fight.
Although, for Russell, there’s always the added tension of coming from the family that runs the series—his father, Jeff, a former AMA National Enduro Champion, is the GNCC trail boss, and his step-mother, Carrie Coombs Russell, runs Racer Productions, which operates the GNCC series (and in full disclosure, Racer Productions is the sister company of Racer X). For Russell, this season was exceptionally trying from a mental standpoint, for a variety of reasons.
It helps that Russell now trains with Aldon Baker, and gets to ride motos with the likes of Marvin Musquin, Jason Anderson, and Zach Osborne. Riding and training in the Florida heat each summer is not easy, but for Kailub it actually helped him reset as the championship tension began to build.
We talked to the new all-time GNCC bike race wins leader last night.
Racer X: You won another title and that looks awesome on paper, but I’d venture to guess it wasn’t as easy as it looked. Thad DuVall was making a run at mid-season. These guys are coming after you!
Kailub Russell: Yeah, it was tough, but it’s always tough in its own way. When you look at the beginning of the season, Thad really wasn’t even in my mind at all in the championship picture. Then I had a couple of bad races and I was like “Damn.” He got the momentum rolling, then there was a whole bunch of drama here and there, and I was just trying to minimize the damage. It was to the point where I wasn’t on the attack. I felt like I was racing not to lose, and I was riding defensive. Look at [Eli] Tomac this year—that almost bit him in the outdoors.
Is that just because you had the big points lead or because of the way the races were going, and it kind of put you on the defense?
It’s not because I had the big points lead, it’s because I had a few bad races. We had a big mud race and we had some technical issues. Then the drama ensued after that. I had a bad race, just an off-day, the race after that, I just wasn’t myself. I wanted to maintain a pretty good championship lead, but then everything fell apart. It’s really weird. It’s honestly strange of my character, my racing personality, to let myself mentally succumb to that type of attitude on race day. I’ve done a really good job my whole career of not going to the races trying not to lose—I’ve always gone trying to win. I know it sounds like the same thing when you say it out loud, but mentally it’s quite a bit different.
Thad was in a big hole early because he had problems at round one. Then a bunch of close seconds to you. So he was charging and he was going for it.
Yeah and not to take any credit away from him, he’s really turned it around. He came full circle, from down in the dumps to back on top. Kudos to him. It was definitely a stressful year a little bit, but I don’t think it was any worse than 2012 or 2013 for myself. In 2012 I was basically tied for the championship going into the last race and I lost it. In 2013 I was basically tied for the championship again going into the last race and I was like “There’s no way in hell I’m going to lose it here again.” So those are the two most stressful years I’ve ever had.
Yeah I’d imagine nothing is harder than taking it down to the last round in a winner-take-all scenario. So after the John Penton GNCC, when your points lead was down to three, did you think that this was going to come down to the wire again? Did you think you could turn it around in the second half and pull back away?
I definitely felt I could get it rolling again after the break, I just needed some time to reset and regroup. A few days after the John Penton, which is a race I think I should have won, I was in the lead on the last lap until I had some more technical issues with the bike in the woods, I had gone into that race wanting to win again, but some bad luck got me again. Four straight races without a win, I hadn’t gone that long since my rookie season. When the last lap happened at that race, you almost start mentally thinking “Is this just not meant to be?” Everything that could have gone wrong was going wrong. Seemed like a year when you have things together, and then it’s almost like a flip of the switch and it starts going wrong. You start to question everything—the people around you, everything you’re doing. But in the end, it’s just racing. So a few days after that I packed up my stuff and headed to Aldon [Baker’s] and got to work down there for the summer.
So you go to Aldon’s. Some people think of that almost as torture, but that actually refreshed you?
Yeah I just needed somewhere to kind of get away. When you’re down there with those guys you’re secluded in a sense. It’s kind of a fresh start for me because it’s different than what I’m used to. It’s a huge honor for me to be able to ride with Marvin Musquin, Jason Anderson, and Zach Osborne. It’s like a dream come true, in a way, so it’s fun. It’s exhilarating in a sense.
How close have you become with those guys? When you’re watching Monster Cup and Marvin wins a million dollars, are you rooting for him like a friend when you’re watching?
[Laughs] For sure. During the race me and some friends at the house were having some fun, and I sent Marvin some Snapchats. Usually in Florida, Monday after the races we get together in the mornings and go to this little breakfast spots called Kiki’s. I told him he’s buying Kiki’s for me for the rest of my life.
It seems like from talking to Marvin and also his wife, you two have hit it off pretty well.
Yeah, Marvin is such an easy-going person, and same as his wife. I wouldn’t say we’re super-close friends, but we stay in touch and talk. He’s a great guy to hang out with. Same as Zach. I’ve known Zach for a long time.
I’m surprised they let you near Zach. They need to keep him away from the woods. Being around a GNCC guy, that’s like giving an addict too much temptation.
[Laughs] It’s funny, it really is like that! He’s so gung ho. He really wants to ride off-road so badly when he’s done with motocross. When we get rained out down at Aldon’s, they’ll make a little turn track to practice. But he always wants to go make a turn track in the woods. There’s like a five-acre patch of woods and he’s dying to make a turn track over there and ride it!
How much easier was it to adapt to Aldon’s program this year than last year?
It was definitely a big turnaround for me, a lot easier than when I started last year. It’s still hard work, and definitely the hardest thing is the riding part. Those guys push each other so hard. For me, even just trying to hang on for a few laps, I’m blowing my lungs out.
Yeah, but after the Florida GNCC you posted an Instragram showing your heart rate monitor. Didn’t you average like 180 beats per minute for three hours?
Florida this year 181 was my average.
Wouldn’t doctors say that you can’t even physically do that?
Yeah, I’m not a doctor, and someone out there will probably say you can’t do that. But it’s like anything—you put your mind to it and you can do whatever you want, pretty much.
Here’s the amazing thing about dirt bike racing that I always talk about: In any other endurance sport, running or cycling, the main focus is breathing and not getting tired. In dirt bike racing, you have to do that and also control the motorcycle—you have to ride and shift gears and pick lines. Are you able to focus on the riding part, or does it get to where you’re 100 percent focused on the physical fatigue and pain?
In Florida, Thad was right there and it came down to the last lap. When you’re that physically beat and your body is shutting down—and Charlie [Mullins] and I had a lot of those battles, too—I’ve been in that positon so many times. When your body is that tired, I feel like I can just ignore it and suffer through race situations. Now, when it comes to training that way during the week, I don’t want to do it! But in a race, I say it’s like you go into blackout mode. You’re just processing everything that’s coming at you. You have complete and total loss of what’s what, your eyes are just wide open and you’re going through the motions. In motocross and supercross, those guys are suffering, too, but it’s different. I found it’s harder for me to do 30-minute motos with Marvin and those guys in the heat than it is to do a three-hour GNCC at that 180 heart rate. It’s just what you’re used to—I grew up doing off-road, and I’m comfortable even at that level.
So then you and Thad go to ISDE together as teammates, but you’re also battling for a title back here. What was that like?
It was tough, but I’ve got some grudges with certain people, and Thad is not one of them. He’s never said anything bad about me. I’m sure we’ve got different views on some things, but I think we set our differences aside pretty well, and for the most part we’re friendly and got along well. We definitely thought we could win, but then he hurt himself on the first test of the week. Right there, I realized how quickly that could happen to me. It kind of ruined my whole week, right there.
I was wondering. A few years ago at the ISDE you were leading the overall and then you got hurt. This year, it seemed like every day I’m reading quotes from you and you never sounded very happy with your result. So you were thinking about the championship?
I wouldn’t say I was thinking about the championship, but seeing Thad get hurt like that, it definitely made it tough mentally. The first day was tough on me anyways. I put myself in a hole in the second test, made a miscalculation and threw away a lot of time. I was healthy, but I just know how fast that event can jump up and bite you. The tests are sketchy. You’re going all out, and you’re hitting stuff you haven’t ridden on before, and sometimes you can’t see. In motocross, you practice, you learn the track, you get comfortable. At this ISDE we did do some tests two times in one day, but by the second time, the track was so blown-out and dry slick, the race can just jump up and bite you at any time.
It’s a real skill for some of the riders to do that.
Those guys are really good at picking the track apart. In 2015, I was letting it hang out, I was confident and comfortable in that style, and I was up front. I haven’t gotten back to that level—maybe with age you start thinking about that stuff. I wasn’t thinking about it when I was riding, but I saw Thad get hurt, and that put a bad taste in my mouth straight away.
So Thad hurts his wrist. Yes, that hurts the ISDE team, but that’s going to have an impact on that GNCC championship battle. Did you guys talk at all?
Yeah we did. The first day we were on the same minute. A few guys went between us, so when I came in I saw he was hurt—I thought maybe he smashed his hand or something. I could tell he was hurting pretty good. I said “Look, if you think something is hurt, it’s not worth it. Don’t injury yourself any further.” I told him I was bummed for him and I knew he would come back stronger, but I told him it wasn’t worth doing more damage. In 2015, I hurt my knee on day two, and I told Antti [Kallonen, Team USA manager] there was something wrong with my knee. I woke up the next morning and my knee hurt badly. I couldn’t straighten it out. But I put on my gear and went and rode anyway, and wouldn’t you know I ended up blowing my knee out that day.
Did you know Thad’s condition before the next GNCC? I know he was trying to decide even right before the race.
Honestly after he left from Six-Days, I didn’t know what his status was. I didn’t pry, I’m not the type of person to wish bad luck on anyone. I know what impact wrists had on Charlie’s [Mullins] career, so I look at injuries a little differently these days. I didn’t know he was out until I was driving up to the race that weekend.
How did the next races go?
They were good. I won Unadilla. Then the next race was West Virginia, and Ryan [Sipes] out-rode me that day. Because Thad was out, I wasn’t thinking about the points the right way. I thought all I needed to do was beat Steward Baylor to wrap up the championship. So I was in second, Ryan was riding really well, and I put in a couple of charges, but I never went all-out, I kind of banked on him getting tired. He didn’t. We had different pit strategies and I ended up having to pit twice. I tried to go after him again, but I left a little on the table. I thought I had the title won, but I forgot about Thad’s scores, he was still close enough to be in it, mathematically, even though he wasn’t racing. So we had to wait until the next race. I was able to win the next two.
You took the all-time win record with your win at Ironman. Scott Summers, who held that record, showed up. Did you know he would be there?
I hadn’t seen Scott in a long time, and I had no idea. He came up to me basically as soon as I took my helmet off, and I kind of stared at him for a second. I was like “Is that really Scott?” He told me he didn’t want to tell me he was coming, didn’t want to weird me out or put any extra pressure on me just because he was there. He said if I didn’t get it done today, he was coming to the next one, and if I didn’t get it done there, he was coming to the one after that. I thanked him for coming out. Shows what a great champion he was, and still is.
What’s it like to get this record? I feel like it happened fast. Some of these dudes were winning races in their 40s!
Yeah, it’s obviously a great feeling, but it’s hard to let it sink in because I feel like I’m still a current racer. All I ever wanted to do was be a racer. I just wanted to do is be on a factory team and try to make a living at this, have it be my job. But then I got some wins, and like I’ve said, winning gets addicting, it’s almost like a drug. It’s a super cool feeling, but it’s hard to explain how I feel about it right now. It’s a great accomplishment, but one day, when my little boy is racing, I think the magnitude of what I’ve accomplished will really sink in.