FMF KTM’s Kailub Russell has announced 2020 will be his final season competing for Grand National Cross Country Championships, and so far his quest for an eighth-straight crown looks perfect, with three wins in three rounds. Sunday’s victory wasn’t easy, though, as Steward Baylor found his groove on his new FactoryONE Sherco and appeared to have the win in hand—until he went wide in a corner on the motocross track within sight of the finish. Russell sailed past him to steal the lead with four turns to go.
We talked to him last night after his victory.
Racer X: I was at the finish line and I didn’t expect to see you winning, and you came across and you seemed super pumped. What’s it like to win in literally the final minute of a race? Is that exceptionally good?
Kailub Russell: Well, the race wasn’t exceptionally good [for me], but to pull it off and get the end result which you’re working for is always cool. For a GNCC, that’s like the last-turn pass on a supercross race. We had four turns left, but literally our last two turns you cannot pass. There’s no passing there. It was cool. I had two turns left to do it, and he left the door open. If he wouldn’t have left the door open there, he was going to get an orange front fender into his leg in the next one! I didn’t work that hard to get second. I was going to try to make it happen, I thought I was going to run out of time or not be able to get close enough to make anything happen.
So you were not settling? You were trying to figure out a way to dig it out right to the end?
Yeah, I crashed. I stopped and got goggles on the last lap. I had a tip-over. I ran him back down, then I crashed again with four miles to go. I thought that was all she wrote when I crashed the second time. It took me a few extra seconds to kind of get going the way I crashed. It was just a day full of mistakes for me. It was just kind of an uncharacteristic day. Literally I rode like it would have been a bad day. To end up winning it, that was good.
It happened to be an on day for Stew. Was that making it double difficult?
Yeah, all those guys. I didn’t get a great start. Usually I dice my way through everybody pretty quick and at least get up there and lead or in second and be comfortable, because I don’t really like riding around in fifth or fourth. I couldn’t make any passes. There’s tons of lines at that place, but they’re all just winding up to be equal or I’d lose time trying to make something happen. So it was really strange. Like I said, I was hounding Stew for three or four laps and trying to pass him. I got around him a couple times only because he gassed [pit stop]. Then I would just turn it right back over. I would hit a tree and fall down or do something silly. Got stuck three times today. So it was a tough race. The track was tough. It was tough to read and find the lines. When you tried something else, most of the time it didn’t work out.
I actually saw one part where he got stuck and then you had to wait. Then you tried to go and then you end up getting stuck worse than him.
Yeah. He had momentum so when he got stuck… I didn’t see that coming, but I was on him on that section. I was going to make the pass, and that’s what happens when you’re a little too close in a gnarly section like that in off-road. You’re more susceptible to burying it behind somebody. He went through and he got momentum so he got his front wheel over it. I had to stop behind him and I had no momentum, and I just buried the whole thing. But luckily a couple guys helped me out. Randy Meyers actually threw his bike on the ground and came over and pulled me out of the hole, so I was pretty thankful for that.
Was that someone in the race, or was it a course guy?
It was a dude in the race.
He was just getting lapped at the right time?
Yeah. Perfect timing!
I heard what you said on the podium in Florida. They asked the inevitable perfect season question. You had an honest answer which was, “Well, my goal is to win every race I’m in.” So you’re not calling 13 and 0, but you want to win every race, right?
Yeah, that’s the goal. I don’t show up on a weekend like, “A second or a third will be okay. I’ll get a second this weekend. I’ll be happy with that.” I go to the races win. I’m not thinking it’s [perfect season] going to happen, but maybe it could. I don’t know. Time will tell. I’m not expecting it to happen, but I show up at the race each and every weekend to try and win. So I gave him the only answer I knew how to. I go to each race, try to win the race and let the cards fall where they fall. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. Like today, it almost didn’t work out. It’s racing. There’s too many variables to say… I’m not that naive that I’m going to say I’m going to smoke all these guys every race this year. I know there’s going to be races where it’s going to be tough, like today, and even on down the road. But my answer is still every weekend I show up and that’s why KTM still pays me to race, to try to win.
Were you in shock when Stew went wide in that corner? Could you believe what you were seeing?
I couldn’t. I almost missed the rut myself because I didn’t understand what he was doing. I was confused. I was like, well, thank you. I was charging, like tunnel vision at that moment because I was trying to get to the inside of him in the turn before, but I couldn't. It was really slick and off-camber coming into it. It was just an awkward turn. I knew that next left up the hill, and then the next right, were my only two passing spots left. I checked up. It’s weird because those ruts that he missed, from the overhead angle of the shot that they showed, it looks like it’s flat. You can see them, but it’s actually a little uphill rise and you can’t see those inside ruts. So I think he was just going a little fast and he was just far enough to the right where he missed the middle rut. They were definitely tricky. I didn’t hit them the first two laps because I didn’t see them either. Maybe he tried a little too hard right there and kind of missed the entrance to that and he had to go to the outside.
I don’t even understand the deal with you and Stew. I can’t tell what’s joking or what’s serious or what. So even after a race like this, what is it like? I see trash talk on Instagram, but if it’s real or if it’s joking or what. Do you know?
Some of it’s real, some of it’s not. I’m a little bit older than Stew, but we’ve been around each other since we were a super young age. We fight like brothers sometimes. It’s more friendly, shit-talking banter, just breaking each other’s balls whenever we get a chance to. I know how to take Stew. There’s a lot of guys that disagree with him or whatever or talk bad about him because of the stuff he says, but I’m just like, that’s Stew. They’ve got to know what to expect. It’s pretty friendly, for the most part. I like Stew. I know how he’s going to be. I can give it back to him.
Usually you’re battling Thad [Duvall]. We knew Ben Kelley was going to be good this year as a rookie. They get hurt, then Trevor Bollinger, usually a podium guy, gets hurt. Is that going to change anything for you? Several big hitters you were expected to battle went out almost immediately. Did that change anything for you?
No. I worked really hard this off-season to be as ready and as prepared as I could be to race those guys and I expected to do that. Obviously it’s going to make my season a little easier to get the job done at the end, but it didn’t change anything. Like I said, I’m still showing up to try to win the race whether those guys are there or not. I’m still working hard and trying to go at it. I want to beat them when they come back and when they’re healthy. It’s tough. It’s a bummer, for sure. You’ve got to be in it to win it, but I didn't want it to be this easy, per se. I wanted to win and go down swinging and hopefully win because I was the best that year, not because it kind of got handed to me.
And as we saw today, it’s not necessarily going to be easy anyway. There’s still going to be tough ones.
Oh, yeah. There’s always going to be races where guys will kind of… I’ve come to realize always expect the unexpected. Don’t ever count anybody out. I feel like when you get too wrapped up into yourself, that’s when things kind of snowball the wrong way and the unexpected starts happening, and you’re not ready for it. In racing, in a sport, strange things happen. They come out of nowhere. As long as you’re expecting the unexpected to happen, then you’ll be okay and you won’t be shocked. You won’t be flustered by it.
I rode the track at end of the day and the track was so wide and hammered in these mud-hole sections. Stew told me that he felt it was almost like an honor system between you and him. He’s like, “He probably could have and I probably could have. We just tried to do the right thing.” He said you probably did it even better than he did, as far as going in the main race line at times. That has to be tough, because those mud-holes get ridiculously wide. How do you figure out what to do there?
It’s not necessarily the mud-holes. It’s just tricky sections. Especially this time of year, there’s no leaves on the trees so everything is kind of open. It’s like saplings and you can just run that shit over and make lines wherever. The first few laps, there was a couple guys in front of me that were on some lines that I was like, Where in the hell? How’d you figure that out? They were questionable for sure. Just the way they were piecing the track together. It wasn’t like it was any faster, but they were definitely smoother. But there were a couple lines a couple times I was behind Stew and I saw him go off and go way out and around this section. He didn’t really gain any time on me. But he threw his hand up, he slowed down. He knew what he did. It’s tough because it’s tough to mitigate and know which ones are way too out there to even know if it’s actually faster or not. You really do have to police yourself. You just have to understand it. We’ve done it for so long we know what’s right and what’s wrong. I feel like Stew does a good job, too. We talk before the races when we see these lines and stuff. If I see something that’s out there, I’ll booby-trap it. Same with him. Like I said, the mud-hole areas, they’re always going to get wide, and it’s good that they do. That way it doesn’t become impassable. It’s the areas that are soft and get rutted up and chewed out, that’s where guys start going off for no reason. That’s kind of the biggest thing I’ve seen over the years.
Main Image: Ken Hill