The world’s biggest off-road race through the eyes of a first-timer

21 year old Briton Ben Watson experienced the Nations from the other side of the fence for the very first time at RedBud in Michigan this year. Hailing from a racing family (his Dad competed and his brother Nathan is a star in the FIM Enduro World Championship) Watson used to travel around to see the ‘best of the best’ take part in the once a year hit. Now the dream became the reality.

For RedBud Watson, who had risen from 15th in 2017 to 4th in the 2018 FIM World Championship in his first season with the Kemea Yamaha team, was experiencing the euphoria and excitement of the contest as a debutant.

We asked #919 (wearing ‘8’ for Team GB in accordance with their ranking from 2017 where they finished on the podium behind France and Holland) for a timeline and his thoughts and feelings from a milestone trip to the USA.

August. 2018: Team Great Britain, one of three original teams to contest the Motocross of Nations back in 1947, is announced for the 72nd running at RedBud; one of the most iconic circuits in the United States. Tommy Searle (in the MXGP class), Max Anstie (MX Open category) and Ben Watson (MX2) are chosen as the best and fastest riders in the UK. Searle and Anstie were part of the squad that finished on the podium in 2017. After a breakthrough season in grand prix Watson has earned his place.

Sunday, September 30: Watson completes the twentieth and final Grand Prix of the FIM World Championship at the Imola circuit in Italy and confirms his 4th position in the MX2 class for 2018. It is one week before RedBud and the motocross season-closer.

“I flew home to the UK directly after the last MXGP in Imola. It was a bit of a rush to get out of the circuit and to the airport but leaving Sunday night meant I had a day at home with my family before getting the train at 9am on Tuesday to Gatwick and the flight to Chicago. We were testing for a few days before Imola so it meant I had to get everything packed up almost two weeks beforehand, as I didn’t want to travel from Italy to my base in Belgium and then to the UK! Once my stuff was all sent off then I could concentrate on the test and the last GP.”

My usual packing routine for a race was a bit different because I have different helmets, different kit, different coloured boots and so on for the Nations. I had to wait for it to come and get organised. I had a completely new look and it was all part of that early excitement for me. It’s the Motocross of Nations! An incredible feeling.”

“The Nations is different to a Grand Prix. Matterley Basin in the UK is my home GP and was amazing for me this summer because I’d never been one of the main riders that people were watching. I was always just ‘another Brit’ for a couple of seasons but this year was special as I had some of the spotlight. I was having the same feeling thinking about the Nations. I am one of just three riders selected by the whole of Great Britain to represent the country and it’s really exciting.”

Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday October 3/4/5: Watson arrives in the United States and heads straight from O’Hare Airport with Searle and Anstie to rented accommodation for the race at RedBud, located a few miles outside the sleepy town of Buchanan in Michigan. The British motorcycle federation, the ACU, and Team Manager Mark Chamberlain decided to house all three athletes together.

“We got to the airport and jumped in the hire car because we knew it was a two hour drive from Chicago to the house. Chicago looked impressive in the evening and that downtown area is not something you’d see anywhere in Europe really. Pretty cool. We got to the house and ‘crashed’ straight away because it was quite late in the evening.”

“Wednesday morning we went to the supermarket to load-up with food and then had a gym session. In the afternoon the three of us decided to play some golf. It was good to relax and do something that took our minds off the race ahead. I had flown at 4pm from the UK and those guys went at 5, so the jetlag wasn’t too bad as it was 11pm when we were finally in a position to go to the sleep.”

“We all had our own rooms and there were a few bathrooms so it was comfortable. I was by myself and I think if I was in a hotel room then I would be pretty bored. It is cool to be together and build a bond with the guys and their girlfriends. It wouldn’t be like that if we were in a hotel or even separate hotels. At a GP we never have time to hang out and I came here not really knowing those guys that well but that all changed.”

“We found a Supermarket called Whole Food: amazing! People say that Americans just eat crap and huge portions but I’ve never seen a supermarket with such a selection of healthy, organic food. It was very local, we stocked up and it was perfect.”

“There wasn’t a great deal of time to kill. We had Netflix at the house but after the shopping, gym and golf and then cooking that was it. The next day Tommy went riding so Max and I went to the gym again and chilled in the afternoon. We prepared some kit for Friday at the track and some food as well.”

Friday, October 6: Watson and his team make the 30 minute drive to RedBud. The weather forecast is poor and the track is already wet on Friday as teams arrive for media work, acclimatisation, track viewing and a presentation to the thousands of fans that are already wandering around the circuit. It is also their first look at the fast and loamy layout.

“We walked the track and had the press conference as Team GB. We made a few interviews for Monster Energy and then had a cool Team Presentation in front of the public. It was not the crazy-busy time I was expecting actually. Still, all this stuff was new for me and that feeling of ‘build-up’ I’ll never forget.”

“My family arrived on Wednesday but they’ve spent their time in Chicago and have made a small holiday of the trip because it’s 8.5 hours from home and it’s not cheap to get here. We met at the track. They were always going to support me just over the race weekend and were not expecting to be with me every minute I was here. They did so much for me as a kid and as a youth racer so for them to see their son as Team GB racer and something we had been watching and support in previous years then of course they are proud and don’t want to miss the moment.”

Saturday, October 7: The Motocross of Nations begins with more rainfall and muddy conditions but the track holds up well and many of the eventual 81,700 attendance is already defying the swampy conditions to see the riders and countries spin their first fast laps. To preserve the track the Free Practice sessions are slightly shortened. Watson then has his Qualification Race in the MX2 class (the slots for which on the start line were decided by the FIM ballot). The two best results from the three riders will count for the entry position in the gate for Sunday. Watson keeps calm to take a 7th and his classification is required by the Brits for their scorecard.

“No butterflies for me really as it wasn’t race day and whatever we managed didn’t really count for that much. It was just about getting in the best position possible for Sunday. I had breakfast – porridge with some fruit and nuts, nothing special but my usual for race weekend – with the guys and we travelled together to the track. Usually I have lunch early at a grand prix because I like to eat two hours before a session but the Nations had a different schedule with a lot of time. When I finished practice at 11.30 I wasn’t riding again until 15.00. It was a bit easier. At a GP I sometimes have to force myself to eat at 11-ish even though I’m not really hungry then. Otherwise it will be too late before the races.”

“I thought RedBud looked amazing: a proper motocross track and something MXGP had not had much of in 2018. I was really excited to get out there, to try it and to get the whole event kicked off. The first practice was wet but enjoyable and I could push and find drier lines. The session was just about getting an eye for the track because the ballot took care of our positions in the gate for the qualification races.”

“Despite the wait, Saturday was relaxed and went quite quickly. I had some advice from the other two; they have much more experience than me at this event and Max was telling me to make sure everything was ready and in place for Sunday as I’d have very little time between my two races. For example I’d have a couple of hours between the motos at a GP but only 30-40 minutes here, so instead of prepping my goggles before the race I’d have to have every ready well in advance. I would have to come back, get changed and then go directly to the gate again. I watched the other two races and it was good that we were all helping each other when it came to spotting lines. It is a team event and we all wanted each other to do well.”

“Cheering another rider was quite strange actually. I mean, I’m in a different class to Tommy and Max. They are competitors in MXGP and are racing each other head-to-head each weekend so for them to now be on a team together is a bit of a change. For me they are more like friends and the competitive scenario doesn’t really come into it.”

“The Qualification race didn’t actually go that great. I started well in the top ten but got water under my goggle laminates straight away so I tried to pull all 21 tear-offs away as quickly as I could and it took maybe two laps. I was then trying to wipe my goggles and my gloves were very wet and sandy so they were just blurring my vision. In the end I just had to throw them away and bring the bike home in the position I was in. I was seventh and wanted better than that but the team still used my result as one of the best two from the three.”

“Late afternoon we all left the track together, went back to the shop and brought some more food. Max and Tommy’s girlfriends cooked dinner for us so we just relaxed and got some goggles ready for Sunday.”

Sunday am, October 8: Heavy showers over Buchanan has not helped the condition of RedBud. The circuit is extremely busy but also very damp and muddy. Cars remain abandoned in the vast grassy parking area. Watson has to negotiate warm-up and then has his two 30 minute and 2 lap races back-to-back: the first with the 450 riders of the MXGP class and then those of MX Open. He’ll race with Searle and then Anstie. Team GB will count the best five of the six results towards their final score.

“Sunday felt different. For a start we had to leave the house much earlier as our first session – warm-up – was at 9.15. So the same breakfast and by 7.45 we were out and at the track by about 8.20. The car park was a muddy mess and we managed to slide our way through the entrance and Tommy left the car at the side of the road! A narrow escape and not really following the rules!”

“I had my special Team GB race kit again – six sets in total, one for each session and a spare – and it was cool to put that on. As a rider you always like wearing new gear but this was a special novelty. It was designed like a big GB flag on the front and you immediately felt like you were doing something for your country and you weren’t just going out on the track to race for yourself. I’ll keep one set for me and then I have a few sponsors and people who have helped me on this journey and who have asked for my first Nations shirt, so they’ll be gone for sure!”

“The track was even wetter on Sunday and I kept thinking ‘if this place was dry it would be so amazing’. I really wanted to experience it in good conditions…but at the same time I wasn’t that bothered because I knew the circumstances would suit me down to the ground. I wasn’t too fussed.”

Sunday pm, Crunch time: Searle takes the first gate pick so is 7th to the line. Watson has to go 27th. Searle is running a positive fourth in the moto until disaster strikes and his smoking Kawasaki stops two laps before the finish. Watson is deep in the pack after being held-up by a falling Antonio Cairoli on the first corner.

“The team all had a little chat before the first race and then we all went down to the line. Tommy and I were out first and Max was there for support. We stayed close as a team over the weekend and tried to work together as much as we could. This is a team event but at the end of the day each rider can only do what he can and get the best result possible. There are some tactics. Two riders go into the gate so one is going to get a better pick than the other.”

“There were so many people at RedBud and probably the biggest crowd I have ever raced in front of. It didn’t really ‘get to me’. I wasn’t focussing on that and all my attention and concentration was on the track and what I could do. I tried to block the big picture – the crowd, the fact that it was the Nations and the thoughts of the podium – out of my mind: these are the sorts of things that add pressure to a rider. I’d learned a few lessons in this during the last couple of Grands Prix and as I fought to score fourth position in the world. I had focussed on that too much on that fourth place, and wasn’t riding like I normally would. So I attempt to ‘block’ the fact that I was starting my first Nations.”

“So, Cairoli crashed on the first corner and I got stuck behind him. Weirdly we almost expected something like that to happen because Tommy had the first gate pick, and on the 250 I knew being 27th would be tricky and I’d be back in the pack. Another rider hit me in the back and from there I just had to soldier-on and get as high as I could in the order. I was a little bit gutted because I got filled-in and had to dump my goggles again. I was disappointed because the way I rode all day meant I should have had a better finish than 15th in that first race. Nothing ever really goes how you want it.”

Sunday pm, Crunch time 2.0: Watson has minimal time to change, debrief and relax until he has to race again for the second moto of three. This time he takes 7th place on the metal start grill while Anstie has the worse position. Ben makes the advantage count. He runs third and closes up to Spain’s MX2 World Champion Jorge Prado deep into the moto. The pair squabble for track space until Australian Hunter Lawrence speeds through. Watson still registers 4th position: Team GB’s best on the day (and eerily replicates his 15th-4th trajectory in Grand Prix). It is a performance that leaves BW smiling and with a spring in his step. Watson watches the last race as Searle and Watson try to push Britain onto the podium. In the end the country misses out to the Netherlands and classifies fifth.

“It was a bit of a rush between races and Max had prepared me for that by saying I’d have no time: I just had to go back and get changed. I tried to regroup and stay calm and collect my motivation to go again. I didn’t eat or drink and before I went to the gate I thought ‘drink something!’ I downed a bottle of water before moving onto the line. That whole rush was the biggest new factor of the weekend and something I’ll know how to deal with next time I’m picked.”

“I had the first gate pick for the second moto and started well, had some strong first laps and just pushed. I got into my own groove and closed up to Jorge Prado in second. I was trying everything to pass him and out of the blue Lawrence passed me and I didn’t even know he was there. I eventually got past Prado but was too deep in the turn and he squared-me-up and got the drive on me. So I was fourth – that number again – and loved the way I rode and really enjoyed the race. When I crossed the line I felt the weight fall from my shoulders. I’d carried the disappointment from race one. I knew I could do better and I was overjoyed I could do it and show the team and everyone else that I deserved to be picked. It was great to give something back to Team GB. It was a relief. I got changed and went to support Max and Tommy in the third race and we just came up short. If it hadn’t have been for Tommy’s bike problem in the first race then we would have been second on the podium. We just missed a bit of luck.”

“The family came by and everyone was over-the-moon for me. It was chaos after the end of the second moto, everyone was saying I should be proud and that GB should be also. So many people came up and shook my hand. We had some dinner and then hit the Monster party! It has been a really long season and I have stuck to a schedule like a proper athlete: for the first time in my career really. I haven’t had a beer since new year! I’ve had a great year and went out to enjoy a party and one evening with my friends that came over to support me.”