“It’s amazing what a beer can buy you”; Mission racing is supporting talented young riders in the incredibly expensive world of motorcycle competition. This is what it really takes to start a race team… (written during 2015 race season)
WORDS & PHOTOGRAPHY: John Milbank
A motorsport trophy is the most expensive piece of plastic you’ll ever buy; so Russ Owen of Mission Racing, currently competing in the Superstock 1000 series tells me; “I had a mate who ploughed thirty five grand into club racing and finally got a podium. They gave him this little trophy and he loved it. But we laughed – all that work, maxing out three credit cards and re-mortgaging his house for that.”
But that’s what racing demands; total commitment, huge talent, and a lot of money. There are plenty of young riders out there lacking only the latter – some might be lucky enough to have wealthy relatives, but if they’re really fortunate, they might find some support from a team like Mission…
“11 years ago, I started working for a BSB team, building the garages and stuff,” says Russ. “The following year their rider – Dean Thomas – set his own team up, so I went to work for him for couple of seasons. It was a small team with everyone mucking in, but sponsorship dried up, so Dean went back to Australia. That, I thought, was the end of my time in bike racing.
“I also owned a small haulage company, so I thought I’d go back to that, but then the phone started ringing… I got into GT car racing, then met Ian Polak at McLaren – We became good friends, and he immediately started pushing me to do something for myself. He’s part of Mission now, but as a retired fireman, he still works driving race trucks around the world.”
In 2014, Russ approached long-term friend Jay Sykes, who works in banking IT, with the idea of competing in road racing, the KTM cup, BSB or something similar. Like most bike enthusiasts, they wanted to do it all, but the budgets can be eye-watering – to run two bikes all year, including some testing and the inevitable crash damage, you won’t see much change from about £180,000 in Superstock or Supersport Evo – the grass-roots racing that supports BSB. Even the guys running out of the back of a van can easily go through £50,000.
“A part of me thinks I’d have liked to have raced myself, but I’m too old now, and not fast or crazy enough,” says Russ. “Jay and I have got that competitive edge though – I was a European and British Tae Kwon Do champion from about eight to 22, and Jay was a competitive runner in national championships; he was joint fastest schoolboy when he was 14, but snapped his Achilles at 18, and picked up a guitar instead.
“Anyway, I figured rather than think too much about it, I’d just get on and do it, so I bought a used trailer from the Williams Formula One team, which is hitched to my own Mercedes rig. Owning the haulage company helped a lot.
“Jay and I were watching BSB when Ben Godfrey got involved in someone else’s accident – Jack Burnicle gave a shout out saying that if anyone wanted to sponsor a rider, this was the lad. We approached Ben through Facebook and built a relationship with him – he was doing well, but struggling financially to finish the year. We figured that if he could bring his bike, then combined with our experience we’d be making a good start.
“That led to another rider in the team, which then led on to Kyle Wilks. They both race for themselves, so this is more of a joint venture. We have no real budget – we’re begging and borrowing what we can. Everybody has pitched in and asked for nothing – just a cold beer at night. It’s amazing what a beer can buy you.
“Ben already knew Neil Pearson, so he’s come on board as the crew chief. He knows Kawasakis inside out, so we’re running ZX-10s. Kyle brings his previous mechanic Jordan Richardson.
“Even Claire, Kyle’s mum, pitches in, and Ben’s Dad, Steve, comes down to help work on the bike. Cory Blackmore is also doing an apprenticeship in bike maintenance, so has joined us for experience.
Bringing the money in
“We’re not allowed to make money on the hospitality we offer from the truck,” says Russ, as his partner Nicola Ratcliffe lays out a breakfast spread. “Some of the big BSB teams can – the money they make goes into the racing budget. But as a support team, we’re not allowed to.
“The Superbike teams don’t pay entrance fees, and get massive discounts on everything – when they go winter testing they get a lot of freight paid for them. Yet the support series has to pay – we prop the series up with our money. The big boys attract the sponsors too; the small teams – if they’re honest – struggle as they can’t promise the world to companies wanting to invest.
“All the riders come through the support series, and have to pay their way… The entrance fees are over £300 per round, and you’re doing £800 a weekend just on tyres – that’s in Stock, where you’re allowed three sets. To be competitive you have to use all of that allocation.
“On top of that we go through a couple of hundred pounds in fuel, there’s consumables like clutches, brake pads, disks… plus servicing the engines between each race! And that’s assuming you don’t break anything. And we haven’t mentioned the cost of food and travelling. Kyle’s bike was rebuilt after a bad accident at Oulton Park – that was about £4500 gone. It’s the same as crashing a road bike generally, though the fairings are cheaper. Fortunately, R&G has just done a deal with Ben for crash protectors that will help him next year.
“Despite all this expense, I think we have a good future, but it’s in getting a lot of small sponsors. We’re not looking to get rich out of this – we want to build our assets. We want this to last, and be able to offer plenty for our future sponsors.”
Mission Racing is currently entirely self-funded, with this year being financially written off as an advertising year – a chance to show what they’ve got…
And it’s working – in 2016 the team will be racing MV Agustas in Superstock and Supersport, with some support from Bennetts Motorcycles in Barnsley. The team is in the process of signing one rider and confirming another. “This is a partnership,” says Russ. “The riders, Bennetts, me, Jay and Ian pay for everything together, but we hope to soon have team sponsors, plus Bennetts has got some customers involved.
“But our main aim is to help young riders come up through the ranks. One will be a new rider in the championship, but what we need for the team is a more experienced rider too, to help us in developing the bike and mentoring the youngster.”
The big-money world of racing
Motorcycle racing is the perfect platform to attract sponsors, but Russ firmly believes that teams must give something back; “There’s a lot more to the world of sponsorship than just one company giving a team a stack of cash. Petronas might, for example, pump £80million into a Mercedes Formula One team, but the deal could be that all Mercedes vehicles have to have Petronas fluids, which might be worth £300million.
“Bose sound systems might give them £20million, but every vehicle sold – even the trucks now – have a Bose system inside, which is probably worth… well, pick a number.
“Our approach now is ‘what can we do for you?’ Bennetts wants to sell bikes, so we need to find a way to help them do that. We don’t want to be chopping and changing sponsors each year – we want them to want to keep coming back.
“Another company might want the social side; they might want to bring their clients along – that’s where the hospitality comes into its own. We’re allowed to look after the sponsors, but not make money directly, for instance by selling food to people.”
Mission’s trailer is attractive to sponsors, and gets noticed in the paddock, though it costs a couple of thousand pounds to get it to each event. But that’s nothing compared to F1: “Those race-truck trailers can cost £280,000, the rig £110,000 – even the awning is £10,000. Red Bull had around 40 odd. We worked out that it cost £30,000 for one team to move just one of its 26 trucks, and all of them were used for each meet. Along with the drivers, builders, their hotels, taxis and everything, you’re looking at up to a million quid per meeting!”
“In BSB there are probably just five teams that can be confident of getting out every year. For everyone else it’s just doing everything they can to try to get out each time – selling used tyres for £90 a pair – anything to keep afloat.
“Most racers are simply trying to beat their last time – even at club level, once you’ve done all you can to a bike it comes down to tenths of a second. And for each tenth it’s £1000. I know guys who started club racing for fun, but when they could smell a podium, it was £5000 on the bike. Then when they could smell a win it was another £5000. These were joiners and plumbers, just finding money where they could, or sticking it on their credit cards. Now, between the top Superstock 1000 and Superbike machines, there’s just 1.5 seconds difference. But that costs £35,000.”
Worth the effort
Mission’s hospitality and pit area is impressive, and from the dishwasher in a gazebo round the back, to the plush office area inside the truck – where the crew would have previously monitored Nigel Mansell’s car – there’s no denying it looks glamorous, but Russ and Nic sleep in the rig’s cab, the racing taking over their lives; “If I’m not racing,” says Russ. “I’m pulling trailers up and down the country for my business. The rare weekends off are for family time, but even Jay’s brother booked his wedding around the racing calendar – motorsport requires 100% commitment, whatever your position in the team.”
Fortunately, Nic agrees; “My job is running the accounts for a company, but luckily it’s flexible hours – we get to a race on a Wednesday night to start building the truck, then go home late on the Sunday. But I’d be sat at home alone if I wasn’t here, and I love the atmosphere. It’s great for kids as they get in free, and there’s not many sports at this level that allow you to get so close to the racers and bikes.
“I’ll do anything I can to support Russ – he’s worked so hard to do this, but it’s worth it. “
Ian and Jay are equally committed; “There have been motorbikes in my family forever,” says Jay, “but I never had chance to get on one until five or six years ago; now my partner, Wendy, and I both ride together. I’m hoping we can build a future in this, and that I can spend more time with Wendy as I currently use all my holidays to do this.
“This is a passion – if it works, it’ll mean living on a lot less money, but doing what I love, rather than plodding along in the same old job.”
I ask what everyone’s job titles are in the team, but nobody’s sure. Jay says Russ is the boss, but to me it sums up what a close and friendly team this is. It’s not about egos, or wallet waving, it’s about a passion for motorcycling.
“We’ve all got our own individual skills, which together makes us really strong,” Ian tells me. “With all the teams we’ve worked in before, there were so many people with all different agendas and egos. It’s not like that here. We all try to bring things we’ve learned elsewhere to make this a happy ship.”
Ben places ninth in the race, and Kyle 20th; a great result, with Ben’s fastest lap 2:10.3014 and Kyle’s 2:11.642. The race winner – Hudson Kennaugh – posts 2:09.177 – a little over one second ahead of Ben on the 3.67mile circuit…
On the pit wall, watching Ben and Kyle flash past, the sense of partnership is clear; all each wants is to enjoy everything the sport has to offer, and I wish them every success for the future.
Follow the team at www.mission-racing.co.uk. Potential sponsors can make contact through the website, and would benefit from the ex-F1 hospitality unit with Nic – who has 10 years of hospitality experience in BSB and British Touring Cars – looking after the guests.
My life in racing: Neil Pearson, crew chief
Neil’s a race mechanic by trade, and looks after the bikes and racers at Mission; “It’s not all glitz and glamour. Racing is 80% shit and 20% good, but the 20% outweighs the 80%. It’s all worth it when you get a good result and the rider comes in beaming. It’s a way of life – you’re not giving up anything because this is all you do. There’s no time for ‘real life’, but that’s why you socialise in the evenings here.
“Ben’s got something, so I want to help him out. He pays me to be at the meetings, and for his parts, but other than that all his labour’s free. He bought the bike from me at the beginning of the year, and we’ve become good mates. He knows I can’t do my job without him and he can’t do his without me.
“It’s hard work, but I enjoy being the crew chief; it’s not just the bike you have to look after, it’s the riders too – being a big brother, a dad, a mechanic, and a punch -bag when things don’t go right. But it’s also telling them to pull their fingers out sometimes!” www.npmotorcycles.com
My life in racing: Ben Godfrey, rider
“I got into racing when my Dad’s friend offered to let me have a go on his mini-moto at Donington Park market. I loved it, then tried club racing and really gelled with it. Dad bought me a bike and it went from there.
“Mission has really helped raise my profile – having the massive truck here, people are always poking their heads around the corner, wanting to know what’s going on. It makes you look a lot more professional, and gives everyone a bit more room and personal space too.
“Everyone in the team has had to give things up; Dad and I are constantly skint, and everything we get is put into this – I’m a welder by trade. We’ve all had money troubles because of it, and it’s knocked the family a bit, but that’s part of the sport – if you don’t give it 100%, you don’t get 100% out of it. But it’s totally worth it… I’d rather do this than anything else.
“My sponsors are so important – NP motorcycles, MHP Engineering, Mission Racing, R&G, Held, Shark, South Notts Computers – they’ve all helped me out. To be honest, absolutely everything helps, even a simple set of spanners.” bengodfrey.weebly.com
My life in racing: Lauren Ferguson, Ben’s girlfriend
“I don’t worry about him being out there – I’m used to it to be honest. I remember being about three and coming home to my Dad with all his mates watching the racing – this just takes me back.
“I love being on the inside to watch it all happen, and I don’t mind giving up my time to be with him – I work at the weekends, so have to use my holidays to be here on race days.”
My life in racing: Kyle Wilks, rider
“I started riding when I was five on my uncle’s old automatic Puch 50. I always wanted to race, so when I got a chance I did some motocross, but didn’t really enjoy it – I always wanted to do this.
“I did a pit bike series on go-kart tracks six or seven years ago and was third in my first year, then won the championship the second. Then I got into CB500 club racing, which was pretty cheap. But from there it got progressively more expensive. We used to be able to get three weekends out of a set of tyres, now we’re doing three sets in a weekend.
“We bought a ZX6 from a friendly dealer, who sent me to a track with one of their mechanics… we did some good times, had a good day, and I continued the club season on that. Then the following year I joined their team as a Superstock 600 rider, then moved on to the 1000s.
“We were doing everything ourselves this year, but I’ve been teammates with Ben on and off for a while, so when he joined Mission, he asked me to come along. Having the space and hospitality is great, as I can focus on the racing, rather than worry about camping, then clearing away to make space for the bike.
“Racing is difficult for the family as we’re all involved; at the dinner table we’re chatting about what we’re going to be doing at the next race weekend or test… there’s a lot of logistics, and my Mum has to drive the lorry around – she travels the country with me. It’s stressful, and obviously it means you can’t commit to much the rest of the time.
“I’m self-employed, running a little bicycle repair shop. I also instruct once a week in the summer at the Ron Haslam race school. It is difficult, but you can’t let it play on your mind… You have to focus, and sometimes have to cut out something, otherwise you lose that one thing that you really want to do.
“Being here with Mission really makes things easier. Equipment Support Company have helped me a lot, Glenside Finance, Shoei, Sidi, NP Motorcycles and Cory – my mechanic, The Car Body Shop, MRC UK, Cotopaxi, Fast Hygiene, Blink Legal, Mike Pearce… so much of this is reducing the cost as much as possible. My family have of course been a massive part of it – It’s too easy to miss all the people that are involved, and my grandad’s really helped fund a lot of it.” www.wilksracing.co.uk