Harry Norton: Oz’s Latest World MX Champ
Imagine that you’re a 19-year-old in just your second year of the FIM MX2 Motocross World Championship. You’re leading the standings with a few rounds to go, but your teammate – the reigning MX2 world champ, Jorge Prado, who’s pitting right next to you under the same big-rig every weekend – has just returned a positive Covid-19 test. So, not only are you up against your on-track rivals; you’re also up against an invisible viral rival. And every time medical officials jam another Covid probe up your teenage beak, you know there’s every chance the test will come back positive, and your lifelong title dream evaporate on the spot.
That’s the unsettling scenario Red Bull KTM Factory Racing Team’s Tom Vialle found himself in during the final few rounds of the 2020 FIM MX2 Motocross World Championship.
To the unflappable young Frenchman’s credit, he brought the FIM MX2 World Championship title home. But the story gets better than that. It was also a first world title for Vialle’s 26-year-old mechanic, Harrison “Harry” Norton, an Aussie who’s worked with Vialle since the beginning of the 2019 season, when they both arrived as nobodies on the World MXGP stage. In claiming the 2020 title, Harrison Norton now joins fellow Aussie technicians, Ryan Deckert and Wayne Banks, who’ve won World MX titles with current or former KTM riders, Jordi Tixier, Pauls Jonass and Jeffrey Herlings.
We tracked the likeable Harry Norton down at the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing Team’s workshop in Mattighofen, Austria, and threw a few questions at him about the incredible achievement…
TM: Hello, Harry. What’s up, mate? … Harry? You there?
HN: Hey, Wigan. Ye…. I got… crap recept… inside here. Wait… out…
C’mon champ, what’s doing? I thought you were some gun technician. Just not with mobile devices, eh?!
Sorry, mate [laughs]. The reception is bad here in the workshop. Just making my way outside. Past the MotoGP bikes … round the corner … and out into the sunshine. That any better?
Way better! Good excuse to get you out of the building, too.
I just started work, so your timing is perfect. Thanks. Let’s do it.
Before we talk about Europe, isn’t there an interesting story about how you scored the full-time gig in the sport to begin with; with the KTM race team here in Australia?
There is. As Rob Twyerould [KTM’s former Race Team Manager and now Technical Services Manager – Ed] was the technical guy at KTM, I’d often been in with him because I’d been doing my apprenticeship at Kessner Motorcycles, a dealership in South Australia. Anyway, in the first year of my apprenticeship, I called Rob and said that I wanted to come and hang out with the KTM race team at the Murray Bridge round of the MX Nationals; just because I’d never been involved with racing at the level and it’s something I’d always dreamed of. I cooked the team guys a barbeque and just hung out. I did the same thing the next two years at Murray Bridge. And then in the fourth year of my apprenticeship, Rob offered me a part-time job as Jesse Dobson’s race mechanic. Early the following year, I’d decided to pack my bags and move to Sydney and see what came of it. And about three hours short of arriving in the big smoke, Rob Twyerould called me to say I had a full-time job. I started the next day. I then did two years with KTM’s Off-Road and Desert racing team before scoring the job in Europe.
You’ve been over in Europe less than two years, but you’ve come a hell of a long way. How did the gig with the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing team come up?
Again, it all happened through Rob Twyerould. I knew he was about to go over to the KTM factory in Austria. So, one day over lunch in Sydney, I’d said to Rob that I really wanted to go to Europe or America, and that if he heard of any opportunities, I was keen. I’d do whatever it took. I wanted to see the world. Anyway, when Rob got back, he suggested I get a resume together and send it to the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing Team Manager, Dirk Gruebel. The next thing I know, Dirk was calling me. He was at the Motocros of Nations and I was on the road to an AORC event in South Oz with really bad phone reception. The call kept dropping out, so I only got to have a broken conversation with him. But he offered me a job. I heard that much [laughs].
As a racer, you were more into enduro and desert racing, but was there even more of an allure with a factory motocross team?
My passion is bikes, no matter what discipline. It doesn’t matter whether it’s off-road or MX; I just love bikes. I love dirt bikes. I love mountain bikes. My goal was always to be the best at something; to work with and learn from the people who are best at something. And I feel that the team I now work with fits that description.
There’s a bit of a history of Aussie technicians working for the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing team too. Guys such as Ryan Deckert and Wayne Banks.
Exactly. I knew Ryan Deckert from my time with the KTM team in Australia, so knowing that he’d gone on to work for the KTM team here in Europe – and win a world title with Pauls Jonass – helped make the idea a bit more attainable, I guess. But as kid from a small town in South Australia, I’d always had that goal to broaden my horizons. As a kid, I had a poster on my wall of Ben Townley in about 2004 aboard this incredible prototype factory 250SX-F. So to be here and part of a world title-winning team is … well, it’s just incredible. My boss, Dirk Gruebel, really likes what Aussies stand for in terms of work ethic and attitude. It’s fun having a fellow Australian in Wayne Banks – who is Jeffrey Herlings’ mechanic and works alongside me – to work with over here too. Nothing like being able to talk a bit of Aussie slang here and there [laughs].
How difficult was it for you to adapt to the lifestyle and work culture on the other side of the world?
It was actually a pretty easy transition, mainly because the team is made up by such an incredible group of people. That’s why they’ve managed to win so many titles with so many different riders over the years. From day one, it’s been 100 percent trust and respect, and I can’t thank all those guys enough for that. Same applies with my rider, Tom Vialle, and his family; Joel Smets, the riding coach; Dirk Gruebel, the team manager; Valentina Regni, the team coordinator; Pit Bierer, the boss. Having those people around you gives you a lot of confidence. I live in an apartment that’s just a couple of kays down the road from the team’s workshop here in Mattighofen, Austria, which makes life easy too. Though we’re on the road a lot … like 180 days a year, I think it is. From a technical point of view, the transition hasn’t been that difficult because I’ve continued to work on KTM bikes and I’m still using all the same Motorex products. And I make that point because I’ve got some history with Motorex.
Well, before I moved over to Sydney in 2017 – while I was doing my apprenticeship at Kessner Motorcycles, that is – I was racing Hattah and national enduro rounds and SA’s state off-road series. Not only was Motorex one of my first personal sponsors, but they were also one of the major sponsors for the six-rider Kessner Motorcycle race team that I was involved with. That deal came direct from Aaron Marks and the guys at A-One [Accessory Imports, who distribute Motorex nationally – Ed] in Queensland. They always looked after us at Kessner and with the shop’s racing efforts.
As newcomers last season, you and Tom did well, running fourth in the MX2 title and posting an Overall win or two towards the end of the season, right?
Yeah, by the end of that 2019 season, Tom and Jorge Prado were on another level compared with everyone else. Between them, they claimed pretty much every holeshot of the season. I mean, Tom was such an underdog too. He’d done alright the previous season in the EMX Championship – I think he finished seventh – but literally no one knew who he was when KTM signed him for 2019. I hadn’t even heard of him. And now he’s won a world title. And he’s dating Jorge Prado’s sister [laughs].
I can imagine that, with all the Covid compliance and travel restrictions, there was an extra layer of challenges this year. Did that make winning the 2020 title with Tom extra special?
Just reflecting on it is crazy. Still! To think that two years ago, I had never been to an MXGP and never even been to Europe. So to win a world championship in my second year here is something really special. I’m not sure the significance of it has properly sunk in yet for me. But the really special thing was the fact I did with Tom Vialle – we’re two people no one on the team really even knew two years ago. Looking back, it was a big gamble for Dirk and the KTM team to take both of us on. So to repay that faith they showed in us both makes it extra special. All the Covid stuff going on at the same time this year just made all the more surreal.
Tom won the title in style this year too. Over the series’ 18 rounds and 36 motos, he posted 13 moto wins and another 14 podiums.
And 21 holeshots! He won by 80 points in the end, but it wasn’t over until it was over. And the final five weeks of the championship were so nerve-racking, it was one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had. Everything hung off the result of the Covid-19 tests we were constantly taking. I think we had 35 tests! If Tom tested positive, the championship would have been over for him. And then when his teammate, Jorge Prado, tested positive late in the season, it was a massive scare for Tom and the whole team, who were all under the same tent.
Tell us a bit more about Tom Vialle as a person.
He’s a great guy. A special rider and very mentally tough – especially when you consider it’s just his second year as a professional athlete. And he’s only recently turned 20. The way he handled the pressure this year was mind-blowing. For starters, just being under this KTM tent – which has 16 world titles between Tony Cairoli, Jeffrey Herlings and Jorge Prado – adds a lot of pressure. Plus there’s the added pressure of leading the championship from the second round onwards. That’s a big weight. But the maturity with which he handled that pressure was just incredible to witness. There’s an aura of calmness about him. I first saw it when he got his first podium in 2019 at Matterley Basin and showed little emotion. We were more excited than he was that wekend. But then later in the year, when he ran fourth in Lommel’s deep sand, that was the first time I saw emotion from him. He’s just so calculated.
Tom had extra pressure on him at the penultimate round, where he wrapped up the title, right?
Totally. He’s qualified third. But then we found out he’d been hit with a penalty for stopping on the track in morning practice, so he got the very last gate pick for the moto. Last gate pick from 30 and a really short start straight, meaning he was up against it. I’ll always remember the look on his face before the start. He walked over to that outside gate to check it out, then came back, nodded casually at me and simply said, ‘Yep, looks good’. Somehow, he nailed the holeshot from that outside gate, led from start to finish and won the world championship. There’s a level-headed, reality-check side to him and he’s able to stayed focused on the bigger goal. I think that comes for his father, who was also a top racer, and the support his whole family gives him.
And what are your plans for the future, mate?
I’m a full-time employee here at KTM and plan to be here for many years. It’s really like a family for me now. They really look after me – both inside and outside of work. And so does Tom. I’d met a bunch of KTM personnel at some of the KTM Adventures Rallys I’d done in places like New Zealand and South Africa, and been to America too. So I feel like I’ve got a worldwide network of people I know from all different areas of the business – from the R&D guys to the people who run KTM’s rallies. It’s a cool feeling.
And will you and Tom team up again to defend the MX2 world title next season?
Yep, that’s the plan. With Cairoli, Herlings and Prado representing KTM on the MX1 class, they’re pretty well covered [laughs]. In the MX World Championship, you have to step up if you win two titles or turn 23. That’s why 2020 will be the last year in MX2 for guys such as Australia’s Jed Beaton. As we speak, it’s all getting crazy over here in Europe with Covid. Everything’s being locked down all over again.
Good to talk, Harry. Well done. We’re stoked for you, mate. Take care.
You bet. Thanks, Andy.