[KTM]

HARRY NORTON: TEAM MANAGER ON A MISSION!

1 month ago | Words: Andy Wigan | Photos: MXLarge.com

With the opening round of the 2024 MXGP World Championship underway in Argentina this weekend, our long-time buddies from leading European-based moto website, MXLarge, figured we may be interested in an interview they’d just done with Harrison “Harry” Norton – the Aussie guy who’s career has skyrocketed since he first joined the powerhouse Red Bull KTM Factory Racing team in Europe just six years ago. Of course we were interested. So, here’s that fascinating interview…

Harry Norton is a name many won’t know, but this 30-year-old Australian is pretty much living the dream and doing something he probably never could have expected as a kid. Recently upgraded as team manager of the Red Bull KTM Factory team, Norton is taking it all in his stride and reaching new goals every year.

As a young bloke back in Australia in the early 2000s, Norton had a poster of Red Bull KTM factory rider Ben Townley hanging on his wall. It was when KTM really started taking over the sport, with a number of MX2 world titles and were on the cusp of entering into the 450 class. Inside that little poster was a team personnnel shot, which included long time team members, Valentina Ragni and Dirk Gruebel – team people who are now instrumental in Norton’s current team set-up.

Stepping up from his Technical Coordinator role, Norton is confident and assured that, with the people around him, he won’t have any trouble taking on the new role. With Gruebel, Team Coordinator Valentina Ragni, Team Trainer Joel Smets and other figures such as new Technical Coordinator Stefan Simpson, the job at hand will be easier with their support and knowledge.

Norton arrived in Austria in 2019 after a long association with KTM in Australia. He worked at a local dealership and then also around the national racing scene from enduro to desert racing. His easy-going manner and technical proficiency allowed him to forge an immediately beneficial relationship with rookie, Tom Vialle; the Frenchman won a Grand Prix in his first season before the pair scooped two MX2 World Championships in the following three years.

We caught up with Harry Norton as he drove home from a week testing in Italy with his riders; excited for the coming 12 months and what he and his team can achieve in 2024, both in MXGP and MX2 classes.

Harry, how are you doing?
Bloody good, mate. Recently spent a week down in Italy testing with the boys. With the pre-season races in full flight, things have been busy.

I read an interview you did with the Transmoto guys in Australia a while ago and saw that you were working for KTM in Australia. So, why Europe? What made you want to come here, and had you been here before?
I had never been to Europe. I had travelled a bunch in US and Canada, for personal stuff. I went to a couple of supercross rounds also the International Six Days Enduro overseas, but I had never been to Europe. But my boss in Australia, Rob Twyerould, had been to Europe many times and I think he’s now been with KTM for more than 20 years. I said to him one day in Oz, ‘Rob, I need to get out of here. I need to move to the next thing. I am not fussed whether I go to Europe or America, but I want to make that step’. And that’s how I ended up here, in Europe.

How old were you when you came here?
I was 24 years old.

So, you were relatively mature then. How did you find it at first, because it is a completely different culture to anywhere you had been?
It was a massive culture shock. Moving from Australia to Austria also. I would say living the Belgian life is easier than Austria. It was a big culture shock, mate. However, I came here with an open mind, and I just wanted to learn, have fun and work on some cool bikes. Plus, I have always been interested in the process of how teams work. That was one of the big reasons I wanted to come here. I love the process behind why teams are successful, and the Red Bull KTM factory team was – and still is! – a pretty successful group of people.

Working for KTM in Australia obviously opened the door for the KTM job in Austria, and you couldn’t ask for a better team to learn from. I read in an interview somewhere that you had a Ben Townley poster on your wall as a kid. What’s with that? An Aussie should never have a Kiwi hanging on their wall, right [laughing]?
I loved that bike – KTM’s 2005 prototype 250SX-F. I also really liked Ben’s style. I had a few videos of him on the old VCR. As a kid, you can’t really explain something; you are just drawn to it. That was the picture I had on my wall. But in all honesty, I was a big enduro guy back then. I never raced motocross as a kid. There were no motocross tracks near my house, and I just rode enduro and I spent most of my time in Australia working for enduro or desert racing teams. I then did a couple of seasons as a motocross mechanic. Pretty cool, but that photo I had on my wall … it was an A4 page and at the top was Ben Townley and the bottom was a picture of the team – including Peter Talaquist, Dirk Gruebel and Valentina Ragni. I now work with them. Which is crazy. It’s pretty cool.

When I first came to Europe, in 1993, I covered the World Enduro Championships for three years because it was hard to get into the Motocross GP scene. This is back when Australian Shane Watts was really successful here. I loved it straight away. It took me maybe a week to get over the culture shock, but how was that for you; those initial years, when you were a bit star-struck at first?
I think that is one of the great points about this team, all the team; they are always super-open, and they don’t judge. And from day one, they trust you. Day one, I rocked up with a backpack. I didn’t even have a suitcase. I had my skis with me because I had a bit of a skiing vacation before I arrived here. From day one, it’s been like a family. Our team is a crazy mix of different people, from different cultures and countries. I think that helps create that atmosphere. None of us are from Austria, but we all live there, so we all had to move there. That creates a special atmosphere and a special group.

I think everyone in the Red Bull KTM team is very down to earth. There isn’t any fakeness in that team, I don’t think.
Yes, 100 percent. KTM is one of the lucky companies, where I truly think racing is number one and what we need, we get.

So, you worked with Tom Vialle – a very successful relationship! Are you working with anyone as a mechanic now, or just the team manager role?
As team manager, I work with all the riders. We have eight mechanics on the team and Stefan Simpson, who looks after a lot of the technical things and does a lot of the organisation. He isn’t coming to as many GPs as a typical technical guy with his responsibilities normally would, but he will be in control of a lot of the organising of the technical side and working behind the scenes. Our team is a little different than most as we have two workshops in two countries, so we have a lot of logistics. And Stefan is behind all that.

“Moving from Australia to Austria was a massive culture shock. But I came here with an open mind, and I just wanted to learn, have fun and work on some cool bikes.”

What I always find with people like yourself, be it a mechanic in a professional team, or team managers or rider, you all speak the same language. All very thorough in your organisation of the team, or your rider. Are you a perfectionist, and does that give you satisfaction all the time? Or are you sometimes not satisfied, even though you did a good job?
I think I’m definitely a perfectionist in some things, and like to have control over the situation. I think in what we do, you build confidence and trust in doing everything you possibly can in a situation in order to achieve a result. As a mechanic, that is a simple thing in the end; you do everything in your power to make sure the bike is 110 percent. As a team manager, the thinking is similar, but you need to split your focus a bit more and you have more tasks. But in general, it is the same responsibility. Some people have asked me, ‘How it is going from being a mechanic to a team manager, or looking after the responsibility of the group?’. I don’t feel like it is extra, but there is extra pressure for sure.

You have worked with many people in your career. Becoming team manager is an important position. Have you watched other team managers and learnt from them, because as you said, you like the process? And did you have to spend a lot of time in the winter working out what is needed to do this job?
I think you always learn and evolve. Sometimes we need to do things better or do them in a different way. I have been lucky in my short career to have some really good team managers, or really good mentors, like Dirk Gruebel. When I worked in Australia, there was a guy called Glenn Kearney, who was my enduro team manager, plus guys like Rob Twyerould and Jeff Leisk. So, I’ve had some awesome mentors. I really like to observe, and I have been able to watch people making decisions – why they make decisions, how they run a group and how they build that trust in the group. So, I think I have had some pretty good examples. Now it is my chance to put my own spin on it and use that mentorship that I am so lucky to have had.

“I love the process behind why teams are successful, and the Red Bull KTM factory team was – and still is! – a pretty successful group of people.”

When you found out you were going to get the job, were you excited or surprised? Or did you have an idea that you were in line to take over as a lot of companies do that; they take people from the company and move them up the breadline, if you like?
Yep, like last year I was the technical responsible. So, if you look at it logically, it was something that could happen, but it isn’t something I planned. I was fully focused on being a mechanic, and then Dirk unfortunately had to step back. Tony Cairoli was there last year. I just try to do the best I can for the group and riders and try and enjoy this crazy circus that is our life.

You are very young for a team manager. Would you prefer to stay here in Europe and build on what you have here, or are the goals of maybe heading to America and work there?
No, I love it here. I love my life here. I just had a child, my wife lives here – she is German – and we have a great life here. I have so much to still learn; knowledge to soak up. We have a lot of experienced people inside KTM and at the moment, it is a huge learning curve. And I am trying to soak up as much as possible.

There is always a lot of intrigue around Jeffrey Herlings. He has been the most phenomenal rider from the past decade, and maybe even carried MXGP on his back the last 10 years because of his amazing talent and work ethic. A lot of injuries, a lot of success, but how is he looking at the moment?
Yes, Jeffrey is an unbelievable talent, and the effort he puts in has been incredible – from the long motos in the winter and the recovery from injuries, year after year. He has matured a lot. You see many things from his younger years that he has obviously learnt from. He has put that into being a better athlete and better motocross rider. Hopefully we can have a good year and put all those little things together and give him the best chance to do what we know he can do.

And if he finishes a season fit, he is usually the World Champion!
Yes, if he is fit, he is there. He can turn speed on when there is no more speed left. It is so difficult to describe his talent.

I did an interview with John Van Den Berk, who Jeffrey was training with, and he said Jeffrey is better than the others because he is so fit, and he has been fit since he was 10 years old, and the other don’t have that fitness.
Yep. And he has this strength. The guy can deal with pain like no other. He can find that place, where it’s hard to explain, but he is a strong guy.

All the best for the 20-round MXGP season that’s about to kick off, Harry. I hope it’s another successful one for you and the team.
Many thanks.

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