Interview: Kailub Russell 6X GNCC Champ

12 months ago | Words: GNCC/Rachel Gutish | Photos: Ken Hill

This FMF KTM Factory Racing Team rider needs no introduction, he recently wrapped up his sixth consecutive GNCC Overall National Championship at Round 12 of the Grand National Cross Country Series in Ohio, USA. Putting him second on the all-time Grand National Cross Country (GNCC) bike championships list. He also sits on top of the leaderboard for most GNCC bike overall wins with a whopping 54. Yes, we’re talking about 27-year-old Kailub Russell.
Russell recently sat down with GNCC to share what it’s like to be a six-time champ. Here’s that interview…

GNCC: Congrats on your 2018 XC1 title. Are you happy to have another one under your belt?
Yes, it’s really cool to be able to make it six in a row now, and to be able to win like this year after year. When I got my first one in 2013, I was kind of thinking “well, who knows, I may never win another one” so five more after that first one is pretty amazing!

Do you feel like you’ve faced more challenges this year than in years past, or was this an easier year for you?
Well, none of them are easy. But I think last year was actually my hardest year, at least since my very first title. That being said, with Thad and I … it’s definitely tough, since we go 1-2 quite a bit, which means there’s not much to separate us in the championship, when it comes down to it. Since we don’t have any drops, one bad finish can put you way back in the points, and that’s really hard to make up for. While it wasn’t my most challenging year, it was still a challenging year and each championship that I have been tough in certain aspects.

Did you ever imagine that you would be this dominant when you first started racing in the pro classes, or when you were on minibikes?
No (laughs). I never envisioned it turning out quite like this. I always hoped I would win races, and championships and at least be competitive… I remember when I first moved up to XC1, I’d be looking at Rodney Smith and some of those guys, thinking “man they have five championships, that’s incredible”. It took them maybe seven or eight years to accumulate those five titles too, they didn’t get them all in a row. I wasn’t even sure I would have that many years in me to get five, that is impressive in and of itself. So, clicking off six championships all in a row like this … it’s pretty cool, and I never would have imagined it.

So, you jumped up a few positions on the all-time leaderboard with this sixth title, right?
I’m in second place now, I moved up ahead of Rodney Smith and Scott Summers in all-time championships. Ed Lojak is still in the lead with nine total.

Do you foresee yourself trying to challenge that record?
Yeah, I’m going to keep racing until …. Well, I have two more years for sure. I’m going to apply myself the best I can, the way I always have. Now that I’ve won and managed to win so many in a row, this is what we look for. It is getting harder though. All the other guys are hungry and want to win too.

There was a rumor floating around that you were going to branch out and do some other things in addition to GNCC next season. Do you have any comment on that?
There isn’t much truth to that. I hope to do some more motocross someday, and I did do a few west coast desert races this season. As of right now though, I have no concrete plans to branch out. I am for sure still an off-road rider for the next two years at least, so I’m not going anywhere.

Glad to hear you plan on sticking with us! Changing track, I see you’re still in a sling from a recent shoulder surgery. When did you hurt it, and how long did you ride hurt this season? I think a lot of us never realized you were badly injured enough to need surgery, you were still going so fast…
Well, it turns out I’ve actually been hurt for a couple of years now (laughs). It’s one of those injuries where I banged myself up a couple times and it never really had the chance to heal. The thing with ligaments and tendons, when you hurt them, you don’t have any way of knowing exactly what’s wrong unless you go to the doctor, and I don’t like going to the doctor every time I fall down. So, I always just chalked it up to, “oh my shoulders bruised up and sore because I crashed on it” or whatever… Over time though, it was getting worse and worse. Then this summer at the motocross, my labrum tore. Apparently, it had only been hanging on by a thread, and it was a straw that broke the camel’s back kind of situation. My shoulder had a bunch of slop in it afterwards, but to be honest it didn’t really hurt unless I hit it on something. But it was getting harder to recover and it was time to get it checked out. Once I soldiered through and wrapped up the championship, it was time to get it fixed and get ready for next year.

How soon do you plan to be back on the bike?
I mean, there’s no rush since it’s off-season now. I’m missing Six Days now, but we have a few months until the first GNCC. Usually, after Ironman we do the photo shoots, but then after that, I don’t start riding again until January. This recovery is supposed to be a four-month ordeal, but I’m going to try to start riding in the middle of January, about when I normally would.  We’ll just have to see how it feels.

Do a lot of the top guys take that much time off from riding? Like you’ve all developed your skills to the point where you don’t have to worry about them eroding or degrading in that time?
I feel like for me, especially since I’m getting older …. Like when I was younger, I did ride a lot more in the winter and stuff, just to have fun and ride. But everything’s gotten so serious now for me that it’s nice to take the time off the bike. Like I said, I’m getting older, and beating myself up all the time isn’t much fun. It’s important for me to take some time off the bike, relax, and give my body a break. When we practice it’s almost always race pace, and race pace is dangerous to your body in a lot of different aspects. So, it’s good to take a step back.

Do you have any words of advice or inspiration for those kids out there who look up to you?
The biggest thing, like I’ve said before, is never give up and never quit. Keep going no matter what, you never know what’s going to happen.

Speaking of kids, Makayla was telling me a really cute story about your son, how he likes to get on his strider and pretend like he’s doing GNCC starts…
(laughs) Yeah, Krue, he’s something else. He’s got the whole start procedure dialed. He packs his line in, then he does his jumping jacks and calisthenics. After that he sings like five words of the national anthem, he always has to do that. Then he gets on the bike and takes off. He usually gives himself the W too, since he’s the only one racing (laughs).

That’s awesome! Well, it was a pleasure talking to you. Is there anyone you’d like to thank?
Yes, I want to thank Factory KTM racing and all of our team sponsors.

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