Angel or devil? Hero or villain? Billy MacKenzie was the most controversial rider in UK motocross – right up to the point he jumped ship and jetted off Down Under. Now, over five-and-a-half years later, we catch up with the GP-winning double British champion and discover a changed man who’s still as complex as ever…
Exactly who is Billy MacKenzie? Whether you’ve only got into motocross in the last five years or you’re a life-long fan of the sport it’s a legitimate question given it’s one I’m not sure even Billy MacKenzie can accurately answer…
Arrogant and enigmatic and angry, chilled-out and out-spoken and controversial, hero, villain. All adjectives that apply – or have applied – to the 31-year-old Scot who has the ability to polarise opinion like no other racer, delighting and frustrating in equal measure.
Multi-time youth champion, two-time British adult champion, factory Kawasaki rider, factory Honda rider, GP winner. His career certainly isn’t without its successes but, equally, Billy just might well be the biggest wasted talent of his generation. Nothing is black and white as far as Billy is concerned – with him you get the full spectrum.
The man I meet up with in an Edinburgh cafe, five years after he turned his back on GPs and the British championship to race motocross on the other side of the world, is laid back, comfortable, contented even – qualities he didn’t possess when he upped sticks and moved to Australia at the end of the 2009 season.
Our initial interview date is pushed back a week while he waits for riding kit from former team boss Steve Dixon that never materialises and then, when I finally hit the road, during the three-hour drive north he switches the venue for our rendezvous back and forth between the historic Grassmarket area of Edinburgh and his Scottish base at nearby Longniddry. No big deal, just classic spur-of-the-moment Billy behaviour.
But he’s bang on time, his tall figure loping down the road towards me, unshaven in a hoody with ripped jeans and shaggy hair – I half expect to see Scooby Doo trotting alongside him. He steers us into a cool cafe he knows which “does great Mexican tuna wraps” and we find a quiet corner.
It’s good to see him. I’ve had a seesaw relationship with Billy and when he first burst onto the adult scene in ’99 I found him hard work – a cocky 15-year-old, full of himself and displaying little or no respect for his more experienced rivals. But it’s easy to be too quick to judge and as I got to know him better – and, to be fair, he grew up a bit – it became clear there was much more to him than simply a fast kid with a bad attitude.
Billy’s been back in the UK since January and hasn’t raced for almost 12 months so it’s inevitable there’s been speculation on both sides of the world that it was the end of the line for him as far as racing was concerned.
“This mustn’t be about me retiring or making a comeback,” he says pretty much straight off the bat. “It’s almost like I’m treading water at the moment and that’s what’s really exciting about it. Having that feeling of complete freedom and knowing that the next path I choose could lead to something bigger and better.
“And if I decide to go racing again I’ll approach it with a different attitude. It’s like clearing my plate of everything I felt was sucking the energy out of me and starting again. It’s like a gap year.”
So why did he come back? Settled in the idyllic Byron Bay, a small coastal town 500 miles north of Sydney, Billy seemed to be enjoying a dream lifestyle…
“Basically I just missed home. I’d been in Australia for five years and obviously I stayed there because I loved it – it was good times and I don’t regret it for a second but I started to think of home a little bit and I got to the point that I’d literally ticked every box apart from an Australian championship. Lifestyle wise I’d got a house, I’d travelled, I’d done everything. I’d done enough sun, sea and sand to last me a lifetime. I didn’t feel like there was anything left for me to do in Australia apart from chase that Australian title.
“I started thinking about my dad and how I hadn’t spent a lot of time with him – five years is a long time to be away from your family – so I just wanted to come back and catch up with everyone, help everyone who’ve helped me. I wanted to help my dad finish his house – he’s still renovating from when I was in the schoolboys because he’d spent all his money to get me to where I was. I felt like it was my duty to give something back and it was an overwhelming feeling.”
Over the last five years Billy’s had highs and lows and the 2014 season was a tough one for him. He’d fallen out with his CDR Yamaha team boss Craig Dack and as well as missing home it seems as though the same reasons that drove him to Australia in the first place were driving him away.
“The last year was difficult. It was an emotional season and it sort of brought back memories of the year that I left over here. It was just taking the fun out of it. I went to Australia because I wanted to enjoy riding again and I was but, obviously, in any business people need results and I was just getting that feeling that there was that pressure again and it was affecting my riding. I was turning up at the races thinking I’d rather not be there.”
His career in Oz started well and racing for Troy Carroll’s Factory Australian Kawasaki team he finished second in the 2010 Nationals, 13 points behind Jay Marmont with more race and overall wins than anyone else.
“I had a deep feeling that I was the best – I went there with that attitude – and was fully thinking of winning but I broke my wrist and missed three races. Ifs, buts and maybes but I should have really won it. I was fast enough, I was excited enough, the bike was working well, the team were working well. Because we did so well the first year it really escalated the second year – Monster became involved, Pro Circuit became involved and we just went way bigger than we should have.
“It was good fun with Troy but we kinda just got ahead of ourselves. The first year was great but when Monster and Pro Circuit came in we got that extra pressure from the sponsors. And I didn’t mould with the bike – I was having real troubles for those two years because we just didn’t have the base set-up we needed, we were just relying on parts coming from the States so it was a time when me and [Dean] Ferris were trying to work with what we had and it was all about the show, not the bikes.
“The Monster crew were coming in, there was VIP, the speakers were going and the essence of the bikes and the racing came second. But we were leading the championship and doing well at the start and then Yamaha just upped their game and started beating us.”
Billy slipped to third that year but still won seven races and a couple of overalls as he finished 46 points behind Marmont and 14 off Josh Coppins.
He was joined Down Under by Brad Anderson in 2012 but while Brad tied for third Billy ended the season in 15th after injuring his wrist and for 2013 he left Kawasaki to race for Dack’s Australian Yamaha team, finishing third behind Matt Moss and Todd Waters.
“I’d had an injury-free season in 2013 and I won some races and I got fitter and I got better and I built up everything I’d lost in 2012 and so I felt like I had a good base to start 2014 with a proper winning attitude. We’d done everything we could but I just didn’t feel we were ready in time – the bike, team, everything. It was only by I think the second round we got the engine sorted and then it took me ages to get to grips with it because it was that fast.
“I was trying so hard and I’d had a few crashes – it was a new 450 Yamaha so we’d had to start development all over again from the proven 2013 bike. Towards the end of the season once I’d got the amount of time in on the bike that I felt I needed the results started to come but by that time we’d already fallen out.
“It was just a shame. Literally the weekend we fell out I went and won the overall. We had an argument in the awning after practice because I didn’t make Superpole – and it wasn’t through lack of trying – and I came in and we were talking about bike set-up and he just lost his rag with me.
“He was obviously stressing because he saw the championship was going out the door, I was trying my best to tell them what I thought the bike needed and he thought I was just blaming the bike.”
I put it to Billy that throughout his time in the UK he frustrated people and that to me it sounded like Dack was getting the same treatment. While not exactly refuting this statement – he mentions the ’08 MXoN at Donington Park (a subject we’ll deal with later) – he’s keen to explain his behaviour.
“I was getting to the point in Australia where I wasn’t getting help from anyone, I started to become that foreign entity about to take the championship away from the Aussie contenders. I just didn’t have that core group around me that was helping me get my results and I didn’t really feel that I was getting the support I needed from Craig Dack.
“I don’t know what the guy was thinking but from my point of view his attention switched and I was no longer of interest to him but because I was third in the championship [in 2013] and the other two guys were picked he had no choice but to take me and he pretty much said that to my face. Basically, from the first year I rode for him to the second year I rode for him he was two completely different people and it just made my work really hard.
“In a positive light the people he has working in the team and the way the team operates is second to none. It’s up there with how Jan de Groot used to work. It’s a business and I understand that but at that moment in time I needed some encouragement – for him to back me – and it really started affecting my season. I was wondering why I was doing it. I wanted to go to the racing and enjoy being at the racing and it was the complete opposite.
“If I’d stayed this year there would have been an option but not with Yamaha. We didn’t even talk about it. I think we both decided halfway through the season that we were going to go our separate ways.”
Billy intends to remain in the UK until autumn but as far as plans go that appears to be it. There’s a chance he may race the final two rounds of the Maxxis for Steve Dixon’s Monster Energy DRT Kawasaki team before he leaves but, then again, he might not. There’s a chance that when he goes back to Oz he might have a ride for 2016 but, then again, he might not. There’s a chance he actually might retire and look for a new career but, then again…
“There are lots of options but the only thing for me right now is to go and do some training, do some riding with my mates. I’m back in with my little crew, I’m having fun. When I went out on Sunday I had a blast. The key thing for me is to not over-analyse it. To relax, be calm and run with it because that’s when things seem to happen. If I go chasing something I guess I get so intense that I almost push it away if that makes sense?
“I’m just going with the flow, I’ve got a month to get some bike time and if I’m feeling like I’m going all right – and I did on Sunday – and feeling the vibe then I’ll come and do the Maxxis and, obviously, if I’m behind the gate I’ll give it a good crack. But I’m just not going to be like ‘yeah, I’m coming back and I’m going to do the last two rounds’. I want to eliminate all of that talk.
“I’m going back to Australia in November because as soon as the weather turns I’m out of here – I’m not doing a winter in the UK. Then I’ll jump into my same routine and train through to February in Byron Bay, that’s my home now. I’ve got everything around me and don’t have to travel very far. I can train and ride and eat well and be a healthy human being and if an offer comes to me in that time then sweet, if not I’m going to go to college and do a graphic design course, do some more property and do something else.
“I’m literally going with the wind at the moment, seeing what falls in front of me.”
He’s clearly still in demand in Australia. When Matt Moss got injured in a freak accident – he hit an earth-mover that was driven onto the track during a Superpole session – Billy was approached for a possible fill-in ride. Prior commitments meant it didn’t happen but don’t read too much into that because after his hiatus he’s started to think like a motocross racer again.
“I’ve been testing the water, gently. I only got that feeling again a couple of weeks ago, like I’d got over whatever thing it was I was going through and thought it was time to get a bike again. I’m ready, I’ve had my little downtime and I still feel I could do another two years of professional racing. As long as I’m not putting too much pressure on myself or thinking about it too much – because I am that complicated guy.”
Having won back-to-back British MX1 titles in ’07 and ’08 with KRT Kawasaki and then CAS Honda, Billy’s ’09 season – his third on a 450 – was disrupted by injury and he slipped to sixth in the domestic championship. On the world stage he’d finished ninth for two years in a row and won the overall in Japan in ’07 with a 1-2 card (backing up overall wins in MX2 in Japan in ’05 and ’06) but in ’09 in GPs he dropped to 18th and although there was an offer from CAS for 2010 his heart was set on Australia.
“The world championship scene just started to die off in my head. The tracks were getting worse in my opinion, then there was all the travel involved. There were so many things. It was a massive grind, especially when you’re carrying injuries.
“I know exactly what Cairoli was going through this year. It’s almost impossible to ride with injuries. I don’t know how Cairoli did what he did. And look how many riders are injured this year. There are riders I see in the GPs who are just punishing themselves. Throwing themselves down the track every weekend, not getting paid what they should and hanging onto the fact that they were once at the front. It’s scary man. It’s almost like an illness.
“You need to weigh up the risk and rewards of the world championship and I just didn’t think it was balanced anymore. I was making a lot of money but I invested it straight away. It’s not like I was living a playboy lifestyle and getting all happy with myself. I was just living on bonus money and money I was winning on British championship weekends. So I invested wisely but that is the money you need to be making to race the world championship.
“As soon as I had injuries and that money was no longer there I was like ‘hold on, I’ve been steadily going up, up, up and now I’m going to be at the bottom again’ and that doesn’t make sense. ‘I’ve got the wins and the championships but I’ve had an injury – give me another chance’ but it’s not like that, it’s a business. I was getting a hard time from the results I was getting that year and I was sick of it. I felt I didn’t need to prove myself to anyone.
“I was already burned out with it and there was more money in Australia – plus a lifestyle that was going to be better for me, more healthy – and that’s why I made the decision.”
It wasn’t an ill-informed move. Billy had already travelled extensively in the Far East and while he was injured in 2009 he flew out to Australia for a holiday that would change his life – even down to the way he eats – as he explains over what turns out to be a really good Mexican tuna wrap.
“I’m a slow eater these days, I’ve got to chew. Once I would have ploughed that and be onto the next thing. Living in Australia has changed that, massively. And visiting Thailand and stuff. That whole journey over there. Everything I saw from when I went back-packing. I was like ‘holy sh*t, there’s another side of the planet and things are completely different.
“It’s so much brighter and more colourful in Australia, the greens, the blues – everything about it is just so intense – but I miss the seasons, you don’t get the same scents and that’s what brings memories back. These things are relevant to me, I don’t just dismiss them. I like to take everything in around me.
“Travelling to the other side of the world has made me so much more aware of things, especially food and diet. It’s so much easier to be a professional athlete in Australia and feel good about yourself instead of having to grind yourself to death into a headwind in Scotland in winter. I was running down the beach with my shirt off getting a sun tan with good music in my ears.”
At the time I remember thinking it was a no-brainer. Seriously, where would you rather be – turning motos under the Aussie sun or grinding out the laps in the slop of Little Silver in mid-March? But some people felt he’d bottled it after one disappointing season and the question of whether or not he could have won a world title will always remain unanswered – although Billy’s pretty sure…
“Honestly? Probably not and that thought definitely vacated my mind as soon as I left. I always felt I had the speed to do it – that was obvious and I proved it many times – but there was always that thing missing and I didn’t know what it was. I tried to find it.
“I won my first grand prix race at the second round in 2005 at Bellpuig. If I’d just believed then that I could be world champion I reckon that would have been my best chance but I was so happy just to win a race and we didn’t think about the bigger picture.
“I won a few more races, got on the podium, won an overall – I was happy to just be winning races – but it probably would have been wise to think about the bigger picture. That’s what I said to Steve about Max [Anstie] right now – this is his chance, especially with Herlings out. He just needs to believe that. He’s in the best position to win that championship and I hope he does.”
We’ve already established that’s Billy’s complicated but if you’re still unconvinced here’s further proof…
“I feel that if I focus too much on racing I over-think it so I need to keep it on the back-burner and just do it at weekends like we used to. When I was younger and winning all my youth British championship races I never used to ride a bike during the week. I’d be on my BMX or playing football, not even thinking about racing. Then the weekend would come, we’d get to the track and I’d jump on the bike and sh*t would just happen because I was that excited about being on the bike. If I think about the weekend on a Monday I’ll burn myself out by the Friday.”
But surely that contradicts what he just said about 2005 and a failure to look at the bigger picture possibly costing him a shot at the world title?
“Absolutely, I realise that but that’s looking back and it’s always easy to do that. Thinking back to ’05 we still tried our hardest every weekend and who knows, if I had started thinking about the championship maybe I would have finished further back? It’s all ifs and buts and maybes. You just don’t know.”
During the course of our interview Billy describes himself as a ‘hippy’ on a number of occasions and it seems to me – at the risk of sounding bullsh*t philosophical – he’s still finding himself. Most 31-year-old men have a family, a mortgage and a steady job but Billy’s single and years of hard work, big pay packets and smart investments have given him financial security so who can blame him for enjoying the luxury of introspection.
But whether he’s still finding himself or not, getting away from the pressures of racing has been beneficial.
“In my mind my life’s balanced. Other people might not think so but I’ve got a nice balance in my head. Some people think balance is having a nine-to-five job five days a week but as long as I’ve got a balanced diet, balanced exercise, I’m being a healthy human being I feel good about myself no matter where I am or what I’m doing. Things just fall into place.
“I don’t have to try that hard at life or try and work it out as much. Just focus on being a better version of yourself and people will be attracted to that and I’ve found the right friends and people in my world who believe in the same thing. That’s a core belief I’ve gained from my travels, from my experiences.”
When he arrived back in the UK at the start of the year motocross was the last thing on his mind.
“I felt I needed time to gather my thoughts, deal with personal things, get grounded, be a kiddy again because in Byron I’ve created a life for myself that’s very similar to the life I used to lead when I was a child.
“I’m in a small town, I’ve got my BMX, everything is easy and I have a routine. It was a conscious thing. I was searching for a place that was very similar to when I felt most comfortable which was ’07, ’08 when I was living at home, training with Bry [his cousin Bryan MacKenzie], riding tracks with Johnny [Douglas Hamilton], being around my friends, playing five-a-side. It’s like that in Byron Bay but better because the sun’s out, the sea’s there.
“This [Scotland] is where I’m from and I don’t mind visiting and I’ll always have a place here but I call Byron home now.”
Our conversation inevitably veers back towards the immediate question of will he race the last two Maxxis rounds this year? If he does – and does well – it’s got to be good exposure if he decides to continue his career Down Under…
“I guess it will be but I’m not looking at it like that. If I do it it will be because I want to. I would love to do well and if I do I’ll try my hardest like I do at every race but I haven’t raced since the last round of last year’s Australian championship which was the end of September. And I’ve not rode a lot since.”
There are a lot of fans who’d go nuts to see Billy reunited with Steve Dixon, even if just for a couple of rounds…
“I loved riding for Steve for so long because I was young and he was just trying to give me the best machines possible. He’s just a freak at building bikes and he loves it. He would give me as much as he could and I would try my hardest. I was really laying it on the line and trying my best and he could see that. It was the same relationship I had with my dad – as long as everyone gave 100 per cent we were happy win, lose or otherwise.
“I reckon I’ve got another couple of years left. I won the last race and the Australian championship is very much British championship level. I honestly feel that I’m still an athlete. I’ve mastered motocross, I’ve been doing it since I was six and I know how to ride a bike and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. All I need to do is be fit enough on a bike I’m enjoying riding and I’m sure I’ve still got results in me.
“It would maybe be a regret if I didn’t do another two years because I know that I’m fast enough, fit enough, healthy enough. So don’t use the ‘retired’ word!”
Before we wrap it up I remind Billy of his quote from a DBR interview in June 2006. ‘I’m everything motocross – my friends are motocross, my work is motocross, I have to be motocross, motocross, motocross – it’s how I live my life’…
So is that still true?
“It’s the complete opposite.”
At the start of this feature I asked the question ‘who is Billy MacKenzie?’ and to be honest I’m still no closer to an answer except to say I know who he isn’t – he isn’t the same person who five-and-a-half years went to race in Oz. And he’s a better man for it…
We’ve got more exclusive Billy MacKenzie content coming your way over the next week so stay tuned to dirtbikerider.com – you know you should.
This article first appeared in the October issue of Dirt Bike Rider magazine