Kailub Russell Interview

Shan Moore | December 29, 2020

Kailub Russell Interview

2020 GNCC / Full Gas Sprint Enduro Champion

After an amazingly successful career racing off-road, 30-year-old Kailub Russell will close out his magnificent 10-year run in GNCC as a champion—an eight-time champion, at that. However, he isn’t finished racing altogether, not just yet.

Cycle News Interviews Kailub Russell
Kailub Russell finished off his GNCC career by winning his eighth championship.

Words and Photography by Shan Moore

Kailub Russell has said on several occasions that he hates losing more than he likes winning. That attitude has been the driving force in the North Carolina rider’s career, and over the years, it’s carried him to eight GNCC titles, three Full Gas Sprint Enduro titles and a National Enduro title. And as it so often does, that mindset even carries over into his everyday life.

Kailub Russell at Full Gas Sprint Enduro
Russell also won this year’s Full Gas Sprint Enduro Championship. He’s won it three times.

Kailub Russell Interview | Winning Isn’t Everything (Anymore)

“In all honesty, I can’t do a sport without getting pissed off, even golf,” said Russell. “It doesn’t matter if I’m having the greatest day of my life or having the greatest race of my life. I’m still going to come in, and I’m going to bitch about that one thing that I did wrong. It never leaves your body.”

Russell, who hails from Boonville, North Carolina, admits that it’s that very sentiment that will not allow him to race a GNCC for a few years until he can get some enjoyment out of it.

“I’m always going to bitch about how I could have done this when I was in better shape or riding all the time. I do enjoy other aspects, but I feel like I’m getting the enjoyment out of racing right now because of the competitiveness in me and not the actual thing itself that it’s doing for me. I have a good game of golf. It’s okay, but it’s, like, once in a while, I have a shit game, and it’s just like having a bad race, in a way. I’m too deep into winning and being successful to relax and have fun at something. So hopefully in a few years, I can get rid of this sort of mentality and realize [I can] focus on other aspects of life. Winning is not everything anymore.”

Kailub Russell Interview | Over It

2020 GNCC Champion Kailub Russell
Russell won his first GNCC title in 2013 and has never looked back.

Russell is going out on top. There’s no disputing that. But some question why he wants to quit GNCC racing when he would begin the next racing season (2021) healthy and in the best shape for the first time in many years. According to Russell, the bottom line is he’s just “over it.”

“Honestly, racing is not sustainable,” said Russell. “I’m 30 years old. I had a unique opportunity to maybe create my own business and move in a direction still within the sport and help guys out. I had been coming into the previous few years a little bit banged up and beat up. I had knee surgery in ’15, and then I ended up having my shoulder done in ’18. My shoulder was torn. Both of my shoulders have been torn up for several years. So, I wasn’t actually ever really healthy. I was getting lucky to make it through these years. But in 2020, I was actually healthy for once. If I could win my eighth title, I just felt it was the right move to do. I’ve got nothing left to prove, and, honestly, I just wanted to go out on top and say I was the best there was to do it.”

Like many racers, Russell got into the sport because his father raced, and it just seemed like the thing to do. He wanted to be like his father.

“As a kid, you don’t understand about life and living on your own. You’re just focused on dreams, in a way. So racing a motorcycle was always what I wanted to do, and that’s all I knew,” said Russell. But making money and a living out of racing off-road is tough.

“In off-road, it’s hard to make money,” says Russell. “I was making pretty good money my second year in XC2, and then I signed my XC1 deal. It was a better salary, but it was going to be a lot harder to earn those bonuses, like a lot harder. So, in theory, I was going to make less money than I was when I was in XC2.”

KTM 350 XC-F Kailub Russell Motorcycle
KTM rewarded Russell for his 10-plus years with the company and his eight GNCC, three Sprint Enduro and one Enduro Championships with an off-road model named after him.

Kailub Russell Interview | Sucking Wind

Once he moved into the elite XC1 division in 2011, Russell admitted that he suffered through a few tough races because he wasn’t fit enough.

“At Big Buck, I started up front with Charlie [Mullins], and I battled him for the first hour and a half of the race. I remember he yarded me at the end of it with two and a half laps to go, and then Josh Strang caught me and passed me, and I got third. That was a huge turning point for me. I didn’t get beat because I was slower; I just got beat because I wasn’t as fit as those guys.”

From that point on, Russell vowed never to get beat again because he wasn’t fit.

“I knew that’s what separated winners from the rest of the pack. I knew right then and there, I needed to make a change and take it a little bit more seriously. I knew I had the speed, and I could run with those guys. I was just as fast, if not faster at the time, but I wasn’t as fit. Then I got fit and the next year, I won a ton of races, almost won a championship. Just everything snowballed in the right direction for me. Definitely, once you get a taste of winning and what it’s like, there’s nothing that can replace that feeling. It becomes an addiction, and that’s how I treated it in a way.”

2020 GNCC / Full Gas Sprint Enduro Champion Kailub Russell
Russell realized early in his racing career that fitness was key.

Kailub Russell Interview | Just Ride It

Not only did Russell become one of the fittest riders on the circuit, but he honed his riding skills and even his ability to set up the bike.

“Back in the day, I wasn’t that good of a tester to tell you if my bike was good or bad,” said Russell. “They threw a setting in there and I rode it. Nowadays, I’m super finicky. A couple clicks this way or that way; I can tell major differences. Today we messed with my bike, the rebound, the high-speed, the low-speed on the shock and the forks. We made one-click changes all day for each test, and I would come in, and I could tell drastic changes just in that one click, nowadays.

“That’s a benefit, but it’s also a curse in a way, for sure. Back in the day, I would just go out and just ride the piss out of the thing and be like, whatever. It’s not supposed to do that. I don’t know what it’s supposed to do and not supposed to do. So now you’re hitting bumps and stuff, and instead of just attacking the track and trying to go as fast as you can, you hit something, and your bike goes up, and it messes with you because you’re like, what is my bike doing? It shouldn’t do that. It should feel this way and not that way. So, it plays mind games with you.

“Almost not knowing is a better plan of attack than knowing too much and being too finicky to subtle changes. It’s crazy how that works. Back in the day, you could have taken my forks and thrown them as far up in the clamps as they could go and twisted the rebound all the way in, and I wouldn’t have noticed a damn thing, but I was riding to the line a couple of races ago, and I didn’t realize my forks were like a millimeter higher than my practice bike was, and I get to the starting line, and I was like, ‘Man, I think my bars are too far forward.’ I couldn’t pinpoint it, but I knew something was off. I could just feel it just riding to the starting line. So, I got there, and I rolled my bars back, and it still felt like shit. I rode the whole race, and I came back, and I saw that instead of on the second line, I was on the third line. I was like, no wonder I felt so bad for 30, 40 minutes because I was adjusted to it.

“It definitely is a curse. So, there’s a fine line between being naive and not knowing, and a good tester and knowing everything, and being able to dictate. Definitely, when you get going you can’t make changes in off-road. We don’t reset in 30 minutes. You got to deal with it. Like I said, off-road, you got to be mentally tough to deal with your bike even when it’s junk.”

Kailub Russell 2020 GNCC Champion
An injury prevented Russell from racing the final two rounds of the ’20 GNCC Championship. But he’s ridden through injuries often throughout his career.

Kailub Russell Interview | Unfinished Business

Due to a knee injury, Russell was forced to end his GNCC career at this year’s Ironman race, two races before the end of the season. Of course, Russell is not entirely done. He will still be under contract with KTM in 2021, and he still has some unfinished business.

“I would like to have won Six Days,” said Russell. “I feel like I threw one away in 2015 when Ryan [Sipes] won and I blew my knee out. It’s a tough event. Those guys are a little bit more on point at certain places and the terrain is so varying. It’s funny. You can almost go anywhere in Europe and it’s going to be like California. It blows my mind. There’s so much desert-type terrain over there. It’s kind of off-the-wall. We went to Portugal and it was a lot like Southern California. It’s just tough for me, because I don’t ride in that stuff and it’s hard to get comfortable in those conditions.

“I enjoy Six Days, but it’s a tough event. I want to win. I got another year to do it. I’m going to race ’21, going to Six Days in Italy. It’s more East Coast-type terrain. I know those Italian guys; there’s a lot of fast riders, and they’re going to be really good, too. That race, there’s so much that can go wrong and there’s so much time on a bike. It would be a huge feat to do it.”

Russell also has plans to ride at least four of the Kenda Full Gas Sprint Enduro Series, obviously to hone his skills for Six Days. Plus, he will still be under contract with KTM through 2021.

“I’m still a full-time racer next year. I’m just retiring from GNCC,” said Russell. “Then, after ’21, I’ll be done with racing full-time as a professional. I’ve got nothing left to prove in GNCC and off-road. I’ve got some bucket list items that I want to do. I’ve always wanted to race the full Pro Motocross Series.”

At least for now, Russell feels he will be relieved to have a year without the demands on him that a full season of racing requires.

Kailub Russell in the rain
Just another day at the office for Russell.

Kailub Russell Interview | Nothing Left To Prove In GNCC

“I’m actually more excited about the stress being gone of having to uphold an image that is rather unrealistic,” said Russell. “Like I said, I’m content. I’m happy with what I’ve been able to accomplish. There’s nothing left to prove. I can’t say I’m not going to wish I was out there, because, at the end of the day, I’m still more than capable of being out there and having good results and probably still be the favorite to go into the next season to win the championship, but you can’t look at it like that.

“I made my decision and I’m pretty set with what I’ve done. Maybe in the next couple of years it might be tough, like ‘I can still do this,’ or whatever. You’re going to have those thoughts, but at the end of the day, it’s more relaxing to just be hanging out and not have the stress of having to be the guy. I’ve done it for so long. The fear of losing is greater than the joy of winning. That’s why I want to go out on top. There’s nothing left to prove. What’re two more championships? What’s one more championship going to mean? But if I lose, what’s that going to mean?”

Russell realizes it’s going to be a few years before he can just race for fun.

“Right now, I know what I’m capable of and what I’m still going to be capable of and what I was able to do, and I’m not going to be able to do that,” says Russell. “So, I’m not going to get the same gratification out of it. So, it’s not going to have the same meaning for me. If I can’t get that same gratification from riding a motorcycle, I’m probably just not going to do it.”

Russell has talked in the past about training other riders and bought property in 2018 in Florida that he is developing. Russell has always said he enjoys training.

“The training part has never bothered me,” said Russell. “Nowadays, it’s the riding part and the structure of the riding and the intensity you got to ride with to practice and then take it to the races. Like I said, I’ve been a big creator of this progression of the sport of how people practice and get ready for these events. It’s just dangerous. It’s scary. That’s what I’m realizing. When I wake up, don’t get me wrong, I love racing a motorcycle, and I love the feeling of winning, but when I get up and go cycling and go to ride, I don’t mind going cycling and going swimming. I can’t run anymore. My knees are jacked, my ankles. But the training part, going to the gym and training is good for me. It’s the riding, to be honest with you. It’s knowing that you got to go practice with all intentions of going just as fast as you’re going to race. And if you don’t do that, you’re not getting much out of it. I’m not in a place, mentally, where I want to do that anymore. So, getting motivated to actually just do the riding part is where I’m lacking at the moment. At least for off-road, I’m still going to race, but that killer instinct is slowly dwindling away, and the motivation to hang it out there and stay at the top is what’s the hardest part to do; the riding part.”

Kailub Russell and Family
Russell’s number-one fans—his wife, Chandler, and son, Krue.

Kailub Russell Interview | Sidelined

When Russell suffered his knee injury at this year’s Burr Oak GNCC, it turns out that he tore his PCL. When he raced his final two races, he damaged his knee further.

“When they went in there, they found that there was a lot of swelling, and it was a little bit worse than what they originally thought,” said Russell. “They told me I would be able to start bicycling in three to five weeks, but I’ll probably wait until the start of the year.”

Full Gas Sprint Enduro Champ Kailub Russell
Russell says he still plans to race off-road, such as the ISDE in 2021 in Italy, and he would even like to race Pro Motocross.

Kailub Russell Interview | Kailub Edition

At the Ironman GNCC, the final round of the year, KTM honored Russell with the unveiling of the Kailub Russell Special Edition 350 XC-F. It was only the second time a KTM “replica” has been named for an American rider (Ryan Dungey was the first) and the only time for an off-roader.

“I was totally excited about it,” said Russell. “I had heard rumors at the start of the season that it might happen, but then when Covid hit and production was stopped in Austria, I figured it wouldn’t happen. So, when it did, it was a surprise. I was thrilled and honored.” CN

Cycle News Interviews Kailub Russell

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Shan Moore | Contributing Editor Moore covers all facets of off-road racing for Cycle News – from AMA Supercross and Motocross to GNCC and National Hare Scrambles events.