After nearly two years away from professional motocross racing in the U.S., New Zealand’s Ben Townley has returned to action as a member of the Red Bull-sponsored TLD/Lucas Oil/Honda team in the AMA Pro Motocross Championship series. Many have questioned the ability of a rider who has spent such significant time on the sidelines, but Townley has quickly returned to winning form, silencing the critics along the way.
Armed with raw, natural speed and an unbelievable outlook on life, Ben is proving to be a worthy championship threat in the still-young 2010 outdoor series. We caught up with BT to find out where he’s been, and how it feels to be back on track.
Take us back to what happened at the end of your last stint here in the States, before you took all the time off.
The Motocross of Nations at Budds Creek was where my troubles began. I had a really good 2007 summer, and I was really looking forward to des Nations, as I always do. I was putting in a hot lap during practice, and when I came over Henry’s Hill I high-sided as I was going off the top. I got flung off the bike and landed pretty hard on my shoulder. I managed to carry on that day, but I didn’t end up racing on Sunday; it was just too sore.
I didn’t know it then, but that was the start of the issues that have basically taken me out until now. I took some time off after that, and during that off-season, I switched over to the Red Bull Honda team. I was still in quite a bit of pain at that stage, but I was so excited about my new opportunity that I did everything possible to mask it. As if the shoulder injury wasn’t enough, though, on the first day of testing on my new Honda, I landed awkwardly off of a jump and broke my heel. What are the chances?
When news broke of your heel injury, we were pretty blown away by your continued misfortunes…
Yeah, no doubt. That injury healed up in time to prepare for the Nationals, but then I re-aggravated my shoulder, and hurt my wrist at the same time. I tried to compete in a couple Nationals, but it just didn’t work out very well for me. From there, I had an operation done here in the U.S. that should have had me back on the bike by October. I was still struggling in December, though, so it turned out to be another six months off of the bike.
Despite the time off, I still wasn’t feeling right, and realized that I had been lying to myself that things were okay. I had been here three seasons by that time, but spent two of them on the couch! By the middle of January that year , we came to the decision to take the entire season off, because I was simply unable to race.
Most guys would have taken the money and just waited it out, but you let your team keep the money while you went off to heal up. That’s a pretty solid move.
Racing was always what I wanted to do, and my parents instilled in me to always give it my best shot. I made it to becoming a professional, and that was always what I had dreamed of. I went over to race in Europe when I was only 16 years old. After spending a few years earning my way up the ranks, I eventually won the world title in MX2, and then moved up to the 450 class. I had some success, and then came to America where I progressed as a person - not just as a rider.
The fruits of everything came with it, and I learned to really respect what I have. I’m living my dream, but I also realize that I have a lot of obligations as far as the team and sponsors are concerned. I’ve always strived to put my best foot forward, and I realized that at that point I wasn’t able to do that. I never, ever set out to make money from the sport or to become famous… I just wanted to achieve my goals. When I realized that wasn’t going to happen at that point in time, I knew that I needed to take a step back.
"The whole process was just to get my body healthy, but in turn I learned a lot about life."
You ended up taking a pretty significant period of time off for a racer. What was that like for you?
It was awesome, actually. I really enjoyed being home. As I mentioned before, I left when I was young and never really got to spend a lot of time back home in New Zealand. Each year when I raced in Europe, I was only able to spend about two months of the year at home. Since living in America, it was reduced to between a few weeks and a month, so it was a great time for me. I loved it. I did a lot of fishing, and I’ve always sort of had an interest in flying, so I started getting my pilot’s license, as well. I really did a lot of things you can’t do when you’re racing - enjoying the fruits of life.
Being a professional athlete is a great privilege, but most people don’t realize the sacrifices you have to make for it.
That’s very true. Being “normal” for a little over a year is something that I didn’t realize I’d cherish as much as I do now. I haven’t mentioned that I actually had to have another surgery when I got home, so all-in-all the time proved to be great for me both physically and mentally.
The whole process was just to get my body healthy, but in turn I learned a lot about life. Just being able to relax and not have the stress of being at the races was great! Most importantly, though, my wife and I have a son now, so having the time to spend with family is priceless.
You won moto 2 at the recent USGP out at Glen Helen, and you set the fastest lap time of the day at the Freestone National; is this any indication that your speed is back to where it once was?
You know, I never really doubted my speed during all of this. Funny story actually… I had a team that was interested in me in late November of last year. The manager made a comment to me, saying, “One of our guys is a good outdoor rider, so we’ll need you to come over here so we can match you up against him to see what your speed is like.” I thought he was joking at first, but it turned out that he was pretty serious about it. I just laughed to myself and thought, “Well, if you don’t really believe, I just raced Ryan Villopoto a season ago, and I beat him in six nationals. If you don’t think that I’m fast enough, then don’t even bother.”
The point, I guess, is that I’ve never doubted my speed, and I do think I’ve proven that since being back. The biggest thing lost while being away is the intensity of competition. You just can’t substitute racing during training and practice. But as far as speed, I’m very happy with how it’s going. The team and I still have some set-up work to do on the bike since it’s new to me, but I’m fortunate to be working with some great people who are helping to get me comfortable. With my bike and stamina getting closer, I think I’ll be in regular winning contention very soon!