Racing, like many sports, can get political. It’s easy to get caught up in the fine print if you will. Chasing fun and chasing dreams can quickly become chasing points and chasing championships.
Now before my DM’s blow up, I’m not bashing the chasing of points and the chasing of championships. It’s good to have goals, in fact, it’s healthy, in my opinion. Strive to be better today than you were yesterday, right?
My point is, remember that first time you threw your leg over a motorcycle or ATV? You were nervous but you were stoked, grinning ear to ear as you twisted the throttle and the adrenaline took over. Then you got a bigger bike. Then you started racing for fun. Then somewhere along the way, maybe, you lost sight of why you started riding in the first place. The prize at the end of the tunnel becomes more important than the ride itself.
Nothing is guaranteed in life, nothing comes easy. So chase those points and chase those championships, but never forget about that first time you threw your leg over a bike and the feeling of freedom, the feeling of FUN.
Ben Kelley has a firm grip on his reality. He’s wise beyond his years in how he approaches his Professional Racing career. And I’m pretty sure that healthy and balanced outlook is exactly why Ben has been so successful so early.
GNCCRacing.com: Ben! XC1 Pro, points leader, and all around just a good dude. Thanks for joining me today. First and foremost, let’s go way back to where it all started. What got you on a motorcycle and eventually racing the GNCC.
Ben Kelley: Yeah! I’m 25 now, from Connecticut and I got my first bike for my fifth birthday. It was a little Action 50. A lot of people probably don’t even know what those are. It was just a little two-stroke 50. I rode the wheels off that thing. I don’t really remember much of it outside of the pictures I have. I actually still have that bike, it’s one I’ll keep forever. I’d like to fix it up, but I don’t really know if you can even find parts for it anymore. My Grandparents have some acreage out here and so I always had a place to ride. Rode around quite a bit with my cousin. We raced locals eventually and like most kids I just slowly moved through the ranks. I never really imagined myself racing professionally. Honestly, I watched Supercross and Pro Motocross but never really knew you could make a living doing it off-road. A few years back I showed up to Unadilla GNCC and rode A class. Did pretty well, not great. Then in 2015 I gave it another shot in XC2 and got 8th. The next race was Somerset and I got third in XC2. I really had no idea what I was doing either, I just showed up with dad and mom and raced. I was the guy with the old bike with duct tape for my numbers. Made it up to the podium and was shaking, I had no idea what I was doing. Shortly after that Ross from Trail Jesters reached out to me. He’s the guy that encouraged me to race the rest of the GNCCs. I gave it a shot but had some bike trouble in the next two races. My bikes weren’t the best setup. We just simply didn’t know how to prep a race bike for the speeds and terrain I was running. In 2016 Trail Jesters started helping me out with bikes and that was a huge difference maker. Josh Toth started with me too. We’re both from the same area so that was really cool.
Fast forward a couple years. You won the XC2 Championship just two years after this, in 2018. Then defended that title in 2019. So XC2 2016, three years later you’re a two-time XC2 Champ. At the end of 2019 you jumped into the XC1 ranks. That’s a quick transition! Mark Hyde brought this up during the last broadcast at Snowshoe. You’ve got some very lofty expectations, and rightfully so. There’s no beating around the bush, you’re the guy that has to fill the shoes of 8 time GNCC Champ, Kailub Russell. However, at this professional level, you’ve really not been doing this very long at all. How do you handle that pressure?
It is a lot of pressure. I’m still learning too. I was a top ten overall guy from the XC2 level. So I knew I could compete, but could I run with the top three consistently in XC1? I trained with Kailub [Russell] and Charlie Mullins down in Florida. That started back in 2017 I believe. That was a major difference maker for me. That’s when I stopped working my day job and school and focused 100% on racing. That along with Josh Toth and I constantly pushing each other in the XC2 class helped make me the rider I am today. You’re right though, it’s been such a short amount of time between then and now, I rarely think about how short the time frame has been. It’s been good though; I welcome the pressure. In the beginning of 2020 I had to have surgery on my shoulder which took my out for the first half of the season. That really bummed me out. It was my rookie season and I had rode really well going into the season. I really wanted to compete against Kailub in his last season and see what I could do against him. I ended up doing fairly well at the end of 2020, but I was never 100% myself. At least not by my expectations. Going into this past offseason I didn’t have quite the best offseason I wanted. I was banged up going into round one and ended up fifth on the day. Going into the Florida round this year I was very motivated to win. I spend a lot of time down there and knew I had an advantage. Snagged the win there and backed it up with a second place finish in Georgia. After that, well the bottom kind of fell out.
I delt with a lot of stress in 2018 and 2019 but nothing like this. I missed half my rookie year, so there really wasn’t any pressure. It was going out, and do the best I can, and try to win. But if I got third, they’d be pumped. Now, it’s totally different. I got second at a race this season and the team was like, “Yeah, that’s nice but we’re expecting a first place.” I get that, 100%, they invest a lot in this and in me. But it is a lot of pressure. Stew has been chipping away at the gap. I hate to say it but I had moments where I didn’t care. I still had the points lead still and I don’t know, my head wasn’t in it. Being away from home, living out of a camper, all these things kind of pile up. Finally I got home, got to see my family and friends, and get some routine back. I felt whole again. And that’s when things started to click for me again. I was no longer satisfied with second. And I came off three second place finishes heading into Snowshoe and I was mad. It made me want to win, watching Stew win started irritating me. I wanted to take that away from him.
Racing is a funny sport. NFL, NBA, and MLB we associate wins with success. Only in racing can someone manage a season, not win, or at least not win often, and still have a chance at winning a championship. That “what have you done for me lately” cliché holds true in racing. Yeah Ben Kelley is the points leader, but Stew Baylor is getting all the attention because he’s clicking off wins. As a professional athlete how do you process that? The social media chatter, guys like me and Rodney Tomblin constantly talking about the wins Stew is clicking off. How do you stay focused through all the BS for lack of a better term?
It’s tough. It’s the first year I’ve really had to deal with a scenario like this. I’ve been the most consistent guy, but I haven’t been on the podium every weekend. And I feel like that’s what it takes to win a championship. I’m not really a center-of-attention guy. I like to do my thing quietly, do my thing, collect the win, and go home. I have the pressure from the team to win but I have to want it for myself. It’s a pride thing for me. I have to motivate myself. And that’s where my head is at right now. I’m not focused on the money or anything else. It’s the win I want now. You’re only as good as your last race. You can win six in a row and then the seventh you get second and everyone starts second guessing you. It’s good for the sport, but at the professional level you’ve got to be good at blocking that stuff out and stay focused.
Going into Snowshoe, I thought, Ben has to win this if he wants to win the championship. Maybe not win, but you for sure had to finish in front of Stew. Because going into the long summer break, giving up any last thread of momentum to Stew is huge. You went out, and you got the job done. You were already the points leader, but how big was that win for your confidence heading into summer break?
It was huge. Summer break is long, and I only had a five point lead heading into that race. I was feeling good heading into the weekend. I was coming off two straight second place finishes, but both of those races I feel like I beat myself. I straight up got tired out there. I mismanaged the race for myself. That pissed me off. I learned from that and made adjustments for Snowshoe. I’m from New England so I’m a rock-rider, which fits Snowshoe’s terrain perfectly. But, let’s be honest, nowadays every XC1 guy is good at everything we race in. Winning because it was the last round before the break is cool, but winning iconic Snowshoe, no matter how your season is going, is absolutely awesome. I don’t think winning it was do-or-die for me, but it did motivate me even more as we went into the break.
What are you goals as a rider in GNCC? Obviously, a championship is in your sights. But how long do you want to do this? What’s the end game for Ben Kelley?
I don’t really know. I talk about it a lot with my friends, but I really don’t know. I’m just having fun. I love racing and I want to be competitive. Anything I do, I want to do well. This has all happened so quick and so fast that I haven’t really had time to stop and think about where I want to go with it. It is work. I have to be very strict on myself. That’s hard. But honestly, even if I weren’t doing this professionally, I’d still be riding my dirtbike every weekend. So it’d be silly of me not to do it at the professional level as long as I can. I dunno, I don’t really think that far ahead. I’m just going with the flow, I guess. Hopefully I can finish the season off well. Keep racing XC1 and clicking off some more wins. Win championships and win races, then we see what happens. I’ve been blessed to travel the country and around the world because of dirt bikes. I’ve met some amazing people. Stuff I wouldn’t have had a chance to do otherwise. And I get paid to do it. That’s awesome! I’m young, I love being active, so I want to enjoy every second of this. I’m not the kind of person that likes to sit around so even when I’m older I think I’ll work at something. It’s fun though, it’s all fun. The training, the tough schedule, none of it feels like work. I work on Sundays, that’s it. Outside of that, I like having fun. I don’t stress about anything out of my own control, it’s not worth it. I try to live by that.
Ben you’ve got maturity beyond your years man. Keep having fun out there and if you win a Championship while you’re having fun, even better! Thanks for joining me today. Who would you like to thank?
Thanks Mikey, this was fun! I want to thank the FMF KTM Factory Racing Team, my trainer Charlie Mullins, my family and friends, supporters and all my sponsors. KTM, FMF, Trail Jesters, Shoei Helmets, Scott Goggles, Thor MX, Bikers Edge, Specialized, Alpinestars, Pod Active, and Wickflow.