FiveWorld Championship titles, three Motocross des Nations, 57 Grand Prixwins and a "Belgian Sportsman of The Year" award. Thisoutstanding prize-list would be enough to introduce you to JoelSmets.
Thosewho saw him racing all agree about Joel’s nickname, "The Lion":the grit of a warrior, an overwhelming strength and an insatiableappetite for thewin made Smets one of the greatest champions of alltimes, despite weare surely not talking about a chosen one.
Bornin Dessel, in the heart of Flanders, on April 6th1969, Joel never touched a motorbike until he was 17, when his unclebought him a 500 cc. He started racing with the big bikes and henever left them. In just four years, he arrived to the WorldChampionship, where he raced for sixteen seasons, until 2005,realizing an extraordinary career.NowadaysSmets is the KTM sport director for motocross. During the winter, hecontinuously move from a place to another to follow the riders’training for the new season. We seized the opportunity of his visitin Rome, for a KTM test at the Malagrotta track, to set up aninterview.
Let’stry to make a top 3 of the best races of your career. I would sayMotocross des Nations 1995, GP of Namur 2000 and GP of Zolder 2005.Do you agree?
"Inever thought about it, but yes, I think that’s correct".
OK,now you have to tell us about them. Let’s start from Des Nations’95, in Slovakia.
"Itwas my fastest race ever. I won moto-1, while in moto-3 my gatedidn’t drop and when I could move, the others were already at thefirst corner. In the first lap I made a super comeback from 40thto 10th,but in the meantime the track marshals checked my gate and saw thatit was really broken, I had no fault, so they gave the red flag tore-start the race. My comeback was useless, but the fact remains: Ipassed 30 guys in less than one lap! I think that was the fastest lapof my entire life".
Adouble damage! A bad gate first and then the comeback stopped.
"Yes,and I tell you more: in the re-start everything was normal and, atthe end of the first lap, I was only 12th.It was better when I started last than when I started withoutproblems! Anyway, in the end all went good, I finished the race 2ndand Belgium won Motocross Des Nations after 15 years. A few daysbefore that race I won my first world title, then I won Des Nationstoo, at my first participation and 15 years after the last Belgianvictory. What a fantastic season!".
Now let’s talkabout the GP of Namur 2000. That was the day of your fourth worldtitle, won in front of your home crowd at the most famous motocrosstrack in the world.
"Sometimes now Ihave to look back at the pictures of that day to realize how big itwas. There were I don’t know how many thousands of people andduring the lap of honour the fans entered the track to celebrate me.When I arrived down to the Chalet du Monument it was a total madness:everybody shouting, hugging me... I thought I was never gonna make itto climb up again to the Esplanade, because there were so manypeople... Look at my arm now, I still got goosebumps!".
Yeah, it’strue! And the strange fact, for a champion like you, is that you wonin Namur only that time.
"Let me thinkabout it... Yeah, you’re right! Well, for me Namur has always beenlove and hate..."
I think you arereferring to 2001 Motocross des Nations, always in Namur. Perhaps theworst race of your career.
"Whata bad memory! That time I raced with the 250 2-stroke, a bike that Ihad never ridden before, except for one race in 1998. Anyway, I wasreally motivated and all the team was thinking that I could have donewell. Unfortunately, I’ve been very unlucky in the last moto.Garcia Vico crashed in front of me, I hit him and my bike lost theradiator cap. I didn’t realize it and quickly re-started, butobviously the liquid leaked out at the first jump, so I had to enterthe pit-lane. Usually the mechanics don’t have a spare radiator capin the pit-lane, so I made one more slow lap while they were going toget a cap and eventually I had to stop once more in the pit-lane. Ilost an incredible amount of time and Belgium did not win the Nationsclassification because of my problems. I was so disappointed that Ididn’t even want to step on the podium, only Joel Robert convincedme to".
TheGP of Zolder 2005 was your return after a serious disease. There youwon a moto and cried in front of the fans on the podium. Can you talkabout your illness?
"Firstof all, one of the best achievements of my career is that I racednonstop every GP from 1990 until 2003: I never missed a race forfourteen years in a row. Nobody else could do that. Then, in 2004 Ibroke my knee at the Mantova Starcross, but I decided to delay thesurgery, because I had just signed a new contract with Suzuki and Ididn’t want to lose the entire season. So I tried not to give up,but every time I was riding I had so much pain that my body gotexhausted little by little, until I got weak for a bacterialinfection. That was really bad, I went to the hospital, but the feverwasn’t going down and the doctors couldn’t heal me, so theybrought me to another specialized hospital near Bruxelles. I wasthere for two weeks in intensive care, then I continued takingantibiotics for several months at home. At that stage I was reallyscared and I wasn’t thinking at motocross anymore".
The impressivepart of this story is that when you re-start racing, in 2005, youwere already 36, but anyway you made it to the top again. How did youfind the motivation?
"Iwas lucky because I had a 2-years contract with Suzuki: if in 2005 Ihad to find a new bike, probably nobody would have hired a 36years-old rider with such health problems. After the worst phase ofthe disease, I slowly recovered and began to train more and more. Iwas feeling good, so I thought that I could come back to races. I wasmotivated to prove that Suzuki was a good bike and I was not doneyet. I still had the same love for racing and physically, believe itor not, I felt stronger at 36 than when I was 20".
Was it becausethe bikes were easier to ride?
"No, it was justmy body. I felt good. You can see it also with Cairoli now: he racessince a long time, but physically he’s still on top and he couldstill stay there for a few years".
So you think thatCairoli will continue to be a top rider until 36, just like you?
"If we talk aboutphysical possibilities, I have no doubt about it. He’s in greatshape and a man is still strong at 36. In our sport is possible toride at the top level until that age. The keys are be work-oriented,keep motivated and stay away from injuries".
If the key torace until advanced age is avoid injuries, do you think that Herlingswill make it?
"It depends on toomany things. One that we should not forget is that I started racingvery late, at 17, instead Jeffrey races since he was 6. It’s moredifficult for guys like him to keep healthy and motivated until 36".
This argument isvery important. Nowadays it is impossible to become a top rider ifyou don’t start racing when you’re a child. Don’t you thinkthis is a bad thing? I mean... If you had started racing today, at17, you would never have become a champion!
"I’m not sure.Yes, the financial situation is different now, because today if youwant to race the European championship or the World championship youhave to pay, instead I didn’t have money and I could go ahead raceby race thanks to prize money. Nowadays maybe I couldn’t begin acareer. However, apart from the money, the talent, the desire and thedetermination that you need to make it are always the same. Itdoesn’t matter if a kid starts racing at 6, 8 or 10: if he lacksthe deep desire to become a champion, he will never make it. I cansee it today with Herlings and Cairoli: they’ve got the fire intheir soul! But also Everts, or myself... all the champions are thatway".
So, the agedoesn’t matter?
"It’s notessential. If Everts would have start racing at 17, like me, maybe hecould not win ten world titles, but for sure he would have been achampion, because he had talent, desire and determination. The sameholds for Cairoli. Of course, you need to give yourself the time tolearn, make experience and become strong: if you start racing at 16,you can’t become world champion at 18, that’s clear. But youstill have time to make it, if you really want. And I tell yousomething more: if you get on top when you’re still a boy, it maydamage you, because you’re not ready physically and mentally".
In fact, theworld is full of young talents lost along the way, because thepressure is too much for them.
"True! I startedracing at 17, debuted in the World championship at 21 e became Worldchampion at 26, when I was at my best physically and mentally.Instead, if you are on top of the sport but you’re still a boy,it’s very difficult to handle certain situations. You need greatmental strength".
Don’t you thinkthat the under 23 rule in MX2 is a too big disadvantage for who isnot a kid, then?
"Maybe, but thisrule is only for the MX2 class. I never raced in 125 and 250, Istarted directly with the 500. Also Desalle made the same: he wentstraight to the top class and yet became a top rider".
You have been oneof the first riders to race with a 4-stroke bike, in the early 90’s.Did you imagine at that time that 4-stroke was going to be the futureof motorcycling?
"I wasn’tconvinced that much, but I had good advices from Roger De Coster. Imet him every year in Glen Helen, where we raced the US GP until1992. Once we were talking about racing on a 4-stroke and things likethat and Roger said that it could have been a good choice, because inthe US they wanted to ban the 2-stroke due to pollution, so hethought that 4-stroke was going to be the future. Obviously Ifollowed his advice".
Do you know thatRoger De Coster recently said that he would ban the 250 4-stroke andreplace it with the 250 2-stroke?
"Really? Well,maybe it would be good. However I’m not interested too much in thisargument. Motocross is always nice, you can choose any bike youwant".
The world ofmotocross knows and respects you not only as a champion, but also asa man. Have you ever been in a bad relationship with some colleague?
"No, I reallydon’t think so. For me life is easier if you can talk and laughwith everyone, instead of making fights. We all have something goodand something bad: my parents taught me to respect everybody and mylife philosophy is try to take the good from every situation. Ialways had this attitude, even with the colleagues".
But you weren’tso gentle during the races...
"No, no! When thehelmet was on... bam! (laughs).Maybe sometimes I got angry for a hard contact or a block-pass, butit was racing stuff. Outside the track I always loved to have funwith everybody".
Claudio Federicionce told us that you and Everts were great both in racing and inpartying. Now it’s your turn: do you wanna reply?
"Well, I can’tdeny that I was often one of the worst... but Claudio was not badeither. Actually, he was the world champion in parties! (laughs).I found a good balance between work and party; instead Claudio’sbalance was a little bit twisted on the party side (laughsagain). Jokes aside, for me having funhas always been very important: I gave 200% at every race and everytraining, but I also needed to relax and pull the plug. But don’tget me wrong..."
You can explainas you want...
"When I say party,I don’t say drinking and staying awake until late in the night.Party for me is dining together, having fun, making jokes and beingstupid. But at 10 o’clock everybody go to bed, because tomorrowmorning we have to work again. That’s something I do also now withthe guys of KTM team. If you need to give 200% in your work, you haveto be able to let the pressure off in the right way. That’s veryimportant".
Tell us aboutyour work in KTM. What do you do exactly?
"KTM is a verywell organized company: we have very clever people and we try to makeit that way that everybody has his own job. I’m the sports directorand my job is coaching the riders, supervise their work and help themto communicate with the engineers of the Factory if necessary. As aformer rider, for me it’s easier to understand the words of a riderthan for an engineer. During races I use a lot the camera tape forvideo-analysis and comparisons with our rivals, while in testing wefocus more on data and riders’ feelings. I’m not testing thebikes myself anymore, but I’m always assisting outside the track,so I can still analyse the action of the bike and the rider. At theend of every day of testing, I do a briefing with all the staff tomake a point".
Anyway you’rekeeping in great shape! Do you still ride motocross?
"I would love it,but I can’t. In 2004 and 2005 I completely fucked up both my kneesand now they hurt too much for motocross riding. I’m just trying tobe careful with the food and I often train with the guys during theweek, mostly I do cycling with them. So I can burn some calories."
And maybe drink abeer at parties...