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Jacky Martens: Champ to star-maker!

What makes a former world motocross champion tick after he has hung up his helmet? What is it like to run one of the best MX teams in the world? We asked Rockstar Energy Husqvarna Factory Racing’s Jacky Martens in the build up to the hectic first European GP of the season in Valkenswaard, taking place in Martens’ proverbial back garden.

The weather is typical for the lowlands this time of the year, sun and mild temperatures rapidly make way for cooler weather and spells of rain or worse. Inside the huge state-of-the art Rockstar Energy Husqvarna Factory Racing workshop it’s business as usual. Everyone has a job to do and just days before the traditional visit to the Eurocircuit in Valkenswaard things are as busy as they get.Jacky Martens, who became the first modern four-stroke world champion in 1993, beams when he sees how impressed people are with his organisation. And he’s quietly proud knowing how much time and effort went into building the JM Racing team as we know it today. Including the minor and not so minor bumps along the way. Like a fire incident this winter, nothing too major but adding a significant amount of workload in an already stressful period. But as always the show must go on!
Martens at Hawkstone at the end of the 1980s
Martens at Hawkstone at the end of the 1980s
It’s an historic year, you captured the world title 25 years ago.
Jacky Martens: 
“Yes, you’re actually right. It didn’t cross my mind before you mentioned it. But it’s still a cool memory. Especially to have won the title with Husqvarna and now we’re already back with Husky for the fifth year!
You’ve always been super hands-on when it comes to the technical side of racing whether that’s coming up with developments for engine or suspension, machining your own parts even. It’s probably a big change to now working as a factory team
Martens: “It is, there’s constant communication between us and the factory in Austria. When we’ve got an idea Husqvarna will look into it, study how it could work and especially how to produce reliable power. Once they have the actual parts there’s extensive dyno testing of course and test riders in Austria will try the concept out on track. For major evolutions that’s a cycle of about a year. When all of that is done our factory riders receive the new stuff.”

Jacky Martens joins in the Kegums GP celebration with Olsen in 2017
Jacky Martens joins in the Kegums GP celebration with Olsen in 2017

Colleagues like Roger DeCoster continue to spend time in the workshop making stuff themselves. Do you miss that part of the job?
“Actually, I’m still tinkering away. It’s the best way to keep up to speed with technology. The focus is more on refining and make components work better together. To come up with radical inventions is pretty hard to do these days! But I love Husqvarna’s spirit when it comes to R&D. They’re open-minded, willing to try new things and they don’t beat around the bush. Early on – and I started my own team in 1993 – I would continuously think about stuff to improve, work late at night to machine parts and put in crazy hours all by myself. Now I still produce some parts, or draw a design but that’s the starting point of a discussion with the factory. What do you guys think of this? That jumpstarts a fascinating process, both internally in our team and with Husqvarna. I like that synergy with young technicians. They have their knowledge and experience, which is different from mine. Together we can go further. And I think the results speak for themselves!”

Last year Thomas Kjer Olsen came into the MX2 class with a bang. The situation is slightly different now because he’s one of the title contenders.
Martens: “We’ve worked with many rookies in the past and we always try to prepare them as good as we can for this new challenge. When you’ve worked hard in the winter and you’re ready from the first GP that takes a lot of pressure away. To be riding at the front early on also boosts your confidence a lot. The only disadvantage was that the season was very long and draining. TKO had been going full throttle since October, November 2016. Okay, he had some periods of relative rest too but for this year he has a schedule we use for any GP rider. With a good group of support people around the rider and specialists for each area it’s possible to remain consistent all year long. That’s why we have Rasmus Jorgensen coaching TKO and Joël Roelants who’s involved with Thomas Covington.”

Olsen has definitely shown he’s physically strong. What about the mental side, dealing with the extra pressure and the expectation of racing to win?
“TKO is very down-to-earth you know. He trains hard and knows exactly what he wants. Unlike some other young athletes he’s not going to get carried away by this new situation and of course we help him to stay grounded as well.”

Martens and the team with Thomas Covington in France last year
Martens and the team with Thomas Covington in France last year

So what makes TKO so good in your opinion?
 “Thomas has always been very dedicated to his sport. Even when he didn’t have the best material or wasn’t riding for the most professional teams. He always had to fight really hard. If one day this kind of rider gets the opportunity to race in the best possible conditions that’s when you make headway. That’s even more motivating and energising. It creates a lot of momentum. I think that explains his situation a bit.”

Maybe the first results of Thomas Covington have been disappointing but given his late start it’s no surprise at all.
“Right, it’s absolutely normal. Thomas was unlucky to injure his knee at the MX of Nations, his last race of the season in 2017. We’re thankful that his rehab went better and faster than expected. Still he’s only back on the bike from half way through January. The two months that’s he’s behind compared to the other guys are hard to replace! To shake off the early-season ‘blues’ like painful arms you just need the hours on the bike. However, TC is heading in the right direction. I think he’s doing well keeping in mind where he came from and we expect him sooner than later to be back at the front.”

How would you describe Covington?
 “He’s very professional, and since he came to Europe, Thomas is a much more complete rider now. I think the results show that he’s right up there. Unfortunately he’s been a bit unlucky with crashes and his knee injury but we’re really happy with both riders. The two are capable of top-5 and more. We’re convinced they can do better but we prefer to do the talking on the track if you know what I mean!”

You touched on sharing your experience with young technicians. Do you miss working with younger riders like you did for many years in the EMX250 class?
Martens: “
No. We’ve worked with very experienced guys like Yves Demaria too. In the end it’s about looking at the bigger picture. Where can we support riders to make them better? Everything that I’ve learned from working with riders before is helping me today. We continue to build on our own experience. That’s the human capital that makes teams like Rinaldi or the team of Sylvain Geboers in the past so strong.”

Can you compare Covington and Olsen to other top riders who rode for you?
“The bottom line is to keep them focused. You can’t get bored with what you do. Typically, young riders have been going to school and sport was only one aspect of their life. When you become professional, sport is what matters most in your life. That’s why you need this team of people around you. If you have a schedule to follow there’s no chance you’ll get bored, you will be busy enough as it is! There’s no room for distraction either.”

Martens with his latest protege Olsen. He's also coached riders like Jordi Tixier and Jeffrey Herlings!
Martens with his latest protege Olsen. He’s also coached riders like Jordi Tixier and Jeffrey Herlings!

What do you think about the Valkenswaard track?
“I think it’s a fantastic track! Even with the rain we had the club is very experienced in preparing the track so I think we will have great racing this weekend. Valkenswaard is a classic on the world championship calendar, the crowd can get close to the action and everyone is very engaged with the top riders. Of course there’s Jeffrey Herlings being the home rider, but Tony Cairoli is very well known too. And the Argentinian MXGP created a lot of anticipation!”

Although your team is based at Lommel in Belgium there’s always been a strong link with Holland and the many sponsors and friends you have there.  I was told you were born in Holland, right?
“Almost! I was born on the border. For sure, Valkenswaard is a great location for our team. It’s central for many people, and timing is awesome as well. After Argentina people are looking forward to see the GP riders close to home.”

So are we! Thank you for time and good luck this weekend.
 “Thanks, you’re welcome. See you there!”

Photos by Bavo Swijgers and Adam Duckworth

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