Interview: KTM’s Harry Norton – Part Two

Part two of our chat with Harry Norton shines the spotlight on Jeffrey Herlings, developing the bike, why Australians typically transition smoothly to Europe, why Wayne Banks is an inspiration and some of the remarkable moments he’s experienced.

Words: Edward Stratmann | Lead Image: Ray Archer

Edward Stratmann: There’s probably a few elements of what you said about managing expectations that could be carried over to Herlings, as while he’s one of the best riders ever, you’ll still want to monitor him carefully seeing as he’s coming back from a nasty injury. What are your thoughts on working with him and how excited are you?

Harry Norton: Yeah, you know Jeffrey, he’s the fastest man on the planet. He’s unreal. When you stand on the side of the track and watch him ride, it’s unreal. I noticed when I first moved to Europe and saw him on a sand track for the first time, it’s bloody unreal.

With Jeffrey, he’s had some really good years and some really tough years. It’s just about being smart and building the motorcycle to suit Jeffrey. Then letting him get time on the bike so he can get confident again as he spent quite a long time off the bike last year.

ES: In terms of the bike, how have you been going with this, as there have been some problems this year? Do you feel you’re making strides with the development?

HN: We’ve made huge steps. I think for any manufacturer a new bike is a learning experience. You need to take time to uncover what works and what doesn’t. I feel like we had one year on the bike. We had many races, so we learned a lot of valuable information. We’re really stepping forward with the bike, we’ve had some good tests already this year and early next year we’ll hook back into it. I think we’re in a really good place heading into 2023.

ES: Switching the focus to moving to Europe from Australia – how have you settled in overall and do you miss home much?

HN: Actually I haven’t been home for four years. I’m on my way home now, so this Christmas is the first time I’ve been home in four years. I got married in Austria, so I really like the lifestyle and the culture in Europe. There’s definitely things I miss about home, little bits of food, the openness of the culture and obviously your mates always. But I love the mountains and where I live for skiing and mountain biking is super cool. I can’t complain.

ES: With you being so level headed and composed, sounds like this ensured you settled in easily and the move was quite straightforward?

HN: I think that when you’re the type of person that has some passions outside of your work – and all of my passions are outdoor related and Europe is amazing for this, with the mountains, the lakes, the mountain biking and skiing – it makes it pretty easy.

I think being Aussie, being pretty open-minded and quite relaxed about things, it’s pretty easy to fit in. Learning German has been the toughest part of the whole thing, especially German grammar.

ES: Do you also believe this is why Ryan Deckert and Wayne Banks have been such successful mechanics for KTM, who’ve won championships with Pauls Jonass and Herlings respectively?

HN: Yeah, Aussies in general, we’re pretty open people, pretty relaxed. I think that in our job, when you have to move countries, it’s really beneficial. Also when you’re building a team in Europe and we travel a lot, it’s not the easiest job, so when you bring these guys from overseas, they’re all in.

If you’re from Australia and you move to Europe, you’re not 50% in, you’re all in. I think that makes it easier with a job like this. And also for next year we have another Aussie joining the team too in Ben Dutton. He’ll be Andrea Adamo’s race mechanic.

ES: Reflecting back on that KTM poster on your wall, what were some of your other inspirations in the sport and why you love it?

HN: The poster was a picture of Ben Townley on a 2004 factory 250F. We always rode bikes as kids and I wanted to race but couldn’t as a super young guy. But around the age of 14-15, my parents bought me a motocross bike and I started racing and then at 17 I started in the dealership. From then I built a race team through the dealership to help me go racing. It was the best way for me to get the support that I needed to go racing. It also helped the dealership where I was.

Once a year the motocross nationals would come to Murray Bridge for the round here and as I worked in a KTM dealership I called the team manager and said “I don’t want a job, I don’t want to do anything, I just want to hang out for the day. Can I just be a fly on the wall for the round at Murray Bridge?” So I did that the first three years of my apprenticeship and then the fourth year I got a job.

From that I saw the way they worked, I saw how organsied they were. I just watched the mechanics all the time when I was there for that day. So I understood a little bit about the level that they worked at. Then, I built a team to copy it as much as I could, with no money, no budget. But just the way of working and the process of working, the way they think about problems. The preplanning they do before the motos so that you have everything ready. That type of thinking, that’s what I tried to put in this team that I started. So when I did get that opportunity to get to a race team, everything was there already. I was ready to go.

So I think as a young fella, the biggest thing is you need to be present and to be realistic about where you’re at, what you know. Be humble, start small and never expect. You’ve got to earn it.

ES: Your parents obviously instilled you with the discipline and work ethic needed, so you must look back on those days and think it’s all pretty amazing.

HN: For sure, and when I was really young, my dad taught me that if you can do the small jobs, the little meaningless tasks that all of us need to do, but do them better than anyone else, you’re different. I always try to teach this to the young fellas and young mechanics on the team to always think about everything you do. Take your time, don’t rush things and just really be focused on the one percent tasks. Our job is very difficult, it’s very stressful, there is a lot of pressure and there is a lot of technical knowledge that you need. You go a long way if you can focus on doing these little things better than everyone else.

It’s definitely not easy finding mechanics these days. It feels like many young fellas, they expect a lot and they’re not willing to give back. Our industry, our job is a lot of hours and a lot of work. Motorsports is not easy, but it’s super rewarding. We get to be part of a team and get to travel the world, we get to work with the best riders there are. But it’s not easy. Nothing that’s easy is the best, anything that comes difficult is always more satisfying.

ES: Just to touch on Vialle’s bike failure in Germany last season, how did you feel that day as you were unable to be there and Wayne took over, you must have felt horrible for him and about the situation?

HN: I felt terrible for Wayne. It wasn’t his fault at all. It was just a small meaningless part that had a failure. Was a one in a million thing. I was at home with Covid and he was the mechanic and I just felt terrible for him.

Jeffrey had been injured all year so it was the one weekend he came out to help. And Wayne, he is the best mechanic I’ve ever worked with. He’s organised, meticulous, the reason why I am like I am now is a lot because of Wayne. The last four years, I’ve been like a sponge soaking up everything. He’s been in the GPs many, many years. The level of his organisation is the best I’ve ever seen. I felt so bad for him.

ES: Finally, have you got any moments that have really stuck with you during your time so far in Europe?

HN: 2020, the championship day in Arco. In the morning, Tom doesn’t usually qualify so well and we had a really good session. We were P3. Tom only did one lap so we were all pretty happy. Tom was really confident, really comfortable on the track, the bike was perfect, everyone was happy. Then we come back from the qualification sessions and they say Tom you’ve got the last gate pick cause he stopped on the track. Tom was a little bit annoyed for a moment and then Joel came over and said “that’s it, no worries.” That was that, no one spoke anymore about it.

We went to the start line. I remember there were only 26 bikes in the race and we were gate 29. So we were all the way at the end and it’s championship day, we’re still one round from the end, but Tom could wrap up the championship that day.

He walks over to the start line and he looks at it and comes back and says “it looks good.” Gets on his bike and says nothing else. Tom’s not a big speaker. He doesn’t use a lot of words but when he says something he means it.

Then taking the holeshot from 29th gate on that really short start straight that was insane mate. Also this year in France, having a French rider who’s a world champ, that was pretty special also. The atmosphere, the crowd, that was epic.

ES:Thanks again for the time, enjoy your break and all the best for the future.

MX Vice | Editor