For the latest episode of Torqueing Heads, we scampered north to Morecambe and John McGuinness HQ. Having rummaged through his memory box (and by ‘box’, we mean ‘garages’… plural), the 23-time TT winner and World Endurance racer had plenty to tell us. So, sit back, relax and enjoy. Or you could read the full, unedited transcript below.
What have you been doing during lockdown?
I’ve been busy doing all the bits I didn’t want to do – clearing the woods, taken some fencing down, painted my outside toilet wall. It’s been good to have the kids at home and I know how lucky we’ve been to look out the window and we’ve got some room. I bought a mower for my tractor and built a go-kart track! We’ve got two twin engine Honda pro karts and Davey Todd’s got the current lap record and the guy that owns the team I’m racing for in the Ducati Cup, Andre Compton, he’s fast too.
What’s happening with your Ducati Cup ride?
I’ve looked at the championship for a couple of years – the Ducati TriOptions Cup – but I’d had Honda contracts before meaning it was impossible to happen, and then my injury happened too. There’s a big spread of age and talent; fast lads, slow lads, old lads and young lads, so I’ll slot into it somewhere in the middle! I think it’s a good machine, everybody’s on equal bikes and they’re not as powerful as a superbike, they’re sort of 600 power. One of the things that lured me into it was when I stopped doing the British Championship and went and did World Endurance and other events, I missed going to our circuits. I think we’ve got some of the best circuits in the world – Cadwell, Oulton, Brands Hatch, Thruxton – all old school, proper tracks. Le Mans, Magny Cours, Qatar are all great experiences but it’s not like Cadwell Park where you’re grass-to-grass and all the cambers work with you. So, it ticks all the boxes for me and it’s about staying sharp. The priority for me was the TT and the North West with Pete Extance and I needed to get sharp but there are ways of getting sharp and there’s no point going into Superstock or Superbike and getting beaten up and shoved about with some young lad embedded in the side of me, which can do the reverse and you can lose your confidence. If you’re running at the sharp end of a one-make championship and you’re on the start-line and you’ve gone through the motions and you’ve done all the setting-up and away you go and you have a good result, it gives you a spring in your step and it psychologically helps you and that’s where I wanted to be.
I’ll be riding with Andre (ex-professional speedway rider) who has a lot of talent and there’s no pressure, it’s not a manufacturer and I didn’t want to make a song and dance about it. He’s paid for the bikes and we’re not really getting too much help from anyone and I hope nobody will turn their nose up if I’m sat in the paddock with a can of beer in my hand and a BBQ going, which is what I thought my racing was all about.
There will be a target on your back!
Yeah, I get that and I just hope there’s mutual respect for everybody on the track. With respect, if you win the Ducati Cup you aren’t going to go on to be MotoGP winners. There’s some good riders in there; Mark Cheetham, Levi Day, Ben Godfrey (who sadly passed away since the recording of this interview. Our condolences go this family and friends)… and I’ll hold my hand up, will I be able to run with them? Probably not but I don’t care. If they give me room and we’re all intelligent about it we can enjoy it.
I got out at Oulton Park last week and I loved it. I ummed and ahed about going, it wasn’t so much about the virus, it was more about me. I went out on my motocross bike and it knocked me about a bit, and I get weird thoughts in my head about people laughing at this 48-year old, “silly old bugger, what’s he trying to do?”
But I got to Oulton, it was a beautiful day and the bike looked mint. Fired it up and got out of pit lane and I loved it. It all just came back. Great circuit, great bike.
I just don’t want to fail; I don’t want to make a fool of myself. I’ve raced for 30 years and I’ve raced motocross for longer. Most of my life I’ve been on two wheels. Last time I rode good was 2016 – at the TT, I was on the podium with Hutchy and Dunlop and I felt like I was still at my peak. ’17 went wrong, ’18 and ’19 went wrong and I thought ‘do I really want to do it?’, and when I rode that bike (the Ducati), it brought it all back and I thought, ‘yeah, I really want to do it’. It’s a disease and I can’t let go of it and I’ve said it before, I don’t want my career to finish with that crash at the North West or with an engine bolt hanging out of that Norton up the Mountain. I didn’t visualise the end of my career in motorbike racing stood at The Bungalow. It was a total mess. You can point fingers everywhere but it was a disaster. I felt like I’d let people down, they (Norton) have let me down. I’d sold my merchandise with John McGuinness & Norton. On paper it was Hollywood yet I was standing there with a broken engine bolt thinking, ‘I’ve delivered nothing, is someone trying to tell me something?’. Then I go to Macau to ride Birdy’s (Paul Bird) V4 and I’m absolutely bang on the money with Hicky and the lot of them, so there’s still a little bit of magic left.
At Oulton it was just what I needed. Sometimes I just need a kick in the backside and I got my little kick again, I’d been looking at the weather and that wouldn’t have normally have happened. It felt like my office, my environment and everything felt right, I just rode and rode, I did 6, 7, 8 sessions. And Andre, you won’t meet anyone more enthusiastic, he’s desperate to do well.
We’ve got five rounds, I don’t think we do Donington full circuit so that’s 10 races. I want to get in the camper, get my kit in the camper, get the family in the camper and we all go racing, and that’s what I’ve missed. It’ll be a big hole to fill when I finish.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
100% involved with motorcycles and 100% involved with the industry. I hope the loyalty I’ve shown with a lot of people over the years, that they stay with me. I’m sure I can give a little back to the sport and the industry and stay involved. I’ve got loads of ideas whizzing about in my head; do this, do that, do some tours, maybe some enduro stuff, maybe some ride-outs… I like people and I like to meet people and understand how they work. Like customers or track day riders or you go to the bike show and listen to some stories, and it’s up to you whether you think it’s a load of rubbish or it’s genuine! There’ll be a reason why he’s got a BM GS, or an HP4, or a two-stroke, KR1-S in his garage. We’re all a big community really and I’d like to stay involved in that, I won’t walk away from it, I love bikes. I’ve got loads of bikes; two-strokes, speedway bikes, some of my iconic TT race bikes.
There was a tweet to you about it being time to give others a chance…
It hit a nerve that, if he really knew me then I’m totally the opposite. I feel like I got semi-shafted with that (ITV4 programme about the Isle of Man TT), they took the Monster sign off my hat – I’m working hard to pay my bills and keep my sponsors happy, and yes it might have been a little unprofessional of me and maybe I shouldn’t have vented off on the internet but people should know, and then you get a comment like that and I thought, ‘no, you’re not getting away with that’. I don’t tell lies, I don’t bullsh*t. I’m a people person, I speak to the families and I speak to the kids and I’m the last man standing if anyone wants something signed, then someone calls me a cry-baby and it’s frustrating. I’m a professional sportsman and yes - I’ve had a few shillings out of it - but Tyson Fury lives two miles away and gets £60m a fight. I’m not going to starve but I’m not wealthy like that. We do it for the love of the sport but we can’t do it for nothing, we don’t only do for the money.
I’m one of the very last people who can away with saying it, because of my age. Everything at the moment is so borderline and you’re not allowed to say what you think, in the world we’re living in. Fawlty Towers has been taken off the television, I mean what is going on? I dread to make a comment about anything, maybe these people want a reaction, maybe I shouldn’t rise to it. It shows that a quick tongue-in-cheek comment can cause so much heartache. If you’ve not got anything nice to say, then don’t say it. Forget it, keep it to yourself.
What else is going on at the moment, got any projects going?
There’s a CBR600 on the bench at the moment, I think it’s an ’02 or an ’03. FX? F-something! The ’01 was the first fuel-injected because 2000 was still on carbs, I think. I replaced Jim Moodie in 2000 and that was on carbs, and that was the Castrol bike. Then they went to black frame in ’01 and I had a great year with Kirk McCarthy. We lost him in ’03, we had such a laugh, he was great company. Them days are gone, there was me, DJ, Stuart Easton, Glen Richards, Jim Moodie, and we all used to stay on a Sunday night and get leathered!
What I want to do, is build a replica of my 2002 World Supersport bike. It was one of my worst years racing in my career. I got pneumonia. I got on the plane to South Africa, Kyalami, and I didn’t feel very well. We had a round in Valencia (Spain) then Australia and then South Africa. Anyway, I rode the bike in the first free practice and at the debrief I just wasn’t there at all so I went to the hospital. I only missed the Japan round that season because of the TT but even at Monza I was only 1.5s off pole, and that was last on the grid – it was super competitive, there was factory Suzuki, Yamaha, Ducati teams. I tried my best but it was so hard to learn circuits, the old Assen was miles longer than it is now… I could write a book about that one season. I was dashing all over – from Monza to the North West to Silverstone (soaking wet disaster of a meeting) and flew out of there to go to the Isle of Man for practice.
I want to build a replica, I scored a few world championship points that year, and everyone sees me as TT rider but I won a British Championship 21 years ago, I finished third in the Superstock British Championship in ’09, I nearly won the Supersport Championship in ’01. I finished 4th in the World Endurance Championship in 2012, I was alright on the short circuit but it’s part of the jigsaw that’s missing. I’ve got loads of blades – Legends and HM Plant – but watch this space, we’ll do a little video on it. The bike was actually the Red Piranha bike that belonged to the late Simon Andrews. I liked him a lot because my family liked him too.
It’s a runner, it’s a good bike. I always try to think ahead… the Classic TT’s gathering some momentum, they’re letting modern 250s in, ZX-7Rs, 1100 Bandit engines in and so on. They let my Paton in which is about as popular as a fart in a spacesuit. My bike (Honda) will become eligible at some point.
The rest of the year looks busy though, right, you’ll be at our five Bennetts Rewards customer track days, five rounds of Ducati Cup, Scarborough and anything else?
The priority at the minute are those five rounds we’re going to do. I’d like to ride my Kawasaki ZX-10R at some stage! I’ve not ridden the Quattro Plant Bournemouth one, nor a road one either. I raced one in 2004 for Hawk Kawasaki but things have moved on a bit. Pete’s is a family business and the family business has had one in the goolies over the last couple of months so I’ve got to give him a bit of space. I’d like to have a spin on it, a test or something, we’re pencilled in to parade it at Scarborough. I’m not allowed to race a 1,000cc at Scarborough, the limit is 600 but you can parade it, so it’ll be good for the crowd.
Macau; that’s supposed to be on. We’ve all had emails but we’ll see how it is closer to the time. I don’t know what I’ll be riding if I did go – I sort of shook hands with Birdy (Paul Bird, PBM Racing) last year but I don’t know if Pete will go with the Kawasaki. We’ll look forward to the TT next year, Pete’s said the bike will be there for me.
It’s been flat for a bit and now it’s getting momentum but I really hope the spectators can go, it’ll feel weird riding without them but we’ll deal with it.
Are there anything opportunities you turned down and regretted in your career?
I try not to dwell on it that much but my biggest problem is my training and my weight I’ve always been a bit of a lump. I’ve always got away with it but it’s always been a bit of a niggly glitch, and it comes up a lot. When you get told ‘you’re a bit fat’, you can laugh it off 20 times but the 21st time it will go a bit deeper. Bosses, other riders, people say it and they’re right, I’ve no excuse. I had contracts with Honda and they’ve asked me to do things and I didn’t do it. I delivered the results but if they’re up until 2am changing an engine and I’m on fish and chips, they’ve got an argument. It’s one little chink that I should have tidied up.
I spent probably a year too long on 250s. I think I’m a loyal person and Birdy wanted me to run the no. 1 plate in 2000 which I did. I did the TT and bust my leg and things started going wrong for a bit but I had options of going to 600 or Superbike earlier but Birdy wanted me to run the no. 1 plate with Vimto as the sponsor. In hindsight, I won in ’99 and I should have moved on.
I don’t think I’d change anything, obviously the injuries and I could talk to you forever about friends we’ve lost but my boy, Ewan, is 19 and my daughter is 10 and they’re secure, they won’t starve, I’ve provided. We’ve travelled the world and we’ve met so many people – Valentino Rossi, Mick Doohan, Mark Webber are in my phone. I’ve met some amazing people, and some absolute dickheads along the way too, and some real mint people. Some real influential people who have been supportive through my injuries. It’s been amazing.
I started off with nothing, I never got gifted it. It would be really difficult to do it now. You can’t drive vans without insurance or tax, I’m not proud of it, it’s just what I had to do. Red diesel in vehicles, scheming, scamming, syphoning from diggers on sites when I was an apprentice. In my head, I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I wasn’t nicking handbags or battering old biddies over the head! I’ve done a bit for charity over the years and given a bit back, raised a few quid.
It’s been good and long may it continue. Joey was 48, it was 20 years ago and I’m in exactly the same position. All those years ago, all that experience and he wins three. Rutter and me, we were both 28 and were looking at this old codger in the middle of the podium and he’s won the Superbike TT. It can happen if we want it to happen, with a little bit of luck. I’m in gear, my eyesight’s good, I’ve passed my medical and my leg’s strong again so we’ll carry on.