Enviable statistics mark Tony Cairoli as the second-best rider in the 64-year history of the FIM Motocross World Championship but the Sicilian not only holds an unforgettable place in the annals of the sport but in KTM’s racing story…
I witnessed Tony Cairoli’s attempts to first qualify for Grands Prix in 2003. Back then he was a stick-thin, weird and wiry-looking kid buzzing around the MXGP paddock on a mini-bike. A year later, just 18, it was impossible to miss him: holeshots, results, flamboyance. His impact was sudden and indelible and would remain so for almost two decades at the peak of motocross.
1. Defying expectations
Cairoli’s small stature undoubtedly helped for all those holeshots in his first years on a 250 and in the MX2 class (from 2004-2008) but his competitive spirit and zest for racing, which was evident in the way he would attack old-school tracks with a modern ‘all-out’ style, meant he was like a fresh plume of exhaust haze. Tony (which he preferred to Antonio) was a shining example of the new generation that bent the motorcycle to their will, BMX-style, and adopted the American trend of push-push-push from the gatedrop to the flag. That Cairoli was in Grand Prix at all was a small miracle. From a family of very modest means he had to leave his native Patti on Sicily’s northeast coast and move to the Italian mainland for further progression as a rider. It was a big move for a teenager; a boy who was the youngest kid in the family and who’d been spoilt by bigger sisters (he even got to name his nephew ‘Jeremy’ after Jeremy McGrath, his childhood idol and whose nac-nac trick Cairoli would often imitate in his early GP years). Cairoli’s Sicilian birth meant he was an ‘outsider’ in Italian motocross never mind the international scene, which did not have anything like the ‘pyramid’ structure that EMX now enjoys as part of the MXGP support-card.
His contract with Claudio De Carli’s independent Yamaha team in 2004 was the rock-hard foundation of what would be an exemplary career. Within a year he was outshining teammates with bigger profiles and pedigree, like Claudio Federici, and another re-location – this time to Belgium to take profit of the tracks in the area and to master the sand – was another pivotal step.
Cairoli had to shine quickly at a time when younger Italian riders were struggling to breakthrough in the world championship. He didn’t bring money to the team, barely spoke English, lived in northern Europe far from all he knew and loved and was also asthmatic! The odds were stacked but he made the most of every possibility to shine in 2004 where he embarked on the longest campaign of racing he’d ever managed and had tough rivals like Ben Townley, Tyla Rattray and Marc de Reuver. Within a period of months he was the livewire in Grand Prix.
2. Moving with the times, playing the game
Cairoli fizzed as a young athlete and mixed mistakes and misjudgement (kicking out at Davide Guarneri at the French GP in 2005 resulted in a one-race ban) with unbeatable form that led to championships in 2005 and in 2007. It was in ’07 that the first signs that Cairoli had the flexibility and intelligence to be a ‘legend’ in the sport first materialised. Not only did he defeat strong opposition like Christophe Pourcel and Tommy Searle but began to evolve his style, cutting down on the ‘show’ for more ‘go’ and ruthless consistency. He won his second title with three rounds to spare and shaped the unlikely scenario that a slight Sicilian would become one of the fastest sand riders in the world. He went 1-1 in the rough and demanding terrain in Lierop to cap a triumphant season.
The seed was sown for the future that same summer. With the MX2 crown in his pocket he made an MXGP wild-card appearance on a 450 around the temporary track-build at Donington Park for the British Grand Prix and scored a 2nd and 1st to prove he wasn’t only a ‘small’ bike specialist.
2008 was his last year on a 250 and ended prematurely with his first serious injury. A broken left knee ligament at the South African Grand Prix curtailed his bid for a third title but thoughts were already on MXGP by the time he’d had an operation and was healthy. During 2008 Tony also cemented his relationship with eventual wife Jill Cox and the pair would become a powerful visual duo in the Grand Prix paddock. He was also a prominent Red Bull athlete and was beginning to realise the scope of his popularity and appeal as the fanbase grew. From 2007 Cairoli adopted the #222 and it became part of the fabric of MXGP.
3. Finding safety, taking risks
Former racer Claudio de Carli quickly became more than a Team Manager. The Roman forged a close, paternal bond with Cairoli that would lead to the racer building his home outside of the Italian capital and near the team’s workshop. They would develop the Malagrotta racetrack as a private testing base as Cairoli’s focus would slowly switch from Belgium back to his native country. De Carli’s influence – and that of his unwavering roster of team staff – would be significant and showcased to any rider hoping to follow in Cairoli’s footsteps the intrinsic value and importance of having a stable crew and support network.
Cairoli aced MXGP at his first attempt as a rookie in 2009. De Carli crafted a 450 to suit his skill set and strengths as the bikes were still considered heavy and too powerful. It was midway during that championship campaign that De Carli/Cairoli partnership linked with Pit Beirer and agreed on an alliance that would form the bedrock of Red Bull KTM going forwards. Cairoli felt secure and confident enough both with his mentor and the KTM factory to agree to develop the unseen and brand new, innovative KTM 350 SX-F for 2010. The concept mixed the torque and power output close to a 450 with the handling and agility of a 250. After early tests the 350/Cairoli synergy was clear. 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 would fall to the combination. Cairoli gave KTM their first premier class gold medal and carved his name into the orange.
4. Popping out of the sport
As the wins and the championships accumulated Cairoli became one of the most recognised motocrossers in the world and notable motorsports athletes in Italy. Even though he claimed his personal motivation was not fuelled by stats, the numbers of wins, podiums and moto victories totalled fast. Off the track he had to deal with the tragedy of losing his mother to illness and his father suddenly also due to health reasons. Only a few days after the passing of his Dad in 2014, Tony showed his character by racing to victory at the British Grand Prix in what was an emotionally charged day.
During this time Tony was formidable and began to construct a mantra where podium regularity formed the basis of his championship mettle. Cairoli defeated his rivals through sheer consistent excellence and minimal mistakes. He began to view the entire season as a bigger picture to paint and would keep calm and focussed on the larger goal. At the root of his racing was the joy and challenge of extracting the best of his ability and physical condition: the effort and enthusiasm produced results.
Around this time Cairoli formed a professional and commercial team around him that would one day lead to the Neox Management scheme, his own lifestyle RACR brand, deeper involvement with Red Bull (he would appear on drinks cans across Europe), star billing at huge motorcycles shows like EICMA in Milan and a push in the early days of social media networks where he would expand not only his own ‘brand’ but that of the sport. It is rare these days for MXGP to only have one round in Italy.
To talk about Cairoli’s popularity produces memories of the fever to see, talk or catch a photo with him in Argentina or the side of the Red Bull KTM awning bending and threatening to collapse as hundreds of fans pushed to catch a glimpse of him at Maggiora. Success at the Motocross of Nations, a flirtation with supercross and impressive dalliances with Rally cars were not distractions. He started to mentor younger Italian riders and almost seemed to relish cultivating the myth that everything came ‘easily’ to him on the bike while the reality was that Cairoli worked harder than most to maintain his standards.
He became more economical with his style, took less risks in his racecraft and did everything faultlessly to ensure his position as champion. At the start of 2015 he told me in an interview that he won the 2014 title by riding at “70%”. Tony could pull the pin when needed, however. Midway through 2012 he sustained a double DNF at the Grand Prix of Sweden that caused him to lose the lead in the MXGP standings. He then embarked on an immediate riposte that saw #222 take 13 of the next and final 14 motos of the year for his fourth accolade in a row.
Injury would strike with a fractured right arm in 2015. Cairoli was hurt in pre-season of 2016 and doubts started to emerge over a rider who had just entered his 30s. 2017 though was arguably one of his best racing years. He swapped to the new era-defining KTM 450 SX-F to obtain five wins and 12 podiums from 18 rounds for title #9. By doing so he awarded KTM with championships on two different bikes and re-established his name as one of the ‘best ever’.
5. Longevity and a personal view
At the 2021 British Grand Prix in June at Matterley Basin, Cairoli raced to a 1-3 in the motos. It was his 93rd GP win (101 being the all-time record). With these spoils Cairoli ensured that he boasted at least one victory for every year of his eighteen world championship seasons: a phenomenal achievement. Three months later and shortly after announcing his transition from a full-time racer into a new development role with KTM, Cairoli celebrated his 36th birthday while still in contention for his tenth gold plate.
Tony’s competitiveness and longevity is another mark of his greatness. His verve for motocross and for racing filtered through the low points and the pain from physical problems (his shoulder in 2019 and knee in 2020) and remained intact as he took on the fresh and younger threats from close quarters, like teammate Jeffrey Herlings and former protégé Jorge Prado. He has the fortune and the humility to unbuckle his boots while still at the very top of the sport, thus emboldening his legacy.
What is/was Tony like for a journalist? He was forever friendly and would always return a “ciao” but could be aloof through a combination of a little shyness. He was well guarded by De Carli and the team. When there was an issue or a problem then the group would close ranks and hide any physical or technical adversity that Tony might be coping with. Through that network lay a remarkable joint strength. Over the years his wit and humour in press conferences meant it was sometimes worth asking a plain question just to see what he’d come out with next. During more in-depth 1-1 interviews he’d be more guarded: as coy managing his answers as he was shrewd managing a race.
As the #222 prepares for its final outing in MXGP before being officially retired (fittingly the last GP of 2021 is at Mantova in Italy and where Cairoli added Motocross of Nations glory to a monolithic CV) I choose to remember Tony as the embodiment of everything a racer, sportsman and public figure should be: he shifted the goalposts of performance, infused the sport with his own passion and dedication and influenced others. Creating dreams: what more can any person want?
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