OVER THE years the way to progress - or the way people say that you progress in motorcycle racing - is to get your road race licence and you will be on your way to the top.
This has been the psyche of the Irish racing world and it wasn't too often that Irish riders made it to the top of International racing that way. The Fingal area is no different, and for most race fans in the ' Heart of Road Racing' real road racing is the only way to get on and succeed.
Thomas O'Grady is 21 years old, and despite living less than two miles from the famous Skerries 100 and Killalane road race courses, he has no plans whatsoever to go road racing. I caught up with the young Lusk rider recently, and while I have watched him progress through the clubman's ranks, the quietly spoken young man is totally focused in the way he sees his future in the sport. Most of his family on both sides are involved with motorbike racing, whether it is road or off-road. Thomas was always going to be involved in racing, and at the tender age of eight he started offroad racing on a TM50, and in his first year took the club championship success at Gormanston. In 1999 on a 60 Kawasaki he again scored championship success, and started to compete at various events up and down the country. The wins kept coming and at only 13 he was beating Irish Championship riders, and again he scored championship success in the Southern Centre on an 85 Honda. Moving straight on to a 250 Yamaha, he again took the Southern Centre Championship, but this time it was against 'The Big Boys'. 'People said that I was mad going straight into the 250 class, but it was a gamble that paid off,' said Thomas.
While studying for his Junior Certificate in 2006, Thomas still managed second in the Southern Centre Championship and eighth in the Irish Championship. In 2007 Thomas again had an excellent year, winning both the Southern Centre Youth and Adult Championships, and taking third in the Irish Youth and fourth in the Irish Adult Championships. In 2008 Thomas was part of a full team, riding 250 and 450 Yamahas in the Irish Championship, but at the start of the season in Dundalk he had a bad crash when he landed on top of two riders coming off the top of a jump, and was lucky to escape with a broken wrist. Six weeks later to the day, Thomas was back racing in Dundalk and in the top three, but his luck was out when he again crashed heavily, breaking an elbow and - worst of all - severing an artery.
'Coming over the jump I knew I was going to crash, and when it happened I couldn't move and I couldn't feel anything. I just lay paralysed with a hole in my hip. I really thought that I was going to end up in a wheelchair, and how I would deal with this. 'After a while, and with the help of the medical, I came around and was able to walk into the ambulance. There was a lot of blood, and as soon as I got to the hospital, they operated on me. The doctor told me that my arm was also in a bad way, and gave me a lecture, telling me that it was the second time that he has seen me in a few months, and that I would have to give up racing,' said Thomas. Despite having 18 staples and plates inserted in his arm, Thomas was out of bed in two days, but again the racing was never far from his mind.
'I was to go to the UK with my brother Darren and Shane Mulligan, but that was the end of that and I was out for close to a year. That year I got an invitation to compete in the Irish Moto X Grand Prix in Fairyhouse, but I had to forego that invitation. 'The cast was off after eight weeks, but there was a long road of physio ahead of me. They told me again that I would never race a bike, but I wasn't listening to them, and being the stubborn lad that I am, I just walked out.' Having plenty of time to think about his future, Thomas watched his favourite Moto GP stars in action, and it was then that a friend of his placed an idea firmly in his head. 'One of my friends went to the Ron Haslam racing school in Donington Park, and I decided to go with him, but I never told me ma. We had great craic.
'I didn't want to walk away from Moto X, and I wanted to be the best in Ireland, and eventually race full-time. I told mam that I would like to go and race on the short circuits, and she thought that I wanted to go road racing, but I promised her that I didn't.' Looking to the future, Thomas knew in the back of his mind that he wanted the challenge of short circuit racing, and he saw it as the way forward. Keeping his hand at Moto X, Thomas started to save for a bike, and it was the quiet man of the local race scene that came to his rescue to get him going. 'I work in Swords Motor Factors, and Con Cunningham came into the shop one day and invited me to a track day on his bike, and I went with him and his friend George Gordon. Con gave me tips, and small bits of advice that were very helpful. I did four track days with Con on a Kawasaki ZX 6 and a Honda Fireblade, and he was a great help. He gave me a helmet and he transported me to and from the track days. Very few people saw this side of the late Con, and I am very grateful to him for this.' During the winter, Thomas availed of the advice of another of the local legends of the sport, Tony Carton, and an R6 Yamaha was purchased. The first season in Clubman's was a real eyeopener for Thomas, and in the class alone there were 70 riders competing for 30 places on the grid. In his second race he qualified in 30th, and while he didn't light up the race paddock, he was getting there.
'I found the speed of the 600 very hard to get used to, compared to the Moto X, and it was an aspect of my racing that I had to get used to. From the start I knew if you want to race with the big guys you have to be able to compete with them, and I knew I would have to prepare properly to be able to compete at a high level.' At the end of his first season in the Clubman's in 2011, Thomas had his entry for the prestigious Sunflower Trophy accepted, and he qualified for the race proper. 'I knew it was going to be hard, and after the event I sat back and looked at what I was doing, and I knew I would have to find the right person to give me the advice and lift that I needed. I knew that some lads were going to Spain in the spring, so I started to save. After advice from Steve Hartnett of North Dublin Motorcycles, I got in contact with Woolsey Coulter, after more advice from Tony Carton. I was lucky to get going in the trip as two riders pulled out.' The trip to Spain was to be the education and push that Thomas needed, and after four days at the Cartagena track where the former British champion Coulter gave advice and help, Thomas knew he had made the right decision.
'Woolsey and I clicked straightaway, and he really looked after me, not only at Cartagena, but all season. He would pop up at a meeting and give me valuable advice. He was guiding me through the proper technique, and I was prepared to listen and learn, despite some things that I thought were strange.' When Thomas got home, he realised straightaway that themoney and time spent in Spain were definitely worth it, and on home tracks it was turning out to be very beneficial. At Bishopscourt for example, Thomas was able to take an incredible eight seconds off his best time from last season. Off track Thomas knew his fitness level was very important, and with the help of Stefan Byrne, he kept up his training. Machinery problems were to be Thomas's only problem during the Championship, and despite a heavy crash where there was more damage done than injury, power and suspension, along with a three-year old bike were keeping him from getting the true results that he deserved. There were very good results too, and the top two riders in the Clubman's Championship who were always ahead of him were on new and better machinery.
Knowing only too well how important that physical fitness, coupled with a good team set-up is so important, and for the next season he wants no excuses. 'I learned a lot in that way from Woolsey, and when he got me a ride on the 848 Ducati at Silverstone at the end of the season, it was both these that helped me through the weekend at Silverstone, and helped me gain better experience on both long races and a different bike.' Despite all his hard work, Thomas is like so many riders and the lack of proper machinery and sponsorship curtails even the best laid plans, and there is nothing definite for 2013. The determination that I see in Thomas is one that will pay dividends, but then again his brief introduction to the British Championship scene is one that I know that he wants to go down.
'I would love to stay on a 600 Supersport, but to compete in the UK even on basic machinery would cost me €30k, and that is something that I just don't have.' Having watched the young Lusk rider come through the ranks I see a determination and eagerness to go to the top of his game, but the unfortunate way our racing is here, most sponsors want to see their riders on the roads, which is sad in a way. Jack Kennedy and Cody Nally have proved that it can be done at the top level, and when you look at the likes of Keith Farmer who has won a British Championship, I believe that a system to improve riders and help them compete at the highest levels should be something that the MCUI should be taking forward, instead of bickering about trivial things. Having witnessed firsthand at my recent trip to the Australian Moto GP, where you see the likes of the Spanish and Italian federations grooming their riders from a very young age, and the infrastructure that is in place, albeit in bigger countries, we have nothing here to encourage Thomas O'Grady and other riders like him to go to the top, even if the top is the British scene, as our championships now seem to have little credit when a rider is preparing a sponsorship portfolio.
Let's hope that there is someone out there that will see and encourage the likes of Thomas in his quest for success, and while success is not easy gained, the determination to get there is so important, and another vital factor on the long road that sportsman and women have to take to get to the top. Thomas would like to thank everyone who has helped him so far in his racing career, especially Tony Carton, Woolsey Coulter, The O' Grady Family, Shane Garry, Lisa Maguire, Emma Dwyer, Sean Teeling, the late Con Cunningham, Swords Motor Factors, Maxol Lubricants, Ricks Car Care and Eamon Mulligan.