Clifford's talent worthy of recognition
The Dublin, Meath and Louth areas have been a stronghold for pure road racing for as long as I can remember, but in the last few years we have seen the strength of the open roads somewhat decline, as some of our younger riders want to take the plunge and race at the top level on short circuits.
Last year alone we saw Eunan McGlinchey and Keith Farmer lift two BSB Championships, the Supersport 300 and Superstock classes. We also had a number of young riders battling it out in the 600 Stock class, with Offaly's Kevin Keys and Duleek's finest rider Aaron Clifford.
I caught up with Aaron as he prepares for the coming season, and the total focus he has on the job in hand is something I haven't seen in a young rider for a long time. The 19-year-old, who just started working in Techrete in Balbriggan, is looking forward to the challenge after returning from a very successful pre-season test in Cartagena in Spain.
'At the end of 2017 we blew our good Kawasaki race engine, and at the start of 2018 we went to Spain to test, and once more blew an engine. We got another engine and at Brands Hatch it blew up again. We then decided to go testing at Kirkistown where another engine blew, so between the end of the 2017 season up to round four of the BSB, we went through four engines. To be honest we really got sick of the Kawasaki, as the Japanese company were not producing the 600s any more and they were only producing the 636 machines. We were struggling to get a new engine and we had to settle for older ones that are not suited for the job in hand.
'It was time to change to Yamaha, and it was definitely a hard change. People were saying to us why did we change bikes in the middle of the season, but following another test in Bishopscourt, where we only had a few parts for the bike, the bike looked good. At the first race in Knockhill I was fighting for the podium, which was very encouraging, and we were finding out different things about the bike. At the end of the season, and with the help of Motorcycling Ireland, we went out to Portugal to a school run by the Laverty brothers. Eugene took a spin on my bike and came in after two laps and said: 'How the hell can you ride a bike like that?'
'He found a major problem that I had been struggling with since the move from Kawasaki to Yamaha. He sorted it for me, and I felt really good last week at the test in Spain, and it's given me a lot of confidence as it is so much easier to ride. Despite the problems I had with the Yamaha before Portugal, I was having some great scraps in my races.'
I put it to Aaron that he made some daring manoeuvres in some of the TV races that I saw him compete in, and with a smile he said: 'That's one thing that I have been known for over the year, and if I see a gap, no matter how small, I will go for it, which is the way you have to be. I really enjoyed the second half of the season on the Yamaha, and despite the few crashes that I had, I knew that I always had the pace to get on the podium.'
We spoke about the problems of good, talented riders not being picked up by the bigger teams, and where money really talks now.
'It's not like years ago, if you were good enough you would get picked up no problem. Now, despite having the talent, you have to be able to bring big money with you at the end of the day.
'One thing we struggle for is the money to compete. Last year alone the entries for the BSB season were £3,500 for the year, and then we have to get there as well. I am lucky in a way with two of my sponsors Dixon and Noone Transport, who look after the ferries and the diesel for the van.
'If I go and dominate the championship like Ryan Vickers did last year, teams will come up to you and say that they want you to ride for them, but there is a hefty sum of money attached to that as well. Ryan is gone to Superbikes this year and is doing very well, but it's not a free ride either, with a six-figure sum mentioned for him to move to Superbike.
'At the end of last year there were three things that we could have done for this season, like staying in the 600 stock class and going for the championship, which is the most affordable. It is crazy money to compete in the open 600 Supersport class, and at the end of the day you need to spend a couple of grand to upgrade your engine after every second race, and have two spare engines sitting there at a cost of around €7,000 each.
'The championship is 12 rounds - that's a minimum of six refreshments - so without crash damage and tyres, the season would cost you in the region of €60,000, and don't forget the electronics run at around £12,000.'
We spoke about the electronics and the pros and cons of these.
'Obviously in the stock class we don't use them, but if I were in the open class I don't think I would use them. They do give you an advantage, but you would need a specialised technician, and the cost of one of these runs around £1,500 per meeting. You really are looking at around £80,000 for a full package, sterling.'
We then discussed the now familiar fitness of riders, and the importance of being in good shape to compete at the top level,
'Over the winter I have done a lot of training to get me both physically and mentally prepared. Physically it's a lot of gym work, as I used to do a lot of running, but after an injury that is out the door, so it's all weights and stuff.
'Mentally I have spent a lot of time studying races and riders' styles and looking at how different riders approach corners, and take into mind what would suit me better. When I went to Spain testing it was by far the most comfortable I have been on a bike, and I smashed my personal best time by over a second and a half.
'It is important also to have a good team you can work with and trust. I had a mechanic from Russo racing team (who pulled out just after the start of last season) and Craig Hall came on board as mechanic. We also had the services of Victor from Ohlin's suspension, who gave us great support. This year Charlie from team KSM (Kick Start Motorcycles) has come on board and he was out in Spain with us, and we made great progress with him. He is a great all rounder.
'One of the most important things for us about going testing early in the season with the people that will be with you during the season, is you get to know them and you feel more comfortable with them. I can come in and tell them what I feel is wrong and what is good, and Charlie does his work.
'There is no doubt in my head that the job is done, and I can go out and push as hard as I can. It will be a busy season, and depending on funds I would like to get a ride in the Dutch round of the BSB in the Open 600 class, as the stock class don't race there.'
We spoke about the quality of fellow Irish riders that will be competing in the stock class this year.
'I and Kevin Keys had some great battles last year, and there are always the bragging rights of the best Irish rider, and this year it will be exciting as Korie McGreevy is planning on doing a full season along with Eunan McGlinchey, Simon Reid and Caolán Irwin and Kevin, so it will be a tough one.
'Unfortunately I won't be competing much at home owing to the one-tyre rule in Mondello, as we use Pirellis and it is too much work to get the bike set up for Dunlops and then reset it back for the Pirellis. If we need more testing we will probably do a few rounds of the Ulster Superbikes as there is no tyre rule there, and more than likely the Sunflower.'
Did Aaron ever get bored as he has raced since early childhood?
'I started racing at nine years of age and I am into my 10th season. I am really looking forward to the season, as the passion is always there. At the end of the day it's like a job, but it's a job that you always enjoy, and having the motivation behind you makes it all worthwhile, and wanting to succeed. There are days you go out and have a bad race, but you won't come in and say that I am packing this in, you just want to improve.
'I am lucky with some of my sponsors, and while we have no one new on board, we are just trying to tie up all the loose strings and get them all sorted. We are probably in one of the worst positions that we have ever been in that sense, and we are struggling to get the package together.
'We will wait until after the first round of the championship at Silverstone to do a fundraiser, so hopefully it will be a better time to run a night. I would like to thank the following who helped me: Noone Transport, Dixon International, AKB Distribution, North Dublin Motorcycles, DMG Landscapes, Curran Commercial Spraying, Retink Graphics, Maynooth Cycles, Megabikes Dublin, Battery Tender, Des Nally Developments, 151's, GB Racing Crash Protection, Motorcycling Ireland, Reflect Autocare, Kickstart Motorcycles, Fuchs Silkolene, R & G Crash Protection.'
There is no doubt in my mind that the Duleek teenager has the talent to progress in the top end of racing, but it's so sad that raw talent is now not the way forward, and you have to have a wallet as big as possible.
Aaron Clifford is a young man that is pleasant, approachable and more importantly a class rider who would be a marvellous addition to any top team in the BSB paddock. Hopefully his talents will be recognised and maybe there is a sponsor out there would love to have this young man in his team.
Keep 'er lit!
Grass track season kicks off
Milverton Off Road Club will hold their first Open Grass Track of the 2019 season in a field near Ballyboughal next Sunday, and details and directions will be on their Facebook page after the club meeting on Wednesday.
All the usual classes will be catered for, from autos right up to Grade As. For those who didn't attend the license application day in The Hill Cricket Club last month, you can apply on the day, but please be early to ensure there is no long queuing at sign-on.
Annual licenses are €55 - this includes club membership - and please bring a passport photo and copy of ID if applying for the first time. One-day licenses are available too at €10.