Aussie Joel Kelso made waves in the FIM CEV Repsol Moto3 Junior World Championship this year, having just claimed another win in Misano, and is now set to move to the Moto3 World Championship for 2022.
However his racing career started here in Australia, with a special bond with an aspiring team owner. At 10-years-old Kelso, born in Brisbane, moved to Darwin, Northern Territory, with his mum Nayelle and little sister. While clear he had talent, Nayelle could only take her son so far in his racing career on her own.
It was only after a chance encounter with Jake Skate – current ASBK team manager of ProGP Racing Junior Team by JDS Moto – who was a young mechanic and aspiring team owner from Victoria, that the duo set their plan into motion.
In 2013 with limited funds, an excess of talent and raw passion, the two set out to take on the world of motorsport racing. The team of Kelso and Skate gelled quickly and scored their first Championship in 2014 with the MRRDA 70 cc Championship.
By 12, Kelso was fighting for what would end up being his second road race title in Australia, this time in the 80 cc Junior Championship, an event that would also produce one of the duo’s more hilarious moments together.
With the last race of the round determining the Championship at Winton Motor Raceway, Kelso practiced the pass he would make on Scott Nicholson on the final lap to see if he could, in his own words – “slipstream Scotty to the line or pass on the corner”.
The move stuck, and Kelso tucked in down the straight to ‘focus on the last lap.’ Unbeknownst to himself, the chequered flag had been waved, and the race won. Footage from the day shows a depleted Nicholson sitting up and throwing his hands in disappointment.
It was then that racing commentator David Johnson began to piece together that Kelso had no clue the Championship title was his as he went on a flying lap around the circuit.
After completing what is potentially an in-lap record at Winton, Kelso remembers seeing the red flag on the final corner and rolling into the pits towards an elated Skate.
“What happened to Scotty?” Kelso asked in confusion. “He came into the pits, like every other rider,” Skate recalls telling him through ecstatic laughs. They had just won their second Australian Championship together.
Their third Championship win on Australian soil was in the Moto3 class in 2017 as part of the Australian Superbike Championship.
“I remember going into the race at Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit knowing we had to win. We had great speed, we were at lap record speed, we were going for it. I entered Siberia, and I hit the brakes, crashing with no warning and figured that was the championship over,” shared Kelso.
As fate would have it, only mere moments later he saw another bike sliding past him, only to realise it was his championship rival Dylan Whiteside.
“I knew I had to quickly get up and go riding, Dylan went and grabbed my bike, and I went and grabbed his.
The championship wasn’t over, and he was still in the fight.
“That Saturday night, we made a bet,” Skate said. “At the time, we didn’t know that Dylan wasn’t going to race the next day.”
The bet being that, if Kelso won the Championship, Skate would get Kelso’s racing number 66 tattooed on him. Skate lost that bet.
There were limited junior road racing options before programs like the Oceania Junior Cup were introduced in 2019, and Kelso and his family were unsure of his racing future.
“I had a conversation with his (Kelso’s) mum, and she essentially said, ‘Just find what we are going to do, we need to do something’,” Skate remembers.
Skate decided shortly after he would take his race team JDS Moto, including both riders Kelso and teammate Jack Mahaffy, to Europe – he was 26 at the time.
“It was a phone call, that’s where it all started from, where we just convinced each other that we were doing it,” Kelso said. Kelso recalls calling Skate almost every day, urging him to convince Nayelle to let him go.
However, Skate had already started laying the foundations with Nayelle about what a European racing season might look like and just how they were going to pull it off.
“It was surreal – the first month went slow, I was really nervous. I kept calling Jake who would say ‘I have no news’ and I thought gee whiz this is not going to happen,” Kelso recalled. “Then I remember calling, and he said, ‘I’m booking the flights’, and it just switched. It would have been a lot of work for Jake, but we were on a plane a month later.”
Logistically, it takes a great deal of work to uproot a small team to Europe. They quickly realised the more economical option of a shipping container wouldn’t arrive in time, so the bikes and any equipment they had would have to be squeezed into flight cases – that would then be flown into Italy.
Skate would then have to land in Ireland to pick up a truck he had organised and drive it back to Italy to collect the cases. All this just two weeks ahead of Kelso and Mahaffy’s arrival.
Navigating Europe as both a young rider and a team owner/mechanic/crew chief all in one was fraught with as many challenges as there were rewards.
While Kelso did find his way onto the podium racing with JDS Moto in 2018 and at the CIV in Mugello and Vallelunga for Leopard Racing in 2019, it was ‘tough work’ to get there, both admitting finances and language barriers being their two most significant challenges.
“It was hard, it was really difficult, but we didn’t know anything different from Australia,” Kelso admits.
To ease any high expectations, Skate had advised Kelso early on into their time in Europe to expect to be at the back of the pack. Still, on his first test day, he had already caught the eyes of two mechanics in pit lane who saw that Kelso was under two minutes in his first session, which is considered really ‘fast around Misano.’
They learnt a lesson though later into their European racing season – one on managing the excitement that can come with a good day on track.
“When we got pole position, we celebrated as if we had won the World Championship and the people around us said, ‘there are no points on Saturday’,” Skate recalls.
They were right, and Joel crashed out of the race the following day. “I don’t get happy about poles now I’ve learnt. Even when Mum and Jake call to say it is looking good, I say, ‘Let’s just see’.”
Crashes are inevitable, limits are pushed, and accidents happen – with one of Kelso’s biggest crashes happening in Imola, 2018, in the CIV.
Kelso went into the round with a new bike, one he hadn’t even seen, and the time frame was so tight in getting it to him, the bike was brought straight to the race track.
“We hadn’t even seen it, and we said alright, let’s race this thing,” said Skate. By the second lap, he was in the first group, even after starting from pit lane because of a penalty for a change of engine.
Then, within minutes, Kelso lost the front, crashed and subsequently got run over by two bikes, much to the horror of Nayelle watching her son on TV at home.
It wasn’t the crash or the pain that Joel remembers – he was knocked out and would feel the latter later. It was the moments that followed in the medical centre that still keep him up.
“I still think about it to this day. It was the most awkward moment of my life. They had cut my leathers off,” he recalls. “I woke up when they were cutting my skin suit off, then they get to my jocks, chop them off and I was lying there butt-naked with four Italian nurses standing around. I was sixteen and thinking how could this happen to me. I really just wanted Jake to come in and help,” he said laughing.
In an industry where the relationships within a team can be temperamental, Kelso claims he can’t remember that ever being the case with Skate. “We never had problems, like all riders when they are young, it’s always the bike’s fault, which is normal,” Skate said.
Kelso agreed, “It surprises me that we did have a good relationship because now, if something is not going right, you’re going down with your crew chief, you learn to fix things but (with Skate) there never was any arguments or things to fix.”
Skate, smiling, adds, “I think it’s because I didn’t let him know that he was allowed to argue with me.”
While in recent years they have forged their own paths on the opposite sides of the world, they remain very close and in touch.
“It’s such a cruel sport sometimes, I get nervous every time I watch Joel’s races and just wish I could fast forward to the last lap. You just want to know the result,” Skate confesses.
In Portimo, for round 4 of the FIM CEV Kelso, calm and in control, had his race plan worked out to a tee. Although the young rider dropped down the pack with only a few laps to go the race plan was put into action. Several laps later he took the win.
Standing emotional on the top of the podium as the national anthem echoed around him – the years and years of hard work, the literal blood, sweat and tears, all worth it.
It was then, only mere moments after jumping off the podium, Skate received a call, it was Joel.
“I just wish you were here, mate.” The sentiment went both ways.
Now, in 2021, Kelso is writing one of the more exciting chapters of his story. This year has seen Kelso at the front end of the highly competitive Moto3 Junior World Championship riding with the AGR Racing Team.
The 18-year-old also secured two wildcard entries into the Moto3 World Championship, riding for CIP Green Power, where he almost saw himself finishing within the points.
The riders performance on track even caught the eye of Australian MotoGP rider Jack Miller, who came down and said hello shortly after the race.
Kelso’s ability and talent has stirred significant interest in the paddock with a number of high-profile teams vying for his signature.
However, he remained loyal to the team that gave him his opportunity in the Moto3 World Championship and believes it is with CIP Green Power that he can continue to learn and deliver.
The duo, who are currently focusing on their own career paths, Kelso preparing himself for the 2022 Moto3 World Championship and Skate running his race team ProGP Racing Junior Team with JDS moto in the mi-bike Motorcycle Insurance Australian Superbike Championship, presented by Motul, still speak every week.
On the Friday of every race week, Skate religiously receives a call from Kelso. Whether Kelso feels good, bad or indifferent about the bike or races ahead, the duo talk it through. Skate at times is even left to work out what could be wrong with the bike and how to fix it via a WhatsApp video call.
We ask Kelso how the story, his story, ends. It doesn’t take long for him to answer – he will be riding in MotoGP, and Skate will be working right next to him.
“It would be the perfect ending to the story, and that’s just it,” he says.
Kelso has one more round of the Moto3 Junior World Championship to run at Ricardo Tormo Circuit, Spain, in November, and currently sits in fourth place in the Championship.
He then hopes to spend Christmas with his family before he begins his full-time training for the 2022 Moto3 World Championship.
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