MotoAmerica: Exclusive interview with Liam MacDonald Part 1

We spoke to Liam MacDonald in a two-part interview ahead of his move from Malaysia to MotoAmerica.

Liam MacDonald is a 21-year-old Kiwi who has made the decision to move from Malaysia to America to race in the MotoAmerica championship in the newly expanded Pure Attitude Racing Team who have dramatically expanded their team from one rider to four riders for the 2021 MotoAmerica season, the team will field riders in the Supersport and Twins Cup classes. Their 2021 rider line up is as follows:

TwinsCupTrevor Standish

Twins CupLiam MacDonald

SupersportAustin Miller

SupersportNate Minster

We were given the opportunity to speak to Liam MacDonald who started racing at 16 years old and very quickly established himself as a fast rider.

You started your racing career at 16, what made you decide to start racing?

So my dads best friend used to have an R33 Skyline, a really nice one, he used to take us out every now and then and he was always asking my dad to get one, so he got a really nice GTST R44 and we would go out on track days with me in the passenger seat and I enjoyed the force and the power of the car. I was never really interested in going around in circles going really fast but the feeling which it gave me was mental, I cannot get enough of it.

My dad hasn’t got the fine touch but I always found myself offering suggestions to him, advising him to try something new or brake differently and maybe he will get better lap times and it kind of became a challenge for me, a little puzzle to figure out. This puzzle made me want to start racing cars but I was 14/15 years old and there were kids who had been racing for that amount of years already at that time and I would have to get into cars and not karts and it became an issue.

What I ended up doing was dropping out of school, school was not for me and I was not for school so in my mind it was better to put all of my time into racing as I have that mindset so that’s what we did! And then nothing happened because funnily enough the 15-year-old kid who thinks he knows how the world works meant that it didn’t pan out as we thought it would.

So what I ended up doing was I made plans after a while to go to Australia for University and theatre management which I’d been doing for a few years at the time already and I was trying to convince my dad to let me get a motorcycle, just a small one a 250 or 300 to get to job to job because they were getting further and further out and Ubers were getting expensive plus I couldn’t cycle and show up drenched in sweat, there’s an element of professionalism you have to uphold.

My dad was not having it, he’s done a lot of cross country driving so he’s seen the accidents and the casualties so he didn’t want that for his little boy but they figured that when I go to Australia for university they couldn’t really stop me anyway. I was going to get a bike whether they liked it or not so they wanted me to go in prepared, not just learning by trial and error, we put some feelers out on some websites here in Malaysia about practising riding a motorcycle and we found someone and met up with them and they liked what they saw.

The following day I met up with them to watch the MotoGP winter testing and one of them asked, “do you want to train with our racing team?”. This was crazy for a kid who doesn’t make plans for things like university and the first thing I thought was yes, asking where to sign.

It started out from there, trying to learn how to ride a motorbike before eventually doing a club race here and there which led to a step up in class from a road bike 300 to a Kawasaki ZX6, then I did 1 or 2 rounds of the national series here in the rookie class, I did reasonably well I think I got a P5 and a P4 and we [Liam, his dad and the team] looked at this and felt that maybe I had some potential.

So we greenlit a full season to give it a try and I ended up winning all 10 races in the rookie class, I had seen the times the other riders were doing so I really trained hard with the people I was learning with to be doing those fast times, to our surprise I came in doing those times and was the only one who came in doing those times from the get-go, I came in doing a 2:22 second lap time (at the Sepang International Circuit) to about 2 minutes 19/20 and the guys behind me were doing 23s.

The best way to put it is that I kind of just fell into it, I mean I sort of felt like I should settle down and act my age [before racing bikes] you know, I clearly wasn’t going to be racing so needed to set up a plan and be an adult and then I went straight back to being a kid with a big bike that goes bang.

It has morphed into something I want to actively want to do now, I don’t have that massive drive to kill myself [racing] these days, I don’t have that god-like complex any more, I had a really bad injury to my hand in 2018 and it really knocked me, it told me ‘hey, you’re not invincible, you’re not invulnerable and you do get hurt’ and I realised I don’t want that! But the drive that keeps me doing it is that I want one of those jobs where you can rock up to a kids career day and talk about what you do and all those kids leave there and tell their parents they want to do that job when they grow up, going home to their parents saying they want to be an astronaut, a firefighter a motorbike racer you know? That childish passion, I want someone to look at that and be like ‘I want to do that when I grow up’.

Did you expect to be so fast so quickly after winning all 10 of the MSBK Supersport rookie series races in 2017 then winning the Supersport title in 2018?

I didn’t expect to be anything honestly, in February 2016 is when we started the training and how to ride, January 2016 I couldn’t even stand up a scooter, like a 150cc Honda. I couldn’t stand it up, not even a 250cc Supermoto.

I am not surprised I progressed as fast as I did as I had the mindset of if something happens to me then something happens, if I were to lose my life to this then I would pass knowing I put everything into it. I was this bog-standard rookie, still falling off every time I went out on the go-kart tracks, I’d be cutting it with friends on much bigger bikes. I would sit following them around a corner with his rear tyre inches from my visor, thinking to myself ‘right, even if he lets off the gas slightly then that is going into my face, if it does go into my face I feel I have the reactions to stand myself up, worst case scenario I’ll get a black mark on my visor and it will kick it up but I will be fine’.

That mentality of pushing it meant I knew I’d either get somewhere or get into the dirt very quickly. The best way of putting it is that I am not surprised I became as fast as I am that quickly but it’s more of a surprise that I’ve been able to keep it going you know? I am still improving, there are still lines to learn and I am still doing this.

You were able to finish your first ever 1000cc race in second place, how did it feel knowing you were able to adapt so quickly to a bigger bike?

Ah. That was- I will be honest that was the only time in 2019 that I was actually genuinely happy on a bike, of everything I have achieved that day is one of the highlights of my career. Not even just for how quickly I adapted to the bike, just that it really slapped down a lot of naysayers.

My 600 had been totalled a few weeks prior at a track day when I was crashed into so I texted my friend asking if they had a third bike, if they needed a third rider or a spare rider, I would’ve ridden last year’s bikes if it meant I could race.

I was told that their second rider was actually still out of the races with a broken leg and they asked if I wanted to ride their bike, I was given a contract with some terms and a lap time benchmark of 2:16 at Sepang which was set by the other rider, it basically read that if I could not perform then it is on me because the bike I would be riding was able to set this lap time, it meant that I cannot complain about the bike.

I took this as a challenge, I rocked up and in my first few sessions I was setting 2:12 lap times, by the end of the day I was achieving 2:10 lap times. If I had a bike which was better set up for me as this bike had spring settings which were 20KG heavier than I am, a steering damper which injured my wrist which meant I had to walk around with a wrist brace on and more time with the bike to understand the electronics I 100% could’ve been doing 2:08 lap times on this standard bike.

I know the Asian Road Racing bikes were doing 2:04’s/2:05’s and it was a great feeling because for the first time in the year I felt like I was getting somewhere, for the entire 2019 season I felt like I was being kicked whilst I was down, we didn’t have the resources to pick myself up after my 2018 injury which is here nor there.

What I feel like doesn’t get talked about much is the incredibly intense mental breakdown which came with it [the 2018 injury], I have been injured 100 times before but I still have PTSD from the panic attack I had that day, not the injury but the actual panic attack. So not having the resources to continue circulating on a go-kart track or something really hindered me getting back up to speed, so for me to get this hard reset to start from scratch again and to get as fast as I did in the time I did with a team and manufacturer who have never had those results before. I think the only Suzuki riders who were faster than me were [Yukio] Kagayama and the MotoGP boys and I was only a few tenths slower than him [Kagayama].

People always tell me that my 2019 season in the Asia Road Racing Championship is not something to knock but I am not built for that, I think my best result was a top 10 and I am not built for that. I was never happy with the results I was getting, I am built for the top step of the podium and won’t be happy otherwise. Just to start from scratch and get back on it let me do my work again, it let me figure things out and puzzle piece everything together and try everything, it was a great feeling.

I had been on a 1000cc once before, a JSBK CBR1000 and it was divine, I was just testing the electronics on that bike so I had it drilled into me by my coach not to crash, it is a legendary bike, do not scratch the bike, do not have the mental image of scuffing this bike, so obviously I put the TC and everything on 200% and I couldn’t get the feel of it, I was slowly turning the TC down, setting it to 100% and even further until I eventually turned it off! I had 6 laps on the bike, the tyres were 4 years old and used, I remember coming out turn 3 at Sepang which is flat out, it’s a fast ballsy corner, I swung it out sideways on the rumble strip, just on the throttle, no traction control and I remember thinking ‘this is alright this, this is good fun’ before seizing up 3 corners later remembering not to crash.

So in 2019 when I wasn’t at my best, to pull back the feeling of turning off the TC and sitting on the throttle with the feeling in your hand and get on the podium said to me that it’s not as bad as I thought it was. It festers when you’re not doing what you know you can do, this result slapped away the naysayers and gave me a reality check, you know, chin up, you’re still working at this and still have got it. I have over 100 photos of that weekend.

Liam riding the GSXR-1000 at the Sepang International Circuit.

You’ve had some really tough moments during your racing career like when you injured your fingers plus also missing the entire 2020 season, how have you maintained your motivation and drive to continue racing despite these challenges?

I am not going to give you some sort of puffed up story with my chest out acting macho or anything like that. I have had none. I can’t get into the gym and work out and push myself like that if I don’t have a reason to, I am not someone who likes working out very much. It’s a great feeling but I don’t like the feeling before of ‘this is going to suck’.

So for me to basically start doing a set of crunches and not just lay down and stay there is incredibly hard to fight unless I have this little voice in my head telling me ‘this is why you’re doing this, this is when it is, this is the level you need to be at, lets get it moving’. I haven’t had that, people will say “this is my passion, this is my work, this is my life’s dream”, it isn’t for me.

I haven’t had any motivation to get into the gym or anything, I have been trying and still going but it’s not felt like this is what I am supposed to be doing. I spent most of 2020 really focused on my mental health, granted my physical health has definitely slipped in that regard but I am far happier with that than where I was in 2019. In 2019 I was the fittest I have ever been and the worst I have ever been mentally, I’ve raced with broken ribs I’ve raced with broken bones in my feet I’ve raced with broken wrists, not a problem, but if you race with a broken mind you are not going anywhere, you may as well pack up and go home.

So I spent all of 2020 just effectively just trying to be happy, trying to be OK. Nobody was OK, nobody needs another COVID interview, nobody was OK which meant I wasn’t OK and I needed to be OK. It was a lot of trying to wake up happier, do the things which make me happy, play more videogames, meet new people online and stuff like that. Be a part of bigger communities, I have great communities around me now and I have support across the world with them alone.

Being in a much happier, healthier place mentally I feel is all of the workout I needed from 2019.

I had a borderline breakdown in 2019, the last round of 2019, one of the wildcards in the team had a helper and he was there and he was great. A guy named Wayne Hepburn from the Australian Superbikes, he basically sat me down and I was in tears, I said I wasn’t happy with this, I don’t understand why this isn’t working, I am as fit as I have ever been, I’ve worked my ass off into the ground, I have broken myself physically to get to where I am.

He sat me down and he didn’t beat around the bush, he said “so you know its not just physical, you know it’s a mental game and you know you’re not there yet, what you’re doing isn’t bad,” he was giving me this massive pep talk whilst I was in tears and later that weekend I did the best result I’ve had just from that one pep talk, from that one person in my corner telling it like it is. Him telling me that it’s not just physical was helpful, it’s not just physical and we know there’s a mental side to racing too, but when you’re in that post-traumatic space you know it’s there but you don’t realise you’re neglecting it.

You are sat there like ‘no I’m fine, I’m fine’, I was saying it throughout the season when actually I wasn’t doing great, I wasn’t doing great mentally, I had a massive reaction to the crash last year but you are still telling yourself ‘no I’m fine, I’m fine’, its that survival instinct. So to have someone really tell you that you’re not where you need to be mentally really helped me be OK with not being the epitome of fitness, it helped me get to a much healthier place.

My motivation in 2019 [after the crash] was me telling myself that I wasn’t good enough, I needed to be better and I wasn’t good enough, I needed to push myself and break myself down and do whatever I need to do to be good enough because I wasn’t it. That is very clearly not a healthy mindset to go in with so a lot of 2020 was keeping my head above the water, finding new healthier motivation.

To get rid of that incredibly toxic ‘you’re not good enough’ and try to get a form of motivation to improve in a positive manner.

I think mental health and especially mental health with athletes, even further mental health with motorsports athletes is important. As a rider you always have to have this machismo about you, this puffed up chest, invincible aura, this is important for your mind games and everything but tells a lot of people around you that they can’t show weakness.

Every rider has the mentality of not showing weakness, it took a lot for me to understand that having weakness isn’t being weak, I can have all the mental issues in the world and the disorders in the world but it doesn’t make me less than or weak and that’s OK. It’s something I want to push as mental health doesn’t get talked about enough.

Part 2 to follow shortly.