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Sonya and Peter Miller reveal the lengths they went to help their son Jack break into MotoGP and what they are doing to keep him there.
It’s a recognisable story, one that most Australian road racing fans are familiar with: a young kid starts riding bikes at three or four, ends up racing and winning…everything, so they start thinking about bigger and better things.
After running into the anachronism that is the Australian road racing bureaucracy they find that they have to go overseas to get anywhere, end up mortgaged to the hilt and then … well you know how it goes. The most prominent incarnation of this is MotoGP ‘bad boy’ Jack Miller. We caught up with his parents Sonya and Peter to find out more about what it took for this family to make the big time.
How many children are there in the family?
Sonya: We have three children: Fergus 24, Jack 20 and Maggie 18.
How did Jack get into bikes?
Peter: I wanted to get the boys into bikes. I bought Fergus a little Honda PeeWee 50 when Jack was three and typical Jack, he chucked a tantrum because he wanted to ride it. It didn’t take long, maybe a couple of months, and he finally got on the front. Then he was on it all the time so we gave him the PeeWee when he was about four and bought Fergus a 70cc bike, and we basically went from there.
When did you think that he had something special as a road racer?
Peter: Road racing was never in the picture. He was very fast on dirt track and was a multiple Australian Champion. He won the state championship at his first attempt at longtrack and we thought, ‘Oh, he’s not bad at this.’ He wasn’t bad at motocross either. He grew up with some top boys who have done real well. You had to be on your game. That’s why we think he is as good as he is today, because of that experience.
Sonya: MA had lowered the road racing age to 14 and Noel Lee-Smith said to us that he had a bike for Jack to ride and he said: “Give the kid a go, I think he will be great at it.” By that stage he had already had 28 broken bones! They were from motocross mainly so I thought right, let’s give this a go, it looks like it might be safer. So off we went to Tasmania and unfortunately that was a baptism of fire because that was when Judd [Greedy] got killed. When I saw that I thought ‘What have we done!’ He had actually ridden pretty well and then he started doing pretty well in ASBK.
Peter: I was talking to a few guys and they said, you got to get him out of here to Europe. Peter Vermeulen told me that we had to take him to where there is some competition. I thought bloody oath, let’s go, so I asked his mechanic Kazu Kuroda if he was interested. He said yes so we went to the last round of the CEV and then Valencia and I said “We are doing this.” I went home, built a trailer, put the bikes in it and went to Spain.
You put a lot on the line…
Peter: Right there in the last year with Caretta we were down to the point where we were tapped for cash. We thought we could scrape together $100k, anything more would be irresponsible. We had financed everything ourselves up to that point, we never had a sponsor.
So that year we were in the paddock at Phillip Island, we had been in to see Dorna about four times, had meetings with Mike Trimby and Javier Alonso, and they came back and said that Dorna would put in money to help us stay in the game.
They became Jack’s first and biggest sponsor. We then got the ride with racing Team Germany and we had to find about $150k. I said “F*ck it, we will do it!’ Then I thought, where the hell are we going to find another $50k? My good mate Morgan put us in touch with Mining and Civil Australia.
They didn’t even talk numbers, they just said “We’ll come in and put up $50k.” Hallelujah! Something was shining on us for once. So we raced that year for racing team Germany on the Honda and he was far and away the best Honda rider that year in Moto3.
Jack ended up negotiating the deal himself with Aki Ajo at KTM where he got his first paid ride. He was the one who had to say no to a new deal with Honda. He was doing all this at the age of 18!
Clearly when one family member is doing something like this it puts stress onto the rest of the family. How stressful was it?
Sonya: It was very stressful. Maggie came to Spain with us and hated every second of it. My parents came over after three months for a holiday and she went back to Australia with them. She wanted to go back to school and her life. She has now become very independent because of that. She holds no grudges whatsoever.
Jack shouted her to Spain to have a holiday and watch him race and he helped her out with a deposit for her first car. There is no ill feeling between them at all. Fergus was doing his apprenticeship at the time and had to stay in Australia but he has no grudges either.
Peter: Fergus is Jack’s strongest supporter and he just loves him to bits and he is so proud of him.
You don’t all go overseas together, so who travelled and who stayed at home?
Sonya: I spent four years with Jack constantly and Peter was at home running the business, keeping the money coming in.
Peter: We were in the drilling game. Crikey, I used to go bush and say I was going out west for five or six days to fix something and I wouldn’t come back for two months. That sort of stuff happened to us our whole lives and held us in good stead. Sonya and I have a strong bond and we work together. We know we have a common goal and when the times are good we get together and have a laugh.
Sonya: We would much prefer to go together but next year Peter will be working more and it will be me on my own again. I just think Jack needs one of us around for his morale. It helps him feel grounded and gives him someone he can bounce off.
Peter: We see him with his mates and his brother playing handball and just being normal and relaxed. There’s no big head at all.
Sonya: This morning he came to pick the boys up and Jack jumped on them and they just mucked around having fun.
Peter: When you see him like that before a race you know he is going to go out there and show off. He’ll get out and show his mates how fast he is and then come back and have a laugh about it or they will hang shit on him if he has a crash.
So there is always at least one of you travelling with him?
Sonya: Not always. In 2015 we let him do a bit more on his own. He wanted a little bit more freedom.
Peter: That might be reflected by the fact that he is getting his arse kicked a few more times.
Sonya: We probably all just needed a little bit of a break from each other. I think he appreciates us more and we appreciate seeing him a bit more now. The traveling does take its toll.
Who has been looking after his management?
Peter: At first it was us and then he did a bit himself but now its Aki Ajo. Aki manages Jack and Maverick Viñales. He is a great calming influence, a great guy, and he knows the game.
When Jack jumps on the bike and goes out on track, how do you feel?
Sonya: I nearly vomit every time! I talk to myself and cross my fingers. I would rather just watch it on my phone. The speed of the big bike just freaks me out. In 2014 it was the pressure of the championship, last year it was the speed of the machine.
Peter: I don’t really get nervous. I don’t have fears for him or his ability. I hope the package comes together. I just want him to calm down and make it happen, for him more than anything.
He has banged around and got in trouble a little a bit. How do you feel when he is getting criticised for being like that?
Sonya: Sometimes it’s warranted and sometimes it’s not. We are probably the first to growl at him about anything so we step on his neck every now and then and rein him in.
Peter: He gets his arse kicked fairly well by us all the time so its nice to see someone else’s boot doing it for a change.
You don’t get offended by it?
Peter: Not unless it is unwarranted or personal. The one that always gets Sonya is the social media bullshit from people who don’t know him. I just don’t look at it any more.
Sonya: Jack just says to ignore it.
Peter: The haters are going to hate and social media gives everyone a chance to voice their opinions.
Making the jump from Moto3 to MotoGP is unusual. Has he lived up to your expectations?
Sonya: Absolutely! I think its the best thing he could have done. People get lost in Moto2 and I think the timing is perfect. He gets a learning year and then they are changing a lot of things out there.
Peter: Moto2 is a swamp, and in that swamp is quicksand, and if you step in the quicksand you are gone. You can get lost there. Getting a year up on all the other boys in MotoGP puts him miles ahead. Going into this year, the playing field is getting reset and he is already an experienced MotoGP rider.
How much were you guys involved in him going to MotoGP?
Peter: He had pretty much decided that one on his own. I talked to him about it and he said: “What do you do? Honda came to me and said we want to sign you to ride for three years in MotoGP. What do you say except for ‘I’m in’.”
What would you say to other parents trying to help their kids get into top-level racing?
Sonya: If you believe 110 per cent that your child has the ability and is showing you things, then do what you can to make it happen. But you have to be realistic – you know if they have it or not.
Peter: Get onto a team in the Spanish championship. Get enough money together and pay for a ride. Put them on a Moto3 ride in the CEV, I would say that it would cost you less than it would going through the Red Bull Rookies scenario, and you will know in 12 months whether or not they are going to make it or not.
Jack’s 2016 MotoGP campaign is already underway. With only a fornight before opening round in Qatar, Jack has been getting in plenty of practice onboard his new Marc VDS Honda.
Check our Facebook page for video from Phillip Island tests in February.
This article appears in AMCN Vol 65 No 14