To say that the amateur-racing scene is competitive would be an understatement. It is outright war. And rightfully so, as it is the starting point of every hopeful racer's career, the first rung in the ladder to success. By the time a "quality" rider hits puberty, they have already been plucked from the masses and begun a factory overseen grooming process with sole intentions of helping them reaching the pinnacle level of the sport. However, in a time of razor thin budgets, dropping a few young and relatively unknown amateurs from the list of expenses is a logical idea for an OEM. While some brands have chosen to downsize or ditch their amateur programs entirely, KTM, with the support of Skullcandy, has restructured their team and established a nationwide field of riders titled the "Orange Brigade." We spoke with team manager Michael Sleeter to see how the new platform differs from the Austrian manufacturer's previous efforts.
How was the Orange Brigade founded?
Jason Kimball and Skullcandy were a personal sponsor of mine and they were dedicated to the amateur riders and the lifestyle of riding itself, not just racing. I had just gotten the title of "Coordinator of Amateur Racing" and I started to come up with ideas. The Orange Brigade was actually a quad team that KTM owned, but KTM does not make quads anymore. We were thinking about what we could use that would be an iconic symbol for the amateurs and an overall lifestyle program for KTM. We thought of the Orange Brigade and we tried to find something else, but it kind of just stuck. It has been a fast moving train since and it has really caught on
What is the foundation of the program and how many riders are in it?
We have 33 riders in the program nationally. And it is a dealer-based program, so there is a big "hats off" to all the dealers that are submitting the resumes of the key riders that they want to help in their region. I go through the resumes with a committee and let them know who I feel deserves the most support throughout the country and we go from there. There are stipulations, like they have to compete in a minimum of four amateur Nationals per year, but it is national program through the dealers.
Many of the kids in California run One Industries gear from head to toe. Is that a nationwide part of the program or is that only local because of you?
I have been with One Industries since the beginning and they are a big part of our program, but it is not a gear-based deal. They are our sole graphics sponsor, and Ian and Bob created our graphics deal, but Ian has been more the willing to take care of any rider that needs help. I don't want to "own" the rider. I want them to be comfortable and look good. And it just so happens that they like what One Industries brings to the table and the service that they have at the amateur races. They have been there for every brand, and I think they want to be there to do the right thing and win.
With amateur programs like Honda of Houston shutting down, why did KTM decide that now was the time to make a push?
I think that I myself was a big influence. I think that kids are influence by riders at local tracks and nationally, and KTM makes three race specific models for mini bike racing, and many people don't know that. We have the 50SX, the 65SX, and the 85SX that FMF makes special products for, just to go racing and that are legal in the stock class. We have a bike that has a FMF pipe and silencer, billet components, revalved shock and forks, and different ignitions that are all legal in the stock class. I have taken my research and development side of things and brought it into amateur racing. We can play by the rules and give the kids the best products to go win races on. We put our product first and we want our product to win, from the 50 kids all the way to Ryan Dungey. My job is to present the best riders for Roger Decoster to nab for years to come.
As a racer and R&D rider, has managing a full team of riders been a challenge or has it come easily?
It was tough dealing with a lot of things that I couldn't answer. I was never a factory rider based on my performance or my ability; I was more of a fill-in guy because I was a tester. I got to ride factory bikes, be under a tent and semi, and ride test tracks, but I had always done my own thing as far as getting my own sponsors and working with great people, I never had the "spoon fed mentality." Now working with KTM and having the horsepower of them behind me, and then going after sponsors for the kids in the program has been relatively easy because I think that people believe in KTM and the product. And what we are trying to accomplish with Skullcandy and other quality sponsors, we are trying to help the kids achieve whatever their goals and aspirations are.
Who is a racer that someone wouldn't realize was on the team?
The newest addition is Dakota Alix, and he is a Red Bull Jams kid, and Brady Kiesel, who is a Southern California kid who is lightening fast. Our mini bike rider that has gone fulltime on the 125 is Chase Bell. But through out every class, we have stand out kids and I hate singling one out. Mitchell Faulk is a local kid who I get to coach and Luke Reardon, who is actually my brother-in-law and came from Australia riding KTMs before his brother. I am really happy with the dynamic that we have, because they are a great group of kids and their families have been good to work with. I know that I am not perfect and I appreciate all the feedback that I can get from them for the program.
KTM has had an amateur program in the past, but it was focused on only a handful of people. Now that it is so widespread, do more industry people notice the dynamic that the team puts out?
Like you said, years ago we had Jason Anderson, Max Anstie, Tommy Weeck, and Blake Wharton, and they were keys guys. They went as a private label team and it was done like the pro team, with team mechanics and in-house engines. But now I am switching it up so that it is more of a lifestyle; I'll supply you with all the vendors and places to get things done, but this is amateur racing and they need to learn to build it on their own and get there on their own. We are there for the consumer, and if they need help at the races, come to the tent and we will fix your bike, because we want to help out the new rider. The kids on our program should be the last kids whose bikes you see under the tent, because they should be the most prepared because they have all the help already at their fingertips.