Powerhouse: Team KTM Finally Arrives

It’s been a long, hard road, but it seems the KTM factory has finally earned the Stateside respect it deserves. No longer viewed as a manufacturer of second-rate European motocross bikes, the Austrian factory has burst onto the scene with arguably the fastest bikes on the track and one of the most exciting teams in the pits.

Armed with a huge outside sponsor, it looks as though Team Red Bull KTM is set to make its mark on the AMA record in 2001, with team riders Grant Langston, David Pingree, Brock Sellards and Kelly Smith. Not a bad way to start the new millennium, especially considering that the factory teetered on the verge of existence only 10 years ago…

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GROUND ZERO

Back in 1990, the KTM factory was in serious trouble. Faced with dwindling profits and poor sales, the Austrian manufacturer of motorcycles, scooters, bicycles and automotive radiators filed for Chapter 11. Needless to say, the future of KTM looked bleak. “Basically, KTM lacked focus and the company as a whole was spread too thin,” said Rod Bush, President of KTM America since 1988. “Though we were a motorcycle manufacturer, there were too many other ventures that KTM was involved in.” Enter Stefan Pierer, a businessman who didn’t want to see the famous marque go away. “I have always been a motorcycle enthusiast,” said Pierer. “When I was 14 years old I got my first motorcycle, a small KTM moped. I saw an opportunity to become involved in KTM’s future. For me, this venture has been an act of passion.”

Led by Pierer, a group comprised of several of KTM’s key managers, plus a few of the major European importers, purchased the motorcycle division of the company themselves.

“We bought all of the existing inventory, plus all of the manufacturing equipment and machines,” said Pierer. “The deal was final in December of 1991. It was our Christmas present to ourselves!” In America, KTM’s future remained uncertain, even though the new group was saving the factory from extinction. “From November of ’91 to about March of ’92, when KTM Sportmotorcycle USA was formed, all of us went home every night with all of our belongings,” joked Scot Harden, VP of Marketing. “If the key to the door still fit when we came back in the morning, we knew that we all had jobs for at least one more day. When we became KTM Sportmotorcycle USA, things finally began to feel secure again.”

GOING RACING Although the KTM factory has always had some sort of presence in the American race scene, it was in the European World Championships that the manufacturer had gained most of its success. In 1992, KTM hired long-time Kawasaki support rider Mike Fisher to help with the R&D of its new motocrossers. It was Fisher who gained the new KTM organization its first taste of the limelight, running at the front of the pack in several supercross events and even finishing fourth at his hometown San Diego event. “Quote from Fisher,” said Fisher, who now works in Kawasaki’s R&D department. “Quote from Fisher.” Despite Fisher’s on-track success, the white-and-mint colored KTMs remained an oddity at the motocross track. Utilizing the same basic motor as the rest of the KTM off-road and enduro line, the MX bikes lacked serious motocross-style power. That said, KTM continued to enjoy much success in the U.S. off-road and enduro scene with strong sales and good race results.

[IMAGE 2] “KTM’s core business has always been in Europe in the past,” said Bush. “We’ve had very successful enduro and off-road efforts in the United States, but to be honest we could not justify the financial commitment it would have required to be competitive in America in motocross and Supercross.” Following in Fisher’s footsteps, in ’94, were Cliff Palmer and Greg Zitterkopf¿Palmer concentrated on the premier series, while “Zit” competed mostly at high-profile local MX races, four-stroke MX events and various off-road competitions. The ’95 season saw KTM’s first focused attempt at success in motocross a Supercross. A two-man team consisting of Jeff Dement and Tony Amaradio made KTM’s most serious American MX effort yet, but the team failed to produce the results they were after. Dement and Amaradio certainly attracted plenty of attention with their matching outfits and fancy helmet paint jobs as they qualified for several SX main events. Before the end of the season, however, the team was reduced to a single member.

“I was unhappy with my bike and the organization of the team,” remembers Amaradio, now a Yamaha-mounted privateer. “I was at a point where I didn’t feel safe on the track, and I decided that it was better to leave the team.” Amaradio’s premature and somewhat public departure from the squad left a bitter taste in KTM’s mouth, especially since he showed up at the Washougal 250cc National aboard a Cycle News test bike and finished fifth a few weeks later. The following season, Dement stayed on and was joined by Lance Smail. In the seasons that followed, Smail seemed to achieve cult status at the races, as he elected to compete aboard a big, thundering KTM four-stroke. In ’97, a change in the AMA Rulebook that allowed big-bore four-strokes up to 550cc to contest the 250cc class, inspired Smail and KTM to field a factory 520SX. Crowds cheered Smail on as he thumped around the track, and he earned a spot in history at the Daytona SX as the first rider to qualify for the main event aboard a valve-and-cam machine. Unfortunately, Smail’s accomplishment was overshadowed when Doug Henry won the Las Vegas season finale aboard the works Yamaha. Nonetheless, Smail had laid the groundwork for several years of successful four-stroke development at the KTM factory. The next KTM rider to gain widespread attention was Kelly Smith, a KTM support rider who nearly won the ’99 St. Louis 125cc SX main event, save for a rough pass by eventual champ Ernesto Fonseca. Smith’s temper flared after the race, and his post-race actions nearly overshadowed the fact that a KTM had almost scored a major event win. Still, things were looking up for the factory. “In the late ’90s, exchange rates began to change and not only did our bike prices become more competitive with the Japanese, it also allowed us to put more into our motocross race effort,” said Bush. “We had also abandoned the ‘one engine does it all’ philosophy and branched motor development into two specific areas. We decided in ’99 to become more serious about motocross.” More serious, indeed. In ’00, KTM fielded not one, but two factory-backed teams. The official works team consisted of KTM veteran Kelly Smith, plus Donovan Mitchell, Andy Harrington, Keith Johnson and former 500cc World Champion Shayne King. Furthermore, a KTM satellite team was run through the A.M. Leonard camp. Unfortunately, before the season even began, a dark cloud surfaced over the team when Mitchell was paralyzed in a pre-season race crash.

“Donovan’s injury affected everyone at KTM, even us in Europe,” said James Dobb, one of KTM’s 125cc World Championship contenders. “It changed everything. Now all of KTM’s rider contracts state that we cannot participate in free riding videos or photo shoots. They are very serious about us staying healthy.” That season, Smith rewarded KTM with its first 125cc National win at the rain-soaked Mt. Morris National, proving that the Austrian machines were more competitive than ever. Though the team as a whole was impressive, it wasn’t until this year that the folks at KTM got really serious about American racing. “I think that we learned a lot last season,” said Bush. “We made a big splash with the two semis and all the riders, but once again, we were spread too thin. For 2001, we decided to focus on the 125cc class specifically.” While the ’00 season yielded one win for KTM in America, it was hugely successful for the European World Championship team. Out of three World Championship titles, KTM won two¿Joel Smets doing the honors in the Open class and Grant Langston winning the 125s.

“The ’00 season gave us the confidence we needed to field a bigger effort in America,” said Pierer. “We won two out of three World Championship titles and proved that KTM is a force to be dealt with. When we won, we said, ‘Let’s go race Supercross in America!’ We had the confidence, and America is the premier racing arena in the world.” Not only did KTM have the confidence, it also had the resources. “When we started in ’92, KTM had 120 employees and produced 6,000 units per year,” said Pierer. “Today, we produce 40,000 units per year, have 930 employees and make $180 million dollars in revenue. We have come a long, long way.”

RAGING BULL Though outside sponsorship in motocross has become much more common, KTM’s union with Red Bull Energy Drink for ’01 is quite substantial. “Red Bull is the most successful company in Austria,” said Pierer. “They are a $1.5 billion dollar a year company and we are very happy with the relationship KTM has with them. The Red Bull plant is only about 50 kilometers away from the KTM factory in Austria, and we are Red Bull’s only marketing effort in American racing of any form.”

[IMAGE 3] “When I signed my contract I knew that the team had a big outside sponsor in the works,” said new team member David Pingree. “But I had no idea that it was Red Bull. I felt like I was taking a chance signing with Team KTM, but now that I am here I know I made a great decision. The bike is honestly the best I’ve ridden and I think that KTM will become a major player this season. The bike is so fast¿I’ve never really had my heart in the 125cc Nationals, but this year will be different.” Like Pingree, Brock Sellards was skeptical at first of joining the orange team. “I basically had two offers on the table: KTM and Suzuki,” said Sellards. “I was thinking, ‘Man, that KTM is supposed to be fast, but it doesn’t even have a linkage! It won’t handle!’ But after I tested out one of their bikes I was blown away. I thought, ‘This thing is for real!’ Not only is the bike fast, it handles good, too. I wouldn’t trade my ride in for any other, not even a Yamaha factory ride. I love my bike.” Grant Langston and Kelly Smith, meanwhile, are KTM veterans. “For me, the only change this year is racing in America!” said 125cc World Champion Langston. “I enjoyed great success on KTM last season and won the World Championship. I’ve always wanted to race in America, so when KTM made me the offer it was a no-brainer. KTM has established a reputation as the premier bike in Europe and I hope to help make it that way in the States, as well.”

SIGHTS SET HIGH Armed with the most competitive KTM 125SX ever, four very capable team members and a powerful outside sponsor, the future looks bright for KTM.

“We plan to attack the American motocross market from both racing and sales aspects,” said Bush. “We feel that we can really compete with the Japanese manufacturers.” Pierer agrees. “We are already the market leader in Europe,” he said. “In the United States we are in the top five, very close to number four. In America we have already proven ourselves in off-road competition, and motocross offers a new challenge. Motocross only amounts to 25% of our production and sales figures, but motocross is a premium marketing tool. Success in motocross leads to better sales of all models. At KTM we have an internal goal of winning at least one championship this year. With Pingree and Sellards we have good chances in Supercross, but we have a very good feeling about Langston in the 125cc Nationals. Our bikes have proven that they can win one race. Now we want to prove that they are championship worthy also.” Perhaps long-time KTM USA Team Manager Selvaraj Narayana put it best: “I have long believed that we could field a team of this caliber. KTM has never been a player in American motocross, but now we are. For me, this is a dream come true.”inning the 125s.

“The ’00 season gave us the confidence we needed to field a bigger effort in America,” said Pierer. “We won two out of three World Championship titles and proved that KTM is a force to be dealt with. When we won, we said, ‘Let’s go race Supercross in America!’ We had the confidence, and America is the premier racing arena in the world.” Not only did KTM have the confidence, it also had the resources. “When we started in ’92, KTM had 120 employees and produced 6,000 units per year,” said Pierer. “Today, we produce 40,000 units per year, have 930 employees and make $180 million dollars in revenue. We have come a long, long way.”

RAGING BULL Though outside sponsorship in motocross has become much more common, KTM’s union with Red Bull Energy Drink for ’01 is quite substantial. “Red Bull is the most successful company in Austria,” said Pierer. “They are a $1.5 billion dollar a year company and we are very happy with the relationship KTM has with them. The Red Bull plant is only about 50 kilometers away from the KTM factory in Austria, and we are Red Bull’s only marketing effort in American racing of any form.”

[IMAGE 3] “When I signed my contract I knew that the team had a big outside sponsor in the works,” said new team member David Pingree. “But I had no idea that it was Red Bull. I felt like I was taking a chance signing with Team KTM, but now that I am here I know I made a great decision. The bike is honestly the best I’ve ridden and I think that KTM will become a major player this season. The bike is so fast¿I’ve never really had my heart in the 125cc Nationals, but this year will be different.” Like Pingree, Brock Sellards was skeptical at first of joining the orange team. “I basically had two offers on the table: KTM and Suzuki,” said Sellards. “I was thinking, ‘Man, that KTM is supposed to be fast, but it doesn’t even have a linkage! It won’t handle!’ But after I tested out one of their bikes I was blown away. I thought, ‘This thing is for real!’ Not only is the bike fast, it handles good, too. I wouldn’t trade my ride in for any other, not even a Yamaha factory ride. I love my bike.” Grant Langston and Kelly Smith, meanwhile, are KTM veterans. “For me, the only change this year is racing in America!” said 125cc World Champion Langston. “I enjoyed great success on KTM last season and won the World Championship. I’ve always wanted to race in America, so when KTM made me the offer it was a no-brainer. KTM has established a reputation as the premier bike in Europe and I hope to help make it that way in the States, as well.”

SIGHTS SET HIGH Armed with the most competitive KTM 125SX ever, four very capable team members and a powerful outside sponsor, the future looks bright for KTM.

“We plan to attack the American motocross market from both racing and sales aspects,” said Bush. “We feel that we can really compete with the Japanese manufacturers.” Pierer agrees. “We are already the market leader in Europe,” he said. “In the United States we are in the top five, very close to number four. In America we have already proven ourselves in off-road competition, and motocross offers a new challenge. Motocross only amounts to 25% of our production and sales figures, but motocross is a premium marketing tool. Success in motocross leads to better sales of all models. At KTM we have an internal goal of winning at least one championship this year. With Pingree and Sellards we have good chances in Supercross, but we have a very good feeling about Langston in the 125cc Nationals. Our bikes have proven that they can win one race. Now we want to prove that they are championship worthy also.” Perhaps long-time KTM USA Team Manager Selvaraj Narayana put it best: “I have long believed that we could field a team of this caliber. KTM has never been a player in American motocross, but now we are. For me, this is a dream come true.”