By Brendan Lutes
In the world of test riding, Michael Sleeter is one of the most respected testers out there. For the past few years, he has been responsible for developing the KTM's SX line, coming up with not only engine settings, but chassis and suspension settings as well. Recently, though, his role has changed slightly from strictly testing to include managing KTM's amateur racing Orange Brigade program.
As a former professional racer, Sleeter puts what he has learned over the years to good use, mentoring and supporting some of the top amateur racers on their journey towards becoming a pro. With the amateur season winding down, we caught up with Sleeter to find out how the program has been going and where he sees himself and Orange Brigade heading in the future.
What is your role at KTM?
My main focus at KTM is research and development for all SX models 125 through 450. I got an opportunity to test for KTM through Ryan Ragland--an old engineer there--for testing a 250 two-stroke. Little did I know, though, they were preparing me for the new 250f. Casey Lytle and I were the ones developing that bike. Casey was strictly race team only in 2005, and I was working on the late-release 250f for 2005, which was a pretty big controversy in the industry at the time. It then kind of snowballed and KTM North America got their own research and development team for American settings starting in 2006 and I was hired on full-time then.
Since then, though, your job has kind of change and you're now working as the race director for KTM's amateur program, the Orange Brigade, right?
Yeah, it's been really neat. I've been really passionate about riding and racing and have done lessons with kids starting back when I was 19 if I needed a little money. KTM had a couple different ways of doing their amateur program. In 2007, I came into a meeting with a few of the hirer up guys at KTM along with Craig Martin--he's a KTM dealer owner and had built Kawasaki Team Green into what it is today--and they had paid him as a consultant for the day to help figure out what we should do with our brand and amateur racing. I sat in that meeting and didn't realize that I was getting interviewed for a job position. I was just the test guy at the time, had my own little race team with Sean Borkenhagen, and had some unfinished business with racing that I wanted to take care of. I went through that year, had a great year, accomplished some of my personal goals, and had awesome equipment. After that meeting, I got a contract for my R&D position. I was stoked and thought I could continue doing my deal, have a little race team with Borky still, and have some fun. So I went to sign it and they took it back from me and said, "If you don't sign this one, you can't sign the other." The second contract was that I was to be the race director for Orange Brigade and create the brand. It was a two in one package. I'm really, really blessed to work with these kids and their families. It was good and bad in the beginning, though, because I started with a clean slate. There was nothing in place, so I learned through serious failure. If there were really rad parents with a good program through other manufacturers, I'd take what was good from them, leave what I thought was bad, and create my own program. The proof is here, though, because in the last two weeks, we have won every 85 title at Mini Os and the Amateur Open. We also have a full-blown JDR feeder program that is really similar to what Geico has. Everything is set in motion, and what I think separates us is working with sponsors like DC Shoes and Skull Candy. It's a lifestyle program; it's not an amateur-racing program. We go to the races to support a lifestyle, but we also want our riders to perform and we're really into them doing well in school. I think in two years, it's going to be a fast moving train that will be unstoppable. We are the only OE that you can raise your kid from a four year old all the way up to when they ride a 450. You can never have a kid miss a step. Because of that, I feel that we should never lose a fast kid.
What has been the most rewarding part for you?
Helping the kids build relationships with sponsors. This industry is so small, but making sure that these kids can hold a conversation, have the right look, and making sure they stay exposed. This year a rider of mine went to the Junior World Championships and I was fortunate to manage that program and travel to Europe, because KTM gave us the tools to do so. My riders have already surpassed what I did as an amateur, so it's really cool to not necessarily live vicariously through them, but to help them not make the same mistakes as I did. I didn't do things right and I didn't know what my angle was going to be. I knew that I wanted to race Supercross and make mains, but I didn't have a goal. I just wanted to make mains and be seen. My goal now is to see the kids get there and race to win.
Looking ahead, what are your plans as well as your plans for Orange Brigade?
KTM has asked me the same question. I had an opportunity for them to send me back to school and pursue marketing, which is what this program is based on. I know that our amateur racing program is the fastest moving social media program. I'm 32, so I'm pretty connected to that stuff. Moving forward, I still love riding. I love racing, and I raced Lorretta's this year and won a national championship. I guess I'll take it year by year. This is the last year on my contract, so hopefully they like what I'm doing and I can stay on for next year and years to come. I never want to be a professional team manager, though; I'll leave that to those guys. I don't want to travel every week. I want to do more lifestyle stuff and stick to the R&D. Seeing that KTM450SX-F Factory Edition come to life recently has been really cool. It's just really cool to be a part of all the projects that I am involved in. I give them a lot of feedback and they listen and trust in me as I trust in them. I also think I want to stay testing for the next five years or so. I look at Doug Dubach and the longevity that he has had with testing and what he has done with Yamaha, and I think I have put myself in a similar role to be credible to the kids and the KTM brand.