Colter Arhens is one of the many busy mechanics in the paddock at professional motocross races with his position at Troy Lee Designs/Red Bull/GoPro/KTM. A graduate of the MMI program in Florida, Arhens has worked for a number of privateer racers in the past and that experience helped him earn a place at the factory-supported squad. During a recent stop by the team’s shop, we asked him to explain how he’s gotten to this point in his career, the numerous duties that come with the job, and what advice he has for other hopeful mechanics.
When did you decide that you wanted to be a mechanic?
For myself, racing wasn't much. I started when I was sixteen years old for fun in the beginner class and had some injuries from silly stuff. But I knew that I wanted to be a mechanic when I was eighteen years old. I was in college at Colorado University and was pursuing a normal path that kids take coming out of high school, getting a degree to get a job. I went to the university there and didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. I thought I'd go for business, went for all the prerequisite classes and tried for stuff I thought I'd be interested in, but after two semesters I realized that none of it was what I wanted to do. At one time, I think I was at the Motocross of Nations at Thunder Valley in 2010, it came together. I grew up in the garage with my late father, he was a car mechanic, and even if I was just organizing wrenches or whatever, I had a lot of happiness in the garage. It was all of that coupled with a love for motocross growing up. I had a cousin that raced professionally and I loved being at the races, so I bought a dirt bike when I had the chance. One day it just clicked that it was what I wanted to do. I moved to Florida and started chasing the dream.
You're an MMI graduate. How is it to go through the school, difficulty wise?
It was a new experience to move so far away from my family and everyone I knew. I didn't know a single person out there. The school is really interesting and I liked the way that it started off, because you sit in the classroom for six weeks and breakdown the fundamentals of an internal combustion engine. I took the most from those first weeks, just how the way the air and fuel work together and clearances and how heat affects things. From there you go into the electives with different manufacturers, and I enjoyed it.
How quickly did you find a job after graduation?
The thing with MMI is that there is a lot of direction towards training guys to work in a dealership and for me that was never in mind. I knew that I wanted to be a race mechanic. Before I graduated I made some connections with people, took a short leave of absence from school and went to the Mini O's and the Atlanta Supercross, anything that I could to get out there. I got connected with Naveen Dassanayake and he was with Honda of Houston at the time. We stayed in contact and when it came time to graduate, he had his own shop and put me in touch with a privateer, Brandon Rangle. The day I graduated MMI, I hit the road and drove from the East Coast to the West Coast. Naveen and I worked for days in the shop and he was a huge mentor for me coming out of school.
What led you to the current gig at Troy Lee Designs/Red Bull/GoPro/KTM?
Jordan Troxell, one of the mechanics here, also worked with Naveen for a couple of years. They had a great connection and it Naveen put in a good recommendation for me to Jordan, and Jordan put me in contact with Tyler Keefe about a year before I started here. I got to meet everyone and established a reputation for myself by seeing the guys at the races while I worked for privateers. A year after the introduction, an opening at TLD came up and I interviewed for it.
You've been a privateer mechanic and now worked for one of the top 250 teams in the pit area. Is one easier than the other? When you work for a privateer, expectations aren't as high but you have to work with less. And for a team, you have all of the materials but you're expected to deliver.
You get every side of it. As a privateer there is a high level of stress when you push components past what anyone at a team like this would do, because you're making due with what you have. You get hotels only when you need them and you don't know when the paycheck is coming. But when you go racing, you do the best that you can with what you have.
Working for a team, this level of stress is different. You have every resource possible but it brings on another element because you are working for a factory team. These guys are capable of winning races and I have the same job, which is to build a safe and well-built bike so he can go out there.
During this testing time of year, the days are far longer than just 9AM to 5PM. People only see the Saturday night excitement, not what goes on during the week. What is your schedule like right now?
Monday through Friday leading up to and during the race season, there are a lot of hours spent in the shop. When the work is done, and there is a lot of work to do, then you leave. It's not an hourly thing or that you get off at a certain time. It's not just building the bike, because you have to build your spare parts and anything else that you will need so that it's all in place. There are a lot of hours just spent prepping. We go with the riders to the track and make sure that the bike is as perfect as it can get. We test different components and might change things up at bit. All of the testing takes place now and goes until Supercross starts. There are a lot of hours spent in the shop by everyone on the staff, not just the mechanics. We have so much passion and want to win races.
You have a new guy for 2017 with Mitchell Oldenburg. How is it to develop a trusting relationship with a rider so quickly?
I've been with Mitchell since early June, because after Alex Frye got hurt, Mitchell worked with a few mechanics on the team. I started with him at Tennessee and from that point on we finished out the outdoors. To start with him in the middle of the race season was a bit strange, and I knew him because he was around the shop and track all of the time, but it's a different relationship when I'm his mechanic. Our first time working together we went racing, so it took some time to figure out what works for him and makes him tick. After getting through the outdoors with him doing so well, we have a good foundation for 2017 because I have all of the things and there is no awkward stage to find out what works for him. I know what his expectations are and what he wants to work on, so I've spent a lot of hours with him.
What advice do you have for someone that wants to be a mechanic?
I went to every race that I could and I talked to guys like Jeremy Albrecht and asked guys what they looked for in mechanics so that I could get to that point. You have to market yourself because getting your face out there won't hurt. You have to take your work very seriously and remember why you're into this. The sport is very fun and it's such a cool thing, and sometimes guys get caught up in that and forget why they're here in the first place. You have to remember where you come from to achieve the things you want. Professionalism is huge and I think that you should listen to the advice that people have for you.