For 32 years, we've celebrated the arrival of Loretta Lynn's and all that comes with it. Although it's just one race, the amateur national championship provides an "even playing ground" for riders to test their abilities against the rest of the country. "If you win here, you beat everybody" says Racer X's Davey Coombs. Loretta's has provided OEM's a way to discover new talent coming up through the ranks and secure those athletes with sponsorship spots and more recently, contracts to carry them into the pros.
Throughout the years, every OEM has provided some level of factory support to amateur national athletes. Wins at amateur national races are important to the manufacturers because each one of those kids takes their championships back to their home tracks. At local races, those kids play a major role as influencers for other racers looking for the winning edge. For nearly 2 decades, Kawasaki's Team Green program maintained a dominant hold on the amateur ranks, providing support through a tiered program and keeping a healthy portion of the field running green. But due to shifts in the economy, many manufacturers have significantly scaled back their support efforts or eliminated them completely. KTM North America has been hard at work running counter to this trend with the KTM Orange Brigade team. Captained by Michael Sleeter, the team has been making big waves in the amateur ranks and has morphed into one of the most successful development programs in the history of the sport.
The team is coming off of a huge week at Mammoth and carrying that momentum straight into the summer nationals including RPM's Ponca City and Loretta Lynn's. Mike Sleeter, team manager and R&D test rider for KTM said, "Mammoth is a staple event for KTM, it's gotten bigger and bigger every year. It was a big week for us, the 85 class was stacked deep with 4 or 5 of our kids. Mitchell Falk debuted the Factory Services engine and scored 7 of 8 hole shots and 6 of 8 wins in the 85 class, Ciaran Naran, Connor Mullennix…everyone was where they needed to be." One of the best battles of the week happened in the Schoolboy 1 class. Luke Purther debuted in the 125 class aboard a Thousand Oaks KTM and battled bar to bar with Cole Barbieri. The cat and mouse game persisted throughout the moto with a side-by-side drag race to the checkers with Purther taking the win by a mere .023 seconds. "Jeff Harriott stepped up out of his own pocket to help Luke out and get him up to 125's, we are really proud of him and his efforts at Mammoth."
Team Orange Brigade is a relative newcomer to amateur motocross, but its impact has been felt nationwide. The team is a hand-selected draft of emerging talent whose roots go straight back to the "Ready to Race" mantra at the core of KTM. Sleeter explained, "5 years ago, I was transitioning out of racing professionally into amateur support. At that point we didn't really have a team, more or less an ambassador program. I work in R&D and got to help develop product with Austria on the 50SXS, 65SXS and the 85SXS which are North American models exclusively. I'm competitive and I don't like to lose, so through our experience developing those bikes we brought the Orange Brigade team to life. I've learned by failure," he continued, "I can take what I did do right and what I didn't do right and use that to help our riders in their careers." With marquee athletes like Dakota Alix, Chase Bell, Alex Frye, Alexah Pearson, Mitchell Falk, Broc Papi, Jordan Bailey, Connor Mullinex, Hunter Yoder and more on the roster, they have the ability to do damage in the amateur ranks and use those riders to aid in the development of next-generation motorcycles.
The KTM campus has been growing recently, offering some major benefits for all KTM riders. The move to bring WP Suspension in house, under the KTM umbrella but still operated as its own division, allows a wealth of suspension and setting data to be shared worldwide. A vast global network gives WP Suspension technicians access to settings and post-race reports from the entire roster of KTM-supported riders including Herlings, Dungey, Musquin, Roczen, aiding the development of new, customized settings for team riders and KTM consumers alike. Whether you're a mini rider, a C class novice or a budding professional, the data gained from the top level riders is used to develop a setting for your bike and your abilities.
The same approach holds true at Factory Services. Walking through the labyrinth of KTM North America's headquarters, we headed back to the workshop facilities where rows of motors were awaiting assembly. "Factory services is all-new for 2013. Our efforts with KTM teams such as BTO/Butler Brothers, FMF/Orange Brigade and Joey Savatgy now trickles down to consumers. It's a product driven service, the same guys that are doing factory motors building each and every one of these motors. We aren't just blowing out a cylinder or head to some stock spec; it's high end, hand-built product all the way through." Sleeter continued, "We use shared community knowledge to make a solid product and put KTM riders to be on the best equipment to win. For 2014 and beyond, all Orange Brigade riders from 85's and up will be on full Factory Services motors and suspension."
One of the major quandaries for amateur teams is retainment. There are few stepping stones between the amateur and pro ranks, so even athletes that have spent their entire amateur careers aboard a single brand are left with no choice but to sign with whoever gives them an offer. In partnership with FMF, KTM created the FMF/Orange Brigade/KTM Racing Team and supporting Joey Savatgy through his rookie season outdoors. "Savatgy has earned everything he has. FMF stepped up huge to create the FMF/Orange Brigade team and Joey's results proved he needed to stay on a KTM. Since there wasn't a spot on the Red Bull KTM program, we created a 1 man team for Joey outdoors. Dakota Alix will debut on the team at Hangtown 2014 and we'll take our time developing athletes that could make the transition in the future."
The future is bright for KTM. With Savatgy leading the charge into the pro ranks, they recently signed their first factory-supported 50cc athlete, Hunter Yoder. "When it comes to mini bikes, Hunter is leading the charge for Orange Brigade. Instead of throwing a bunch of propaganda and energy drinks at a young rider, we're giving him the tools to succeed and working closely with PAX racing, who develops all of his bikes. They are working with factory KTM and we are testing with them on a weekly basis. We have no expectations of him except to have fun and learn some things along the way. I'll go out with him on mini nights to help develop him as he comes through the ranks. Who is the next Hunter Yoder, or Dakota Alix or Joey Savatgy? That's what we're looking for."
Next week, riders will begin their pilgrimage to "The Ranch". KTM will have a strong showing with the Orange Brigade and hopes to leave the week with championships in hand. "I want our guys to go out and have fun, this is amateur racing and nobody is getting paid. These guys are riding for the brand because they want to be on our bikes and want to be on the best products possible. So what I want for them is to succeed in their own expectations. Dakota Alix has had a tough 6 months with some nagging injuries, but he's fired up and I expect that he will go out and win some motos and finally show what we all know he can do. Jordan Bailey, Mitchell Falk…there's 7 kids in my 85 program that could go out and win championships. I think the big shocker at Loretta's is going to be Alex Frye. He's been training down at the Carmichael farm for the last 4 months getting after it with Dungey. It's going to be interesting to see what Chicken Frye can do at Loretta's in Schoolboy 1 on his Factory Services 125!"