Winning Dakar: Inside KTM Racing
KTM’s racing success is hard to dispute, it’s at the very heart of their machines—both on- and off-road. ADVMoto wanted to find out what has made KTM’s Dakar racing team the most winning brand in recent years. Going straight to the horse’s mouth, we spoke with Alex Doringer, KTM’s Dakar team manager, to get his thoughts on how the Big Orange deals with sponsorships, how they got to where they are today and how they plan to stay on top.
ADVMoto: What’s been the key to KTM’s racing success over the past 30 years?
Alex Doringer: The key racing figure in our rally sport direction was Heinz Kinigadner, an Austrian former Motocross World Champion, a rider and manager of the Dakar project when it began in 1992. Heinz played a pivotal role in KTM’s rally project over the years. The next most important figure was Hans Trunkenpolz (a family member of the founder of KTM) who became involved as technical manager in 1996, along with Barbara Kenedi as the team manager. They formed KTM’s first official team. In 1996 KTM enjoyed its first podium with Jordi Acarons in 2nd and Carlos Sotelo in 3rd. Also, from the beginning it was KTM’s goal to build a customer bike that was not only affordable, but also capable of racing with proper support. By 1997 KTM was the number one brand in the Dakar in terms of number of bikes entered. In 1998, Australian rider Andy Haydon made it to the podium, and this year Toby Price was the first Aussie since Andy to finish on the podium at Dakar. Due to an injury,1999 was Kinigadner’s last rally to race, but in 2000 he took over team manager duties. The next win came in 2001, and the winning has continued, despite some of the huge and critical changes over the years in bike regulations, formats, and the race moving to South America. Every Dakar is different and has its own challenges, and we’re proud of our achievements.
AM: As team manager, do you have any previous racing experience?
AD: Actually no. I wanted to be a professional soccer player. But I’m a local guy, born next to the old KTM company, and my grandfather was one of the sales directors. If you grew up in Mattighofen, where KTM was founded, you were more than likely to be involved in racing or motorbikes.
AM: Any advice to riders looking to be sponsored by KTM?
AD: Many riders approach KTM and we try to accommodate everyone. For example, we have a customer program that provides opportunities for riders wanting to race Dakar. As with Toby Price, it’s clear from the last Dakar that our customer bikes are entirely capable of reaching the podium. However, to be sponsored it has to make sense for us—and we have people like Marc Coma to help with these decisions. KTM takes pride in developing young talent and I think that can be seen in our programs. But there are many reasons a rider may be chosen. For example with Toby, although he clearly had the talent and we knew he’d be a strong rider, it still came down to a gut feeling I had. Sponsorships are a complex issue so we try to understand each rider’s situation the best we can before making decisions.
AM: Unlike the rest of the world, enduro- and rally-style racing is not as popular in North America. How might that be improved?
AD: We’re making progress developing interest in Dakar in North America. Both Robby Gordon and Kurt Caselli played pivotal roles. ASO, the promoter of the Dakar, is pushing hard and I know that they’re trying to get more North Americans involved. But even with the obvious growth potential, it’s taking time to become popular. Maybe it’s because North America is already dominated by basketball, baseball and football—along with NASCAR, which is easy to follow. Compared to elsewhere in the world, North America is an extreme when it comes to different types of people and attitudes towards sports. Perhaps with increased involvement, along with a growing number of podium finishers, we’ll draw the necessary media attention to popularize these races.
AM: Toby Price was a rookie at the Dakar this year and ended up occupying a spot on the final podium. Were his performance and results surprising?
AD: Many people ask about Toby. I knew he had the talent to ride, and that he was a smart and down-to-earth guy. But Toby also followed our direction 120%, didn’t risk too much during the first week, didn’t make major mistakes, had no penalties, paced himself well, and never got really lost. He had a good bike and was careful with it, not pushing too hard, and took care like Coma does. I told him that if he finished every day he’d have a lot of potential for a good result. My gut feeling in choosing Toby played out and he finished in a Top Five position. But I was completely sure of his potential when I made that decision to sign him on.
AM: KTM is famous for bringing racing-inspired technology to the commercial markets. Can you elaborate on any exciting developments ADVMoto readers may see from KTM in the near future?
AD: We’re always working on new things. Our next goal will be to put a version of the motor we now use in motocross into customer bikes, which will be a challenge. With regards to new technologies we might be working on… I don’t know, yet. There are many things we have in mind; perhaps something with traction control, but in rally sport we’re not keen to put too much technology in the bikes. Riders need to be able to fix problems without the aid of computers. Of course there are many other ideas in mind, and we’re in constant development, but these projects tend to be more secret than official.
AM: This year’s Dakar saw stiff competition between KTM and Honda. What plans does KTM have to remain next year’s leader of the pack?
AD: As is our tradition, we try to concentrate more on what we’re doing rather than being overly concerned about the competition. We try to do our job in the best way possible, in our own way, an approach that’s proven to be successful for us. Recent news from the board is that we’re starting a project with a Husqvarna rally team, which as you know, complements what we’re already doing.
AM: What was the most significant mechanical issue in this year’s Dakar and how was it overcome?
AD: By far, the most difficult stage was the salt lake. Salt and water mixed together are not a good thing for motorcycles. And it’s especially not good for electronics or radiators to be covered in that shit. When our riders arrived at the bivouac, all their warning lights were on! It was a situation based on luck, knowledge and skill; some guys had more of it than others. Like Viladoms, who didn’t make it, but Coma was smart enough to clean his bike with all the water bottles he could find—and that got him through so he could finish this special and difficult stage. It was a difficult stage for all the bikes, not just KTM, and the cars had problems, too.
AM: Any closing thoughts for aspiring or amateur racers reaching for the top?
AD: Amateurs need to take care of the management of their races. If they want to race the Dakar then they have to prepare. Everything has to be precise, even down to the minutiae like how clothes are packed and number of socks they take. Every aspect of organizing for the rally has to be correct, because if there are any issues energy will be wasted. It’s all about the highest and best use of energy and time. Whether you’re an amateur or professional, if you organize your race properly then things are easier and you can focus on what’s important, like eating, sleeping, road book, hydration and so on.
This story first appeared in the May/June 2015 edition of Adventure Motorcycle Magazine.