Features 19 Jan 2012

The Matthes Report: 2

Steve Matthes sounds off on Ryan Dungey’s historic first win for KTM in AMA Supercross.

Two rounds down, 15 to go, in the Monster Energy AMA Supercross series and it looks like we’re set up for a great series. Who would have thought that Ryan Dungey would have won so early on his KTM?

The work involved in getting that bike ready to go was probably pretty immense and involved. One of the things that’s interesting is the growing pains that come with a brand new model are usually pretty intense, but it appears that KTM might have been able to skip over those for reason’s I’ll explain later.

I was at factory Yamaha when the OEM came out with the aluminum frame on the two-strokes. They were pretty cool, made the bikes lighter and we were assured that team riders Chad Reed, David Vuillemin and Tim Ferry would not feel any change in the way the bike handled.

The aluminum was beefed up and thinned out in every section it had to be in order to have the same torsion and flex that the old steel frames had. At least that’s what the engineers at Yamaha told us.

Immediately upon riding them, the riders lodged a variety of complaints with the handling of the bikes. They weren’t the same and we chased after the bike to make it handle the way the guys wanted.

Ryan Dungey and Roger DeCoster were key to KTM's first ever AMA Supercross premier class win. Image: Simon Cudby.

“It was just a difficult year as all of our strengths were now our weaknesses. We were never able to get the chassis to work like the previous years,” Reed told me recently.

“Since nobody had worked with the aluminum before, we took all of our works stuff from the ’04 bike and just bolted it on the new frame expecting it to work and it didn’t.”

And this was just a frame change. Never mind frame, motor, plastic and swingarm changes, which is what KTM had to do. An incredible undertaking and they deserve all the accolades that one could throw at them.

Another case was the 2009 Honda CRF450. It was brand new and the goal was weight savings and handling. Everything was shrunk on it and team riders Ivan Tedesco and Davi Millsaps struggled with the bike. It was all-new, was twitchy and Honda’s desire to shrink the bike also shrunk the fun the bike was to ride!

It wasn’t until the end of the season that the machine started to move in the right direction. It took that long for Honda to retrofit telemetry on the bike and once they did, they understood that the directions they were moving in to modify the bike weren’t quite kosher.

Although at the time the Honda suspension and chassis guys insisted the bike was great and the riders were kooks – we know now that isn’t true. And like the aluminum framed Yamaha, it took some time to figure it out. The Austrian OEM KTM skipped a lot of steps that the Japanese manufactures have to do when getting their KTM 450 SX-F ready for Dungey.

KTM built an all-new bike, specifically developed for Dungey to race in 2012. Image: Simon Cudby.

Whereas the production bike teams at Yamaha and Honda are completely different departments than racing and the two sides don’t necessarily let the other side in on what works and what doesn’t, in Austria there’s a direct pipeline from the R&D crew to the racing crew.

As a matter of fact, Dungey’s mechanic Carlos Rivera told Jason Weigandt from Racer X that the communication from KTM to the factory about the new bike was started last summer. The race team was building a race-specific bike to their specs. They had a hand in the building process as it went along and when Dungey got on the bike sometime during the summer (if you believe the rumors), it was close to a race ready machine.

This is where the size of KTM as a company is very advantageous, because it’s not a giant monolith like the Japanese companies. It’s a very reactive company (as you could probably guess by the fact that they produce so many different bikes for so many different people) and decisions can be made on the fly to make an improvement where needed.

And judging by the Phoenix results, I’d say that they’ve accomplished everything they ever thought they could and much sooner than many thought possible. Good for them, their attempted takeover of American racing is just getting started.