Last week’s silly season report was clear of two KTM teams that competed in 2015. The Red Bull KTM team will no longer house a 250 program, and the FMF/Orange Brigade team—which raced on both the amateur side and on the pro side with Daniel Baker, Dakota Alix, and Alex Frye—will return to amateurs only.
Lucas Oil/Troy Lee Designs KTM will be the sole KTM pro 250 team for 2016 and beyond, so it has to merge its existing rider lineup (Jessy Nelson, Shane McElrath, Mitchell Oldenburg) with those from the other teams (Justin Hill comes over from Red Bull KTM, Frye from Orange Brigade). It will also bring the team to East Region 250SX for the first time ever.
We rang up TLD team manager Tyler Keefe today from the test track to get an update.
Racer X: We did a silly season update last week, and we had about one hundred riders listed on your team. A bunch of the KTM teams have merged into one. Can you explain this?
Tyler Keefe: [Laughs] Yeah, one-hundred-rider team! No, it’s a five-rider team now. Justin Hill had a two-year contract with factory KTM, and Alexander Frye had a deal with the Orange Brigade KTM team to take him through his first full pro season. Everything is merging so that the Troy Lee Designs team is the factory KTM 250 program, so a few of those contracts rolled over into our program, and we already had some guys under contract with us, but everything is molding together pretty good right now. We also did a supercross-only deal with Mitchell Oldenburg right now, with a clause that if he does well, we’ll carry him over into outdoors. It’s actually pretty fun right now, putting all these pieces together.
If you’re leaving the door open for Oldenburg to race the full season, clearly having a five-rider team is not stressing you that much.
Basically, we’ve always had a five-year plan for this team, and this is year one of the next five years. We knew we’d have to go East Coast. We’ll have three on the West and two on the East, but we don’t think we’re the only ones who are doing that. GEICO will probably do that, Pro Circuit will probably do that, and we believe Star will probably do that. So we’re not out on an island all alone, but we need to make sure we have all the bases covered.
A year ago, when your new deal with factory KTM was announced, did you know this was coming?
In the KTM agreement, the plan was to go to the East, but it was a little vague if it would be 2016 or 2017. We had pretty good results this year, so everyone decided that 2016 was the time to do it. We’ve been prepared for it. Each year we’re asking, "Should we do it? Should we go?"
As far as the bikes, is there a big difference between what Hill raced with Red Bull KTM and a TLD bike?
It’s pretty much an identical bike. We have a different exhaust sponsor. We did have to roll over some companies that have a two-year contract with KTM.
So last year, not much difference between Nelson’s bike and [Marvin] Musquin’s bike?
No. I’d say a very, very small difference.
Along with this comes some new digs. You’re no longer operating out of the actual Troy Lee Designs building; you’re now down closer to KTM.
We switched last year when we made the agreement with KTM. Our engine and suspension come in house from KTM, but our TLD office is in Corona, and KTM headquarters are in Temecula, and that’s a good forty-minute drive. So KTM had a relationship with FMF, who actually owns the building we’re in now, and they put us in that building so our race shop is closer to KTM.
You and your team always have amateur guys in the works, and so does KTM with the Orange Brigade. So how is this going to go?
The Orange Brigade did the amateur side and also did outdoors and supercross. We sat down and decided it would be better if that program focused solely on the amateur side, and then we’d bring those kids over to our team. So we have a three-rider amateur program with a rider in 250 A, 250 B, and the Schoolboy class. We’re pretty hands on with them to get them ready. This way, when Jessy or Shane or Justin moves to the 450 class, we’ll be ready. One of the biggest things is we have to give these kids more time to develop; we can’t let them be one year in and then kick them to the curb. The sport is changing and these kids are having to learn so much. If we work with them as amateurs, maybe we can help them more quickly, but there’s still a lot to learn. Jessy, this is his fourth year as a pro and you’re starting to see it. Shane, this will be his third year.
You say the sport is changing and the riders need to learn more. What is that? More testing? What are you talking about?
I think the sport is getting more competitive. All the bikes are very even now, and all the teams are very even. It comes down to waiting on each kid to come into his own, and realize how important training is, and how important it is to have their whole life surrounded by racing. Some kids get it right away; some kids don’t. They might have the talent and potential; it’s just about trying to wait for that to develop so they become a really good motocross racer.
This team has always done that. Cole Seely being the perfect example. You take under-the-radar-type guys and work with them for a long time with this slow, steady progress. Where did that mentality come from?
I think just the whole team environment. You find kids that are hungry and want to work, and then you surround them with that environment. You also have to look at their progression—where did they start the year and where did they finish? If they’re not growing, then obviously you have to make a call as a business decision, but if you see a steady progression and the kid is hungry and getting better, you have to keep giving him a chance.
Yes, not just saying, "Well, you didn’t get a podium this year, so we’re cutting you."
Exactly. There could be someone in his fourth year in the 250s getting ready to move out of the class. If a kid is in sixth and they move out, a year from now he could be tracking the podium. Then he’ll be full of confidence, and maybe the next year he starts winning races. That’s always been our mentality, and unless something changes, we’re going to stick with that.
In the past your team was a good team, but in the Honda days GEICO was considered the top-level Honda 250 outfit. Now that the reputation of KTM is so good, and you’re the lead factory 250 team, I would think someday you’ll be in the running for the hottest, most talented amateur rider, where in the past maybe they went somewhere else.
I would hope so. KTM's support has done wonders for us. When we first decided to maybe switch to KTM, we were thinking, Wow, this is a big change! But it’s been the best decision that the team has made, and KTM is helping us grow. Hopefully we’ll be on that top step shortly.
Who are the three amateur riders?
We have Sean Cantrell in 250A, Mitchell Falk in 250B, and Derek Drake, who just came off of superminis—he will be our Schoolboy rider. We also have Justin Hoeft, who has had a rough year. We’re going to support him when he wants to come back and race, and he’s going to school right now and just being a kid, which is awesome. I told him after the new year we can sit down and make a plan. [Note: Hoeft lost his brother, Tyler, in a fatal crash earlier this year.]
Yes, he certainly needs to have all the space and time that he feels he needs. As for the three amateurs you have right now, are they branded as TLD or Orange Brigade?
Yeah, it will be TLD. We’ll have our own motorhome. Everything will mimic the TLD pro team, but this will be a smaller version.
Is there going to be a difference in expectations now? You’re no longer an underdog team. There is going to be pressure to win races and titles.
I think we can always feel like an underdog team. Even if we’re not that way in the public’s eyes, we can still operate with that mentality. We’ve always acted that way and it’s worked well. We always want to be the best and race with the best and win, but we don’t want to get carried away and change things thinking, Oh, now we’re the factory team. In the end, it doesn’t matter if you’re showing up in a pickup and winning races, or pitting out of a semi and winning races. You’re still winning races, and that’s the goal.