Just home from his successful rookie adventure to Dakar, KTM rider Kurt Caselli had to quickly prepare for the opening round of the AMA National Hare & Hound series at Lucerne Valley. Though busy, Kurt found time to sit down with Neena at the race and share some of his Dakar experiences, what he learned and what he hopes for the future. Make sure to also read the comments about Kurt from KTM’s Heinz Kinigadner at the bottom of the post.
What was your Favorite part?
KC: Well, I was actually asked that from a few reporters down there, it’s just the whole experience. I couldn’t really say that I had one moment that was amazing or most memorable or anything, but the last few years that I have been racing I have been focused on just trying to take in what I’m doing at that time. Every time we go to Six Days, you end up being so busy during the week and riding that you don’t really look around at where you are and really get a feel for the culture and the people that are there.
With Dakar you cover so many miles and three different countries, over the Andes mountains at 16,000 feet and then down and you are riding on the beach in Peru, it was just an all-around great experience and I feel like between the people that I met, the mechanics and I guess everybody it was just kind of a life long goal to finish it.
There were definitely a lot of the things that we did, that I am going to remember for forever, for the rest of my life, so the highlight was being there racing and finishing for sure. Just coming home in one piece and saying that now I’ve been able to race Dakar and I know what it’s about and hopefully I get to go back again.
What was the hardest part?
KC: Well, for me the hardest part was obviously the navigation, physically I felt fine, I felt like I was ready for the race even though I didn’t know what it was about. I had been training pretty hard with my trainer, you know previously in the year I got injured in March at that Hare and Hound so I took a couple of months off and so I kind of got into the meat of my training and feeling the best at a good time and it just happened to work out that way even though it was somewhat of an off season for us. I was kind of at the height of my training and feeling the best, so physically it was awesome, but the navigating was different.
I really had to take my time and be patient and just learn. It’s kind of one of those races where it’s easy to follow people and to key off of their navigating skills. But the whole point of me going was to really learn as much as I could and to experience navigating and really figure it out, so I struggled. The first few days I really tried different things, made my own decisions out riding with which direction I should be headed, when I should start turning and stuff like that. I feel like I caught on kind of quick and I felt fine after a few days. I was able to then focus on the riding more and also with the bike, I hadn’t ridden that bike ever until I got there so obviously it took me a couple days to feel comfortable on it and get more confident going faster.
So the navigating part was difficult, that’s something that comes with experience, I have to be patient with it and give it a few years until have it down and have it be second nature to look down and make decisions and just know where you are with the road book.
Did Marc Coma give you a lot of pointers?
KC: Yes, you know we were able to meet at the 2012 Baja 500. It is kind of funny, I had a shoulder injury and wasn’t able to race the 500 last year, so they called him, and he was excited to do it. With this race he had a shoulder injury and they called me and I was excited to go.
He was there the first few days helping me. The biggest thing was the road book. That’s basically your directions for the next day. The road book can get you to where you need to go, keep you safe, save your life and also it can get you lost. It just depends on how you read it and how you highlight. The biggest thing is what they call “painting” the road book, which is using highlighters to depict different things, corners, dangers, and heading. He helped me tremendously with that. He told me what he does, what colors he uses for different things and so I just did the exact same thing.
It was all foreign at first, you look down when you’re riding and you see all these colors and numbers and different symbols and stuff, it’s kind of overwhelming. But after a few days you really pick up on it, so that was a huge help. Marc is so relaxed, obviously he’s a great rider, he’s won the race plenty of times. He has the right kind of skill riding, he told me to just be patient, not to even worry about trying to go fast. The riding ability will show later.
Were you anxious when you had to navigate from the front?
KC: The first few days I was able to follow guys and learn from them. I made a few wrong decisions on my own but for the most part I had someone in front of me that I could watch and understand what they were doing. I won my first stage on day 7 and that put me up front for day 8. I was happy to be in front, but I made a huge mistake and missed three waypoints. Still, that was the perfect way for me to understand how that race works. There are a lot of guys who have raced Dakar, but never got the opportunity to start up front and to have to see what it is like to have to open the stage and make the decisions on where the course was going to go for that day.
So I was really happy for that opportunity to start up front. That is the kind of experience you have to have to be able to win the race. For me it was obviously a day of trial and error where I made a big mistake. Obviously I was upset about it, but looking back it was the best thing that could have happened to me as a learning experience. When it comes time for me to lead out the next time, I will be a little more comfortable, it won’t be as nerve racking.
Was there anything else you found difficult?
KC: Overall, just the general lack of sleep during the event. They get you up at 3am every day to be on the bike by 4am. The long liaison stages mean you are on the bike lots of hours. Even thought that isn’t really hard riding, it takes focus to stay alert.
What did you do for food and drink during the day?
KC: You pretty much eat breakfast real early at the bivouac, you know the pit area. Then throughout the day you are pretty much on your own to bring your own food. It is tough because you are out for so many hours. I brought a lot of protein bars. I also had “Bonk Breaker” energy bars and those worked really well. You also have to remember to fill the water pack at the checks too. At first I was hungry all day, but after a few days I think my body was adjusting to it and it did not bother me as much.
So basically I just had to pack a few bars and gels into my jacket and get by with it. But I don’t usually eat much during a race day anyway, so it wasn’t too much of an issue. It isn’t like six days where you have plenty of time to stop and eat. Some of these liaison sections are two or three hours long, so you have to open food and eat it while riding down the highway.
What was the most unusual thing that happened to you during the race?
KC: I guess we could say that winning a stage was unusual, I did not really expect that to happen. Other than that, there was the day my bike broke down. I ended up getting towed about 180 miles by a nice Australian guy who offered help. The first part was a really sandy track. We had the strap tied to the footpeg. I didn’t’ really think about the fact that I shouldn’t be jumping the bike. We went over this little bump and I caught some air with the bike. The next thing I know the bike goes out sideways from under me because the strap is pulling on the footpeg. So I completely crashed big time, high sided the bike. Fortunately I was okay, it was fine, but kind of stupid at the same time. I just laughed it off.
Who was the coolest person that you got to meet?
KC: It was Nassar Al-Attiyah. He is an amazing guy, prince of Qatar. He was a bronze medalist in the Olympics for skeet shooting and now a race car driver. He was one of the nicest guys I have ever met. Nearly every day he asked me how I did. It was just an great experience to meet someone who comes from such a different background than myself and other drivers, who is so grounded and just such a nice person to meet. We had some nice talks and I got to tell him about my life and what I do.
How much weight did you lose?
KC: I lost about 5 pounds, not much. I really made an attempt to keep up on my eating when I could at night. So it really did not have much impact on me in that sense.
Do you think that you will become a regular rally rider now?
KC: I really hope that I get to go back and Dakar is a regular race in my future.
Did you experience anything at Dakar that will have an impact on how you race Baja?
KC: I think that the whole process of learning how to navigate has made be more aware of the process. That is probably something I will take to Baja with me, being more familiar with the GPS and how to use it will help to think more about how to make lines
I am really happy with the program and team we have in place for Baja. I really want to put a lot of effort into the program and make sure I can win a championship down there. That is something I want to add to my resume, to be able to say I won Baja.
We also have a special bonus from our friends at IG-GATSCH.AT. This is from their interview with KTM Motorsport Director, Heinz Kinigadner.
Heinz Kinigadner says:
When Marc Coma finally said he could not do the Dakar they needed a quick decision. The material and the mechanics for two number one rides were already on their way to Peru. They were thinking of Johnny Aubert. But he already is training for the WEC, which is also very important for KTM.
It was KTM’s Alex Doringer who has the idea of calling Kurt Caselli. Doringer said he knows Kurt and he’s convinced that he would do a good performance. They called Kurt Caselli on December 20th. Kurt had very little time to prepare for his first Dakar.
Kurt suprised everybody. Honestly he reminds me of myself. His riding style. How he’s ‘jumping around’ and the joy he shows.
The other day Cyril told me, that with Kurt as a pacemaker, he really pulled them away from the others. Caselli won the stage. Cyril became second. The way how Kurt was gaining the lead was surprising. He had a good rhythm.
On his first Dakar he’s already shown many skills you need to be really good here. The most important thing is, that Kurt has finished his first Dakar. Next year he will not start at ‘point zero’ – he’s a serious candidate for a top result. Kurt definitely has a future in our Rally team.
His position at KTM has changed. Certainly we will give him the chance to participate in two or three Rallys with the KTM factory team this year. I know that he has some obligations with his US-Sponsors and with KTM North America. But we will find some opportunities where he can improve his tactics and navigation skills. For sure he will cause an even bigger sensation next year. This year he’s been Dakar’s ‘Rookie of the year’. He’s on the top of our list. We want to act quickly to engage him for longer terms.