A conversation with Dean Wilson
We met Red Bull KTM’s newest AMA Supercross and Motocross star to talk racing, pressure, Red Bull and settling into a new team.
Dean Wilson is one part of a new British duo to enter the factory Red Bull KTM racing ranks in 2015 with Tommy Searle his counterpart in the FIM MXGP Motocross World Championship. Wilson, born in Scotland raised partly in Canada and living in the USA since his late teens, is known as a fun, extroverted character that at the age of 23 already has an AMA national championship to his name and an avid social media following that respond to his varied and curious postings. He is also a very natural and reactive racer; someone who seems to bend a motorcycle to the tiniest demands of his tall frame.
“Winning the 250MX title over here was huge and he did it in a dominant fashion,” says renowned journalist Steve Matthes who writes for the seminal RacerX magazine. “At that point he had a handful of 250SX wins as well and had come ‘oh so close’ to a title that getting an indoor one was just a formality. Off the bike, he’s great- a very funny kid, professional to deal with each weekend and a great family around him. But then injuries hit and he had a few heartbreaking 250SX series losses (he’s the all-time winningest 250SX rider who doesn’t have a title). Mitch Payton told me once ‘You can work with speed’ and Dean’s got that in abundance but so far the light hasn’t turned on.”
As with most athletes wading through the long and intense AMA calendar of supercross and motocross Wilson has also had to cope with injury. Such is the rapid rate of races and events in the U.S. that the smallest physical problem can wreck the momentum of a season. After his emphatic 2011 AMA 250MX title win Dean has been trying to reach those heights again and his potential is such that Red Bull KTM Team Manager Roger De Coster tried to contract the youngster previously before finally getting his man last autumn. Since then Wilson has had to adapt to a new team and a motorcycle that claimed the first two positions in the 2014 Lucas Oil AMA Motocross Pro Championship.
We talk in his house located a ten-minute drive from the KTM workshop and North American HQ in Murrieta. His impossibly friendly parents, Jacky and Andy, keep us fuelled with tea and Scottish shortbread as we also take to the road for some cycling photos. Outside the Californian sunshine is unrelenting and the winter motocross scene (tracks, loaded pick-ups and racing) is fully alive.
You are finally in KTM colours. The team were chasing you for quite a while it seems?
“I got an offer from KTM for the first time for the 2013 season when I had a deal with the Jeff Ward team that fell through. They were willing to offer me another ride, which was pretty cool, but I kinda wanted to stay loyal to Pro Circuit and my sponsors. I signed a two year deal with Mitch (Payton, Pro Circuit Owner and race team honcho) for 2013 and ’14 but KTM came again for this year. With Roger (De Coster) and Ian (Harrison) and everybody on the team and with the year they had in 2014 it was hard to say no. I was pretty excited.”
So Roger was quite understanding when you turned him down initially?
“Actually I had to meet him at a Starbucks! So it was a bit awkward for sure! I think he maybe respected me wanting to stay loyal to someone. Now we are working together he is very helpful and very interested in the bike and how we can make it better.”
It was the kind of situation where you want to drink your coffees as quickly as possible?!
“Yeah … there was an awkward silence for a little bit and not much banter after I told him about my decision. We agreed to talk again in the future … and here we are funnily enough.”
How do you find Roger? Was he a bit intimidating at the beginning?
“He is just really professional .. and serious at the same time. But I’ve ridden for Mitch and he can be pretty gnarly also! I feel that once you’ve worked for Mitch then you can go through anybody. You just have to do your job the best you can.”
All in all it was a big career change for you?
“I’d been with Kawasaki since 2006 and from when I was picked up by Team Green. So it was strange changing colours and it was weird seeing an orange fender in front of me. I think it was a good move for me and once I start kicking in some good results I’ll be happy.”
To many – and those who do not follow the scene that closely – believe you are the ‘Ken Roczen replacement’. How you feel about that?
“I’m honoured to be on the team and for them to have some belief in me. That they see me as a solid rider and someone who can be upfront and that means a lot to me because I’ve had a rough couple of years. I showed promise but now I want to be healthy. Going through the injuries I’ve had then it does put a little mental block in your head that you don’t want to get hurt again but you cannot live your life walking around on eggshells. I also appreciate the fact that nobody wants to hire someone that is always injured. I just want to get the results on the board and make it through the season.”
Do you feel like the clock is ticking? The pressure and responsibility to get results is there and you won’t be able to grow into the team like a young 250MX/SX rider would?
“Definitely. I had five years in the Lites class and virtually missed two through being injured. It seems crazy to think I am on my sixth year as a pro. I remember my rookie year like it was yesterday. Teams expect results and that’s what it comes down to. The 450 class is insane right now so I think to get results requires more effort than it did in the past. If you don’t get a good start then it is very tough to come through the pack because the field is so deep. It is definitely the most intense class I have been in.”
How is the working environment at KTM compared to something like Pro Circuit?
“I really enjoyed my years at Pro Circuit even if I did have a few issues here and there. I don’t have anything bad to say about being over there. I had a great mechanic in Oily Stone and that environment almost became like family because we knew each other so well. Coming to KTM everything was new but it seems that anything I need or want to try or want to test then they will have it or they will make it, which is really cool. I’m glad I left Kawasaki on good terms and a fresh start is good and I honestly don’t have any complaints. I’m still getting a feel for the team and the bike. One thing I really like is that my practice KTM is exactly the same as my race bike and I’ve never had that before. It means that when I go to the races nothing is really different.”
KTM have really developed to become one of the top teams in AMA competition now. That wasn’t always the case before …
“Definitely I think last year they went 2-3 and 1-2 in supercross and motocross and so you’d have to say that makes them top team. They are here to win and so am I but I have steps to go through to get there. Clearly I was far from it at Anaheim 1 and Phoenix but I believe I will get there and build up to being a winner.”
What advantages have you seen to being a Red Bull athlete?
“The awesome thing about Red Bull is that I was able to visit and use their fitness facility and we did a bunch of tests. Per (Lundstam, fitness guru) is a very cool guy and very knowledge. We had a lot of results and my body has a big reaction to eggs and almonds and I was eating those all the time! It was interesting. Red Bull will do whatever they can to help their athletes move to the next step and move forward.”
So, how is the 450 SX-F? It is still a set of wheels and bars but is there a different character there?
“Yeah. I’m a taller rider – 6ft 1 – and I think the Kawasaki is one of the bigger bikes but what is cool about the KTM is that we easily adjusted it to fit me. We’ve come pretty far from those first tests to have it ready for me. It definitely has a different feel to a Japanese bike just in the way you grip it and move around. It took me a while but I eventually felt really comfortable. I’m not really a picky rider. I’m willing to try things. I will rarely use my bike as an excuse; it is normally the rider! My suspension has been good and the only thing I will get picky over is my bars or levers for more comfort.”
How do you feel about Supercross? It seems like it has the following to be expand?
“Being part of the series – or just even being able to race motocross for a living – is awesome. I want to see this sport grow to be as big as something as MotoGP or NASCAR. It expanded to Canada and it is a shame – for me personally – that we are not going back this year, otherwise I just hope we continue to have sold-out stadiums.”
Could it go abroad?
“I think it would be so cool. To have something like twenty-five rounds but a series that goes everywhere; America, Europe, Asia and be an all year thing. I do like ‘Outdoors’ (motocross) as well but it can be so gruelling doing the whole season of seventeen supercross, a weekend off and then twelve Outdoor races. Then you have the Nations, Red Bull Straight Rhythm and the Monster Cup before having a month and a half or two months to get your hard training and testing done for the next year. To last in this sport – in my opinion – there needs to be a little break because the schedule is crazy right now. Motocross fans sometimes don’t fully understand – and I appreciate that because if I were a fan it would be cool to have a race every weekend – but at the same time it means so much demand on the racers.”
You are only 23 but can you see why people want to stop racing at 27 or 28?
“Absolutely. There is a lot of wear and tear on the body. When you are growing up and doing it then it is fun. When you are tired then you pull off the track, have a Gatorade and eat your lunch then head back out and do whips or whatever. When you turn pro then it all changes and you enter a programme of motos, fitness, gym, eating right; racing professionally takes a lot more than people think. There is a lot of commitment and dedication involved. Riding is awesome and I love getting on the bike but the dedication part is the reason why a lot of people don’t make it. You have to learn how to enjoy it. When you have bad races then the whole week can be really depressing. People can talk negatively and you can feel mad. You need to fix your mind and find the positives to get through to the next race. I’m learning how to do this at the moment, and I think this will help your career and fight against burn-out because there is a lot of pressure involved. You need to have the perfect balance to last in this sport and it is not easy.”
You are in the KTM world now. Does this open avenues to try other bikes and maybe other race series in the future?
“I know I have a few good years doing what I am doing and I hope the best is yet to come but after this episode it would be great to continue racing for a living but something without the same amount of pressure. Being in the KTM family and having opportunities to do other stuff – like say the Dakar or they are big into the GNCC over here – is cool …”
Or a Grand Prix ride?
“Obviously the main priority for me is supercross and motocross here but I want to build a strong relationship with KTM and at some point I want to do the GPs. The thing about MXGP is that it is not as easy as everyone thinks. I’ve raced the Nations against the best of the Europeans, on their tracks, and they are fast. I believe I am just as quick but it is not like people think where you can finish an AMA career and then go over there and just cruise to easy podium rides. You have to put in the hard work to make it over there.”
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Photos: Ray Archer