Moving to the other side of the stopwatch: Tyla Rattray

After a distinguished racing career in MXGP and AMA Supercross and Motocross, 2008 MX2 World Champion Tyla Rattray jumped away from a motorcycle at the end of 2015 and straight into a role as protégé to famed trainer and fellow countryman Aldon Baker and to head up the KTM AG’s 250 rider development program in Florida. We asked about the rapid change of life from racing at the top to preparing others to do the same …

At 32 years of age Tyla Rattray does not look too different from the wide-eyed sixteen year old that made an immediate impression as a KTM rider in 125cc Grands Prix in 2001. The incredible wear-and-tear and sizeable catalog of injury in a fourteen year career means that the Florida-based father of three (with wife Sam) can sometimes feel the punishment of all those motos and dismounts. But the South African keeps a spring in his step (and a physique that indicates he could still gun a 250 4-stroke to a respectable lap-time) thanks to an alternative challenge inside the sport.

In 2004 Rattray finished as world championship runner-up in MX2 with a KTM 125 SX. In 2008 he used the 4-stroke KTM 250 SX-F to claim the title and then sought further race-winning glory in the United States, earning runner-up finishes in the 250 MX series in 2010 and 2011. A dalliance in MXGP in 2014 and 2015 brought his riding days to a close but the spark with KTM thanks to the works Troy Lee Design 250 Factory Team was reignited. Rattray, who trained with Aldon Baker as an athlete, then hooked-up with the revered specialist once more … but in a different capacity.

Tyla Rattray (RSA) Atlanta (USA) 2018 © James Lissimore Photography

Rattray’s personal self-orientated perspective of racing has widened to incorporate five other riders, mostly on the TLD program, and from the confines of the exclusive Baker’s Factory on the east coast. There are not too many other world champions and AMA national race winners active in such a capacity in the Supercross and Motocross paddock.

‘Styla’ was renowned for his work ethic as an athlete and ‘un-showy’ approach to his racing. That he knows the hard graft necessary for the job is beyond doubt but whether he can transmit that – and all of his vast international competition experience – onto impressionable youngsters is another matter. KTM, TLD and Baker believe steadfastly in his potential but it felt timely to ask some questions.

As per usual Rattray can be found friendly, accessible and open to conversation and debate. He is now a much more articulate speaker than those awkward first years in Grand Prix and the maturing effects of fatherhood and the highs-and-lows of Motocross have helped shape a rounded character.

Tyla, how difficult was the transition from being a rider to a trainer?
“Basically since I was five years old all I’ve known is to ride and race. It starts as fun, becomes a profession and then is a job. We all know this sport doesn’t last forever as a racer. It has to come to an end sometime. When it’s over you almost sit back and think ‘wow … this chapter has finished. The book is closed. What’s next in life?’ I always wanted to get into training and I tried to learn as much as I could when I was racing. I was learning about my body and what worked best. KTM and TLD were looking for someone to help their guys and Aldon is obviously the man when it comes to training in this sport and there is only a certain number of guys he can take. They wanted to find someone to help and with my history with Aldon for five-six years I had a lot of knowledge about putting-in the right kind of work and how important things like rest can be. There are no shortcuts in this sport and you have to do the work to get the results. It wasn’t like I was waiting around for a while to see what I’d do; I came back from Europe and started with these guys almost right away. I’ve been learning again and it has been a great transition.”

What about changing that mentality of a racer and only having to worry about one person to suddenly thinking about the surroundings of five other guys?
“That’s a thing about being a racer – especially one that wins – they are very selfish. It is all about them. When I was racing in Europe and I won the world championship then it was all about me. Afterwards I was trying to win national championships and it was the same. I knew I’d need to take a step back away from that … and I think a lot of people don’t like doing that. They still want some of the limelight. My goal now is to help these athletes be the best they can be and get to their full potential: it’s a great opportunity. Especially at the Baker´s Factory. I wish I had something like that when I was racing: this exclusive facility with the best tracks, track guys and infrastructure. It is first-class. And for any rider to compete against that is very tough. We have seen good results through the 450 program and now we have the whole 250 division and it is all about them now and not about me any more. I’m trying to get my experiences and mistakes across and help the riders minimize their own mistakes.”

Tyla Rattray (RSA) Atlanta (USA) 2018 © James Lissimore Photography

Did having children help with that ability to get some distance from the intensity of racing?
“Yeah. We had Brooke in 2010 and I wouldn’t change anything about that. It is fun to go to the track, do the work and come home to a bundle of joy. It was good for me and it motivated me. People say having children can be a distraction but if anything it motivated me to keep pushing and getting results. I had a family to provide for. Then we had Brody and then Blake, so three now! It would be pretty crazy to be racing now with three kids. The timing worked out perfectly.”

Was that also ‘schooling’ for how to handle the different personalities of younger riders? Everyone has their own quirks and ways to interact …
“Definitely and the kids coming through will only get younger 18, 19, 20 because that’s the whole deal with KTM, the facility and program to attract the kids from amateurs and develop them through the 250 scheme. Those first years as a pro, that’s when riders learn the most. The goal is obviously for them to win championships and then step over to the 450 program. You have to be hard sometimes. I’ll be 33 at the end of the year and I feel that this age gap is pretty good. I think there is that ‘respect’ factor and it’ll help moving forwards because I think with a group closer in age then the respect is not really there as much as dealing with someone that is a lot older. You also see it on Aldon’s side and the way the riders respect him. I think it grows every year because the age gap parts ways. I think the whole structure is still quite new to us and the communication channels will only improve because if a guy comes through the 250 side and heads into his 450 program then Aldon will want all possible information on him to see where he is at and what kind of ‘loads’ he can handle. I need to work on that: to really keep track of these guys on a daily basis.”

“It’s a dangerous sport and we want to be a prepared as we can be but a kid in the amateurs will see the riders on TV, the fireworks, the show, the money … and Supercross is only getting bigger.”

Aldon is renowned for his program and the discipline and commitment it requires. You obviously went through that and people might wonder ‘why do – or go near it – again?!’ How is the relationship between you both now?
“Well, we have a business down there in Florida and like any business you want it to grow and be successful, be bigger and better. That’s what he has been doing. I feel we have some more challenges on the 250 side because the guys coming in are slightly newer to it all; whether that’s Supercross or even a set of whoops and there have been a few crashes. Just before we came out to California for the start of Supercross Aldon had to spend thousands on a new machine just to fix and take better care of the whoops for the kids. It is a business that is evolving and I’m sure it will get better but we’re at the baby steps stage at the moment. Aldon and I have a good relationship. He has never really had an issue with me in terms of commitment, even when I was riding with him as I’d always put-in the work and he never had cause to doubt that. I was maybe not the best rider in terms of skills and technique but I got the job done. It is the same now with being a trainer. I am all-in and I want the guys to win championships and look to the 450s.”

Do you feel a bit like a rookie again? What worked for you might not work for Shane and you need to adjust to someone else’s needs …
“Yeah, I’m still learning but the basic fact underlying everything is that the work has to be done: the motos, the graft and the belief. You cannot think for a second that it will be easy. Every athlete is different and I’m learning about that. Some can recover quicker than others and obviously the younger ones have that ‘kid power’. My plate is not too full and I don’t want it to be. I don’t want to lose careful track of these guys. It is a monitoring process almost on a daily basis. It would be easy to copy-paste and email out fitness programs – you could do that for a hundred guys – but to give the right load it has to be day-by-day even down to sleep patterns and regular heart rates.”

“Rolling out at a Supercross is scary but when you are in the gate then your focus is on racing and you black everything [else] out. When I did my first A1 I was like ‘Holy Smokes! This is crazy!’ and I got on the podium; so you have a different switch ‘upstairs’. Racing has a different type of focus and it is something I miss.”

What about the mental side and the adversity of professional sport? You have your own experience but can you read or learn more to help with that aspect of the job?
“I’ve done a lot of research on it. The main issue is the variety of athletes: some are very strong mentally and others need a bit more of a helping hand. It is crazy to see how different they are but then watch when they go on the track and how close and similar are the lap-times. There is a special mentality to racing. I’m learning to help them be the best they can be when it comes to race day … but being down there in Florida they are already ahead of the game. This game is not easy. If it was then there would be a lot more professional motorcycle racers. There are only three podium spots. Many of the guys are already mentally strong. They know how to play the game and to have their head in the right place.”

Is it interesting to see how people go about the job? You would have seen teammates and friends in race teams in the past but now you have a very overall view of a spread …
“Yeah, all kinds. Some guys are really talented and coordinated and it all comes easier to them whereas others struggle to get the rhythm. At the end of the day the guys still come down there and give 100% effort and that’s what we want. It doesn’t matter one day if they are fastest or two seconds off the pace, we just want them to use their potential and do the best they can. It is also hard because you cannot expect a kid to jump out of amateurs and go straight into winning 250 SX main events. You’ll have guys in their mid-late twenties winning those races and there is a big gap to breach there. The kids need to be mature. An eighteen-nineteen year old coming into pros has to be like a normal twenty-four/twenty-five year old. They have to quickly gain experience in just a few months. The young guys at the Factory can also learn from the slightly older ones to work on their consistency at a younger age.”

Tyla Rattray (RSA) Atlanta (USA) 2018 © James Lissimore Photography

Do you think kids are a lot more switched on now?
“I think they have to be if you see where the sport is going. When I was winning in Europe it was on 125cc 2-strokes. Back then we thought ‘wow, these are fast’. We were eighteen then and the kids at the same age now have even faster bikes and 250 4-strokes. We’d have something like 38hp and think ‘we’re crushing it …’ now they’ll have 50+ with better traction and torque. The human body and its limits have not really changed … but the bikes have. Physically there is almost no time off when it comes to racing in the US and kids need to have so much strength. Add to that the gap from the kids coming through to the riders that are winning races and championships can be about eight years. So there is still a long way to go before making an impression in the 250s and transitioning into the 450s. Age and experience: it is the big separator.”

“There are a lot of factors that play a huge part in being successful in this sport. You cannot just dip in-and-out like it is golf or something.”

Can you imagine being seventeen again now and doing this?
“I was on a 125 when I was eighteen! You have seventeen year olds on fast, factory 250 4-strokes and I think the injuries now are more severe than back in the day. You are hitting the deck at higher speed. We try and develop these kids to have the strength and stamina so that when they do turn pro and head into Supercross at eighteen-nineteen they can go the distance. You want them to have confidence as well and not just get crunched every weekend. You want them to stay healthy, get the best out of them and get their mind in the game – if they are winning in amateurs then they will want to win in the pros too – but that’s tough! And how does that translate into the years they need? They need to take steps and climb that ladder.”

You talk about educating them on mistakes. Give an example of one you made: would it be something to do with racecraft or decision-making?
“Hmm, mistakes like when you are under pressure. When you should be focusing on yourself. It can be easy to lose concentration and get involved with another rider on the track that then messes your race up. Steam might be coming out of your eyes and you want go hunting for that guy at the next race because he messed up your podium position. You have to let the race come to you. If you are eighteen and a twenty-six year old who is fighting for the championship overtakes you then follow him, instead of trying a reckless pass in the next turn and crashing and paying for it. So it can be racecraft and polishing it as well.”

Tyla Rattray (RSA) Atlanta (USA) 2018 © James Lissimore Photography

Lastly is 450 SX the biggest stage for a racer? Is that what you drink-in the most as a pro?
“Once it gets down to the 450 division and making the podium there in Supercross then it is a big deal. When it comes to fans and all that then I still love the Euro scene. It is a lot different. The GPs are really professional with their podiums and setup. The crowds go a bit crazy; if you are in France fighting a French guy for the win then the atmosphere is insane. I miss that side of racing and I had a great time in Europe as well as the US.”

Photos: James Lissimore Photography