THE SPECIALIST

He ran the Marlboro Yamaha Motocross Team from under his mum’s house in the 80s, was Australia’s No 1KTM dealer in the 90s and now channels years of race-team experience through his own performance workshop. This is the story of Ross McWatters …

I grew up in the 60s in Brisbane and was basically surrounded by motorcycling. Unfortunately, my dad passed away when I was two years old but he was already a prominent identity in the racing scene and my mum’s side of the family actually had a speedway track in Nudgee as well. Her family lived bikes; they didn’t even have a motorcar.

When I got my first job, my godfather used to give me a lift to work on the back of his sidecar. Being a single-parent family, we never had any money so I didn’t really get my own bikes until I was about 16. My first real motocross bike was a 1977 RM125B. I wanted to race and did whatever I could to get to club days. I’d sleep in a tent at the track, eat baked beans for breakfast then get on the start line. I loved it.

In 1982 I broke my femur. I actually did it on a road bike being stupid with my brother. The problem back then was it was a major accident, which meant a long stay in hospital and no riding for at least two years. So during that time I just helped my friends work on their bikes.

It was nothing formal, but for a few years I helped out some riders and eventually I started helping Peter Melton. He was just a 16-year-old talent on a dirtbike. We got some sponsorship from a local Yamaha dealer and out of necessity I learned how to become more professional. I started doing race reports and sponsorship proposals for Peter between preparing his race bikes.

My mum was actually instrumental in all that, too, as she was an administrator for Motorcycling Queensland (MAQ) and she helped me with understanding press. You gotta realise that I was just a dumb kid from the western suburbs of Brisbane with no education and was doing a lot of things for the first time.

The bike trade was also in a slump because the cost of new bikes had virtually tripled between 1979 and 1982, so it was so difficult to get sponsorship from anyone. I was also kinda lucky that Peter was with Yamaha and I’d come to know Steve Cotterell, who at the time was just a local-area sales guy for Yamaha. We thought Steve was kinda kooky ’cause he rode around with a Belstaff jacket. We’d just be riding in singlets.

So, as we progressed through Yamaha, we did so at a time when Cotty was on the rise through the company as well. We stepped things up and did a lot of things out of our own pocket but it was Peter’s riding that finally got him a ride on the Marlboro Yamaha Team.

A factory team back then was nothing compared to what they are now. That year, in 1988, there was no manager, no mechanics and the rider received about $6000 for the year along with some plastics and stickers. The riders were Steven Andrew, Peter Melton and James Deakin — and that was their deal.

There were no budgets for anything. If you wanted to post something, buy something to test or whatever, you had to pay for it. No travel, no accommodation … nothing. Back then the riders made their money from prize money if they won a race.

I complained to Yamaha about a few things because it really was a shambles in ’88, but by 89 we had David Armstrong and Peter Melton as the factory Marlboro Yamaha Team and Yamaha pulled in Stephen Gall as a manager. Gaily then pulled in Anthony Gunter for technical support, which was a turning point. I learnt a lot more about bikes from Gunter and Gaily was just the consummate professional with promoting the team.

I worked really hard that year to change a few things about how the team had been run up to that point. Yamaha were paying panel beaters to spray custom graphics on the YZs, so we took all that in house. And by in house I mean outside my mum’s house, painting the frames and plastics ourselves to save money. I’d basically become the full-time mechanic for the Marlboro Yamaha Team by then, running the workshop from under my house, and it was working really well.

In 1990 things changed quickly because it was the year that Craig Dack wanted to return to Australia from international racing. Andrew Clubb, ADB’s editor at the time, was wanting to get out of editing dirtbike magazines and he put this big proposal to Yamaha’s Phillip Morris, hoping to get Dacky back and step up the Motocross Team with Peter Melton. Having Dacky back raised the bar again because he was on a level well above where the Australian motocross industry was at the time, so Yamaha got quite serious and put more money into our effort.

It worked out good for me, too, as I was now officially Dacky’s mechanic for the Marlboro Yamaha Dealer Team. I was paid more and we started that year with the most professional outfit we’d ever had. Then something crazy happened: Clubby had a kind of internal failure, just threw his hands in the air and walked away from managing the team.

We didn’t lose any momentum because I was looking after the race bikes and logistics of getting the team through race days, but fortunately Dacky had previously worked with John Collins who’d run privateer teams in the past, so he stepped in to manage the team’s function at a corporate level. John lived In Sydney and was great liaising with the sponsors. I was looking after the bikes in Brisbane and basically travelled to races in a van that Dacky owned, carting bikes with the same trailer I used to cart my old RM125B around in. It worked, but internally there was this dilemma of Peter having to ride in Dacky’s shadow.

It was all about Dacky and at one stage there I wanted to try to remain Peter’s mechanic because I’d become attached to him over the years and believed he could make it. I think it hurt Peter’s riding a bit because he didn’t operate as well playing second to Dacky with everything we did.

But we all had to change. I had to change with that role and there was more pressure to perform than there’d ever been. But we basically dominated that year. Dacky never DNFed a race; he won the Supercross Championship, the 250 Motocross Championship and basically all the big one-off races like the Manjimup 15000. If you did all that now it’d be a pretty big deal.

For 1991, Yamaha wanted to step it up again but were shit scared they weren’t gonna get value for the money they’d spend on the team. It was at that point I got pretty vocal at them that they treated us (the team) like shit. We weren’t treated like employees. If anyone from Yamaha came out to a race, they flew there, got the rental car, stayed in the hotel, then would arrive at the pit area asking us where to put their stuff and where were their drinks and hospitality etc. We were just these second-class citizens who had to make our own way there, sleep in the back of our vans and ultimately bring home the results on race day. I think I was on about $18,000 a year, with no expenses paid.

Thankfully, in 1991, Phillip Morris of Yamaha took on a bigger sponsorship deal with Peter Jackson, which elevated everything again. We got a truck, were given a blank space of concrete floor at Yamaha and finally had our first real professional team in the making. It really had to happen if only to bring the whole Yamaha show up to Dacky’s level, because he truly was world class at the time.

By the end of the 1992 season, though, Dacky had broken both his arms and basically called it quits there. I was pretty desperate to keep him involved in the race team and have him take over as manager but there were people at Yamaha who didn’t believe he could do it. It was even written in a memo I still have that «Craig Dack is a recalcitrant illiterate and could not run a race team». My 1993 contract even stated that should he fail to deliver as manger, I would take over the role as team manager. Looking back on what the CDR (Craig Dack Racing) Yamaha Team has achieved and grown into, I’m pretty sure that person from Yamaha has had to eat their words over and over again.

As it turned out, Dacky and I worked together for the first rounds of the supercross series in 1993, but I’d lost a lot of motivation once Dacky retired as a racer. It just wasn’t the same and I was getting tired of it — there’s only so many times you can go out to the Dubbo supercross. Plus the upcoming young riders didn’t interest me; half of them were on the drugs that killed River Phoenix and I just wanted to move on to another challenge.

For a while there I moved into a project manager role within Yamaha but by 1994 I had an idea to set up a Yamaha performance workshop and bought Prorider Motorcycles from Pelle Granqvist in Wetherill Park, NSW. The thing was that he ran a KTM dealership, which came with the business, and I was ultimately driven for the business to be a Yamaha thing. At the time, though, Prorider was Australia’s No 1 KTM dealer, selling a total of 12 bikes for the year. That’s how small it was then; the brand was in its infancy in terms of market share.

The things that were bad about KTM then were availability (you couldn’t get them and had to wait months for parts from Austria), they were jetted badly and never ran right and the overall setup was wrong. That was never a problem for me. We were pulling them out of the box, changing the gearing, jetting and fork springs and basically had them ready to perform at a competitive level in Australian conditions. This led to the KTM importer sending me the bikes to get ready for any testing with the magazines and we made sure they were right.

Then Jeff Leisk started racing the Thumpernats on an LC4 and we got involved there, too, which was also the time the KTM distributorship was bought out in Victoria by a Western Australian company. They really stepped on the gas for KTM and now bikes were readily available, which boosted our sales. We’d sold about 25 units in 1995, about 50 by 1996 and kept increasing sales for the next few years as Australia’s No 1 dealer. KTM let us go until we sold 100 bikes, then they started putting on more dealers in the area.

Right from the beginning, though, Leisky wanted to start a race team as well. We tried to get Peter Melton on board but he wasn’t interested in riding a KTM. No one was, really, because they were still quite a foreign machine. I’d had Craig Anderson on an 80 when I was with Yamaha and at that point Dack hadn’t taken too much interest in him, so we got Ando and Paul Grant together and started the Castrol KTM race team.

I was doing all the motors and suspension at my shop up until 1997, which wasn’t a paid thing either. It was just like old times with Yamaha but I was doing it ultimately for Jeff and Craig, mainly because I was happy to be a part of KTM’s rise in the racing industry. We were also helping riders like Shane Watts at the time as well.

That year Ando left us to go to Dack’s Yamaha team, so I backed away from the race team as things were super competitive in our business at Prorider. I mean, we started out as a $40,000 business, which quickly grew into a multi-million dollar machine. The problem was I didn’t want to commit to a 25-year plan given I’d been diagnosed with cancer that year, too. Enduring treatment made me reluctant to invest in a bigger dealership, so by 20011 sold Prorider KTM to Sal Barone. I really just wanted to get back to doing my own specialised stuff like a porting and tuning performance workshop.

That lasted about a year as Kawasaki Australia had become our biggest customer and I was now back at the races monitoring the work I was doing on their engines. One thing led to another and they asked me to manage their race team for 2004. It was an interesting start that year because we had Adam Robinson, Brett Landman and Toby Price riding for us.

The funny thing was that Toby had it written into his previous deal with Kawasaki that he would get a ride with the team if he won his junior titles and he’d just won two. He was integrated into our team and basically thrown straight into supercross. Toby was super fast and nearly always our best qualifier at motocross but he had no supercross experience and kept getting injured. He should have been a motocross champion by 2005 but his injuries held him back and his family never really had the means to get him proper medical cover. It seemed like every three months he was injured and his surgeries were drawn out — much longer than what most pros deal with these days.

We didn’t have the biggest budgets, either. Kawasaki didn’t have test tracks or a budget for testing, so we kinda had to work it all out on race day. By 2006 we pulled everything together with Dan Reardon and Mitch Hoad riding for us. Reardon had just won a Lites championship and everyone thought we were crazy putting him on an Open bike for the first rounds of supercross in ’06 but he went out and won the opening rounds. We were still supporting Toby that year but he was an unofficial rider for the team. His story was unfortunate because he should’ve been a champion. You could tell the guy was a champion but he just never got a break when he needed it and he always seemed to get injured when he needed to make it count.

I left Kawasaki at the end of ’06 after a great year of success with Reardon, basically because Leisky wanted me to come back to running his KTM Team for 2007, which is the year they had both the Marmont brothers. Jay and Ryan. Interestingly enough, though, we used our team resources there to help KTM in their Finke campaign and by ’09 we were involved in doing suspension for Grabbo and Wonka.

Things were starting to spread out with KTM between the motocross, off-road, desert and then all the press bikes, the majority of which were logistically controlled through our race team at Emu Plains in NSW. I could see where things were going and it was an easy option for KTM to outsource its motocross team to the Rynenbergs, who were willing to do whatever it took to run a race team.

So, with that, JDR was formed as KTM’s official motocross team. It also made sense to me that Wonka take on an official team manager role for all the off-road and desert racing, given he already had the infrastructure with his own race bikes and the Finke testing program as well.

I finished up with KTM in 2009 and thought it was finally time to get back to my original dream of running a small performance workshop. You know, when Prorider started out, my biggest concern on a daily basis was how I was going to modify an engine; then it turned into this monster and I was soon trying to work out how to finance 40 motorcycles on the floor. I’ve finally built what I’ve always wanted with MCD (McWatters Competition Developments), which has come to fruition now and we basically cater for those riders who are chasing factory-level performance but don’t have access to a factory team.

I don’t want it to go any bigger than that. I’m keeping it simple so I can just focus on dyno work, suspension setup, EFI mapping and porting cylinder heads, which is what I do best.

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