A Roczen Retrospective

12 months ago | Words: Jon Bentman | Photos: REDEYE

Back in May of 2011, 17-year-old World MX2 Champion elect, Ken Roczen, immediately put the American race scene on notice when he rocked up to the AMA series finale at Las Vegas and cleaned house. At that time, K-Roc’s victory represented KTM’s most important AMA SX win ever, and it’s fair to say that the German been hot property in America ever since.
Now that Roczen seems to have put the horrendous arm injury behind him, he’s emerged to headline Shift’s 2018 apparel campaign, and is expected to return to racing in 2018.
So we thought it’d be fitting to cast our minds back to 2011; to a time when this radical young racer rocked up to a photo shoot dressed as a rock ‘n’ rock punk – complete with make-up – where he exhibited the sort of attitude and controversy that’s surrounded his racing career ever since.
This Ken Roczen profile was originally published in the July 2011 (Issue #10) of Transmoto Magazine. Enjoy!

When he’s not winning MX2-class GPs in Europe, Ken Roczen is dishing out supercross lessons to the Americans. Now dubbed K-Roc, the 17-year-old German has fast-become the next big thing in the sport. And he’s not afraid to do things differently.

Ken Roczen has always looked like the next big thing, and he’s always been expected to command the motocross scene in Europe. But it can be hard for Euros to crack it in America, and to find acceptance in its culture of button-down riders and merciless race fans. So why is it that, when Roczen headed Stateside for the first time earlier this year, he was welcomed like a long-lost son? The Yanks love him and re-name him, and “K-Roc” promptly repays the adulation. First, he serves up some wild-riding crash-and-burn action and then, after a break to get his teeth into the opening GPs, he returns for the final two races of the AMA Supercross season and, incredibly, posts 2-1 results. The win at the Las Vegas finale – Roczen’s first AMA Supercross victory, against rivals who’d spent all season honing their supercross speed – was probably KTM’s highest-profile win in the USA ever! Ken Roczen the boy, is now very much Ken Roczen the man.

It’s amazing to think Roczen burst onto the MX GP scene not even two full seasons ago; a little way into the 2009 season, age 15 – a schoolboy. And in the 29 MX2 GPs (58 motos) since, he’s scored an incredible 14 moto wins and another 35 podium finishes.

After a fifth overall in 2009, he was runner-up to Marvin Musquin last year, and this year he leads the championship convincingly. Just turned 17, K-Roc indeed rocks.

Transmoto’s Jon Bentman caught up with the implacable young German soon after his Las Vegas success and asked him to reflect on his meteoric rise … and his seemingly inevitable future in America.

Ken, I’ve not seen you in a while. You look different. Bigger? Older?
Yeah, for sure I’m getting bigger. I’m starting to be a man now; gaining more muscle and getting heavier. Compared to the kid who started GPs two years ago, I would say I’m a whole different person.

Bigger mentally as well?
Yeah, I think different to before. I know what I have to do. I’ve just turned 17 so I’m still young, but year after year I understand better what I have to do and not do. I definitely think differently now.

That comes with all the responsibilities of being a top motocrosser. Can you still have fun?
Yeah, I can have my fun, go partying – without drinking. If you’ve done your training, then there’s nothing better than hanging out with friends. So I wouldn’t say I can’t go to a party, hang out with a girl. As long as I’ve done my stuff, I feel free to do what I want.

So GPs and works contracts haven’t changed you?
Well, years ago, it was more fun and now it’s work, you know? I still do what I like, but things change. You can’t only think about having fun. Like before, you just want to ride and that’s what you do. Now there are times when actually I don’t want to ride – maybe I don’t like the track, it goes against what I want – but I must still ride.

You can deal with that? Is it like pressure?
I try to skip that reaction. If there’s something I don’t want to do … well, after it’s done, it’s done. I just try to look forward, not back. It’s very important to think positive; don’t get yourself down.

You started your season in AMA SX and made quite an impression. Did it live up to your expectations?
You know, I didn’t expect anything from the USA. I just went there and wanted to see what it’s like. I’d checked it out on the TV, on DVDs. I just wanted to see how it is, so I went with an open mind.

So what did you think about their speed? Were you blown away?
It wasn’t easy at the start. I was late getting there because of visa issues so in my first race I was struggling with the change in time zone. It was not a good time to ride actually. Were they fast? You know, I’d been riding supercross one month and guys like Josh Hansen have already been riding eight years, so I expected them to be fast – but I think nothing surprised me. Their speed was normal, nothing special. They were fast, but nothing like where I’d say, ‘Whoa, what’s going on?’

You took some big hits in those first races? Were you going for wins, taking risks?
Supercross is a different world, where everything has to be perfect. It was actually only the second race where I had a lot of crashes. You know, at that time I didn’t ride like a supercross rider; I rode more like an Outdoor rider. It was kind of crazy because I was rushing it too much, but I learned from that. And I know nobody goes there and wins. I’ve checked James Stewart’s rookie season – he made mistakes, so I don’t feel bad about what I did.

The Americans started giving you new names, such as Kenny and K-Roc. How did you feel about that?
Kenny – people have been calling |me Kenny for years. K-Roc is more like a nickname – for the image.

Anyway, it looked like you went for broke – like crash or glory. Fair comment?
No, but next time I’ll definitely look to stay on the bike more. I don’t want to crash. I don’t even want to think about crashes. But crashes happen. Look at James Stewart. He’s still crashing pretty hard and making mistakes. It just happens, and after the crash you can’t change it. It happened.

Let’s go back a bit further in time, to 2010, before you signed for KTM. You’ve said before that Suzuki was your love. How could you leave them?
Yeah, I loved Suzuki all my life. But people changed. People changed. That first year, in 2009, everything was cool; everything felt like a family. But it started to be like, ‘I’m the boss, you have to follow me’, you know, and it just didn’t work out like that. There were problems in the team, with the bike.

The bike? The fuel injection issues, right?
Seriously, things happened, but I have no idea exactly what happened. It’s the past. The team made some big mistakes. I know for my mechanic, Marc, there was nothing he could do. It came right at Teutschenthal in Germany, but that was nothing to do with the fuel injection. It was with gearing. There, I got an American engine and my gearing was longer so I didn’t have to shift so much. Before that, they had me ride with 13/51. I don’t know why they did that; it wasn’t Marc or anyone, it was some other guys in the team. They’d say I have to ride like that, so I was shifting more than anyone else. I was in the highest rpms at Glen Helen, so I had to back off because I thought the engine was going to blow.

So after everything, you left?
No, I still gave Suzuki a chance to do something, to give me something. KTM were pushing, but I loved Suzuki and I wanted to stay with them, but it just didn’t work out. KTM pushed for me to sign a contract, with a good offer, and Suzuki in Japan took too long. They didn’t have anything for me.

You loved Suzuki. Can KTM measure up?
Definitely, they are the best. Everything is organised. I can be standing in the tent and they’ll ask me, ‘Is everything okay?’ – I’m just not used to that. Sometimes I’m there and I say I don’t have this and they’ll say, ‘Oh no, we have it here!’ Everything has been thought of.

There was also the matter of energy drink sponsor wars – much like the old tobacco wars in motorsport. What’s your take?
I do love Red Bull; it’s kind of my life. I’ve been with them so long already that I actually don’t want to leave. They’ve been solid supporters of me for 10 years, where Monster and Rockstar … they’re here for now, but I don’t know how it’s going to be in the future. And I like the Red Bull image. They don’t sell T-shirts and hats, which makes them kind of special.

You have a manager now. Does that change things?
Actually, I’ve had a manager since I was 10! Motocross is my living. It’s work. You have to understand that it’s good to have a good image, to do the interviews; you have to deal with that. I understand what it is for.

So has motocross matured you, perhaps ahead of time?
I think for my age, I’m already mature. And even if I wasn’t riding motocross, I think I’d be as mature, I always hung out with older kids. If I didn’t race, I would have a whole different life, though I don’t know what it would be like. But I think also that my parents helped mature me. I’ve always had them around me 24/7 but my parents are cool. They always allowed me to stay out as long as I wanted to. They say you’re only young once, and that I should enjoy it. So I do enjoy it, but I know what I have to do and I know I can take care of myself.

So was being a motocross world champion always the dream?
I didn’t have a dream to be world champion. Instead, I always wanted to be the best rider in the world. Like Stewart is now.

So there are legends, icons and role models. Do you buy into all that stuff?
Look, my biggest competitor is myself. Only I can destroy myself, but I try not to do that. You look back and you can say RC was one of the best riders in the world, and I loved seeing him riding. He was riding good, but his style wasn’t what I looked up. I don’t want to say his style was bad, but for me he wasn’t the guy. For me, I don’t want to be like anyone; I want to be my own rider – aggressive, but smooth.

It must have been great to give KTM such a high-profile victory in Las Vegas!
It was. KTM are getting bigger and bigger in the USA, and with Roger DeCoster … it doesn’t matter where he goes, he can make a good bike. And KTM really want it in USA. They’re not car people, and they don’t do truck or ships – they just live for motorcycles. So it feels great to be a good rider, a fit rider, with a good bike, competing and trying to win. KTM hadn’t had a supercross win for a long time, so it’s great to be able to show that the bike is awesome. And Vegas did that.

So tell us five things you would change today to make K-Roc’s world a better place?
Five things? I don’t think I could name two. What I would change? I’m already working for the best, you know? You can’t be too fast, too fit. Right now, there is nothing I want to change.

Honestly, nothing?
Okay, I have one: the fight between USA and Europe in motocross. You know, when I’m there [USA], I want to stay. When I’m here [Europe], I want to stay.

So where do you go from here?
From here? I don’t look too far ahead. First I have to do what has to be done now: win this world championship. Then, if I don’t get injured and I keep doing my thing, it’s all going to be good.

I mean, USA or Europe? That old question.
None of that is decided. I might stay here and mix GPs with a few AMAs. I don’t know.

Okay, Ken, last thoughts. Have you missed Musquin in MX GP?
Competition is competition; there’s always somebody who’s fast. Last year, you could see the KTMs were always in front and now with the same bike and the same parts, I’m pretty strong. Could I beat Musquin today? You can’t say, because he’s not here yet. But on the same bike, I’m not so sure he could follow me. That’s how I think. You know, when I’m 100 percent physically fit and I know what I have to do, it’s still not easy for me. But it’s harder for the others.

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